Recently I’ve been getting some requests for what I have called The Improbable Source. An improbable source is some source students hope to find that is exactly on the topic of their research essay, especially when that topic is somewhat obscure. The example I used then that still stands out as the top of this category is “scholarly books and articles on email as a form of civic friendship.” You can double check the philosophical literature if you like, or you can take my word for it that nobody has ever published a scholarly book or article on this topic. When I first identified the existence of the improbable source, I suggested that the problem “is that they want sources that already do their work for them.” To some extent, that’s true. Almost always, the improbable source students desire is one that already supports the exact thesis they hope to argue. If they found the source, then they’d have to change their thesis. However, I now think the problem is larger than that. It’s not just about a hunt for improbable sources, but also about a hunt for unlikely conversations.
“Scholarly conversation” is a phrase that librarians and writing instructors often use. It’s an apt metaphor for what scholars do, and most scholarly work is in a conversation of some sort with previous scholarship, whether arguing with it, building upon it, or whatever. There’s nothing controversial about either that claim or the use of the phrase itself as far as I can tell. However, it’s very difficult to teach a first-year student who has never participated in such a conversation or engaged in any actual research to understand what’s going on.
I’ve worked with students who are looking for scholarly conversations on topics that are highly unlikely to be conversed upon by scholars. We can stick with the “email as civic friendship” topic. It’s not just the source that’s improbable. It’s the entire conversation that’s unlikely to exist. And if there weren’t a conversation, there wouldn’t be the improbable source, because the scholarly sources often respond to previous research. Students have been taught that scholarly conversations exist. They are perhaps engaged in class readings that demonstrate a scholarly conversation in action. Then they pick a topic and go out to find the conversation that likely doesn’t exist.
So that’s what is happening. But why is it happening? There could be many reasons, but I suspect the main reason is the backwards approach to research the students are taking. Instead of reading around broadly in an area of scholarship and looking for the conversations that emerge, students are choosing and even narrowing topics at random and then trying to find the scholarly conversation. Librarians have strategies for helping students find the conversations, but they only work if the original topic is pretty broad. Students might make the leap into a conversation about email as civic friendship because they’ve read an article on civic friendship and need to write about a form of communication as civic friendship, but that’s obviously a scholarly conversation that didn’t emerge from anything scholarship they’d actually been reading. Another approach is students having to relate some event or thing to two different scholarly disciplines. That can be a very fruitful assignment, but students sometimes have problems figuring out exactly what they should be researching in the disciplines, because it’s usually not the thing or event itself. Thus, their initial searches aren’t emerging from the scholarly conversations within a discipline. They’re hoping to find that conversation based on what they think is interesting about the thing or event, and sometimes it just doesn’t exist.
Anyway, I think those are reasons why, but even if not there’s still the question of what to do about it. The first response I usually offer is one of assurance, because often enough the student has tried to find the improbable source or the unlikely conversation and failed. That’s when I practice reference as therapy, and assure students they’re not finding it because it likely doesn’t exist.
Then, we analyze, which etymologically means to break something down into its elements. Email and civic friendship has two elements, both of which could be researched separately. However, that topic is really what writing instructors call a “lens essay,” which means the student should be examining email through the lens of a theory of civic friendship. Thus, really the topic is email and whether or not it fits the criteria for civic friendship. But other topics that combine two or three areas together are ripe for analysis and research on the separate areas, but even then it might be hard to figure out specifically what to look for sources on without having read a lot. and that’s the students’ job, not mine. Comparing disciplinary approaches to something can work as well, but again it’s usually something that requires more reading by the student than searching with the librarian.
That’s where my final advice comes. Sometimes even as I’m meeting with students I realize they don’t really need me at all. They don’t need to find more sources; they just need to start reading and figuring things out from there, and the only thing I’m good for is to tell them that. So maybe I was right before and the hunt for improbable sources and unlikely conversations is motivated by the hope that someone out there has done all their reading, analysis, and synthesis for them, because that, not library research, is the hardest part of writing a research essay.