Teaching the Rhetorical Dimensions of Research
Academic research is a process of inquiry, problem-solving, and argument, not merely an information-gathering process. (1)
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)
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.
TEACHING INFORMATION RETRIEVAL
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.
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
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.
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
TEACHING RHETORICAL CONTEXT
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.
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.
THE RESEARCH PAPER PROBLEM
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)
does not suggest that students are incapable of engaging in research;
in fact, he makes an eloquent plea for research in the curriculum.
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.
RECASTING THE RESEARCH PROCESS
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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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. '
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
(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.
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.