While I’m in full-on manifesto mode, here’s an updated version of the research jigsaw. The content is very similar to the version I blogged previously, but I’ve tidied up the phrasing a bit and moved a few pieces around …
I use the graphic with course leaders, students and researchers as a way of showing where information-handling behaviours and values fit within the academic learning journey. I’ve found it useful because it illustrates recognisable aspects of the research process alongside some less familiar ones, which may be threshold concepts in themselves, and it helps me situate what I talk about in a way that makes it more relevant to what they’re doing as researchers.
I presented about the jigsaw and how I use it at the ALDinHE conference in March – the slides are available on Slideshare. I’ve also made a downloadable version which includes the blank jigsaw template, so if you want to make a version with alternative pieces you can!
You know how sometimes composing an email focuses your mind to the extent that you find you’ve written a manifesto? Here’s the text of a reply I sent to the LIS-INFOLITERACY list this morning, prompted by the question: ‘How can we move the nature of IL training from “how to do this” to “why this is important”?’ In responding to the question, I realized that although I talk about this stuff a lot I’ve never actually written it down … until now.
I’ve been aiming for some years now to realign my research skills sessions from the procedural “how to” towards the reflective “why”, and the most useful insight I’ve gained is: think process, not product (or if you prefer: research, not resource). Rather than offering sessions on individual resources, my courses are called “How to do a literature search”, “How to decode your reading list”, “Referencing without tears” and similar. They are designed to support various aspects and phases of doing study and research, and as such they naturally introduce useful sources and tools for each process. However, they also aim to spark discussion of choices and values. Why might this particular resource be a useful one for you? Concomitantly, what are its limitations for what you’re working on?
This approach means that I always offer options – a range of resources to support a particular phase in the process, never just one. As a result, it’s up to the individual student or researcher to identify what each resource has to offer and make an informed choice according to their own needs, which are determined by the context in which they’re working at the time. This hands the agency and the responsibility back to the student. It recognises that every information context is different, and that the person who is the ‘expert’ in that context is the individual student or researcher – not the librarian. It means that I can suggest tools and resources, but not mandate their use. It means I don’t frame Google (/Scholar) as some kind of competition, but as an information source which like all information sources has drawbacks and limitations. It’s grounded in a belief that I’m not here to give people answers, but to support them in framing questions.
I think relinquishing our status as ‘experts’ who have the answers and tell students ‘how to’ is vital if we want to move towards becoming partners in the research process, and invite them to consider the ‘why’. That relinquishment of expert status is a difficult move to make as it seems to undermine our most cherished identity as librarians, but I do believe that for a host of reasons – most important of which is supporting research excellence – it’s an attitudinal change we must make.
We’ve all had it. Every member of library staff ever, anywhere, has undergone some variant of this conversation. Y’know, this one …
Me: “I’m a librarian.”
Other [big smile]: “Oh, you must read a lot of books!”
There are varying responses you can offer depending on whether you want to perpetuate the stereotype or burst the bubble. For the record, here’s mine – you can decide for yourself which, if either, it does …
Me: “I don’t have anything to do with books. I work with information.”
Me: “In fact, I don’t even work with information in the generally accepted sense of the word – meaning knowledge that’s been recorded, published or otherwise externalised. What I work with is the information that’s still inside people’s heads, that’s not yet structured or fully articulated, that’s the result of the creative encounter between an individual and a learning context. It’s a chaotic, innovative, ongoing engagement, and it has to hold in play many sophisticated arguments and conflicting viewpoints. And on top of that, in the academic world we demand that this creative simultaneity be converted into a linear and sequential argumentative form and presented according to stringent, highly formalised yet generally very badly explained academic conventions.”
Other: [opens mouth. Thinks better of it.]
Me: “So you see, most of what librarians have done traditionally has been about organising and curating information that’s already been expressed – stuff that’s been published in containers like books and journals. And most of my colleagues still work with that stuff. But what I get to do is work with the people who are working with the stuff and making new information and knowledge.
