Week 10 – Inquiry Versus Info-dump: Better Research Thinking and Writing in Any Discipline

What the heck is he doing here?

What the heck is he doing here?

I am not going to try to cover all the concerns introduced by Bean in this chapter.  “Research” means something quite specific as we shift from one discipline to another, so I hope you feel free to talk about whatever particular idea you found most relevant for you and your domain.

I am going to limit my kick-off post to one concern: Free choice or prescribed topics for research?

I’ve gone down both roads in preparing major English term assignments, and I would say that if you are prepared to fully support the Q-defining and narrowing process with lots of class time and lots of conferencing, then it can be rewarding for students.  If not, you are asking for frustration, data-dumps, all-abouts, and plagiarism.


In the past I let my environmental literacy BXE students define and narrow their own topics – with some pretty good results, but with a time-consuming process too. I don’t do it any more because 1) I have a more specific set of learning goals for that part of the course and 2) I am better at creating a set of several options that stimulate inquiry AND also achieve those learning goals. For example, I now have them working within the genre of the open letter, and writing on one of three topical enviro controversies (recent eg. the banning of neonicotinoid pesticides) from the viewpoint of one of several stakeholders.

I agree with Bean that our first concern with college students ought to be to stimulate curiosity and to model inquiry.   As he notes, college students tend to think of research as “going to the library” (226) – or increasingly, to Wikipedia – when what we are talking about is a kind of disposition toward an interesting question, and its known and unknown unknowns.  

Arguably, we can stimulate curiosity if we narrow the research that students do, so they can better get excited by the inquiry.   Several years ago, in my ICE:Writing English course we worked on Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for several weeks. During that time, I discovered through some simple research several interesting and related texts:

  • A series of song settings of sections of Leaves of Grass by the American composer Andrew Martin, posted to Youtube
  • A letter of Van Gogh to his sister, where he talks about how he has been smitten by the poetry of Whitman
  • An advertisement for the Apple iPad, that quotes from Whitman’s “O me, O life!” (which, you may also recall, is recited at a dramatic moment by Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) in the film Dead Poets’ Society).
  • A newspaper editorial penned by Whitman himself, that argues against the abolition of slavery and the accordance of voting rights to African Americans

So, for the essays on Whitman I pulled each of these sources – it is more accurate to call them “inter-texts” – into a topic.  The topics required the student to create and defend a thesis in relation to an inquiry into the relation of a specific Whitman text and one of these specific intertexts.   And as a result, I got to read some really interesting analyses.  The “research” part of it was set up by me – but that allowed the students to really focus on the “inquiry” part of the work, which is to say the probing and analysis of the relationship between the texts.  This kind of approach could easily be widened as the students progress in their skills – at a higher level, I might invite students to then identify two more inter-texts on their own, thus pushing them into a more traditional researcher role once they are motivated and confident.

So, at least early in college, where we are definitely dealing with “novices”  developmentally (228), I now think the more carefully we frame the problems into which the student inquires, the more likely it is that students will experience a maximum of the thrill of curiosity and discovery which motivates research, with a minimum of frustration and false steps.

What should excite and interest students about doing research in your field?  What research skills are required for competent practitioners?  What kinds of projects and assignments can best elicit that excitement and hone those skills?   Do you think that BIzzup’s “BEAM” approach is one that you could successfully import into your current recipe for teaching research writing?


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  1. Hey everyone – a first for me – the first commenter on my own post!

    I just uploaded a document from WID’s IS Workshop in January to the Documents section of the Group area. It ties in with a topic raised last week under grading – how to give more formative versus summative feedback. These materials were developed as part of a WID Social Science project, led by Lisa Steffen and Davina Mill, that examined the challenges of getting good research writing out of students doing the Integrative Seminar. A common complaint of teachers in the survey that Lisa and Davina did was that the workload of reading multiple drafts of the final research paper was too onerous. So one of the project goals was to develop and make available tools for formative feedback, which would help teachers put students on the right track earlier in the writing process. If you are interested – maybe you are lined up for an IS in the winter? – take a look at the rationale and the strategies (the activity is designed for the IS workshop context, but you’ll get the idea). The strategies align with Bean’s approach to improving research writing, and one of them also employ’s Bizzup’s BEAM framework. By the way, Lisa and Davina are working on making the materials from the IS workshops available to all Social Science teachers.

