Friday, April 16, 2010

Lockett’s first law of internet-based research


My tendency for the last few years has been to take a hard line on students doing research for their papers on the internet. In fact, for first- and second-year courses, the rule very simply is: DON'T. If in your works cited I see a web address, the paper will receive an automatic fail.

Obviously I will make exceptions in certain classes, and I relax this rule entirely for fourth-year seminars and graduate courses, but for the most part I have become a tyrant about this sort of thing. I have a number of reasons for this.

  1. I belong to that endearingly obsolete group of people who believe that going into the actual library is an invaluable learning experience, and that doing research from books fires important parts of the brain that otherwise atrophy when a simple word search finds students the convenient line or phrase they can quote. Call it a character-building exercise if you like, but knowledge is contextual, and working through the stuff that surrounds the conveniently quotable line or phrase—even if you're just skimming—expands your understanding of the subject. More often than not, it also leads to the discovery of material even more relevant or valuable than what you'd been specifically searching for.
  2. Many students will grasp what qualifies as an authoritative source; many will not. As a case in point: the very first time I TA'd a course, on the very first essay, a student cited two online essays he had found. Now, the student in question wrote a solid paper, a B that with a few tweaks could have been a B+ or even an A. The essays he cited were also first-year English compositions (posted to the web by their professor for reasons passing understanding), neither of which I would have given a grade above a C. So in this instance I had a student quoting as authorities essays by students dumber than him.
  3. The likelihood of students citing poor sources increases in direct proportion to their haste and/or laziness. As a case in point: a friend of mine, when teaching a course on Holocaust literature, received a final essay that quoted from Stormfront.org and HammerOfThor.net—white supremacist websites with pages dedicated to Holocaust denial. My friend said that it was obvious from the way the student quoted these sites, he was not himself a Neo-Nazi—he just didn't actually bother to read what he was quoting, or really to pay attention to the proudly displayed images of fascist symbology. The entire paper read, my friend continued, as a totally night-before rush job.
  4. The most commonly-used web resource—Wikipedia—is the antithesis of scholarly authority. One day if I find myself teaching a basic composition course, I will give my students an object lesson in why this is the case. I will assign a crash assignment, to be completed and submitted within forty-eight hours. I will make up a bogus topic—say, the Albanian Wheat Riots of 1875—and instruct them that I want five hundred words detailing the key issues involved. I will then walk from class to my office and write a lengthy and detailed entry on Wikipedia about the Albanian Wheat Riots of 1875, and see just how many of my students quote my fictional history back to me.

All that being said, it's really reason #1 that most drives this Luddite impulse—I do firmly believe that discovering the library and wading through the stacks is one of the most valuable learning experiences for students in the liberal arts ... and the more thorough a familiarity they have with traditional research, the better equipped they are to distinguish between genuinely useful web resources and, oh, I dunno ... someone's blog rants, for example.

Which is not to suggest that I bear absolute antipathy to resources like Wikipedia—on the contrary, it is a fabulously useful starting point when approaching a topic you have absolutely no familiarity with, or a tool to use to remind yourself of pesky details that have slipped your memory. Plus, the theory behind open-source software is really cool, and actually realizes some of the democratic potential touted back when the Web was in its infancy (oh, days of innocence).

Then there are the times Wikipedia is utterly reliable. This occurred to me when I did my zombie post a few days ago—in looking up all the zombie films made in the last eighty years, I had no qualms about Wikipedia's numbers. Why? Because this was a topic I was quite confident would have been combed over my many eyes. Why? Because of the very popularity of zombie films, and the quasi-obsessiveness of their many fans. The geek mindset, en masse, will ultimately arrive at a thoroughly and exhaustively vetted catalogue.

This realisation led me to formulate what will hopefully become a series of laws regarding internet-based research. Lockett's First Law of Internet-Based Research is thus as follows:

THE RELIABILITY OF A GIVEN WIKIPEDIA ENTRY IS IN DIRECT PROPORTION TO THE GEEKINESS OF THE TOPIC'S MOST PROMINENT AUDIENCE.

By way of explanation: we've probably all come across those oddly lengthy and exhaustive Wikipedia entries on random topics like, say, the Southern Spotted Corn Snake. And you just know that that entry was probably written by a biology grad student whose entire research corpus has been on the Southern Spotted Corn Snake. Which, ironically, makes it authoritative from a scholarly perspective, but not an open-source perspective—lacking, as it does, dozens of other people to comb through it and fix whatever points, minor or major, the author got wrong.

Conversely, when approaching a topic with a huge and obsessive number of interested people—Star Trek, let's say—we can be pretty close to absolutely certain that every item entered on the variety of wiki-pages dedicated to it will have been subjected to the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of hairy eyeballs, who will correct (probably in high dudgeon) the spelling of Deforest Kelly to DeForest Kelley and point out that Sulu fenced with an epée and not a foil (that may be incorrect).

This does, however, lead us to the corollary rule that the more reliable a Wikipedia entry, the greater the likelihood of that topic's essential triviality. Ah, well ...

8 comments:

Question Mark said...

