The Library and the Research Essay

I’ve been wanting to write about the Citation Project, a recent study about first-year research essays that found, in the words of Inside Higher Education, “research papers written in first-year composition courses at 15 colleges … simply copy chunks of text from the sources they cite without truly grasping the underlying argument, quality or context.” Barbara Fister responded already to this in not one, but two posts arguing that the first year research paper should be abandoned. That bothered me, because lately every time I want to write about something, I find that Barbara has already written about it and said more or less what I would have said, but better. I’m not sure that the research paper should be abandoned unless unlikely reforms come about, but maybe we should change our expectations of what it’s supposed to do. It seems to me there’s two components to this argument. The first is to determine what we mean by research, because that’s a shifty term in academia. The second is to ask what research has to do with the first-year research essay. If the goal of the first year research essay assignment is to teach students how to understand, evaluate, and integrate sources into their writing, then it might be a good idea to remove the library research component from the traditional assignment.

Let’s begin with some definitions of research from the OED:

2.  a. Systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject. In later use also: original critical or scientific investigation carried out under the auspices of an academic or other institution.

 b. Investigation undertaken in order to obtain material for a book, article, thesis, etc.; an instance of this. 

c. The product of systematic investigation, presented in written (esp. published) form.

2a is the definition of research that most fits for the sciences and social sciences. In this sense, research involves investigating some object or set of objects–stars, rocks, mice, humans–asking questions, conducting experiments, forming and testing hypotheses, etc. Then, the results of this research are reported, which gives us definition 2c. In Wayne Booth et al.’s The Craft of Research, we get a similar definition. For them, research is gathering information to answer a question that solves a problem, and the solution to that problem is to be reported in written form.

The humanities work a little differently. In an article about humanities research practices, Rebecca Green* (quoting Stephen Stoan**), notes that a book or article in the sciences “reports the results of one’s research,” but in the humanities it “is the results of one’s research.” There is no separate research that one writes up afterwards. There may be an object of study, but the way in which it is studied differs from the sciences. Consider an essay on Hamlet. It might contain an analysis of the text and an interpretation of the meaning of the play, but literary scholars rarely study Hamlet the way a biologist would study a mouse. In the humanities, the product of research is part of the process of research, and without the written form there would be nothing at all. Something like definition 2b is a step in this process, but it’s not the entirety of the research. A scientific experiment can theoretically be replicated, but an interpretation of Hamlet can only be repeated.

This leaves us with disparate definitions even for the work of the professionals, those professors employed by colleges and universities and expected to do “research.” Biologists, economists, historians, literary scholars, and philosophers are all supposedly doing “research,” but the processes and results couldn’t be more different. Research, in the broadest sense, could just mean “whatever those professors in research universities do,” whether it’s studying planets or interpreting poems. Research can be broadened to include analysis, argument, and interpretation, three of the key features of work in the humanities. Some people make the more dubious distinction between “research” and “opinion,” as in everything that doesn’t involve some study of objects in a distanced and quantitative way is mere opinion. I’ve encountered this strange attitude many times in librarianship. Recently an article I wrote that is clearly an example of applied ethics was called an “opinion” article, as if there’s no difference between opinion on the one hand and analysis and argument on the other. While I interpret this as an ignorance scholarly genres, the more generous interpretation would be that I write for librarians but outside conventional library science genres.  Regardless of my inadequacies as an LIS researcher, it should be clear that we have different working definitions of research that depend upon the discipline of the researcher. The key requirement for them all is that they supposedly make some new contribution to knowledge, no matter how small.

How does this relate to whatever it is students are supposed to be doing for the first-year research essay that so many of them are assigned? I suggest not much. The most applicable of the definitions offered above is 2b, investigation to obtain material for an article. Rarely, as far as I know, do first-year students writing a research essay for a composition class do research in the scientific sense, that is, actually study first hand the object of investigation. They don’t use labs, and seldom conduct surveys or do field work or anything that might count as original research in the sciences or social sciences. Occasionally they do, but this is atypical. Thus, most of the “research” they do involves gathering material about a subject through library searches, Internet searches, footnote chasing, professor recommendations and the like.  For the most part, the best chance of writing a research essay they have is following a humanities model where their analysis, interpretation, and argument are themselves part of the product of research. Otherwise, given the time constraints and the limited knowledge of their subject, most essays would be merely reporting the research of others. If indeed students are merely cutting and pasting from sources without understanding what they’re reading, then maybe that’s what most students are doing anyway. 

If we think of the research essay as a report of the results of research, then our typical approach to research and the research essay is disconnected from the method of a lot of the essays themselves. Librarians are most helpful at the gathering sources stage of research, and it’s easy to treat that as the research, and the essay as reporting the results of that research. However, the gathering of sources is research only in the broadest sense; it’s not research at all in the sense understood in the sciences, and only the first and easiest step in the sense understood in the humanities, and, because most writing instructors are trained in the humanities, of most research essays assigned to first-year students. Typically, for the research essay, students are supposed to write using sources and have a thesis and an argument. They need not only to find and evaluate their sources, but integrate them into an essay and also have something original to say about them. They have to make an arguable claim about some topic using their sources in some way, and they have a lot of trouble.

