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Barbara Fister: Playing for Keeps: Rethinking How Research Is Taught to Today's College Students

Barbara Fister is a Professor and Academic Librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, a small liberal arts college near Minneapolis. In this PIL interview, we talked to Barbara about why the research paper is a flawed pedagogical practice but continues to be assigned, and what rethinking of research as "play" may mean to teaching today's college students. (Interview posted: July 26, 2012)

Barbara FisterKnown for her outspoken "blessays" on scholarly publishing, Barbara Fister is a regular contributor to some of the most influential publications in librarianship as well as a columnist for Inside Higher Ed and Library Journal.

Her faithful readers count on her for lively prose and thoughtful observations on all aspects of the academic workplace, journalism, open access, and lifelong learning.

Barbara is a Professor and Academic Librarian at Gustavas Adolphus College, a small liberal arts college near Minneapolis. In addition to coordinating the library’s instruction program, she has served as Associate Dean of Faculty and as Director of the Kendall Center for Engaged Learning

We caught up with Barbara over the summer and asked her about the shortcomings of research paper assignments and how research, reading, and student learning could and needs to be re-imagined.

PIL: You’ve been a critic of the college research paper for some time. In one of your 2011 Inside Higher Ed columns you wrote, “the research paper as taught in college is an artificial genre, one that works at cross-purposes to actually developing respect for evidence-based reasoning, a measured appreciation for negotiating ideas that are in conflict, or original thought.” If the research paper is so flawed, why does it continue to be used over and over again at most institutions? What would you say are the best alternatives for teaching students about research-based writing? How could the traditional research paper be re-imagined to be more effective?

Barbara: I have been wondering about that for many years, and I’m not alone; this is an issue that people who teach writing have wrestled with for decades. In 1982, the journal College English published a set of articles on the research paper, one of which is a classic in which Richard Larson called the research paper “a non-form of writing.” He valued research as a mode of learning, but felt the genre “research paper” was at a far remove from what we do when we do research. Oddly enough, the research paper is more entrenched than ever. Students learning how to write in college today are more often asked to do expository writing in papers with an assigned length that is three times the average paper length, than they were during the 1980s. Though I don’t know of any research that can confirm it, I also have a hunch that faculty are more likely than they were in the past to ask first year college students to find and use scholarly journal articles that are written for a very different audience.

Though research paper assignments are ubiquitous, we know students don’t tackle research papers the way we wish. Rather than make informed choices about what sources they will use in constructing an argument, they are likely to grab articles from which they can easily mine some quotes, often pulling some out-of-context lines from the first page without reading further.. Because the results are so dismal, faculty often conclude their students simply aren’t very good at reading or writing. But that’s not necessarily true.

We know from research such as PIL’s enormously helpful studies and the Stanford Study of Writing that students actually do use libraries to conduct research independently, and that they have a sophisticated grasp of rhetorical concepts when they have a reason to write that matters to them. Research papers are seen as a test of how well they can present to the teacher something she or he already knows following strict and seemingly arbitrary rules. It’s hard to blame them for using the most efficient means possible. Engagement, experimentation, close reading, following unexpected leads into unfamiliar territory—those are detours that interfere with efficient productivity.

That said, I have read wonderful undergraduate papers, ones that are creative, insightful, and original—and perceptive about what an academic audience expects and values. Those students have made a shift in self-perception that makes a huge difference. They see knowledge as constructed by people like them; they have a genuine question and a genuine itch to see how they might answer it. And they have figured out how to present their ideas in an academic form that doesn’t desiccate their insights or silence their individual voice.

Though these students have learned how to find sources and document them properly, being taught to do those activities had nothing to do with the shift they’ve made from aggregating sources to becoming a participant in creating knowledge. What prompts that shift? To some extent it’s practice and a growing sense of confidence. But it also involves opportunities to compose meaning that doesn’t sound to them like “use x-number of sources and show me in x-number pages that you can explain what other people already know without making too many grammatical errors.” Instead, their teachers have made them feel part of a wider community grappling with some unfinished area of knowledge by treating them as co-learners using assignments that require students to accomplish a meaningful task or ask a genuine question or propose and test an original hypothesis. I don’t know how much the assignment prompt itself makes the difference. I suspect it’s some combination of the prompt, the student’s readiness to handle ambiguity, and the teacher’s enthusiasm for the ideas the class is discussing that helps students make the switch.

