Reflecting on un-research

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As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at “Teaching Information Literacy Through Un-Research,” which was published in Communications in Information Literacy in 2015.

My main purpose in writing this article originally was to share the details of a project I’d undertaken to improve the annotated bibliography assignment I’d been using as the culminating project in my information literacy courses. The problem with the standard annotated bibliography assignment, I was finding, was that students were bad at actually articulating the value of their sources beyond some surface-level analysis. Even the better students I’d worked with were prone to making meaningless statements like, “This is a good source for my research because it comes from the library.” Ugh.

In talking to other librarians, I discovered that many of them were experiencing the same issue. In my case, no effort to make the directions for the assignment more specific or even provide examples of “good” annotations seemed to help. Semester after semester, students submitted rote annotations that showed little or no actual understanding of why a source might be valuable to their research.

Part of the problem was the nature of the courses I was teaching. As an information literacy instructor, it’s rare to find students who are taking your course because they have a genuine interest in empowering themselves as users and creators of information. More likely, they’re there because they’re required to be there or, if the course is an elective, they needed an extra credit hour for financial aid reasons and this was the course that happened to fit their schedule. So it’s not a surprise when their work reflects a certain lack of engagement.

But students still need to leave the course showing that they’ve learned something and statements like, “This is a good source because it’s relevant to my topic” don’t really do that. So it seemed to me like something needed to be done.

Luckily, I was in a situation where I was allowed to make whatever changes I wanted to the content of my course as long as it still met a specific set of learning goals. So I replaced the usual annotated bibliography with something called the “un-research project,” in which students first wrote an essay in which they were required NOT to do any research and then created an annotated bibliography of sources that related to their essay topic. The trick was that in their annotations, they had to explain what role each source would play in a (hypothetical) revision of their original essay. Would it support something they already knew? Add new information? Offer a competing perspective? Surface-level statements about why a source was good for their topic were no longer enough. Now they actually had to think about how they would use the sources they’d found.

As the original article explains, the project was pretty successful. Students had some fun writing their “un-research” essays and I think having written it helped give their annotated bibliographies a little more context. Anecdotally, their annotations also relied a lot less on those rote, meaningless statements that I’d seen so much of before.

Since the article was published, I’ve also heard from a lot of librarians who have used and adapted the project for their own teaching and information literacy programs. In fact, of the articles I’ve published so far, this is probably the one I get contacted about the most. I’m always excited to hear from instructors who have used some version of the project (or are thinking of using it). When you write a “how to” type article, this is exactly what you want to happen.

But as pleased as I am that there are instructors out there using the un-research project, it’s always a little awkward to have to tell them that I myself no longer use it, at least not as it’s described in the original article.

Why is this?

It’s not because I discovered that there was a problem with the project itself or because it stopped working.

Mostly it was because, as I allude to in the article, I moved to a different job at a different institution (my current one). Even though the job I was hired to do was, in fact, a teaching position, I had no teaching responsibilities for the first year or so. The reasons behind this are…complicated and somewhat political. Suffice to say, this resulted in a significant gap in my teaching record. By the time I started teaching again, I had new ideas I wanted to explore. I left the un-research project behind, after using it for only one or two semesters.

Which is to say, elements of that project have remained a part of my teaching even though I no longer use the project itself. Every iteration of the annotated bibliography I’ve used since the un-research project has required students to talk not just about the general value of the source to their research but also the role they think it would play in their understanding of their topic. The one lesson I’ve learned here is that students are still prone to making rote statements like “This source adds to my knowledge on my topic” without then, you know, saying what exactly that knowledge is. When this happens, I tell them they have to be more specific—to show me they have more than a surface-level knowledge of the source. Sometimes this works and they submit revisions with more meaningful analysis. Sometimes not. That’s kind of the way teaching goes, I guess.

Most recently, I introduced a new project last spring that treats the annotated bibliography as an “establishing shot” of students’ research skills at the beginning of the course rather than a culminating project. This produced some results that I was really excited about (I wrote about them here and here). So far, I’ve only been able to use this new project one time because I’ve been on sabbatical but I’ll be using it again this spring. If I have similarly positive results, I hope to publish about it, perhaps as a follow-up to my un-research article.

What I like about this new project is that it gets at some of the same ideas that the un-research project did but also incorporates some of the thinking I’ve been doing about the contextual nature of research. I’m excited to see where it goes.

As a last note, I still enjoy hearing from anyone who’s used the un-research project or some version of it as part of their teaching. Explaining that I don’t use it anymore myself can be a little awkward but I’m happy that others are still finding it useful and still having success with it and still making changes to it to make it even better. If you’re one of those instructors, please feel free to reach out any time. I’d love to hear from you!

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