Research is a process, writing is a craft (except when it’s a process)

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I have a note scribbled on a piece of scrap paper hanging on a bulletin board in my office. It says: “Research is a process, writing is a craft.”

When I wrote this note, I felt like I was having one of those exciting “a-ha!” moments. The trouble is, it’s been there since December and I still haven’t quite figured out yet where that “a-ha!” is supposed to take me. What does this mean for the work I’ve been doing trying to understand the role of research in creative writing?

Let’s see if we can come up with some ideas.

 

Writing as a process versus writing as a craft

If I had to say, the spark of this idea probably came from something I read in The English Department: A Personal and Institutional History by W. Ross Winterowd about the history of how English developed as an academic subject. In that book, Winterowd says, “In creative writing classes, students express their genius; in composition classes, they learn to manage the limited abilities they bring with them” (p. 67).  In other words: in composition classes, writing is a process. In creative writing classes, writing is a craft.

Processes have steps. The traditional steps of the writing process are prewriting, writing, revising, and editing. Students in composition classes learn to take their writing through these four steps while working in various genres and using various techniques which they’ve studied in the work of others. Though some students are more successful at this than others, you don’t necessarily need any special talent to do it.

Craft is more mysterious. In an essay called “Figuring the Future: Lore and/in Creative Writing,” Tim Mayers says that craft is “the faint gray area of overlap between genius and rhetoric” (p. 3) In what I’ve read about creative writing pedagogy, there seems to be some disagreement about whether craft can really be taught or whether it requires some kind of innate talent on the part of the writer. If it’s all innate talent, the purpose of a creative writing program isn’t so much to teach students how to write but instead identify the students who have that talent and help them hone their craft. This premise gets critically examined in the book that Mayers’s essay comes from, which is called Can It Really Be Taught?: Resisting Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy.

So it seems like craft is the more artistic side of writing while process is the more functional side. Anyone can participate in the process of writing but only a privileged few can truly engage with the craft of writing.

 

Where research fits: process versus craft

Research is also a process. The traditional steps of research are outlined in the ACRL Standards. Basically, it starts with identifying a gap in knowledge, involves finding and evaluating information to fill that gap, and then ends with the ethical use of that information. While the Standards themselves are much more applicable to the academic research process, this general outline is flexible enough to fit here, though it does leave out some research contexts, like scientific research.

Anyway. Questions about the role of research in writing are usually about where research fits into the writing process. Most of the time, it’s treated as part of the prewriting stage. You’re gathering information to then write about. But really, it could come at any time.

Research is taught in composition classes because research is part of the writing process rather than part of the writing craft. Since creative writing classes focus on craft rather than process, they don’t discuss research.

 

The role of research in the craft of writing

This would all be well and good if all research processes looked the same. Unfortunately, they don’t. The research process that students learn in composition course probably shares some things in common with the process they would use for more creative purposes, but there are likely to be important differences, particularly in how creative writers use the information they find.

I would argue that the use of information, which is considered part of the research process, plays an important role in the craft of writing, whether you’re talking about creative writing or composition. How do you make decisions about what information to use and what information to ignore? How do you then incorporate that information into your writing, weaving it together with your own thinking?

We know how writers synthesize the information they find into a coherent argument as part of an academic paper or scholarly article because there are entire textbooks that explain what this looks like and how it’s done. But what about in a novel? If I want to, I can probably point to all kinds of details in the novels I read that are probably the result of research, like what Stephen King says about the taste of root beer in the 1960s in 11/22/63 (though to be fair, that might be based on his own memories) and what Diana Gabaldon says about the Native American culture her characters encounter in The Drums of Autumn. How do fiction writers weave this information into their work so that it can serve the plot in ways that seamlessly fit into the story they’re trying to tell?

This question seems especially important because so many of the creative writing how-to books I’ve read have been especially critical of writers who aren’t able to do this well, like Browne & King and their story of an aspiring writer who included an entire chapter in his novel about how different alarms function. Clearly, that author in question has been successful with the process of research but has not translated that success in such a way that is also successful in terms of craft.

 

The moral of the story

So I think what I’m getting at here is that research is generally viewed as part of the writing process, but not part of its craft. Yet there are aspects of research that are important if someone wants to be successful with the craft of writing. When it comes to creative writing, both of those ideas need to be talked about more because how the research process is carried out in creative contexts is likely to be much different from how it’s carried out in the academic contexts students generally learn about in composition courses.

I’m also tempted here to explore whether research could also be considered a craft. While anyone can perform the research process, it takes certain innate talent to be able to synthesize the information you find in a meaningful way.

 

Maybe a new idea to tack to my bulletin board.

