Lost in the Library: On Research and Patience

Ryan Staude, PhD - Middle School History Teacher
“Where do I start?” This question has been posed to me scores of times over the years where I have taught a basic research methodologies class. Students spend several months producing a substantial research paper which usually numbers around 20-25 pages. At the start of the year, students express doubt that they will be able to produce such a lengthy piece of writing. As the year progresses most end up asking if the final product can be longer than 25 pages. It is not a new found passion for writing which prompts the query, but rather the treasure trove of information they have amassed through research.

As a teacher, it is not the students’ final essays which I find most impressive, but rather the step they have taken to reach that end point. Research is a part of everyone’s job and life. It teaches us skills that help us succeed in our professions, and it also informs man of the prosaic, mundane decisions we make throughout the day. More importantly, research skills can help to shape personal characteristics, like discipline, introspection and patience, which can help us navigate the complexities of living in a digital age.

Simply stated, research is the process we undertake to access the information we need to answer a question. It may be as unassuming as asking Siri to tell us the weather for the weekend, or it could be disappearing into archives for months at a time to peruse old documents while wearing white gloves so as to not sully them with the detritus we carry on our fingers. Research is a part of all academic disciplines, and the research a mathematician will undertake will look different than how a literary scholar approaches her research. Yet, both are engaged in the same process: the search for information which will lead to answers. Whereas most of the research we may do on a daily basis will provide immediate gratification, scholarly research serves a different function. Academics do not necessarily look for answers; rather, they search for clues which they can then piece together and connect to (hopefully) help them answer a question. Research takes many shapes and forms, but it is the lifeblood of all academic work.

On first blush it would seem that the Internet has made research easier, and while it does put a wealth of information at our fingertips it also presents more pitfalls and land mines in the form of crowd-sourced websites and non-expert penned articles. Most scholars pursuing doctoral degrees in the humanities still conduct a vast majority of their research in archives and libraries. Brick-and-mortar repositories remain indispensable to the scholar’s work. A good research class, though, will instruct students how to navigate the deceptive results of a Google search, and how best to maximize the Internet while not dispensing with the printed resources which have served as the backbone of research for a millennium.

It is a mistake, though, to see research as solely the accumulation of data. Finding the information is just the beginning, scholars must then make sense of their material and connect it to form a narrative. This is where research hones analytical thinking. Books, articles, interviews, and websites can give us information, but we must assemble it for the answers we seek. At this point the research process can impart characteristics that not only sharpen minds, but can also shape character.

Research necessitates discipline to lay out a plan and execute it, and it dictates that one must have patience to sit with her conclusions, and allow them to ferment in her mind. Rumination cannot be forced, and while deadlines are critical it is also necessary to carve out time in the research process to live with the information and allow it to organically congeal in one’s mind.

Answers are not forthcoming at the snap of one’s fingers. Discipline and patience: these are the fundamental qualities required to be a successful scholar. These characteristics may be unglamorous, but in a world that seems to be getting faster and more preoccupied with instant gratification by the second we need more reflective, organized, and contemplative persons.

I will be teaching a research seminar in the upper school during the 2019-20 school year. The goal is to teach students the research skills they will need to be successful in any liberal arts or social science class they may take in college (almost all of which will assuredly require them to write at least one research paper). But, more than learning the ins-and-outs of how to use a library card catalog I hope they take away the joy that can come from the thrill of discovery, or the “Eureka” moment that leads them to a penetrating insight. Moreover, I hope they realize that patience, stillness, and reflection are desirable and necessary traits to cultivate and nurture, and that they lead to enrichment inside, and outside, the classroom.

Dr. Ryan Staude teaches in the Middle School and joins O’Neal with over a decade of teaching in independent schools including Windward School (CA) and most recently Pingry School (NJ). He has designed history curricula and earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Albany, SUNY.
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