Teaching the Rhetorical Dimensions of Research
Barbara Fister
Research Strategies 11.4 (Fall 1993): 211-219.

Abstract: If students perceive that the research process consists of merely locating, synthesizing, and presenting information from library sources, they will not fulfill the demands of college-level inquiry. This article examines the importance of teaching the rhetorical dimensions of research, and suggests several relevant approaches that BI librarians can use when explaining access tools and research strategies.

Academic research is a process of inquiry, problem-solving, and argument, not merely an information-gathering process. (1)

Librarians and writing instructors are working toward the same end, the goal of educating students to identify, analyze, abstract, evaluate, and articulate information and ideas.(2)

These two statements represent how course instructors and teaching librarians, respectively, differ in their views of research. Although instructors and librarians agree on the importance of being able to "do good research," they diverge in their definition of what that is—largely because they have subtly different ends in mind. Librarians generally focus on the significance of information retrieval and evaluation. Course instructors are generally more interested in how information is interpreted and how the student works out that interpretation in a written or oral presentation. Simply put, librarians tend to emphasize how to find knowledge, course instructors how to construct it.


Often we try to teach library research skills in a way that emphasizes the features of the tools we use for retrieval, suggesting that good research is dependent on skillful information retrieval, which in turn depends upon successful manipulation of reference tools, OPACs, indexes, and databases. We focus on students' ability to manipulate, in a systematic and efficient manner the bibliographic control systems for our collections. Our instruction stresses skills in and knowledge of the complex inventory control systems thatmake available detailed and sophisticated lists of items available locally or through special order.

This emphasis on retrieval systems and their manipulation tends to suggest to students--whether we mean to or not--that research consists of the ordered use of tools to locate pieces of information from which research projects can be assembled. There are two major problems with this concept: first, students should not be engaged in assembling parts but in creating texts; second, most of our systems don't retrieve information, they retrieve texts.

Being able to retrieve information does not necessarily make for good research. Students must not only be able to find information but to present ideas, shape them to appeal to a particular audience, and support them with convincing evidence. Information must not only be retrieved and evaluated, it must be put to use rhetorically--i.e., used to construct a text.

The literature suggests no positive correlation between students' ability to find and evaluate texts and their ability to write effective research papers. Indeed some research suggests there is a negative relationship. Vince Toilers reported that a group of students who had bibliographic instruction as part of freshman English received poorer grades on a research project than those who did not, perhaps because they misconstrued the object of the exercise or, as Toilers suggested, they simply found more and didn't know what to do with it.(3) Another study revealed no significant correlation between having a well-chosen set of sources in the bibliography and having a good paper.(4) Although Judith Langer found background knowledge to be positively correlated to successful writing, that relationship proved strongest when the writing task was a simple "knowledge-telling" report rather than a more sophisticated development of a thesis supported by evidence.(5) If our efforts do not have any significant effect on the students' ability to construct knowledge effectively in a text, it should give us pause.

To muddy the waters further, information located in the library is something that students generally find embedded in texts. As such, it cannot be lifted clean; its context will cling to it. Margaret Kantz reminds us that the purpose of such information is to support claims made by the text.(60 It cannot be removed and put to use without some understanding of its rhetorical situation, at least not without sacrificing integrity.


The rhetorical dimensions of research are typically left to the classroom instructor to teach, while information retrieval and, sometimes, evaluation fall to the BI librarian. Indeed, not only would teaching the rhetorical dimensions of research writing (along with other library-related skills) be impossible in the 50 minutes generally allotted to one-shot BI sessions, but it may be ill-advised; many faculty would not welcome such an intrusion on their turf. I do not suggest, therefore, that librarians teach rhetoric, but I do argue that if they fail to bear the rhetorical uses of information in mind, they risk teaching at cross purposes to the course instructors.

