One of the things I like about the book is the way she talks about actually doing her journalistic research. She talks about getting books in a library, about meeting up with people or interviewing them. And occasionally, she talks about research dead ends. For example, on page 50, she tells the story of one Oscar Rafael Hernandez, who woke to find himself in a vat of formaldehyde, having been smacked over the head when someone attempted to kill him to sell his corpse to a medical school. There's a note on the page that says
So I find this fascinating. On the most basic level, I think it's really important to reveal to students that sometimes research just doesn't work out. You spend a week reading some dense manuscript only to realize that it doesn't help answer the question you have. Or you think that Junius Brutus in Coriolanus is also Junius Brutus in The Rape of Lucrece and then find out that he's not even related, but changed his name to that of the hero of the rebellion against the Tarquins some 30 years later.
With the help of an interpreter, I got the number of an Oscar Rafael Hernandez living in Barranquila. A woman answered the phone and said that Oscar was not in, whereupon my interpreter gamely asked her if Oscar was a garbage picker, and if he had been almost murdered by thugs who wanted to sell him to a medical school for dissection. A barrage of agitated Spanish ensued, which my interpreter summed up: "It's the wrong Oscar Rafael Hernandez." (50n)
It's a hard balance with students to get them to understand that it's okay, even necessary, for research not to "pay off" in a big and obvious way sometimes, that it's more intellectually honest to acknowledge that things don't always work. But then they also have to turn in their research papers, and it's hard to grade a research paper that's about failed research, isn't it?
Undergraduates tend to have such a short time to work on research papers that any misstep or false trail can really mess them up. That's especially true in a class where they're working on really new material. In my case, I imagine it would be easier for students to work on texts from cultures they're more familiar with (say, late 20th century US lit) than on medieval or early modern lit. (But then, surface familiarity sometimes misleads itself; my students reading Middlesex earlier in the semester really didn't understand what the Nation of Islam section was about much, and I was only a little better off than they.)
How do we teach students that it's okay for research to sometimes not work out while encouraging the preparatory work that helps research work out well?
How do I judge research that just doesn't work out in undergraduate papers?