At the risk of creating an infinite blog post regression, I’ve been wanting to write about this post at ACRLog by Steven Bell, and this post partially responding to Bell’s post by Barbara Fister on her Library Babel Fish blog. Bell responded to the Netflix-in-libraries debate by pointing to a scholar who didn’t understand why he couldn’t get JSTOR access from a university he no longer attended, and the apparent willingness of the scholar and his commenters to share resources illegally if necessary to get what they need for their research. Fister added into the mix an article from The Scientist in which a scientist realized (better late than never!) that if libraries can’t afford scientific journals then the progress of scientific research will be retarded, as well as the recognition that outside of R1 universities access to scholarly resources is often severely limited.
I read John Dupuis’s response to my last blog post, as well as the comments generated by his post Someone actually suggested regarding Twitter that I should try it before I say I won’t like it. Instead, I say, give it to Mikey. He’ll try anything.
The “don’t knock it ’til you try it response” is problematic for many reasons (not that I was knocking anything). To echo one person who commented on my blog, I haven’t tried cannibalism or genital piercing either, but I don’t want to. The response also smacks of an irritating paternalism, as if a grown man who’s reasonably bright and educated is like a child who needs to be told to eat his vegetables. “How do you know you don’t like cauliflower until you’ve tried it?” Not being a child, but instead a rather large man, there’s a temptation to suggest the inquisitor take the cauliflower and insert it somewhere very uncomfortable, like the back seat of a Volkswagen. Mostly, though, the response is flawed because it assumes that any given social software application is somehow sui generis, when in fact they are all just variations on a theme. Twitter, for example, is analogous to all sorts of other things, and even if it weren’t it’s not like it’s some difficult concept to understand.
There is in fact an analogous service I have tried: Facebook. I’ve been on for two or three years and find myself going to it less and less frequently. It’s been okay, but nothing especially life-changing. I’ve been in contact with people I haven’t seen since high school, which has been pleasant. I’ve played a few games of Scrabble. I know some people use Twitter and their Facebook status update the same way, and one thing I’ve never done is update my status. I’ve never told people what I was having for lunch, or posted a Youtube video of some funny antic, or tried to come up with a clever epigram or aphorism to show people how interesting I am.
Why? Mainly because I don’t think anyone would care, just as I’m interested in very few of other people’s postings. On a moment to moment basis, I, like most people, am just not very interesting. I’m not necessarily boring, and I do think I have my good qualities, but I really can’t figure out what I could say in a few characters that would be worth reading. Writing nothing worth reading may not bother most people, but I try to keep an audience in mind and not bore you too much.
However, I’m going to give this “status updating” thing a try. Would you really like to know what I’m thinking about right now? If not, stop reading! But if so, I’ll tell you.
I’m teaching another writing seminar in the fall, and I’m changing the topic to “justice” instead of “liberalism” and revamping the readings. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to present a coherent story about the extremely active philosophical discussion about justice since Rawls’ Theory of Justice in the equivalent of about 8–10 essays. Keep in mind, the goal of this course isn’t to teach philosophy, but academic research and writing. It’s just that to write anything worth reading, students need something to write about.
As a research project, it’s been an adventure. Building upon my previous knowledge, I’ve been using encyclopedias, anthologies, surveys, reviews, articles, bibliographies, footnotes, and even Google Scholar to develop the reading list. (I’ve been using the “cited by” feature in Google Scholar, not the discovery feature so much.) The goal is to give students a general overview of the subject using only primary texts while tracing a scholarly conversation over the course of four decades. I think I have a good list. The students will read excerpts or full essays by some heavy hitters, and in one unit every source we read will cite all of the previous sources we’ve read, in order to show how a scholarly conversation develops over time. A seminar should tell a story about the topic. This is naturally only one story among many possible ones, and I make that clear, but in the summation at the end of the semester it should be obvious that we’ve outlined an important and engaging dialog about the topic.
In addition, the readings have to lend themselves to the teaching of writing and research. I’ve also been thinking about that topic, and have formed some rough opinions. These classes are supposed to teach argumentative academic writing. Thus the best sources provoke argument. Often writing/ composition/ rhetoric is taught in English departments, and just as often the courses are focused on interpreting literature. In a course like that, the students get a novel/ poem/ play/ film to discuss and write about. There is a clear difference between primary and secondary texts, and the students are writing secondary works while studying primary works, for the most part.
