In a couple of weeks I’ll start helping freshmen in the writing seminars with the library portion of their research essays. Inevitably, I see some students who are looking for the improbable source. There are all sorts of improbable sources.
I hear from my colleagues in the social sciences about students who want statistics on things no one keeps statistics on, or they want a data set that has already been compiled on the obscure topic they themselves want data for.
The improbable source I’m asked for most often comes from students in writing seminars working on relatively esoteric topics, topics that might only be a focus of interest for the recent PhD teaching the class. Typically, the students are armed with some theoretical readings about a topic, then are told to go out and find cultural objects or trends to apply those theories to. Somewhere, the lesson breaks down, though. My favorite is from a student a couple of years ago. She was taking a seminar on civic friendship, which is a relatively unstudied topic. She wanted to write a research essay about email. Thus, the inevitable request, "Can you help me find scholarly books and articles on how email is a form of civic friendship?"
I’m torn in my response to questions like this. Naturally, I want to help. But of course, I want to say! There’s a vast literature on the topic! Another part of me wants to chuckle at the naivete of these kids today. Oh my, how could they be so silly as to think something like that might exist! What are they teaching in the schools these days!
Of course I do neither, and instead explain the problem, which is that they want sources that already do their work for them. In some ways, the question makes a great teaching moment, because while it seems such a simple request, it opens a dialogue about what research is and is not possible, the place of a researcher in a scholarly conversation, the way trends in scholarship affect what other scholars write on, the duty of the researcher to create something new, etc. All of these are good lessons, even if they never need them again.
These questions also give me something enjoyable to look forward to, which is always a boon as the research paper deluge descends upon me.