Making Room for Surprise in Research

by Margy MacMillan
Mount Royal University Library

Research results can often be like students – some do exactly what you want, and that’s great, but it’s the ones who surprise you that you remember the most. Staying open to surprise has been one of the most difficult aspects of research for me, and also one of the most rewarding. Think for a moment – when has your research surprised you?

Last year, I was interviewed as part of a study about the impact of conducting Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) research on the researcher. Among other things, we talked about how surprised I had been by the results of a recent project. It turns out, I was not the only subject who talked about this and my colleagues, Michelle Yeo, Karen Manarin, and Janice Miller-Young now have a paper in review on this as they found our surprise, well… surprising.

A bit about the project…I started a study of the connections students made while reading an academic article looking for patterns in what they connected to – personal, academic or professional knowledge. Digging deeper into the data, a much more interesting and entirely unexpected story emerged about what students were connecting from – surface or deep aspects of the text, and how that provided insight into how they were reading.

Since the interview my thoughts have returned to the idea of surprise many times, wondering what factors allowed me to see beyond the expected, and make the most of it. While I went into the project with a fairly open question, I definitely had an idea of the connections students might make and I saw those in the data. Research done and dusted, right? But there was a niggle, a suspicion I was missing something. As I spent more time with the data, reading beyond the answers to my questions, and really paying attention to what students wrote, different patterns emerged and their story was much more compelling. I had some uncertainty about whether what I was seeing was actually there because it was so totally unanticipated (this is where critical research buddies come in handy). I was excited by the new, deeper understanding in a way I hadn’t been by the original analysis – and I think it’s worth paying attention to that excitement too. Another factor in accepting the surprise may have been that I was writing outside my ‘home field’ of information literacy and so felt less bound by disciplinary discussions and my own ‘expertise’. That might have made it ok to be surprised by unanticipated directions and new insights, without a discouraging ‘well, I should have expected that’ voice in my head. So maybe I need to find a way to turn off that voice…

Coincidentally, I’m currently reading an older work by Marcia B. Baxter-Magolda, Knowing and Reasoning in College: Gender-related patterns in students’ intellectual development. In the opening chapter, she speaks eloquently and frankly about transformations in her way of knowing, her research process, and her questions, including the impact of not finding what she was expecting. The book raises intriguing ideas about students and the research process, and it is also as a terrific model of scholarly prose, with personality and wit that often seem edited out of much current academic writing (this might be why I prefer writing blogs now!).

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.