It seems easier to me to teach primary sources that are themselves examples of argumentative writing, and political philosophy works very well in this regard. Philosophers are trained to argue, not interpret. And political topics tend to be engaging to a lot of people simply because they’re an inescapable part of life. So in my class the students are reading the sorts of essays they’re writing. There’s not much of a distinction between a primary and a secondary source. If everything works well, the whole course coheres. My goal is the perfect writing seminar, in the sense that A argues in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that Don Giovanni is the perfect work of music because it best exemplifies what makes a classic work of art: an absolute correlation of form and content. Every text we read in class is both something to write about and an example of how one should write argumentative academic prose, and they’re all arguing with each other.
Is this interesting to you? It’s more about writing pedagogy than librarianship, but I can see where it might be. Teaching writing and research has certainly made me a better librarian. The skills I’ve gained carry over into research consultations and instruction sessions all the time. Thinking about the nature of scholarly exchange in an academic discipline is the sort of thing lots of academic librarians do.
This is just the merest summary of activity, though I’ve been considering further developing some of these rough thoughts into posts or articles. What’s here says little of substance, and yet I still can’t figure out how to condense it to 140 characters. To be clear yet again, I’m not knocking any of this, even if I haven’t tried it. I just know what I want to read and how I want to spend my time and interact with others. Maybe instead of macro-tweeting, I should just write:
Wayne Bivens-Tatum just dropped in to see what condition his condition was in.
A couple of weeks ago my colleague Mary George published an article in Inside Higher Education about student confessions related to what they didn’t know about research. (For the record, I am not the “Academic librarian” in the comments section.) Some of these are typical missteps many of us probably see with students all the time. They try to find periodical articles in the OPAC, or believe (or maybe just hope or even pretend to believe) that if an article isn’t digitized they won’t be able to get it. It’s a good list of some of those tidbits of knowledge both professors and librarians might take for granted, but that somehow never got passed on to the students.
This could signal many things, such as a breakdown in communication or instruction or a failure to integrate research skills into the curriculum. I suspect as much as anything it signals our inability to unlearn and get back into the mindset of a novice researcher, especially one used to Google or Yahoo who suddenly encounters the sometimes unnecessarily complicated world of the academic library. (I mean unnecessarily complicated in a theoretical sense, because after all why shouldn’t students search for periodical articles in the OPAC; had librarians begun indexing a century ago instead of relying upon commercial indexes, how different the library world might be.)
One topic that didn’t make it onto Mary’s short list of misunderstandings is language, but it’s one I’ve seen many times. We’ve all encountered the students who believe that everything is online, whether it’s a recent article from the New York Times or a church bulletin from a small parish in England in the late nineteenth century. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me as much as the double assumption that everything will be both online and in English, no matter what it is or when or where it was published. Long after I’ve gotten used to the misconceptions related specifically to library research, I have to admit this one still astounds me.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, there’s the old joke: “What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages: Bilingual. One language: American.” Still, I am surprised, not because students seem to have no familiarity with any foreign languages. I think I’m more surprised by the assumption that there’s some organization somewhere that takes every document created anywhere in the world at any time and immediately translates it for American college students. The Babelfish Institute does this for everything, regardless of the origin or likelihood of being used.
The reasons for the misunderstanding seems to vary. One I heard recently made at least some sense to me. Someone had seen citations from a conference proceeding and wanted to track down the articles. The proceeding was from a technical conference in Germany in 2007. According to Worldcat, only two libraries held the proceedings, both in Germany. It looked like they were available from the institute that hosted the conference, and had time not been a factor I would have suggested requesting we purchase them since they weren’t expensive. Then I discovered the student didn’t read any German, but thought that since some American scholars had cited them maybe they had been translated. This definitely shows a misunderstanding of the world of scholarship, but I could sort of see the logic in this, because often scholars not writing in English have to be translated to make an impact in America. In all seriousness, how much of an impact would existentialism or poststructuralism or other French philosophy have made in America had not Sartre or Derrida or Foucault or Lyotard been translated into English?
