An ostrich’s eye is bigger than its brain

Along with two of my colleagues here at the Lehman College Library, I am currently in the process of reviewing research papers from 31 students in three sections of ENG 120 (Principles of Effective Writing II).  We are examining their bibliographies to see how and whether students are applying what they’d learned in the library classes they were required to attend.  A couple of thoughts came to me immediately:

  1. Wow, students don’t know how to cite their sources!  I am appalled by their complete disregard for any convention… and I’m extremely grateful to the few who put even a modicum of effort into their bibliographies.
  2. A majority of the sources cited came from the web.  By my count, 36.4% of the 239 citations were just websites: organizations’ websites, how-to sites, school pages, news aggregators, blogs, etc.  This does not take into consideration the 63 references (26.4%) that cited nytimes.com, wsj.com, time.com, and other newspaper/magazine sites.  Combined, the two numbers indicate that almost two-thirds (62.8%) of all citations came from the web and not through the library’s databases or catalog.
    1. Were sites like nytimes.com, wsj.com, time.com, etc. chosen consciously?  That is, did students make the decision to use these sites because they knew them to be reputable?  Or did they cite them just because Google pulled them in its list of results?
    2. Is Google getting better (or “smarter”)?  If it is ranking results from The New York Times above about.com, should we let the students know that, yes, they can use Google to get relatively credible information?
    3. Should we be teaching them advanced Google techniques instead of showing them how to search our databases? (ETA: A colleague forwarded a link to A Google a Day, which seems to be a good introduction to this very concept.)
    4. What does “research” mean for these students?  And how many of them really need to know how to write a paper in their first year of undergraduate school?  (Side note: I placed out of the first-year English requirement as an undergraduate because of Advanced Placement credit earned in high school.  I majored in Computer & Information Science so I spent very little time doing “research” [in the traditional sense] and writing papers.  I learned what I needed to know as I went along and only did “research” when I entered grad school for my library science degree.)  Those who never go on to grad school will probably never need to search LexisNexis or ScienceDirect.  They will, however, be looking up other kinds of information that is relevant to their fields.  How they search for this information is something we can teach them at the undergraduate level.  Since so few undergrad students ever go on to grad school, should we focus on meeting the everyday needs of the undergraduate students?
  3. We’re outsourcing much of our thinking to our personal devices these days.  (See Internet Use Affects Memory, Study Finds from The New York Times.)  In a way, we can even begin thinking of our phones as parts of ourselves.  (I do not have my phonebook memorized but it is part of my general knowledge.  Just because it’s stored on my phone’s memory card and not in my brain doesn’t mean that knowledge is not mine.)  So the way we learn is changing and, like it or not, we need to accept that fact.  As a result, the library’s role in shaping students into effective learners needs to be restructured.  We need to place more emphasis on searching effectively and evaluating results to find the best information.  So instead of starting with JSTOR (or whichever database a librarian prefers) and showing students how to search effectively in there, maybe we need to start with Google.  Show them the practical first so they can apply that to the academic later (if need be).

My mind’s reeling!  This exercise of evaluating students’ citations is an eye-opening one.  I’d be interested in seeing a more in-depth analysis (taking in all sorts of variables into account, including the professors’ individual styles and the students’ academic & personal histories) of a similar nature.  There are several studies that are attempting something like this right now (including Project Information Literacy and CUNY’s very own Undergraduate Scholarly Habits Ethnography Project) and I’m eagerly awaiting their results.  However, I’m also interested in seeing the cognitive and social effects our changing information world is having on academia and pedagogy.

One Comment

Maura A. Smale 2011-08-06 Reply

Thanks for the shoutout, Allie! Sounds like a fascinating initiative to look at those student bibliographies, it’s great to read about it here.

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