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 . . .
With the availablity of information on the web, it’s almost as if there is too much to gather and it just can carry you further and further away from your original idea. I’ve tended to start the search for resource material via the web, with the full intention of looking for BOOKS to then seek out at the library. But I drift onto so much else, that I end up with a bookmarked list to go back to. For one recent paper (for you) one of the most informative centralized sources was a hypertext essay and analysis, and that just boggled the mind when trying to follow a thread of thought that just opened into more and more issues (fascinating-yes; frustrating-yes as well). I’d almost prefer depending upon a stack of books that are more easily bookmarked with slips of paper to find the right passages, and physically comparable side by side while I’m working (although I did prints out scads from the websites). And too, whether the source is accredited becomes a question, and trying to find exactly who wrote what part of what is another problem. It’s really a rather twisted labyrinth rather than a solid climbable stack of books.
An interesting response, Susan. Follow some of my continuations about the issue, because things are coming together, especially a few graphics.
In your opinion did your research skills come in handy?
Difficult to say. My frustration may have been affected by my own manner of developing ideas, i.e., not following a chain of links but rather discovering new paths that start off at a slight degree of difference but widen to greater distance from each other as they progress. As an example, in attempting to propose a theory of Blood Meridian as an exposition of the truth of a history of the people and events at and around the time and place of the Mexican American war, I tried to focus on factual events of the war, writings at the time and since, and comparable fiction at the time McCarthy wrote the book. In reseaching, I felt overwhelmed by what was available on the internet–so much more than the five or six books that I physically used–and the hypertext version I mentioned seemed the epitomy of the shotgun effect that I encountered. Additional information tended to cloud the vision–new ideas entered, such as the actual account of Chamberlain’s adventure upon which Blood Meridian is based, religious and cultural differences of the three societies involved, and the future projected onto the present of the outcomes. One must take additional time to follow the scattered pellets and see that what one “hit” was still a part of what was being hunted.
I think it goes back to a certain desire to ‘get a handle’ on the data when composing a work. In the old(er) days, when we had pored over the books and magazines we could find (usually supplemented by Ye Olde Brittanica), we felt a sense of mastery over the data.
Today, your Yahoo search can come up with 600,000 references! You can sift through the muck for relevant nuggets for a year, and still not reach the end. Have you gotten all the same information you would have before? Probably (and most likely more and higher quality). But with that yawning chasm of infinite knowledge in front of us, the pittance we hold in our hands seems incomplete.
Papers I’ve read from today have one important quality lacking compared to those written 10 years ago. The confidence is gone.
“Papers I’ve read from today have one important quality lacking compared to those written 10 years ago. The confidence is gone.”
Jason, I think you’re right. As the deadline looms, you must draw the line somewhere and get started writing the paper. Yet knowing that the trail continues, you feel you have only scratched the surface, left something important out, must go with what you have so far and thus feel it is not complete nor thoroughly researched to its end.