  2. Ian, your question about getting students excited about research comes at the perfect moment for me (serendipity, maybe??), as I’m just starting the process of modifying a Research Methods course to tie in with the Brain Mapping project being done within the “hard” sciences program at Dawson. In fact, we had a meeting yesterday, and the Biology prof brought an “EEG gizmo” (Mind Wave Mobile unit) with her, which is a simple headset that measures brainwaves that can be captured by cell phones and transformed into pictures or charts, and that Dawson has a whole bunch of, enough for a class. We all (in the General Social Science committee and the Science profs in the Brain Mapping project) got excited about how cool it would be to incorporate this into an RM class, maybe even cool enough to excite the Social Science students who generally hate the course and really don’t want to be there. That course is always a challenge, exactly because of this week’s topic: how do we get students to understand that research IS exciting, that it is their opportunity to actual find out about something that interests them!

    In my Religion classes, I give them the framework, and they fit in the specific choice. So, for instance, in my Religion and Sexuality course, I tell them to choose any fictional account (movie, book, tv show, music video, …) that has some connection to both religion and sex, and to then compare the portrayal with the actual religion (using researched sources). I tell them what to look for, and what their essay needs to include, but the specific story is their choice (I give examples in case they can’t think of any).

    I’m not sure if Bean’s BEAM (sounds like a tongue twister!) really fits here – I don’t talk about primary, secondary, sources etc – I just tell my students they have to have the story itself (film, book, …) and sources about the actual religion. That seems less confusing than labeling them as types of sources, especially as there isn’t really an “argument”, just a comparison between fiction and reality.

    But when I get down to specifics for my brain-oriented RM course, this may come in very useful – as a way to help students navigate through the literature jungle out there. I will keep my copy of Bean handy…….

    • I’m looking forward to hearing more about the RM – Science collaboration, Sonia.

      @ “find out about something that interests them” – I am reminded of a famous exchange between two teenage characters in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (which I just watched recently with my own teenager and preteen):
      “What are you interested in?”
      “Nothing. What about you?”
      I don’t think there is any one recipe for getting students engaged in research, but I do think one ingredient in the recipe at the college level is allowing/encouraging students to consider/reflect on the relation between a specific problem or topic and their own experiences and purposes. Put another way, until someone asks them and is prepared to listen to them, teenagers may not see the point in being interested in anything. For our part, we as teachers may have the best intentions, but we also don’t help when we exaggerate – wildly sometimes! – the significance of number of sources, documentation styles, and I would also add plagiarism to the list, all the while sidestepping the subjective and personal stake that actual researchers usually have in their work.

  3. Pour répondre à ta première question, j’opte pour la version sujet/ sujets proposés.
    C’est ce que j’ai fait par exemple cette session avec le premier travail écrit. En fait, j’ai donné le choix aux étudiants entre quatre sujets, touchant chacun à une problématique différente posée par le premier texte étudié (Lignes de faille de Nancy Huston). De cette manière, ils pouvaient au moins choisir le sujet qui les interpellait le plus.

    J’ai retrouvé dans le chapitre 15 beaucoup d’idées intéressantes et surtout beaucoup de solutions pratiques. Décidément Bean est un penseur bien formé à l’école du pragmatisme américain !