Teaching library research as information retrieval through access tools valorizes information retrieval as the purpose of research--a misconception that puzzles students and frustrates teachers. Students who perceive their task to be one of merely locating, synthesizing, and presenting information found in library sources will not do well on research assignments because this approach to research will not yield what most college-level assignments demand--an idea that is developed, argued, and supported with evidence. Too often faculty fail to make this goal clear, assuming that students are familiar with the nature of academic writing; too often librarians fill that vacuum with the notion that finding and presenting information is the goal of research. If librarians fail to place their advice to students in the rhetorical context of research, they may reinforce the misconception that the main point of research is to report on knowledge found elsewhere.


Composition teachers, often saddled with teaching generic research writing skills in a basic composition course,(7) find that one of the most difficult aspects of this task is to define research writing in a meaningful way for students. James Beck asserts that the traditional term paper encourages "the uncritical amassing of correctly-documented facts . . . unrelated to the students' self, the writing process (including readership), and to any thoughtful assessment of those facts."(8) James McDonald states: "In essence, the current traditional research paper has been an exercise in researching and reporting what others have written to produce a paper that conforms to the course's conventions governing documentation."(9) Richard Larson, perhaps the most cited critic of the research paper as a genre, pugnaciously asserts: "The so-called 'research paper' as ordinarily taught by the kinds of texts I have reviewed implicitly equates 'research' with looking up books in the library and taking down information from those books.... When we tend to present the 'research paper' as in effect a paper based upon the use of the library, we misrepresent 'research."'(10)

Larson does not suggest that students are incapable of engaging in research; in fact, he makes an eloquent plea for research in the curriculum.

I think [students] should understand that in order to function as educated, informed men and women they have to engage in research, from the beginning of and throughout their work, as writers. I think that they should know what research can embrace, and I think they should be encouraged to view research as broadly, and conduct it as imaginatively, as they can. I think they should be held accountable for their opinions and should be required to say, from evidence, why they believe what they assert. I think that they should be led to recognize that data from "research" will affect their entire lives, and that they should know how to evaluate such data as well as to gather them. And I think they should know their responsibilities for telling their listeners and readers where their data came from. What I argue is that the profession of the teaching of English should abandon the concept of the generic "research paper"—that form of what a colleague of mine has called a "messenger service" in which a student is told that for this one assignment, this one project, he or she has to go somewhere (usually the library), get out some materials, make some notes, and present them to the customer neatly wrapped in footnotes and bibliography, tied together according to someone's notion of a style sheet.(11)

Carmen Schmersahl agrees that the focus of student research should be shifted from formal to epistemological grounds, pointing out that students should not merely be taught the mechanics of writing research papers, but helped "to adopt the spirit of inquiry that makes doing research an indispensable part of many writing projects, and to gain the confidence in their library skills that will permit them to pursue that inquiry in a fruitful way."(12) If the search strategies presented to students do not place information retrieval in the context of inquiry and interpretation, students may well be misled about the object of the exercise, and may behave as those envisioned by Michael Kleine.

I experienced a nightmare vision . . . students were everywhere ... [and] they were all writing RESEARCH PAPERS. . . . When the students were not talking, they were transcribing sections of encyclopedia text into the text of their own writing, into their notebooks. I knew they were writing research papers because they were not writing at all—merely copying. I imagined, then, that they saw their purpose as one of lifting and transporting textual substance from one location, the library, to another, their teachers' briefcases. Not only were they not writing, but they were not reading: I detected no searching, analyzing, evaluating, synthesizing, selecting, rejecting, etc. No time for such reading in the heated bursts of copying that interrupted the conversations. The horror. The horror.(13)


How can librarians teach ways of finding information without suggesting that finding and quoting what others have said is the definition of research? One way to do this--without sacrificing the focus on retrieval strategies--is to recast search advice in a rhetorical context. Rather than describe the search process as a matter of finding information--which sounds like panning for solid nuggets of truth--librarians should describe it as a way of tapping into a scholarly communication network. In this network scholars present new ideas, argue for new interpretations of old ideas, draw connections, point out contrasts, inquire into meaning, and interpret the signifiers of cultures in ways that construct meaning. And for every claim made, evidence is marshaled for support.

