Friday, March 13, 2009

How to Get Started on Research as an Emergent Researcher

Most high schools and many college writing courses teach "Research" as a set of skills to be mastered, which can be applied to any "research problem." In the First Year Writing Program, we believe that research is a methodical, but organic and essentially thought-driven process. Simply put "research" are the situational but rigorous strategies that intellectuals use to observe the world (be it in the form of text, human behavior, social structures, or natural phenomenon) and to develop defensible and productive knowledge-claims about it. The faculty believe that first-year students are not only ready to conduct real research on authentic problems, we believe that their findings, analyses, and interpretations are worth reading. The toughest problem for emergent researchers working to develop methodical but organic strategies for observing the world in particular research situations is knowing how to manage multiple new concepts, processes, and techniques at the same time as they are becoming experts in the subject and field of their project.

In this post, Professors Phyllis Ryder & Eric Drown, and librarians Dolsy Smith & Deborah Gaspar offer advice on how to get started on research as an emergent researcher. Please, whether you're an emergent or experienced researcher, leave a comment or question derived from your own research experiences.

According to Prof. Drown, "emergent researchers have to embrace a substantive mind shift as they make the move from doing research assignments to rehearse research skills to conducting authentic research on open questions of active interest. In a 'research skills' approach, students are taught to answer questions definitively by seeking, evaluating, and presenting information. The work of the researcher is to collate, judge, and perhaps to recommend. In contrast, researchers working on authentic research problems have to construct objects of study, figure out the appropriate and meaningful questions to ask, locate scholarly communities of interest, determine or invent supple and reliable methods of observation and analysis, and test their knowledge-claims for accuracy, sufficiency, and productivity in particular discourse communities. In this model, the researcher observes, explores, creates, interprets, forges connections, persuades, serves and participates in communities of interest."

This all sounds very complicated, but librarian Dolsy Smith's"very unlibrarian-like" approach to his research-work captures the spirit of an organically developing matrix of essentially curiosity-driven tasks that makes up a useful research process:

"Research never really begins (just as it never really ends). You 'start' your research by sorting through what you already know or think or wonder about a subject, from the assumptions and impressions you bring to it, from whatever in your experience has drawn you to this subject in the first place. But this is hardly a limitation. In fact, if you neglect this part of the process, you'll have a hard time identifying your own stake in the subject matter, by which I mean that once you start juggling what others have already said about it, you won't know what you yourself have to say.

I start my research in a very exploratory mood: I spend a lot of time poking around, indulging in free association, following various angles and leads, looking for the hook that will catch my interest. Often I hop from footnote to footnote until I hit on a text that allows me to think about the subject from an unexpected perspective or with a vocabulary that I'm not used to. This kind of text need not relate directly to the subject I'm researching; indeed, it can work better if it doesn't. That's because the point of research and argument is to introduce fresh points of view on [even] familiar subjects, and the most important arguments are those that draw connections between things that no one had considered relevant to each other before. "Relevance" is not given; for any particular subject, there is not a finite set of relevant sources waiting to be discovered. The task of the researcher is to construct the relevance of what she finds. Something I read makes me think of something else--I test out a connection--if it doesn't click, I have to be prepared to go back and look (and think) again. But the key components of research are reading and writing and thinking."

Follow Mr. Smith's advice and you'll end up developing the "sense of interest in and curiosity towards your subject" that librarian Deborah Gaspar says is a key trait of successful researchers. According to Ms Gaspar, you can create that sense of curiosity by using research skills that you already have. In early stages of the project, she advises, researchers should "do a kind of mental inventory--ask yourself what you already know about your subject. Make a list of words and look for links between different ideas. This will set you up to think about what you want to know or are curious about a subject. There's nothing wrong with Googling your topic to help you in this idea-generating phase. Just use the results list (and search suggestions) to see how the search and summary algorithms connect words, ideas, examples, events, and people to one another and to see what your brain-based algorithms (intuition, insight) make of the material you've fished up."

Prof. Ryder's suggestions aim at helping emerging researchers understand what they're looking for and how to work with what they find. She says:

"Don't research just to find 'fact'; research to find arguments. While you might find some 'facts' useful for setting up the background of your essay, the real heart of your work will be to figure out the many ways people argue about the issue. It's rare to find two people who define the problem exactly the same way; fewer still define it the same way and recommend similar courses of action. More likely, you'll find that people disagree about what's going on, about whether what's going on is productive or harmful, about whether a solution fits the problem and so on. Look for the arguments and figure out how you can group them. Who is talking to whom about what part of the problem? Which part of this discussion will be most useful for you?

As you find some articles that really seem to speak to the question you've found, pause to read them. Write a "coming to terms" (a la Joe Harris in Rewriting) identifying the overall purpose of the piece, how it develops, and what its uses and limits are. This kind of close reading and writing as you go will help you keep track of the conversation you're following. You can start seeing patterns; you'll start noticing when a lot of people agree on the same point and when there is disagreement.

On a real practical level: Sign up for a session on how to use Refworks (the free citation manager GW libraries make available) and then use it to capture all the articles and books you think you might use. keeps track of what you found and where you found it, and will later format your bibliography for you. Using it from the start will save you time down the road."

Whether your research is in the humanities, social sciences, or sciences; whether you're seeking narrow answers to specific questions, opening broad new lines of inquiry, looking at familiar things in a new way, or clearing away previous wrong answers, research is a creative act of knowledge-making situated in the needs, habits, and interests of communities of interest. Just as what counts as "good writing" varies in different disciplinary, professional, cultural, or civic settings, so too does what counts as "good research." As you get more familiar with the research practices of the communities of interest you seek to join, you'll feel more comfortable with the ways members of those communities construct their objects of study, organize matrices of data, create frameworks of meaning, and make knowledge-claims. But, as Ms Gaspar advises, "if you think of yourselves as engaged in a conversation with other writers interested in similar concerns, and observe the ways they do things, you'll quickly learn how to contribute to, extend, and even change the scholarly conversation."

Please, whether you're an emergent or experienced researcher, leave a comment or question derived from your own research experiences!

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