Transcending Boundaries

“Students, in other words, must necessarily lack ‘expertise and technique’ (Trimbur 1989: 611) so that academia can impart it to them. They can have ‘life experiences,’ but we as academics have ‘knowledge and intellectual skills’ (Kogan 2000: 210).” (Purdy & Walker, 25)

In James P. Purdy and Joyce R. Walker’s “Liminal Spaces and Research Identity: The Construction of Introductory Composition Students as Researchers”, how identifying composition classes as liminal spaces that teach research processes as being, similarly, liminal impacts student development of a research identify is explored. Discussion pertains mainly to the instruction and models of research forwarded in popular textbooks for the genre, in which certain practices of source gathering–particularly from the Internet and other digitally-based catalogs–are scorned and liberally labelled as “un-scholarly” or “illegitimate” places to use for knowledge making. More, discussion revolves around how de-legitimizing research practices students may have developed outside of introductory composition courses affects research identity and student perceptions of the research process. Promoting an approach to research that excludes digital databases as legitimate sources of information in lieu of more traditionally accepted formats by academia can cause students to develop negative associations that will follow them throughout not only their academic life, but their civic life as well. This view frames students themselves as liminal beings, unable to interrogate sources effectively as learners but also unable to generate any new knowledge or complexity of meaning that would cast them as researchers.

What became most apparent to me in this reading is how disconnected the instruction of research processes is from the reality of the writing process and how the onus of reconciling this dissonance falls on students. No wonder students are themselves so disconnected from their own research identities. Purdy and Walker state, “Offering steps can be a helpful way to begin, but presenting them as unquestionably applicable prevents the adaptability that is crucial to successful research” as well as, “When students see research as more than a set of linear, distinct steps, for example, they can understand why not using all of their sources in an annotated bibliography is okay and not the mark of failure….The instructional methods we studied fail to represent the complexity of research processes in ways that may ultimately damage students’ ability to understand either the activities of research or themselves as engaged ina continuously revised and evolving process of research.” (21-23) The research process students are taught is so often a linear one that so little acknowledges why some information is more relevant that other information in lieu of forwarding the method of attaining the source itself and so little reflects the reality of conducting research, outside the classroom. Also, while research processes are oft structured linearly, the writing process is now understood as a recursive one. “The field of composition studies has already concluded that a universal, linear, step-based model does not and cannot accurately represent or account for a complex activity like writing. Research is likewise a complex activity. Thus, similar models of research are also inadequate.” (Purdy & Walker, 23) The research process that is so prominently promoted fails spectacularly at integrating either the writing process (arguably one of the most essential parts of research) or the personal development necessary to understand the why and not just the how.

Through research methods like the ones promoted in the textbooks Purdy and Walker examined, students are cast as passive observers to research. They can neither question the material or the methods they must use to gather information nor engage actively in knowledge-making. They record and regurgitate throughout their studies and then, somehow, are expected to enter their disciplines fully prepared for active engagement? Purdy and Walker seem to critique this notion, stating, “…for students who occupy liminal spaces where identity is seen as under construction, the relation of the liminal space to the space of the community is one of not only opposition but also active contestation.” (25-26) Essentially, student-researchers occupy an academic no-man’s land. It isn’t until they cross this territory that they can have a “seat at the table.” Obviously, this is damaging to self-image and personal identity. More, this alienation and disenfranchisement can cause students to dissociate themselves from their research identity in the same way instruction of the research process and construction of the composition classroom as a liminal space seems to encourage students to view academia and academic pursuits as separate from whatever has come before. In an effort to maintain its own superiority and social clout, academia seeks to sever itself from the rest of accepted reality. By doing this, teaching students these generalized research strategies to replace their own developed ones in order to uphold the self-imposed mandate of academia, students are not only cast in opposition to research but are also not fully prepared to conduct actual research in the future.

From working in my university’s Writing Center, I’ve seem how this disconnect affects students firsthand. In fact, we have a lengthy presentation we give to classes sometimes that stresses, albeit more implicitly, how important it is to be discerning when it comes to source usage and how to perform that kind of discernment. We see it so often–students using the first 10 sources they find for a research paper, regardless of how well they address the research subject–and so we had to create this presentation. And still, we see students come in, clearly overwhelmed and wholly unprepared to take on their role as a researcher–ostensibly because they were never taught why we research or how to embody that reason. (If that makes sense?) This disconnect is seen at all levels as well, from first-year students all the way up to PhD candidates. The research process is disconnected from the writing process and from the researcher themselves. They can go through the motions but they have difficulty integrating what they’ve learned and then constructing meaning or purpose from it. More, it’s very difficult to convince a student who has learned that the research process is a linear one to alter their initial purpose to better fit the research they’ve found and address the questions it has developed for them. It’s like telling them they have to start their whole project over and, understandably, they are very resistant.

In some ways, this whole concept is difficult for me to understand. Perhaps it is because I never took ENG 1030 (my university’s introductory composition course) due to my AP English scores from high school, but I’ve never felt a disconnect from myself or my research. More, I’ve never felt like I could not distinguish between a legitimate source and a non-legitimate source, the platform it was found on be damned. It’s all my writing, if that makes sense. Though I wouldn’t have always identified myself as a researcher, I’ve always  identified as a writer (and a learner). There’s never been a need to disassociate. I wonder if and how I’d approach research and myself differently on the page if I had been filtered through an introductory course. I think I’d be less fun ^.^

Overall, I found Purdy and Walker’s work to be illuminating but also troubling in that there are really no answers here short of an academic, paradigm shift. More, I feel like this research connects to other research I’ve read about the role standardization of education plays in devaluing students in comparison to achieving some kind of egalitarian assessment. Ultimately, education and instruction that focuses more on regulation than on development of the individual performs a disservice and disadvantages more students than it helps. Here, specifically, a focus on generalizing research practices appears to have made students less likely to conduct effective and meaningful research. In this way, it’s the instruction that is uninformed and detrimental and not the students–though their grades may have them believe differently…. What do you do when it’s the system that’s broken, though?


Purdy, James P. and Joyce R. Walker. “Liminal Spaces and Research Identity: The Construction of Introductory Composition Students as Researchers.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, vol. 13, no. 1, 2012, pp. 9-41.

~Till Next Time~


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