As student researchers use retrieval tools to help them find where these "conversations" are going on, they choose how and where to tap into the network of scholarly communication. They are not locating information, but voices with something important to say. That meaning cannot be simply transcribed, with the voice reassigned to the student (or to that omniscient voiceless entity that some students assume in order to sound academic); it must be interrogated and constructed. If students fail to view the "information" they gather as ideas presented within a rhetorical frame, they run the risk not only of misinterpreting that information, but of misconstruing the point of college-level research—that is, to play a role in constructing meaning.

All of this seems rather abstract, however, and librarians' goal is not to teach research writing theory, but to help students use the library effectively while avoiding the implication that research is an information cut-and-paste activity. Toward that end, I propose the following approaches to bibliographic instruction.

Show students how to find a topic and choose a focus. Simply starting a search strategy with "choose a topic and find an overview of it" will not help students negotiate that first, most difficult step. As rhetorician Toni-Lee Capoessela has pointed out: "Students are told to 'think of a subject they are interested in' and then 'find out what's available in the library about the subject.' I cannot remember once in my academic life that I have followed this model.... I don't think I could 'find' a subject I was interested in de novo and on command." (14) Librarian Phyllis Reich would agree:

No one imagines for a moment that, on the basis of abstract reflection, someone decided to invent the wheel. Invention, like research, is related to observation and experience. Both are often outgrowths of laboratory or field experiments, formal or intuitive observations, or extensive reading. However, it is necessary to have a sound knowledge of a discipline tempered with some imagination to have sufficient insight to recognize underlying questions within a subject or to see connections between seemingly unrelated events.... Since experience and observation lead a researcher to formulate a research problem, it is ironic when it is the undergraduate, the student with the least experience, who is called upon to choose research topics for beginning composition courses.(15)

While it may be ideal to come into the library with a research topic in mind, students often don't; in that case, the library is a good place to find one. Brainstorming and invention techniques can be described; students can be shown how to search for possible topics as bibliographic tools are explored; strategies for "mapping out" the literature of a discipline or field can be discussed, including ways to locate controversial or cutting-edge issues by scanning annual reviews or current indexes, abstracts, or databases to find out what other scholars are exploring. However it is approached, students must be made aware that choosing a topic--a question to pose or an angle to explore--is a crucial first step in the research process.

Explain that search terms are contingent on who is speaking. Language, as any deconstructionist will agree, is slippery. Students must realize that the contemporary language used in a discipline does not always correspond to the language used in bibliographic tools. It's not especially helpful to make it sound as if finding materials depends on using the "proper" Library of Congress subject headings--as if anything else is incorrect. Such an absolutist position only reinforces the notion that research is a matter of using tools in the proper way, not a matter of engaging with an ongoing and changeable conversation. Students don't need to know the term "controlled vocabulary" to understand that catalogers like to put related things under the same headings, that they are reluctant to change them too rapidly, and that researchers, therefore, need to be flexible and creative in their use of language and aware of the clues offered in cross-references and subject tracings. Once the rhetorical nature of subject headings is pointed out, the concept is not an arcane abstraction for students.

Show students how to find and interpret rhetorical clues in citations. When examining a bibliographic tool with students, point out that there are many clues given in bibliographic records that suggest the purpose and audience of the texts listed. A breezy title such as "High Times in Somalia" suggests that it is written for a general audience, whereas "The Ethnography of Khat in the Culture of Somalia" is addressed to a scholarly community. A one-page article is more likely to report on a phenomenon, while a twelve-page article is more likely to analyze it. Students can also be encouraged to interpret the nature of an article or book chapter on the basis of the journal or book in which it appears. They will incidentally get the message (perhaps reinforced by the comments of the course instructor) that choices must be made among the materials found.

