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What Should WAW Courses Teach about Source Search?

posted: 7.21.11 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

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This week I’m presenting early findings on observations of college students searching for sources. What it looks like so far is that students use considerable technological fluency to assimilate—impressionistically, and at high speed—disparate sources in order to assemble a cohesive storyline on their subject. Students research with a motion and immediacy that I’ve taken to calling fast transfer: a fluid, constant retrieval and skimming of texts and assimilation of material (via copy/paste and download) into their emerging narrative.

A number of attitudes and habits contribute to this activity, and it’s these habits of mind and practice that might prove fruitful to WAW instructors teaching about source search.

First, students who came of age during the past decade tend to operate computers with a “get-it-now” sense of acquisition, characterized by music downloading and online video services like iTunes and Hulu. When the computer is working properly, anything that can be found can be had immediately: see it → want it → get it → got it. For research, this implies that only immediately available full-text sources will be favored.

Second, the students I observed (mostly twenty-somethings using their own notebook computers) kept their screens in nearly constant motion: scrolling up and down a page, working through links, hopping across numerous browser tabs, and flipping through multiple open programs and folders. There was a restlessness to most of the activity I observed. (Gaming culture, anyone?) Keeping screens so active demands skim reading and relatively quick decision making, where texts are rapidly assessed and discarded or downloaded for more careful perusal later. Big implications there for research.

Third, these students demonstrated very little brand loyalty. They used whatever search engine their browser defaulted to, and frequently didn’t know the names of the databases they were using. (Two exceptions: JSTOR and Wikipedia.) How they found the texts mattered less to them than that they found them. (Yet, of course, the two are more than coincidentally related.) Lack of brand loyalty extends to kinds of sources—most students made little distinction among blogs, commentaries, scholarly articles, PR Web sites, or news articles. From the students’ point of view, all are literate contributions to the conversation, and what was said usually mattered more than why it was said. (And shorter was better.)

So where does all that leave us? Some suggestions:

  • Teach rhetorical reading. We want students to learn to be bothered by an incomplete understanding of who’s talking, why, and in what circumstances.
  • Teach the news-style skim reading that scholars do. There are good and bad ways to skim, and the better ways are supported by most scholarly article layouts.
  • Teach genres and text types. Students don’t already know what a scholarly journal is—where it comes from, why it exists, and why it’s not just a blog instead.
  • Teach patience. Much of students’ use of only full-text sources is born of a deep cultural sense that on computers, waiting is failing. Teaching why this isn’t true of research amounts to cultural retraining.

These are the kinds of knowledge that writing-about-writing was made to teach: the inner workings of why students experience various aspects of writing as they do, and what they can do to experience them differently.

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4 Responses to “What Should WAW Courses Teach about Source Search?”

  1. Mike Michaud (Rhode Island College) Says:

    Doug…it would be fascinating to turn on a screen-capture tool when the students are searching, and then collect several of these, and then analyze them as data sources. Did you do somethign like this or did you just watch over their shoulders?

  2. Linda Aragoni Says:

    When it comes to teaching genres and text types, you may have to start with the difference between a website and a blog. Many teachers don’t know, so they’ll have a huge problem teaching students.

  3. Moriah McCracken Says:

    It was great to hear this research in person, and I am still thinking about adapting the smart auto-ethnography assignment from the WAW textbook into a research auto-ethnography. Using Mike’s idea above, giving students the option to turn on and record a research session (with screen capture or video cameras). I’m wondering what they will identify as gaps and fissures in their fast transfer into which we might insert alternative practices and approaches.

  4. T J Geiger, Syracuse Univ. Says:

    These are interesting findings and compelling suggestions, Doug. I also think Mike’s research suggestion and Moriah’s assignment idea sounds like they could result in great information and writing. The more and more I read about student source hunting and source use, the more your comment about the decontextualized nature of source selection (it matters not who was writing or where or how or in what genre, but rather that the source was findable) is a fact that is going to have significantly shape how we teach research. I’m also thinking here of some of the findings from Howard and Jameison’s Citation Project research about student source use, which seem to suggest some of the textual practices that follow from the kind of searching you observed. I know it’ll be a while before the subjects of this NPR story from winter a year ago will be in the first-year writing course. However, I thought it would be provocative to think about your post alongside this story about the interest research practices of children, the difficulties they have, the assumptions they make about research (one source–usually the first–is as good as any), and the importance or lack of importance they ascribe to topics based on their initial results: