Why research is hard, part 3

First of all, hello to everyone who’s read parts 1 and 2 of this set of posts, and I’m awfully pleased to have been in the latest Carnival of the Infosciences. (Thanks for the nomination, Tangognat!) If you’re just tuning in, I’ve been thinking out loud about why it’s so tricky to decide what parts of academic humanities research are difficult because that’s the nature of the beast, and what parts are difficult because of how the pathways to the information are set up.

More on that in later posts. Right now I want to talk about academic culture and the effects it has on whether researchers (undergraduate, graduate, or faculty) even approach librarians in the first place. I’m going to generalize and be first-person and unscientific — which is part of what blogs are for, to my mind; if I turn this into an article, that’ll be the place to do an extensive literature review. For now, it’s a hunch. Thoughts about whether the hunch is on-target are welcome.

When I’m wearing my reference librarian hat, I help a fair number of undergraduates hunt down sources for term papers and similar assignments. Some of them are already armed with a suggested bibliography and just need to find the articles; some have a topic and need to know where to start looking; some approach the desk looking mildly sheepish (or mildly panicked) and admit that they’ve never done this before. But many seem to have been encouraged to ask for help; their professors recommend it, or they remember the library orientation they got as first-years.

I suspect that things are different for grad students, even the ones who’ve had a library orientation of their own. I suspect this because I remember what it was like to be a grad student, and I tended to assume I’d look stupid if I admitted ignorance. Grad students, unless they’re unusually well-adjusted, are often prone to “impostor syndrome“: they secretly think they’re the admissions committee’s mistake, and sooner or later they’ll be discovered and booted out of academia.* This post, which I found while Googling “impostor syndrome,” sums it up very well. If you ask for help, you reveal that you don’t know everything. I think this carries over to library interactions; it took me a while before I felt at ease asking the subject librarian for research advice, even though she was the friendliest person you could hope to meet.

So the student who fears looking stupid (because wait, shouldn’t I already know how to find this stuff myself?) misses out on the chance to learn more about the research process. And old habits die hard. If our hypothetical student doesn’t shake off the feeling of fraudulence, he or she could become the faculty member who’s reluctant to ask questions. When your professional persona is built on what you know, and how much more of it you know than anyone else, you may well worry that revealing ignorance is the same as admitting a professional failing.

I could go on and hypothesize that true education probably has a lot to do with the willingness to look stupid, and screw up and start over, and say “huh? I don’t get it.” But I had a really busy day today, and now I’m going to make an early night of it. A hot bath and this week’s New Yorker are calling my name. Good night…

* It’s not limited to academics, of course. It also happens to librarians. And people in lots of other professions as well.

One Response to “Why research is hard, part 3”

  1. Jeannette says:

    Hmm. I think that is definitely a good point. I’m sure we’ve all felt that at some point.
    I will say, though, that my approach to my home librarians has been a different sort of phenomenon.
    It’s not that I’m afraid of looking stupid…it’s that I don’t trust them.
    I’m enrolled at a pretty decent big state uni, where my field is very small, like I was the only doctoral student for most of the time.
    As an incoming grad student who had written an undergrad thesis, I felt pretty confident about basic library skills, and I could come up with some good searches. I knew the routine, the standard databases, etc.
    But if I came on a particularly sticky problem, if I went to the librarian for help, which I had no problem doing, she was very approachable, she would explain “the routine” and then send me on my way, despite the fact that I had tried to explain what I had already done.
    And there were a couple of instances where I stepped up to answer questions that she ought to have been to do, like how to cite the most standard reference dictionary in our field, and another time, my advisor emailed me from his summer research in Italy so that I could look at a microfilm of a manuscript and tell the librarian what it was.
    Now I realize that these are anectdotal evidence on my part, but my impression of music librarians in general isn’t much different than this (much as I love many of them personally!), unless they have other degrees.
    And because I’m in a weird field nobody knows what to do with, if I go to the main reference desk, they look at me weird and say “have you tried WorldCat?”. Argh.
    Anyway, not that that any of this is relevant at the moment since I’m long-distance now.