Explain how to evaluate sources rhetorically. Evaluation of sources is another area in which rhetorical aspects of research come into play. As Doug Brent recently said:

The evaluation of sources is treated chiefly as a matter of measuring the writer's overall authority as a witness to facts, as measured by factors such as his reputation and the recency of the source. This view places the use of print sources outside the rhetorical act.... According to this view, print is merely a repository of fossilized rhetorical acts that can no longer actively participate in the living process of rhetoric. Thus research involving secondary sources is seen as only preliminary to, not part of, the process of creating new meaning.... [Students must learn to regard texts] as repositories of alternative ways of knowing, repositories which must be actively interrogated and whose meaning must be constructed, not simply extracted.(16)

If discussing evaluation of sources, don't appeal strictly to the "authority" of the author or suggest that book reviews will provide an assessment, which simply transfers the locus of authority to a further remove. Instead, suggest that the rhetorical dimensions of texts—the implied audience, the argument, and above all the evidence used to support the argument—can be interrogated to determine the value of a source.

Explain how to search for evidence rhetorically. A study by Jennie Nelson and John Hayes suggests that "content-driven" students who gather sources first and decide what to say about them later are likely to produce mediocre research papers, whereas students who are "issue-driven" find more pertinent evidence and construct more successful papers because they identify key claims and seek evidence to support them.(17) Thus, it is important to prompt students to choose evidence for their own rhetorical purposes—to ground their argument in a context appropriate for their audience and to provide evidence that supports what they have to say. Suggest that they formulate their purposes before they call a halt to library work so that they can seek the evidence best suited to their purposes. This also provides a chance to discuss the rhetorical nature of citations. Citations do more than acknowledge a source; they lend the weight of numbers to an individual writer's voice, they ground new research in a tradition, and they connect the reader with other avenues of exploration, sometimes with the added benefit of the author's editorial commentary on their relative usefulness—another sort of indexing of the literature that students can put to use in their research.(18)

Convince students that searching, reading, and writing are nonconsecutive research activities. Students often want to locate all sources of information they think they will need in one pass through the library, waiting to read the material and write about it until later (perhaps too late to return to the library). This seemingly efficient strategy yields poor results. Their course instructors could tell them that, while research may start with a library search, reading and writing will inform them of what it is they need to know more about, that these processes should be concomitant, not consecutive. Kleine asserts:

Academic and professional writing is a complex, recursive process that includes both research, or data-gathering, and reading from start to finish. . . . Writers develop a sense of rhetorical purpose as the process unfolds, not strictly before the acts of researching and writing.... It is the absence of a direct and linear route through the research/writing process that is most characteristic of solid, and honest, work.(19)

These notions fly in the face of conventional BI wisdom, which recommends a strategy to process a topic through a succession of tools before any reading or writing is performed. Virginia Tiefel suggests that the traditional concept of a search strategy—leading students from general reference sources through books and periodicals—should be the focus of instruction, and that it should precede dealing with the texts found: "Having completed—for the most part—the information-gathering process, the student is ready to begin reading the material and writing note-cards."20 This clearly implies that research is a linear, nonrecursive process that begins with locating sources and proceeds to reporting on what is found. Brent disagrees, pointing out that the reading, writing, and research processes should be inseparable.

Too many students assume, and too many teachers and textbooks imply, that a good researcher should be able to glean everything she needs from a book, make careful notes, and then put the book back on the shelf and never look at it again. We must tell students what our own experience tells us: that the questions they are asking of a source will mature and shift as they read, and will develop further when they begin writing and rewriting their papers. Questions they never thought to ask the first time will drive them back into their material and into new material as often and as deeply as their energy and schedules permit. . . . [and] with a different set of eyes that will evoke a new virtual work from them. This is more than the typical "narrowing" of a subject to make it more "manageable," a step usually treated as a preliminary. It is a recognition that evoking meaning from texts is a recursive, not a linear process.(21)

Brent suggests that "since good research necessitates many passes through the same material (and often many physical trips to the library), teachers must allow sufficient time for students to refine their questions and give them step-by-step encouragement to do so."(22) Instructors may want to build in several check-points in the research process to keep students on track. Librarians should encourage students to seek them out during the process, perhaps even setting an appointed time, since students are bound to have many more questions once they've begun their research.


