I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog post AL Direct linked to on Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions from the relatively new blog Letters to a Young Librarian. (I hadn’t heard of the blog before, but after a quick skim of the back posts added it to my reader.) The post proposes ways to handle questions where students are “looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support.” The advice is practical, and I’m not discounting it. It’s not necessarily what I would do myself, but reference is an art, not a science. However, a couple of statements in the post have been nagging at me since I first read them, possibly because, as happens often enough, they sound like solid librarian orthodoxy and I completely disagree with them. Let’s take them in turn.
“As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn’t going to work. I’m there to provide objective information access.…”
That does indeed sound like the orthodox librarian policy. For “objective,” I substitute the perhaps more common term “neutral.” The librarian should be neutral in providing information. After all, according to Article II of the Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Librarians aren’t supposed to take sides in a debate when helping readers find information, or refuse to help find information on topics they disagree with. I agree with this, but I don’t think it means I can’t tell students their topic won’t work. I’ve told numerous students over the years their topics won’t work. If there’s no evidence supporting their thesis (or in my case usually no scholarly debate about their odd topic at all) that I can find after the most rigorous searching, then the thesis won’t work. Research essays should insert themselves into a scholarly debate at some level, and if there isn’t a scholarly debate, then there’s no essay. If there’s no scholarly debate as well as no reasoning or evidence behind a thesis, students don’t have to abandon the topic completely, but they will have to adjust their thesis so they can defend it in a scholarly research essay that demands at least a modicum of reasoning and evidence. I don’t mind telling them that because I don’t think it’s my job with students to provide objective access to information as such. It’s my job to teach them how to do academic research.
In practical terms, I might turn this into a series of question: What prompted you to want to write on this topicn? Did you read something supporting it? Hear about it somewhere? What evidence have you gathered so far? What reasons do you have for holding this position? All those questions get at the core of the problem in a constructive way. I want to know how they got to the point they’re at now, where they’re coming to the librarian asking for a few sources to support a position they arrived at without any support at all, because I want to know where they’ve gone wrong in the research process and begin there. If students are asking for sources to support an argument they want to make but don’t already have some evidence for, something has gone wrong with the research process. It’s broken. That’s not the way research works, and it’s part of my job to make that clear to students.
Which leads me to the second statement: “this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.”
Again, this seems like something librarians should be willing to do, but it’s not. It is never my job to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument. Not helping guide students to scholarly sources to support their arguments doesn’t mean I abandon my neutrality or my duty to aid their research. It’s just that my job is to educate them as well as guide them. The post was about politicized questions, and thus the desired objectivity was implied to be about the political position of the student’s claim. But one can be neutral about politics without being neutral about process. It doesn’t matter what claim the student wants to make an argument for–whether it’s about global warming or the symbolic meaning of tea cozies in contemporary Lithuanian poetry–scholars don’t pick a claim and then go find sources to support it. They research a general topic and go where the argument leads them, or at least they should. Hence some of my earlier questions. What led you to want to make that particular claim? If you pulled a thesis out of nowhere, then you need to back up and read more about the topic before you can possibly write a research essay.
Research (in the humanities at least, which usually includes the type of first-year writing course research essay I think is being addressed) is a recursive process. Find a general topic of interest. Read some general sources. Formulate a research question or hypothesis based on that reading. Read some more specific sources to answer the question or test the hypothesis. Narrow your topic to a thesis based on your interpretation of the available sources, then argue that thesis using whatever evidence you have to defend it and critiquing evidence for the other side. Without doing the preliminary reading on a topic, students have no reason to assume the thesis they want to argue has any merit whatsoever. Furthermore, one can’t make a good argument, especially on a “politicized” topic, without understanding both one’s own position and the opposite position. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with a student’s thesis. The thesis itself is irrelevant. It’s about process, not substance.
Let’s consider a hypothetical topic, global warming. It could be anything, but I’ll stick with a politicized topic since I don’t know anything about tea cozy symbolism in Lithuanian poetry. Possible research questions might include: Is the earth really warming? If it is warming, is human action contributing to that warming? If the earth is warming, what will be the consequences? Will the consequences be dire? If the dire consequences predicted are based on models, how sound are the models? If human action is contributing to that warming, to what extent? If the earth is warming, and if human action could slow or stop this warming, and if that would be a good thing, what are the economic costs now and in the future of that action? All of these are legitimate research questions to begin an essay with, and all leave plenty of room for various political interpretations. But a student in question might say to a librarian, “I want five scholarly sources for my research essay that prove global warming doesn’t exist.” (If they said they wanted five sources that proved global warming did exist, I wouldn’t address that directly, either.) Regardless of the initial approach, the response should be the same. “I can help you find numerous, recent, peer-reviewed scholarly sources on various aspects of your topic. You should then read them, evaluate their arguments, and position your own claims in relation to them.”
It doesn’t matter what the end result is, and over the years as a writing teacher and librarian I’ve guided students through the research of theses I found reprehensible. Nevertheless, it’s not important what students argue; it just matters how they argue it. It’s similar to the process of peer-review. Peer-reviewed scholarly sources can sometimes radically disagree on significant topics, but it only matters for our purposes that they meet a standard of argumentative or methodological rigor. The same should go for student research essays, and we shouldn’t feel bad about saying so when appropriate.