June 5, 2007

The Blessed (?) Shifting Baseline of Academic Research

Jennifer L. Jacquet of Shifting Baselines has a wonderfully ironically wistfully disgusted post WICKEDpedia, Forgotten Libraries, and the Blessed (?) Shifting Baseline of Academic Research relating some of her sister's experiences returing to academia a bit later in life and encountering the differences between her intial research experiences years ago, in her sister's "Letter to a Young Scientist":

When I was your age, if I needed to research, I had to walk uphill, through the snow, to three different libraries. I had to access different databases for medical, science, and engineering journals, using DOS and an ASCII interface. I had to print out the list of search results on a dot-matrix printer, and then I had to go dig through the stacks to find the bound books containing those articles. I had to schlep those dozens of heavy books back to a table in the library and then skim through the articles to see if they were really relevant or not. If they were, I had to copy each article, a page at a time, on a coin-operated copying machine. Many times I had to choose between copying an important article or doing laundry that week, because I didn't have enough quarters to do both! And then I had to actually read the article, and if there was something worth quoting, I had to type it into the computer. There wasn't any of this fancy "copy and paste" stuff!

Yes sir, the bad old days were pretty gruesome. Doing library research was a hard slog but there were just not alternatives. And this is from someone who's only 33, so her undergrad experiences aren't that long ago.

And now, to her musings on current research practices, working with a 19 year old lab partner:
Life is a heck of a lot easier now that everything is on the internet, hyperlinked and cross-referenced. But it also allows people to throw together a bunch of crap without really reading anything. Blame Wikipedia for the babble on the first slide. My lab partner threw that in there, for reasons I suspect are due to the basic laziness that is the default "research" method for today's college cohort, i.e., when faced with a research project of any kind, first go to Wikipedia and copy and paste the first three paragraphs written on the subject. As long as you cite the website, you don't have to think about what it actually says. I think the first time he actually read those definitions was when he was presenting the slide in front of the class. He stumbled on "resource rent" and seemed to realize at that moment that he had no idea what it meant. He seemed very relieved when he was able to move on to the next slide without anyone asking him to explain it.

Ay caramba! Pretty gruesome too if you ask me. From one extreme to another, I'm not sure which story actually had the most real learning involved. Actually, I am sure.

Anyway, this is what I left as a comment to the post:
I may be biased, being a science librarian and all, but if profs want their students to use peer reviewed journal literature there's no substitute for getting some sessions set up with a librarian in a computer lab to show students how to use PubMed or whatever to find high-quality online articles, both open access and ones that are paid for by the library's subscriptions.

I think the key is for profs to require the use of at least some real articles and reward students in the marking of the papers. Wikipedia is great, I use it every day, but in an overwhelming information environment, we shouldn't expect students to know how to find the right mix of the best stuff in the easiest way without actually showing them.

If profs want their students to have good research habits, they must reward good behaviour and punish bad behaviour. And by good research habits, I mean being able to use a wide variety of sources (including books, journals, Wikipedia and appropriate other web resources), understand the roles each kind of document can play in the process and integrate them all into a coherant whole. And libraries and librarians can be the source of much of that learning.

I guess the challenge is convincing profs that something should be done, something can be done and that we are the right partners in that endeavour.


Anonymous said...

In some focus groups with undergrads and other campus offices who serve them, we heard several times "If you want students to hear something, get the faculty to tell them." It is a challenge to convince professors. One way I've found is to *get in their faces*. I find out if they have a lunch area in the department and bring a sandwich and a laptop. I try to attend departmental talks that are open to the community. I email them about new stuff, with examples that will speak to them. I learn as much as I can about their research, so they know I can help them. And *still* there are some who are surprised when I can show them something new.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks, Maxine, you make some really good points, I myself use some of your strategies and will definitely learn from your experiences. When I do an IL session I always prefer if the prof introduces me and explains a little how s/he thinks my presentation will help students with their school work.

I'm also always a bit surprised/happy when after I do the presentation the prof invariably tells me, "Hey, that was cool, there were a couple of things I didn't know yet either." But it is a long, hard slog to build the credibility with the faculty to the point where they'll let you into their classroom. Oddly, I find it can be easier with younger faculty.