Librarians should use the opportunities inherent in offering instruction on access tools and research strategies to help students redefine the term "research" and gain a more mature understanding of the demands of college-level inquiry. Placing research skills in a rhetorical framework will make the search process more meaningful and the evaluation of sources more natural for students. And more important, it will help students to situate their research findings in a text of their own that uses evidence in a more sophisticated and successful way.


(1)Robert A. Schwegler and Linda K. Shamoon, "The Aims and Process of the Research Paper," College English 44 (December 1982): 817.

(2)Lizabeth A. Wilson, "The Connection Between Library Skills and the Developmental Writer: Administrative Implications" (ERIC Document ED 256372, March 1985).

(3)See Vince Toilers, "Guided Research in Freshman English: Report on an Experiment," Literary Research Newsletter 6 (Winter,'Spring 1992): 30-34.

(4)See David R. Kohl and Lizabeth A. Wilson, "Effectiveness of Course-Integrated Bibliographic Instruction in Improving Coursework," RQ 27 (Winter 1986): 206-211.

(5)See Judith A. Langer, "Where Problems Start: The Effects of Available Information on Responses to School Writing Tasks," in Contexts for Learning to Write: Studies of Secondary School Instruction (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1984), pp. 135-148.

(6)As Margaret Kantz asserts: "Both facts and opinions are essentially the same kind of statement: they are claims." This is a difficult concept for students who are used to traditional research paper assignments, which "enshrine the acquisition and expression of information without context or purpose." See Kantz, "Helping Students to Use Textual Sources Persuasively," College English 52 (January 1990): 81, 83.

(7)James E. Ford and Dennis R. Perry report that nearly 85 percent of freshman writing courses require a research paper. See their "Research Paper Instruction in the Undergraduate Writing Program," College English 44 (December 1982): 825-831. '

(8)James Beck, "Upgrading the Research Paper toward 'Real Writing' Using Prewriting Ploys, Critical Probe-Questions, and Audience-Relating" (ERIC Document ED 222907, 1981), p. 1.

(9)James C. McDonald, "The Research Paper and Postmodernist Pedagogy" (ERIC Document ED 322536, April 1990), p. 5.

(10)Richard L. Larson, "The 'Research Paper' in the Writing Course: A Non-Form of Writing," College English 44 (December 1982): 813, 815.

(11)Ibid., p. 816.

(12)Carmen B. Schmersahl, "Teaching Library Research: Process, Not Product," Journal of Teaching Writing 6 (Fall/Winter 1987): 238.

(13)Michael Kleine, "What Is It We Do When We Write Articles Like This One—and How Can We Get Students to Join Us?" The Writing Instructor 6 (Spring-Summer 1987): 151.

(14)Toni-Lee Capoessela, "Students as Sociolinguists: Getting Real Research from Freshman Writers," College Composition and Communication
42 (February 1991): 78.

(15)Phyllis Reich, "Choosing a Topic in a Research Methods-Oriented Library Instructional Program," Research Strategies 4 (Fall 1986): 185.

(16)Doug Brent, Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge, Persuasion, and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing (Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1992), p. 105.

(17)Jennie Nelson and John R. Hayes, "How the Writing Context Shapes Students' Strategies for Writing from Sources" (ERIC Document ED 297374, August 1988). This is a study that has important implications for bibliographic instruction; I am grateful to Alice Randlett for pointing it out to me.

(18)Stephen Stoan points out that the use of citations functions as a kind of self-indexing of scholarly literature in "Research and Library Skills: An Analysis and Interpretation," College & Research Libraries 45 (March 1984): 99-109.

(19)Kleine, "What Is It We Do," pp. 152, 160.

(20)Virginia Tiefel, "Libraries and Librarians as Depicted in Freshman English Text-books," College English 44 (1982): 503.

(21)Brent, Reading as Rhetorical Invention, pp. 109-110.

(22)Ibid., p. 112.

This article, published in Research Strategies 11.4 (Fall 1993): 211-219, is posted with permission from Elsevier. Elsevier wishes to note that single copies of the article can be downloaded and printed only for the reader’s personal research and study.