Teaching Research and Writing Skills in a Digital Age
In this weekend’s Houston Chronicle, I read an interesting op-ed piece by a librarian at a private high school near Washington, D.C. The librarian wrote about the rise of the “information age” and the subsequent decline of the ability to actually read books. (I can’t find a digital version of the article now, so you’ll have to excuse the quotes.)
Literacy, the librarian argued, “…is defined less by how English department or a librarian might teach Wordsworth or Faulkner than by how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload.”
I think this observation is right on: I can’t keep up with the number of digital resources available in American history (which probably doesn’t matter since no library but the wealthiest can possibly afford to buy them all—as an aside, Rice’s library just bought the Sabin Americana Digital Collection for about $200,000—that’s the going price for subscriptions to many of these resources). I just had my students in Sex, Lies, and Depositions course spend an hour with our research librarian, and the class was not focused on how to use card catalogues and Library of Congress classifications, but rather on how to wrest information from the online catalogue with “keyword” and “begins with” searches, boolean searches, how to use massive periodical databases like Academic Search Premier, JSTOR, America: History and Life, and Historical Abstracts. (If you haven’t heard of these resources before, think the old Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, updated to include thousands of international periodicals and non-English-language periodicals, digitized, fully searchable, with links to the full texts of articles, reviews, and dissertations.) We also explored that amazing and frustrating resource, Early English Books Online (full-text pdf images of every book printed in England from 1450-1720). I even learned about a new search option in Academic Search Premier, Bibliography of Native North America. We did not have the opportunity to play with some of the other journal options like History Cooperative and Synergy. These databases make many more resources available—things I would have had to fly across the Atlantic to access ten years ago are now only as far away as an internet-connected computer.
But this mess of material, to any undergraduate student, is also a “digital forest of information overload.” Students don’t know how to judge the reliability of these resources any more than they know how to actually read them. Writes the frustrated librarian,
These days, librarians measure the quality of returns in data-mining stints. We teach students how to maximize a database search, about successful retrieval rates. What usually gets lost in the scramble is a careful reading of the material.
Students are still checking out the standard research fare—the Thomas Jefferson biography, the volume of literary criticism on Jane Austen—but few read it. The library checks the books back a day later, after the students have extracted the information vitals—usually an excerpt or two to satisfy the requirement that a certain number of works be cited in their papers.
Students mine the books as they mine a database. They do not read a book to understand its argument and how the writer has put that argument together, but simply to pull a neat line or two that they then insert into their own papers. No student actually reads the books he or she uses in a term paper or a research paper.
I learned this lesson the hard way last semester. I assigned a term paper of 10-12 pages, and I endeavored to avoid the book-mining problem by mandating that the paper be truly a term paper in the syllabus. That is, I constructed assignments around the selection of a topic, the location of resources, the generation of an annotated bibliography, a proposal, and then a final draft. These I spread out through the semester in hopes that students would start early and have plenty of time to read books and articles about their topics and to write well-thought-out papers.
Sadly, in most cases I did not get these types of papers. Most papers were still quick jobs, with many mined quotes. I’m not sure how to avoid this problem. We absolutely must teach our students how to navigate the vast number of digital resources available to them. I have no problem teaching students these new digital-age research skills, but I also want them to read and to think—two skills that seem to have fallen by the wayside.
This semester I’m teaching a course whose sole aim is the production of a 20-25-page paper. I’ve structured the reading and writing assignments even more tightly than I did last semester. I opened the class with a close reading of one book—we spent over three hours in class with that book, picking apart the argument and the sources. I hope that will introduce students to the art and necessity of careful reading and will be a model to them in creating and structuring their own historical arguments. I hope that they understand that research skills, reading skills, and writing skills are all part of the same whole—that students will learn not only how to locate information, but how to process it, how to think about it, and how to apply it to the historical problems they are writing about.
We’ll see if the effort is successful.