Admissions of Another Sort

When professors assign a library project to undergraduates, just what do they expect students to learn from the research part of the experience? What do professors think students are doing to come up with the sources in their papers? If there is a discrepancy between pedagogical intent and actual student research behavior, how do faculty members address it? Or do they care, especially since they may not spot a student’s research problem until the end of a course and may well not see that student again? Does the end of a well-written, well-supported argument justify whatever means a student uses to acquire sources?

These are issues I often fret about, both in private and aloud when I compare notes with other academic librarians. My concern arises not from a general suspicion that students are engaging in what I call WIGWAM research (Wikipedia – Internet – Google – Without Anything More), but from what students themselves have been telling me for decades. It is clear from e-mail, reference encounters, research consultations in my office, and questions that arise in library instruction sessions, that most students simply do not retain the concepts and logic involved in discovering information sources — never mind the principles for evaluating the sources they do turn up. Even students whom I’ve counseled extensively in the past, and whose projects turned out well, seem clueless the very next semester when they face a research assignment in a different course.

Here are the most persistent and troubling confessions I’ve heard from students over the years, with my speculation on their cause and cure. Some of these statements have been blurted out, others are responses to a question I’ve asked.

1. "I have no idea [about the dates or details of my topic]."

Students naturally assume that their textbooks and lectures provide adequate background for their research assignment, but that is rarely the case. Faculty can remedy this problem by having students explore their intended topics using, in addition to the inevitable Wikipedia, a specialized encyclopedia and factual tools such as chronologies and biographical or geographical dictionaries. Librarians will be glad to suggest titles, in both electronic and print formats.

2. I’m wondering why I can’t I find this periodical article in the library’s catalog.

This confusion is understandable: Students are programmed to throw any phrase they come across into a search engine or an online catalog. The antidote is for instructors to make a conscious effort in class to parse an article citation taken from something the students have already read, stressing that one needs to search the journal title in the online catalog, not the article title. (The same difficulty arises when students search for a chapter by name rather than the title of the collection it’s in.) Instructors can also use this discussion to explain what bibliographic style they want students to use.

3. This magazine isn’t digitized, so I guess we don’t have it and I can’t get it.

The issue here is two-fold, the conviction many students have that all periodicals have been scanned in entirety, and the corollary notion that if the college library lacks something, it is therefore impossible to obtain. Librarians are responsible for describing the physical format(s) of every resource they have and for promoting interlibrary loan and other services that supplement their collections. Faculty can assist by reinforcing the fact that source identification is often a separate step from source procurement. The goal is for students to understand their options for acquiring what they have discovered.

4. I need to change my topic because there’s not enough stuff [sic] about it.

Partly this comes from the student’s frustration in a high school or public library with limited collections, but mostly it comes from limited acquaintance with a thesaurus. Keyword searching in an online catalog or article database is very powerful—provided one uses pertinent terms and truncates wisely to account for variant word forms and spellings. Students likewise need a sense of hierarchy (if there’s nothing about the species, try the genus) and a refresher on Boolean logic. Librarians can coach students in these matters, but the occasional faculty riff about vocabulary, both common and specialist, would underscore its importance.

5. I’m not clear about what makes an article scholarly or a book a monograph.

What we have here is jargon that puzzles many undergraduates, especially since they see mention of peer-reviewed, refereed, academic, or juried articles. We cannot expect students to recognize synonyms if they don’t grasp the underlying concept. Both faculty and librarians should make it their business to define these terms in every research context.

6. I can’t find books about [an event that occurred last month].

This belief will seem far-fetched, even to advanced undergraduates, but I assure you, it does exist and is best refuted by an anecdote in class about the time that elapses between an insight or discovery and its formal communication to others in the field.

7. I’m confused about the difference between a primary and a secondary source.

This is the single most complex idea for students to master, largely because the nature of a source — its utility for the project at hand — is determined by the research question. It takes several assignments in different disciplines before students understand that one person’s primary source for Topic A can be someone else’s secondary source for Topic B. In my ideal world every professor and guest lecturer who speaks to undergraduates would routinely reflect on the range and role of primary and secondary sources in their own research. Conclusions and interpretations can be brilliant, but novice researchers also need to learn about the intellectual road an expert travels to those ends.

