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.

2 thoughts on “Academic Research and Writing

  1. I definitely see this in my own work, too. The difference is, I’m in a comp/rhet phd program and I have an MLS. The combination of the two thoroughly informs my approach to teaching researched writing and how I see researched writing projects that show up in our writing center.
    I think the Rochester project is fascinating – I saw a presentation based on the research at CCCC a year and a half ago.
    Do you know the book *Centers for Learning: Writing Centers And Libraries in Collaboration*?

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