Thursday, June 01, 2006

Collaborative research issues - post 2 - creating knowledge?

Today I'm thinking about my post's title, and especially what we mean by "research" when we talk about faculty/student collaborative research.

Let's start with a basic definition we used in the conversation I had with the Scientist: research seeks to create new knowledge.

In the sciences, that makes sense. We go to a lab, measure the effect of X on Y, and then, voila, we now know the effect of X on Y. At least that's how my brain basically thinks about science, usually.

But really, of course, we'd have to design an experiment to control for other factors, and choose how to measure X and Y, make measurements, manipulate the information involved so that it revealed something, and then explain in writing and maybe with graphics why we think we know the effect of X on Y, and why we think that's worth knowing. Communicating the information is a vital part of creating new knowledge.

That process differs from the class lab experiment of lower level science classes because in those experiments, students are recreating what's already been done, usually in order to practice using materials and methods, observating, collecting data, and so on. It's useful and valuable, but it doesn't create new knowledge.

Sometimes the scientific new knowledge model sort of works in English, too. We take some text, think about it in terms of other texts, theories, cultural and historical issues, and say something really new and different.

A lot of times, though, what we do is manipulate information to present it in a new way, often a valuable way, making a new argument to help readers understand text(s) and cultural/historical issues better. Like the scientist, then, what's important here is the articulation of the knowledge, the part about helping readers understand something new or better.

Like science labs that teach skills through repetition, we teach skills that can help students learn to do original knowledge building in classes. On a basic level, when we work with students to explicate a sonnet we aren't creating new knowledge, but repeating an exercise. When we use some other cultural text to read alongside a playtext, we're teaching skills (and information that's new to students). These are useful, but don't create new knowledge overall.

But there's a real jump from doing repetitive skills building exercises (in whatever field) and actually creating new knowledge on some level.

It's not a secret here that I was a science major, so I thought back a bit to what sorts of research I'd been taught to do as a science major. Mostly, I remember doing library research that led me to a sort of lit review on topic X, not creating new knowledge, but learning what the current conversation was. (Though in medicine the meta-review of research publications seems to create new knowledge, so I guess that potential's there in other fields.)

On the other hand, in two classes, I was expected to go out and create new knowledge. It was VERY localized knowledge, but it was new. And BOY HOWDY was this sort of project totally difficult to conceive and carry out. One of my projects was a success because my lab partner and I had a real question, and figured out how to answer that question if only on a tiny scale. The other wasn't because we didn't have a real question, and so couldn't figure out what to do that meant anything. (I sure wish I'd been able to articulate the difference back then, or had someone articulate it for me!)

In the first case, we'd been reading for the class about how to estimate populations of rodents and other small mammals through live-trapping and release, and had learned that some researchers thought there might be problems with estimations because some rodents learn that being trapped means a yummy free meal of peanut butter and oatmeal. If I recall, such animals are called "trap-happy" or something, and they make the population estimate higher than it would otherwise be, and complicate the statistics.

So we asked, do deer mice in our little area get trap-happy?

We designed a SMALL experiment where we live-trapped at a university site (with permission and such), marked the deer mice (on the belly with non-toxic hair dye using unique letters for each different animal; on the belly so we wouldn't interfere with how predators might see the mice, non-toxic so they could groom themselves without danger, and letters so we could tell when we'd trapped the same animal), and then kept records of the date and success of every trap, and of every animal trapped. We trapped for maybe a week, going out early every morning to check the traps and reset them in the same place.

It wasn't a brilliant experiment by any means, but it did create some small local knowledge, and it sure reinforced our practical skills. (And I got to see a bird rarely seen by casual birders because it decided to hop into one of our traps and we got to watch it for a couple seconds when we released it and it scooted off to the underbrush. Cool that!) We concluded that at least several mice were recaught (one five times), and that the recaptures might indeed skew population estimates.

Would that count as "collaborative" research today? We got some planning help from our lab TA, and used university property, traps and such. If it had been more than a week or so of actual trapping, we could conceivably have put together a poster for a modern undergrad research day, I suppose.

But would it be collaborative? Would it "count" for the faculty member in some way (or for the TA)? As part of a class, it probably counted somewhat in the teaching part of their portfolios or whatever they used there. But I doubt it counted or contributed to their research in the least.

And I have no memory of anything else anyone else in the class did, so to the extent that research is valuable because it makes information and knowledge accessible to others, we failed miserably. We wrote it up, and I seem to remember that we did well on the paper.

My experience led me to ask about the ways collaborative RESEARCH works for the science folks here at NWU, and to think about how much research and the creation of new knowledge (or at least new arguments) happens in various classes--humanities, social sciences, and sciences--around here. And where/when it happens outside of classes. More on that tomorrow.


  1. Great post, and yesterday's as well.

    Lately, I've been asking similar fundamental questions about the nature of humanities research. The jaded cynic in me can well predict what sort of articles will be in journals two years from now. All one need do is mind what the dozen or so higer-profile, ring-leader scholars have done of late. Give that a year to gestate, and the junior ranks will regurgitate that work via a new reading of a different author/genre/text, much to the relief and pleasure of journal editors/reviewers everywhere. It's simple to produce, earns swift accolades, and really only seeks to relate to other scholars, who may or may not be impressed. It's not new knowledge. It's derivitive.

    On the other hand, scholarship in the humanities need not be about scholarship. It sometimes actually can create new knowledge about an author/genre/text. Involving undergraduates in this process is to me more pressing than involving grad students. Graduates are testing the waters of conferences and stuggling to develop fluency and currency of secondary literature. That's what they need to do. Undergraduates, however, have not yet made the same personal investment in the field as the graduates. Their needs are greater. If only we had philology labs to address this.

    I look forward to the next installment of this series.


  2. These two posts are interesting. I've wondered about this sort of thing myself. When I was an undergrad, a friend of mine worked for a history professor, going through primary sources and collecting quotes and references that she thought would be interesting to him.

    I often invite undergrads to join my lab, and then I teach them some data collection and data processing methods. To be honest, mostly I like them to run my studies (greet the subjects, and then set them up for their tasks), but it's fun for them and they often get their names on posters for conferences. Actually, I find that undergrads are often harder working and more conscientious than grads.

    The issue of collaborative work also comes up re: tenure requirements. In my field, there's not a whole lot of co-authored work, but in my subfield, it's very common. So I'm trying to figure out how to strike the balance between involving grads--both to give them experience and to help me get the work done!--and convincing people that the work is primarily mine. It's a tricky thing.

  3. Thanks for your feedback, App Crit and Ianqui.

    Ianqui, do you think your students learn much research, or contribute to your projects? Is there a steep curve and then a lot of repetition? Or is there a fairly steady level of learning going on?

    I'd love to see you folks teach me more about how your fields work this way. Thanks!

  4. I just deleted an add. Tsk Tsk