I wrote a big blog post/review/analysis of Inglourious Basterds last summer and have since received a few e-mails from people asking permission to cite it in an essay. On the one hand, it's flattering. On the other hand, it's like, "Man, why bother with me? See what Manohla Dargis or Roger Ebert had to say."

Fred said...

I commend you for reading students' papers. For an History Seminar, we were given three student papers, and a rubric with which to grade them. After reading the three papers, only one proved worthy of Strunk and White. The other two I wanted to toss down the stairwell. Grades would be assigned depending on far to the basement the two papers landed.

This is why I do not teach. I haven't the patience to read through so much student tripe to assign a mark. (My hat off to you for making a career of it).

Now, I must admit I certainly do use the computer for resources. Most journals have now migrated to an e-format, and university libraries, in an effort to cut costs, have embraced the online-book. I am just waiting for the university bookstore to get with it and sell all their textbooks in an e-format (Kindle or Sony or iPad). Don't get me wrong, I still love the feel and weight of a hardback novel, but a textbook is another story.

Getting back to your point about libraries. The library is a wonderful place to just discover, whatever. Just browsing book spines often leads to unknown topics, research intersts, and just treasures. But the thing about doing research in a library on an essay is, to do it well requires years. Most students are harried from lack of sleep, too much sex, and just plain laziness or alcohol. The idea they would even spend a month and an half on a topic, let alone three weeks, is mind-boggling on the part of any professor. Student's operate under the delusion stress is a motivator, and self-induced stress is what being a good student is all about. It's the ethos of student life.

Professors should break the essay down into manageable bytes (sorry), and have these timetabled. For instance, topic heading, and bibliography with a short paragraph for each bibliographed book in the first month. Introductory opening paragraph with outline of argument and updated bibliography in the second month. Rough draft of the body of the essay in the third month. Finalize the essay by reviewing the professor's comments in the last two weeks. If a student doesn't address the comments, their mark does not increase. I hate to admit it, but few students are self-motivators--I know whereof I speak. Oh, and, try teaching them where the Spelling and Grammar is in the pull down menu of Word. The computer does it for them, and their still too lazy (my two papers that went down the stairwell).

I certainly believe computer have a place in research, but students should learn how to assess the material available, cite the material (ugh, this is just a pain from what I've seen), and be able to critically engage with the material (the parrot is dead, dead as a doornail). And students should learn how to write, simple sentences, paragraphs, connectors between paragraphs, topic sentences, outlines and on and on.

But have no fear, students in the past were as big dolts as today. I loved the student who wrote in his English paper that "The penis can be taken as a phallic symbol." Now, no internet research can give you that!!

Bojan said...

As a library aficionado (MUN library is fantastic. There is a treasure trove in the basement archives that most people have no idea about.), I totally understand where you're coming from, but a complete ban on web sources may be a bit too harsh. I wonder if there is a way to limit the number and kind of web sources your students can use. I am not sure how you could possibly knock some sense into your students' heads so that they can distinguish between a valuable source and rubbish, but at some point they do have to learn that.

I know it's a struggle.

Question Mark, you probably touched on something important in your reply. Why would we cite only Dargis and Ebert? What makes you think that their insights are any better than yours? Diversity of opinion is a good think most of the time.

Ed Hollett said...

@Fred:

Casting my mind back through the mists of time, that is exactly how my first year history courses went. The major assignment was broken down into manageable chunks throughout the semester.

At the same time, in another course, great effort went into teaching students to write understandable English.

We were no brighter as students than the current crop and I don't expect that teachers are any more accepting of crap.

Still, we couldn't go to the card catalogue and type in chunks of words from the assignment and get hits back that seem to fit. I see those sorts of searches all the time in the keyword analysis for my little bit of cyberspace. I shudder to think what that sort of fishing expedition nets.

Chris in NF said...

@Mark: Why wouldn't someone want to quote one of your reviews? They're invariably smart, thorough, and insightful. The problem is, I don't necessarily trust students to read widely enough to distinguish between good writing like yours and the Beavises and Buttheads out there. Good on the ones who recognized quality when they saw it.


@Fred: Yes, grading is the single worst aspect of this gig -- sort of the penance you have to do for such perks as academic freedom, flexible schedules, and the complete and utter lack of anything resembling a dress code.

The cleverer students in my classes realize fairly quickly that e-journal databases provide bibliographical data identical to if they had hunted down the hard copy. I have no problems with that. Good on them.

I like your strategy for breaking down essay writing to its constituent components, and I have at times tried similar things. It gets difficult however when dealing with class sizes in the 46-50 range (the caps on first and second year courses in my department); the volume of work at that point becomes prohibitive.


@Bojan: I agree the measure seems draconian, but I really only enforce it in first and second year classes (and sometimes I don't, if the course material is contemporary enough to demand the web as resource). It's not, however, as if my students are pulling down massive research from the stacks to begin with -- it's a bit of a struggle to get them to do research at all.

@Ed: It is a paradox, isn't it? nearly infinite information available at a keystroke, and so frequently it ends up rendering inane, incorrect or simply reductive research.

Shaun Coady said...

