Researching “Research”

Researching “Research,” a Multi-Modal Project Investigating Student Perceptions of Research and the Circulation of the Term in Multiple Socio-Cultural Contexts

Faculty research team: Rick Gooding, Katharine Patterson, Jaclyn Rea, Katja Thieme, Anneke van Enk

Undergraduate research assistants: Babak Ahmadi, Maryam Babaei, John Hilderley, Ryan Mickelson, Alex Whitford, Paul Chang, and Caitlyn McKenna

Our project investigates how first-year Arts students perceive the mandate of a research-intensive university and how they see their role in the academic community. What do students understand when they hear–and what do they mean when they say–the word research and the related terms academic, scholarly, and discipline? In what way might students’ understanding of the term research conflict with their professors’ ideas of research as a knowledge-making enterprise directed by disciplinary epistemologies and protocols? As other scholars have pointed out, studying students’ perceptions of the research mandate is important; however, most of those researchers focus on the nexus between research and teaching as they analyze what relation instructors’ research has to students’ learning. Existing research rarely investigates students’ understandings of research as an activity in which not only instructors but also students themselves engage. Our study design includes corpus analysis, discourse analysis, closed and open-ended questionnaires, and visual methods to investigate representations of research in the press, popular culture, British Columbia Ministry of Education curriculum documents, and students’ experiences on campus and in high school.

Individual Components

Survey of University Students’ Conception of Research
In what way do undergraduates recognize research, and how do they view their own involvement in it? We asked approximately 1000 students from the faculties of Arts and Science questions such as: Where does research happen? Who does research? Have you done research? What did you do? Most lower-level students associate research with science; over time that association tends to be expanded toward social science as well as toward students’ own learning and progress. Most students imagine that research happens in laboratories, universities, and libraries, but about a quarter of them also tend to add “everywhere” or “anywhere” to that list. While the strongest image of research done by others is that of the professor or professional researcher working in a laboratory, students describe themselves as doing research more likely when they are writing papers rather than when they are working in labs. When asked to freely associate three other words with research, the word most frequently mentioned was study. These surveys raise questions about how else students’ idea about research differs between the professional and the student researcher. With which specific research activities and verbs would students describe their own in comparison to their instructors’ research?

Corpus Study of “Research” and Related Terms in Newspaper Discourse
Our findings indicate that in the press research is strongly associated with science and business, an association which arts and humanities students share. To a lesser extent, the press also associates research with information-seeking behaviour generally (e.g. determining the best travel accommodation for a holiday). The persistent equation of research with information-seeking has important implications for the pedagogy of first-year writing-in-the-disciplines courses and for students’ active participation in scholarly communities over the four years of their undergraduate degree program.

Representations of Research in British Columbia School Curricula
We examined in detail the representation of research in popular media and high-school curriculum guidelines using discourse analytic methods. In education discourse, scientific research is substituted by scientific literacy, a literacy whose objective is to foster respect and admiration for the kind of research which leads to social advancement. The acquisition of that literacy entails some activity on the part of the student. While lab exercises are meant to teach an understanding of scientific method and terminology, the objective does not seem to be to prepare students to be researchers. In the arts, research is situated in the context of information gathering for the purpose of writing assignments, assignments which primarily demonstrate (or not) the student’s readiness to advance up the educational ladder.

Representations of Research and Researchers in Popular Visual Media
We analyze the representation of researchers and research, both as practice and product, in the scripts and visual rhetoric of recent films, including A Beautiful Mind, Tenure, and Leaves of Grass, and television series, including The Big Bang Theory, Lost, and Fringe. In these popular media, research is associated with activity but this activity is hidden and there is skepticism about its utility. The product may be socially harmful or it may be that the scientist is engaged for personal rather than social benefit. Humanities research is often trivialized perhaps because there is no obvious social utility.

Conference Presentations
“The Researching ‘Research’ Project: Implications for Teaching Writing-in-the-Disciplines.” Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing, Waterloo, May 2012.

“Popular Culture and the Schoolroom: Influences on First-Year Students’ Perceptions of the University Research Context.” Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing. Fredericton, May 2011.

“Researching ‘Research’: Investigating Arts Students’ Perceptions of the Mandate of a research-intensive University.” Research Network Forum, College Composition and Communication Conference, Atlanta GA, March 2011.

“Researching ‘Research’: Connecting Student Meanings to Socio-Cultural Discourses.” Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse and Writing, Montreal, May 2010.