8. I’m afraid I’ll be cheating if I take references from someone else’s bibliography.

You may shake your head at this confession (I certainly do), but it highlights how uncertain students can be about the boundary between plagiarism and scholarly practice. Here again, the best solution is for both faculty and librarians to extol the benefits, and acknowledge the pitfalls, of footnote tracking.

Interestingly, these revelations have not changed significantly in the past few decades, except that students now have how-to questions about technology as well. What worries me most today is the absence of undergraduate concern about evaluating sources as their research proceeds: They almost always want to gather sources first and then assess them, going back to the well for more if, and only if, their professor says they need additional support for one of their points. In other words, they do not see library research as a dynamic, iterative process, but as a hunt-fetch-and-finish drill. Further, students arrive in college believing that if a source exists and seems relevant, then it must be good and sufficient for their project.

Their savvy about what’s possible in a “free” Web world is at odds with their understanding — which is almost nil — of how knowledge of various sorts is created, packaged, transmitted, delivered, and paid for. These are serious misunderstandings with profound consequences, but if faculty and librarians share their perceptions and find ways to coordinate their messages, then student admissions of the future should, at the least, be different.

Mary W. George
Author's email:

Mary W. George is senior reference librarian at Princeton University Library. She is author of the new bookThe Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know(Princeton University Press).

The Public Option

Shortly after last week’s column appeared, I headed out to Iowa City to attend -- and, as the occasion required, to pontificate at -- a gathering called Platforms for Public Scholars. Sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies at the University of Iowa, it drew somewhere between 100 and 150 participants over three days.

This was the latest round in an ongoing conversation within academe about how to bring work in the humanities into civic life, and vice versa. The discussion goes back almost a decade now, to the emergence of the Imagining America consortium, which fosters collaboration between faculty at research universities and partners in community groups and nonprofit organizations.

That effort often runs up against institutional inertia. You sense this from reading "Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University" (the report of the consortium's Tenure Team Initiative, released last year). Clearly there is a long way to go before people in the humanities can undertake collaborative, interdisciplinary, and civic-minded work without fearing that they are taking a risk.

Even so, the presentations delivered in Iowa City reported on a variety of public-scholarship initiatives -- local history projects, digital archives, a festival of lectures and discussions on Victorian literature, and much else besides. Rather than synopsize, let me recommend a running account of the sessions live-blogged by Bridget Draxler, a graduate student in English at the University of Iowa. It is available at the Web site of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (better known as HASTAC, usually pronounced “haystack”).

Word went around of plans to publish a collection of papers from the gathering. I asked Teresa Mangum, a professor of English at U of I, who organized and directed the event, if that was in the cards. She “built the platform,” as someone put it, and presided over all three days with considerable charm -- intervening in the discussion in ways that were incisive while also tending to foster the collegiality that can be elusive when people come from such different disciplinary and professional backgrounds.

“My goal is to have some kind of ‘artifact’ of the conference,” she told me, “but I'm trying to think more imaginatively what it might be ... possibly a collection of essays with a Web site. We definitely want to produce a online bibliography but maybe trying to use the Zotero exhibition approach there.”

It was a symposium in the strict sense, in that food was involved. Also, beverages. On the final day, a roundtable assessment of the whole event was the last item on the agenda -- only for this discussion to be bumped into the farewell dinner when things ran long.

Unfortunately I was unable to attend, for fear that a persistent hacking cough was turning me into a pandemic vector. Instead, I retired to the hotel to scribble out some thoughts that might have been worth taking up at the roundtable. Here they are -- afterthoughts, a little late for the discussion.

Most people who attended were members of the academic community, whether from Iowa or elsewhere, and most of the sessions took place in university lecture halls. But the first event on the first day was held at the Iowa City Public Library. This was a panel on new ways of discussing books in the age of digital media -- recounted here by Meena Kandasamy, a young Tamil writer and translator whose speech that evening rather stole the show.