Sometimes the assumption seems considerably less grounded even than this. “I’m looking for primary documents in Soviet archives written by Russian spies.” “Do you read Russian?” “No. Would I need to?” “I want to study the local French response to riots in the banlieues of Paris.” “Do you read French?” “I need newspaper editorials from Mexican newspapers about the drug wars.” “Do you read Spanish?” I think you get the idea. In some cases, the fact of sources being in English or even translated into English would seem inplicit in the request. Russian spies wrote in Russian. The French respond to things in French. Etc. If we find news articles from Djibouti in English, they’re probably from the BBC World Service.
So many questions suggest themselves to us that probably don’t occur to students. Why would this particular document have been translated into English? Who would have translated it? The same questions apply to digitization. Who would have taken the trouble to digitize this obscure document from this relatively poor part of the world? Do students have any sense of the time and effort that goes into digitization or translation, how many people have to work together to get something digitized or translated, how much funding would be involved, or how that typically there has to be some commercial benefit or assumption of broad appeal before such projects are launched? Of course they don’t, and there’s no reason they should have thought about this. I’m not ridiculing the students, but only pointing out another area of understandable ignorance that has to be dealt with.
Thus when I work with students, I’ve learned to counsel them about a neglected rule of scholarship. if you’re going to work on historical or cutural topics about some other place in the world, you need to learn the language. If you don’t know the language, either learn it or change your topic. I try not to make it a harsh lesson, but somewhere along the way students have to learn that despite the popularity of English, most people in the world are not communicating in English in their local communities, and that a lot of people even in the United States don’t communicate in English in their local communities. People in non-English speaking countries are involved in living their lives and being in their worlds, and never pause to think that some American college student might want to study them for a research essay.
This lesson might be hard to communicate to most students. It might be easier to just digitize every document in the entire world and have it translated into English. Maybe Google can take care of that for us.
I’ve been reading and commenting upon drafts of research essays the past couple of days. It’s the time of the semester when I get to see what I usually don’t get to see as a librarian: the end of the research process. Recently I heard a talk about embedded librarians. All the writing seminars have a librarian assigned to them, but since I act as my own librarian I’m about as embedded as it gets. Unfortunately, I don’t have anyone to blame when something goes wrong.
Fortunately, nothing serious has gone wrong, and the results aren’t at all unpleasing. Obviously a lot of the students understood the research process, and it was very easy to see who took shortcuts that generally didn’t work.
All those rules of thumb we have about research seem to work. For example, I usually warn students in library instruction sessions that they’ll have to read (or at least skim) more sources than they actually use, not just enough but more than enough. They can’t just do a search, take the first five items that come up, and write a research paper. Before they can figure out what there might be to say, they’ve got to do a lot of exploration. In the end result, I can tell who ignored this advice. It’s easy to spot the problem just by glancing at a bibliography.
Then there’s the variety of resources that librarians sometimes mention and instructors often require. Books, journal articles, newspaper articles, websites, etc. It’s good to have a range. Why, we don’t always explain, which is why it’s more a rule of thumb. But the answer is clear when research essays depend too heavily on one particular format. Lots of books in the bibliography are typically a problem, for example, because it means that students haven’t explored the article literature, which is often richer for specific topics. Just glancing at a bibliography shows a heavy reliance upon books, but reading the essay shows why this can be a problem.
I’ve written a couple of times about the improbable source, but finding the improbable source is just as problematic. The improbable source would do the intellectual work for the students. But students—and this is completely understandable—also have trouble resisting sources that do the work for them. It seems especially difficult for students to interrogate sources critically when they’re reasonably well written and in peer-reviewed journals.
This makes perfect sense, because students are new to the conversation, and other than providing the criticism myself I’m not sure how this skill can be developed without more reading and practice. In my class, it’s often a secondary source interpreting John Rawls in some applied way. The description of one of them seemed so bizarre I assumed the student had it wrong so I followed up and read the article. Nope. The student had done an excellent analysis. It’s just that the article based an entire philosophical argument on a dubious metaphor. Anything for tenure, I suppose. Just telling students to challenge authority doesn’t help, because they don’t have the tools yet, though I do try to explain why “peer-reviewed” doesn’t mean “right.”
However, this is another case where more than enough of a variety of sources helps. They need to get the sources arguing with each other. As librarians, we can’t always know which sources are best and don’t always see the end result of the research, but the rules of thumb help out, I suppose. I can certainly glance at what students have found and say, not more than enough and not enough variety. The great thing as a writing teacher is that I get to explain why in detail. Or maybe that’s the tedious thing. I’ll be able to tell after my brain unfries.