Indeed the library can prove a most mystical and magical sanctuary of knowledge. I find it a most peaceful and serene place to not only get away from the real world, but lose my own self in the thoughts of countless brilliant academics and authors. There is a humanity to it, a sense of feeling the individual narrating their work as you are reading/analyzing it. Like a old friend over your shoulder reminding you of the reasons you came to university in the first place, the library stands stoic, immortal, a beacon to those of us who wish to comb its corridors in search of truth.
(on a personal note, the MUN library has a most excellent film studies section, and even larger selection of literary analysis than St. FX).

When it comes to internet sources, I find them to be useful, but cold, I can't sense that narration amidst the blinking lights, music coming from nowhere, pop up ads and the forum posts. But they can come in handy when your subject material is short in supply (such as a paper revolving around Dungeons and Dragons and the cult scare of the 1980's).

The thing I find to remember is that students graduating high school now are more and more technological in nature and thought, thus it becomes instinct that they check out Wikipedia for their sources and links to more academic citations. Fair enough, we don't have to throw the internet to the dogs, but we should have a trainer to show them the difference between a solid bone and a ratty sock, so to speak. All students could use the benefit of a three day course on the effective use of the internet for finding sources, and I know some places offer it, but we should make it something everyone has the advantage of taking (By advantage, I mean mandatory).

I myself am hoping for a teaching position in the near future for the joy of reading students papers, even the headaches that may come with it, because I am sure that you have all come across a paper that made you rethink something about a particular topic, or inspired you to delve a little further into, after all, that is the whole point of academics, to reach a new level of understanding that expresses to the people you account of what something represents, and hopefully it will do two things:

1. Help people understand your position on a particular topic

2. Inspire or at least set alight their own curiosity on the subject and guide them down the path to discover their own interpretation of the subject.

We seem to all hold the library in high regard, and with good reason, it is a world unto itself, like the Vatican, and in it we are endeared to the mysteries of the ages, and the truths and musings of those before us who also sought the very thing we treasure above all else; understanding. The internet will never replace it in my opinion, but it can be its right hand when students understand the nuances of navigating it in their quests.

I agree with Chris on leaving the net out of first and some second year courses, these new students coming into the university setting should be shown the awesome might that is the library, instead of clicking a link, chatting on MSN and playing WoW while finishing their term paper. But then again, I am a little old fashioned myself.

Fred said...

It seems most people posting here have a reverence for the library. I imagine in the ancient world the library was revered. But it wasn't our library. Any semblance of well ordered catalogues, with books lined on shelves, their spines presented for identification, never existed back then. Libraries are marvels of technology of their time, and that's the key phrase, "of their time." The internet and search engines are now the new technology, and libraries will soon accomodate to such new technologies.

For students, who will merely spend a matter of 4 years at the university of their choice, the idea of the sanctity of the library of old is outmoded. For the professors and librarians who will spend a good portion of their lives at universities, the library is something precious. Students prefer easy accessible information, not books, or arguments. Think of the student's essay as more an op-ed piece in a newspaper--quickly written, legible and easily tossed away next day. Then think of the professor's essay as contexualized, written and re-written upteen times, and (hopefully) a major contribution to the field. So in short, student essays: disposable; professors': legacies.

To re-gig C. P. Snow: we are living in two cultures: the disposable and the enduring. Professors want to enculturate their students into the culture of the eternal (Shaun Cody called it "mystical and magical" and even likened it to the Vatican as a "world unto itself"). Students embrace the impermanent, and their entire experience at university emphasizes this ephemeral and the non-contextual (textbooks are one term deals, and what is often learnt under cramming situations is quickly lost). Professors have to bridge this gap, and explain somewhow to their students the value of legacy, context and permanence.

This is a hard task. It's difficult to explain to a student why reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness is worth it when seemingly most every critical essay focuses on the same quotations. Why not just decontextualize Heart of Darkness and explore the highpoints through quotations? What is missed is the intertextual quality of Conrad, the associations with Ford Maddox Ford and their understanding of literary impressionism. What is also missed is the historicism of the text, embedding it within the context of the Belgian Congo.

But if student's only see Conrad as reducible to quotations and factoids, the permanence of Conrad's writing vanishes. Both Conrad and the library are broken down into strings for search engines, into cut-and-past chunks that make putting a paper together less a matter of argument than one of logical connections based on semantic relations (find a keyword, locate semantic relations, then connect; repeat until complete).

And what does this process do to our understanding of knowledge? We are not just in a state of two cultures, but also of two knowledges. Is knowledge disposable? Should we challenege the legacy of knowledge? Can we rank knowledge based on accessibility (through keywords)? These are questions we should be asking, and which students are grappling with in their own naive way.

SOS said...

Definitely keep the ban on the internet sources. The quest for one book leads to a stack of similar books that are pretty exciting. Sometimes I even find myself gazing upon books about hydrostatics, and mechanics, and almost convince myself that I want to read them. If you were to look for a book on Paradise Lost, you could stumble upon book focused on Eve, the role of Satan, or one on Pandaemonium. The library is a giant vault of inspiration... and if the poor 'ol students can't find any suitable sources in the library, maybe they'll be forced to create their own ideas with no sources at all...

Original ideas? That's crazy-talk.