Academic Research and Writing

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.

The Case for Careless Writing

Is there a case to be made for careless writing? In academia, we usually don’t think so. As a librarian, I try to help students get the sources they need to carefully research an argument, and as a writing teacher I try to help students learn to write careful and nuanced essays. As a writer, I’m not sure sure. I try to be careful and nuanced, but I also tend to focus on small topics, or small parts of large topics. Maybe I’d get more comments if I were more provocative and less careful, if I created some turbulence.

During lunch today, I read the introduction to an issue of Turbulence (which I’d never heard of; I found the link through Bookforum). The issue is a collection of articles on the topic of “Are We Winning?” The “We” is progressive social movements around the world. The introduction notes the differences in focus and mood between the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and now, and wonders if the left is still winning, or what it would mean to “win.” I didn’t read any of the articles, and probably won’t, mainly because I was struck by this paragraph:

“We’re not offering a packaged and polished set of answers to these or any other questions. The 14 articles in Turbulence come from different contexts, different parts of the world; they have different tones, different paces and they certainly don’t all agree with each other; and some are harder than others to read outside their context. But we think this unevenness, what some might call roughness, is useful. It’s sometimes hard to engage with a collection of texts which is too polished. You’ve no sooner exclaimed, ‘that’s wrong, I don’t agree with that at all!’ or ‘but what about X?’, than the author’s anticipated your objection in a footnote, or else the editors have directed you to another article which plugs the gap. On the other hand, rough edges provide handholds, something to grab onto. They provide a way into arguments. Maybe you’ll pull at a loose end and everything will unravel. But perhaps you’ll be able to weave something else with those threads. What we want to do is put out articles that help us to think new thoughts. To think and act differently.”

It could be that roughness is useful, but it still seemed to me a way to excuse bad writing and careless arguments. Eliminating unevenness, considering and responding to counter-arguments, backing up your argument with footnotes and proof — these are some of the hallmarks not only of academic writing but good argumentative prose in general. What the editors, who call themselves the “Turbulence Collective,” seem to be saying is that thoughtful, careful, substantiated writing is bad, that considering and responding to counterarguments is a problem because it supposedly doesn’t allow people to think and act. Can this really be the case? Are we really to approve and justify political writing that avoids all usual standards of argument and thought, regardless of the side that puts it forward? And what of research? Is research thus bad, because it might make you less willing to put forward arguments that you know are faulty because you’re read their refutation?

The home page says that “Turbulence is a journal-cum-newspaper that we hope will become an ongoing space in which to think through, debate and articulate the political, social, economic and cultural theories of our movements, as well as the networks of diverse practices and alternatives that surround them.” Is this, I wonder, how the thinking through is to be done? Is it better to put out unsubstantiated or ill considered, though passionate, opinions, because careful thought and argument don’t leave enough spaces for disagreement and discussion? Or is instead the case, as much academic writing assumes, that careful argument doesn’t eliminate the handholds, it just eliminates the useless or sloppy handholds? People disagree passionately with careful arguments as well, but they have to be more thoughtful in their disagreement.

On the other hand, isn’t that what usually occurs on blogs, especially the popular and provocative ones? I read one library blog that regularly gets dozens of comments on many posts, and passionate arguments break out in the comments section. But it’s a blog that seems designed to provoke, to leave what the editors of Turbulence call a handhold, to irritate some readers so much they can’t help but respond. I think this is a useful function of blogs, and I suppose of Turbulence as well, to bring a lot of voices together on a topic. But as a general editorial rule, it seems a way to justify lowering the tone of argumentative writing, especially in politics, and the tone is low enough already.

Changing Information Needs of Faculty

The latest Educause Review has an interesting article on “The Changing Information Services Needs of Faculty.” In it the authors report on a study of “attitudes and perceptions of academic collection development librarians and faculty toward the transition to an increasingly electronic environment.”

