Thursday, June 08, 2006

Collaborative research issues - post 4 - Doing research?

I'm back again, having just had a fascinating meeting with The Scientist and The Humanist about collaborative research and stuff.

I've been trying to put together my thoughts on faculty/student (undergraduate) collaborative research for a bit now, as you can see from here (the collection). I'm not working in any real order, so much as putting things together for myself slowly, brainstorming, and typing where things fall. So today's post responds more to the second post in the series than to the third. Think of it as hypertexting my brain.

In that post, I talked about research as creating new knowledge, and about a research project I did back in the dark ages. Today I'm thinking about the creation of new knowledge and student class work.

When I talk to scientists around NWU, I've taken to asking them what kinds of papers students write for their upper level courses. And what I'm hearing almost exclusively is that they ask students to basically do literature reviews for papers. Lit review work is common to every academic field so far as I know; basically, you trace out the conversation, debate, discussion about a question or problem or topic, going back as far as seems useful and coming up to the present.

In my field, one sometimes starts such review work by seeing what people in the early modern period had to say about a play or topic. More often, one starts where things seem to start or get interesting in the last century, and then follow the conversation or debate forward, summarizing, explaining, and pointing out the problematics your own work is going to help correct.

Lit reviews are useful, but rarely add to new knowledge.

In contrast, in upper level English and Humanities courses, my colleagues and I generally ask our students to make an original argument about some text or issue. The best students do indeed come up with something original and interesting. Less good students often don't, instead creating a poor lit review and getting overwhelmed by more expert arguments about the question or issue.

We don't think of our work with these students, even the best, as collaborative; we'd never think to put our names on the paper as co-authors. And yet, our (best) students are doing original research in our field, saying something new (though usually without enough depth, cultural context, theoretical sophistication or whatever to be publishable in a professional journal). And we're facilitating that work. In a real way, then, we're doing faculty/student research within the parameters of our field discourse (about authorship, ownership of arguments), perhaps even more than the folks in the sciences.

Talking to The Scientist tonight, I got the sense that we might want to think further about using language of mentoring and advising in our fields, rather than "collaboration." That might help us communicate (with administrators, people in other fields, and funding folks, maybe?) about what we're doing with our students so far as research.

If we are already doing research with students in meaningful ways, then we should think further about teaching all our students how to research. Is teaching research in our field appropriate for all undergraduates? (In English, I sure think so.) Now, if we want students to learn to do research, and we recognize what we're doing as collaborative (or mentoring, or advising), then we should take more time to really teach research better.

For me, I've tried to break down my research teaching a bit between my sophomore, junior, and senior level classes in the past, but without articulating my teaching in terms of mentoring, and certainly without getting any of the "credit" for it that scientists get. I have more thinking to do about teaching research now, for sure, and new ways of trying to articulate what I want to accomplish.

I'm thinking that one really good way to think about teaching research is to break out and teach lit review work separately from making an argument about a piece of literature. In the sciences, I think you probably start with a question, figure out what people have thought about related issues or questions, make up a hypothesis, and proceed. So the lit review is fairly primary; what you're interested in is applying a new methodology, or using a known method to work with new data or in a new place or something.

But for my literature students, I find that they do much better work if they work rather differently. I want them to think about their possible answers, hypotheses, before they do a lot of work with the existing conversation, so that they'll have ideas about what argument they want to make. Then I want them to look at other theoretical or primary texts to test out their argument. And only then, as they've got the beginnings of an argument, do I really want them to dive into the critical conversation.

I want them to wait because I find that when they start with the critical argument, they find published papers so convincing that they feel they have little to add. Of course, they DO have little to add, really, on a professional level; but as students, they can make a good, original argument if they start from the text, and work it out, and then figure out how their argument differs from others'. Then they can use the others' arguments to disagree, to fine tune their own (with proper acknowledgment), and so on.

(The process changes as you get more involved and steeped in the field; still, there's something to be said for trying to answer one's questions first, and then check the ideas that develop.)

It's usually really hard to convince them to work in that order; too often, they want some kind of official answer rather than to do the hard work of trying to interpret texts for themselves.

If we're doing research with students, then part of the process needs to involve communicating with other students about their findings. One way to do this is through peer review and class presentations. Another way is through campus presentations or undergraduate conferences.

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