The Story of a Lit Review

By: E. Melanie DuPuis

One of the major struggles in undergraduate research involves mentoring a student through an adequate lit review.  The student tends to see the task as reading a certain number of articles – the question for the mentor being, “How many articles is enough?” Of course, the answer is always, “enough to understand the previous research on your topic and to structure your own research.”  But students are often stuck on the question, “the previous research of what?” This becomes a chicken and egg exercise, where the student does not know what to read in order to come up with a research question, but cannot decide what to read without a research question.  The literature to be read becomes boundless and therefore intimidating.

I want to tell a story about a lit review gone right. Not that there wasn’t more than necessary chicken and egg involved.  However, in the long run, I was able to mentor and scaffold the student’s reading in order to move the student from previous research to a small but focused research question.  This is the story of that lit review process.

The student in question was from Abu Dhabi, UAR.  All through his research design class he struggled with the chicken and the egg.  He had a general idea what he wanted to study:  the rise of desalinization as the major way to bring water to his home country.  He knew from his networks and connection in the UAR that it was proud of its “desal” plants and of the development this access to water enabled, particularly the building of the futuristic town of Dubai. He knew that the administration there bragged that their desal system was the most advanced in the world. In order to delve into his topic, I had encouraged him during winter break back home to talk to the people he knew who worked in the environmental agency, as a kind of feeling out of the issues.

But what was his question? Was he simply going to write a paper about how great desal was in Abu Dhabi? That certainly wasn’t enough.  He was resistant to making appointments with his potential interviewees and simply asking unstructured questions. Not only that, there happened to be very little previous research published on desal in that country. The perennial student question, “How do I do a lit review of previous research that doesn’t exist?” taunted him even more than most students. And, “how do I do interviews with public officials if I don’t know what I’m asking?” taunted him as well.

As a first step, I had him solve the no-previous-research problem by coming up with a proxy: a topic close to his topic where literature does exist. Having previously worked with students in California on desal research projects, I had him look at the literature on California.

So, the student began to read everything he could about desal in California. But he came back again confused.  He had read a great deal, but didn’t know how to organize all of his reading.  And the question still eluded us. Why read about California, where the siting of desal plants is a major political issue, with a large resistance movement making sure very few plants were sited, when the area of interest – the UAR — was enthusiastic about desal with little public resistance? Anyone who has mentored a research project will be nodding their heads.

Eventually, we realized that the thing that made it hard to research Abu Dhabi desal policy was exactly the question itself: what was it about Abu Dhabi that made people enthusiastic and welcoming of desal? California became, in this research question, more than a proxy.  Instead, the study became a comparison of the desal politics of Abu Dhabi and California. 

As is not unusual in this case, in our conversations, I constantly expressed doubt about the amount of work he had actually done – enough reading – while he insisted that he had read a lot.  But I really had no way, at this point, to judge whether he had done the work or was just characterizing “a lot” in a way that I would characterize as “not enough.”

Interestingly, the answer here, after ordering him to go back to the library for a week or two, was not to whip him up into a reading furor but to help him structure his reading better.  To do that required structuring the topic of his research more thoroughly.  Once again, because the published research is on California, we had to start there: why are Californians so resistant to desal?  Once I asked that question, the student could tell me exactly what he read, and we could start to put that reading in an outline.  The conclusion of previous research on why there was resistance to desal in California, he could tell me with adequate cites, was: (1) expense and (2) environmental effects.  Because the student could cite numerous articles that made these points convinced me that he was, in fact, doing the work but needed more structure to his efforts.

But then we were stuck again.  Was the answer that Abu Dhabi simply had more money to invest in desal (not to mention more energy).  Did they just not care about the environment, compared to California? The student, understandably, was resistant to that conclusion.  Abu Dhabi wasn’t evil, but it really wanted access to more water. The environmental staff in the monarchy knew about the deleterious effects of pouring salt into the Gulf and of the high energy demands desal plants required. That was why they were at the vanguard of investing in  state-of-the-art desal plants: they wanted to minimize both of these problems as much as possible. There is a big commitment in the Gulf, my student argued, on designing desal plants that use renewable energy. There are concerns over whether the salt in the Gulf was affecting fishing communities.  In other words, Abu Dhabi understood the problem but had to continue to build desal plants and provide more water.  So, at this point, I could ask the student, “How do you know this?” sending the student not into the peer-reviewed literature but to the public discourse available in Abu Dhabi about desal and development.  We then knew how to structure his reading of newpapers and other published conversations in Arabic to back up what he knew simply by growing up in the region.

At this point, we had a way to refine his research question: what was it about Abu Dhabi that made it continue to build desal plants despite the energy cost and the environmental effects?  Once again, this was where the student’s grounded knowledge of his country came into play: two things he knew was the extent of explosive population growth in the UAR due mostly to immigration and the fact that, up until recently, this incredibly expensive water was used without water charges.  This was completely unlike California, where water charges had been in place for decades (and where population growth was significantly less, if not negative).  He also knew that there was no popular resistance to desal in the UAR. Social movements against desal did not exist. It was a Monarchy in the true sense that Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan makes the decisions about the future of the country. These were grounded facts the student knew from his life but were, also, available in written form. In other words, the most expensive water in the world had been, for many years, free to all residents.  And, the student could cite published writing – not research but public reports — to back these facts. Suddenly, the study was able to turn back to the original focus: Abu Dhabi.  What was it about Abu Dhabi that made development so important, and how did the environmental staff in the Monarchy determine how much desal was enough – which underlay the question: how much development was enough? 

Suddenly we not only had a lit review that brought us to an original research question, but we now knew what question the student should ask environmental staff:  “How much desal was enough? How did the Monarchy decide the extent of energy cost and environmental impacts that were necessary for how much economic growth?”  The Monarchy, the student knew, was building more plants.  How did they decide how many plants to build?

Interestingly, this was when the extent of the reading the student had done on California desal politics became clear. He knew, and could cite, research on the resistance movements against desal in California. Californians were against desal for the same reason the UAR Monarchy was for it: development. California’s anti-desal movement was really an anti-development movement – much of the peer reviewed literature researching desal in California concluded as much. The research question, which had been very focused up to this time, began to reflect bigger issues.  Why was it so important to the UAR Monarchy to continue to grow its population and its economy, while California was so resistant to population growth? Why had it taken so much time to actually charge people for this expensive water? All of a sudden we had a much more complex picture of the politics of development in these two places.

Needless to say, as a senior thesis, I would not oblige an undergraduate to answer that last question.  However, it is clear that this question falls into the important Last Slide in any student’s research presentation: Future Research.  Given the amount of reading the student had done – real work that was now obvious and which could be written about in a structured way – most of the paper would be about what he had read.  However, the hope is that the student will be able to use his entrée to ask this very focused and interesting question, a question we suspect environmental staff in the Monarchy think about every day: “how much desal is enough?”  If not, we are hoping that a focused look at the public discourse in the UAR on development will help answer that question.  I’m hoping he will be able to do an interview or two over the winter break.  But even a good look at the published public discourse about water and development in the UAR, in Arabic, the student’s native language, comparing it to the public discourse in California, would be enough.

E. Melanie DuPuis

E. Melanie DuPuis

Professor and Chair, Environmental Studies and Science, Pace University

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