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.
Note: The following contains spoilers for all three seasons of Hannibal and the first six-ish seasons of Criminal Minds.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to see Stan Lee speak at an ALA Conference in Las Vegas. He was there as a featured speaker and after a short, lively talk about his career in comics, someone had the idea to sit Lee down and do a Q&A style interview with him. This might have been fine except that as a man in his nineties, Lee didn’t have the best hearing, which made answering the interviewer’s questions a bit difficult, especially on such a large stage.
Despite these difficulties, Lee kept up his good humor. At one point, when the interviewer asked him a question (I don’t remember now about what), Lee responded by saying something like,
“I didn’t hear what you just said, but let me tell you why Superman sucks.”
He then launched into a rundown of why the superheroes he had helped create were objectively better than Superman. The crowd loved it.
I bring this up because I’ve been a little dry on blog post ideas related to my research and professional stuff lately so this post is a bit of a non sequitur, not really related to anything I usually write about.
At my institution, there’s a one-credit information literacy course taught through the library called UNL 205. Most everyone in my department has taught this course at one time or another but as the information literacy requirement here on campus moved into the majors, there has been less and less demand for it. I’m wrapping up a section of the course now, the only one being offered this semester, and this will likely be the last time I’ll be teaching UNL 205.
That’s not to say that I won’t be teaching a credit-bearing IL course at all or that UNL 205 won’t be taught anymore. Due to some shuffling of department responsibilities, I’ll be teaching a different information literacy course geared toward students in the humanities and particularly philosophy majors. UNL 205 may still get taught every now when then, but most likely it won’t be by me.
On a recent weekend, I was feeling relatively slothful and ended up binge-watching the first season of Making the Cut on Amazon Prime. My understanding is that Making the Cut is basically a show where Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn decided to take their toys and go home (or at least to another platform) after leaving Project Runway. I haven’t seen Project Runway since college, so my memories of that show are vague but I think the main differences here is that this show has more of an international focus because it’s seeking fashion designers/entrepreneurs who will become the Next Big Global Brand. Or something.
And obviously, it also has a lot of Amazon-related tie-ins. Product placement in a show is always a bit sketchy but here I’m really not sure if it does the designers any favors to have the more accessible looks they create made available on Amazon. Buying clothes on Amazon is a notoriously huge gamble. Some people I know have been able to find nice stuff on there. Meanwhile, every piece of clothing I’ve ever bought on that site has been crap. I’m sure the intended effect of having these designers’ clothes available on Amazon (other than to give the designers more exposure) is to elevate Amazon’s reputation as a seller of clothing. Instead, I feel like the designers kind of suffer by the association, at least in my mind.
Anyway, that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because I want to talk about Making the Cut as an example of creative research.
Once upon a time, I wrote a book chapter about a lesson that I teach students in my first-year seminar about being wrong. The lesson involves having them listen to the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by The Barenaked Ladies and then telling them a vaguely embarrassing story about a time that I claimed, very confidently, that an emu and a llama were the same thing. If you know the song, you’ll understand. Or maybe not since emus and llamas are very much not the same thing.
In the chapter I originally submitted, I described this lesson and the story it involves in a relatively casual tone, similar to the one I use for this blog. This was different from the more scholarly voice I’d used in my previous professional writings. The reason I chose this more casual, narrative voice was twofold. First, the story was meant to be at least a little funny and it’s hard to tell a funny story in a scholarly voice. Second, I figured that rules about tone and voice are less strict for book chapters than they are for scholarly articles. The opportunity to throw off the constraints of scholarly writing and talk about my work in a voice and tone I personally prefer to use was one of the main attractions of getting to write a book chapter for me in the first place.
What I didn’t account for was the book editors’ preferences or expectations around the level of scholarliness they wanted for their book. Their feedback on that original submission was one of…polite alarm. The kind you might express when someone you know and like has made a particularly embarrassing faux pas. Like if I’d worn a bunny costume to a black tie party.
And I was embarrassed, not least because these editors were people I knew well and whose work I greatly respected. Because I had worked with them on previous projects, I should have known and understood the value they place on scholarliness and written my chapter accordingly. As it was, I ended up frantically rewriting the whole thing and adding a ton more research to my literature review. I don’t know if anyone was super happy with what I ended up with, but it did get published, so I guess it turned out okay in the end, more or less.
Still. I can’t help but wish I’d been able to keep the original narrative tone.
So recently I was looking for something to read and I happened to come across a recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. I am not someone who is typically interested in art or art history but I do love well-written biographies about interesting people and I knew that Isaacson is particularly excellent in this respect, so I decided to pick up a copy from my library out of idle curiosity.
It turns out that telling the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s life is a bit difficult because while he left behind a lot of notebooks and writings, he almost never wrote about himself in any detail. Isaacson does a great job of filling in the blanks based on the historical evidence that still exists but the biography of Leonardo(1) in many ways ends up being a biography of the work he left behind, both finished and unfinished, more than a biography of the man himself and how he lived his life. Because while Leonardo didn’t write much about himself, he did write a great deal about things that sparked his curiosity. And much of what he was curious about ended up informing his work in the various artistic and scientific realms that he worked in.
Basically, what I’m saying is Leonardo da Vinci did a lot of what can be understood now as creative research.
So a few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my feelings about returning to the office after nearly a year and half of working from home. At the time, I felt pretty good about it. Obviously, it was going to be a big change but I was tired of feeling so isolated. I wanted to be among people again and this felt like a good opportunity for a fresh start. Plus, I was grateful that, unlike many of my colleagues who have been working in-person this whole time, I got to wait to go back until things felt more safe again.
Which I kind of expected. I knew there were going to be variants and that things could get bad again, but like most people, I had no idea how bad they were going to get or how quickly. Now we’re at the start of a new semester and honestly I’m a lot more anxious and scared about what’s going to happen than I expected to be.
Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.
Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.
Note: The following post contains spoilers for Dr. Death (the podcast and probably the TV series), Glow Up, and Humans. Also I talk about The Most Amazing Vacation Rentals on Netflix in some detail. I don’t think it’s possible to spoil a travel reality show but I’m mentioning it just in case. Also: no reality show catch phrases (e.g. “What a life!,” “Ding dong!” or “Bring on the models!” were harmed in the writing of this blog post.)
So I’ve been spending some time lately trying to write up the findings of my study on creative writing pedagogy. In making a case for why it’s important for creative writing students to learn about creative research, I started talking a lot about the mismatch between students expectations about what they will learn as part of a creative writing program and what the actual learning goals of creative writing programs are, at least at the undergraduate level. Evidence suggests that students come to these programs expecting to learn how to hone their talents and identities as writers. But according to the AWP’s guidelines, what these programs are actually meant to teach is critical reading. Basically, an undergraduate creative writing major is learning to “read like a writer” in order to better appreciate literature “from the inside.”
As a former creative writing student, when I first read this, it felt like a bit of a bait and switch to me. Like, what do you mean all that learning I did was about becoming a better reader instead of a better writer? What do you mean the AWP considers it basically a waste of time to teach undergraduates about actual writing because, statistically speaking, so few of them possess the talent or persistence necessary to actually become professional writers? I want my money back!