    Une des idées que j’ai retenues et que je compte bien appliquer dans mes cours est la révision par pairs. J’ai fait des fois de la correction en équipes, mais le but c’était de renforcer l’apprentissage de certaines règles de grammaire.
    Je trouve que c’est une excellente idée et la formule qu’il propose à la page 297 ( exhibit 15.3) me va parfaitement. Par contre, ce qui me pose problème c’est le temps que cela puisse prendre. Allouer un ou deux cours pour la faire en classe, me semble un peu difficile, surtout à cause de la façon dont j’ai conçu les trois cours 102 que je donne cette session. À l’avenir, si j’introduis la révision par pairs, il faudra sans doute que je coupe un peu dans la matière, c’est-à-dire les textes littéraires à lire.
    C’est d’ailleurs un de mes grands dilemmes. J’ai toujours pensé que lorsqu’on donne un cours de littérature (et peut-être c’est ici que je me trompe, en m’imaginant que je donne des cours de « littérature »), l’objectif principal est de privilégier le contact avec le texte littéraire, le dialogue avec ces textes et leurs auteurs tout en essayant de sensibiliser les étudiants à ce qui différencie le discours littéraire des autres formes de discours. Autrement dit, je pensais que plus j’ « exposais » mes étudiants à la littérature, plus ils développaient leur goût littéraire et leur plaisir de lire.
    Or, pour intégrer toutes ces stratégies que Bean nous conseillent (et que je trouve par ailleurs très bonnes si on vise l’amélioration de la qualité des travaux écrits), il faudra couper un peu dans les texte à lire (proposer par exemple un seul roman à lire au lieu de deux ou trois). Est-ce un « sacrifice » qui trahit mes convictions ?

    En tout cas, les idées de Bean et nos discussions commencent à me « travailler ».
    J’ai déjà fait quelques ajustements dans mes cours. Par exemples, pour mes 102 j’avais prévu au départ de leur proposer comme deuxième travail écrit le commentaire d’un extrait du deuxième roman lu. D’habitude on fait plusieurs exercices similaires en classe (en équipes) et je leur distribue un exemple de bon commentaire de texte sur Léa. Malgré tout, cela reste toujours un exercice difficile pour mes étudiants, parce qu’il les oblige à une lecture qui va vraiment vers le détail (pour faire un bon commentaire de texte il faut lire et relire chaque mot et chaque phrase à plusieurs reprises tout en se posant des questions sur le contenu – les idées – ainsi que sur la forme – le style). Mais les étudiants n’ont pas vraiment l’habitude de faire ce gendre de lecture et dans leurs commentaires d’extraits ils ont tendance à parler du texte en général et épuisent en deux-trois phrases l’extrait qu’il sont censé décortiquer.
    J’ai donc décidé de remplacer le commentaire de texte avec un exercice d’écriture orienté vers « rhetorical contexte » qui permettra en même temps aux étudiants faire valoir tout le travail fait en classe sur le texte, mais aussi d’exprimer leur opinion et de laisser libre cours à leur créativité.

    Voici ce que je leur ai proposé comme travail :
    Vous êtes un réalisateur de cinéma. Vous voulez transposer au cinéma la Condition Humaine d’André Malraux. Vous écrivez une lettre à Téléfilm Canada pour obtenir un financement qui vous permettra de réaliser votre projet. Voici les critères selon lesquels votre demande sera évaluée :
    (pour les critères, je me suis inspirée de http://www.lapresse.ca/cinema/nouvelles/201207/17/01-4549322-financement-de-films-comment-ca-fonctionne.php)
    – 40 % pour la capacité de rejoindre un public (actualité du sujet/ intérêt du sujet)
    – 40 % arguments prouvant que le livre peut être transposé au cinéma (le style d’écriture de Malraux, la structure du livre, etc.)
    – 20 % pour les éléments créatifs
( ce qu’il faudrait changer, adapter lors d’une transposition au cinéma)
    C’est d’ailleurs la première fois que je propose à mes étudiants de lire La condition humaine, et je constate qu’ils éprouvent beaucoup de difficultés à le lire, à le comprendre. Il y donc beaucoup de travail à faire en classe à propos du contexte historique dont l’auteur s’inspire (le massacre de Shanghai de 1927), la vision de l’Histoire et de l’être humain qui nourrit sa réflexion, son style (influencé par le cinéma). On décortique le livre chapitre par chapitre en classe et je m’attends à ce que tout ce travail préparatoire soit mis à profit dans le texte (la lettre de demande de subvention) qu’ils doivent écrire. On est encore dans la phase de préparation du travail, mais j’ai hâte de voir les résultats.

