Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Really? Six Hours of Research and You Couldn't Find Anything? What to Say Instead!

(Back to our regularly scheduled programming this week! Students, at this point in the term, you've probably had some assignment due that required research. Let's talk about how students often communicate about that with professors... and discuss a different way to approach it that gets you the help you need!)

It was persuasive speech season in my Intro to Communication course.

I always caution my students to avoid persuasive topics that are heavily overdone i.e., abortion, gun control, euthanasia, etc.  

My only exception to this rule? 

If students can come up with a super-fresh new angle on the subject, I'll rethink my position.

If you're spending enough time in the library, you'll be so
tired that you'll need to sit down... just not on the bookstacks.

Even with said warning, I always have one student who submits this topic proposal: "Today, I'm going to persuade my audience to stop smoking."

Or, in Student's case, the legalization of marijuana.

(Groan. That topic. Again.)

I reiterated to Student that a new angle on this idea was badly, badly needed, that there was little to say that the audience hasn't heard. If Student could do some research and come up with a new angle, I'd reconsider. 

So, what did I receive during persuasive speech draft time?

Your standard "why we should legalize pot" outline.

(Did I already groan?)

I sent the outline back to the student via e-mail, ungraded with this comment: "I thought we discussed that you need to find a new angle on this subject."

Student's reply? "I looked for six hours and couldn't find any way to change it!"

Now in the past 10+ years, I wish I had a nickel for every time a student swore that they researched for hours and hours and couldn't find anything.

Then, I go in and do one half-assed search of my own and I usually find something.

If I do a full-assed search (because that does exist, right?)--we're talking deep in the online library journal collections, etc.--I can almost always find the research that the student could have found!

Now, I know what you're thinking:  "Ellen, you have degrees. You have experience in research."

And that would be true. 

But, to be fair, every college student has access to people like me... right on the college campus! (And you know who they are!).

So when Student was saying that there was absolutely no new twist on legalization of marijuana--and Student searched for Six. Full. Hours., I took that as a personal challenge!

For the next few minutes, this nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn who has never even tried pot (really, now, haven't you caught on that food is my total drug of choice from my last blog posts?)... was all about pot...

...on my state computer!

(Which I've learned from my IT department is actually fine because, hey, sometimes the Human Sexuality profs have to look up some pretty interesting things, too... as long as it's in the name of teaching, and in this case, it definitely was!).

Within less than 20 minutes, I saw news that California was about to put the legalization of marijuana to its voters (this was a couple of years ago, by the way). Student could put a persuasive speech together giving some background on California's situation, and then doing a compare/contrast with Washington State. Essentially, if the student could find reasonable correlations between California (or even another state putting the option on the ballot) and Washington State, then the newly twisted argument could be that, for these reasons, Washington should follow suit.

So what's the communication lesson here? (Didn't you miss this over the past couple of weeks? I did!)

Don't just blanketly tell your professor, "I did X-hours of research and couldn't find squat!"

Instead, first and foremost... do the research and do it as well as you possibly can! Your prof is not going to want to hear how many hours you spent coming up with nothing; she's going to want to know what sites you've searched, if you've talked to your friendly neighborhood librarian, and any other measures you've taken!

That's right! The first question I always ask my students after they tell me how much time they spent finding nothing is, "Tell me where you've looked."

My next question? "What did the librarians say?"

The student usually looks away and replies, "Um, I didn't go to the library yet. I thought I'd try on my own first and see if I could find something."

By this point, your professor will probably think, "Why would you struggle on your own when you have a campus library and even neighborhood libraries--complete with skilled librarians--who can help talk you through your research?"

What should you say instead?

-First, tell your professor, "I have a list of the resources I've tried to look through already." Having a list of sites you've explored, books you've paged through (remember books you can hold in your hand? They still exist!), periodicals, etc. can help your prof see where you were trying to go, even if you came up empty. Then he can help focus your search.

-Next, keep the time out of it. This is college and you're supposed to spend a lot of time on research. It's what you signed up for.

It's not like your prof is going to give you warm milk and say, "Oh, you poor dear, you spent 10 hours searching and didn't find anything? Let me take that over for you." 

Or, a student who only says they spent two hours on research would hear, "No, no, no! You have eight more hours to go before I'll help you!"

Really, the time doesn't matter. The professor will react more positively to tangible evidence of your search (i.e., the list I mentioned above).

Some students will even print pages of articles, bring them to me, and say, "You know, I'm not really sure this one will work." I definitely welcome that type of evidence of what the student has attempted!

-Now, it goes without saying that before you tell your prof you've found nothing on your own, you will have gone to the library first for help. What happens then is you will likely have something in your hot little hand to show your prof. 

