I’ve been thinking recently (or maybe my whole career) about what the word “research” actually means. It’s a word I use frequently: in conversation, in the classroom, in one-on-one consultations. And broadly, too — in relation to acts of inquiry and information seeking, large and small, whether I’m helping a student look for an article for a discussion board post or mentoring a student working on designing their own semester-long study. I like the sense of intention the word engenders, the space it creates for reflection on process, how it helps us think about such work in terms of concepts, not just clicks.
It was some years ago, early in my career at my former institution in a reference and instruction librarian position, when I got my first inkling that my expansive use of the word “research” could feel prickly to others. I remember sensing, on a few occasions, some tension or territoriality with faculty. I think their concern stemmed from anxiety about the library’s possible infringement on their autonomy or their domain expertise. Being mindful to define my scope and intentions — specifying “research” as “library research” or research skills as “information literacy skills or concepts” and acknowledging “research” as a larger umbrella — seemed to help.
Some years ago, when I first came into my current institution and position, I was eager to connect with my new colleagues around our undergraduate research program. Helping support and grow this program at my campus has since become a priority area for me. This work has also given me further perspective on another kind of disconnect, wherein I continue to use “research” expansively and some prefer to preserve the integrity of the term for the highest levels of inquiry and the most independent work. To me, though, it continues to feel both relevant and important to use the word early and often in order to show how small acts of inquiry can be part of a developmental spectrum, a way to build stepping stones to the ultimate “undergraduate research.”
In the last year or two, the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR), a leader in this arena, updated their definition of “undergraduate research.” Their earlier definition — “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” — always gave me pause. It seems to me very much in the vein of reserving “research” for the loftiest pursuits. And that bit about “original,” especially, always tripped me up — a tall order and is that the point anyway? Their new definition feels more on track to me: “Undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative inquiry is fundamentally a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. With an emphasis on process, CUR defines undergraduate research as: A mentored investigation or creative inquiry conducted by undergraduates that seeks to make a scholarly or artistic contribution to knowledge.” The revised version suggests that undergraduate research is much more about process and less about product, aligning with that developmental lens I’m aiming to foreground and justifying the use of “research” more broadly.
This all makes me think, too, about the podcast that my colleague and I have been working on, “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” (Shameless plug: you can find season 1 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Season 2 coming soon!) We started “From Concept to Creation” because we think it’s important to share stories about research and inquiry — not just the what, but the why and the how. So often, when we talk about research, we just talk about the final polished product, our findings or outcomes. Those final products and takeaways are of course important, but our goal here is to take a peek behind the curtain to see how folks get from start to finish. By uncovering the steps, increasing the transparency of the processes of research and inquiry — the parts that are so often hidden from view — we think those projects and paths become more approachable to everyone.
And that’s really the larger point behind this wordsmithing, or nit-picking some might say. It seems to me that framing even small acts of information seeking or other small forays into inquiry as “research” lends them a kind of gravity; it enlarges our thinking and can empower students to engage.
I’d love to hear how you approach, define, and use the word research in an undergraduate context (or otherwise). Please share your thoughts in the comments.