A(nother) conundrum for teaching research context

Image by Daniel Roberts from Pixabay

This semester I’m using the opportunity of teaching a new (to me) course to teach information literacy through the lens of research context. This is something I’ve been doing to some extent for a while now but now research context is a much bigger focus of the course than it used to be.

Because of that, I’ve now introduced a second project to the course. The first project is the usual annotated bibliography, tweaked slightly from past iterations. This time, students complete the annotated bibliography in order to show that they understand the conventions of academic and scholarly research and, along with the annotated bibliography, they submit a reflection explaining how their research-related choices fit those conventions. Not too different from what I’ve been doing the last few semesters, but different enough that I’m curious to see how it goes.

The second, newer project comes at the end of the course. For this project, students will be creating a research product representative of one of the non-academic, non-scholarly contexts we’ll discuss in the course (personal, professional, or creative). This can be anything: a work-related PowerPoint, a social media post, a painting. As long as research was involved in the making of the work, it counts as a research product. The student then has to write a reflection explaining the research that went into the work and how that research is representative of their chosen research genre.

In theory, I like this project a lot. I’ll be very curious to see what research products students submit and what they say about the research that went into those works. I’ll also be curious what stumbling blocks they run into when it comes to completing the project since it requires them to submit non-academic work for an academic course.

Which brings up an interesting question: in an academic environment, is there such a thing as non-academic work? Can there be?

I feel like the answer is “probably not.” All work that students submit for a grade as part of a course or program requirement is, by default, inherently academic and therefore artificial.

This is an issue that comes up a lot in scholarship and thinking about writing studies. In a typical composition course, students are asked to produce writing from various genres. Some of those genres are academic, like a research paper. Others may not be. I’ve met composition instructors who ask their students to create things like blog posts or Twitter threads or other types of writing that are more typical of what they would produce outside of the classroom than in it. The point is for students to learn how different rhetorical situations and genre expectations affect different aspects of writing, such as style and format.

The problem with this is that in college, there is no such thing as “outside of the classroom.” And even the idea of “different rhetorical situations” is a bit artificial because in a college composition course, writing is happening at the behest of a professor in order to demonstrate learning about a particular topic. The work is always being evaluated as an academic work and the audience for that work, even if students are told to imagine otherwise, is always the evaluator (usually the course instructor).

The same is true when teaching research context. It’s entirely possible that students will submit research products that represent actual projects they’ve done in professional, creative, and personal contexts. If they do, I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m thinking of encouraging it.

But for students who are creating these projects from scratch, there’s an artificiality to the whole idea that they’re doing actual personal, professional, or creative research since those are types of research that don’t come from a professor telling you to do them in order to meet a course requirement. Even if the conventions they use are in line with these other types of research, the work itself is inherently academic because of the context and circumstances under which it’s being produced. It would be impossible for it to be otherwise.

This matters because research context, in my mind at least, is so closely tied with the purpose of the research and the motivations behind conducting it. For example: the purpose of personal research is to fulfill personal curiosity. But “personal research” conducted as part of college course? Personal curiosity may still play a role but fulfilling personal curiosity is no longer the primary purpose of that research. Instead, the primary purpose is to meet an academic requirement.

This is a big conundrum especially since the main message of my course (as it currently stands) is that becoming a successful researcher isn’t about mindlessly memorizing and following conventions. In fact, most research contexts outside of academic and scholarly ones don’t even come with strict conventions. Instead, it’s about recognizing that research is contextual in nature and learning to adjust your approach to your research based on your knowledge about the context in which it is taking place.

But I can’t change the context of students’ research. Not really. I can only ask them to change the conventions they’re using. Which is the opposite of the overall lesson I want to teach.

Like I said, I’ll be really interested to see what my students this semester do with this particular assignment. I expect that I will have to make adjustments to it as I continue to refine my approach but for right now I’m both excited and nervous to see how and what they do and if they find any contradictions in the work I’m asking them to do and the message I’m teaching to teach.

In a way, I hope they do.

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