About Research and Instruction

23 Sep

Research and Instruction, the two pillars of the university!

Well, you might say research is a pillar only inasmuch as it leads to scholarship (since the point is to share). Ok. And then you might say there’s another pillar: service. OK, doing good is definitely a pillar.  For the purposes of this post, though, please allow me to focus arbitrarily on the first two pillars, because otherwise my thing about their definitions doesn’t work.

I’ve noticed a slight difference in what the words research and instruction mean to library staff, generally speaking, and what they mean to the non-library-employed academic.  Research has come to mean, over time, for library staff, it seems to me, primarily those aspects of research that we have traditionally supported. That is to say, helping you discover the fruits of other peoples’ research.  Helping you evaluate the fruits of other peoples’ research.  Helping you show which of your ideas are yours and which are the fruits of other peoples’ research.

And instruction means to us, generally, the instruction that library staff provide. Which is traditionally related closely to the areas of research that we support (see paragraph above). That is, we talk a lot about Finding. Evaluating. Citing. Maybe mostly Finding.

What does research mean outside of the library?  Well, you can define it as well as I, but I’ll try: research is what you do when you want to add to the collective knowledge of the world (how was that?). It’s a whole gamut of fun from mixing chemicals to interviewing people to thumbing through wonderfully crinkled old letters; done standing in a lab or crouching in a field or reclining in the Bibliothèque littéraire Jacques Doucet next to the Panthéon, in Henri Bergson’s own armchair, gazing across the desk at a portrait of the philosopher’s mother.  It used to be paper-based, analog.  Amazing amounts of digital data and data visualization tools and books that read each other are making us rethink a lot of it.  Still, a lot of it does involve finding, evaluating, and citing articles. But there’s more to it than that.

What does instruction mean outside of the library?  Helping people learn. How? Yes. In groups, singly, in class, and out of class, in scenes that evoke the Paper Chase, in scenes that look like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Using every communicative mode possible. In an minute, in an hour, over a week, for a semester, for four years, for fourteen years! And in every conceivable subject and melange thereof. It’s pedagogy. It’s learn-agogy (if you will). It used to be about lectures. Increasing it’s also about learners pressing themselves out of a rough ball of clay and whispering over themselves the magic word, as Rabbi Loew did the Golem. It used to be all in person. Now it’s online, too. It used to be 10AM – 2PM Monday – Thursday. That’s changing. You get where I am going with this.

Here’s my point: now is a great time for those of us in the library and IT professionals to release whatever restrictive definitions we can.  But in particular we should embrace the non-library definitions of research and instruction.

Because why?  Because we still want to support those pillars, but the pillars will change. The way people gather unto themselves knowledge and the way people help people learn — these things are become a gurgling cauldron under the all-pervasive influence of, primarily, information technology and, secondarily, cultural behaviors unleashed by information technology.

People around us will be rethinking research and instruction. Library and IT staff should be in on the conversation, as members of the community, primarily, and, secondarily, as people who think their job IS, specifically, to support these things. Hard to be in the conversation if you use words differently than your collocutors. Also, hard to be open to new ways of doing things if your very language seals you in like tupperware.

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