I wanted this post to be about “the space between the sources,” but after writing it I see I’ve meandered. Maybe I’m groggy from overwork this week, which would also explain why I keep looking at the word meander and think how silly it sounds. Still, I’m putting out the notes, because I’m trying to think through the issue to perhaps write something more substantial later. Please forgive the meandering. In fact, you might want to just stop while you’re ahead.
I’ve been encountering more students who seem to be disappointed that when doing research for an essay can’t find secondary sources that already do their work for them. Or, as they put it to me, “I want to write on this topic but can’t find any sources!” So, for example, if a student wants to write an ideological analysis of a cultural object, they want sources that already ideologically analyze that cultural object, or at least one pretty close to it. It’s a version of the improbable source I keep being asked for, and it’s endemic to a certain kind of course, typically those involving some kind of contemporary cultural studies.
Even after discussion, it doesn’t always seem to be clear to the student what sorts of sources might inform their research if no one has written on this exact topic before, and to get them to understand that in many ways it’s a good thing that no one has already written their essay. Perhaps they want an authoritative source to have already done what they’re doing so they know they’re doing it right. But they want to ride on the sources rather than inserting themselves into the space between the sources.
We had a class today where we did some sample searching around a specific painting and modeled the way one can build a topic out of many different pieces: an exibition catalog, a work of history, a study of an art movement, etc., but it still wasn’t apparent to everyone. It comes up enough in the library instruction I do that I’d like to create some kind of guide, but I’m not sure what the best way to present the information. Perhaps some sort of map.
In some ways, this is the appropriate role of the writing instructors, and I know they already address the issue in class, but I meet with enough students who still want me to find them the source that does their work for them that my research sessions sometimes go back and forth between discussing library research and writing strategy.
I’m curious if this happens with other librarians. I do a lot of work with our freshman writing students, and I’ve been teaching freshman writing for longer than I’ve been a librarian. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell when I’m responding as a librarian and when as a writing teacher. (The distinction even blurs for the students sometimes, as I discovered when someone else’s student was asking me for permission write on X topic.)
Based on the many library research guides I’ve looked at over the years, this doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing librarians address much. Though not written by librarians, books such as The Modern Researcher or The Craft of Research address the use of sources somewhat, but most library guides naturally focus strictly on the finding of sources rather than how they’ll be used. This makes sense, as technique and an understanding of the geography of information are necessary and complicated in themselves. Yet it seems natural to think about how the sources will be used or the types of sources one needs before one even knows what to look for.
Type of source might even be the wrong terminology, because I’m not thinking about books, articles, or encyclopedia entries. Perhaps the role of sources is better. What are they doing for the essay, or what do the students need them to do? These seem essential questions when teaching students about research, but they’re more complex questions beyond the “Find Background Information — Search for Books — Search for Articles” approach that is the necessary but perhaps too easy road we’re often forced to take because of time constraints.
I’ve long thought that the concept of “library” isn’t a very coherent one. The small town (pop. 300 or so) public library that serves my grandmother and the very large research library I work in are both called libraries, and yet their staff, collections, and mission couldn’t be more different. There are also often large differences in outlook even among academic librarians. Sometimes this is a teaching versus research difference, and sometimes a service versus collections difference. Few librarians seem to move completely to one side or another, and I certainly don’t, but the tensions are undoubtedly there in the profession, and often in the same library.
I’m thinking about this because of the juxtaposition of topics I’ve encountered so far today. This morning I attended a presentation by Bernard Reilly, President of the Center for Research Libraries. He discussed a lot of the initiatives currently underway at CRL, including a number of their digitization projects. One of them involves Latin American newspapers, and as part of an effort to make the materials more useful to the libraries in the region digital copies will be made available to those libraries as well as to CRL libraries, though not freely on the Internet. My favorite quote was that this project is “built on the assumption that an Internet cafe is not a library.” Though the CRL hopes to digitize a lot of material in the coming years, I seriously doubt that everything they have will ever be digitized. I wasn’t aware until today of how much of it isn’t even cataloged yet.
To the undigitized, and possibly never digitized collections of CRL, add the archives scattered across the globe. Then the book collections that aren’t now, and may never be digitized. That’s a lot of material that will never be freely available from an Internet cafe or your laptop, or even your university should they have the money to pay for such things.
