Government & Law and International Affairs
Bytes & Books, Fall 2015 (Volume 29, no. 2)

Q: What motivated you to apply for an IL grant for IA 261 / Gov & Law 309 Research Design in International Affairs?

A: The course is required for sophomore IA majors, to prepare them for formulating research questions before they study abroad. IA is inherently and necessarily multidisciplinary. At the heart of doing IA research is to identify a multidisciplinary question, place it in an appropriate set of scholarly conversations, figure out what information is needed, and then be deliberate about how to use the multiplicity of sources. I was really excited that IL grants were available since IL goes hand in hand with methods, and it is absolutely central to research design.

Q: You assigned a research design project instead of the traditional research paper. Why? How did you structure it?

A: I do not think a traditional research paper would have been able to accomplish my goals. I wanted a much more open ended assignment that would allow students to make the pivot from being a good student to taking one’s place at the table with other scholars. The research design project enabled them to make that pivot and practice becoming scholars in their own right. Students started the very first week with a two or three page paper describing anything that captured their attention or that they explored in the past six months. Then, they linked that general interest to an IA topic, followed by concept mapping which helped them break it down into how different disciplines might address the topic and/or the different dimensions of their topic. Once they had their concept map, students decided on which avenue they wanted to pursue and started to identify and analyze the existing debates, evidence, and knowledge. The first major writing assignment was a literature review, which is a very difficult task that requires not only an analysis of existing scholarship but the ability to locate a particular question that contributes to the field. The last two writing assignments were to add a methods section and a conclusion about the importance of their research question to the field of knowledge and avenues for future research.

Q: One of the textbooks you required was Kristin Luker’s Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences. What about the book did you find particularly useful in teaching students IL skills?

A: There are two things I like about the book. One is that it is very accessible and practical. The other is that Luker makes a very clear distinction between methods that are used to confirm a theory and methods that are appropriate for generating new theory. Students found the book helpful in clarifying what they had to do since the research stages that Lukers discusses mirror those that they were going through. It was also great for them to realize that Luker’s doctoral students experience the same hurdles as they were experiencing as sophomores.

Q: You worked very closely with Ana Luhrs, who led several classes. What were some of the highlights? What were the advantages of collaborating with a librarian?

A: Ana was a critical partner for this class. The concept mapping gave students a tool for rapidly finding a research avenue from a general topic. I had never done concept mapping, but from now on it will always be an important part of this class. Ana also taught a great session on available resources and search strategies. Her practical advice helped make students’ literature reviews much more targeted and their methods section much smarter. In the end, the best research design was the one with the most sophisticated literature review, most defined research question, and the most concrete methodology section. Students could not have done that without Ana.

Q: Do you have plans to build IL into future versions of this course or into other courses? Will your grant experience influence how you design the FYS that you are teaching in the fall?

A: I hope to continue to partner with Ana, and the structure of the course will largely remain the same. In many ways, my FYS on world hunger this fall will mirror the same research design process. I want to set students on the path during their college career thinking about not just if they can answer the question but rather what questions they ought to ask.

Q: What do you think professors and librarians could do to help students develop their critical thinking and IL skills?

A: I have told my thesis students that if they have not met a research librarian and if that person is not their best friend by the time they finish their thesis, they are not doing it right and they are not smart researchers. I would say the same thing to my colleagues. If what we are doing is to prepare our students to graduate as lifelong learners and responsible citizens, then the partnership between professors and librarians is crucial. It was crucial back when we had card catalogs, but today with the overwhelming amount of information available, it is more true than ever.

Q: Do you have any advice for faculty who are interested in integrating IL into their classes?

A: Do not pre-suppose you know what research librarians can bring to the table. In any course that is both about the content and critical thinking, my advice would be at least to talk to research librarians about the goals of your course. You may find out that you can teach the content but also build a partnership with a research librarian that strengthens your students’ IL and critical thinking skills.