By: Lauren Wallis, First Year Experience and Student Success Librarian


It’s difficult to get students to embrace the reality that research is inherently messy. Sometimes when I’m at the reference desk working with a student who is frustrated because she’s not finding sources that seem relevant to her topic, I find myself explaining that research is cyclical. For example, the student might start with a source that seems less than relevant, but use it to find a perfect keyword or a cited source. Students rarely want to hear about this hypothetical circuitous route their research might take, especially when they have been tasked with finding, not exploring.


Situations like this one make me think of an insight from linguist James Gee, who discusses the tension between a student’s primary Discourse, learned naturally while growing up, and academic Discourse. Using his own field as an example, he notes, “Ironically, while you can overtly teach someone linguistics, a body of knowledge, you can’t teach them to be a linguist, that is, to use a Discourse. The best you can do is let them practice being a linguist with you” (9).


Depending on your academic discipline and the level of your students, there are many different ways to “let them practice being a [insert your field here] with you.” Below, I give some suggestions for initiating this process by sharing your own research experiences (and messes) with students, allowing them to see what research looks like in practice in your discipline, before it gets to the final stage of a polished publication. As a caveat, sharing your research mess with students requires a level of vulnerability that might be uncomfortable for many reasons–your race, gender, or status as an instructor, to name a few. If you’re not able to share your own experiences, consider sharing the anecdotes of friends (or borrowing some of the following stories!). That said, here are three ways to share your research struggles with students in order to help them practice messy research with you:


  1. Show students the research struggles you had when you were at their level.
    I have a friend who teaches first year composition and likes to share a particularly harsh criticism a professor levied on his writing and research skills when he was a freshman. In the margins of his paper, the professor commented: “A donkey could have synthesized these sources with more skill and style than you.” While I don’t condone comparing students to barn animals, this type of example helps students recognize that no one starts out as an expert.


  1. Show students the research struggles you had when you were becoming an expert.
    When I was taking a research methods class as a senior in college, my professor brought in her “dissertation box” and let us look at the materials she used as she wrote her dissertation, which later became her first book. There were handwritten research journal entries, pages and pages of source annotations, and drafts of chapters marked ferociously with red pen. It was chaos compared to the pretty book that sat on the faculty publications shelf in the library. It helped me see that even those who earn the ultimate marker of academic expertise, a PhD, still struggle with research and writing along the way–and that realization helped me see my own research struggles as opportunities rather than failures.
  2. Present scholars as real people who are engaged in genuine conversations with each other.
    One of my professors in grad school told my class a story about her process of co-authoring a book on composition pedagogy. She and her friend/co-author spent a summer sitting at a kitchen table strewn with papers, books, and cats. They wrote every word together with one computer between them, engaging in discussion (and sometimes arguments!) as they composed. When I read the book for class, I pictured them talking together at that kitchen table. The story made the concept of the scholarly conversation real to me, and it made scholarship seem less intimidating. There are many ways to represent what scholarly conversations look like in process, before they are laid out neatly in a co-authored book or the literature review section of a journal article. Consider possibilities such as Skype sessions in class with your collaborators, social media chat sessions, and even class visits. This can also be a great opportunity to bring in scholars who don’t fit the norm of the white, male professor, so that students from many backgrounds can begin to envision themselves as real scholars who are able to genuinely engage in research.


Telling students that research is cyclical and complex is never going to be the most helpful way to teach research skills. We have to let students practice in an authentic way, which starts by letting them see real representations of our own research processes.


Gee, James P. “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction.” The Journal of Education, vol. 171, no. 1, 1989, pp. 5-17.

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