How Should Students do Research Then?

Friday, May 13th, 2011

On certain rounds this morning, I followed a ProfHacker post to The Full Wiki, a site that tells people:

Students, we find sources for your essay,
so you don’t have to.

Additional explanation goes:

We find similar sentences to those in Wikipedia, complete with their citations for you to paste into your essay. It’s the easy way to branch off to find authoritative sources and relevant quotes to deepen your research.

I don’t know what these mean. “We find sources” and “We find similar sentences” is confusing. Why not “We find similar paragraphs or phrases”?

I did some digging on the site and quickly found myself trapped by its method of using links, going from directories (search results) to domain switches, such as quiz. . . and then being harassed by popups. The site aims to parse Wikipedia articles by source. Again, I have a hard time understanding what this means, as it would seem to over-complicate the process of research and make the structure of Wikipedia content ambiguous. To be fair, I watched a video explanation of the site and it was useful in understanding the functionality and intent of The Full Wiki. But this only served to make the front page information somewhat misleading.

I followed through to the Narcolepsy example. I moved the mouse over the second sentence highlight and a list of “citable” links to articles appeared. I clicked on the first listing and encountered this message at the destination: “We are sorry but the article you are looking for cannot be found.” The second link took me to a definition of rabies. In addition, I placed the current Narcolepsy article at Wikipedia against that produced by The Full Wiki and the side by side didn’t match.

The Full Wiki is still in beta so perhaps some of this “intelligent” sourcing will be fixed.

Such a service illustrates something about teaching and doing research in an academic context. I think Wikipedia is a tremendous resource. Articles at Wikipedia point to good references and provide general interest information. The problem with Wikipedia for student researchers is that Wikipedia articles are not intended to play the role of a source, as Wikipedia articles are meant to be altered, edited, and continually reviewed, hence citing an article will likely lead to holes, as citations in research are meant to be traceable and show how ideas are augmented, supported, or related. They are also supposed to show the “legacy” of ideas, providing authoritative grounding to the writer.

Research methods courses teach students about the publishing ecosystem. This is not an easy thing to do. I have a terrible time introducing methods to students in composition courses as the expectations of these courses exceed student training, a problem I don’t understand as most students come to college with high school degrees. These degrees, however, are structurally inadequate. By structural I mean that high school content no longer prepares students for college. This would imply that high school pedagogical frameworks find college expectations out of reach.

Then again, the methods of a composition course aren’t rocket science. Student ability to learn how to search a research database makes interesting and appropriate content reasonably available. What to do with content is the hard part and forms the core pedagogy of writing courses.


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