Research as Story Finding

Over the winter break I happened to hear Radiolab’s podcast “Radiolab Scavenger Hunt.” For those not familiar with Radiolab, its worth a listen. This edition of the podcast is an interview with Latif Nasser, a member of Radiolab’s research team. In the interview Nasser talks about his research process, about how he goes about finding stories to pitch to the Radiolab producers. Nasser’s methods include things like using the read random article feature on Wikipedia, setting up Google Alerts for unusual phrases and saying like “the human equivalent of.” Many of Nasser’s tricks are web-based — like setting up Google Alerts — but he also shares that he makes a point to do what he calls “IRL” (in real life) things like talking to strangers. Ultimately, the vision Nasser presents of research is that of a process committed to getting lost, at least initially. You try to get lost — like a person wandering a new city — in order to find something new and interesting.

I decided to have my students listen to this podcast at the start of the quarter, at the point when we are beginning to talk about potential research projects. My sense of how students approach research is that it doesn’t have quite the exploratory energy of Nasser’s process. And in many ways, this isn’t the students’ fault. We’ve mostly, probably almost exclusively trained students that research is always connected to writing a paper or some other product. Of course, it often is — I mean Nasser’s research work is meant to result in stories that Radiolab can produce and share with an audience. But my feeling is that we train students’ eyes too quickly to the products of research and this can limit their willingness or ability to explore. One of the things that come up in discussing Nasser’s process is that he experiences more failure and dead ends than you do golden nuggets or great story ideas. It’s understandable that students don’t have any patience for these dead ends and failures — I mean we keep telling them they have this behemoth paper to write. Of course, Nasser himself works under deadlines and time constraints, I imagine, so the trick is being able to do both — have a willingness, have the patience for the getting lost, while also being able to keep an eye toward the constraints of a project deadline.

When I originally heard the podcast I thought my take away was something to do with the idea that being a good composer (researcher, writer, etc.) had a layer of “lifestyle” or way of being to it that, I think, is hard to replicate in classrooms. The writing teacher Mark Marino has written about teaching writing as a lifestyle and Nasser’s process struck me as having a “lifestyle” vibe. In short, this lifestyle idea argues that people who we would consider — for lack of better words at the moment — “real” or “good” writers, engage in certain habits (processes) or ways of seeing and engaging their work and the world. These ways of seeing the world — for example, Nasser believes that there is value in the mundane, boring things that surrounded us and its worth our time to explore it and amazing stories can be found there. He is literally willing to talk to strangers on a bus or spend is time to dig into the randomness of Wikipedia. This takes a certain commitment, a certain state of mind, a certain “lifestyle” maybe. 

But having now listened to this interview with Nasser a few more times, what I think the big take away for me is, what most’s interesting, is the idea of research as finding stories. This is interesting. I wonder — How would our approach to research change if we framed it in terms of story instead of topics? Maybe the shift would small, but something I think Nasser would encourage us to consider is that interesting, wonderful things can happen in even the small shifts.