“Isn’t that the most amazing job ever?”
By this point, of course, quite a few of my interlocutors have been desperately finding an excuse to edge away from the mad librarian. But every now and again – and more often than I would ever have expected – I get this response:
“Yeah, that really is the greatest job ever.”
I’ve been mulling a lot recently over how to describe what it is I teach, why information literacy isn’t the same thing as learning to use the library, and above all why it can’t be covered in an hour at the start of term. I’ve been using the concept of the ‘information landscape’ to give an idea of the scale and complexity of the information-handling abilities needed by researchers. This idea extends neatly into a broader metaphor schema where the subject knowledge is the landscape, while information literacy is the set of navigational and survival tools you bring with you into that terrain – the map, the compass, the energy bars, the binoculars.
I like the landscape metaphor a lot, particularly because it lets me talk about research as exploration and discovery, which is an aspect I sometimes feel we don’t stress enough. It also maps nicely to ANCIL’s ten strands, which express the idea that information literacy isn’t a homogeneous, one-shot entity but a complex (and contextual) array of practices and values around using information. However, when talking to course leaders recently about the set of modular classes i’m designing for their students, I found myself thinking of UWE’s iSkillZone, which uses a colourful, clickable jigsaw image on its front page. Jigsaw pieces are discrete units in their own right, but when put together they make a larger, harmonious entity – literally, a big picture …
So here’s the research jigsaw I designed for masters level students. I plan to give an introductory session that touches briefly on each piece and how they interlock to create a framework for supporting research. Later in the course we’ll focus on specific pieces when we look at various aspects of the research process in more detail, such as literature searching, information and data management, referencing and attribution, and academic writing.
The question mark is partly in homage to the Three Investigators, whose business cards feature question marks that stand for unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries. That seems to me a pretty good parallel with research – but when I send the diagram to course leaders I might express it a bit more like this:
In this diagram the question mark could stand for creating and developing a research question, e.g. during the dissertation phase. It could also stand for the unpredictable ‘unknown unknowns’ that crop up during the process of doing research, including its emotional impact – stuff that can blindside you, throw a curve ball, or give you a new direction and impetus (sometimes all four). Finally, it also stands for the keystone of research: “never stop asking questions”.
I also had a go at mapping the jigsaw pieces to the ANCIL strands, which worked out well:
Between all the pieces all but the ‘transitional’ strands, 1 (Transition to Higher Education) and 10 (Social dimension of information), are addressed. Seeing that gap is a useful outcome to the exercise, all by itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what in the ANCIL research we’ve called the affective dimension of information – also known as the emotional impact of doing research, or (in ThesisWhisperer’s words) “the valley of shit“. The affective dimension is That Thing We Don’t Talk About, particularly in academic circles. We know anecdotally that crises of self-belief occur during the research process – as ScholasticRat‘s supervisor told her, you cannot achieve a PhD without undergoing a long dark night of the soul – and yet this particular threshold concept never seems to form part of a research methods course. It’s a dirty secret, passed along verbally by supervisors, postdocs or peers.
It seems to me that often this crisis is linked to the writing process. By the time we hit the PhD, we’re generally pretty good at sourcing and assimilating stuff (or we think we are: there can be quite a few surprises awaiting us there, too). We can read, we can notetake, we can store references, we can cite them. But that moment in which you gaze at a blank page – fingers poised over keyboard or unfamiliar-feeling pen already slipping in fist – that moment is the culmination of all the pressure we’ve ever been under to express, to present, to articulate: to make ourselves visible, vulnerable and potentially risible.
So what do we do? … We read one more article. Because if we know that bit more, we’ll be that much less vulnerable, right? Uh, no. I’ve blogged previously about why this approach doesn’t work. The doctoral learning journey is enough of an epic quest that you really don’t need to add extra anguish. Yet while there is some excellent academic research on this topic, notably by learning developers and information literacy specialists, emotion remains an unspoken factor in academia.
