For my Higher Education and Information Professionals class (my last class of my masters!) we are looking at a lot of professional literature in the field of higher ed, and one of my classmates posted a great summary/list of questions about the article “Keep the ‘Research’, Ditch the ‘Paper,'” by Marc Bousquet (which refers to the Rebecca Schuman article from Slate here.
Her questions had a lot to do with how librarians can help reverse this sad process of everyone hating/hating on the research paper (specifically the entry level or first year research paper), but I think we are facing a different problem.
Is there a way that this first year research assignment can be reworked to make it more valuable to the student? YES. But not in college. Because the problem with the research paper doesn’t start in Freshman orientation, it starts in preschool–or, rather, in a lack of preschool for some children, and great preschool for others. It starts in elementary school, and in the home where some parents have time to read to their children, and others don’t. So yes, there are ways to fix this assignment to make it better for the student–more valuable to the student, but we have to start at the very beginning. Make preschool mandatory–get students thinking at age 3. Encourage students who are only going to college because their parents want them to to consider trade schools or the military or whatever they want to do instead. Because as many people point out, not all students need to be in college, and the overabundance of college degrees is maybe becoming a problem.
And once we get this brand new crop of students who did preschool and were read to in kindergarten and did math questions in first grade and all the way up and took literature classes in middle school? These students with teachers who didn’t just teach grammar, but taught people how to write–from the structure of sentences all the way to the way words sound beautiful together and how to avoid the frustrating desire to use a form of “to be” for every verb? The students who in high school have perhaps already completed their first real research paper Then, and only then, will we be able to create a first year research paper that actually means something to all students who get to college.
So what can we as librarians do? Put librarians in middle schools who think that databases are cool–get kids talking about keywords as tags and hashtags (I plan on eventually creating/implementing a research methods class that incorporates that teaching technique as an assignment). Get kids to understand the research process, start to finish, keywords and controlled vocab and, for goodness sake, basic Boolean logic. Then get high school librarians to help students understand the next level of searching–why print sources are still important, how to mine a bibliography, how to use more complicated databases. And then, when they get to college, we as academic librarians can help the students find what they need. Teach them advanced search strategies and how to read an article to glean information they need. How to use archival resources, and how, most importantly, to connect their research to their topic in an interesting way.
It’s a long road, but it’s an important one.