So how about that Standard One

According to the ACRL Instruction Section’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (ACRL/IS ILCSHE for short) the first step to information literacy goes like this: the information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.

(Or, as it is usually described in the first-year courses I teach – choosing a topic.)

(The reason this clip is here – starts about 6 minutes in.  Remember the “Trask… radio … Trask … radio” scene?)

In the December 19th Chronicle (and again with behind the paywall) there’s a great little essay by Robert Hampel on how scholars choose their research topics.  I think there’s a lot in this short article for librarians to think about.  Hampel says that for years he advised his graduate students to find their topics this way – “Fill a gap in the literature, identify a problem that has not been studied adequately, and add a brick to the wall of knowledge.”

That really resonated with me, because that is exactly how I was told to come up with topics, from my first can-you-cut-it-as-a-grad-student seminar class to my thesis to my (nonexistent) dissertation.   What I like about this article is that Hampel started questioning that advice, thinking that the gap in the literature might provide an answer to why a research topic is worth doing, but on a process-level – that is not how most scholars identify their research topics.

By talking to a bunch of colleagues with years of research, he found that while they had a lot of different ways of generating the good research topic ideas – none of them used the browse the literature and look for gaps strategy.  That totally makes sense to me on a process level, that doesn’t seem like a way to spark new ideas.  Hampel grouped what he found into four main categories:

  1. New research comes from your old research – you’re never really done with a topic.  Every advance in understanding sparks new questions.
  2. Research questions come out of your life as you live it.  He calls this both “autobiographical” and “me-search.”
  3. Vygotsky!  Or, more precisely, the idea that by talking with others about research you come up with questions you would never come up with on your own.
  4. Topics that get you funding – or, more broadly, someone else says “a better understanding of topics X, Y, and Z is something that is valuable to me.”

I think these ideas, directed as they are at those who teach the future professoriate have resonance all the way down the academic line to the newest researchers in the picture.  It’d be a pretty rare first-year student who could use potential grant money as an incentive to choose a research topic, but any of the other strategies could be valuable ways for them to think about the choosing a topic step in the research process.

How often are undergraduates given the chance to meaningfully revisit a research topic?  We frequently encourage them to “choose a topic you’re interested in,” but does that translate into research that solves actual life problems?  And how often, do we build in social and collaborative work on the topic-generating stage?

I do think that each of these ideas is potentially valuable, but it would need to be dealt with much more substantively than “revisit this other paper” or “choose something you’re interested in.”  After all, no one wants students to turn the same paper in over and over, or to rewrite the same ideas.  We want students to choose topics they’re interested in, but sometimes the more interest they have before writing the paper, the harder it is for them to approach their research with a true disposition to critical thinking.

Hampel addresses this last point elegantly, I think – in talking about the academics he knows who draw their inspiration from their own lives he says that “[f]or those colleagues, their lives are inspiration, but not evidence.”

In the last term, I had the chance to work with two writing instructors at OSU who spent serious, intentional time talking about topic generation in a way that inspired a variety of students to choose topics they were genuinely curious about.  I do not know if that radically changed the quality of the final papers, but I do know that it improved the quality of those students’ questions about and engagement with the research process.

Female Science Professor asks – is this kind of thing even something we can teach?  We’re really talking here about a disposition towards curiosity, and is that even teach-able?  I’m not sure that I don’t agree with her about that.  But two points I think are important here -

The first is that we already do teach it – from first-years to grad students we already tell them how to find their research topics.  We might not, and we probably do not, do so at length or intentionally – but it’s a part of teaching people how to research and how to write about research.  Students ask how to do it, students have trouble doing it – so we teach it.  So that’s reason enough to be reflective about how we do it.

The second is from Hampel’s own conclusion :

If graduate students cannot see how senior scholars generate and manage their ideas, then their induction is incomplete. Our students dutifully take research-methods courses, but every graduate seminar should discuss the wide range of sources of creative work. Otherwise our students will think in terms of the assignments we give them, when they should really be thinking about the assignments they can give themselves: interesting topics for future study.

I like how he doesn’t come down on the side of telling people how to do it, but instead he advocates making room to discuss the many, many ways of doing it.  The sharing piece of this idea is important I think – in that Vygotskian way mentioned above.

There is more sharing about how this is done in the comments section at the Chronicle, and around the web:

But what I think is most important from that quotation is the first line – seeing how “senior scholars generate and manage their ideas.” This resonates with me not just for choosing a topic, but for all of those how to use, or even just appreciate, scholarship things that we want to teach about.  And this is where I think we definitely want to take the “graduate” modifier out, and just say “students.”  Our undergraduates also need to see what it is their professors do, what they like, what ideas they value, and how they use them.

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