So in traditional Twitter ‘Follow-Friday’ style, here are some great blogs that can help with the emotional impact of writing, reflecting, and surviving the doctoral experience:
The Thesis Whisperer – “dedicated to helping research students everywhere”
Explorations of Style – “The ability to formulate and clarify our thoughts is central to the academic enterprise; this blog discusses strategies to improve the process of expressing our research in writing.”
Literature Review HQ – advice from one who’s been there: “I realised that I had spent none of my time during my PhD reviewing the literature! … I was in for a very steep learning curve…”
Kevin Morrell’s PhD tips – some fantastic myth-busting: “You need to finish a time-bound project, not win a Nobel prize.”
Lastly, check out the #phdchat hashtag on Twitter. You’ll find the bloggers above on there along with many others who are dealing with the impact of the doctoral journey by sharing tips and resources that work for them. I can vouch for this: a community is the most effective way to combat a crisis.
I recently stumbled across an academic writing group set up and run by PhD students here in the University, and went along to see how it works.
We began with a 5-minute warm-up exercise, getting into pairs and swapping plans verbally of what we wanted to write about. It’s a gentle, non-threatening way of getting into your topic by explaining it to someone else. In my session we were put into pairs consisting of one more experienced participant (in terms of writing group attendance) and one less so, which was thoughtful.
After the 5-minute exchange of plans – and two and a half minutes is really not a lot of time to say what you want to do! – we had 8 minutes of free writing. The rules for this section are:
- you must use complete sentences, but not necessarily “academic” language
- you can’t go back over anything you’ve written: no edits, and no spellchecking
- you can’t stop writing until the timer goes!
What you write in this segment is for your own eyes only – not for supervisors, colleagues or anyone else to see and criticize (unless you decide otherwise afterwards). And what you write can vary tremendously. Some participants use the 8 minutes to outline what they’ll work on in the main section of the time; some use it to reflect on how they feel about their research that day. But what happens when you get stuck, or are blank to start off with, and yet you must write and keep writing? That’s what’s so interesting about this approach. The session leader described a participant who, in utter frustration, wrote “I hate this, I hate this” repeatedly for 8 minutes. Yet the action of writing, even the writing of negative or emotional sentences, brings its own release – that’s the point of the free writing.
This is very reminiscent of how Maya Angelou describes the writing process:
What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’
After the 8 minutes’ sandbox time, the final section is 45 minutes of ‘real’ writing, intended for consumption by a real audience. By this time everyone in the group was physically settled, writing materials arranged comfortably, and grounded by our earlier discussion and by the fact that we were no longer face to face with a blank page. I found it remarkably easy to focus: ideas flowed as my writing flowed, and yet – because I was writing in full sentences and with one eye on future readers – I was forced to fit the ideas into the rhythm of the writing and develop them in an orderly way. And the astonishing thing was that I was able to do this. I didn’t lose track of anything, and I ended up with a piece of coherent, well-developed writing that I could type up* and (with minor amendments) present to colleagues. Magically, I was getting it written and getting it right – pretty much; and that’s a first for me.
Rowena Murray, whose work on academic writing techniques was the inspiration for this choice of format, describes how writing can become “part of the researcher’s thinking process” (‘What can I write about?: The rhetorical question for PhD students and their supervisors‘). Yet, as she also points out, in most UK universities writing is not perceived in this way, and a dislocation between the thinking and writing processes results.
This idea of “dislocation” encapsulates my PhD experience perfectly. I was the student who couldn’t write. It seemed to me that until I had something definitive and irreproachable to say, I couldn’t go near a pen. The sight of blank pages in my research diary gave me hysterics. I read and took notes compulsively and wrote nothing – until my final year, when breaking through the barrier that I’d so painstakingly constructed was a slow and anguished business. The Muse did come, of course – in the end. But incorporating writing/thinking time on a weekly basis from the start seems a much saner way of summoning her.
* Yes, my writing is an analogue affair. Interestingly, the majority of the participants present also used pen and paper.
