Tuesday, July 6, 2010

the experiment

Summer session's winding down. I'm going blind reading the term papers. My eyes just can't sit there for hours at a time any more. But these papers are different.

I offered the class the opportunity to try an experiment, for those who were willing. Do their research paper the old fashioned way: Use the library, bookstores, whatever — but print media only. Journal articles made out of real paper. And read them. All the way through. A few took up the challenge. Cheerfully, I might add. It is summer, after all. Oh. And I offered them an extra 10 points, no matter what the result.

The curious thing is how few were willing to try it. I think even for ten extra points it just wasn't worth their effort or time to set foot in the library. Besides, access to the catalog, is, after all online. And you can access it from home. We made an exception in this regard. It's gotten to the point where it's not possible, even in the library, to not go online. And that transition, I think, happened years ago, when I wasn't paying attention.

Here are some of the student observations:

— Relying on the library was very time consuming and stressful.

— It was difficult to pinpoint the specific details without having to read word for word.

— On the internet I can just use key words and obtain instant information.

— I spent several hours skimming through the many works.

But here's the thing. The experiment was clearly flawed. In reading the papers, it still sounded like a lot of the 'information' was download. Only, instead of now quoting sources, the sources were left out entirely. Introductions had 'information' wreaking of Wikipedia notations, platitudes, and biographical backgrounds that journal articles and even introductions to monographs just don't include.

Oops, how could I have forgotten? A similar experiment in another class rewarded me with the following:

— Is it okay if we use comic books and graphic novels?

— I don't really read. It's not required for my major.

— I just open the book and grab a quote and stick it in somewhere, cause they always want quotes.

— This is a joke, right?

One of my own preferred ecstatic states is sitting on the floor of the Bancroft Library stacks — discovering things I hadn't dreamed of looking for. Or finding journals I'd searched three continents for. And there they were at my fingertips. The Revue Africaine, from 1832 – 1943, right there at the Bancroft, when I'd searched Paris, Aix-en-Provence (known for its fantastic archives), and the libraries in Rabat. Those old journals, gone, all gone! And how did I find them? They were on the shelf below the shelf I was looking for. Right here at home, I quite literally stumbled onto treasures.

I mean, what could be better than stumbling on treasure?

Key words?

Sure, I'll give them their extra 10 points anyway. And I learned from the experience. (Again) I realize now that it's really too late to try to turn back the clock this way. A majority of students see 'research' as the accumulation of 'information' (relevant or not), and the analytical component is (for the most part) reduced to just that accumulation of info-statements (relevant or not).

But there are some, some who are somewhat (maybe) like me, who were not only willing to try, but who took real pleasure in it. And whose writing blossomed (god, I really just used that word!) with complexity, such that there are no one-liners to quote — only flowing prose, filled with both analysis and self-discovery. I mean, how cool is that?

No more experiments, however. Surely, I've had enough? I think I've learned my lesson. At least until the next time I forget that I've already lost this battle — at least a couple times already. Maybe more.

But wait, wait — I just read another one. From another experiment that I've been trying over the last year or so.

Work together (what a concept). But write the paper as a conversation about the material, working out the analysis together, bringing each perspective to the conversation. And well, this one really worked. It's not an "I'll write this section, and you write that section" — but a let's-think-together. Out loud. And oh, this one was a delight, just a delight to read.

It was on Dawkins, of course. No platitudes. Some attitude. And getting the biology right.

See me flap my wings and soar...
Oh, and my eyes don't feel so bad anymore.

1 comment:

  1. I recently got on my high horse about the library at my grad school being so crappy that it actually used the Dewey Decimal System. I don't know how long I'd been going on about that before my lunch date finally asked what the alternatives were and why Dewey Decimal is bad. She then got an earful about how a half decent university collection overwhelms DD to the point that everythign you look for is the same three digits point two digits and then half the alphabet just to get a unique number and nobody can shelve more than a handful of books that way before going insane, so nothing is actually ever where it belongs. There was one entire building that housed a range of maybe two or three, and it worked so poorly that they might as well have been shelving thigs by height and color. Eventually I calmed down enough to give an overview of the Library of Congress system, finally reaching my real point: that it was a delicious pleasure beyond all expectation when I realized that LoC means all you have to do is hunt down one resource and then be open to surprise, because within a shelf or two of what you thought you wanted will be dozens of things you didn't know until that moment you desperately needed. I used to spend hours wallowing in treasures that surprised me on my way to something else. I never wrote the papers I planned to write, because I kept discovering by accident things I could never have thought to look for.

    One of my favorite music history research strategies for establishing context was to hit the periodical stacks for the year of the composition and just look at all the covers of magazines like Newsweek or similar. Nothing quite like a high-speed tour of weekly cover stories to place myself in a zeitgeist.

    How could anyone not love a good library? I miss them.