 

Thoughts on Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice by Klipfel & Cook

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

I recently had the opportunity to read through Learner-Pedagogy: Principles and Practice by Kevin Michael Klipfel and Dani Brecher Cook. The book came to me as I was thinking about what a book project related to some of the ideas I’ve been sharing in this blog might look like and, in reading it, I was delighted to find that a) scholarly, well-researched books do not have to be dry and boring and b) there were some surprising connections between the authors’ work and mine. Because of that, I decided it might be worth sharing some thoughts on the book overall.

What it’s about

Klipfel and Cook’s central thesis is that information literacy instruction can benefit greatly from a pedagogical approach in which we take seriously the idea that who learners are as people matters in the context of learning. They lay out the theory behind learner-centered pedagogy and some related ideas from fields like psychology. They also offer some practical examples of what learner-centered pedagogy looks like in the instructional environments in which librarians are most likely to find themselves, including one-shot sessions and reference desk interactions.

What I especially liked about this book was how Klipfel and Cook drew from their own personal experiences and life stories to make their case. A story that particularly stood out was one in which Klipfel, as a student, told his librarian that he wanted to research Johnny Rotten for a project on important historical figures only to be told that this was not a scholarly enough topic and he had to pick something else. According to Klipfel’s librarian, writing about Johnny Rotten was not “real research” even though it was a topic that mattered to him personally.

This artificial line between what counts as an “acceptable” or “scholarly” research topic and what students might actually be interested in is, in my opinion, really key to understanding why students hate research so much. To address this issue, Klipfel and Cook turn to the subject of curiosity.

 

Putting curiosity back in IL learning

In Klipfel and Cook’s view, a learner-centered approach to information literacy is one in which students learn to think well about what matters to them, which involves engaging with learners’ curiosity and teaching them to think critically about what they find.

I happened to be reading this book around the same time I was implementing (yet another) new approach to the annotated bibliography project that I use in my credit-bearing information literacy course. I’ll be sharing more details about this soon, but for now the important thing to know is that I used to start things off by asking students to think about and comment on their role as information creators and then pursue a research topic that was in some way related to what they shared. This was less than successful in no small part because I had trouble convincing the students that they were, in fact, information creators. Anyway, this semester I decided instead to open the course with some information on the role of curiosity in research and then ask them what they were curious about.

The answers I got were everything from questions about what actually happened in the Civil War to the kind of creatures that live in the deep sea to how the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to be to Chinese internment camps in the United States during World War II to how the Kardashians became so famous. Some of these were topics students had become curious about in other classes and genuinely seemed to want to learn more about. Others were ones that they just enjoyed or were enthusiastic about.

And that enthusiasm was obvious. Even before they started researching, some of the students were sharing discussion posts that were practically essays in and of themselves. In reading Klipfel and Cook’s book, I think part of this might have come from the fact that in sharing their curiosity, they were sharing part of themselves as people in a way that went beyond rote icebreakers.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before. While I can’t say that the rest of the course adhered to the ideas Klipfel and Cook discuss (for reasons outlined in a minute), even just that accidental step was enough to show me that this is something worth pursuing further.

 

The instruction environments of the wild librarian

Throughout the book, Klipfel and Cook offer a number of examples of learner-centered pedagogy in action, most of which are focused on teaching in the context of the one-shot session. But they also take the time to consider instructional opportunities as they are represented at the reference desk and in doing so make a good case that big ideas like these can be applied even in relatively small teaching moments.

Toward the end of the book, the authors include an entire chapter on technology where they weigh in on whether gizmos and gadgets like clickers and chat reference enhance or hinder opportunities for learner-centered pedagogy. Their verdict in most cases is “it depends” but their thoughtful critiques of each tool that they describe are well worth a read whether you find yourself generally in favor of incorporating fancy technology into your teaching or not.

Despite this, one thing Klipfel and Cook don’t really touch on is what learner-centered pedagogy looks like in the context of online teaching. I’m curious about this mostly for selfish reasons: the credit-bearing course I teach is fully online and asynchronous. I’ve been teaching this way for about six years now and from the start it was a challenge to get the students to think of me and their fellow classmates as actual people rather than just names on a screen. Like, I had to implement very specific policies around civility and etiquette in reaction to some of the ugly behavior students have directed toward me and toward each other simply because they’re in an online environment instead of an in-person one. This behavior was always the exception rather than the rule but it never would have happened in a traditional classroom.

In a situation like that, how do you connect with students as people when they barely think of you as a person? I realize this isn’t likely to be as common of a question among librarians as the ones Klipfel and Cook do address since having a credit-bearing course at all is relatively rare, much less one that’s fully online. Still. It was something that came up for me when reading this book that I would personally like to learn more about.

 

All in all, I really enjoyed Learner-Centered Pedagogy. It gave me a lot to think about. If you have any interest at all, it’s definitely worth checking out in more detail.

