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.


4 thoughts on “

  1. Rebecca, this was an excellent post that got me thinking about a lot of things. I think you have touched upon some of the really important issues that instructors should think about (both with regard to research/search skills and reading strategies of students0>

  2. Great post. Here’s the full text:A Librarian’s Lament: Books Are a Hard SellBy Thomas WashingtonSunday, January 21, 2007; Page B03I’m a librarian in an independent Washington area school. We’re doing all the right things. Our class sizes are small. Most graduating seniors gain admission to their college of choice. The facilities are first-rate.Yet from my vantage point at the reference desk, something is amiss. The books in the library stacks are gathering dust. In The Post’s Outlook Section * SUPREME CONSERVATIVES: The Cause Bush Did Justice To * Altered State of the Union: What Would Jeb Do? * WHAT SIZE IS YOUR PARACHUTE?: Worth Every Last Million * HUMAN NATURE: Arresting Development * The Zeitgeist Checklist More From OutlookChina’s Missile Message» Elizabeth Economy | China already exerts an unsettling and often negative impact on the world. It’s time for the U.S. to respond. * Robert D. Novak: Democrats’ Rude Rebuff * E.J. Dionne Jr.: Jim Webb – Reagan Democrat * David S. Broder: Senate Firefighters OPINIONS: Think Tank Town | On Faith | PostGlobalWho’s Blogging?Read what bloggers are saying about this article. * London Art Club – The London Art Club, for people interested in artistic events in London * San Francisco Schools * The Seven RealmsFull List of Blogs (57 links) »Most Blogged About ArticlesOn washingtonpost.com | On the webSave & Share Article What’s This?DiggGoogledel.icio.usYahoo!RedditFacebookWhen I started in this profession five years ago — I used to teach English — I presumed that librarians were mostly united in their attraction to books. But as I moved along in my library science program, I found that books weren’t really our focus. Information management, database networking and research tools claimed the largest share of the curriculum. In other words, literacy today is defined less by how English departments or a librarian might teach Wordsworth or Faulkner than by how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload.Typically, many people in my line of work no longer have the title of librarian. They are called media and information specialists, or sometimes librarian technologists. The buzzword in the trade is “information literacy,” a misnomer, because what it is really about is mastering computer skills, not promoting a love of reading and books. 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 in 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.Conventional wisdom has it that teenagers don’t read because they’re too busy. Only after high school, sometime midway through college, do young adults reconnect with their childhood love of reading and make books their partners for life. I don’t think so anymore. The 2004 Reading at Risk report by the National Endowment for the Arts concluded that literary reading was in serious decline on all fronts, especially among the youngest adults, ages 18 to 24, whose rate of decrease was 55 percent greater than that of the total adult population.To counter this trend we set up a “new arrivals” display shelf this school year. It’s stocked with best-sellers, young-adult fiction and DVDs. We also maintain a top-shelf lineup of books that we hope will entice young minds and bring them back to the reading table. We position the books on tiny stands and place notecard teasers underneath, much as Borders bookstores promote the managers’ top choices.No, I’m not foolish enough to think that the books are going to move off the shelves like jeans at Abercrombie, but any school librarian who hasn’t figured out some way to market his goods probably needs to find another line of work. These days, librarianship is all about making the sale. Public libraries have caught on: In Fairfax County, The Washington Post recently reported, they’re tossing out volumes that have gone unchecked for two years in favor of books that can “generate the biggest buzz.”Recent front-runners in my school library include “The Boy Who Fell out of the Sky,” Ken Dornstein’s memoir about his brother’s death aboard Pan Am Flight 103; “The Overachievers,” on how our culture of high-stakes education has spiraled out of control; and “Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews.” While I wait for nibbles on these and other books, my colleague and I paste eye-catching posters on the walls. These aren’t literary quotes, either. Today the American Library Association’s posters have employed Denzel Washington to encourage kids to read. But how many of these students really buy the message?I recently spoke with a junior who was stressed about her decreasing ability to focus on anything for longer than two minutes or so. I tried to inspire her by talking about the importance of reading as a way to train the brain. I told her that a good reader develops the same powers of concentration that an athlete or a Buddhist would employ in sport or meditation. “A lot out there is conspiring to distract you,” I said.She rolled her eyes. “That’s your opinion about books. It doesn’t make it true.” To her, the idea that reading might benefit the mind was, well, lame.A library’s neglected shelves reveal the demise of something important, especially for young readers starved for meaning — for anything profound. Still, I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. I’m turning the new-arrivals shelf into a main attraction in my school’s library. Recently I stood Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House” next to the DVD version produced by the BBC. Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson) graced both covers. A senior fingered the DVD for a minute, then turned it over to read the blurb. “The book is too long,” she said. “Is the movie any better?””You’re right. The book is long,” I said. “But once you start this one, you won’t be able to put it down, right from that first page about the London fog.””I think I’ll watch the DVD,” the student said.And in my library ledger, I’ll register this as a sale.

  3. I wrote the mined papers all through college and I assure you, I never had access to a database. the particular skills honed by use of digital resources seem to magnify a pre-existing problem: they. have no. idea. how. to. do. research.I like that you mention teaching them to be discerning in their use of digital resources. I think the days of simply forbidding online or electronic resources are gone, though I still know some people who do.

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