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Method as Content for Undergraduates

I wish it were possible for our bibliographic databases to index works according to the methodology or theoretical approach of the author. I know it’s not possible in many cases, but man oh man I wish it were. For a lot of undergraduates, finding examples of scholars employing a methodology or approach is high up there on the list of information needs, and it’s just not something that search can really help with.

So what do you do when a student comes and needs an example of a Marxist reading of The Wasteland or a post-structuralist reading of The Between? What about students who want to see examples of formal lab write-ups, or those formal research papers that actually use the prescribed headings Introduction… Methodology… etc? Part of the learning process is seeing accomplished researchers employing the forms that are taught in the undergraduate classroom, so for these students methodology and approach is a very real form of content to be sought, found, and analyzed.

Personally, I’ve developed some inefficient work-arounds for some of the questions I get most often. Try searching for research articles that have “study of” in the title… people likely to put “study of” in their research reports are also likely to use the traditional subheadings. And for the theoretical-approach question, I keep an anthology of the major literary theorists in my office and then do this complicated thing where I do a cited reference search in Web of Knowledge for an appropriate theorist, then I do a search for the topic or author or work we’re trying to interpret, and then I combine the two searches. Sometimes that works fabulously… sometimes it flops. But at least it’s something. (Of course, this doesn’t work very well at all if you’re trying to find an example of close reading… since close readers often only cite the work they’re reading, er, closely.)

‘Tis a puzzle. It’s one of those examples of a very common kind of research task (for my population, at least) that cannot be solved without quite a bit of prior disciplinary knowledge. Search, just by itself, will almost always fail.

7 thoughts on “Method as Content for Undergraduates

  1. Iris, I assume you mean that our databases currently do NOT index on methodology so that you or anyone else cannot search on it.

    But they most certainly could be indexed on method just as easily as on anything else. Sure, indexers might need a bit more knowledge of the field they are indexing but let’s hope (I know it’s only a hope) that they already have some decent subject knowledge. And if they have subject knowledge of a field where differentiating methodology can be critical then I would hope and assume they have that knowledge; at least to the level of the subject itself.

    If you really did mean that it is not possible to index on methodology could you please discuss a bit on why you feel that way.

    I have no doubt that identifying the methodology or theoretical approach can be difficult in some instances, but I’d also maintain that it is (in most cases) no harder than determining subject/aboutness/etc.

    P.S. Not trying to critique. Just want to understand if you meant currently not possible or theoretically not possible in your disciplines, of which I admittedly have limited knowledge.

  2. Hi Mark,

    By “not possible” I mean “not possible to do well, at least not in the disciplines with which I am most familiar.” Take literary theory (the area with which I’m most familiar). Almost no scholar will name his or her theoretical approach in a work of criticism, and most use approaches primarily based on one or another theory of reading but drawing on bits and pieces of other theories. To make matters even more complicated, part of the fun of lit theory is that it keeps shifting. People keep splitting theories, making new ones, re-naming old ones, blending several together, or (even more fun) deciding that while Scholar A *thinks* she’s a post-structuralist, she’s actually just a structuralist.

    It’s the same reason we don’t index based on school of philosophical thought, or even schools of anthropological thought. Things shift, and it takes a great deal of disciplinary familiarity to see the distinctions. And I don’t think we can assume that disciplinary indexers would be able to make these distinctions. Even after graduate work in the field, I can’t do it with any real finesse, and I’d be petrified if assigned that task. I know I’d make matters worse rather than better.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that we could certainly add fields for theoretical approach, but getting consistent and appropriate data into that field would be incredibly difficult.

  3. Very well put, Iris! And I pretty much agree.

    But I’d also argue that much of what passes for “typical” indexing and/or subject assignment is no less cloudy.

    Some of it is certainly easier than others, but then methodology and approach would be the same.

    I also agree that some of your fields do fall on the tougher end of the spectrum.

    Thanks for replying, and with such a thoughtful answer.

  4. I agree that aboutness is often fuzzy, too, but at least the way it’s indexed currently in my fields, it’s at least not the stuff of on-going scholarly debate. I’m not going to take a class devoted to the topic of whether or not a critic was critiquing a particular author’s work or not, or whether or not the scholar was exploring the work’s “(treatment of) women” (to borrow from the MLA thesaurus). Still, as you say, it’s never completely cut and dried.

    And yes, my database designer of an LIS prof used to just shake his head at “you humanities people.” “You never say what you mean,” he’d complain, “and your article titles are useless.” :-)

  5. Hi Ellen,

    I use Literary Theory: An Anthology edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (WorldCat link). It was one of my readers in grad school, so I had it on hand. It has sections for each of the major literary theories made up of works by the key theorists.

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