ACRL Questions: Talking to faculty about the contextual nature of research

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This is a new post in an ongoing series where I’m answering questions that came up during my ACRL presentation “Research is Not a Basic Skill.” Previous posts discussed student proficiency versus student confidence, models for teaching the contextual nature of research, why we’re talking in terms of “research” instead of “information literacy,” and the relationship between some of these ideas and critical information literacy.

Today I’m going to spend some time on talking to faculty about the contextual nature of research.

Faculty think what we do is basic

It’s no secret that non-library faculty(1) think that information literacy instruction is very basic, even remedial. We know this because even the ones who find enough value in what we do to schedule instruction sessions for their students insist on calling these sessions a “library day” or a “library tour.”(2) They also sometimes try to schedule the sessions on days when they don’t want to cancel class even though they’ll be out of town for a conference or where there will be low attendance because it’s the day before a vacation. Ask any librarian who’s done this type of instruction and they will have a story to tell you about this type of behavior.

But if anecdotal evidence isn’t enough, we have research to back us up. I’m thinking of a study Shelley Gullikson conducted to measure non-library faculty’s attitudes toward the ACRL Standards and the skills that that document describes. Gullikson found that faculty viewed many of the skills described by the Standards as something students should have already learned, either very early on in their careers in higher education or in high school.(3)

So, in the eyes of faculty, these are very basic skills but for some reason students still struggle with them. They choose sources that are insufficiently scholarly in nature. They show a poor understanding of how to use those sources. They utterly fail at citations. This is just as true of good students as it is of poor ones. They just don’t know how to do research.

Except the students do know how to do research. They have a vast amount of experience with finding, evaluating, and using information.

Just not in the context of a college-level academic research paper.


Faculty know research is contextual

The thing is, faculty already know research is contextual. They may never have thought about it that way, but they know that their discipline has a certain way of doing things and those are the things they want their students to learn. That’s why degree programs usually include an entire course on the research methods of a particular field or discipline. And it’s why in a library instruction session, the English professor will usually ask the librarian to show Literature Resource Center rather Business Source Complete and a history professor is more likely to want the students to know about Proquest’s historical newspaper databases than something like ArtSTOR (unless maybe it’s an art history class).

So faculty are used to thinking about research in disciplinary contexts. But there’s this other set of contexts that they might not be thinking of even though they themselves have engaged with them. Academic research, of which disciplinary research is one subset, is just one context of many. There’s also scholarly research, professional research, scientific research, creative research, and personal research. Probably others as well. But all of these contexts come with their own conventions and expectations. Students who come to college have a lot of experience with the conventions and expectations of personal research. They have some experience with academic research at the high school level. But unless they attended an elite school with great resources, academic research at the college level is going to be a whole new ballgame for them.

Of course they suck at it. Students might learn some of the basics about college level research in a composition course their freshman year but a lot of them might not conduct serious academic research until much later in their careers as college students. It takes time and practice to be able to engage meaningfully with a new context. And if you don’t understand that you are, in fact, engaging in a new context in the first place, you might never be able to do this.


Having the conversation

I envision introducing students to the idea of the contextual nature of research in the environment of a one-shot session like this: You ask them about the last time they encountered a gap in their knowledge. About anything. Maybe they wanted to know what the weather was going to be like today. Or how to break up with someone they’ve been dating for a while. Or how to avoid the freshman fifteen. Ask them where they looked for information. How they decided what information to trust and when to stop their search. How they used the information they found.

Then tell them: Whatever strategy they used, it was probably perfectly appropriate for the type of research they were doing. They have developed skills for finding and evaluating and using information that are very valuable.

But academic research is different and here’s why.

Or, if students are advanced enough that they’ve already done some academic research, ask them about the last project they worked on. What were the difficulties they encountered? Probably they had trouble finding a good topic. Or using a library database. Or figuring out if the source they were using was appropriate and how to cite it. Then talk about how it makes sense that they would struggle with these things.

Because academic research is different and here’s why.

This could be a quick discussion at the beginning of the session. One you don’t even need to run by the course instructor first. But if you do (or if you do a debrief afterward), it’s a good opportunity to talk about why it’s valuable to talk to students about these ideas. How the fact that students don’t understand this might be part of the reason why they struggle with academic research in the first place. Emphasize that research is not a basic skill that only needs to be learned once. That, actually, we all need to learn it over and over again with every new context that we encounter.

You may not get faculty members across that threshold of understanding by doing this, but you can at least show them that there is a threshold. And that could be a good first step toward getting faculty to value what we do.


(1) “Non-library faculty” is a phrase I use a lot to make the point that, at least in some places (like mine), librarians are also faculty. But it makes for pretty clunky writing, so throughout this post I’m just going to use the word “faculty” even though it kind of goes against my principles.

(2) For any non-library course instructors who may be reading this, the preferred terminology is different from place to place. At my own library, we use “course-related instruction session,” which is admittedly a bit of a mouthful. “Guest lecture” can also work well. If you’re not sure, it doesn’t hurt to check with the librarian you’re working with.

(3) To be fair, the skills described by the Standards were pretty basic. I don’t know if similar research has been done yet using the Framework. Also here is the citation information for the article in question: Shelley Gullikson, “Faculty Perceptions of ACRL’s Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 32 no. 6 (2006): 583-92.


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