For the most part the perceptions of faculty are encouraging for any anxious librarians. Faculty value libraries highly for their collection development functions: buying materials and preserving them, especially in electronic formats. This hardly comes as a surprise to me, since buying stuff is one of my main functions for the faculty in the departments I serve, along with solving problems and explaining any library procedures that might be considered byzantine by the uninitiated.

One minor disagreement concerns the “consultative role” of librarians. “The consultative role of the librarian in helping faculty in their research and teaching is viewed as an important function by most librarians [I bet it is], but most faculty members do not put the same emphasis on this role of the library.” Again, not much of a surprise. I often get requests to track down hard to find resources or to purchase materials the library doesn’t have, but almost all of my research consultations are with students. Usually professors only contact me for help if they’re doing research out of their usual areas. Librarians who think they know more about a scholar’s research than the scholar does are often deluding themselves.

The major disagreement between librarians and faculty concerns the relevance of the library in the future. For example, “in the future, faculty expect to be less dependent on the library and increasingly dependent on electronic materials. By contrast, librarians generally think their role will remain unchanged and their responsibilities will only grow in the future.”

Some anxious librarians may question the future of the library, or whether libraries will be needed, especially since so much information and so many resources are online and more or less easily searchable. Why bother with the library?

One key problem is the meaning of “library.” I think the article uses the word “library” equivocally. The major disagreement may be that faculty expect to be less dependent on the library, while librarians expect their responsibilities to grow, but faculty and librarians may very well mean different things by “library” when they answer these questions. Faculty expect to be “increasingly dependent on electronic materials,” but who provides most of these electronic materials? The library, obviously.

By “library,” do we mean the library building, or even the library website as first stop portal to scholarly resources? If we do, then the library probably will become less relevant. Even some of the hard core humanities professors I know don’t come to the library if they can help it. They want everything available online, so they can work from anywhere. I can’t blame them, because I’m the same way. I don’t want to be tied to a particular place for research.

But the library as place is increasingly not what I and some other librarians mean by “library.” The library building is great, and will probably always be an important location for residential college campuses. Physical books will probably still be an important part of research, at least in the humanities, for a long time to come, and traditional library functions will survive for the time being. Personally, I get great satisfaction from wandering around a research library with millions of books, which may help explain why I’m a librarian. I’m not alone in this satisfaction, but the joys of wandering around a good research library are not the same as the joys of research and scholarship.

The “library” will eventually become a mostly virtual world, consisting to a large extent of “electronic materials.”. It’s only a matter of time, as much as some librarians try to fight it. Librarians care about the format of information, but researchers usually don’t; they care about the ease of access. However, that doesn’t mean that whatever the library becomes isn’t the library, or at least the functional equivalent for the library in scholarly research.

Academic libraries will be useful for what content they provide and for helping people find and use that content when they need help, just like they are now. Libraries buy and organize materials, even if the materials are all online. Perhaps scholars aren’t using the library website as their first portal to information, but even if they use Google Scholar or some equivalent the content is often available only because someone in some library has made a decision to purchase it or digitize it and a lot of people have worked to make it available. This stuff doesn’t just buy or digitize itself, and it doesn’t just organize itself, either. And if researchers need help using it, they will need the expertise of librarians, even if these librarians don’t sit at a reference desk or even in a building called a library.

Some librarians grow anxious with declining circulation or reference stats, or with the disappearance of traditional ways in libraries. In many ways, it’s the success of librarians and others to make so much information easily available that leads to the anxiety. We’re so successful we won’t have jobs anymore! For some reason, this doesn’t bother me, and as a relatively young librarian who has an interest in supporting serious scholarship I should probably be more anxious than some of my older colleagues. I’ve got at least 30 more working years ahead of me, and it would be nice to have a job for those years, but I’m not sure it will bother me if that job changes radically over the decades.

Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination on my part, but I can’t imagine a time when all relevant scholarly information is digitized, organized, freely available, and easily accessible to all, at least not a time in any immediate future. (If I can just make it to 2040, I’ll be safe!) And if that ever happens, I think that whatever World Brain the library evolves into might just be called a library, and the people who make it happen librarians.