On scholarly vs narrative voice in LIS literature

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.

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Leonardo da Vinci was the king of creative research, apparently

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.

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On going back to the office, part 2

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.

As Lin-Manuel Miranda might say, time has made a fool of that last point.

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.

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What I’m reading: August 2021

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.)

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If we taught students what they expected to learn…

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!

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Thinking about Hamilton and creative license

For the Fourth of July this year, I finally sat down and watched Hamilton on Disney Plus, the version that was filmed live with the original cast back in 2016. As someone who, even in normal times, doesn’t get to the theater as much as I would like to due in no small part to ticket prices, I generally appreciate these special, filmed performances that get released to movie theaters and sometimes streaming (see also: Newsies). But unlike a lot of the shows I watch on screen, I’ve actually seen the touring version of Hamilton live. It was a pretty thrilling experience, so I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this filmed version.

Generally speaking, I liked it a lot. It was a lot of fun to see the original cast, many of whom I know from other projects, in their breakout roles, especially after having just seen some of them in the movie version of In the Heights. Like a lot of people, I do wish they had been able to capture more of the amazing choreography in the film, but I guess the trade-off was getting to see the actors’ faces up close in a way that you wouldn’t if you were actually seeing the show in the theater. Anyway, it was a lot of fun.

I also watched the tie-in special that ABC/Disney made to go with the release of the film, which is called “Hamilton: History Has Its Eyes on You.” The setup is a kind of group Zoom interview between Robin Roberts, members of the cast, and Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed. I expected it mostly to be a fluff piece about how great Hamilton is and mostly it is but it also considers how Hamilton as a show feels a bit different in 2020 (when the special was filmed) than it might have when it was filmed back in 2016. And there are also questions about the show’s historical accuracy.

In my upcoming book project, I have a chapter on the ethical use of information that considers some of the differences between “ethical use for academic/scholarly research,” where citation is required and creative license is anathema, and “ethical use for creative research,” where creative license is assumed. I used both Hamilton and The Social Network as examples of popular creative works that take liberties with the histories they purport to tell. So I was very interested to see how Lin-Manuel Miranda and Dr. Gordon-Reed answered questions about creative license and historical accuracy in the special.

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On “The Timing of the Research Question” by Jennifer E. Nutefall and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder

So I’ve been spending some time lately working on a new article idea intended to examine which research contexts tend to get the most attention in the library and information science literature on information-seeking. In the course of this study, I’ve stumbled upon some older articles in core journals that seem interesting and worth a deeper look. Some of these are related to information-seeking and some aren’t.

One such article is “The Timing of the Research Question” by  Jennifer E. Nutefall and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder, which was published in portal in 2010.

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What I’m reading: July 2021

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 Monument Valley, In Treatment, Love, Victor, All That Glitters, Never Have I Ever, and an old episode of The New Girl. 


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Gone fishing: Summer edition

I’m on vacation this week so I won’t be posting any new content, but below is a list of some favorite posts from this year so far in case you’d like to check out any you might have missed. Enjoy and see you in a few weeks!

Guest post: Jesi Buell on how to use research in creative writing

Dear students: Citing your sources incorrectly is not plagiarism

Research in fiction writing: What problem is this investigation trying to solve (for librarians)?

Reference desk interactions: Helping “library users” versus helping “information creators”

Research in fiction writing: What problems is this investigation trying to solve (for writers)?

Reflecting on Being a (Former) First Generation Student

My Online Teaching Persona is a Major Introvert

Why I Start My Freshman Seminar with a Game Called “Category Die”

Dear AWP: Research is Not Just for Nonfiction

In Search of Borders Between Research Contexts

The True Bummer of Teaching

That Time I Tried Using a Tom Lehrer Song to Teach Plagiarism