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Welcome to the Palace of Ambiguity
July 18, 2013 - 10:16pm

Funny how sometimes you read an article and it feels like a smack on the forehead. Of course! Why didn’t I think of that before? Usually that means you had thought of it before, in vague, inchoate terms, but somebody else has put it into words. Bam. 

That’s what happened when I read  the preprint of an article by Wendy Holliday and Jim Rogers in portal: Libraries and the Academy titled “Talking About Information Literacy: The Mediating Role of Discourse in a College Writing Classroom.” The authors did a small-scale study of students enrolled in only one course, but I think its findings are widely applicable. They paid attention to how research was talked about in the course materials, the class discussions, and by the students themselves. What they found is that both the course instructor and a librarian working with the class had a habit of slipping into using “source” as a major guiding category. Writing a college paper depends on finding and using good sources. Unfortunately, we know that’s only partly right. The Citation Project findings, along with any number of similar studies and the anecdotal experience of just about every college teacher I know, tells us that students can find sources; the trouble is they don’t read them, or they read only enough to find a useful quote, or they choose sources that are not particularly insightful ones, or their paper becomes merely a description of the sources they’ve found with little analysis or original thought.A more sophisticated mistake is to seek out only sources that support a previously-held belief.

The instructor whose class they observed was trying to overcome those typical issues and to some extent succeeded. Some students felt their approach to writing about ideas using sources had changed significantly and they were engaged with the ideas they were writing about. Others realized their standard approach – find the required number of sources and pull information out of them – wouldn’t satisfy their teacher, but they weren’t sure what they should be doing instead.

The authors of the article suggest one fairly simple but meaningful strategy. Stop talking about “finding sources.” Frame the work as learning about something.

When sources are viewed as containers, it potentially diverts attention away from the content of the sources themselves. Likewise, a discourse of “learning about” directs attention to the content of sources. If internalized, both of these conceptions might serve as psychological tools that mediate how students view and engage in the research process.

This, of course, is not adequate for more advanced students who may be expected to propose interpretations, apply theoretical approaches to novel situations, or design experiments and write about the results, but it would help with those first and second year practice runs. It has convinced me to stop using the phrase “finding sources” when I meet with students.

If this observational study is any indication, this will be difficult. The very experienced course instructor knew what she wanted students to learn, but at times she and the librarian she worked with fell back on talking about information containers rather than what was in them. The message was mixed in the written course materials, I suspect largely in response to students’ understandable desire to have ambiguity reduced.  What kind of sources do I need? How many? Can I use Wikipedia?

Right now I’m mulling over how to coax students to approach the library as a place where there are no simple answers, but where their own curiosity and instincts can help them find their way, where ideas matter more than containers. It may be less comfortable than finding the requisite number of sources, but it should be more interesting. 

Ideally, the process takes time and proceeds in stages. First “I want to find out about X,” which requires wide but shallow exploration. Then “The question I have about X is . . .” which requires a more focused search. And finally “I think . . . about X, and here’s why,” which means organizing ideas, coming to conclusions, and drawing on the evidence available (which may require further searching if a hole appears).

Usually, students come to the library to “learn how to find sources for their papers” (as its typically described by their instructors) very early in the process, quite often before students have decided what they want to learn about (or don't want to think about this looming problem and are feeling anxious and resentful). It’s not an easy time to convince them they might enjoy exploring what a friend has called “the palace of ambiguity.” Somehow, though, I’m going to try hard to ban “find sources” from my vocabulary when they are in the library, and keep the focus on “finding out.” We’ll see how it goes.

   

 

 

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