Now let us turn to a blog post at ACRLog I read just after the presentation–Library as Place–For Air Conditioning Books. In it Steven Bell comments on a presentation by Adrian Sannier, Chief Technology Officer at Arizona State University. Bell excerpts a couple of tasty quotes. Here’s part of one:
If you were starting [an educational institution] today, how many books would you have? I know what I would do. I’d have none. I’d have zero. Well that would change my cost picture relevant to you and that would make my university’s knowledge so much more accessible to you both when you’re there and when you weren’t there. That kind of reinvention is what we’re talking about.
About that, I’m not sure what to say, except it wouldn’t be much of an educational institution, but more on that later.
Here’s part of another juicy one:
Burn down the library. C’mon, all the books in the world are already digitized.…Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already. None of us has the Alexandria Library. Michigan, Stanford, Oxford, Indiana. Those guys have digitized their collections. What have you got that they haven’t got? Why are you buying a new book? Buy digitial.…How many people are using the indicies we’re all paying so much for.…
Bell certainly realizes how ignorant (or perhaps deliberately provocative) Sannier is about book digitization and higher education, though he opines that maybe some IT people have it in for us librarians. Bell’s response is that If “academic libraries are being dismissed as one big book air conditioner then we better start doing some of our own transforming to make sure our operations are lean yet productive, and that we have the data to prove to the top administrators that our libraries deliver the best service for the tuition dollar. It must be shown that academic libraries directly contribute to students achieving learning outcomes and persistence to graduation.” That’s certainly a sensible approach, but there are other considerations to make about Sannier’s poorly informed presentation.
First of all, I find it difficult to take even remotely seriously. Dr. Sannier is no doubt a bright and competent man. He has a PhD in computer science, and before going to ASU worked with computer systems both in academia and private industry, according to his bio. My assertion isn’t that I don’t take him seriously as a professional, only that I can’t take him seriously as an expert on university research or teaching more broadly, that is, outside of the technological and digital portions of it. Obviously Google has not digitized all the books in the Google Book project libraries, and just as obviously the copyrighted ones they have digitized are not freely available online. Obviously also, as Bell note, curricula differ widely among educational institutions, and it’s not at all clear that even the complete collections available freely online at some of these libraries would satisfy all comers, which of course we know isn’t going to happen anyway.
I’d like to watch the entire presentation, but unfortunately right now I have a spreadsheet of 38,000 nondigitized book titles I have to go through line by line to make location decisions, plus I’m going on vacation next week, so I can barely break away to blog. Perhaps next time I have a free moment, which at this point will probably be New Year’s Day. Still, based on the excerpts as well as Bell’s reaction, neither of them are necessarily taking into account the larger mission of the research library. Bell’s response is to recommend that libraries make the case that tuition dollars are used wisely and student learning outcomes are met and they graduate. That’s all good stuff, and I think natural from a public services AUL at an urban state university.
But teaching students is but one mission of a research university, and not necessarily the most important one, if we judge by what professors get the most rewards for. The purpose of a research university is to research, to create knowledge, to contribute to the scholarly record, etc. This differs by field, naturally. In the sciences, engineering, computer science, and other areas, this may not require anything that can’t be accessed by a computer. In the humanities, area studies, and some of the social sciences, it does, and it most likely will for decades to come, if not forever. Yes, it’s possible that eventually every archive and book collection in the world will be digitized and available to researchers, even if not for free, like some of the collections coming out of the CRL are now available to research libraries. It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem very likely.
Another possibility is that enough material will be digitized that future researchers will just be content with what is digitally available and not worry about the rest. That’s pretty sloppy research, but as we know everyone, scholars included, prefer the good but easily available to the best but difficult to obtain. This could happen, but it wouldn’t negate the ideal of the research university or research library; it would just cheapen it.
It’s this perspective that makes it difficult for research libraries. Sannier rightly notes that no library is a universal library. No one has everything. That’s been the case for decades, though. The CRL, for example, was founded in 1949 to address this issue. That’s why we have cooperative agreements with other libraries. This is not even remotely a new issue. It might seem like a new issue now only if you think everything is digitized. Since most books, archives, etc., aren’t digitized, there’s nothing new being said about the issue. Just claiming it’s true doesn’t make it so.