I think many first year writing instructors teach the research paper as a survival skill, knowing it’s a kind of writing students will be asked to do, though really they would learn more about writing if asked to compose in other forms – perhaps putting together background briefings, writing a letter to the local newspaper, as contributions to a class blog or to Wikipedia – saving research for upper division classes in the major, where students can feel more at home in the conversations going on in the discipline, more ready to use the discourse conventions of the field. Otherwise, we’re begging them to fake it.

PIL: In an upcoming talk you are giving to a group of academic librarians, you will discuss how the best researchers think of research as play, or in your words, as “engaging ideas in motion.” Good idea, but, in 2009, when Project Information Literacy (PIL) asked students how they would describe their feelings about course research we heard: angst, tired, dread, fear, anxious, annoyed, stressed, disgusted, intrigued, excited, confused, and overwhelmed. How should we begin to think about making the research process more like play for students? What keeps most students from thinking of research as play? Can you give an example of an assignment that encourages a playful approach to research and at the same time produces reliable results?

Barbara: It’s good to see “excited” and “intrigued” in the mix! That’s what we want.

“Play” is such a multi-faceted word. It means mimesis, freedom of movement, the kind of repetitive mastery that happens when playing video games or sports or music, as well as the kind of imaginative interactions children have as they try on various roles. It’s usually the last thing on students’ minds when they are tackling a research paper!

In a way, research papers are play—as in mimicry: “see if you can play the role of scholar, because if you practice enough, and learn enough big words, you can eventually be initiated into our community.” There are a couple of problems with that kind of play. Students don’t have enough familiarity to do a good imitation, at least in the first couple of undergraduate years and, more importantly, they rarely intend to become faculty themselves. It feels hollow to them, not fun. And, of course, it is hollow; the rules for writing papers are nothing like what scholars are doing when they write up their results.

Authentic research is all about playing with ideas. You notice something odd: two things that are strangely similar, something that doesn’t behave the way you expect, or something that makes you think, “what’s up with that?” Maybe you see something that’s broken, and you want to work out a way to fix it, or you hear something that makes you so mad, you need to explain why it’s messed up. You don’t know where it’s leading when you start, and you might change your mind before you’re done, but that’s how it goes.

I think good research prompts are ones that give students some say in what they will choose as their problem or question within the goals of the course. It’s a real question that doesn’t already have a ready answer, and ideally it will have an audience beyond just the teacher. There’s scaffolding built in, so the process is not so full of “angst, dread, and fear.” Students tend to prefer individual over group projects, but the classroom should be a place where they share their work in progress, so that their classmates are a small scholarly community working together, because all knowledge is social. And there should be some room for them to be themselves, to react on their own terms using their own language, even if the finished project requires that they adopt formal conventions.

It’s not easy to manufacture engagement and ownership. One of my colleagues teaching a first term seminar found her students were impatient with the readings she had chosen. They were sold on the subject of the course – the virtues of living simply – but wanted to write about the topic from a college student perspective. She was game (no pun intended) and tossed the syllabus, letting them spend the last weeks of the class creating a guide to the issues for their fellow students using Wordpress as a platform. They were deep into composing pages on topics like “environmental impacts of consumerism” and “religious motives for simplicity” before one of them turned around and asked “hey, how are you going to grade this, anyway?” They were cool with it when she answered “I’m not sure. This is all new to me.” I noticed a student posted to their blog on Christmas Eve, long after grades were turned in. They were unusually engaged.

You can’t manufacture a situation like that. Had the instructor started with “we’re going to write a blog-based guide for other students” it probably would have seemed like a chore. But by putting the focus on ideas and discovery and making the critical moves that matter to us as scholars and as curious members of our communities rather than focusing on what the finished product should look like, we can shift the focus to what matters and is more fun. An engaged student is more likely to produce solid research than one who is simply going through the motions.

PIL: This past summer, you were on a panel at ALA (2012) talking about what a readers’ advisory might look like in a college setting. You also have some direct experience with this idea since you teach a Reading Workshop at Gustavas Adolphus College, in addition to an upper-division class called Information Fluency. How have things worked out for you with these two courses on your campus? How might information literacy and lifelong learning be served by recreational reading in college? Would you describe many of today’s college students as readers for pleasure?

Barbara: Reading just for fun is something that we have discovered the vast majority of students enjoy, but rarely do during the academic year. There is some interesting research on the psychology of reading for pleasure, suggesting that it correlates with empathy, that the brain is very active when “lost in a book,” that it plays a role in identity formation, and that people learn a great deal about the world, even when they are reading fiction. The Reading Workshop course grew out of our findings and offers students a low-stakes way to fit some pleasure reading into their semester and earn a small amount of credit. We read and discuss a book together, each student chooses a book of their own to read and review for a shared database of student recommendations, and they develop their own list of books they might want to read when they have the opportunity. For many students, this is the only chance they have to discuss books in a relaxed atmosphere; for others, it’s an opportunity to get back in touch with their personal reading tastes. It’s too new to see how effective it really is, but students have responded well to it.

