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The Research/Writing Connection and Why There Shouldn’t be Turf

Head on over to See Also, where Steve Lawson writes thoughtfully (as usual) about the connection between research and writing, information literacy, and the differences and similarities between librarians and disciplinary faculty.

To what extent should librarians help students see multiple sides of the scholarly conversation, develop their own arguments, or give other advice about constructing effective presentations? The only answer I have is “it depends.” It depends on a lot of things, but one of the most important is the librarian’s relationship with the professor. I know one professor, for example, who encourages her students to meet with me as they’re deciding on a topic, as they’re writing their papers, or at any other time in the iterative writing process. She and I in effect double team the students, pushing them to think not only about the answers to their research questions, but also about what makes a good research question in the first place. On the other hand, I know professors who bristle if I do anything more than teach the difference between keyword and subject searching. One professor would prefer me not to talk about evaluation of sources because that’s something properly done during office hours and by “struggling through” drafts.

While I would never suggest that librarians should usurp the professor’s role, I think that there are three specific ways in which we are uniquely placed to help students as they learn to engage with sources. First and most obviously, we are trained to think in terms of sources. We can make educated guesses about whether the information sought would be collected in a compilation, submitted to academic journals, explored in depth in a monograph, reported on in the news, or entered into an encyclopedia. We are adept at jumping straight to the questions “who would publish about this and where would they publish it?” Over the last few weeks, I’ve become acutely aware that most students cannot make educated guesses about these sorts of things. They just guess.

Second, we do not grade students. I’ve had students express confusion to me when they wouldn’t have jeopardized their standing in class to ask a “stupid” question. And I’ve had a couple of good responses from professors who, when I alerted them to a pattern of confusion in their classes, took steps to alleviate that confusion.

Third and most important, librarians are not usually as deeply immersed in the particular subject matter at hand as are the faculty. This often seems like a liability since we can’t simply pull related facts and theories out of our memories and construct searches from this base of knowledge. But far from being a liability, this is actually our greatest advantage. Because we don’t simply “know” the topic at hand, we get to model learning about the topic with the student. The hardest part about this is remembering to narrate our thought processes to students as we work together. I was reminded of this earlier this week when a student asked me how I knew which record in a result list to open. I explained that I didn’t and then consciously narrated through scanning the result list, picking up on clues from publication types and titles, looking at years of publication, and so on. Then I’d click on the record and narrate what I was seeing: title, author, publication name, subject headings, abstract. All this is new to students (especially first year students, though some seniors are almost here), but after a few minutes of this type of modeling most students will begin to take ownership of the search, suggesting new directions, pointing out records to open, and eventually running off to continue on their own. When we model learning, taking notes, going back and modifying old searches, picking up on clues, and getting excited when we find a juicy article, we’re not only helping students locate the information they need, but we’re also helping them learn the art of research.

On a related note, I would add that in addition to negotiating where librarians’ skills overlap with and complement disciplinary faculty’s skills, we should also consider how our skills overlap with those of the writing professionals on our campuses. Last spring I was invited to attend a meeting of writing professionals in our region, and it was eye-opening for all of us to realize that we both think about our jobs in similar ways, and that we both work with students on the same projects. And yet, students are trained not to expect too much help with mechanics and “proof reading” at the writing center. Writing professionals and faculty both expect students to learn about constructing effective arguments when they work with writing tutors. Why should it be so different for librarians? Just as writing tutors work with writers more than with papers, so also academic librarians are in the business of working with researchers, not simply of providing research.

Published inTeaching and Learning