When I first started working in academia as full-time staff, I was 24 years old, and had graduated only 18 months earlier. I envisioned myself still a student, and technically, since I was enrolled in a part-time graduate program, I was. My friends were still students, some undergraduate, some had moved on to graduate programs. I thought I was able to offer the “older” staff relevant opinions on what students would or would not like, which I hope was partly true.
Now my younger sister is in college, and while we attended different schools and have different life goals (as well as personalities), I can’t help but think I’m no longer as close to being a student as I thought I was.
During a recent visit, my sister asked for help with short assignment. It was an assignment very similar in principle to one I was assigned for a graduate statistics course: find a piece of original academic research, and find popular media articles which refer to the research. Compare/contrast. I understand why faculty choose this assignment: numbers are suspect and students (really, anyone) need to understand how statistics and scientific studies can be manipulated and how research can be portrayed in a simplified, headline-grabbing way. Evaluation of sources is a life skill.
My sister found an article from a newspaper that was on a topic of interest to her, and needed help finding the original research. I thought, Great! I used to be an information science student, I love to research, let me pull up a few databases.
Then a few things happened. First, I realized my sister is not me, and flipping through search results was not as exciting for her as it was for me. Second, I realized her popular news source was a local paper, and the original research was a quote from a graduate student.
(I should note my next move was to find said graduate student’s web site, and find any journal articles she had written. I found her web site, but her area of focus was unrelated to my sister’s chosen topic).
A few days later I read Steve Kolowich’s article  on IHE “What Student’s Don’t Know”: about the study several Illinois universities conducted. The conclusion: “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.”
Writing over at Library  Babel  Fish  Barbara Fister hits the nail on the head: “Writing that involves students in research and argument has triumphed, yet what first year students do to cope with these assignments seems to defeat the purpose, which we assume is to learn to do independent research, make critical choices among sources, and use them effectively in constructing a written argument. What students actually do, though, is go shopping for bits of stuff that they assemble according to instructions.”
It has been over 10 years since I was a first year student, but I still remember plucking quotes out of a book to hand in my first paper of the semester. I was terrified - and rightfully so, I couldn’t seem to grasp what the point of the book was. So I cobbled together quotes and some transitional sentences. Luckily, my professor met with me and explained the main arguments. Sitting in his office, embarrassed that I totally missed the point of the book, is not an experience I want to have again.
I don’t know whether I helped my sister with her assignment, or frustrated her by pointing out the difficulties. I also don’t know at what point academic research began to make sense, and I was able to make my writing sound academic.
I do know that the nature of research has changed even since I was a student.
New Haven, Connecticut in the USA
Heather Alderfer is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus and is an Associate Registrar at Yale Law School.