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Library instruction for undergraduate thesis writers

A librarian emailed me to ask what I teach when I teach seniors who are starting to write their senior theses. I realized that I haven’t written some of this here, yet, so here’s my answer to that librarian only slightly edited.

The pre-thesis session changes a bit every time because I start it with time to go around the table, have each student tell me and the group their thesis topic, and also tell us at least one thing about the research process that they’re concerned about. (This wouldn’t work for majors in departments with departmental cultures that prevent revealing weaknesses, but it works quite well for my English and American Studies and Language students.) For American Studies students I also ask them what they remember from our session the previous spring, since I get to see them at the end of their Junior year and the beginning of their Senior year. If they look at me blankly, I’ll cover that stuff again only more quickly, and if they remember a lot, I’ll add in some razzle dazzle advanced resource that will be new to them.

Basically, based on that conversation, I prioritize the rest of the hour.

There are always a few things I want to get to, of course, but luckily the students nearly always bring these things up, so the whole session usually feels like their idea even though I can usually predict at least 75% of the content.

So, what are some of these things? Many of them are covered in this old blog post of mine: The Circular Research Process is particularly important for research at this level, as is Instrumental Reading. In addition, I nearly always talk about managing your research riffing off of the “Keeping Track” tab of their subject research guides for each major

I also make sure that they either hear or remember conversations we’ve had about how bibliography is not just an alphabetical list. Instead, it’s a mind map of the scholarly conversation that the author was joining. They should get used to looking for clues about major players and how claims can be built and what counts as evidence in this conversation, etc.

Two things that come up a lot are appropriate topic scope and how to know when you’re done researching. For the first I often use the analogy of a cropped photograph for a good topic: focused in on the important parts and only gesturing toward the rest of the things that you mentally know are part of the original scene but are cut out of the cropped image. We’ll also talk about how to combine related bodies of scholarship into your new, combined topic (students often aren’t very good at thinking about related research as useful to their new claims). And as far as when you know you’re done? Being true to your cropped image and then running continually into bibliographies that list people you’ve already read.

I will always take them through the advanced research features and search strategies of the one or two databases most likely to be core to their disciplinary work. If there’s time, I’ll show them how to do cited reference searching using both Web of Science and Google Scholar. Depending on the group I’ll also do a more in-depth look at either Zotero or Mendeley, whichever the group votes up.

I also give them a “Subversive Handout” which lists questions they can come talk to me about later, and I take them through scheduling an appointment with me and give them some hints about what might be good points in the research process to sit down with me (i.e. when they’re testing topic feasibility, when their just starting to explore, just before their proposals are due, and any time they feel stuck).

Clearly, I don’t to every piece of this! But these are the things that I’m prepared to do and that I choose from during that initial conversation with the group.

Published inIn My ClassroomTeaching and Learning


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