Writing group structure
In the writing group I attended sessions take place weekly and last an hour and a quarter. Have one person who can explain how each part of the session works and act as timekeeper (setting the timer on your phone is the easiest way).
- 5 minutes’ discussion in pairs of what you plan to write about in the session
- 8 minutes of free writing – complete sentences, no stopping, no editing
- 45 minutes’ writing for an audience
The time in between is used for taking breath, stretching, and thinking about how to approach the next section.
The session finished with tea and biscuits (brought by participants) and an informal debrief where each participant described to the rest how the session went for him/her.
Title quotation: James Thurber
I was invited to give a presentation on libraries and information to new undergraduates at Clare College back in the beginning of October (you remember, all that time ago when term started). It was the 09:30 slot in a day of study skills sessions, and the last thing I wanted was to bore the students to tears from the get-go with a catalogue demonstration. Thinking about the transition from school to HE gave me a different focus for the talk – one that revolved around the students’ own experiences and expectations of libraries.
First up: challenge the concept of libraries as temples of deathly quiet, defended by shushing librarians – just in case that one’s still out there.
The dragons I’m talking about are not librarians, but the kind that inhabit unknown territory on old maps: the ones that might possibly lurk in the new landscape of knowledge across whose border, in entering university, you step. Some of this landscape has already been explored and charted, and is only new to you; but at some point, in some hitherto overlooked corner, it’s your viewpoint – your mapping of the terrain – that will count.
How do you become informed about your landscape? What acts as your compass? The library is a good place to start – because while the library’s physical manifestation is finite, libraries link to whole worlds of information.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries …. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors …
I say that the Library is unending.
(Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’)
From this perspective the library’s resources – the catalogue, the eresources portal – become tools that scholars can use to orientate themselves in the knowledge landscape and discover new territory. Yet no resource comes close to be as important as the scholar’s built-in compass: critical vision. It is the ability to analyse and evaluate information, whatever its source or format, for accuracy, reliability and scholarly worth that ultimately enables the academic endeavour – whether you’re an eminent researcher or a fresher undergrad.
Oh, and the dragons? They were vanquished by some scholarly research by Erin C. Blake: there has never existed a map bearing the words “Here be dragons”.
Highlights of the Research Skills Programme, 2010-11 …
1178 participants on sessions provided by Cambridge University Library Training
128 taught sessions
30 trainers and tour leaders
15 subject resource courses
2 conference papers
Pockets have long been a trial to me. Oh yes, I’m totally serious. Men’s clothes have functional pockets: deep, roomy, useful containers designed for safe harbour and porterage of the symbols of Western society’s material security: wallets, keys, phone, small change; iPods, train tickets, Swiss Army knives, bits of string … Women’s pockets, on the other hand, are designed to be entirely decorative and non-functional. Honestly, have you ever tried putting your purse in your pocket?
Of course the failure of the pocket is also the raison d’etre of the handbag – one of the most gloriously silly and delectably desirable accessories in existence. But there are some situations in which you just can’t carry a handbag. The Krypton Factor assault course is probably one such. Backstage in a theatre while a show’s going on is another. Here’s a small sample of what I need to have about my person and immediately accessible during a show …
Some months ago I indulged in a pocket rant to another librarian, bemoaning the uselessness of the feminine version even in combats or cargo pants, with a side whinge about the annoyance of having to buy men’s combats in order to carry all the stuff I need backstage. Unbeknownst to me, however, Laura J can sew … and what’s more, being a librarian, she can recognise that sometimes what the reader asks for isn’t exactly what the reader needs.
The solution? Portable pockets! A short apron – black, naturally, to be invisible backstage; and short enough to climb the ladder to the fly gallery in.
Laura not only came up with the idea; she actually made me the apron too. Here it is in action, backstage at the ADC Theatre during a performance of The Producers. And yes, all the items pictured above (and more) fit in the pockets.
Strangely enough, I know another Laura J who’s also a genius … but that’s another story.