Hey y’all. . . time for another round of “What’s the Deal with That Threshold Concept?” As you may recall, I want to go through each of the six threshold concepts suggested by the ACRL’s task force on revising information literacy standards. Last week I pulled back the veil on “Scholarship is a Conversation” and came to the conclusion that no, scholarship isn’t really a conversation. A conversation is a helpful metaphor for novices, but experts know it doesn’t hold water. Today I’ll take a look at the second threshold concept: “Research as Inquiry.”
Scholarship is a Conversation
- Research as Inquiry
- Authority is Contextual and Constructed
- Format as a Process
- Searching as Exploration
- Information has Value
Research as Inquiry
In case you don’t have the draft framework handy, here’s the “Research as Inquiry” frame:
Research as Inquiry refers to an understanding that research is iterative and depends upon asking increasingly complex questions whose answers develop new questions or lines of inquiry in any field.
Experts see inquiry as a process that focuses on problems or questions in a discipline or between disciplines that are open or unresolved. Experts recognize the collaborative effort within a discipline to extend the knowledge in that field by developing a knowledge base of lines of inquiry, research methodologies, and best practices for conducting research. Many times, this process includes points of disagreement where debate and dialog work to deepen the conversations around knowledge. This process of inquiry extends beyond the academic world to include instances such as evidence and data collected by groups and individuals in communities and the public at large, and the process of inquiry may also focus upon personal, professional, or societal needs. The spectrum of inquiry thus encompasses processes of basic recapitulation of knowledge and data, by the novice, through increasing stages of greater understanding of a discipline or exchanges between disciplines, among more experienced researchers. The novice works to understand foundational ideas, methods, and over time develops the corresponding ability to formulate more advanced research questions and employ a greater repertoire of investigative methods.
Now, given the last few posts, I bet you’re thinking I’m going to be super critical of this concept. Like I’m going to nitpick this thing to death with pedantic observations or something. But I’m not going to because I actually kind of like this concept. I mean, I don’t think it’s a “threshold” but that’s only because I don’t buy into threshold concept theory. Still, it’s actually a pretty important concept and it’s one that I use quite a bit with first-year students. In fact the only major issue I can find isn’t conceptual at all, it’s rhetorical. Basically, the concept is described kind of awkwardly. “Extend the knowledge in that field by developing a knowledge base of lines of inquiry?” I don’t know what that even means. But, it’s still a good concept. And I’d like to explain what I think it means by way of an example I use in class.
Search vs. Research
When I get a bunch of first-year students in front of me, one of the first questions I like to ask is “Where do you usually start your research?” Of course, you know what their response is.
Oh. Wait. That’s not it. It’s freaking Google. Everyone starts their research in Google. That one student who says they start their search “at the library” is just a suck-up. No you don’t start your research at the library, poindexter. Heck, I don’t start research through the library databases and I’m a danged librarian.*
But there’s a big difference between where you start your research and where you end it. I may start with Google when I’m researching something, but I almost always end up scouring library databases at some point. Novice researchers tend to start in Google and stay in Google. Shoot, they tend to stay above-the-fold on the first page of results. And we all know how novices tend to pick one set of (usually overly broad) keywords and complain that “there’s nothing on my topic” when the first result isn’t perfect. Why are novices so averse to thinking critically about their search results? Why are they so averse to searching a second time if the first search isn’t helpful?
This is where I like to introduce students to the distinction between search and research. And it’s a simple distinction: when you know the answer, or know that an answer exists, you search. When you don’t know the answer, or aren’t even sure about the question, you research. Need to know the capital of Slovakia? Search. Need to understand the importance of Bratislava during the Velvet Revolution? Research. Need the address of the stará radnica? Search. Want to understand the importance of town squares in Slovak culture? Research. Our old friend Google is pretty good at searching. And when you’re trying to establish basic, factual information, Google is a perfectly fine starting place. But, once you start putting all of those little bits of information together, you may start noticing patterns, correlations, or similarities. This is when you move from search to research. Like, “Hey, there are only four bridges over the Danube into Hungary…I wonder what Slovak-Hungarian relations are like…”
So, research involves uncertainty, persistence, iteration, and a willingness to accept that what you discover may not fit in neatly with what you believe. You could give kind of an esoteric twist and say that “Search is seeking the answer; research is seeking the question.”
