Neutrality and Research Help

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog post AL Direct linked to on Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions from the relatively new blog Letters to a Young Librarian. (I hadn’t heard of the blog before, but after a quick skim of the back posts added it to my reader.) The post proposes ways to handle questions where students are “looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support.” The advice is practical, and I’m not discounting it. It’s not necessarily what I would do myself, but reference is an art, not a science. However, a couple of statements in the post have been nagging at me since I first read them, possibly because, as happens often enough, they sound like solid librarian orthodoxy and I completely disagree with them. Let’s take them in turn.

“As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn’t going to work. I’m there to provide objective information access….”

That does indeed sound like the orthodox librarian policy. For “objective,” I substitute the perhaps more common term “neutral.” The librarian should be neutral in providing information. After all, according to Article II of the Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Librarians aren’t supposed to take sides in a debate when helping readers find information, or refuse to help find information on topics they disagree with. I agree with this, but I don’t think it means I can’t tell students their topic won’t work. I’ve told numerous students over the years their topics won’t work. If there’s no evidence supporting their thesis (or in my case usually no scholarly debate about their odd topic at all) that I can find after the most rigorous searching, then the thesis won’t work. Research essays should insert themselves into a scholarly debate at some level, and if there isn’t a scholarly debate, then there’s no essay. If there’s no scholarly debate as well as no reasoning or evidence behind a thesis, students don’t have to abandon the topic completely, but they will have to adjust their thesis so they can defend it in a scholarly research essay that demands at least a modicum of reasoning and evidence. I don’t mind telling them that because I don’t think it’s my job with students to provide objective access to information as such. It’s my job to teach them how to do academic research.

In practical terms, I might turn this into a series of question: What prompted you to want to write on this topicn? Did you read something supporting it? Hear about it somewhere? What evidence have you gathered so far? What reasons do you have for holding this position? All those questions get at the core of the problem in a constructive way. I want to know how they got to the point they’re at now, where they’re coming to the librarian asking for a few sources to support a position they arrived at without any support at all, because I want to know where they’ve gone wrong in the research process and begin there. If students are asking for sources to support an argument they want to make but don’t already have some evidence for, something has gone wrong with the research process. It’s broken. That’s not the way research works, and it’s part of my job to make that clear to students.

Which leads me to the second statement: “this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.”

Again, this seems like something librarians should be willing to do, but it’s not. It is never my job to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument. Not helping guide students to scholarly sources to support their arguments doesn’t mean I abandon my neutrality or my duty to aid their research. It’s just that my job is to educate them as well as guide them. The post was about politicized questions, and thus the desired objectivity was implied to be about the political position of the student’s claim. But one can be neutral about politics without being neutral about process. It doesn’t matter what claim the student wants to make an argument for–whether it’s about global warming or the symbolic meaning of tea cozies in contemporary Lithuanian poetry–scholars don’t pick a claim and then go find sources to support it. They research a general topic and go where the argument leads them, or at least they should. Hence some of my earlier questions. What led you to want to make that particular claim? If you pulled a thesis out of nowhere, then you need to back up and read more about the topic before you can possibly write a research essay.

Research (in the humanities at least, which usually includes the type of first-year writing course research essay I think is being addressed) is a recursive process. Find a general topic of interest. Read some general sources. Formulate a research question or hypothesis based on that reading. Read some more specific sources to answer the question or test the hypothesis. Narrow your topic to a thesis based on your interpretation of the available sources, then argue that thesis using whatever evidence you have to defend it and critiquing evidence for the other side. Without doing the preliminary reading on a topic, students have no reason to assume the thesis they want to argue has any merit whatsoever. Furthermore, one can’t make a good argument, especially on a “politicized” topic, without understanding both one’s own position and the opposite position. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with a student’s thesis. The thesis itself is irrelevant. It’s about process, not substance.

Let’s consider a hypothetical topic, global warming. It could be anything, but I’ll stick with a politicized topic since I don’t know anything about tea cozy symbolism in Lithuanian poetry. Possible research questions might include: Is the earth really warming? If it is warming, is human action contributing to that warming? If the earth is warming, what will be the consequences? Will the consequences be dire? If the dire consequences predicted are based on models, how sound are the models?  If human action is contributing to that warming, to what extent? If the earth is warming, and if human action could slow or stop this warming, and if that would be a good thing, what are the economic costs now and in the future of that action? All of these are legitimate research questions to begin an essay with, and all leave plenty of room for various political interpretations. But a student in question might say to a librarian, “I want five scholarly sources for my research essay that prove global warming doesn’t exist.” (If they said they wanted five sources that proved global warming did exist, I wouldn’t address that directly, either.) Regardless of the initial approach, the response should be the same. “I can help you find numerous, recent, peer-reviewed scholarly sources on various aspects of your topic. You should then read them, evaluate their arguments, and position your own claims in relation to them.”

It doesn’t matter what the end result is, and over the years as a writing teacher and librarian I’ve guided students through the research of theses I found reprehensible. Nevertheless, it’s not important what students argue; it just matters how they argue it. It’s similar to the process of peer-review. Peer-reviewed scholarly sources can sometimes radically disagree on significant topics, but it only matters for our purposes that they meet a standard of argumentative or methodological rigor. The same should go for student research essays, and we shouldn’t feel bad about saying so when appropriate.

6 thoughts on “Neutrality and Research Help

  1. This is great advice for someone working reference. I appreciate your distinction between “neutral” and “objective” and your insights are definately to keep in mind with students doing research.

