Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Narratives of Research?

In our first year writing course, we're required* to teach the same basic course, with four modules, the third of which is basically a lit review sort of module, where students read in an area to understand "the conversation" (a metaphor most seem to find incomprehensible), and then write an essay talking about their research.

The materials for the module suggest that research works like this:

You think of a question, and spend some time thinking of what you know and don't know, keywords, and so on.

You go to a database (or Google), and type in some key words, look, and find a source that seems appropriate.  You read the source, take notes, and then rethink things, and follow things in a slightly new direction.

You go back to a database, type in key words, look, find a source that seems appropriate.  Then you read that source, take notes, and then rethink things, and follow things in a slightly new direction.

Rinse and repeat.  So the idea is that the narrative thinks students read a source carefully, and use what they learn to figure out something newish about their question, and then follow along that.

But that's not the way I look for/at articles.  And while students pretty much obediently repeat this narrative in their essays about their research, it's not what they're doing when I observe them during our library sessions.

Here's what I do.

If I want to know what's up in a newish area, I start by asking around to see who knows, and who can suggest someone/something good.  Then I read that, and ask some more.  And then I start looking around more independently.

Or, I try to figure out some basic key words, then I go to the database, find a bunch of articles, like five or more, and save them in some way (usually emailing them to myself, or requesting them through the interlibrary loan program).  When I get to my office, I print out the articles, and start reading.  I take some marginal notes, and mostly, try to get a sense of who they've talked about as important, make some bibliographic notes for who to look for.  Maybe make a list for the library.  At this point, I'm treating these articles like the person I know who can suggest some basic readings, and looking for sorts of foundational pieces, the pieces that everyone knows and has in the back of their mind for the field.

When I'm through that five, I probably have a good sense of some foundational readings, and then I go looking for those, especially if I can find one of those overview anthologies, Foundational Readings in This Topic sorts of anthologies.  And then I sort of start over.

Here's what my students do.  Google search (unless I can convince them to start with an academic database, if appropriate).  Find three articles that are instantly available, save links somehow (only to find that those links won't work off campus, often).  Promise to read them later.

When they do read their articles later, they take them all at basically the same level.  So while I look for foundational articles, and then work forward to more recent, specific, work, they read the first articles and assume they've got the "conversation."

I'm sure my way of starting something new isn't the most efficient or even effective.  I don't think anyone ever "taught" me strategies.  But I also don't think the strategy we try to teach our students with our narrative is actually one they can use well.

Tell me some of your strategies for learning new or newish stuff.

For example, if I want to follow up on the research about how students research, and what research strategies might be most useful, how should I do it?


  1. Project Information Literacy has done some great research into the research and information seeking behaviors of college students.

  2. Cool! Thanks for the suggestions, Beth!

  3. hypatia cade12:00 PM

    We talk explicitly with our students during the library day about foundational articles -- the articles that everyone else cites. And then searching for and reading those articles... and then using that article as the starting point for a "cite forward" or "cited by" search with limits/key words.

    If I were looking for research on how students do research I'd start with google scholar and do some searches for things like "how do college students use references/libraries/do research" . and then I'd look for things that are cited a lot. If all my sources were super recent (last 10 years) I'd actively set the year limits to try to get an old article cited a lot and then work forward. I'd also try to develop a set of key words on the basis of the older (and more recent) articles and then redo the search in a search engine like ERIC or PsychInfo which focuses on social/behavioral sciences

    1. I should add -- I like google scholar and it does a good job for my field in aggregating things that generally get spread annoyingly across different databases. I almost always reverify a search in an academic database (or three) though to be sure I got everything I need. We do talk with students about the differences between google, google scholar, and specialized databases and wehn to use each one -- and admit that even we as faculty do use the easier ones when we already know what we need.

  4. Oh yeah, I totally ask around. I know enough Shakespeareans now to be able to ask, "Hey, do you know anything about X? Any articles you can recommend??" And going to SAA, I've gotten lots of feedback about my papers and suggestions for other research that the people had already read elsewhere. If only the students were doing what an SAA seminar does -- write about a similar topic, share resources, and then revise for a greater overall essay.

    Shit. I think I might have a new idea about how to teach comp. Mic drop.

  5. I actually search rather like you do. I tend to look for articles with 'review' in the title, and for some review-type journals (e.g. there's a journal called "Trends in Ecology" and one called "Progress in Human Geography", which both specialise in publishing overviews of topics. I try to point students to a selection of those articles to start them off...

    Web of Science has a cool option to look at the articles which cite a specific earlier one, as well as the references cited, which can be really handy.

    The best exercise I've done with students (in STEM areas) is to get them to collect and read multiple abstracts of articles, to group them, and then to pick ONE to read in a bit more detail. I find the students tend to do a search and read the top 3 results - making them actually collect the abstracts of say the top 20, note common patterns (e.g. ten of these are actually about individual examples, but these two are comparative and that one is a review and this other one is irrelevant), then prioritise their reading, gives them a tool to use later on...

    1. I love the way Web of Science does that, and they're increasingly covering humanities stuffs, too!

  6. Boo, my comment got eaten! I talk a lot about footnote mining and depending on the class/instructor, have done "follow the footnote" exercises where the students get into groups and follow an assigned article's footnotes. Lately I've been using that exercise to also draw their attention to the article's historiographical paragraphs and how those are supported by long footnotes that lay out the relevant historiography -- that's a way to get them to visualize the "conversation" of research and to get them thinking about what they might put into similar footnotes for their own research.

    1. That sounds like a great group work assignment!

    2. I can't take full credit for it -- it's something one of the faculty I teach for developed, and we've kind of evolved it over the years. Another professor wanted to try it as a take-home exercise, which I strongly discouraged -- if it's an in-class exercise (in a library classroom) they not only go handle the books etc., they have me and the professor lurking around to help when they get stuck, and then I use the "stuck" moments as teaching moments at the end. Way better than having a set "how to mine footnotes" lecture, because they get a real experience (sometimes you get stuck! sometimes there are typos! sometimes the scholar, um, doesn't cite properly!) with guidance. At my library, we are not big fans of the "scavenger hunt" model -- I particularly don't like them because I'd rather have an in-class thing where they can get help immediately, and then we can talk about the "stuck" moments in the moment, and then immediately after as a group.