    Quant à Bizup/BEAM, je pense que sa méthode est plus adaptée à l’université. Au collège on a, je crois, encore beaucoup de travail à faire pour consolider les bases de l’apprentissage. Dans mon cas, la priorité serait de les aider à mieux lire, mieux comprendre un texte littéraire. Je ne leur propose jamais à lire des essais critiques. Je ne vois pas l’intérêt de lire ce que d’autres pensent à propos d’un texte, quand ils arrivent à peine à lire (dans le sens de comprendre) un texte littéraire, à avoir leurs propres idées sur le texte, à entamer un vrai dialogue avec le texte et son auteur.
    J’essaie par conséquent de simplifier au maximum leur tâche : je leur donne quelques outils et une ou deux méthodes de travail. Pour le reste, tout ce que je veux c’est que le texte leur parle et qu’ils en saisissent quelques particularités.

    • @ “Décidément Bean est un penseur bien formé à l’école du pragmatisme américain !” 🙂 Ha! Je n’ai jamais pense a Bean comme dans la compagnie des pragmatists, mais la, tu as bien raison!!

      @ “Or, pour intégrer toutes ces stratégies que Bean nous conseillent (et que je trouve par ailleurs très bonnes si on vise l’amélioration de la qualité des travaux écrits), il faudra couper un peu dans les texte à lire (proposer par exemple un seul roman à lire au lieu de deux ou trois). Est-ce un « sacrifice » qui trahit mes convictions ?”

      Oui, ici tu touche sur un dilemme qui peut-etre semble intractable: Tous ces stratagems qui vise l’apprentissage, est-ce qu’ils finiront en effacant ce que je voulais faire apprendre mes etudiants? Hmmm. Seulment si on reste dans la conviction que la maitiere doit etre “enseigne” – ou expose – en classe. Mais, on decouvert que il y a d’autres facons de apprendre hors de la salle de classe, hors de la supervision du prof… On a vu deja que un devoir d’ecriture, bien concu et bien encadre, peut livrer les bons… a continuer, particulierment quand on parle des technologies prochainement.

      @ Malraux – Wow, what a great RAFTed assignment idea, Carmen!

  4. As Bean tells us and describes so well, we are attempting to transform students from writers who write ‘uninspired’ pieces (which we don’t want to read!) to engaged researchers who ask interesting questions and then find interesting answers (which we do want to read!). What ‘should’ excite students about engaging in research in anthropology, or in an alternative humanist model, or in humanities in general, is not the same. I find it much easier to assign short scaffolding assignments that rely on disciplinary skills in the social sciences than in the humanities for some reason, perhaps because I always draw back to the big picture when it comes to teaching the competency-based knowledge-worldviews-ethics triad in humanities. Further, whereas in teaching anthropology it is possible to hone codified research skills that a large number of cultural anthropologists might agree upon, in the humanities (itself an interdisciplinary beast) it is more common for me to suggest that students may use one of a number of ways of expressing themselves, of asking their questions, and even of referencing their work (MLA, APA, or other!).
    I think that to seriously engage with Bean regarding research writing, and also to address the differences in these disciplines, I will have to rework many of the goals of my assignments before teaching even begins in the winter term, which will turn the term into one full of curiosity, investigation and experimentation, as much for me as for my students.

  5. One of the biggest challenges in teaching research is conveying to students that they are not simply summarizing information but instead making their own well-informed argument on a matter of intellectual controversy. I’ve seen the “collage” style papers Beam discusses; they are a problem. The reason these kinds of essays are so disheartening is that we want students to understand that they have the ability to be critical thinkers and that engaging in research should be a passionate enterprise, even life-altering enterprise.

    How then do we have our students complete research characterized by “eros”? Works where they have been transformed by their encounter research? In my own experience, I have found that Beam’s proposals for “thinking backwards” about course design and the inclusion of scaffolding assignments, such as abstracts, summaries of opposing views, draft introductions, are all an important parts of the process.

    One point that this chapter helped clarify for me, however, is just how baffling our expectations can be for our students. Beam’s list of the seven “difficult subskills of research writing”(229-231)–which include suppositions that most teachers take for granted because of their experience in graduate school–will not at all be evident to our incoming students. Instead of getting frustrated with data dumps and collage style papers, it’s important to remind ourselves of where students are coming from in their knowledge about research, and to design our projects accordingly.

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