You can say, "I went to the library two days ago and the librarian helped me come up with this information. I'm not really sure how to incorporate it or if the content is even right for my topic. Would you be willing to take a look?" 

There! You've made a specific request and you've shown responsibility by discussing the course of action you've already taken!

While my message may seem a little direct, I do understand that many students have the habit of searching the Internet first before doing any other research. After all, it's convenient... you may already be at home, and you're in your fuzzy PJs (mine have cats holding umbrellas... uh oh... TMI?), and you don't really feel like you want to move from your laptop. 

I also believe that students perceive the amount of time they spend researching as far more as what they actually spend doing so. I know you may feel frustrated and hopeless when you can't find what you're looking for... or when you don't even know what you're looking for.

Wonderful student, I know it's hard to get in the habit of going to a library or a tutoring center for help when you need it. You may feel weak for even having to ask for help (remember this post? It was my second most popular one to date!). But, remember, if you knew all about research, then you should be teaching your classes, not taking them. 

Learning how to do efficient research is one of the most practical tools you'll ever learn in college. 


You may think you'll never use the strategies again, but you will. You never know when you'll be at work and need to find a piece of credible information. Practice in college. You'll be glad you did (and others will think you're brilliant when you can come up with great info quick-fast!).

In the meantime, let your prof help you evaluate research that you've already found yourself. 

Personally, I'd like to not search for the latest news on pot again. 


(Especially on my work computer).

Students, how's your research going? How is your term going? What are you struggling with? I'm always taking questions! Colleagues from all across education, what communication advice do you have for students requesting help with research? If I don't have the answers, I'm glad to do some research and find them! 


  1. I can't believe people actually say this to their professors. Because I feel like with all the resources available to me as a student (the school library, reference librarians (who are trained in finding stuff), all of the databases that many schools subscribe to to find articles, the internet, the public library, etc, etc) that if I haven't exhausted all of those first and found nothing and the chances of exhausting all of those and really finding nothing would be very slim (plus then, you'd have a reference librarian who would also be able to back you up and verify that).

    I only ever said something similar to a professor one time when I was looking for a very specific document published by the World Bank in the late 1990s because I had found tons of sources quoting it, but I could not for the life of me find the original document. It was fine though because most of what I needed was in what people quoted so my professor told me to just go with that. Ironically, I ended up finding it later on by accident looking up something else for my project because it had been somewhat mislabeled on the World Bank's website (it's not the most user friendly) but there was no legitimate way I would have found that any other way because it was mislabeled.

    I felt like as a student that if something existed, I should be able to find it in some way and shouldn't have to cop out and tell my professor I couldn't find it unless it really didn't exist. After all, isn't part of the point of college is to teach you those research skills? How would I ever learn real research skills if I gave up after scanning the first page of google results?

    1. Melissa B.,

      Exactly! To your whole entire explanation!!!! But when you say that you can't believe that students actually say these things, I can promise you... they do! A lot!

      It's not the students like yourself who do all the research all of the time, then need that little bit of help who professors worry about. It's the students who made a very cursory attempt and gave up.

      I think we need to plaster your last two sentences on the top of every syllabus in every college.

      Love it! And thank you!

  2. How about a paper on behalf of gay marriage. Bet that never comes up! Lol...

    I'm really curious how the political leanings - mostly left - are really affecting how students are taught to think?

    How true is it that many professors advocate a position and grades reflect whether a student has properly taken that position with an "issue" topic where it's opinion-oriented and not a right or wrong?

    Most students are left-leaning too, but some are actually religious and isn't religion also a sort of taboo subject at many universities?

    Where do you stand on bringing YOUR political view into the classroom, Professor?

  3. Hi, Bruce,

    Gay marriage definitely comes up... but I bet you already knew that :-).

    You know, my first tenure-track position was in the Deep South, so not left-leaning at all and super-super religious, which was very hard for me, personally. I am by nature very careful about not bringing my political view into the classroom or my religious views (I am not terribly religious, anyway, except when it comes to Oprah because I could subscribe to her church if she had one).

    That said, I also tell students when they ask what topic I would like that it really doesn't matter. I turn the question back on them and ask what topic they believe they can wrap their heart and head around.

    When it comes to taboo subjects like religion and politics in speeches, I don't tell students that they absolutely cannot speak on these topics. I ask them to consider how the topic could alienate parts of their audience and how we can overcome those barriers. Sometimes we can overcome them, but sometimes we can't, and the student has to change course.

    I can't say that a student's grade is never based on a professor's personal leanings, but I can safely say that I may totally disagree with a topic or feel very personal about it (breast feeding would be one--both of my kids were formula-fed), but I do work very hard to remain objective to how well the student met the requirements of the assignment... not how well the student mastered my personal beliefs :-).

