Sunday, October 19, 2008

On Guiding Students Through the Research Process

But before I begin with my musings on this topic, a few side notes. 1. I did not accomplish much today at all. I don't care. It's my fall break, dammit, and I've got two days left for productivity. 2. My "recent posts" as well as the archive of the blog seem to have disappeared. I don't know why. Ew. And when I look at the template in internet explorer the header is all fucked up. I feel like evil sprites have attacked my blog. I may need to spend some quality time monkeying with the template, even though I don't want to do so. Caro, can you hear me? Would you like to redesign my blog? I'll be your best friend!

In my two senior-level classes, the time for helping students to conceive research projects for their major paper at the end of the semester has arrived. Yes, I begin doing this with them this early.

I did not always do this. Once upon a time, when I was young and naive, I thought they all got what went into doing a research paper, and I'd start talking to them about it in earnest about one month from the deadline, although I'd give them the assignment earlier. But what I realized when I did this was that the papers that I would receive would turn out to be much more of a mixed bag, and that some students didn't understand academic research - and academic research writing - at all. And so, in the service of reading much cooler papers (my own selfish desire) and of actually making them "get it" to whatever extent they can about what "academic research and writing" means and is, I now start at about midterm, giving them two full months of periodic instruction to get them to the Big Paper.

Yes, these are juniors and seniors. And yes, they need this, even in classes that aren't writing classes, even though they've taken writing classes.

First of all, let me note for the record that I don't resent having to take class time to do this. When I was young and naive, I used to resent it - I felt like by the time they reached the upper level somebody else should have taught them this crap. Also, I resented it because I knew that I was teaching lower-level students this stuff in my comp classes, and so I wondered whether I was the only person who was bothering to do so.

Until I started getting students from my comp classes in my upper-level lit classes. And they didn't know their ass from a hole in the ground either. (By the way, that's a favorite saying of Crazy's Mom, and I really do love when I get the chance to use it.) It was at this point that I took a step back and re-evaluated. See, if they didn't get it even when I'd taught it to them, or if they didn't intuit how to take what I taught them and to translate it into advanced disciplinary research, perhaps that meant that they really needed instruction in the advanced stuff later on, when they'd be ready to get it. And maybe that wasn't something to resent, and was no reflection on students' abilities or on the quality of lower-level instruction, ultimately, but rather it meant that this stuff that I have internalized isn't actually self-evident or that even the basics don't necessarily penetrate on the first go-around.

The thing that I've realized most in beginning this early is that most students really don't have a clue about how to generate research questions independently. Thus, if their papers come out crappy, it's not that they are crappy writers most of the time. It's that because they didn't have a strong beginning they don't come out with a strong end product. So I find that most of what I do in the early stages is offering up lots of suggestions about ways to go. I ask a lot of leading questions, and I focus on getting them to narrow down further than they think that they should or that is reasonable. All of this is second-nature to me now, but for them, it's the first time often that they've ever done this, so it's not natural at all.

The next thing that I find I do a lot of is helping them to find sources. All but the best and the brightest have trouble with this, even after library instruction. They're not used to configuring their ideas in terms of search terms, and they're not used to using the many resources that the library offers. This goes hand in hand with the devising of the topic, because lame topics (I've found) come out of wanting a topic that "has enough" sources. The issue is, when a writer chooses a lame topic "that will work," a lame paper results. Often they think that there "won't be enough" on what they're interested in. It's a revelation to them when I can help them find those sources, and usually in 15 minutes or less.

Now, is this hand-holding? I'd say no. I'd say it's mentoring. See, the thing is, I'm not sure what the value is of expecting them to "get it" without demonstrating how to do it. And the fact that some students can get it without that mentoring doesn't mean that they don't benefit from it, too.

I guess I'm thinking about all of this because I've been thinking a lot of late about how my research and teaching connect, not just in terms of content but also in terms of form. See, the thing is, part of what my PhD meant was that I learned all of these techniques for how to produce scholarship. If I don't pass those on to my students, am I really teaching them as well as I could be? And what are the best ways for teaching them those techniques without insisting that they become little versions of me (a thought that I detest).

Example: a student of mine approached me to make an appointment for a meeting because "professors either love my writing or they hate it, and I need to know which kind you are." Talking to him further, I found that some professors responded very positively because he was playing with language in certain (I'd say out-dated) ways, while others called what he was doing "bad writing." I asked him for an example, and he gave me one. I responded: "Well, I would say as a rule that I would encourage you not to do that sort of thing." He asked me why. I elaborated: "Because it's not 1982, and you're not Derrida." He didn't seem terribly happy with this response. But then I went further. "I'm not saying that as a hard-and-fast rule. What I'm saying is that you need a reason for doing that sort of thing beyond that it's a cool thing to do. If you've got a reason in terms of the content that makes that sort of thing essential, it can be effective. But if you're doing it just because it's cool, then readers will think you're a joke. I'm happy to talk to you about your writing, and I promise you that I'll never just say that something is 'bad writing.' But I'm going to tell you what I think isn't effective, and when I do, I'll tell you why." He seemed happy with that, or as happy as he could be. See, now that's an example of me passing on to a student something that I only learned as an advanced grad student, something about form and not about content. Sure, I could have not had that conversation, and then I could end up unhappy with the paper that he turned in, but where would that leave either of us? And yes, I'm meeting with the student to go over his draft with him and to give him suggestions.

