The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives

Jennifer E. Nutefall, & Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. (2010). The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(4), 437-449.

[In case this sounds familiar, this article draws on the same research that the authors published in an article Michele discussed in an earlier RIOT, but from a different perspective.]

The study reported in this article used an extremely small and focused sample, but I’m hoping we can use it as a jumping off point for discussing librarian and faculty expectations across our different disciplines as well as our own expectations regarding the timing of the research question.

The authors interviewed four faculty members who taught within the first-year writing program at George Washington University and three instruction librarians who supported the program in 2005.  The faculty/librarian collaboration in this program is written into the program description:  “Each semester, faculty and librarians are partnered according to interest and research expertise, and ongoing partnerships are supported. Faculty and librarians are encouraged to collaborate on all stages of the course including choosing course texts, devising effective research assignments, and planning and teaching information literacy sessions.”  The transcripts of these interviews were then coded to facilitate discovery of common themes in the discussions between the two populations.

Participants agreed on some basic tenets of a good research question:

1) It should be complex and not have an immediately obvious answer.

2) It should be worth answering with consideration of its meaning and value to the intended audience.

3) It should be interesting to the student.

The point of disagreement arose when the timing of the research question was discussed, with varying opinions about whether the research question should actually be a question and when that question should be formulated.  The authors write, “Faculty members talked about the process of narrowing down a topic to a question and how this can occur over the better part of the semester. On the other hand, the librarians stated that a student’s topic needs to be narrowed down as one of the initial steps.”

Examples from the transcript highlighting these differing opinions are shared, with both faculty and librarians describing their work with students to help them reach a research question.  Faculty reported that they tell students they probably won’t know their actual research question ’til the end of the semester, while several of the librarians insisted that students needed to narrow their focus at the beginning of the semester.  While faculty seemed to embrace the idea that students would be inundated with relevant information that would lead to a more nuanced understanding of their topic, the librarians were concerned with students reaching a level of focus that would allow them to examine a smaller set of sources.

If you only read one part of this article, jump to the Discussion, which includes two contrasting faculty and librarian quotes that really get to heart of the difference in approaches.

From my perspective, this is really about the faculty and the librarians wanting the students to approach research like either a faculty member or a librarian — and the authors reach the same conclusion.  The faculty members wanted to be immersed in information, taking the time to learn more and generate questions from that point of immersion, using prior knowledge to focus and narrow these questions.  This is the professional scholar’s job and an expectation of how they will spend their time.

The librarian wants the student to start from a clear point of inquiry where keywords can be brainstormed and information can be searched and synthesized into an answer to the research question for a particular audience.  Again, this is the professional librarian’s job — to take the question and find the relevant information, with a reference interview often helping to clarify the question to facilitate this approach.  And, to oversimplify matters, the librarians  support the faculty member’s research process, providing information to answer the questions that happen along the way, but librarians aren’t there during the immersive experience that generates those questions. It doesn’t surprise me that this becomes a point of conflict when both faculty and librarians are attempting to support the same students towards the same goal in a semester-long course.

But taking this conclusion out of the environment of a semester-long collaboration and translating it the administration of an instruction program built mostly on one-shots, you can see the same point of conflict causing frustrations.  It explains why a faculty member might not think it’s important for students to have their topics when they arrive at the beginning of the semester.  It explains why drafting an outline for a session to demonstrate a research process can feel so artificial for courses where students are given the freedom to develop a topic that interests them over the course of the semester.  And it explains why we sometimes run into research assignments where the faculty member hasn’t considered whether or not the information is going to exist for students to successfully answer the research questions they’re likely to generate based on the prompt — we expect people to look into the future and envision the information they need from the start.

The following questions come to mind:

1) Is this situation unique to writing faculty and courses or is it to be expected from across disciplines?

2) How can we provide better support for the exploratory stage of the research process being encouraged by faculty?

3) The conclusions states, “The authors’ recommendation is for faculty and librarians who teach collaboratively to meet and explicitly discuss their expectations for when students will arrive at their research question, what that question might look like, and what roles the faculty and librarian will play in guiding them to a research focus.” What would this conversation look like when translated to a one-shot collaboration?

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