Monthly Archives: September 2011

My Friend the Librarian

This article from Inside Higher Ed caught my attention, but not really my surprise:

What Students Don’t Know: Study of Student Research Habits at Illinois University Libraries

(And yes, my attention was partially about “Squee! Qualitative analysis! Ethnographic research leading to real useful empirical data! Yay!”)

I honestly didn’t really discover the public library, let alone any scholarly ones, until a couple of years ago.  But once I did, I have never looked back.  My credit card charges to Amazon have dropped to almost nil, and I haven’t felt like new books were even something I was that interested in. And for school–oh my goodness, having a student ID that connects me to every university research library in the country and many all over the world leaves me feeling sort of giddy and trembling. And the real beauty is that even before I was in school, if there was any book I needed from a university library, my public one could usually get it for me.

The best discovery was how absolutely happy the library staff has been to help me, as though they sit around waiting for the opportunity to do something interesting and research-y, anything but just shelving books and sitting there stamping due dates onto cards. (A friend of mine who is a public librarian tells me that this is exactly how she feels whenever she gets to help someone actually utilize the resources of the library and the highly trained people who work there.)

Next week I will be heading into higher ed once again.  And so far my school’s sort of enforced engagement with the university library is encouraging.  There is a day-long (optional) course the day before school starts in using the resources of the libraries, with breakfast and lunch included, for which I have registered–they even sent me a reminder to register, indicating that they really do want people to take part in this.  A whole day (okay, 9-2:30) with breakout sessions and tours and all kinds of resources…it will be especially invaluable to me since, as a music student, I won’t otherwise get much exposure to the main library building and what it can help me do. (For one thing, there’s a qualitative analysis session as part of this library day, and I have this flickering hope that maybe I may have access to some of the software as a student without having to buy it myself for my sadly unfunded little study…)

Then there’s “Bibliography,” the course every new grad student has to take. Essentially it’s about How To Use The Library To Research And Write Your Thesis. What’s tragic is that, in the two Master’s degrees I’ve already obtained, no one has ever even offered me, let alone insisted that I take, a course like this.

Various academic bloggers, including the Higher Ed article writers, lament the poor research skills and abilities of students in universities.  And it’s a valid lament, as this study seems to indicate. But…where were students supposed to learn the skills? When do they ever actually get taught the art–and yes, it’s an art as much as a skill–of successful searches and primary and secondary sources and even proper citations and forms? Listing Turabian as a required text for a course is fine, but if that’s all students actually get, that’s just plain sad.

I have an instinct for searches, and a stubborn personality that keeps me pushing and pushing until I catch the scent of a profitable trail. It’s taken me more than a decade to develop that instinct into something useful, and it’s only that instinct itself that has let me do that–because in this case, the trail was “how to do online academic research.” I’ve followed a bunch of dead ends, useless articles, impenetrable webs of bullshit, and eventually learned a huge amount that I didn’t know before.

Why is “academic research skills” not a required freshman course at every single accredited university in this country? (Or others, I guess, but I don’t live there.) Why do students get taught all this Required Coursework, but never actually have someone sit them down and teach them the skills of how to choose a paper topic, how to research it, the entire frigging concept of “method,” how to write a footnote and a bibliography and why we do them, all that really basic stuff?

And if we never actually teach it, if we put students through all these other required and frequently useless courses (no offense to Descartes and Kant and Nietzsche, but Freshman Philosophy has not played an enormous role in my development as a scholar) before we give them a degree but never actually require that they learn to do research, how can we possibly expect that they will consider those skills important in the slightest?

Sort of depressing.

God help my students if I ever do make it into a university and teach any actual paper-writing courses. They will hate me.

And I’m really looking forward to it.