Research in popular culture and in the classroom

There’s been a great thread on ILI-L this week that lists television programs and films that highlight how messy research can be at times.  A number of interesting clips were suggested, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Seven to use in our own lessons on information literacy, critical thinking and research.  And hats off to Mollie Freier, who suggested the entire mystery and detective genre – now there’s an academic paper I could sink my teeth into.

This thread got me thinking about how research is presented in popular culture since the Internet and the search engine has become such a dominant part of our everyday lives. Some people feel that the scenes showing Twilight‘s Bella researching on the Internet reinforce the fact that there isn’t always one answer or dominant interpretation (this isn’t necessarily stated in the ILI-L thread – I’m speaking generally), however, I think research as we see it today is still glossed over in pop culture. Television and film don’t have time and space to feature the research process.  The research process is broadly used as a device to push the plot forward, so what we often get are scenes that look like this:


I’m using this clip from Vampire Diaries as an example because it aired just last Thursday, i.e., it’s on television right now and its target demographic is watching it, big-time.  If you don’t care to play the video, then let me tell you that Jeremy is telling Matt that he’s used the Internet to research how to contact his dead girlfriend, Vikki, who happens to be Matt’s dead sister.  And, he’s found out some things, like that fact that he doesn’t need the help of a witch like Bonnie, his current girlfriend to call upon this spirit.   Voila! Research is done!  Thanks, Interweb!

(Vampire Diaries is actually compelling drama. You should look past my snark and watch it. And in Jeremy’s case, the directors have shown him conducting something closer to “real” research in the past, so he’d a good guy that librarians should appreciate in the end.)

Admittedly, there are better “research clips” than this one. The best clips will spend a lot of time on the research process or even make it the focus of the scene.  But even the clips that show top-rate critical inquiry, evaluative reasoning, and strong synthesis will have to summarize much of this process in the interest of story’s plot and time.  And our students know this already.  So, instead of playing a clip that illustrates what parts of research are shown in the movies, I think it’s better to engage the students personally and research with them, on the spot, so they can learn by doing (which is especially important in a one-shot class).  If films are “show and tell,” then I try to emphasize “do and learn” when I’m working with students.

So much of this comes down to teaching styles and the way we present ourselves to a class. I’m real comfortable interacting closely with students to put the focus on what it means to actually do critical thinking and researching on a topic, first-hand.  Although I do use film clips from time to time, my own preference is to get the students actually “thinking about thinking” or even by doing some research with them in the classroom (or hopefully, in a computer lab).  In the end, I want them to focus on what I’ve got to say and how they are applying this advice to their own work in front of them, so I make sure that I’m animated, personable, and approachable throughout the session.

Research, as we see it in popular culture, is glossed over.  Watching it on film can’t show the full spectrum, so I try not to put too much of my time into these film clips.  In the end, I want to help my students learn real, proven strategies on how to research effectively in their courses, so I prefer to keep my eye on the prize and give them what they’re looking for: lessons, advice, and hints to turn their neat idea for a subject into a well-researched, well-written A-level submission to the prof.


[Post-script:  I’m not saying that I object to using film in class. On the contrary, I think film clips can be a great educational tool.  For example, I’ve used television commercials to great effect when teaching critical thinking in the past.  I played old Axe Bodywash commercials to help students analyze expectations and stereotypes surrounding sex and gender.  By the end of the class, the students had conducted a “close reading” of these commercials and were well on their way to writing an essay on gender stereotypes in popular culture.  But the difference here is that the film clip was the class’s actual object of study.]