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FUNQs: Won't Ask, Won't Tell

Today I have the urge to address a perennial, insidious, and unnecessary condition that afflicts higher education in this country. It results from the most Frequently UNasked Question (by students) that is also the most Frequently UNanswered Question (by faculty): What is a primary source?

November 1, 2009

Today I have the urge to address a perennial, insidious, and unnecessary condition that afflicts higher education in this country. It results from the most Frequently UNasked Question (by students) that is also the most Frequently UNanswered Question (by faculty): What is a primary source?

The silence surrounding this question is deafening. Undergrads are oblivious to the issue, think they already know the answer because they memorized a definition in eighth grade (“A primary source was written at the time”), or are afraid to show their ignorance by asking in class or in private communication with a professor. Faculty are far more culpable, in my view, because they assume, based on no evidence whatsoever, that students have grasped the difference between primary and secondary sources at about the same time, and with the same clarity, that they figured out sex.

Au contraire: what with tidy textbooks, packaged compilations of readings — or worse yet, summaries and excerpts — that mix original material with commentary, compounded by a torrent of electronic resources, students are bound to be hazy about what makes anything primary. My hunch is that the problem is at least in part visceral: no pain, no gain in this context becomes no effort (to acquire a primary source), no understanding (of what one is). My second hunch is that, lacking attention to the issue, students will confuse the container with its content. A paperback edition of Romeo and Juliet appears identical to a casebook of critical essays about the play. So if both look like a book, feel like a book, and smell like a book, and if both come from a bookstore, library shelf, or Blackboard site, then they both must be...? My third, and most troubling, hunch is that every IHE confers degrees on some students who are still uncertain about what’s what, sourcewise.

To test these suspicions, I often ask small groups of students to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. Originally I thought their answers would help me cast my own presentation of library research concepts and strategies, but I quickly realized that I was blundering into an abyss of muddle and guesswork.

Here is how the drama usually unfolds. First, there is silence and a close examination of fingernails and keypads. Then a brave soul or two will dig deep and recite a version of the memorized definition. But when I ask them to elaborate or provide an example of a primary source in the context of their course, I am apt to hear such assertions as that a primary source is (a) what they are supposed to read first, (b) the most important piece of their research, (c) the item they should list at the top of their bibliography, and (d) the earliest treatment of their topic. My favorite response of all time came from a class smart aleck who announced, “I’m not sure what a primary source is, but I figure it must be one if it makes me sneeze.” Lunacy or profundity, do you think?

While none of these notions is dead wrong, and while I applaud the attempt to use the etymology of primary as a clue, it is apparent to me that there has been a crucial gap in student learning. Boiled down, faculty reason, and teach, as follows:

--This is what we’re studying.

--This is what we know about it.

--This is what people have said about it.

--Now we’ll consider what it means and its consequences.

What’s missing from this syllogism is a careful look at what it is and at how we might either verify or extend our knowledge systematically. In short, what are the primary sources any college course is concerned with and what are the appropriate ways to engage them.

Faculty in the experimental sciences do the best job of imparting ideas about the substance of their field, along with the rigor, logic, and safety precautions good research demands. Students enroll in laboratory classes expecting to learn about phenomena by conducting guided investigations that entail precise procedures and analysis. But there is rarely an equivalent detailed look at objects or approaches in the rest of the college curriculum. Instead, there may be a research assignment requiring a preliminary bibliography or draft, with scribbled professorial feedback, and some instructions about what to do, but no coaching on how — let alone why — to do it. Repetition over four years will eventually lead students to a sort of fluency, but there’s no guarantee that students will graduate with the same mastery of methods that they have of facts and theories. To judge from the e-mail queries we get from alumni about how to find information in areas outside their major, I have to conclude that many people cannot adapt their undergraduate research experiences to different disciplines or endeavors.

Neither faculty nor librarians, acting as individuals, can impart everything students need to understand about sources or research methods, but we can, and should, talk repeatedly with students about the origin, nature, and transmission of the primary sources they are studying. We must not allow “What is a primary source?” to remain a taboo question.


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