While research is about paying careful attention to detail, it is also about discovering connections between things.
Developing research literacy
Academics often joke that research is all about knowing more and more about less and less. That may not be entirely untrue, but it is a limited view of how good research really operates. While research is about paying careful attention to detail, it is also about discovering connections between things. The first requires the ability to zoom in and focus deeply. The second requires that we pull back and look at the big picture — at other things that surround and connect to the tiny puzzle we are focusing on.
Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? It’s sort of like handling the viewfinder of a microscope or a telescope. You can change the range of the view and the level of magnification: pull away and see far and wide, or pull in and look at an extreme close up. In practice, however, the deeper we go into a subject, the harder it seems for us to step back and see how it relates to everything else in life.
The ability to make connections between what we study and the rest of life, work, and the world in general, is something we need to build and nurture — not only if we want to become researchers of any description, but also if we want to find meaning in the various things we do, both at work and in our personal lives. One of the criticisms of Indian higher education is that it doesn’t foster creativity, particularly of the kind that leads to innovation in thinking (problem solving, conceptualising new ideas, understanding something differently and deeply) and doing (applying learning, making new products). You may have noticed recently a news item mentioning that not a single Indian university has made it to the top 100 in the world. While some may not take these rankings too seriously, they do make us sit up and think about why we don’t do more good research —which is, after all, one of the main inputs for the global ranking system.
Through school, we tend to look at subjects as “flat” things. They live in uni-dimensional textbooks and represent something we need to just deal with so that they provide us with stock answers to repetitive questions. The odd teacher might help us see the overlaps between history and geography and biology, or math and chemistry and home economics. We are not really encouraged to look across subjects for answers, or combine ideas from different lessons in one project. In fact, it is in very few classrooms that questions of any kind are welcomed, let alone questions that go beyond the scope of the syllabus! Recently, a colleague suggested that one of the reasons for poor research performance in Indian universities is that we are not asking the right (or relevant) questions.
Beyond the books
Research, however, is all about looking across and beyond what is in the books. It calls for a certain kind of literacy that is not just about reading and counting efficiently. Research literacy is only partly about knowing the subject. The other parts have to do with the method (the tools of inquiry), contextual knowledge (how this field draws on and connects to others), and the ability to tie it to the big picture by finding ways to link your specific item of interest to larger concerns and issues. It is about developing the courage to go out on a limb with ideas and subject oneself to rigorous examination by others — and you can do this only if you have really put a lot of effort into exploring those ideas and finding evidence to support them.
As an individual student, how do you go about developing this “research literacy” when everything in the system works against it? How do we learn to seek the connections between things and ask questions that bridge rather than break these linkages? How do we keep track of what might be the “big issues” in the world yet develop the discipline to rigorously follow a chosen line of enquiry that might from time to time call for isolation? How do we do this when there is little leadership in education or few mentors who will help build these abilities?
These are challenges, and difficult ones for a young person to grapple with. One of the answers lies in nurturing a sense of openness — to ideas, to points of view, to the value of different knowledge systems, to various ways of finding answers, to people… the list could go on. Because it is when one is open that the possibility of connecting across disciplinary and topic boundaries becomes a reality. And it is in these boundary spaces that real innovation lies.
The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus, www.teacherplus.org. Email: email@example.com