Trials and Tribulations: Survey Research as an MLS Student

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Erica Hayes, Siobhain Rivera, Ariadne Rehbein, MLS Candidates at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing.

We started with the best of intentions. Last semester, we decided that we wanted to present at a conference. It seemed like a great idea – we’d gain research experience, network, build our resumes, and most importantly, contribute to the field!

Most of us in library school have come across the digital humanities phenomenon at some point. Digital humanities (DH) is generally described as the application of computing technologies to humanities research. DH is gaining popularity for its creative approaches, but this work tends to focus on using tools for research projects rather than for teaching and learning.

This isn’t merely anecdotal: in Digital Humanities Pedagogy, Brett Hirsch describes a word frequency analysis he conducted using two of DH’s seminal works, Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities and Companion to Digital Literary Studies. His results confirm the emphasis on research as opposed to pedagogy in DH critical literature: “Out of a corpus of 297,399 words, ‘research’ occurs 504 times, whereas ‘teaching’ and ‘pedagogy’ occur 66 and 8 times respectively.” It dawned on us that the word student did not exist in the results.

As students, we’re curious about the tools and methods that shape how we learn today and how we will do research in the future. But we also have a vested interest in pedagogical practices and processes; two out of three of us have professional teaching experience and we have all taken DH courses. We have many of the same questions about DH that most people have: where is it going, and how will it change the educational landscape?

Although many books and articles address how best to teach DH, there is little research addressing the student experience. If we are not talking to students about what does and doesn’t work, we are missing half of the picture. Research and teaching are both parts of the institutional culture, although it seems like much of the time teaching takes a back seat. Is DH going to change this focus? Digital humanities offers new methods of inquiry and research experience, but will those translate differently in the classroom?

We wanted to get a current snapshot of how DH is being implemented in classrooms and how we can improve it. We began speaking to people involved in DH on campus regarding our ideas and formulated our main research questions. We designed surveys based on these issues, targeted towards students and instructors, and also decided to interview people who are active in the DH community. We learned a lot through trial and error along the way.

Bumps in the Road

This was our first time conducting survey research and our inexperience led to many challenges. Here are some tips to make your survey research experience better:

  1. Get faculty support: Preferably from more than one person. At the very least, make sure your faculty supporter has done the kind of research you plan to do and is willing to support you in your process. If your study will include human subjects research (internet surveys = human subjects research! Who knew? Not us), try to find someone who knows the Institutional Review Board process at your school, and is qualified to serve as a principal investigator if necessary. We decided to do this project independently and in retrospect, it would have benefitted from more faculty guidance.
  1. Writing surveys is hard – don’t do it by yourself. Our university has a department dedicated to writing surveys, so we talked to them after coming up with our questions. It’s actually really difficult to construct a survey that asks the questions you want to ask in a way that will encourage the kind of responses you want to receive. Our first survey draft was all free-text responses, which is very intimidating to the respondent. You want to find a way to get the information you need with the simplest possible questions (i.e, multiple choice questions or Likert scales).
  1. Plan ahead. Months ahead. You can write a research paper in a few weeks – you can probably not do any sort of research in less than a few months. If you can, find a way to tie your project into something you’re already doing for a class – a research study like this is a huge time investment for an already-busy graduate student working multiple jobs and taking classes. We started this project six months in advance and we still don’t feel like there was enough time. There will be unforeseen delays!
  2. Be aware of scope creep. Pick a project with a clear, defined goal, and try to stick mostly to it. You’ll add so much stress to your life if you change topics or research questions in the middle of your data collection.
  1. Be resilient. We made many mistakes, but we are grateful for the patient people who supported us during this learning process, even though there were times when we felt disheartened. It is less common for Masters students than PhD students to conduct survey-based research, particularly without faculty support and funding. We were navigating a process that presumed foreknowledge and wasn’t very transparent. With the many bumps in the IRB approval process, we were often frustrated by the feeling of taking one step forward and two steps back. You will make mistakes, but you will learn from them.

So where are we now?

Right now, things are hectic, but a good kind of hectic, a flurry of survey-coding and paper-writing crammed into the crevices of the rest of our lives. We’re wrapping up the last of our Skype interviews with DH instructors, many of whom have graciously shared our student survey with their classes. We’re still looking for more data, and we’d love for you to participate!

We have a survey for instructors here:

And a survey for students here:

Feel free to share the link with all and sundry. As an extra incentive, 10 random survey participants will receive a $5 Starbucks gift card. We know it isn’t much, but remember, we’re poor grad students and we’re funding this entirely out of our own pockets.

We’ll be presenting at the College English Association Conference at the end of March, and also at HASTAC later this summer. We’re going to be expanding this project as we go, so you’ll probably see posts about it for the next few months in various places.

Thank you so much to Tassie Gniady and Staša Milojevic for their support with this project, as well as all the people who have taken the survey or allowed us to interview them.

2 replies

  1. Pingback: Siobhain Rivera

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