Monday, November 27, 2006

Research and Dead Ends

My Body class is reading Mary Roach's Stiff now, and started discussing it today. If you haven't heard of it, well, it's a journalistic account of what happens to cadavers.

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

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)

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.

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?


  1. I attempt to handle this in a few ways in my classes.

    1) Students have to propose a topic to me about a month before the paper is due. I have to approve it or they can't go ahead. I encourage them to come see me throughout the research process (yes, time-consuming, but it makes grading much quicker as I get better papers from them), and I make it clear up front that if the paper topic isn't working out and they want to change that they should come see me to talk about revising their topic and then submit a new proposal. (This is my version of the "encouraging good research practices" part of things.)

    2) I'm very up front with them about some of my own experiences where research just didn't pan out the way that I'd expected. Along with that, I approach the whole idea of research as participating in a broader conversation, and as such, one is supposed to learn something from the process - the point is not to go in with the paper already written in one's head. I think that helps with giving them confidence to change their focus when things don't work out.

    3) I give students the research paper assignment in my upper-level courses at the very beginning of the semester, and I bring it up frequently throughout. Moreover, I have a thread at the top of our blackboard discussion page that is intended for the free exchange of ideas about how the research paper is going. I think that this emphasis on talking through the process helps them to focus on research as a process from which scholars try to learn something - not as a bunch of "results" or "facts" thrown on the page.

    Now tell me how I can encourage more of them to take risks in their research - to choose topics that seem daunting to them! In spite of all of the above, I still get a lot of really "safe" paper proposals, that I know from the outset are likely not to earn students more than a B and that I know from the outset will not likely teach students much. I wish they were more courageous in their ideas for research.

  2. I love Roach. I read it while on a trip last August, which was not the best since I was on a plane reading the plane accident chapter. Luckily, I was next to the exit window, which is where experts say to sit.

    I don't know how many times I tell my students that research is not the be-all, end-all of writing, that it's not about finding the one quotation that says exactly what you want to say. I say it, but the ones that don't believe me get screwed. Matter of fact, we'll be talking about such things tonight in my upper-level honors seminar.

  3. Anonymous6:39 PM

    That is a tricky thing to teach--I end up dealing with it more as a grading problem (not penalizing people who did thoughtful work that didn't work out, and who made thoughtful choices about writing it up). But I don't have a lot of good ideas, yet, about how to teach that as part of the learning process. I do talk a lot about curiosity as the most important element of any research project, and that helps push some people away from the safe.

  4. I think that asking them to widen their scope helps. Asking them to look at 10 or 20 sources (and telling them that I order 10 or 20 books/articles a week ILL) just to see, to page through, to think with -- all helps them see the process as unfolding. I tell them about funny directions that didn't work. I tell them about still painful directions that I invested a lot in that didn't work out in the end.

  5. I love Stiff, but as a mortician's kid (and grandkid), I have fairly morbid tastes. I've used a chapter or two of it in my intermediate composition courses to show 1. how to write about subjects (in this cases, science/history of science) in a way that is both rich and understandable to general audiences, and 2. to discuss/examine the types of research Roach employs to write her book. This seems to help my students think about how they construct their own written projects.

    I discuss research in terms of inquiry (and I take a fairly rhetorical approach to this). As such, I explain from the beginning that their research might take them somewhere unexpected or that they might have to research the issues around a topic to come up with support for what they want to say. As an example, I spend time in class using one of my own projects as an example. I describe my research process starting from the initial idea to following through to the end result. I tell them how I failed, revised the search/approach, succeeded, failed some more, revised some more, etc.

    I think it helps them to see that my research processes aren't strictly linear - in fact, they are extraordinarily recursive. I especially want to show my students how I have failed and dealt with failures because it shows that research can be hard work for everyone, even someone with a degree in library and information science like me.

    As far as providing more time, I often split the research project into two papers. The first is an annotated bibliography. I allow topics to be broader at this point so that students can use the project to explore what is out there. The second paper is the argumentative research paper. Students aren't required to use the same resources for both. In fact, they are often different because after students work their way through the annotated bibliography, they realize what part of the topic really interests them. They then conduct further research because they want to learn more about the aspect of the issue. This gives students time to fail and succeed in a safe place - and in a way that gives them 'credit' for their work.