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In my last post I discussed some of the challenges of WAC/WID in the FYC classroom as well as the tools the new edition of Emerging offers to help you meet some of those challenges. In this post I want to think about research, which can be just as challenging to teach in the FYC classroom.
I touch on one of these challenges in the introduction to Emerging:
Research is also an important skill of critical thinking. But “research” is a much trickier term than it used to be. It used to be that research involved looking up specific subjects on little cards or ponderous indexes of journals in the library and then hunting down books in the library stacks or finding articles on microfilm. It required a good deal of training to do well. For most of us today, though, the basic methods of research are nearly instinctive. If you were given a blank search box, you would know what to do — just type in some search terms and start looking at the results until you find what you need. And in fact we often do this kind of research every day: researching what school to attend, or information on your favorite band, or where to get the best tattoo.
But academic research is very different from this kind of research. When you research on the Web, you gather and summarize existing information. When academics do research, though, their goal is to produce new information. (21)
I think this problem—life in a search culture—is compounded by some of the work students do before they reach our classrooms. In high school, my sense is that often writing a “research paper” means “read a bunch of sources and summarize the information,” which is exactly what I don’t want students to do in my classroom.
These challenges around research, or perhaps more properly “researched writing” or “researched arguments,” are further compounded by the same WAC/WID issues I discussed in the last post. That is, students won’t really learn how to research until they enter their disciplines, and each discipline has its own rules for research governing how to conduct it, what counts as evidence, and how to present it.
Rock, meet hard place. On the one hand, I feel the need to teach students how to break out of the “research paper means summarizing sources, which is what I do in a search culture all the time” mold, but on the other hand, I can’t really teach them how to research in ways that will remain meaningful as they journey into their majors and careers.
The approach I tend to take is to boil academic research down to its barest form. It’s an approach I’ve taken when teaching research to graduate students as well. And it comes down to this:
Is(S) = Kn
If you’ve ever been exposed to my Super Secret Formula for connecting readings (now, of course, not so secret) then you already know I have a fondness for formulae, mostly because 1) they are so alien to writing processes and thus force the mind into new modes of thinking, but also because 2) they provide good, simple, concrete scaffolds for work.
In this case, the formula is meant to express my sense that all academic research involves taking Ideas About Stuff (Is) and applying it to Stuff (S) in order to create New Knowledge (Kn). What I am expressing here is nothing new, really. Ideas About Stuff might be recast as secondary sources, or theoretical knowledge, or paradigms, or frames. Stuff is really just a more generalized way of saying primary sources, or practice, or cases. What I find useful about my more abstracted approach is that sometimes secondary sources can serve as primary sources—one could, for example, do a Marxist analysis of feminism. But the central points are that 1) academic research produces new knowledge and 2) that happens by moving between theories and examples.
A biologist might take ideas about DNA replication to develop a new drug for cancer. An engineer might take ideas about energy efficiency to design a new engine. A business person might take ideas about economic trends to predict the stock market. In all cases, academics take ideas about how the world works and use them to predict or change what happens.
The revised introduction to Emerging introduces this approach to students. It also covers the difference between having sources and using sources, as well as the need for understanding how research happens in the disciplines. We went even further with this edition, though, by providing two assignment sequences specifically about research. Both use the readings from the book as a starting point, to help students acquire the basic skills of making arguments and working with sources, and then invite students to locate their own sources to extend the conversation. It’s a kind of deeply scaffolded introduction to research.
I don’t know that Emerging is the ideal text for a course solely devoted to researched writing, but if those kinds of assignments form part of your FYC course then we’ve offered new tools for you to use. I hope you enjoy them.
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