Timing of the Research Question

There’s a good article in the latest portal that should be interesting to any librarians who provide research instruction for first-year writing students:

Nutefall, Jennifer E. and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. “The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10 (4), October 2010: 437-449. [Librarians with access to Project Muse can click through.]

The literature review alone is an excellent quick overview of what some librarians and writing instructors have written about the research question. The study itself was of librarians and writing instructors at George Washington University. At GWU, the writing courses are topic-based and capped at 15 students (which is similar to the model at Princeton).  The authors compared the attitudes of librarians and writing instructors toward the research question. Librarians and faculty agreed that good research questions should be complex, worth answering, and interesting to the student. But they disagreed on the timing of the research question. Librarians tended to want students to have clearly formulated questions early in the process, while faculty tended to think that focused research questions come late in the process after a lot of exploratory reading has been done.

The authors speculate that this divide might be caused by the different research methods of librarians and writing faculty.

the research projects the librarians described are more focused on particular audience needs. For example, they investigate and share better pedagogical techniques for library instruction with other librarians. For the most part, librarians seemed to prefer a more structured research process in their own work and prefer to teach a more methodical approach to research to first-year students. For faculty in the UWP, the majority of their projects study how people and cultures exchange knowledge. When faculty describe their own research process it is similar to those documented in other studies as typical for “expert” researchers.Their methods rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. (445-46)

The implicit claim that librarians aren’t “expert” researchers would certainly explain a large portion of the library literature. Based on the library literature I’ve read, librarians aren’t typically expert researchers in the sense that they rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. There’s a whole sub-genre of library literature that requires knowledge of nothing more than how to send out an online survey and how to report results. 

There’s definitely a disciplinary distinction in play. Even the best of the library literature tends to work under social science models, where research questions are often formulated more specifically than in the humanities, especially compared to literary and cultural studies in which a disproportionate number of writing faculty are trained. However, I suspect that disciplinarity is only part of the disjunction. The differing functions of the librarians and faculty, or at least how many view those functions, could account for some of it. Having taught a few hundred writing students of my own, and provided library research assistance in some form or other for more students than I can remember, this is the distinction that makes the most sense for me.

Librarians want early, clearly formulated research questions, preferably with good keywords, because it’s at that point that librarians can be most useful, or at least when many librarians feel most useful. Often enough, librarians are helping students find information on topics the librarians know even less about than the students if the students have done any preliminary reading at all. And the help often provided will be with some sort of literature search in one of the library databases. Those librarians need focused topics so they’ll know which databases to search, which keywords to use, and which results to examine in more detail when they find some. It’s the level at which a well-trained reference librarian with an adequate collection of resources can help just about any researcher. The great thing about the methods librarians use is that they work, almost all the time. The difficulty comes when they don’t work because researchers aren’t clear and specific enough in their goals.

For writing instructors, on the hand, “research” in the sense of finding concrete sources about a given topic isn’t the most important thing, because their function is quite different. Whereas librarians often enough get students with at least some focus, writing instructors usually begin with the chaos that is most student writing in the early stages of a first-year writing class. It’s the function of the writing instructor to teach students to form this chaos, to shape it, discipline it, focus it, and just when the students have mastered one skill, it’s time for the writing instructor to push them further into the unknown with the research essay assignment. A writing class is always in some stage of managed chaos, and the writing instructor is always helping students find their way. It’s not that librarians are afraid of the chaos. It’s just that there’s not as much for them to do. Focus can also come through the writing process, so that students with only a vague idea of what they want to argue develop their best ideas only after they start writing. One of the librarians studied likes students to envision their entire project, what they want to do, the types of sources they’ll need, etc. Librarian nirvana. The problem is, this isn’t how beginning researchers work, and it’s not really how a lot of experienced researchers in the humanities work. The actual library searching portion of most student research essays is a small part of what they’re learning to do, and not the most important part.

The authors of the study suggest that librarians and writing faculty should work closely together and be clear about their expectations and when research is appropriate. I agree completely. But another possibility is for librarians who feel comfortable enough to step out of their usual function of helping students find information only after they know what they want. At my library, this is more typically done with advanced undergraduates. Often enough, research consultations fluctuate between what I typically think of as a library research consultation and what I typically think of as a writing consultation session. The line between those two is easy to cross, if it exists at all. When I was in library school, I worked both at the information desk in the main library and as a writing consultant in the writing clinic on campus, and it was interesting how frequently what I did for students was the same. That’s because the writing and research process are inextricably intertwined, but the organization of universities means that the two functions are split between the library and some other department.

I’ve met with many students where I helped them figure out what they were really trying to research. We might discuss possible topic options and limitations, or how books and articles can be used to develop and narrow ideas, or how some strategies will work better than others, or how they can use sources as models and not just support, or how they can link disparate strands of research to develop a question, or how various sources might function in their essays. These are all research issues and also the sort of thing covered in writing courses. I’ve had numerous students ask me what I thought about their topic, or whether they should change it. Through in-depth interviews held during lunch with at least three other librarians here, I confirmed that the practice isn’t just confined to me. Librarians do this sort of thing all the time, even if they don’t realize it.

As Nutefall and Ryder imply, we should be aware of our disciplinary boundaries and blindnesses when working with writing students and instructors. But if we’re not already, we should also be willing to to do more with students than just help them search for topics they’ve already narrowed down. The research process is far more than searching, which is easy for us to forget sometimes since we often see just that part when working with students. We should be comfortable working with the chaos of the vague topic and the inchoate research question, because we often have a lot to offer students throughout the research process.

One thought on “Timing of the Research Question

  1. As one who has taught writing and been a librarian for decades, I’m not certain how one could expect students to have a well-formulated research question early in the process. I love the process of helping students refine their topics, based in part on the research process. Virtual reference librarians have to be competent at researching every type of question and every database, so I suppose I don’t understand why a librarian wouldn’t welcome the “chaos of the vague topic.”

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