One of the great challenges when working with students is convincing them that it’s OK to narrow their research topics. Students commonly report that beginning a research paper (understanding the scope of the assignment, picking a topic, and finding a question to answer) is usually the most challenging part. Alison Head’s 2007 article in First Monday about the results of focus groups and surveys with college students at one college noted that “[t]rying to figure out what constituted a professor’s expectations for an assignment caused…the most frustration.”
From what I’ve seen, students flounder around in a sea of broad topics at the outset of the research process for a variety of reasons:
- Lack of domain expertise. They usually don’t know enough about the topic yet to know what sub-topics, sub-sub-topics, sub-sub-sub topics, etc. exist. Reading/skimming around, presearching, talking to someone else (teacher, librarian, friend, etc.) are all strategies that can help at this early stage if the student has set aside enough time for it.
- Fear of picking a topic that’s too narrow. Students often worry that the professor won’t approve of a topic that . Students believe they need to impress their professor with grand topics, that they need to demonstrate that they have wrestled with mighty issues. Students also fear that they won’t find enough sources on topics that are too granular.
- Limited ideas about how to use sources. Students commonly have very basic notions about how to use sources creatively and strategically. They tend to limit their searches to those sources that that they believe will directly discuss their topic and back up their assertions; they rarely think about finding sources that will complicate their assertions. (For more on helping students understand how to think more broadly about source use, see my post about using Joseph Bizup’s BEAM model; also take a look at Mark Gaipa’s article in Pedagogy, “Breaking into the Conversation: How Students Can Acquire Authority for Their Writing”).
Because students can’t see how they can crossbreed sources across disciplines and topics, they tend to think their research topics should be broad, as that’ll make it easier to find sources. We must convince them that a narrow topic can be connected in lots of interesting ways to larger topics and disciplines, that sources from left field can be deployed in defensible ways in their papers (see Joseph Bizup and the BEAM model). I recently stumbled across these lines by William Blake in “Auguries of Innocence” that have inspired me to work harder at communicating this essential cognitive skill we want to teach, the move from micro to macro:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
I think I may have a new poetic pitch to deliver to the students I work with. Here’s hoping it helps.
I was honored to be asked back this week to the Adventures in Library Instruction podcast along with other guests from previous episodes. I learned about a number of interesting projects and ideas from the other guests. Chad Mairn makes use of PollEverywhere in his classes and workshops and finds it valuable for getting instant feedback from his students. He’s also got an interesting “Database Troubleshooting Guide” that helps walk patrons through issues they may be having when accessing library databases. Peter Larsen spoke about using Google Docs for his library’s credit course.
Chad and Peter had to leave after a half hour of recording, which left me to ramble on at the halfway mark with the show hosts about why I find Joseph Bizup’s model for teaching source types to students so powerful, a topic I recently blogged about here.
Keri Bertino and Heather Sample at the Writing Center at Baruch College, with whom I have been working on a series of workshops for students working on undergraduate honors theses, have completely revolutionized the way that I think about sources. This summer, my colleagues recommended to me an article from 2008 by Joseph Bizup from Rhetoric Review (volume 27, number 1) titled “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing” (behind a paywall…sorry). Arguing convincingly that the traditional model of sources that we teach to students–primary, secondary, tertiary–is limiting and confusing, Bizup goes on to suggest that we instead teach students to think about the different way that we use sources in writing.
Specifically, he recommends divvying up source types into four categories:
- Background: sources in which you want to assert that something is a fact and which can contextualize your claims
- Exhibits: sources that you offer an analysis or interpretation of
- Arguments: sources that are part of the discourse about your topic
- Method: sources that you use to delineate the method of analysis you will use or the terminology you will employ
Put more succinctly, Bizup wants us to teach students that “[w]riters rely on background sources, interpret of analyze exhibits, engage arguments, and follow methods” (76). As a mnemonic aid, the system is referred to as the BEAM model. Not only is this model useful in getting students to think about how they will use their sources in their paper and whether they have the right number from each category, but is also useful in teaching students how to analyze a source critically. In his classes, Bizup asks his students to read a source and, following the BEAM modelm, to indicate to what use each source is put.
As a librarian, I can recognize immediately how this model will help me when I do workshops and teach my own 3-credit course in research. But I can also see how it might help me in reference interactions where I am hoping to widen the student’s sense of what might work as a source in their research projects. All too often, students assume that sources are to be used solely as support for the claims they are making and, relatedly, that those sources must be precisely on their narrow topic (e.g., “I need to find a source that talks about the role of mothers in this poem by Dickinson and this play by Brecht”). With this model in mind, I can work with students to look at what sources they have found and whether they have found enough from each category to make the claim they want to. In particular, I think I will be able to employ Bizup’s maxim about getting started with a research project, where he states that “[i]f you start with an exhibit, look for argument sources to engage; if you start with argument sources, look for exhibits to interpret” (82).
I would recommend that any librarian who does reference work or who teaches in classrooms take a look at this article.