So when students are writing that first research essay, they’re trying to learn severa
l skills simultaneously, crammed into a few weeks’ time. They must learn to find appropriate sources, understand and evaluate them, and integrate them into a coherent essay making an arguable claim that is related to but not supplied by the sources themselves, and they typically have 3-4 weeks to do this about topics they likely never encountered before, and almost certainly have never studied in any academic way.  And they have to do all this while undertaking no research in the scientific sense, and without the broad and deep contextual knowledge necessary for scholars in the humanities. Considering all this, it’s no wonder the average research essay is mediocre by scholarly standards, and why so many students gravitate to the same lame topics, and use the Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center instead of a regular index, as discussed by these librarians. It’s also no wonder that so many of them apparently don’t understand what they’re reading very well.

On top of this, consider who teaches most writing courses and how: graduate students who are and should be concerned with their own studies and dissertations or adjuncts teaching several courses a semester for relatively low pay and no benefits. This is because at a large number of universities writing instruction isn’t taken seriously. It’s easy to tell this about the institution you work for. If your institution has brand new graduate students from various disciplines with a week’s training teaching first year writing courses on their own, then that institution doesn’t take writing instruction seriously. Everyone pays lip service to how important writing is and how much students need to learn how, but when a large university with an inadequate budget is shepherding thousands of students through first year writing courses, then quality and care start to suffer. Writing is often taught under near factory conditions, and when an overworked grad student or adjunct is facing a stack of forty or fifty or a hundred student research papers, how could anyone really expect the best possible instruction and feedback.

Given this reality, it might seem like I’m making a case against assigning research essays to first year students. After all, they’re not really writing research essays, but merely “research” essays at best. The gathering of sources is fitful and minimal; there’s no mastery of any subject or contribution to knowledge; often enough there’s little in the way of originality or good argument. So what’s the point? The point is, they have to start somewhere, even if the result is merely a replica of a research essay. That is, unless things change. But things aren’t going to change.

If  there is to be reform, I do agree with Barbara in a sense. I see a case for eliminating the research paper in the sense librarians understand it. The Citation Project isn’t about library research. It’s about writing from sources. Maybe it would be better if the library research part were removed completely from first year composition classes. One problem with using the research essay to teach about evaluating them and writing from sources is that it’s usually the one essay where the instructor hasn’t read all of the sources. You can’t evaluate how well students have understood and integrated sources into their essays without having some familiarity with the sources themselves. Writing instructors could eliminate the library research portion of the research essay, give students 15-20 sources about a given topic with which the instructors are intimately familiar, and then tell the students to use at least a set number of those sources to write an argumentative essay. Except for the source gathering part of the paper, this would include all of the higher order “information literacy” skills, and would allow instructors to better evaluate the use and understanding of sources.

By  separating the source-gathering from those first research essays, and not expecting freshmen to learn how to use libraries and find sources when they’re still not able to write academic essays using sources, instructors would have more time to help students evaluate the sources they do have. That separation could mean separate courses in library research or more focus on helping upper-level students. That support would be best working systematically with all the students in a department to teach them research skills in a discipline. It could also mean creating separate Information Literacy Across the Curriculum programs (though that wouldn’t be my name of choice!), perhaps aligned at later stages with Writing Across the Curriculum programs.  Neither type of program seems to have achieved wide and lasting success, and I’m skeptical about ever getting widespread support in higher education for either type of initiative, but that would indeed be better than what most students get now. Or there could be a two semester writing sequence like some places have, with any library involvement coming in the second semester.

Even creating a mediocre first research essay in the way commonly assigned requires learning the basics of a lot of skills. Finding a topic, understanding that interesting topics are necessarily contested topics, navigating a library, rudimentary database and Internet searching, crafting a thesis, dealing with arguments and counterarguments, all the while learning enough about a new topic in a short time. Having steered a few hundred students through this process over the years, it’s not surprising at all that they don’t read and understand and integrate their sources perfectly. It’s a wonder to me how many manage to come out with ten reasonably coherent pages that have some relation to their thesis. And yet, they have to start somewhere. Scholars don’t spring fully formed from the head of Zeus. Maybe it’s too much. Maybe first year writing courses should focus on writing and evaluating sources, and postpone library research instruction until students have more mastery of academic writing.

*Green, Rebecca, “Locating Sources in Humanities Scholarship: The Efficacy of following Bibliographic References.” The Library Quarterly 70: 2 (2000): 201-229. 204.

**Stoan, Stephen K. “Research and Information Retrieval among Academic Researchers: Implications for Library Instruction.” Library Trends 39 (Winter 1991): 238-58.