I don’t think every institution of higher education should be a research university or every library a research library. I also don’t think that large libraries are necessary for most undergraduate education. It’s clear some fields hardly need library resources. Despite its dependence on monographs, a strong liberal arts education could probably be supported by a library of 10,000 books or so, if they were, for example, the 10,000 or so that Peter Briscoe in Reading the Map of Knowledge considers the “core.” And perhaps all those books would be digitally available to a new college today, or at least relatively soon. So, if we’re talking about starting up a new community college, or business school, or liberal arts college, this get-rid-of-the-print-books approach has at least a chance of working, though what liberal arts college would feel satisfied with a library so small I don’t know. Thomas Aquinas College, perhaps. But still, if one wanted to trim the collection to the absolute minimum necessary for a decent liberal arts college, it just might be barely possible. (That’s a lot of qualification, I know).
However, once we turn away from undergraduate education, the whole notion breaks down completely, and for any research university worth the name such a scheme is unthinkable if the library is actually designed to support any research. And the argument that no library is universal only goes so far. No library is a universal library, but it seems clear to me that the top 25 libraries or so plus places like CRL together constitute about as universal library as we are about to get. We can measure “top” anyway we please, whether it’s the number of items, amount of digital content, or financial resources. Regardless, there have to be a number of libraries that do their best to build just-in-case research collections for some fields so that we can all satisfy our otherwise insatiable just-in-time research needs.
A “research library” without print materials and climate control to protect them is an oxymoron. That might not always be the case, and I wouldn’t feel at all bad if the situation went away, but it’s here to stay for a long time to come. Print materials are still needed for research, and the purpose of a research library is to support research. I suppose some would consider me an excessive technophobe or bibliophile for saying that, but such is far from the case. I just want to protect research libraries and the universities they support from the excessive technophiles and bibliophobes that could destroy them if given a chance.
I’m in the midst of the library instruction silly season, and because we’re slightly short-handed I’m teaching more sessions than I usually do. When I was in library school and tried to explain to non-library grad students what I was training to do, I used to say that reference was something like research without the writing and teaching without the grading. Later it became increasingly clear that it was also teaching without developing longer relationships with students or engaging in intellectual discussion about topics of mutual interest, but that’s neither here nor there. Of course, library instruction is more like training than teaching in ordinary academic senses. As time passes and I learn more, I’m also increasingly aware that the initial training must of necessity cover less ground, only because the ground to cover has grown so much.
Let me explain a bit. The sessions I typically do this time of year are for freshmen in the writing program. The Princeton Writing Program is a great model for such a program. The classes are all focused around an academic topic and students can choose their topic for the most part, the class size is limited to twelve students, and every class is assigned a librarian usually conversant with the general area of the topic (so humanities librarians do humanities topics, science librarians science topics, etc.). When I teach a writing seminar, I’m my own librarian, but I also act as the librarian for several other writing seminars.
The problem comes with the variety of topics and approaches. If there were, for example, a purely literary seminar, the instruction is somewhat easy. Search the catalog, search MLA, read your text closely. The typical instruction session lends itself easily to that general format: finding books and articles. But as we all know that’s just the beginning, and not necessarily even an appropriate beginning for some areas. For historical topics, it might be best to start with an archive somewhere and work outwards from that, but these students typically don’t have that opportunity. Because of the compressed timeline of their projects, they also typically wouldn’t have the time, for example, to page through year after year of print indexes of old newspapers, which they might then have to acquire on microfilm through ILL, especially if this is only a portion of their research. Our effort here is to prepare them for their junior and senior years, when most of the students will be doing sustained independent work for junior papers and senior theses. In these seminars we can only show them bits and pieces.
Another challenge is the multidisciplinary nature of many of the seminars, at least the ones I tend to get. There’s no one model of library research that will benefit everyone. In some of the classes, one person will be working on 17th century English political history while another will be working on contemporary media treatments of terrorist acts (this happened in a session last night). Great beginnings, perhaps, but in one session it’s tough to cover enough general information to start working on both of these topics, so all I can do is show a few tips and techniques and try to provide some general theorizing on how to proceed. After that, I try to work on a student by student basis. I can show everyone how to search WorldCat and Proquest, but with several hundred databases to choose from, showing new students how to begin navigating just our online resources is tricky, not to mention various print sources and archives and free online sources.