  2. Pingback: The Pitfalls of Political Librarianship | Sense & Reference

  3. I have a lot of sympathy for your point of view, but also some for the view you’re arguing against. Take your statement, for instance: “Again, this seems like something librarians should be willing to do, but it’s not. It is never my job to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.” We don’t always have the freedom to make our job conform to our preconceptions. For example, I can imagine (I might have even had this happen) a student saying, “I’ve been assigned the Con side of a debate; I have to argue for this particular thesis, and find some scholarly sources to support it.” In such a case, I think it is your job to find sources to support the student’s argument, or at least to do your best to find them. Or, on a different occasion, you say to a student, “How did you arrive at your thesis?” and the student says, “Well, I know the opposing thesis seems more plausible, but I have a strong feeling about my thesis, and I want to see how far I can go with it.” I agree with you that it’s preferable to devise a thesis from doing research and objectively examining the evidence, but sometimes things don’t always go that way, and if a student has been assigned to support a certain position, or has a strong feeling about a thesis, or just wants to play devil’s advocate, I’m willing to work with that, and I think librarians should generally. At the very least, it might be a good exercise in argumentation and evidence gathering. For example, the student might want to challenge some of the evidence gathering techniques used by the “stronger” side. Finally, your idealized view of the research process seems to skirt over the fact that sometimes people who are equally intelligent and equally well-informed sometimes draw opposing conclusions (especially in the humanities, like philosophy). So if a student wants help in finding scholarly sources to support a thesis, under certain conditions, a librarian should be willing to do exactly that.

  4. Paul, you make good points. I was definitely talking about students who had been assigned a research essay, from which category I would exclude any assignments (such as debate topics) in which a student has been assigned to defend a particular side (though I don’t see how one can defend a given position with any authority unless one understands the opposition position, but I realized that’s not what debaters as such do). I’ve never dealt with a student who had such an assignment, but I don’t think I would handle it the same way. If the object is merely to find debating points without consideration of other positions, I would probably point the student to one of those pro/con guides rather than attempt to engage the student in deeper research.

    I’m not sure what to make of the “strong feeling” about a thesis without the examination of any related evidence. Unless they are based on completely irrelevant information (e.g., the teaching of their parents or pastor), I don’t see how one can have a strong feeling about a thesis without having read up on the topic at least a little bit. If their feeling is based on nothing more than their untutored opinion or the indoctrination of their parents, for example, it’s part of my job to shake them out of their intellectual complacency. On the other hand, if they have already done some research, such a feeling might be justified, but the goal would still be to examine relevant evidence, not just load up one side of the argument.

    And far from idealized, I think my view of the research process is how the research process not only should, but often does, work. Of course intelligent and educated people disagree with one another, which is why I noted that I focus on method and not substance. I don’t expect Peter Singer and Robert George (to take two prominent examples from my campus) to agree on abortion, but I would expect them both in their academic writing to adhere to certain standards of argumentation and evidence, and I would expect them and most academics to have reached their conclusions after at least some consideration of opposing arguments.

    Anyway, under certain very specific situations, I’d agree that the librarian should be willing just to find sources to support a thesis. I just think those situations are very limited in academia and have very little to do with academic research and writing.

  5. Thank you for this post. It will help me in future situations where I am asked to find information that supports a specific side of an argument. I was recently asked by a student to help them find statistic and evidence that supported that seat belts were not necessary and didn’t improve safety. I just couldn’t convince her that she needed to look at all of the research and then decide her POV. She was unwilling to acknowledge that there just weren’t many statistics or much research that really supported that seat belts should not be used. And what we did find was not really scholarly information.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful response to my comments, Wayne. I think our area of disagreement is very small, if it exists at all. I was mainly responding to the unqualified statement “It is never my job to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument” taken out of context. I was thinking of some fairly unusual cases, like defending a particular side in a debate. I was also thinking of a case where a student has actually done a good job of researching a particular issue and has settled on a thesis and various reasons for it, and has been surprised by the lack of evidence against it. This surprise has lead the student to think that his research might be flawed and that he might be missing some good arguments that oppose his view, and to seek the help of a librarian in finding sources that argue for the view opposing his own. By asking the question in this way (for evidence in favor of the opposing thesis), the student gives the librarian a way to focus his or her information search. Of course, the librarian might conclude that the student’s research was solid and there really wasn’t much support for the thesis opposing the student’s.

    I basically agree that, as an academic librarian, part of my job is to teach students the proper approach to research: getting familiar with a particular topic area, developing a thesis, exploring the evidence for and against the thesis, revising or even abandoning the thesis in light of the evidence, etc. But if a student comes to me and asks “I’m trying to find sources to support the thesis that…”, instead of the more common, “I’m trying to find sources on the topic…”, this already makes me think that the student has a special reason for wanting to defend a particular topic, not that his or her approach to the research process has gone off the rails. I would typically try to answer the student’s question as he or she framed it, and in the course of working with the student, try to uncover why the student framed his or her question in just this way. But this is a pretty minor issue in attitudes toward student questions. There are some big issues in teaching students research that this discussion brings to mind, such as being careful not to give students the impression that there’s no real fact of the matter as to whether a thesis is true, there’s just a “rhetorical” presentation of evidence; i.e. just because smart people can provide reasons for opposing views doesn’t mean that neither of them is wrong. (In a discussion of scholarly disagreement, I could see how students could get this impression.) But this is a topic for another day.

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