The Joy of Teaching the Research Paper, Part 3

A Fateful and Lonesome Journey to the Dark Heart of the American Library

After working with the students on developing personally relevant topics, you’ll have helped them sharpen those topics into specific areas of research. Then, on a cold day sometime in early October, you’ll all shuffle over to the campus library.

You will have written, “WE ARE IN THE LIBRARY TODAY” in enormous block letters on the board, but the two students who come late won’t read it, initiating a chain reaction involving the department secretary looking up the outdated copy of your syllabus on file in the office; a feverish exegesis of your original assignment sequence that has already been amended six times in class; and a multitude of calls to you which will go unanswered because your phone is off.

Meanwhile, the librarian’s assistant will be taking your students through an online guided tour of available resources for undergraduate research papers as slowly as humanly possible. Three students will have opened Facebook on the library terminals. One will be playing a bowling app on her iPad. It is important, at this point, to resist sudden irrational sadness.

The walking tour will then ensue. It will consist of the reference section, some of the book stacks, and the periodical room in the basement. The students will peer at the 1970s sci-fi microfilm readers. They’ll show a slight tourist curiosity toward the untouched literary journals laid out in immaculate columns on the shelves. Someone at the back of the group will whisper, “This is so intimidating.”

Class will be nearly over at that point. Everyone will shuffle back to the front desk. You will elaborately thank the librarian’s assistant who will smile and wave at the class as if he’d just demonstrated how to teach algebra to grizzly bears. Then the two late students will arrive with contemptuous expressions, but everyone will ignore them.

You’ll take a moment to talk about the value of working with physical books and the weird serendipity that comes from personally browsing the stacks. You’ll explain how it can sometimes result in discovering the perfect text, or an author of whom you were not previously aware, or a useful book that had been misshelved or miscatalogued. You’ll describe this experience as wonderful and mysterious—because it is, but maybe only to you.

Your students will be checking their watches, getting combos on Pro Bowler, and will often seem to be staring through your physical form at the gulf of infinity. But the librarian’s assistant will be listening intently as you describe this esoteric process. You are, he’ll decide, somewhat smarter than you look.

You’ll finish by talking about what the students should be doing before the next class meeting. A few of them will make sure you notice that they’re writing it all down. Everyone will be extremely tired. Of the 15 who shuffled in, you will count 11 shuffling out.

What happened to the other 4? Don’t ask.

Published by

Michael Davis

Writer.