The Information Fluency course is incredibly fun in a nerdy way. It’s mostly taken by juniors and seniors, often in conjunction with a senior thesis or capstone project. We explore how things get published and what libraries do with them and discuss issues about access and privacy and copyright and other information-related issues. The students enjoy comparing notes about the way their major disciplines form and share knowledge. It’s all discussion and hands-on work, and though I suspect it attracts self-selecting nerds, it’s always well received.

While Information Fluency was specifically designed for students going on to grad school, in practice they don’t approach it in a particularly vocational manner. They enjoy relating their major to a wider context, and they enjoy thinking about information as it plays out in everyday life and how it connects with social issues. I didn’t expect it to apply to the kind of lifelong learning goals that spill over the boundaries of professional aspirations, but it turns out it does. Likewise, while the Reading Workshop is, in some ways, an oasis of relaxed reading during a busy semester, we hope students leave with a more mature understanding of their own reading preferences and some ideas about what to read next when they no longer have a syllabus making that decision for them.

PIL: Librarians at your institution have created a semester-long library lab embedded within a political science course. What inspired this alternative to the one-shot and the stand-alone information literacy course? What advice would you offer librarians and professors considering such a close and extended teaching collaboration?

Barbara: This project has been incredibly successful. Rather than sprinkle some library knowhow over lots of courses, the library and political science department decided to give up an hour a week and use the library as a lab for the methods course. The librarian who designed the lab, Julie Gilbert, drew on the syllabus for Information Fluency, but reworked to specifically address the kinds of information sources, processes, and issues that political science students will use in their other courses and senior thesis. Everything that happens in the library is integrated into the methods course, and they have tracked student learning outcomes semester by semester so that they can make improvements.

We are trying to extend this model to other departments, but it’s tricky. Not every major has a methods course. When they do, it may be more focused on theory than skills. These kinds of courses can also be battlegrounds for the soul of a discipline and so there are often unexpected conflicts within a department that can make it hard to come to consensus about what exactly it is that students need to learn in that single semester. But we know from assessing this experience that it leads to better student learning and deeper understanding than through the more haphazard and shallow one-shot sessions. Whatever is arrived at needs to take into account different departmental cultures, disciplinary traditions, and what it is that we all hope students will take with them from the experience.

PIL: Lastly, we have to ask you, what practices and habits do you employ to keep your own writing sharp, plentiful, and very readable?  Not all academics can write for two educational publications and be successful mystery writers at the same time. Okay, Barbara, what’s your secret?

Barbara: Heh. No secrets here. It helps that my kids are grown, I live in a small town with limited distractions, and am not bothered by a messy house. I just enjoy writing, which is how I work out what I think about things. Crime fiction can be roomy arena for working through the human implications of social issues and for venting about things that bother me. The interactive nature of blogging has been helpful in that I instantly find out what I didn’t explain very well or left out or got wrong, thanks to the comment thread, which has always been civil at Library Journal and Inside Higher Ed. And while I have enormous respect for rigorous scholarship and have enjoyed writing up collaborative research with pre-tenure colleagues, blogging is a more immediate and unfinished format that can tolerate a touch of snark and a bit of fun. Maybe if there is a secret, it’s to do lots of different kinds of writing—and to treat it as a chance to play.

Barbara lives in rural Minnesota. For 25 years, she has been a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College. She has been a consistent proponent of the core values of librarianship and champion of the library as a critical institution on campus, while questioning assumptions about everything from student learning to ebooks.

A prolific author, Barbara is also a well-known mystery writer. Among her novels are Through the Cracks (2010, Minotaur), In the Wind (2008, Minotaur), and On Edge (Dell, 2002).

Smart Talks is an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL). PIL is an ongoing and national research study, supported with contributing funds from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the Institute of Museum and Libraries (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas.

Smart Talk interviews are open source. No permission for use is required from PIL to share this interview, though we ask that this source be cited as Project Information Literacy Smart Talk, no. 12, Barbara Fister, Playing for Keeps: Rethinking How Research is Taught to Today's College Students.

Michele Van Hoeck, a member of the research team at Project Information Literacy and an Instruction Librarian at California Maritime Academy, conducted this Smart Talk interview with Barbara Fister over email, between June 29 and July 26, 2012.