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“This topic is impossible!”: Students, Research, and Technology (Part I)

Technology and its effects on the contemporary student mind (and perhaps more broadly, the intelligence of all human-kind) seems to be a divisive issue judging from The Atlantic‘s waffling attitudes toward this topic within the past year (see Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid” and Jamais Cascio‘s “Get Smarter.”) Living dual existences as both a teacher and a graduate student I’ve seen how beneficial various technologies and digital resources can be for facilitating, organizing, and expediting research; however, my enthusiasm for these resources as a student and writer is one rarely shared by many of my students.

My first substantive engagement with using digital resources for enhancing my research came during my senior year of college when working on my Senior thesis in history. Although he was not my direct faculty adviser on my thesis, Professor Zachary Schrag (now at George Mason University) spent a number of hours helping me learn how to use templates in FileMaker Pro that he had made for the purpose of note-taking in his own research. His templates, while tailor-made for his own research projects, proved hugely useful for me in my own work. In retrospect, many of the features of Professor Schrag’s FileMaker Pro templates pre-figured some of Zotero‘s features that enable one to export bibliographies and footnotes, take notes on various sources, and cull and organize different types of documents. I was, for the most part, able to research and write the paper almost entirely on the computer, switching back and forth between FileMaker Pro and Word as I outlined and wrote my thesis. In fact, I still have those FMP files, which came in handy recently as I had to re-consult some of my original source materials as I made final revisions on an article adapted from my Senior thesis that will be published in the Journal of Mormon History this fall.

Since I’ve returned to grad school, I’ve more recently become a devotee of Zotero after having experimented briefly with Scribe, both of which are products out of the excellent Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. As more and more websites begin to provide accessibility for the meta-data that Zotero culls (e.g. Google Books, Amazon.com, New York Times, JSTOR, various blogs, etc.), and now that Zotero has moved one’s library to The Cloud and made it accessible from anywhere, I find it an increasingly useful tool to use as a way to organize research materials as well as resources for use in my classroom.

In spite of my enthusiasm for Zotero and proselytizing on its behalf, the pleas I’ve made to my own students about the benefits of using these tools have fallen on deaf ears. Part of the hesistancy, I think, has to do with who owns the hardware that students use and how that limits their ability for customization. While many of my students own laptops, and while my school has wireless access throughout the entire campus, most students do not yet bring their computers from home for note-taking in class. I should also note that we’re not a 1:1 laptop school. Although I’ve noticed an increase in the number of student who bring their laptops to class and actually use them to take notes (the pitfalls created by laptops in a non-social media-based classroom is a topic for another post), we’re still not at a critical mass yet where I expect that all students will have their computers with them every day — but I think we’re close. Therefore, the only times I’m assured that all students have a computer in class is when we go to the computer lab. In those instances, students have to use an un-modified web browser (boo, Internet Explorer) or use Firefox without any add-ons. So, even when my pleas on Zotero’s behalf are most compelling and persuasive, I think many students are hesitant to adopt these tools in part because they couldn’t harness their functionality and power at school on shared machines.

The interesting thing is that I think my students and I actually have a great deal in common when it comes to how we want to do research. I know that I certainly eschew paper as much as possible in the course of research, preferring to have my articles, books, and notes from archival sources all compiled digitally on my computer, on various social bookmarking webpages, and on Zotero’s servers. Similarly, when I have my students embark on research projects, their first and most favored resources is the ostensibly omnipotent and omniscient Google, which they favor above any of the subscription services our library provides — many of which are quite good and powerful (e.g. JSTOR and ProQuest Historical New York Times.) However, my challenge as a teacher comes in trying to convey to my students the multiplicity of sources one needs to consult in order to conduct research in this manner (which, shockingly enough, involves actually reading a physical book from time to time), and the persistence and stamina one needs to have to thoroughly vet sources, read them critically, and take notes on them comprehensively.

However, and perhaps other teachers out there reading this have had similar experiences, once students begin doing “research” online, (mostly via Google) many become stymied very quickly at their perceived inability find anything substantive or valuable related to their topic. After one search term or phrase that shares a striking similarity to the question he or she is charged with answering, a student may become despondent upon discovering that the first result on Google doesn’t answer his or her question perfectly. Ironically, even though students are connected to an incredible repository of information that can provide them with an amazing variety of sources, many seem unwilling, or perhaps unknowledgeable about how to generate alternative, related searches, cull information from disparate sources, and generally plumb the depth of the Internet’s resources rather than simply skimming along its most immediately accessible surface.

Another, semi-related problem has to do with students not casting their research nets widely, and as a result, finding results that are all very similar to one another. In order to hopefully help students avoid this problem I spend a fair amount of time emphasizing the differences between primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, how to identify them, and how to use them in one’s research. The most common problem related to this issue has to do with the student whose research is built entirely around tertiary sources. One can spot these students easily: in lieu of Google as their first line of defense, they run behind the ramparts of Wikipedia and other similarly vague, encyclopedia entry-style resources. While these students often find a decent quantity of information related their their broad topic, when time comes to incorporate specific details, or construct a clear, nuanced argument, they are often left confused, believing that these over-generalized, quasi-objective summary articles are the alpha and omega of all scholarship that has been done on such esoteric, inaccessible topics as “Humanism’s role in the Renaissance” or “the economic factors that drove the Transatlantic slave trade.”

Then comes the issue of the printer…Ugh, the printer–wheezing endlessly all class period as students print out ream after ream of drivel, most of which never gets read. Moreover, this physical queue in front of the printer detracts from the students’ already paltry in-class time to do research, rendering each class period less effective. I understand the impulse to print as I’m a huge advocate of active reading, and think that in order for students to really grasp a text they must interact with it meaningfully–something that is quite easily done with a pen and paper. However, the allure of the printer (and the idea that one can always print out an article, see if its useful, and read it later) exacerbates this time- and resource-wasting habit in the classroom and discourages students from critically previewing the sources they might print to see how applicable those reading are before they’re emblazoned in toner only to be shunted off to the recycling bin.

Obviously, the major challenge with research stems from the fact that it can’t simply be impressed upon students in a didactic manner. One actually had to do research — sift through sources, synthesize disparate arguments, begin writing early and revising often — in order to learn how to be a good researcher. However, these skills are hard to convey when compartmentalized and not thoroughly integrated during the course of the entire school year–something I’m striving to avoid more and more each year as I gain additional experience working with my tabula rasa researchers.

So, now I face some new questions: can social media tools help encourage students to want to do research and make it seem less onerous? If so, which ones would best accomplish this goal? What thoughts do others of you out there have? Part II of this post will deal with what I’m dreaming up, but in the meantime, please offer whatever insights, ideas, or experiences you’ve had that have proven successful.

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