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.