Research as Fighting (and Other Metaphors Gone Wrong)

Like many college English instructors, I’ve been told by students that their high school teachers taught them many strange things about writing and research. Unlike some of my peers, I always feel sympathy for those teachers, for my years in the library have imparted the following basic truths:

  •  Students often horribly garble what they were told, usually unintentionally, because they didn’t understand the first time or because they simply don’t remember.
  • Like most people, students think the consequences will not be as severe if they can blame someone else.
  • Teachers did say such a thing, but they were simplifying a concept or, heaven forbid, speaking metaphorically.
I once taught a basic writing class. We started with the parts of speech and sentences and worked up to paragraphs. There is a horror that can only be felt by an instructor who has made things as basic as possible, looks out into the class, and sees no comprehension on students’ faces. Such times require resorting to a simplification or a metaphor to make things clear. Unfortunately, students may not remember that this works only some of the time for certain types of writing. Instead they move on as if the words had been written in their flesh and say to subsequent teachers, “Dr. Jones said that . . .”
I thought of those times yesterday when I was helping a former student worker, a student from Somalia. She was starting a research paper and declared that she’d never done research, that she had no idea what it was. After a few attempts to tell her, I clutched at an old example I used to give when I taught the persuasive essay.
“Imagine that we’re having an argument. You say it’s better to be an only child. I say it’s better to have siblings. You decide that it’s easier to win your argument if you have others who agree with you. So you pull in your friends. That’s what your sources are. They are your back up.”
Her face lit up: “Oh, now I understand. It’s like a fight.”
Now, as far as analogies go, it’s not a terrible one for introducing the research paper. Still, I shudder to think what she’ll tell her instructors some day in the future: “The librarian said research is like a war.”
And the instructors will shake their heads at my ignorance over drinks at happy hour.


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