Saturday, December 20th, 2003
This is one of those “when I was in college posts.” During my first two years in college database organization and storage of catalogued information was just being introduced into the library at the University of Texas at El Paso, a beautiful, spacious, and massive structure built in Bhutanese style architecture.
As a writing teacher now I’ve been able to follow how information storage and dissemination has changed and has changed teaching. Researching Darwin in school I had four basic choices: periodicals (primary and secondary), newspapers, books, and interviews with experts (primary source research). I don’t remember having a hard time with this, but I do remember doing the prepwork, the “gathering,” reading the books, studying the books, obsessing over the focus or thesis, writing notes on note cards and hammering out the paper on a typewriter. It was a big deal. It never stopped being a big deal.
Even in graduate school, we were basically surrounded by the book stacks and humanities journals.
At Tunxis we’re beginning to consider how much effective “research” a student can reasonably be expected to do in first year writing and composition courses given the extent and kind of sources in existence in print and in digital. How will considerations and decisions made about this effect curricula later on? The MLA’s list of works cited notations is fairly extensive and, in a way, that’s the problem. (Often the problem is hard to explain, too). There’s the book, the web page, the scholarly project, CD-ROM, DVD, the online digital video versions of PBS’s Nova, the weblog, and so forth. Fine by me, really.
The question isn’t always that there is so much. It’s what does it mean for teachers and students. When I was in school I ran to the library or scrounged inside Johnson’s office, looking through his books. It wasn’t easy. It felt manageable. People doing research would say, “I’m off to the library for some books.” Moreover, there was physical continuity in the process as research was taught. What does this continuity mean? For the student it may be a question of conventions and artifacts: “what are those numbers on the EBSCO search result?” The way a database represents volume, number, and source differs presentation to presentation, context to context.
And this is just the physical apparatus . . .