No Joy In Research For The Spoiler Generation

If the term “spoiler” is unfamilar to you it probably reveals your generation. Same thing with the name J. J. Abrams. Let’s start with Abrams. He’s the hot writer/producer/director of the moment with shows like Alias, Lost and Fringe, and movies like Cloverfield and the new Star Trek. He also happens to be the guest editor of Wired’s (17.05) Mystery Issue, one that immerses the reader in puzzles, riddles and articles about mysterious matters. Yeah, he has a TED talk too – about mystery.

While I was vaguely familiar with the spoiler concept I never gave it much thought. Abrams’ article “The Magic of Mystery” in the Wired issue put it into a whole new perspective for me, especially as I try to understand the current student generation and their approach to academic research. Here is how Abrams describes the spoiler, but if you need more details you can find an explanation:

The spoiler: that piece of information meant to be kept secret, like the end of a movie or TV or novel. Spoilers give fans the answers they want, the resolution they crave…I completely understand the desire to find out behind-the-scenes details in a nanosecond.

But there’s a downside to spoilers, says Abrams, as you can imagine:

But the real damage isn’t so much that the secret gets out. It’s that the experience is destroyed.

We’ve heard so much about how our students take the path of least resistance when it comes to research. It’s about getting it done as fast as possible with as little real research as necessary. By enabling the rapid delivery of full-text content from a vast mix of resources, when just all right results requires little thought, our digital library environment provides exactly what a spoiler generation student needs. Getting right to the end without going through the process – and having no experience from which to learn. Abrams describes how he once use a “cheat” to beat a video game. He later regretted it because he realized he only cheated himself out of an experience one obtains only by going through the process. He writes:

Skipping ahead lessens the experience. Diminishes the joy. Makes the accomplishment that much duller…the Age of Immediacy has a meaningful downside. The point is, we should never underestimate process. The experience of the doing really is everything.

For Abrams, it is all about the mystery. He says it “demands that you stop and consider – or at the very least, slow down and discover”. Isn’t that what library research is supposed to be about? You begin with a question to which the answer is unknown or uncertain. You don’t know how it’s going to end. Then you go through a process to collect the information needed to answer the question and resolve the mystery. Just like a good puzzle, in research you need to assemble the pieces correctly to discover the big picture. How do you communicate the natural enjoyment and challenge of the research process to a generation raised on the pursuit of spoilers and cheats? Taking the time to learn to research and then go through the discovery process, they must conclude, is for fools and suckers only.

Fortunately we still find students who resist the temptation to just get to the end without having the experience. We had our annual library research prize ceremony last week. The three student winners demonstrated the capacity for amazing research that was built on painstaking hours with primary resources. All of them shared stories that expressed their great experiences using the library – and all of them were motivated to engage in the research process by faculty who sparked within them a thirst for discovery. One of the students announced that she was starting in an LIS program right after graduation. That’s like the icing on the cake for us librarians.

How might we use an understanding of the spoiler generation to our advantage? Two thoughts come to mind. First, it suggests academic librarians need to focus their efforts on figuring out why some students, like the research prize winners, get hooked on library research and what makes them passionate about the experience of the process. If we can distill that knowledge we may discover how to engage other students in ways that encourage them to step off the path of least resistance. How do we sell the research experience so that it makes going for the spoiler seem lame by comparison? But perhaps there’s a way to leverage the coolness of the spoiler. If you are a student with a research assignment you’ve got a great spoiler – a reference librarian or subject specialist. How do we sell ourselves as the ultimate research cheat? Of course, this approach only works if it’s really a way to get the students engaged in their own deeper research once exposed to the surface level of the process.

There may be something to this whole idea of the mystery. The academic library might just be the ultimate mystery box because there are so many answers hidden within that are waiting to be revealed. But it all comes back to seeking out the joy of experiencing the process of discovery. Finding the answers that resolve the mysteries must be perceived as a personal journey to understanding. Abrams ends his article with a great thought: The ending should be the end of that experience, not the experience itself. Now there’s an idea worth internalizing in our increasingly fast-paced, get-it-over-with-as-fast-as-possible world.

11 thoughts on “No Joy In Research For The Spoiler Generation”

  1. This is a really interesting correlation – I think it may go both ways, too. Not everyone of that generation loves spoilers. Many of them are spoiler-phobes, because they love the /experience/, and in some cases because they love the mystery.

    I wonder if research can be sold as mystery-solving – more, if we can build on the fact that, while others may have had lots of thoughts about your topic, no one else is ever going to think about it quite like /you/, or read exactly the same sources you did in the order you did – you, even as a student, can bring something unique to the mystery of your topic.