    What an amazing question! Thank you, Bruce!

    1. Students assume you will be biased, because it's easier to blame a poor grade on a biased teacher than on their own performance.

      Like you, I try to avoid any bias, but to help steer students away from trying to psych out what they think I might like, I tell them that if I DO have a bias, it is this: if you talk about something I know and care about, and you do a poor job of it, I am more likely to grade you down than if you take the opposite view from me and do a solid job of it. It really pisses me off when you make something I care about look bad.

      I don't really do that, and they get that message, but it helps get it across that I'm simply grading how effectively they make their points, not whether I agree or not.

    2. Donn,

      Can I tell you that I am so glad we are connected? Okay, now that this is out of the way... :-)

      You raise a really good point here. If the message is something that I do agree with, I want the student to sound as credible as possible about it, for both of us!


  4. Hi Bruce,

    I teach these controversial subjects all the time, and I believe it is my responsibility to tell them what my personal opinion is, provide supoprt for my opinion, and then make sure to explain that this is by no means a suggestion that they need to feel the same way. This encourages students to develop their own opinions AND provide support for them. I want to provide a model of substantive, respectful dialogue--because there's no way they will get it from our media or politics. I am an extremely left-leaning professor, but even my most conservative students are encouraged to discuss their opinions, as long as they keep invective, supposition, assumptions, and incorrect facts out of it. I do not allow the expression of any racial, ethic, religious hatred, because it's not only wrong, it creates a bad environment.

    If educators don't provide the models for dialogue, who will?


    1. Dr. Rooney, I'm glad that you take the approach you describe. Sadly, I hear all too often that that is not what happens from your other left-leaning peers.

      I've heard from many a student that their grades are severely affected if they disagree with their professor's politics.

      I'm sure you're well aware that many conservative speakers are shouted down on many campuses and that the ratio of left to right professors and speakers is shockingly biased to the left.

      While I believe it is fine to express your opinions, I am heartened to hear that you don't bring that bias to how you dialogue with your students and, by implication, how you grade.

      "Respectful dialogue" - does that happen at Berkeley? Can a religious person become a professor in the Liberal Arts?

      What I think has been lost too much is students being taught HOW to make an argument and how to elucidate - fairly and objectively - both sides of an issue.

      It feels way too fractured, from what I hear and read. Curious to hear any further reactions you may have?

      As for your reply, Chattyprof, I'm sure you did get a conservative viewpoint in the South. Good.

      I've another question, really, for both of you. Why are their "Women's Studies" departments? Where is the fairness in that? There aren't any "Men's Studies" are there?

  5. Dear Jill Rooney, Ph.D.,

    This was an incredibly thoughtful response, and I appreciate it. I'm going to signal Bruce that you responded to him.

    I had a hard time sharing more of my opinions in my last professorship. One of my students asked me what Chanukah was and a few other students warned, "Don't ask her about that, she'll try to convert you!" That made me very wary about sharing any of my personal views in a community that was so deeply rooted in their own beliefs with little diversity.

    Where I live now, and where I started out in Vegas, it was very different, so there is room for much more of the type of discourse you describe.

    Thank you very much for writing!

  6. I haven't found reference librarians particularly helpful. More often they are a waste of time. There is something about their training that leads to exhaustive (and exhausting) resource-listing. My favorite comment was, "This won't help you but just to be complete..." followed by a lengthy explanation. What is needed is a middleperson to translate the laundry list into a short list of what the student needs to wear to go to the ball. Someone half way between the student and the expert, who can prioritize. For example, for many projects, Google Image is a great place to start, but no reference librarian will ever recommend it. If the students don't use the product, don't blame the consumer, blame the product.

    1. Hello, Anonymous,

      I appreciate your writing in. Hmm... I think we could say the same thing about professors, IT folks, probably anyone in service, right? I've encountered people tremendously helpful... and others that were a colossal waste of my time.

      Have you found a number of reference librarians stating that they knowingly weren't being helpful, but were being exhaustive in their efforts? I have definitely heard students complain about librarians in the past (fortunately, and in all honesty, not at my current college, where my librarians actually get rave reviews--always the case).

      I'm glad you mentioned Google Image. I don't know what that is and I will have to check it out...

      I think it will be interesting to read what some librarians are going to have to say in response to your words. Your experience is important, however, so I'm glad you shared it. I definitely have had students who have been very frustrated in the past with their library experiences, but on that same note, many students who have been thrilled when they've gotten the help that sent them right on their way after being stuck.

    2. Another thought... If a librarian, indeed, says, "This won't help you, but..." The student absolutely can, in the next pause, politely say, I appreciate you wanting to be complete. I really need to focus on this project and I'm short on time. I'm looking for research specifically related to this aspect of X. Can you help me with that?"