When I started my college career I took introductory composition courses that taught me how to do “research.” I learned how to go to the library, how to search online databases for articles and books on my topic, how to cite sources using MLA format, and then how to write papers with a minimum number of citations/sources supporting the claims I made.
I think we are still teaching students how to do this, but I’m not sure it’s useful. As a scholar, I never go about research in religious studies by searching online databases, and the citation styles I use vary by context.
How do I do research, then? I ask peers what’s “essential reading” in a certain area, I ask who’s publishing recently on a certain topic, I sift through bibliographies in the books and articles recommended to me, and I read around in what looks to be relevant. The only time I use a library database is to look up and download an article I’ve already identified.
So the question is: are we teaching students skills that are not useful? What if, instead, we spent more time teaching students how to evaluate sources we readily shared with them (like we get from our peers), rather than focusing on how to physically find and cite find sources?
Of course, teaching students how to evaluate sources would draw us into ideological battles that would be more easily avoided if we merely focused on the numbers of sources cited rather than the contested value of various sources. We’d be talking about the value of some types of scholarship over others, the usefulness of some methods over others, and why they should avoid anything with “The Sacred” in the title.
Messy business—but isn’t that what research really involves?