Last year I had my first experience being pretty fully integrated into an American Studies advanced seminar that was explicitly preparing juniors for the experience of writing a senior thesis while also tackling a particular topic within the field of American Studies. It worked fantastically, from my perspective. I’d never had as productive and collaborative a working relationship with a set of thesis students as I did with the students from that seminar. So this year I jumped at the chance to repeat that experiment with an advanced seminar in English.
By the end of the term, we will have met 4 times, sometimes for as little as 10 or 15 minutes, and sometimes for as long as the full class period. And in every case, what I’ll work with them on is simultaneously part of an advanced information literacy “curriculum” of sorts as well as timed to help the students accomplish an upcoming assignment.
Here’s the overview:
- Presearch — identifying and preparing to join scholarly conversations (Your are here)
- Bibliography as an intellectual product
- The Literature Review — mapping your scholarly conversation
- Creativity in Constraint
Session 1: Presearch
Session one went for 50 minutes, which is about half the class period for a Tuesday/Thursday class like this one, and it was almost entirely discussion-based and, after a brief introduction from the professor and from me, started with a discussion of genre. The professor had previously primed them with a quick look at MLA International Bibliography and with repeated references to and discussions about the concept of the scholarly conversation.
Key points from the introduction:
The importance of participating in a conversation according to conventional rules of conversations (i.e. not simply repeating your interlocutors, not bringing in totally off-topic ideas without bracketing them out somehow, non-verbals that all interlocutors understand, etc). Conversations are a genre of communication, and interlocutors are expected to follow the genre’s conventions or incur the displeasure of their interlocutors (and possibly being snubbed).
The course is about Latino/a poetry. How would you describe that genre? What is it trying to do? Who are its audiences? What kinds of evidence does it use to accomplish its goals? What rhetorical moves does it make? (As we discussed this genre, the professor and I kept track of key characteristics on the blackboard.)
The other major genre you’ll be dealing with in this course is the thesis-driven paper — specifically a piece of literary criticism — and in this case you’ll be asked to produce this genre. So what job is this genre doing? Who are its audiences? What kinds of evidence does it employ? What rhetorical moves does it make? (Again, we kept track of key features on the blackboard.)
One more genre, and pre-search:
Probably unbeknownst to you, you’ll also be working with a third genre in this course: the database. (Did a quick search to reveal a result list from MLA International Bibliography.) At this point in the circular research process, when you’re choosing a topic, you have to do a lot of listening in on the scholarly conversations that are happening in order to decide which to join yourself. This will involve doing many probing searches in databases and catalogs, “reading” the result lists and maybe the full records of results that look particularly interesting, slowly building up a map of the conversations you find, learning to vocabulary of those conversations and the key players, and then using all of this to build future searches and further refine your map of the scholarly conversation(s). Thinking of the database as a genre can help you “read” result lists in this concept-mapping way, and to think of searches as expeditions on the mapping quest rather than as end-points.
So, if a result list is a genre, what meaning does a list as a whole convey? Who is the audience? What “evidence” is it using to help its audience reach conclusions? What are the rhetorical moves it makes (think of layout and privileging of certain information as a rhetorical move).
Given all of this, what might finding “nothing on my topic” mean? Are there intellectual/rhetorical moves you can make in that situation (given that you’re talking about very contemporary poetry, it’s likely that you won’t find anything on your particular poem, after all)? [We discussed making arguments from analogy, using work from another poet/poem to illuminate your topic, and we discussed creating a theoretical base on which to ground your own work.] How might you recognize an “interesting question” to pursue? What kinds of things should you keep track of in your research notes that will help you map out the various conversations you find (I provide some templates under “Keeping Useful Notes” here)?
All too soon, our time was up.
Next time: Bibliographies as Intellectual Products.