In search of borders between research contexts

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So this was my first semester teaching my information literacy course through the lens of the contextual nature of research. In the past, I’ve managed to work some of these themes into existing original-flavor information literacy lessons but after spending some time writing a book on the topic, I wanted to do a bigger shift, within the constraints of my instructional context. So I taught a lot of the usual IL lessons on finding and evaluating information, I just did it explicitly through the lens of teaching students about the importance of context to the research process.

It went surprisingly well. I thought students expecting a more library-oriented course would feel ripped off by one that talked about research more generally but since many of my students were graduating seniors, they seemed to appreciate learning about information literacy and research in ways that were going to be useful to them beyond the academic environment. They also liked learning that many of the more “casual” information searches they do in their everyday lives count as research, at least by the definition we were using in class.

There were a couple of sticking points, of course. I expected there to be, since this was my first time testing these ideas in an instructional situation. One of the sticking points had to do with different research contexts that we talked about: academic, creative, personal, professional, scholarly, and scientific.

In my ideal universe, a course on the contextual nature of research would take the time to look at each context in-depth and give students space to really explore the ins-and-outs of each type of research. In the real world, I have only eight weeks to teach students this stuff as part of a one-credit course that can’t stray too far from traditional information literacy themes, so when discussing the different research contexts, I could only give students a broad overview. They wanted more than that. They wanted to know what the exact characteristics were of each type of research, what the exact borders were between them, and what the “rules” were for each one.

Of course, there are no exact borders between these types of research and for most there are no real rules—only conventions. What those conventions are is going to depend on the exact context of the research. So, not all professional research has the same conventions—what the conventions are is going to depend on what field of work you’re in.

I can see why students wanted rules, though. For one thing, they are still very much grade-oriented: knowing what the rules are is the best way to follow the rules, which is the best way to get a good grade. For another, the type of research they’re most familiar with—academic research—happens to be the type of research that comes with the most rules: restrictions on what types of sources you use and how many, where you look for those sources, how you cite them, etc. In most other contexts, decisions about what to research and how to research it tend to be more flexible. Again, it’s about knowing the conventions of a context, not the rules.

Interestingly, the context that students seemed to have the most trouble with was creative research. A few of them argued that all research is inherently creative, which honestly warmed my little information literacy instructor heart. The point was well-taken but when I told them that “creative research” was more about the goal of the research (to support a creative project, like a novel) than it was about the nature of the research, they mostly just seemed confused.

Other students expressed discontent with the fact that different types of research can overlap with one another. The example I used in class was of a professional fiction writer who conducts research to support a novel they are writing. In this case, the writer’s research would qualify as both professional and creative research. Students really seemed to feel that there needed to be borders between the different types of research. While I think they’re right that I probably need to do more work to delineate between the different types of research, I think their concern with putting borders between the categories goes back to wanting to know what the “rules” are so they can be followed correctly. It seems like the idea that there are no hard and fast rules to be followed is as much a threshold of understanding as the idea that context matters to the research process.

All of this made me think of an ongoing debate that I stumbled on in the writing studies field where some instructors feel that teaching students about different genres and forms of writing is inherently artificial, more of a teaching or marketing tool than a reflection of how writing actually works. What I’m doing by trying to identify different categories of research would probably seem backwards to such writing instructors. I agree with them that genres and forms and the “rules” and conventions we teach, whether in writing or something else, are inherently artificial but I think they are a useful way to give students a vocabulary that helps them articulate the importance of context to the research (or writing) process.

I’m glad that my students were willing to challenge me on some of these points because while I think some of the issues were simply evidence of where students are in their thinking developmentally, their questions also helped me identify some blind spots in my own thinking and teaching that I’ll have to address in the future.

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