Monthly Archives: February 2019

Outlander and the research process


I finished reading Outlander 3 recently. (Formally titled Voyager, but I’m not great a remembering titles in series, and especially not when I read them on Kindle, which is how I read this 1000 page monster.) In the back there’s quite a bit of supplementary material, including an interview with the author, Diana Gabaldon, reproduced almost entirely here, where she talks about her research process.

Her process is extremely non-linear, and in fact her writing process is no more linear that the research process. Typically, she writes scenes non-sequentially until she has about a book’s worth, and then she starts to move them around until things fall into place. I assume there’s a significant editing process where she smoothes out the logic, plot, and prose, but the point is, her process is a true inquiry into character, historic setting, and plot possibility with a hefty dose of tapping into the creative place where ideas come from (or, possibly where ideas come to you, if you follow Elizabeth Gilbert). It is not a “research process” (or, frankly, “writing process”) that we in the research+writing world would necessarily advocate for but it works marvelously well for her. She says:

Hearing about this process does, btw, infuriate people who write linearly. I once had a woman sitting on a panel on writing processes with me inform me that I couldn’t possibly do this, because “you have to have a logical foundation! You can’t put the roof on your building unless you’ve built solid walls to hold it up, can you?”

“Of course I can,” I replied. “There’s no gravity in the mind, after all. I can make the roof and just leave it hanging there until I have time to build walls under it. You don’t have to write a book from beginning to end, just because that’s how people will read it.” She Wasn’t Pleased, but the point here is that people’s minds are wired up differently, and a good deal of writing successfully lies in figuring out how your own mind works best, and using it that way. There is no “right” way to write a book. Anything that lets you get words on the page is the right thing to do.

I love the idea of DOING until you need to figure something out, FIGURING IT OUT, and then keeping on DOING until the process repeats. Most of the time when I’ve taught myself something it has followed this pattern. I also like how she relates that people don’t really like to hear this. I’m assuming that’s because she doesn’t follow a typically taught process.

It got me thinking about what we teach, its strengths (linearity, repeatability, confidence) and shortcomings (linearity, rigidity, time-bound). I’m not sure how education can replicate a more organic process at scale, and at the same time I’d much rather work with students who come to me and say, “I’ve been DOING and now I’ve got to FIGURE THIS OUT. Can you help me?” than students who are married to a prescribed process.

I don’t have answers. I’m still thinking. What would it look like, research-wise, to make a roof and leave it hanging until you can build the walls?


impact effort

It occurred to me recently that we don’t give students enough credit when it comes to citation. If you ask faculty and librarians about student citation practices, they will bemoan students’ inability to cite correctly in the format of the faculty’s discipline. The faculty and librarian feelings surrounding this perceived inadequacy range from frustration (it’s a simple formula!) to condescension (if you can’t follow a simple formula, I really can’t help you) to superiority (if only you knew how important citation is, you’d do it properly) to punative (you can kiss those “easy points” goodbye). One possibility for students perceived inability to cite properly we haven’t considered in all of these really unattractive feelings is the role of basic incentives.

Consider your typical rubric. How many points out of the total are assigned to citation? Five out of 100? Given that small incentive to spend extra time after completing the more point-valuable requirements, is it possible that students aren’t incapable, but are simply making a calculated decision on where their time is best spent? Could it be, that rather than spending 30% of their time on 5% of the points, students are instead applying a rather effective impact/effort matrix to their assignments?

Faculty and librarians are often blinded by their own learning styles and motivations when it comes to interacting with students. While it would be unthinkable for many faculty and librarians not to actively attempt to exceed the instructor’s expectations, most students aren’t aiming to get 110% on an assignment. They’re just looking to get through. For many students, the possibility of achieving a max of 95% on the assignment is still a really great outcome. In that context, is it the fault of the students for not attempting 110%, or the fault of the faculty for not adjusting their rubrics to place higher value citation in context of the other requirements?

There is something to be said for properly valuing information and individual’s contribution to scholarship, the role of citation in a scholarly conversation, and other performative aspects of scholarship, but at the same time we as academics must unpack our own motivations behind citation. We cite because journals require us to cite. We cite because we are afraid of our scholarly communities calling us out for not citing. Both of these fundamental motivations are a much stronger incentive for us to cite than for a student to cite. Keeping our jobs is a pretty strong motivator. We expect that students will cite based on our own incentives, but we forget that their incentives are radically different than ours, especially when take on the whole of a life.

Maybe instead of condescending to students about their perceived inability to cite properly, we could instead acknowledge that if our incentives were theirs, they’d likely step up to the plate, too. And if their incentive were ours, on the whole we would be spending less time worried about correct citation too, professional ethics be damned.

(Don’t even get me started on the various citation formats, which, from a student perspective, are simply arbitrary and exist to make things complicated. I make it a point to never “teach citation” any longer, but when I do talk about citation in classes I point out how various citation styles highlight what’s important to a particular discipline, like I did in this long ago class. Providing an explanation isn’t going to change the incentive equation but it can demystify, which I believe is valuable in itself.)