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It Never Hurts to Ask

Pretty soon I’ll be dashing off to teach a class of third-term freshmen. They’ll be creating a class magazine as their final project, and I’m joining them to help think about what kind of research is available, how to evaluate it, and how to use it effectively. I kind of thought that last bit was going to be the kicker since they’d be stepping out of the “regular term paper” format and writing for a magazine. So I thought I’d bring in a variety of magazines to show that while some don’t do things like citations or bibliographies, others do. Physics Today has articles that look like research papers. The Economist doesn’t. Both publications match their evidence to their audience and argument, but I wanted them to see examples of some publications doing just what these students will be doing.

Sounded like a nifty class and I was all excited about it. Then I read the questions the professor had asked each student to write for me on their Moodle forum. … Then I completely reorganized the entire class.

These students are completely befuddled by the task of evaluating the sources they find, they know their topics are too broad or too boring (and they know they don’t know how to fix that), and they don’t have any idea where to find the articles they’ve been told the library has available for them to find and read. And this even after completing a brief annotated bibliography on their topics. So I’m still bringing in a couple of examples, but that’s been relegated to a bit part tucked near the end of the class. Now I’ve got three main questions we’ll try to answer together.

  • Where the heck can I find stuff?!?
    This’ll be a quick overview of the kinds of things available, and an intro to one thing (probably ProQuest… but I’m still deciding based on the student’s questions). We’ll build concept clusters and work off of student questions. (It’ll take maybe half the time.)
  • But how do I know if it’s good?
    I’ll touch on using Ulrich’s to test the “articles” they find online, but the main thrust will be sussing out credibility and relevance. The most relevant article may not have any way of testing credibility, and the most credible article may not actually help you construct a good argument. I also want to make the point that if you think of what you’re reading as “evidence” rather than as “what important people said” you can more easily figure out what serves your argument.
  • Now, how do I used it well?
    Well now, this is what interests me, but I probably won’t have much time left… maybe 5 minutes out of the hour? The students say they’re unsure how to read articles and then come up with something that’s “uniquely my own” and I think this is where I can address that concern. If you’re using evidence in service of an argument, you’re less likely to simply mimic other people than if you use “things important people have said.” And if you use evidence in service of an argument, and keep your audience in mind, then you’ll be better able to figure out what evidence would convince them that your argument is sound. Do you need statistics? Do you need scholarly discussion? Do you need interviews? It’s hard to come up with answers to these in a vacuum. You need an audience and an argument.

I’ll be pondering how to make this last point gel a little bit over the next 45 minutes. I think there’s something there, but I don’t think I’ve come up with the right way to convey it so that it’s useful to these freshman rather than just interesting to me.

Also? Having students send in questions is GREAT. I need to ask for this more often.

2 thoughts on “It Never Hurts to Ask

  1. I second the helpfulness of students sending in questions. This past semester, an enterprising English Comp TA set up a Facebook group for her class and since I was assigned to instruct her class in the library, she added me to the group. We didn’t have time to do an evaluation at the end of the class, so she instructed the students to give me feedback (one question of which is always “what are you still confused about”) on the group’s discussion board. I had so much fun answering their questions and really getting some good feedback.

  2. Now that’s an interesting idea. I wonder how often TAs set up groups like that.

    I’ve done something similar in our Moodle forums (Moodle is the campus course management system), but only on rare occasions. I find it hard to remember to check Moodle for questions in addition to all the other places I check every day, not because it’s hard… just because it’s not yet a habit. Did you come up with a good way to remember to check the Facebook group? Or did you have it set to email you when new postings went up on the group?

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