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The Simple Power of Finding Stuff Out
December 17, 2012 - 9:45pm

Like many academic librarians, a major piece of my job is helping students find their way around information they might use for course assignments. This fall I met a few times with a class full of smart, curious first year students who were quick to grasp their course content, quick to pick up on ways of finding out more, quick to follow leads into odd corners of the library, and wonderfully articulate when asked to reflect on what they observed. But when asked to write a modest paper using at least one primary and one secondary source, they seemed suddenly insecure and anxious. All of their common sense, inquisitiveness, and confidence fled when asked to practice things they’d learned already. Something failed to connect, and I’ve been wondering about it ever since.

I think what happened is they thought they were supposed to spend a few weeks producing a multi-page research paper with a certain number and kind of sources documented in a particular way, which loomed as an unfamiliar and daunting task. In fact, their teachers had constructed a sequenced set of activities, all of which were groundwork for writing this paper. They had plenty of practice finding, analyzing, and reflecting. They’d worked with primary and secondary sources. They knew what to do with them. But it was a research paper, and suddenly they were paralyzed.

If they’d been asked to find something written or painted or built during the middle ages, then find out whatever they needed in order to understand the thing they were examining and its context, and then to explain their observations in writing, I suspect they wouldn’t have been so spooked. It would still have a challenging writing assignment for new college students who don’t know much about the medieval world, but they would have gamely done their best, and they probably would have even enjoyed themselves. What surprised me was the deer-in-the-headlights stare, their anxious uncertainty about what, exactly, counted as a primary source, their inability to leaf through the anthologies of primary sources they had available to them and pick one to play with, the agonizing problem of committing to a particular direction for their paper.

This problem, I think, has to do with identity. The first-year research assignment is often framed around learning to join a scholarly conversation, understanding how scholars talk to one another, and how to distinguish the voice of scholarship from other, more familiar voices, and how to speak in that voice. I’ve used this metaphor of conversation myself. For first year students, though, the only legitimized way to speak in that voice is to cut and paste the voices of others, with all the citation apparatus required to stamp that ventriloquism with legal authority so that it isn’t mistaken for theft. But is “learning how to sound like scholars” our goal? Or are we really aiming at “learning how to approach the unfamiliar with well-informed curiosity”?

Because if we ask students to tackle an issue by finding stuff out, they can do that. They can even learn some new ways to find stuff out and how to distinguish valuable information from second-hand, biased, or outdated information. They can go through that process and write about what they learned and get the point of it all – that when you want to understand something, it helps to find stuff out. They don’t have to assume a new identity. They can even graduate and go off to do whatever they end up doing, and finding stuff out will still matter.

I have said before that Burke’s metaphor of joining a conversation works better for the new undergraduate than “find five scholarly sources,” but now I am questioning whether it’s premature to introduce research as conversations in the first semester. Right now I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to simply call it “finding stuff out,” leaving the whole idea of disciplines and the conversations they hold for later. 

If in the first year we convey that understanding depends on finding stuff out, we will have accomplished something important: encouraging a curious disposition and a respect for evidence-based reasoning. We will have told students “you are a person who can analyze and interpret and find stuff out.” That’s an identity that almost anyone can embrace, and students often arrive at college thirsty for that opportunity.

But when we say “you must write in a certain formal way, using a certain kind of source, so that you can be initiated into our scholarly discourse community, which is more valuable than any other means of talking about ideas” we are asking them to set their own sense of self and agency aside, adopt a new voice, and until they can really talk about ideas that way, we ask them to fake it by quoting other people until they are far along in their major to reserve those quotations for a literature review prefacing their original work. We introduce scholarly conventions for writing from sources in the first year in the muddled belief that practice will make them somehow more adept at doing real research later, or that writing well is a matter of figuring out what the audience wants and giving it to them – this particular audience wanting lots of quotes and correct citations.

This is why research and argument papers in the first year of college so often school students how to assert opinions they don’t actually hold by cherry-picking and documenting quotes, which is pretty much the opposite of what most of us want them to learn in college. There's something fundamentally inauthentic about the first year research paper. I’d much rather frame the task by saying “writing is a vehicle for figuring out what you think about something. You’ll understand something better if you find stuff out about it before you make up your mind. It helps readers figure out if you know what you’re talking about if they know where you got your information, so keep a list. Finding stuff out is, in fact, a big piece of what your teachers do for a living. The same can be said of journalists, policy makers, managers, citizens – just about everyone who wants to make good decisions. You’ll do this a lot in college, and after college, too. So, here’s what we’re going to do in this class . . ."

And take it from there.



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