Research Methods Course Focusing on Historical Research
Published: October 18, 2022 by Dr. Donald Westbrook
I thoroughly enjoy teaching the Historical Research section for INFO 285: Applied Research Methods at SJSU. Students come into this class from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and no prior academic training in history is required. As I like to say near the beginning of the course, the study of history involves much more than memorizing “facts and figures.” Historical research is interdisciplinary, multifaceted, and global in reach.
There is also a lot of flexibility in my section in the sense that students are encouraged and empowered to take their graduate-level research and writing to the next level by selecting their own historical topics and developing them over the course of the semester. Most of the class modules are two weeks in length and allow for a deeper dive into the materials as we move along. Some students choose final paper topics related to library history and LIS, which is great and always welcome, but they are not required to do so. (As a side note, I also teach a class for the iSchool entitled “History of Libraries in the US,” a 2-unit intensive that is usually offered in the spring.)
I take a “building block” style approach to the process of research and writing in my INFO 285 class. For example, near the beginning of the class, students are encouraged to explore a possible topic of interest by listening to a podcast–and fortunately there’s no shortage of podcasts related to history and historical analysis. This exercise introduces students to the astounding scope of historical research and begins to plant seeds for possible projects and directions. We also have an information literacy book review assignment. In later modules and discussions, we take up a variety of topics relevant to historical research: biases, research ethics, primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, qualitative, quantitative, and mixed research methodologies, and archival research. About halfway through the class, students submit research paper proposals, and I always love reading through those and giving lots of feedback as projects begin to come to life. The next major step of the class involves reading through the secondary literature in preparation for a literature review paper, which can then serve as a foundation for the final paper. There is also an (optional) virtual symposium forum where students can share their final papers on Canvas and celebrate work at the end of the semester.
Last but not least: I really encourage students to consider how their work and final papers might be used even after the semester ends. Some students, for example, plan to submit their work to the iSchool’s Student Research Journal or perhaps present a version of the final paper at a conference, among other uses. I also design the discussion activities and assignments to align with particular competencies in preparation for the e-portfolio. INFO 285 is explicitly designed to support competency L–which is to “demonstrate understanding of quantitative and qualitative research methods, the ability to design a research project, and the ability to evaluate and synthesize research literature”–but students often find that a number of other competencies are supported as well given the relevance of (historical) research methods to their program and very often their career plans as well.