What we mean when we say “research”

glasses in the forest

I’ve been working intensively with the foundational writing curriculum assessment team for the last two years. This is the kind of work I love to do – work with a team to dissect a problem and find a better/different/more suitable solution. Working with this team has been invaluable to me because, as a librarian, I never get to see the long term results of the instruction sessions I conduct and the impact I may or may not have on a final product. In this team I see these things, and not only that but I get to discuss and provide input on the curriculum at large. Working on this project has directly impacted what I do on a daily basis, and I enjoy all of the discussions that arise out of it.

On this round of assessment, we have reached a critical point in the life of our current English 101 course. What is happening in that class is good work, but may not be the same size and shape as the hole it’s meant to fill in the curriculum. One of the ideas that was tossed around this week was to remove the research paper from the course, which in the past has been the final project of the class. The research paper is then proposed to move to a new class called “Research Methods” that does not currently exist.

Through conversation, I finally came to understand that the writing faculty see a class on research methods to be the “finding stuff in the library for the purpose of writing a research paper” class. A real research methods class is not this at all, but rather a “how to conduct effective original research” kind of class, involving the specifics of data collection, organization, and analysis. Research methods, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is usually first encountered at the graduate level. This was my first clue that we’re not all talking about the same thing when we use the word “research.”

The term “research paper” has come to mean a very specific, very unnatural kind of writing. We are taught to follow a strict process, completely divorced of authentic inquiry. Come up with a topic, neither too broad nor too narrow. Get it approved by the powers that be. Find a specific number of resources about that topic. Stop when you’ve reached that number. Write an annotated bibliography and/or an outline. Get it approved. Write a rough draft, attempting to make the resources you’ve found that contain the words in your topic fit into something that may or may not resemble a coherent thought process. Peer review. Final paper due. This is “research.”

The term “research paper” does not describe anything terribly useful about what this final product looks like. Is it a statement of facts resembling nothing so much as an encyclopedia article? Could be. Is it a comparison paper? Maybe. Is it a platform for pushing a personal agenda with limited consideration of other opinions? Often. Is it a persuasive argument? Might could maybe. All of these papers could be written by following the “research paper” process above. Yes, specific direction from faculty could remove some of the less desirable types of papers from consideration as the “final research paper,” but the fact remains that the “final research paper” is not only a distinction of limited usefulness for the purposes of instruction but also a bit of a misnomer. I doubt anyone teaching foundation level writing is asking their students to conduct original research. Instead, they are asking their students to find information to support the claims that they make in the process of writing a persuasive argument or a comparison paper and calling it a “research paper.” When we use the term “research paper” we aren’t describing the end result so much as we’re invoking a particular set of assumptions about what a “research paper” is.

The faculty are telling me that they just don’t have the amount of time they feel is necessary to devote to teaching students to write a good research paper. Everything just gets so overwhelmed at the end of the semester, and with the demands of revisions and backwards instruction on papers that have already been done, they just don’t have the appropriate amount of time to teach students how to “do research.” While I would never turn down the opportunity to be more involved in the critical thinking processes of freshmen, the view from my angle looks very different.

I’ve seen the freshmen research papers. I’ve read the bibliographies. They could be better. They could be a lot worse. All told, they’re about where I would expect a bibliography of a first semester freshmen to be. A few good sources, a few that could be acceptable if they were used and contextualized properly, and a few that obviously only contain the words of their topic and not the substance. The trouble from where I’m seated isn’t “finding it in the library.” It’s the word “research.”

So let’s stop using it. If we remove the word “research” from our discussions of what a final project in a freshmen writing class looks like, we move suddenly and astoundingly beyond the fear that professors and students have of the word and directly to what we want students to be able to do. We aren’t getting hung up any longer on what “doing research” is or isn’t. We’re talking about appropriate analysis of argument. We’re talking about the ability to support a position. We aren’t talking about “research methods” any more.

Obviously, removing the word “research” from our discussions of freshmen writing does not remove the need for finding information to support an informed argument. We aren’t removing the library. We aren’t removing information need. We aren’t removing the steps necessary to resolve that information need. We’re removing hang ups around word usage. We’re removing knee-jerk assumptions. We’re removing a haze of fear and dread.

Can we talk about the library’s role in student writing without using the word “research?” Can we say “looking for conversations” or “finding stuff out?” Can we use the actual definition of the word and talk about “investigating systematically?” Changing the words we use does not change what needs to happen. It may, however, change the way we approach it.

 

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One thought on “What we mean when we say “research”

  1. […] I have lots more to say about this excellent book, but as I was reading today this quote leaped off the page at me. It distills the argument I made about what we mean when we say “research.” […]

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