  2. It seems to me the reason students so often don’t get excited about research is that they’re asked to solve a mystery that the teacher already solved. It’s the performance of an investigation that’s over; you’re simply cobbling together sources to prove that you found them and can document them properly. How often have you heard a student say they have to change topics because they can’t find a source that says what they want to say? That’s a fundamental, but very common, misunderstanding of the nature of research.

    And by the way, I’ve seen the same misconception for over twenty years so I don’t think it’s generational. So much of what is called research at the undergraduate level is actually “going through the steps of finding out what people already know and depositing it in my briefcase in suitably formal language that erases any clue that you were personally involved.” When faculty assign papers, they very often don’t stop to consider that what they’re actually asking for is reports or arguments – which involves finding and using sources, but isn’t discovery, just recovery and summary.

  3. There are lots of experiences out there. Too many for any one person to have in a life. We all pick and choose, students included. Do we librarians have a compelling story about why library research should be one of the prioritized experiences? Can we accept that it won’t be, for everyone–just like not everybody is going to slog through the remaining seasons of Lost?

  4. Oh, and PS: I hang out with an online group of mystery readers. I don’t know the average age, but I’ll bet it’s in the mid-50s if not older. We all know what “spoiler” means.

  5. Oh, I’ve now been thinking about this all morning while trapped in a meeting and finally have time to comment and there are so many thoughts I don’t know what to say. Thanks for a post that really got my brain going!

    See, a lot of the most spoiler-happy people I know work SO HARD at it. For them, it’s not a matter of skipping ahead so much as wringing every little bit of narrative out of the story. And there’s research too! With shows like Lost, that include that narrative at so many levels – that provide so much stuff to figure out – are the best shows for those people. There’s a media scholar at Middlebury named Jason Mittell who has written some really interesting things about spoilers and Lost in particular and this idea of a narrative that is almost co-created between the show people and the fan people – the idea that media is not simply for consumption – is a big part of what I took away from one of his articles — this one –

    But this isn’t just a tangent! I wonder if, just like there is one parallel to student researchers mentioned in the post, there might be another along these lines. When we teach research, especially that deep, exciting, life changing type of research that you describe so well, isn’t what we’re talking about something that can’t just be consumed? but a learning that is also co-created between the texts & sources, teachers, and students? Maybe there’s a parallel between creative types like Abrams, who create a narrative that invites audience participation, and what teachers can do. I have no idea what that would look like, but I think I’ll continue thinking on that question today. Thanks!

  6. It’s a mistake to think that we should try to make students into mini-librarians… and to hope that all students will be like us in terms of enjoying the research process. It’s okay that research isn’t about the experience, but just a means to an end, for many of our students.

    Students are not professors- or librarians-in-training. And nor do we always love the process. When I want to find out the biggest city in Chad, I just want the information. And that’s okay.

  7. For what it’s worth:
    During a conversation I had recently with a professor about Wikipedia, she told me she didn’t care where students got the information as long as the information was correct. This professor didn’t care where the information came from, or how the student found it, just as long as the information was correct. So, Barbara, maybe some professors do realize that their assignments are “recovery and summary.”

    When I’m instructing students, I try to present my instruction as though I’m empowering the students to do it themselves. In my experience, students like to feel empowered. I know they will still come ask me for assistance (as a spoiler or a cheat) on a different topic, and I remind them that they are empowered by letting them show me how to do the search.

  8. I’ve really enjoyed this post and the comments. To echo Anne-Marie, there’s much to consider here.

    The gaming example that Abrams recounts in the Wired piece is one that I’ve been thinking on for a while. Of course we can’t assume that all college students like and play video games, but for those that do, how can we tap into that experience of research and discovery that’s built into so many current video games?

    I also wonder whether students take the shortest route possible more often for subjects/topics that are less interesting to them (though I haven’t researched this myself). Recently a faculty member suggested as much to me and told me that she always allows students to choose their own topics (within her discipline). The assignment may still be recovery and summary, but maybe the student’s interest in the subject could help minimize the desire for spoilers?

  9. I think you have hit on an important point, Maura: the same student may be, at one and the same time, a passionate researcher in one class, a recovery/summary student in a second, and a “just give me what I need to get by” student in a third. I think there are few people who do get excited about the process *as process* (and they are on the way to being librarians and faculty, perhaps?); it’s the topic that is more likely to excite/engage. There’s also the consideration of “is this for my major or just a class I have to take because the college says so”.

    I like the idea of identifying myself as a potential “spoiler”, though — and I’ve often described research as solving mysteries.

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