Research Questions

In this penultimate unit of eighth grade language arts, we are studying research. “Research” for these kids usually consists of pulling out a smartphone and asking Google (or Siri) a question. YouTube was in almost all of their lists of “five places to get information.” When I showed them a video about the Library of Congress main reading room, many were skeptical about there being that much that isn’t available online.

This has been a fun unit for me to teach, in part because I’ve taught variations on “how to write a research paper” more than just about any other topic. The key, I think, is getting students out of the idea that research is just looking stuff up. Research is really one way of answering a question. It often involves looking stuff up, but it’s the question that’s important. I let the students choose their topics, but guided them pretty closely in the development of those questions. They are sick of me asking what their research question is…and probably also sick of the dirty looks I give them when they can’t remember it.

Of course I was going to bring my dissertation in for them to look at. It’s a big stonking book and I wrote the whole thing. I researched it all. I found almost everything in the bibliography myself. If nothing else, it would give me something to hit back with when the students inevitably complained about the number of sources they needed to find.

It helped that the kids were interested in New York and the library with the lions and in their teacher more generally. They got to hear about novelties like “newspapers” and “microfilm.” I got to explain that some of the things I looked at had to be brought up from basements. In boxes. (In their defense, if you’ve had Google in your pocket for most of your living memory, the notion of getting paper files from boxes somewhere sounds a little bizarre.) The students were mostly suitably impressed, and I held their attention for one more day—a victory when the standardized test is over and you’re obligated to hold their attention for another six weeks.

Because I didn’t want to be switching back and forth between the document camera and my laptop, I went and looked at the page for my dissertation at the University of Minnesota digital conservancy.

It’s been downloaded nearly 200 times since January 2014.

I sincerely doubt many of those folks have read the whole thing. It was still a surprising discovery. I was perversely satisfied to know that somewhere out there, desperate undergraduates might be plagiarizing my work. It was the sort of quasi-immorality, I thought, that I probably deserved. I managed to squeeze in a lot of things that would come up in searches: a bunch of prominent 20th century American composers, the New York Philharmonic, Pierre Boulez, Pierre Bourdieu… Plenty of places for an enterprising young person capable of using Ctl-F to grab a paragraph or two.

That was going to be the whole story—how I like to teach people about research, because research is about answering questions, and I want more people to be more curious. I want more people to feel equipped to look for their own answers. I want more people to actually be equipped to sort out reasonable answers from poorly-argued or unsubstantiated ones. And how I thought it was funny and a little flattering that somebody might plagiarize my dissertation for an undergraduate research paper.

Then I got a serious message about my dissertation…on Facebook. (Which just goes to show that my students’ constant claim that “Facebook is for old people” isn’t so off base.) A former professor of a former colleague had been reading it, and thinking about it.

That’s a different kettle of fish. That’s what the dissertation was meant to do. It was meant to be part of scholarly discourse, to contribute to human knowledge (in a minuscule way). At a moment where I am putting myself on a job market very different to the one in higher ed, one where I am trying to figure out ways to talk about how well my students did on their standardized tests without sounding like I care too much about the standardized tests…that message hit me. That’s what I left behind. The reasons that I did still hold true, even as a few more of my former colleagues get fingertips in doors with longer-term and even a few tenure-track appointments.

It’s a reminder that I was good at what I did. I wish that it could remind me of that without simultaneously poking at old scars. I’m sure that in a day or two I’ll be over it. I know (thank the FSM) that this is being bumped in mid-stride, not anything that’s going to really change my direction. It’s just enough to throw me off balance for a moment.

Still. Academia, man. It gets its hooks into you but good…


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