Topic Development brought to you by Inspiration

“But more important, I am bothered because I think there is pedagogical value in getting lost in the stacks. When I was a student, the stacks filled me with fear but also with awe-they contained so much learning! Today we applaud students for not exploring the stacks but for being efficient, making research quick and easy.” -Julio Alves

I loved Julio Alves’ piece in the The Chronicle of Higher Education called “Unintentional Knowledge.” In it, he affirms the importance of serendipity in research and writing, how “most of the knowledge we possess is not conscious and intentional; it is incidental, or tacit, acquired as a byproduct of performing some other activity…Incidental knowledge continues to play an important role in our adult lives. The library stacks are a mine of incidental knowledge.” It struck me that sometimes librarians bill themselves as capable sherpas who can help students to save time in their research process by showing them optimal databases, better search terms to leverage, and the fastest ways to download PDFs. I often talk to students about not getting lost in the romance of research, the notion that research is taxing, requiring hours of futile searching before landing on solid sources and leads. I encourage them to be organized, to capture their work process, and to do research systematically. In spite of my organizational exhortations, I do think there is tremendous value in following questions into detours from a “systematic approach.”

This semester, I taught a two-session sequence about topic development and research for a Spanish class. I started the topic development session encouraging the students to think about inspiration; what are they excited about studying? What books or issues in class engaged them the most? I encouraged the students to follow their interests and consider how they wanted to invest their time delving into a topic and developing questions that would resonate with them. We talked about topic reality checks, ways of leveraging library resources like JSTOR, Project Muse, and the catalog to see if a topic is viable and whether it will translate into answerable questions. I asked them to experiment, to find articles that might support their topic, and encouraged them to follow the trails started by the sources they looked at through linked keywords and subject headings in the catalog. In the research session that followed, we explored those trails more thoroughly. Even though these are digital means, they are still opportunities for serendipitous browsing; by starting with their interests and following the questions that mean the most to them, it’s easy for students to think of research less as a series of transactions towards a final paper, but a quest towards answering meaningful questions. Inspiration and incidental knowledge can also come from the digital realm, we just have to find new ways of honing it with our students, a resolution for 2014.