Thursday, March 16, 2006
I would like to provide a follow up to yesterday's (March 15) posting to add some important context. In that posting, "Helping Students Bring Order Out of Chaos," I suggested a list of questions that students can use to help them think through how to organize a mass of research results into an outline of a scholarly article. I asked my colleague Paul Callister what he thought of my advice because Paul, who directs our law library at UMKC, also co-teaches with me a course in scholarly writing. He, not surprisingly, suggested that we must keep clear the ongoing interrelationship between writing and research.
Paul is absolutely right, and his point is important. The writing process and the research process are intertwined for the scholar because both, in reality, are different manifestations of a thinking process that begins at the first inkling of a potential topic and continues to the last editing decision.
Throughout, the research directs the writing, and the writing directs the research, right up to the last moment of the process. Anyone who produces scholarship knows that the entire endeavor, from start to finish, continually sends the writer back to rethink the material, to research it from a different angle in order to flesh it out or refine it in new ways necessary to the writer's constantly evolving understanding.
When a good writer asks, early on, why a problem is important, she has only begun to really ask that question. She knows that if she stops asking it because she has compiled some research results – even a large number of research results – she has effectively stopped thinking about a critical aspect of the problem and has closed herself to new understandings. As a good writer, she will keep that question on the table to very end.
Students need to understand scholarship in those terms. Scholarship is about actively engaging ideas and letting that engagement transform the scholar's own understanding until the last sentence is tweaked for the last time. In other words, the questions on yesterday's list are actually ongoing questions that, along with others, should have been asked and researched long before – and should be asked and researched long after – the outline of a first draft.
Within that ongoing process, of course, the questions can be put to multiple uses. The use to which my posting suggested they be put is one of organizing and focusing the writer's thoughts for the purpose of creating a structure for the article. Once that purpose has been tentatively achieved, however, they will be used again and again for multiple purposes, including revising (rethinking) the organization that initially emerged.
When students approach scholarship as nothing more than gathering and sorting an impressive mass of material, they have missed the point of the entire endeavor. They are thinking in the simplest and least useful ways about what are likely important ideas.
When, therefore, one of our students comes to us asking for advice regarding his scholarship, we must make certain he truly understands the task: to think deeply about an idea and to refuse to stop thinking deeply until the final draft is finally complete. As a result, he will find himself researching even in the last revision because even in the last revision he will still be refining his understanding of that idea. (dbw)