Holding the event at the public library opened the proceedings up somewhat beyond the usual professorial demographic. At one point, members of the panel watched as a woman entered with her guide dog, stretched out on the ground at the back of the room, and closed her eyes to listen. At least we hoped she was listening. I think there is an allegory here about the sometimes ambiguous relationship between public scholarship and its audience.

In any case, the venue for this opening session was important. Public libraries were once called “the people’s universities.” The populist impulse has fallen on some scurvy times, but this trope has interesting implications. The public library is an institution that nobody would be able to start now. A place where you can read brand-new books and magazines for free? The intellectual property lawyers would be suing before you finished the thought.

So while musing on collaborative and civic-minded research, it is worth remembering the actually existing public infrastructure that is still around. Strengthening that infrastructure needs to be a priority for public scholarship -- at least as much, arguably, as "the production of knowledge." (This phrase, repeated incessantly in some quarters of the humanities, has long since slipped its original moorings, and owes more to American corporate lingo than to Althusser.)

Institutions can be narcissistic; and one symptom of this is a certain narrowly gauged conception of professionalism. often indistinguishable in demeanor from garden-variety snobbery. Any real progress in consolidating the practice of public scholarship has to involve a strengthening of ties with people in the public sector -- especially librarians and teachers.

It is not that scholars exist over here while something called “the public” is over there -- off in the distance. Rather, people are constituted as a public in particular spaces and activities. The university is one such site, at least sometimes. But it isn’t the only one, and public scholarship needs to have moorings in as many such venues as possible.

The problem being that it is often hard enough to drop an anchor in academe, let alone in the wide Sargasso Sea of civil society. I am not a professor and have no advice to give on that score. But it seems important to pass along the comments of someone attending Platforms for Public Scholars who confided some thoughts to me during some downtime. I will pass them along by permission, but without giving away anything about this person's identity.

During one panel, a couple of tenured professors mentioned being concerned that their civically engaged scholarship might not count for promotion. One even noted that people who had done collaborative work in the humanities tended to discount it as part of a tenure file -- saying, “Well I did my mine without getting credit for it, so why should you?”

At the time, I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t really think much about it. Later, though, someone referred back to the session in tones that suggested chagrin and longstanding doubts about having a career in the humanities.

“These are people who actually are established, who have some power in their institutions," this individual told me. "I don’t have that. I don’t even have a job yet. And I want them to show some courage. If you really have a conviction that collaboration and public engagement are important, then do it without worrying so much. And support it. Make it possible for someone like me to make doing public work part of my scholarship. Otherwise, what are we even talking about?”

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

All the President's Books

In my two years working in the president's office at Harvard University, before I was laid off in spring, I gave myself the job of steward of her books. Gift books would arrive in the mail, or from campus visitors, or from her hosts when she traveled; books by Harvard professors were kept on display in reception or in storage at our Massachusetts Hall office; books flowed in from publishers, or authors seeking blurbs, or self-published authors of no reputation or achievement, who sometimes sent no more than loosely bound manuscripts.

I took charge of the president’s books because it was my assigned job to write thank-you letters for them. I would send her the books and the unsigned draft replies on presidential letterhead; for each one, she sent me back the signed letter and, most of the time, the book, meaning she had no further use for it. Some books she would keep, but seldom for very long, which meant those came back to me too, in one of the smaller offices on the third floor of Mass Hall where there was no room to put them. Furthermore they weren’t so easily disposed of. Often they bore inscriptions, to President Drew Faust or to her and her husband from people they knew; and even if the volume was something rather less exalted — a professor from India sending his management tome or a book of Hindi poems addressed, mysteriously, to "Sir" or to the "vice-chancellor of Harvard University" — these books obviously couldn’t end up in a secondhand bookshop or charity bin or anywhere they could cause embarrassment. All were soon moved to an overflow space at the very end of the hall, coincidentally looking out at a donation bin for books at a church across the street.

One might feel depressed sitting amid so many unwanted books — so much unread knowledge and overlooked experience — but tending President Faust's books became my favorite part of the job. No one noticed or interfered in what I did, which in a president's office like Harvard, where everything is scrutinized, is uncommon. Even a thank-you note can say too much. I developed my own phrase for these notes — "I look forward to spending some time with it" — as a substitute for saying "I look forward to reading it," because the president can't possibly read all the books she receives, and there was always the chance she would run into the author somewhere, who might ask if she'd read his book yet.

