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What Does Research Look Like?

I’m participating in the St. Mary’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF, but really, SMURF) this summer as more than just a librarian and EndNote software troubleshooter. Thanks to a series of un/fortunate events, I’m a research mentor for an amazing religious studies major investigating Muslim Americans’ experiences at work through a series of interviews. She is specifically focused on: policies regarding religious practices; Muslim Americans’ relationships with coworkers, supervisors, and employees; and their sense of inclusion in the workplace. My mentee and I have an interesting relationship. She’s without a doubt more knowledgeable about Islam than I am, and I bring a knowledge of qualitative research about work in feminized professions that makes our pairing a really constructive one.

Apart from our weekly meetings, my mentee and I are part of a larger SURF cohort of students and faculty who gather every Wednesday for discussions, activities, and presentations of their research in progress. The group is a bit science-heavy, which is to be expected, but there are students from the humanities, social sciences, and theater/art departments in the mix, too. It’s been fascinating to examine the idea of “research” from a multi-disciplinary perspective and learn more about my faculty colleagues’ personal and professional epistemologies. One of the more challenging discussion questions our SURF cohort unpacked was What does all research, regardless of discipline, have in common? (That’s a rough summary since I can’t remember the exact question–Sorry, Liz!).

Keeping in mind that this question was being discussed by anthropologists, chemists, artists, biologists, filmmakers, and well, librarians, you can understand how there would be disagreement. I had at least one person try to convince me that the scientific method is applicable to ALL research. (Nope. Not here for that.) Where everyone seemed to agree, or at least come to a shared understanding, was about the affect and emotions surrounding research.

Research requires persistence.
You have to be flexible to be a good researcher.
Research is all about creativity.
You have to be curious.
In research, it’s ok to make mistakes. You just need to learn from them.

We could all agree on the dispositions that a good researcher would possess, regardless of discipline, methodology, or project. It was a much more engaging approach to discussing research and creative activity, and it’s one I wish I could better incorporate into my college’s curriculum. I’ve tried to focus on information exploration and curiosity in my own IL classes and workshops, but I only see my students once or twice a semester. My emphasis on process and research dispositions is fleeting, which is why I think it’s important for faculty to reinforce those ideas throughout the semester. It’s what I like best about this SURF program. It’s a deep dive into research as an iterative process–a messy, frustrating, confusing, satisfying, engaging, fascinating process.

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