So anyway, this is a roundabout way of asking all of you to weigh in: how do you pass on the "scholarly tricks of the trade" to your students? Where is the line between hand-holding and mentoring? To what extent is it our responsibility to give students not just the content but also the form?


Lesboprof said...

"Because it's not 1982, and you're not Derrida."

I am LMAO right now. Very nice.

k8 said...

I'm glad to hear that you guide students through the research process (not that it is static - just like in writing, there are many processes). I have an MLS and one of my concentration areas for that degree was information literacy instruction, so integrating info literacy and writing instruction (from my comp/rhet perspective) always feels natural to me.

Just like with anything else, students need to practice researching and asking research questions. I think a lot of instructors either forget this or don't consider it. I'm glad that you take this part of instruction seriously. This is one of those areas where I really do see a lot of similarities between research instruction and writing instruction in terms of student uptake (and instructor understanding of that uptake).

As for getting students to think about constructing research questions: I often go really old-school and teach a simplified version of Aristotle's Topics. Teaching students the types of questions to ask about a subject really opens up the ways they can approach it. It also tends to help them construct search strategies in both primary and secondary sources.

Yeah, I gotta pull the hard-core rhetoric into the research process.

btw, I laughed at the Derrida comment too.

k8 said...

If you're interested in an oldie-but-goodie short article that discusses the differences between novice and expert researchers (undergrads and professors), this article does a nice job:

Leckie, Gloria J. (1996) “Desperately seeking citations: uncovering faculty assumptions
about the undergraduate research process.” Journal of Academic Librarianship
May 201-208.

I will admit that I also like the Madonna movie reference in the title. It should be in Academic Search Elite, but if you'd like a copy I have a pdf of it.

Terminal Degree said...

There's an art to teaching the research paper, isn't there? The longer I do it, the more I realize that it has to be broken down into tiny steps.

I spend a full day explaining the paper in class: how to use reference materials, how to find a topic, how to research topics,

We start with the topic proposal. They have to give me a working title, a thesis sentence, and a short paragraph. I also require an annotated bibliography of a minimum of 5 sources.

I read them all, make comments, approve or not, and suggest other sources.

Once students have written their paper, they MUST take it to an English prof or English major in the writing center, get suggestions, and rewrite. (Most of our students need this step badly, even though they will have taken 4 semesters of English already before this point.)

Next step: students turn in their paper. I review and meet with them.

Final step: students revise (yes, again) and resubmit. I give points for each step (10 for the proposal, 5 for a "how to cite rather than plagiarize" assignment, 10 for the writing center, 25 for the paper, and 50 for the rewrite.)

It's a lot of work for me and for them. But I keep seeing improvements, so I'll keep doing it.

The biggest struggle I found this year was that students would tell me there was "nothing on my topic" because they couldn't find a BOOK in the library on that specific item. I think they're looking for the "exact same" title so they can condense a single book into a 5-page paper. It's driven me crazy.

Good Enough Woman said...

This is so interesting (and enlightening) for me. I teach English at a community college, and I teach literature classes as well as class that includes a research paper (a.k.a. The Research Paper). I've been doing it for ten years, so I've developed some strategies, and most of them involve a lot of baby steps and a lot of individual attention to their topic, inquiry process, and especially their ability (or lack thereof) to imagine the opposing arguments. I've also started teaching my comp classes with some kind of theme, so that by the time they write their paper, they've got some context for the "conversation" that they are entering.

But what's really great (or sad, not sure which) about your post is that your upper-level students struggle with the same problems as mine. This is great because it really helps me clarify my expectations and it reinforces some of what I've been doing and encourages me to take those strategies even further.

The Derrida line is great. I've said similar things (although not so well delivered) to students who either a) try to make their writing complicated in order to make it sound better, or b) try to write like Victorians.

Thanks for the post, Dr. Crazy!

sdc said...

I learned a lot of my writing and research strategies through being intimidated and terrified at the start of my MA, particularly when one of my profs called me into her office about my paper and told me she'd just gone through my file to find out how I got into grad school in the first place!

I'm doing phd coursework right now and have been annoyed by the details students are given about how to write a research paper (because, like duh, I already know) but I also think it is really important that someone explain the process of research and writing, even at the graduate level, so that students don't have to learn the backwards way (by learning through mistakes only, and no direction; kind of like the hot-cold game). It really is another language to learn, this academic-speak.

Doctor Pion said...

I'm with lesboprof on the Derrida comment. My hat is off to you if you actually said that to him. I'll also suggest "That is so Twentieth Century".

Wish I had time to write on the subject of the research process. I learned much of what you write about as a senior in HS from a teacher who did pretty much what you describe as your current approach. The key thing for me to learn was starting early to block out the Big Picture.

My students are lower on the food chain, but I use a mix of modeling and guidance. They probably need more modeling on the task of writing a lab report, but I only have so much time.

What I will close with is that the best of them have the most trouble with being succinct. They can write pages and pages, but struggle with a short abstract or precis of the main results. That is, of course, a really hard thing to do well - but that aspect of memo writing and pitch making is crucial in many areas of post-academic endeavor.

Doctor Pion said...

memo to good enough woman:

What you learned is also what I learned from Dr. Crazy about my CC physics students. She works on critical reading in junior classes, and I work on it in my sophomore classes. I'm sure our composition teachers work on it also.

My strategy, which you might find useful, is to emphasize the "you will do this again" aspect of the subject. It helps double if you save any e-mails you get from former students about how learning X made it easier to write paper Y in a later class. Investments are seen as valuable when they are guaranteed to pay off in reduced effort in the future.