Sunday, May 27, 2018

The labor of knowing

July 27, 2010 by  
Filed under BLOG

In the July 19 Wired, Jonah Lehrer alludes to the joys of fieldwork versus the “drudgery of the lab.” After several years’ work on the Citation Project, I have a much better sense of what he means. We set off on the Citation Project with the objective of having a broad data-based portrait of what students do when they work with sources. As teachers we had some pretty concrete ideas, drawn from our work with the student writers in our own courses; as scholars we had some glimpses from occasional published pieces. Most of the published literature, however, was anecdotal or was based on survey or interview data from a single institution. We wanted something more.

Trained in literature departments for the humanistic interpretation of texts, we had a lot to learn. Some of it we learned by direct instruction and some by studying methodological texts. The rest we learn as we go along, through trial and error.

Now we’ve gathered thousands of student texts from 16 U.S. colleges. (Our website says 15, but as soon as we can catch our breath, we need to update it; a 16th college came on board this summer, bringing their own researchers with them!) This summer a whole team of people is finding sources, reading student papers and their sources, and coding the relationships between the students’ citations and the sources they cite. That’s the fieldwork. We have a small grant that allows us to pay a few graduate students this summer, but for most of us this is volunteer work, scholarship to which we feel ineluctably drawn.

Sandra Jamieson and I are tracking, compiling, processing, and analyzing the results of the fieldwork. That’s the lab work. The first three of these–tracking, compiling, and processing–are my job this summer. And it *is* drudgery! I am amazed by how many hours and how much concentration it takes to do this “lab” work.

Yet it is exciting drudgery. As the movement of data among researchers is tracked, marked-up papers are PDFed and stored in accessible online folders, and spreadsheets are assembled with data for the SPSS database, I unavoidably feel excited. We are moving toward a goal, and the goal is one that we all count as very important. We expect to produce the kind of results that can profoundly aid teachers and curriculum-builders. We are too much in the throes of the fieldwork and lab work right now to see that light ahead of us, but we know it’s there. And it keeps me moving through “the drudgery of the lab.” Now I have a better understanding of how scientists are motivated, and why they find their work rewarding.


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