Research is not a basic skill (neither is writing)

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

So I don’t know how noticeable it is, but the tag line I chose for this blog is “Research is not a basic skill.” This has also been the title of various presentations I’ve done related to my article “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study.”

As tag lines go, it’s not the catchiest or the cutest but I chose it because if you come to this blog and you leave only remembering one thing, I want it to be that: that research is not a basic skill.

Here are the details on why that matters.

Naming What We Know

A lot of my work has been influenced by Linda Adler-Kassner, Elizabeth Wardle, and their collaborators in the book Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. In the book’s introduction, Adler-Kassner and Wardle talk about how writing is often viewed by non-experts as a basic skill. Something that you either have a talent for, or you don’t. Something that you learn once and you’re done.

Of course, writing is not a basic skill. Sure, there are basic skills associated with writing like spelling and grammar and mechanics. But the goals and motivations and conventions of writing are going to be different depending on the rhetorical situation. So, the way you write a research essay for a class isn’t going to be the same as the way you write a blog post or a professional report or newspaper article or any other kind of writing. Adler-Kassner and Wardle make the point that in order to be an effective writer, you have to learn how to engage meaningfully with the expectations associated with various rhetorical situations. And because there are so many different rhetorical situations, you never really stop learning.

The same is true of research and, by extension, information literacy. It’s seen as a basic or even remedial skill, so much so that while there are courses on how to conduct (scholarly or academic) research in a particular field that are required for one’s major, information literacy itself is generally expected to be taught in the space of a single instruction session that may be as short as thirty minutes. The thinking seems to be that students should already know this stuff, even if they’re not always very good at it, so why should they need more than a quick refresher, a quick tour of the library’s resources?

We did this to ourselves

For those who are unfamiliar, information literacy instruction used to be informed by a document called the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. This document was created by academic librarians pretty much for the express purpose of giving us a larger stake in the missions of our institutions. According to the Standards, an information literate person is someone who can effectively find, evaluate and use information, which is a pretty handy distillation of the typical research process. Except the skills the Standards describes in its many learning outcomes are mostly the more basic ones associated with academic, library-based research.

This is stuff non-library faculty expect students to have learned early on in their college careers, if not before. And students themselves tend to express a level of confidence in the skills described by the Standards that, shall we say, is not always earned. These two groups are some of our most important outside stakeholders when it comes to information literacy instruction and it was clear neither of them valued it because they viewed the Standards as very basic. No wonder IL instruction was being relegated to single instruction sessions.

Opportunity for change

The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy, which introduced a much more nuanced understanding of IL, replaced the Standards in 2015. Though it’s still largely concerned with academic research, the Framework at least acknowledges the importance of context to the research process. There’s an understanding that the methods and motivations for research are going to be much different depending on rhetorical context. How you find, evaluate, and use information when you’re writing a research essay for a class is going to be different from how you find, evaluate, and use information for a blog post or a professional report or a newspaper article or any other type of writing.

By implication, the ACRL Framework shows that being an effective researcher is about being able to engage meaningfully with the expectations associated with various rhetorical situations. And because there are so many different rhetorical situations, what you learn in the space of a single 30 minute or 60 minute session or even an eight week one-credit course like mine only scratches the surface.

The problem

What’s hard about this is convincing not only other stakeholders but also ourselves as information literacy instructors that this is something we can or should do. Many of us have become very boxed in by the way of thinking embodied by the Standards. Even those who haven’t might still be trapped in models of instruction that sprung from Standards-based teaching, like the one-shot session. We’ve managed to stake out this little bit of territory for ourselves in our institutions’ mission statements and that was a big win. Asking for more is hard. Getting more might be impossible.

It’s a fight worth having

Like with writing, there are basic skills associated with research. But research itself (and by extension information literacy) is not a basic skill. Often, the one thing we want students to walk away from our instructions with, if they remember nothing else, is at least one way to contact us or contact the library for help with their research if they need it. Instead, we should want them to walk away with this. Because there is always more to learn.

 

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