The framework lists five knowledge practices:
- Conduct research through the lens of inquiry in order to enhance the impact of their work.
- Provide evidence of understanding that methods of research leading to new knowledge creation vary by need, circumstance, and type of inquiry.
- Formulate questions for research based on gaps in information or data available.
- Communicate effectively with collaborators in shared spaces and learn from multiple points of view.
- Engage in informed, self-directed learning that encourages a broader worldview through the global reach of today’s information technology.
The first practice is sort of redundant; it just entails that students get the threshold concept. The next two are solid: demonstrate the ability to tailor research methods to research needs and adjust research questions to fit the gaps in our knowledge. I’m not sure that the fourth ability makes a lot of sense in this concept. Communication skills are extremely important but they seem to lay outside of information literacy altogether; learning from multiple points of view should go under the scholarship/conversation threshold concept. The final bit about engaging in self-directed learning is nice, though I think that desire transcends information literacy and really just applies to education in general.
The five dispositions are as follows:
- Value persistence, adaptability, and flexibility, and recognize that ambiguity can be beneficial.
- Seek opportunities to transform current research-related practices in order to conduct more authentic research.
- Practice thinking critically when confronting new learning, where lack of familiarity with new methods and approaches requires additional effort.
- Value intellectual curiosity in developing questions and learning new investigative methods.
- Recognize that learning is a process and that reflecting on errors or mistakes leads to new insights and discoveries.
I like these dispositions, though I have a few minor quibbles. In the second disposition, I’m not sure what “more authentic research” is supposed to mean. I’m also unsure why seeking opportunities to transform current methodologies is a prerequisite for information literacy. Are we to infer that all research methodologies are and forever will be inherently “inauthentic”? This disposition confuses me.
But the rest of the dispositions seem all right. Research requires persistence, adaptability, and curiosity. I’ve written before about how I’d like to see information literacy recast in terms of intellectual virtues, so having such clearly stated intellectual virtues is nice to see. If I could, I’d add another: epistemic humility. You may be familiar with this disposition if you’ve read any of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, but particular the Apology. The story goes like this:
Socrates and his buddy Chaerephon were hanging out one day when Chaerephon mentions, “hey, Socks, I stopped by the Oracle at Delphi yesterday.” “Yeah, what’d she say?” “I asked her who the wisest person was and you know what she said?” “Nah, bro. What?” “Check it: she said that you are the wisest dude in the whole world!” Socrates was confused by this. “Me? WTF? I don’t know jack about anything. Watch this: I’m going to go find you a ton of people who are smarter than me.” So Socrates went off across Athens interrogating whatever politicians, poets, and artisans he could find. And though he met a lot of people who knew more about politics and poetry and craft than he did, they also tended to seriously overstate their knowledge about other things. Socrates would innocently ask them their thoughts on something like virtue, love, temperance, or knowledge and they would answer confidently…only for Socrates to point out that their answers lead to even more complex questions. So Socrates asked himself, “sure these guys know a lot about some things, but can they really be wise if they think they know everything?” And that’s when it clicked. Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because he didn’t go around assuming how much he knew. Socrates saw that true wisdom requires knowing that you don’t know everything; wisdom is knowing the limits of your own knowledge.
Linda Zagzebski describes this humility as “the virtue whereby a person is disposed to make an accurate appraisal of her own competence” and I think it’s absolutely vital in information literacy. Too often researchers think they know more about a subject than they really do and when this happens research collapses into false search and confirmation bias.
One caveat: even experts sometimes lack epistemic humility. Like when an expert astrophysicist embarrasses himself discussing the state of contemporary philosophy. Or physicists who feel confident enough to lecture on any topic under the sun because physics solves everything. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to instill epistemic humility in novice researchers.
Verdict: Is research inquiry?
Of course it is. I don’t think this should be controversial at all. Sure, the overview of this threshold concept is a bit overwrought and needs to be polished up quite a bit for the sake of clarity. And I’d like to see another disposition added to cover intellectual humility. But overall this is a solid concept and I’ll certainly continue to keep applying it in my pedagogy.
* Granted, I don’t use Google–I use DuckDuckGo–but the point still stands.