by Amanda Moehlenpah
The ocean—an expanse of blue glass that surges gently, rhythmically, predictably, its foam-capped waves grasping eagerly at the shore. Standing at a distance, the water appears endless yet approachable, awe-inspiring yet someone familiar. As we deliver our bodies to its icy wet, we quickly understand that it is not the soothing body of water we perceived at first impression. Rather it is a monster, with greater risks and greater perils the farther we plunge into its depths.
The metaphor may seem exaggerated, even ridiculously so, but to first- and second-year undergraduate students—pleasure-seeking beach-goers forced into the roaring waters of a research university—it is more than accurate. The expanse of resources available through our library systems is titillating to an experienced diver (the graduate student and the professor) but terrifying to the undergraduate. Those of us who have come to understand the beauty and wonder of the research ocean and the life-giving resources that it furnishes are immune to its dangers but not the undergraduate. She only sees the stacks of books, the dizzying interconnectivity of the library system, and the online search engines linked to thousands of printed pages as a ferocious beast waiting to consume her. Requesting a short bibliography on a specific topic is akin to self-immolation.
Serving as a GRC this past spring for an introductory French literature course reminded me of the importance of taking these novice swimmers by the hand and leading them gingerly out into the ocean. They cannot be tossed a life jacket and instructed to float along or even shown a few elementary strokes and then left to tread water. If we truly wish to produce excellent scholars, undaunted and even invigorated by the research ocean, we must carefully instruct them as to its wonders and dangers. We cannot omit one detail or they will surely drown. This does not mean that we cross the ocean for them while they profit from our exertion to stay afloat, but it does mean that we do not let them venture out on their own without assuring ourselves first that they have the skills necessary to survive and thrive. I would encourage every graduate student not to assume that the undergraduates in their care understand the research ocean or know how to navigate it. If they pass the swim examination with flying colors, then we can conclude otherwise, but for most, we must take the time to give them proper instruction so that they are assured of a successful voyage.