Who I was as a student researcher

The last few semesters, I’ve been using a new version the traditional annotated bibliography in my course where students complete the annotated bibliography in the first few weeks and then, after learning more about information literacy, write a reflection on the work they did at the beginning. I ask them to think about the formats of information they used and why, how they evaluated the information they found, and the choices they made about giving credit to their sources. As a project, it seems to work pretty well and the conclusions students come to about the quality of their work are often close to the same ones I would have in my own evaluation. Except, I think, those conclusions are more meaningful to students when they have the opportunity to come to them themselves rather than have me shaking a finger at them about poor citation, questionable sources, and an obvious emphasis on convenience over quality.

The first on the list of questions I ask students to reflect on, though, is this: How does this annotated bibliography reflect who you were as a researcher at the time you completed it?

Honestly, students have a lot of trouble with this question, possibly due to the way I’ve phrased it. What I’m looking for is for them to comment on the level of research experience they had when they completed the assignment and how the choices they made in completing it were informed by their experience up to that point. Mostly they just talk about their reaction to the assignment when they first saw it, especially the fact that I was allowing them complete freedom over their choice of topic and sources. Not a bad answer, but not hugely relevant.

Anyway. I started thinking about the research assignments I completed as both an undergraduate and a graduate student and how that reflected who I was as a researcher at the time.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, none of my student research still exists anywhere and I only have vague memories of any of the papers that I wrote. One of the papers that’s clearest in my mind was an assignment for a course I took as a junior or senior called “American History in Film.” The premise of the course was that films about historical events tend to reflect the times they were made in more than the times they were about. I like to think this course was the first step I took on my journey toward becoming interested in information literacy.

The last set of movies we watched for the course were ones about the future. The Matrix was still relatively new at the time (because I am old) and I remember how cool it was that I got to watch it AS AN ASSIGNMENT for a course. Then I had to write a paper about it.

For this paper, I think we must have had a lot of flexibility over what our topic was. From what I remember about this professor’s practices, we probably received a list of suggested topics/questions to think or write about but were given some leeway to decide the exact direction we took our paper in. The paper I wrote was about how movies that the reason so many movies that take place in the future portray it as a dystopia is because we tend to look at the past as “the good old days” and our own times as a decline.(1) So when we try to picture what type of future will look back on our times as “the good old days,” we assume it has to be a dystopia.

That’s a fairly sophisticated (if somewhat convoluted) argument for an undergraduate and one that I think I came up with more or less on my own.  I remember the professor commented that the idea itself was a good one but that my writing tended toward “word salad.” I don’t remember if he said anything about the research I probably had to do as part of the assignment.

I also don’t remember the specifics of that research, but I can tell you that my choice of sources was probably no better or worse than the average undergraduate’s is today. I almost certainly privileged convenience over quality, preferring to use sources I could access on my computer in my dorm room rather than hauling my butt all the way to the campus library in the Western New York winter. Google was still pretty new, but I remember we had access to at least some electronic academic databases back then, though they were much less sophisticated than the ones that are available now. I searched those databases for sources but I doubt I had any understanding about the type of information I was finding or how it differed from stuff that was freely available on the regular internet.

Mostly I probably stuck with sources that the professor had already provided as part of the course, including the films themselves and some articles and books on the themes we were learning about. Using assigned sources doesn’t really count as research but it did require the synthesis of ideas, which was something I think I was pretty good at, even as a student.

And I did have to cite those sources. Like my choice of sources, I imagine the quality of my citations was no better or worse than most undergraduates now. A lot of misplaced or missing in-text citations and poorly formatted full citations at the end. Maybe you could still use the citations to find the sources I’d used. Maybe not. Either way, I knew I had to cite but I didn’t understand anything about why citation was necessary, much less how to do it. As far as I remember, no one had taught me and I was too afraid to ask for fear of looking less knowledgeable than my peers (who probably also secretly had no idea).

To be fair, I probably had a lot fewer resources for constructing accurate citations than students do now. Back then (when we walked uphill to school both ways—in the snow!), if we wanted to be able to cite, our choices for learning how were probably limited to actual print handbooks and whatever examples our professors gave us, if any. Now databases practically cite the sources for you, albeit not always accurately. I mean, I actually copy and pasted something from a PDF of an article I’d found on a library database the other day so I could remember the quote for later AND IT AUTOMATICALLY INCLUDED THE APA AND MLA CITATIONS FOR THE QUOTE that I’d copied. I actually kind of hated that it did that because I have my own way of tracking where quoted information comes from (also the citations it provided had some pretty egregious errors) but still. That shit would have seemed like alien technology to my twenty year old self (and still kind of does).

But just because students have more resources to teach them how to cite doesn’t mean they necessarily get why they have to, other than to avoid plagiarism. That might not be a huge problem except for the scare tactics some professors like to use around plagiarism, like the slightest mistake in a citation will get you kicked out of school. (It won’t—or shouldn’t. I wrote more about this here.)

So if my younger self was a student in my information literacy class now, I’d probably see her as someone who’s on the right track but still has a lot to learn, especially about the more concept-based aspects of IL.

As for my graduate student self, well. I spent a lot of time in the campus library as a graduate student, certainly more than as an undergraduate. But that was because I literally worked for the library. As a student employee. In the information literacy department. And even though I was literally in school to learn about stuff like this, I still didn’t understand much about what an academic database was or how to use it for my research.

If I’m being really honest, I didn’t actually start to hone my information literacy skills and knowledge until I found myself in a situation where I had to, you know, teach information literacy. I had no idea how to use an academic database until I had to create a tutorial explaining how to use one. And I had no idea what a scholarly source was until I had to teach it to someone else. I didn’t even really learn how to cite properly until I got a side gig as a writing tutor and part of my job was correcting students’ citations. Even with that experience, I still make mistakes, as any copy editor who has worked on any of my research-based writing will tell you.

So I guess that’s my dirty secret. The stuff I teach and expect undergraduates to know is stuff I didn’t know myself as a student researcher. It’s a good thing to remind myself of whenever I get frustrated reading the work of students who seem to be actively trying but are still missing the mark. It took me time to get any of this, too. And a lot of it. 



(1) To date myself even further, this was when George W. Bush was president and many of us thought it couldn’t get any worse than that. So my point was ultimately kind of proved: we now live in arguably much worse times and even those of us who hated Bush now look back on his era almost as “the good old days,” comparatively speaking Which requires some pretty hefty rose-colored glasses when you consider all the terrible things his administration did, but there you go.


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