Writing is like running

Image by Remaztered Studio from Pixabay

February is usually the month that I start thinking about running again. I do most of my running in the warmer seasons but I start out on treadmills in late winter/early spring to make my first outdoor runs of the year bearable and, theoretically, to prepare from some of the springtime 5K races in case I want to actually meet that particular New Year’s resolution for once. Also by February I need to introduce a little more variety to my routine between the indoor workout videos on DailyBurn, FitnessBlender, and PopSugar (as much as I love those platforms!).

I think a lot about the similarities between writing and exercise in general but running in particular. I write a lot on this blog about creative writing in a general sense but don’t spend a lot of time discussing my own relationship to writing. So as I gear up to restart my running habit, I thought I’d share some of where my thinking goes on this particular topic.

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In defense of “finding and evaluating information”

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It used to be that if I found myself in a situation where I had the opportunity to give an elevator speech about information literacy to a non-expert, I would start by telling them that information literacy basically meant teaching people how to find, evaluate, and use information. It was a convenient sound byte that succinctly summed up how the ACRL Standards described information literacy. It was also easy for someone who had never heard of information literacy before to understand.

But I felt dirty saying it. Information literacy, I knew in my heart of hearts, was far more interesting and valuable and important than this overly simplified description made it sound. Describing information literacy in this way only perpetuated the misconception that it was a basic or even remedial skill. Something you only need an hour or so to effectively teach.

Then the Framework came along and offered me a new definition of information literacy. That new definition captured the nuances of information literacy much better than the one reflected in the Standards. It was also a paragraph long and not easy to condense into a concise little speech. At least, not in a way that would adequately convey what it meant to someone who was new to the topic.

So I continued to hold my nose and use the same old description. Information literacy, I told people, is about finding, evaluating, and using information.

Gross.

Or so I thought.

Recently,  I found myself sitting in a meeting with two colleagues, whom I respect very much, and a non-library faculty member who had long been an important advocate of our IL program. We were brainstorming a list of information literacy resources the faculty member could bring to her department but we needed a way to describe what the resource was about that these other faculty members, who were very smart people but less familiar with information literacy, could easily understand. One that was free of library jargon.

The words “finding, evaluating, and using information” came out of my mouth. My librarian colleagues quickly shot me down because this description, as I myself had argued many times, oversimplified information literacy.

Strangely, I found myself defending it.

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“Your literature review is sparse and full of self-citation”: Content analyses in LIS

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So a few months ago I submitted the follow-up to my C&RL article from last year for review. This one is an analysis of LIS literature to try to determine how prevalent the study of research is in this field. The feedback I got from reviewers was helpful and I recently submitted a heavily revised (hopefully improved) version of the article. Two pieces of feedback I received on the original, though, stuck out. Both were from the same reviewer and they gave me a lot to think about.

The first was when the reviewer highlighted a line from my abstract that read: “The study of research is prevalent in the LIS field.” The reviewer felt that this was a truism and that it should be removed. I had to look up what this means. It turns out a truism is a statement that’s so obviously true that it basically doesn’t mean anything.

The second was about my lit review, which the reviewer felt was “sparse” and “skewed to self-citation”(1).

I had to do a lot of work in my revision to try to untangle that second comment and in doing so I found myself also untangling the other.

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Selected Resources: “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy”

You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on last year’s lists and write about it here.

Today we’re all about “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy” by Eamon C. Tewell.

Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list as part of that process.

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Studying Research: where am I and what is this place?

So recently, I noticed a significant uptick in views of this blog and also new subscribers. I suspect this has something to do with the recent Carterette Series webinar that I gave last week, “Research is Not a Basic Skill”  but whatever the reason, I wanted to take just a brief minute to welcome any newcomers. I’m excited you’re here!

I’ve been writing this blog for about a year. So far, I’ve used this space to share some of my thinking on the research-as-subject/contextual nature of research thread of my work as it continues to develop. I’ve also done some musing on the role of research in creative writing as I conduct a study to discover whether and how books on creative writing talk about this subject. And I have some posts on teaching and librarianship and the occasional silly pop culture topic just for fun.

I usually post twice a week on Tuesday and Thursdays, so keep an eye out for new information. In the meantime, here is a list of past posts (in no particular order) that are personal favorites of mine and which might help you get to know what this blog is about:

It’s significant that popular books on creative writing don’t talk about research

On NYT’s textbook story and the Our Virginia incident

Teaching evaluating sources from a research-as-subject perspective

Finding my research path: Taking a big swing

Magicians and libraries that aren’t libraries

Research begins with curiosity

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is secretly about the ethical use of information

Using the annotated bibliography as the “establishing shot”

A whole lot of “no duh”: The role of curiosity in creativity

Research is not a basic skill (neither is writing)

Defining research