Research after writing

Here’s a question that has bugged me for a long time: how can we teach research skills at the introductory level? Or, even trickier, how can we teach research in a non-disciplinary skills course at the introductory level? This semester, I’m trying out a new answer: teaching research by having students research papers they’ve already written.

Every first-semester Grinnell student takes a class we call the Tutorial: a content-based introduction to college-level skills in writing, reading, discussion, presentation, information literacy, and more. (The course is famously overloaded with priorities.) My versions of the course emphasize writing skills, and in the past, I have chosen not to do much with research beyond quotation and citation skills and an introduction to our library facilities; that is, I have covered information literacy rather than independent research skills, leaving the latter to upper-level courses. In thinking about adding a research component for Tutorial, I have always gotten stuck on the problem of assigning research when students cannot read enough to get a strong sense of a research field. Under such circumstances, how can I avoid turning the “research” into the reading of a few semi-random sources, chosen for their vague relationship to a developing paper topic?

This semester, I will try a new approach: building research into the revision of papers. The students will assemble annotated bibliographies of secondary sources for the course’s final portfolios, and they will choose the readings based on issues that arise in my initial responses to their papers. Because the course is portfolio-based, we can identify areas in which secondary sources would help amplify and refine a given argument. The students’ research will thus have a sense of purpose often lacking in preliminary bibliographies: they will go to secondary sources to solve specific problems. Here is the assignment. Comments are most welcome. If this approach works well, I will work to generalize its application to other introductory courses.

Collaborative, interactive student bibliographies: a vision

I’ve posted my thoughts about how we do research and structuring the use of library resources.  The next step I want to take in teaching the research process is to create new ways of consolidating and reshaping the information my students gather when they write annotated bibliographies.

My first attempt at doing something like this, in 2004, involved a summer project with six students working on The Transatlantic 1790s.  That project involved my first experience programming dynamic, database-backed websites; I frantically learned just enough PHP/MySQL to make the site work while my students wrote the content.  The bibliography they compiled had some limited but useful search functions.   Ever since then, I have been pondering ways to brush up my programming skills so that an enhanced form of searchable, customizable bibliographies could become a regular part of my upper-level undergraduate teaching.

The students in my Ulysses seminar are creating the raw materials for a more advanced version of this kind of bibliography.  They are working this semester to compile hyperannotations–treatments of secondary works that include detailed summaries, thematic references, key source texts, and line references from Ulysses.  These materials will allow their bibliographies to be collected and filtered, so researchers can find secondary and theoretical materials that deal with the Circe episode, or Irish nationalism, or Bakhtin.  This collaborative bibliography can then become a skeleton upon which to build online projects (as did the Transatlantic 1790s students), and subsequent generations of students in the seminar can learn from and build on the current work.  I hope that this way of compiling and displaying bibliographical information will address some of the problems I raised in my recent posts on research.

The students are doing their part.  It’s up to me to create the digital environments that make the most of their work.

Teaching research: one way of structuring the use of library resources

My last post concerned the problem of teaching undergraduates how to do humanistic research, when so much of an experienced scholar’s process relies on experience-based heuristics that undergraduates can’t use.

My current answer to one part of that question is expressed in a handout I have used for a few years and recently webified.  It is a guide to finding secondary sources for a research paper in English.

At its heart is a journey backwards and forwards in time.  I suggest using recent bibliographies and critical pieces to identify keystone texts, the older critical works that did most to shape current debates. Those keystone texts, in turn, provide search terms that help structure searches of full-text databases.

I hope interested students, faculty, and librarians will have a look at the guide and let me know what they think.  I’m always tinkering.

How we do research

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.