I have a love/ hate relationship with the world of research.
I remember the very first research paper I ever wrote. Each student in my eighth grade Social Studies Class was randomly assigned a specific piece of music that characterized a period of time in American history. I got the catchy depression-era jingle, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” and with that point of embarkment dove into research about life in our nation during the 1930s.
Even though I worked hard on that paper and received a solid grade on it, I still feel a twinge of something uncomfortable—guilt? Regret?—when I think back on that assignment. I have this nagging feeling that I did not put my all into it, that I could have done better, that I should I done more. And this uncomfortable awareness does not just surround my memories of that one assignment, but every research paper or project that I have done in my academic career.
So what is feeling, exactly? Where is it coming from?
Usually when I get started on a major assignment for class I feel a thrill of anticipation. I am overwhelmed and excited about the possibilities, the potential. I think HUGE, and I engage with the first few stages of the writing process with an ebullient scholar’s passion.
But then…. I get stuck. I recognize the limitations that surround my work, the biggest one being time. If I truly want to go above and beyond with my project, to create something that makes some sort of impact on others, I will need so much more time than the amount allotted to a school assignment. And usually my awareness of a time frame leads me to view my assignment as Something I Need to Get Done, a square to check off on a to do list. And then I am no longer guided by rainbow passion but by gray, robotic necessity. And I procrastinate. And I know that my final result is never as good as it could be.
I guess what I am talking about refers to all creative assignments in general, ranging from analytical essays to art portfolios to these blog posts for the writing minor. But I think my experiences are of particular relevance with regards to research papers and projects. When I begin my research I am filled with curiosity, intruigue, and excitement about the unlimited potential of my research. But then the sharp contrast between these feelings and the Limitations of Reality cause me to feel overwhelmed and subsequently disinterested.
I really want to battle these feelings, and the chapters in “Craft of Research Reading” offer some pointers and insight that I think might be of help. For one thing, I like how the first chapter simplifies the role of the writer by outlining three possible frameworks for the writer/reader relationship. One of these relationships is of a writer offering interesting information to a reader looking for entertainment. The second is of a writer offering a solution to a practical problem, and the third a writer presenting an answer to a curious, scholarly reader. While I would likely usually fit into the third scenario, I appreciate the message that this chapter conveys about the fundamental purpose of research work. The researcher does not have to do everything; s/he does not have to do something big or complicated or groundbreaking. All that s/he needs to do is offer up something just a little bit new, that might slightly tweak the way a reader looks at some aspect of particular topic of interest. Furthermore, it’s totally fine if the topic is only of interest to a tiny, select population: this chapter says to the researcher, “You are concerned with your particular community of readers, with their particular interests and expectations” (25-26). Finally, the chapter ends by telling the researcher to “set realistic goals. You do something significant when you wind up your project feeling that you have changed what you think and that your reader thinks you did it soundly, even if they don’t agree” (31). Word. This may seem like a small feat, but having the ability to tweak one’s own perspective through research and writing is a big deal.
One other small point from this chapter that made me feel slightly less overwhelmed by the research process was from the bulleted list at the very end of ways to manage “the unavoidable problem of inexperience” (30). The third bullet advises to “understand the whole process by breaking it into manageable steps, but be aware that these steps are mutually supportive” (31). I like this a lot. It is really easy to become freaked out by a massive task at hand and try to break it down into pieces, and this breaking down is useful, definitely. But then when one is faced with a series of small, independent tasks, it is easy to get confused. Every aspect of a project is mutually supportive—I have come to realize this in in college. The overarching purpose must always be at the forefront of the writer’s mind.