The most frequent request I get when working with these students is for books or articles already doing what they propose to do. “Can you help me find articles on how email is a form of civic friendship?” is one of my favorites from a couple of years ago. To which I can only answer, well, no, because there are no such articles (at least there weren’t then). We have to get the students to understand that it’s their job to bring together a variety of theories and facts and interpretations into a coherent argument.
If we add in the further challenge of trying to get the students to get out of the reporting mindset, the obstacles grow even more. There’s the “I need five articles to support X topic.” I don’t get this as much here as I did in previous libraries, but there is still sometimes the belief that you can choose a topic, find the required number of sources quickly, read them, then write an essay, rather than reading a lot before they can even begin to think about a thesis. Instead, we have to argue and sometimes demonstrate that scholarship rarely happens in a vacuum. Scholars have conversations with each other, sometimes over centuries or even millennia. In the humanities, these conversations take place in texts; books respond to books, articles to articles, but always one scholar responding to one or more other scholars discussing a problem. So we have to get the students looking for these conversations and finding a place to insert themselves, to know that they need to find a clearing in the forest of scholarship to build their own shanty of argument. (I think I’ll use that metaphor with the students just to sound obscurantist.)
Another way to think of this problem is through the rhetorical concept of kairos. Kairos is the rhetorical situation, the proper moment to speak or write. Part of kairos is the exigence, the crisis that calls forth rhetoric. How can we show students how to use library research and engagement with sources to find their own kairos? What crisis do they discover that calls forth their rhetoric? What clearing in the conversation can allow them to emerge? And how can library research help that?
And finally, how can all this be started effectively within an hour?
April is the cruelest month for library instruction, and for me April started a week early. I have various pitches I make to students about the research process, and I’m not sure I agree with any of them. Sometimes I tell the students that the techniques and skills we’re learning aren’t really the interesting part of a research project. The goal is not just to keep finding books and articles, but to find the right books articles and then join the scholarly conversation on a topic, to do the work of analyzing, synthesizing, and creating scholarly works. What I’m teaching them is how to do this more efficiently so they can get to the harder work later. This is what I sometimes tell students in the first-year writing seminars to motivate them to pay attention to me for a while. Typically they pay attention to me anyway because I move around a lot and vary the pitch of my voice, but still.
I’m not sure I believe this, though. Certainly analysis, synthesis, and creation are the final paths and goals of scholarly research from the standpoint of the academy. Everyone is supposed to produce. Reading widely might be great, but if you don’t produce an essay to grade or an article to publish, you haven’t done your job. And, I suppose, for some people these are their actual motivations. Even full professors keep writing books and articles. But for a lot of people, the research process is an end in itself. Think about all those professors who read and teach and keep up on their fields, but don’t publish anymore. They’re certainly researchers and scholars, even if they never produce anything.
Librarianship is probably the profession that most attracts these kinds of people. I know it’s an attraction for me. I’ve published very little, though I read and write every day. One of the attractions of being a librarian is that I can follow my intellectual whims in relative ease and comfort. There’s no predicting what subject might catch my interest as I’m reading something else, and being a librarian makes it easy to track down a quick introduction to a topic and maybe a couple of articles and books. Then I read them and some other tangential topic sparks my interest, and I follow that one up, and along the way almost everything I need is provided by my own library. I sometimes wonder how people without ready access to research libraries get by. I would be very frustrated. In the humanities, I’m a jack of many trades and perhaps a master of none, though technically I’m a master of arts with a piece of paper somewhere to prove it, so I suppose I could call myself a master of English literature, not that I would ever do that.
For some reason I assume that most people are like this, only the topic varies, and that even students enjoy researching in at least some fashion topics they’re interested in. They want to know more about this pop singer or that television show or whatever. That’s probably just me wearing my librarian glasses, though. Sort of like to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail, or to a man controlling the most powerful conventional military on earth everything looks like a conventional war. To a librarian everything looks like research.
Still, I might try to make this pitch during my upcoming instruction season, to propose that the research process is so enjoyable that some people never abandon it for writing. It’s so much fun to track down one more article and find out just a little bit more about the topic that they may finally just have to go cold turkey with library research and sit down to the less enjoyable art of scholarly writing. For some the end is writing and publication, but for many the research is an end in itself. Sounds great for librarians, but for some reason I don’t think this would fly come grading or tenure time.
