research methods

This fall I'll be teaching our Bibliography and Research Methods graduate course for the first time. It's been long regarded by both faculty and students as something of an artifact -- in part because of the individual who's been teaching it for many years. But also, I think, because in many subfields of literary study, the past 20 years have been focused on different hermeneutics that often have nothing to do with history. This is not simply my own observation: see the work of McGann etc. But now it's taking on a much more concrete specificity in terms of my course planning. I always want to fit in more than can actually be accomplished in one semester, but I'm fast realizing that I'm trying to meet several distinct goals in this single course.
At the simplest level, my course goals are these:

  • introduce students to basic theories in bibliography and materialist textual study (what are books? why does it matter which edition you're looking at? etc)
  • give entry-level graduate students the basic research skills they'll need (MLA, WorldCat, print sources, etc)

That's doable in a semester. But along the way, I will also have to:

  • convince them that research actually is part of the advanced study of literature. I'm afraid many of them don't really believe that.
  • help them define appropriate research questions and topics (although this is not a research writing workshop)
  • teach them how to evaluate the most basic sources in their field (how do you know a first rate journal from a fifth-rate one?)
  • introduce them to the range of approaches in the profession, since this course is the only gateway for the MA students.

It's forcing me to confront in a very specific way the large differences between my own training and that which our students have received prior to entering our program. I never got a research course at either my MA or PhD institutions -- it was assumed that we already knew this stuff, or would figure it out on our own. Our students are frequently capable enough, but they don't have that kind of professionalization coming into the program to even know what it is that they don't know. In addition, I suspect that even in many good undergraduate programs these days, many students don't necessarily write sustained independent research projects.
So I do think it's an important course -- many times in my seminars I've suggested to students that they look something up in OCLC and get only a blank stare. So I can try to remedy that. But it's not a respected course -- by students or teachers. Some of my colleagues probably don't use OCLC/WorldCat very often, if ever, either. Being one of the few historically-minded people in the department is in part why I was tapped to teach this one.