As I turn to doing more online work with my students, this is the problem I will try to solve: how can we give undergraduate students some sense of how an experienced scholar evaluates secondary sources when doing humanities research?

Some decisions are easy. You find an article relevant to your topic but no so relevant that it leaves you nothing to say.  The article is in a well-known journal, was published recently, and pops out of JSTOR in a convenient PDF.  Bingo.

As we all know, however, most cases involve subtle choices among many available sources. If a student of mine is researching Shakespeare, Austen, or Joyce, “many” becomes an understatement.  To the extent that scholars cope successfully with such situations, they do so using heuristics–the shortcuts and rules of thumb that come from experience.

We give students heuristics, too, but these frequently differ from our own.  Check to see whether your source is peer-reviewed, we might say.  But if a major scholar has published a piece by invitation in a collection edited by another major scholar, we don’t hesitate: we use that.  Rely mainly on recent sources, we might say–but, um, some of the most important pieces will be decades old, or older.  We evaluate reputations of journals, presses, series, editorial boards.  We remember conference papers and journal submissions we have reviewed.  Almost every important heuristic I use relies on information unavailable to even an excellent undergraduate.

I want, therefore, to develop assignments for undergraduates that allow groups of students to evaluate sources collectively, linking the results in ways that produce new kinds of heuristics–not those of experienced scholars but ones that help us manufacture a scholar’s-eye view of a research field.  I’ll be posting more on how I hope this process will work.

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6 thoughts on “How we do research

  1. Found you through the Chronicle’s Teaching Carnival, and I just wanted to jump in on the discussion. Kudos to you for tackling the problem instead of just observing and bemoaning! As an information literacy librarian who is also a liaison to the College of Liberal Arts at my institution and a former English major, I completely understand and sympathize. I look forward to seeing what you come up with, and I hope to take some lessons from what you do that I can use in my own work.

    I don’t know how you structure your course, but my immediate thought is to include some of those fundamental but older articles in their assigned course reading. When those were included in my readings, I always appreciated it. I liked being shown what the big players said, and I really loved being encouraged to critique it! I know it’s hard to fit these into an undergrad course, especially a survey, but it’s also not fair to the students to expect them to do these kinds of critiques and perform these writing tasks without showing them what the product should look like.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Ruth. We are definitely thinking along the same lines! I just put up a new post about library resources, and it’s built around precisely those “fundamental but older articles” you mention. I’d love to know what you think.

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