Scholarly librarians help students with research better than unscholarly librarians, I believe, but sometimes, pace the old chestnut that those who can’t do, teach, librarians who not only know how to write but how to teach writing have an advantage over those who don’t.
Right now I’m glancing through Studying Students: the Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester. At the end of chapter 1 I was stuck by this sentence:
“Last but not least, the faculty interviews made clear the need for librarians to understand
the pedagogy of writing in order to assist students through the final steps of preparing
a well-crafted research paper.” (15) I couldn’t agree more. This led some of the librarians at Rochester to train to be writing consultants and work regular shifts in their writing center.
Without hesitation I can say that training in writing pedagogy makes me a better librarian. The English program at UIUC wasn’t very good about placing their graduate students in decent tenure track jobs, but it was outstanding in training those graduate students to teach writing, and reinforcing that training by requiring most of the students to teach two sections of rhetoric every semester in order to survive. (Do I sound bitter? It’s probably just heartburn.) I taught a dozen sections of rhetoric at UIUC as a graduate student and later as an adjunct, worked for five semesters as a writing consultant in the writing clinic there, and am teaching my fifth writing seminar at Princeton. All of this is valuable training for helping students with research essays.
It’s hard to articulate just how it helps, at least within the confines of a blog post. Teaching basic research skills is easy enough, but what librarians rarely see are the results of student writing. The librarians are concerned with locating resources, and we understand how complex the information world currently is, but professors want good essays, not just well researched ones.
According to the study, “when discussing their expectations, faculty commented more extensively on the problems of writing and critical thinking than on those related to locating the right sources. Evaluating and interpreting the information appear much more difficult for students than finding it.” Another source of complaint was that “students tend to summarize readings instead of reflecting upon them and writing critical, thoughtful papers.” And, “finally, all interviewed faculty complained about mechanical problems that plague students’ writing: ‘florid, overwrought language, jumbled and verbose’; ‘grammar declining over the years’; spelling mistakes; lack of clarity; poor organization of the text; inappropriate style for the discipline or intended audience. In the faculty’s opinion, bad writing is an acute problem that turns out to be the main obstacle to students’ success in research” (5). In other words, research is the least of these students’ problems.
In one sense, librarians have done their job. One way or another, students often find at least some resources for their essays, but they just don’t know what to do with them once they’ve found them. Unfortunately, these skills aren’t taught in regular classes. Professors expect students to know what to do with sources, but typically don’t spend much class time addressing these issues because that takes time away from the content of the class, which might also be why most professors don’t schedule library research sessions.
Teaching writing and research skills is the most fundamental part of academic preparation, and the least glamorous. That’s why librarians and rhetoric instructors are usually at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s still important, especially for the students who won’t pick these skills up on their own, i.e., most students.
Because of my experience teaching writing and working on research essays from possible research question to final revision, I understand what students are expected to do and where they may have problems. My research consultations often become to some extent writing consultations, and it would be difficult for me to separate the two. As a writing consultant, I would have appointments with students. They would come with anything from an idea to a finished draft, and within 30–60 minutes I’d have to read and comprehend their writing and be able to suggest possible areas for revision. I worked as a writing consultant and a reference graduate assistant all through library school, and I noticed that as I got better at reference my writing consultation skills for research essays improved.
The opposite is also true. Though I rarely read their writing, my research consultations with students often incorporate many of the same skills. I find myself asking questions about their research, discussing their topics with them, pointing out pitfalls they might encounter, suggesting alternative ways of looking at a topic that might be more fruitful for their research question (and thus their library research). I can do this because I’m trained to do it and have done it on and off for 15 years, and I also think that the students benefit more from it, rather than having a writing center that might be able to discuss ideas unrelated to possible paths of research, or a librarian who can discuss ways to find sources but doesn’t think of how these sources will be used in writing the research paper. It’s also why I’m my own librarian for my writing seminars, because I’ve found that my intimate knowledge of the subject and the expectations of the students allows me to give them the best research consultations. Often I’ve thought that librarians should help train the instructors and let the instructors train the students.
Academic writing and research are necessarily and fundamentally entwined, and the more we know about each the more we’ll be able to help students write good research essays.