Any Harvard president attracts books from supplicants, and this particular president attracted her own subcategory. Many books came from publishers or authors not at all shy about requesting a presidential blurb. These were easy to decline, and became easy to decline even when they came from the president's friends, colleagues, acquaintances, neighbors, and others met over a distinguished career as a Civil War historian. This was the subcategory: thanks to her specialty, we were building up a large collection of Civil War books, galleys and unpublished manuscripts — not just professional monographs, but amateurish family or local histories. These soon filled the overflow space in Massachusetts Hall, where water leaking from the roof during the unusual March rainstorms resulted in our having to discard several.

For everyone who sent us a book, the signed note back from the president mattered more than the book itself; both sides presumably understood that the president could buy or obtain any book she actually needed. The replies were signed by her — no auto-pen — which meant that even if she didn't quite read your book the president still held it in her hands even for a moment, perhaps scribbling something at the bottom of her note with a fine black pen, or crossing out the "Ms." or "Professor" heading and substituting the author's first name.

I had all kinds of plans for these books. The inscribed books we had to keep, of course, no matter how dire or dreadful. (The archives would want its pick of them anyway, deciding which books would become keepsakes of this particular era at Harvard.) But the many good titles that remained could go to struggling small foreign universities or schools, to our soldiers and Marines overseas, or to local libraries as an act of goodwill from a powerful and oft-maligned neighbor. They could go to the Allston branch of the Boston Public Library, for instance, perhaps to be dubbed “the president's collection,” with its own shelving but freely available to Allstonians to read or borrow.

None of these ideas came to fruition. All of them would have required me to rise to a realm where I was no longer in charge — indeed, where I didn’t have a foothold. I would have to call meetings, bring bigger players to the table. Harvard’s top bureaucracy is actually quite small, and most of it was, literally, in my immediate presence: two doors to the left was one vice president, two doors to the right, around a tight corner, was another. But these were big-gesture folks alongside a resolutely small-gesture one (me), and without an intermediary to help build support for my ideas my books weren’t going anywhere except, once, into a cardboard box outside my office just before Christmas, where I encouraged staff to help themselves; perhaps two dozen books, or half what I started the box with, went out that way.

In all this, the important thing was that books were objects to be honored, not treated as tiresome throwaways, and that everyone in the building knew this. Books are how, traditionally, universities are built: John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University but a clergyman who, two years after its founding, bequeathed it his library. I used to joke that the most boring book in our collection was the volume called the "Prince Takamado Trophy All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest," but if I hear it isn’t still on a shelf somewhere in Mass Hall 20 years from now, I won’t be the only one who’s disappointed.

Eric Weinberger
Author's email:

Eric Weinberger has reviewed books in the The Boston Globe, where this essay first appeared, since 2000, and taught writing at Harvard for 10 years.

The Joy of Stacks

Smart Title: 
While some universities boast about bookless libraries, Chicago prepares to spend $42 million in defense of browsing and scholarly serendipity.

New Dawn or the Perfect Storm?

Smart Title: 
At Educause meeting, James Hilton catalogs the threats and opportunities that technology presents for higher education.

Google's Not-So-Simple Side

Smart Title: 

Google’s quest to “organize the world’s information” is supposed to make life easier.  But the issues surrounding the company’s book search program have complicated many academics' views of copyright, because they involve many nuances surrounding security, infrastructure and compensation.

Stem Cells Meet Google

Smart Title: 
U. of Michigan president says critics of book search program and opponents of stem cell research impede the social good.

Salary Pecking Order

Smart Title: 
Ever wonder how many reference librarians it would take to earn the pay of a football coach?

Law Deans Criticize Their Accreditor

Smart Title: 
Group seeks to force ABA to change standard requiring tenure or similar protection for clinical professors and librarians.

Prom Party Crashes Law Study

Smart Title: 
Dean of Baylor Law School apologizes for letting son hold catered dinner at its library during exam period.


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