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Scholarly Code for "I Disagree"

Last Friday the library was unusually empty and quiet, and yet somehow I stayed busy answering more questions than I’d answered per hour in days… don’t know quite how that happened, exactly. But amidst this flurry of activity, I worked with a student who was stuck. She’d handed in a draft and been told she need more “opposing evidence” in her paper.

Undergraduates often wish our search tools were good at two things that are impossible: search for articles that explore a topic through a given theoretical framework, and find things that disagree with a given viewpoint. And yet, these tasks are fundamental to the work of negotiating their own position in the scholarly conversation on a topic.

Well, this student and I had a very interesting half-hour together. Even now, I don’t have a clue what she was writing about. It was all sciency and stuff and I am decidedly not of a scientific bent. So it was interesting to both of us to watch how we negotiated our discussion and navigation through sources and result lists. But what really interested me was our discussion about how to find opposing evidence.

We tried direct searching for the topic in general, to get a sense of how much conversation there is and to see if a few opposing views would jump out at us. They didn’t. So I asked if she had any good articles already and whether these had literature reviews, and this is where we really made progress. After I explained what a literature review was and the purpose it serves in a paper (painting a picture of the topic and positioning the author at some point within that picture), she acknowledged that there had been literature review sections, but that her authors had never said they disagreed with anyone.

“But did they say something like, ‘He says x and she says y but I say z‘ anywhere?” I asked.

Yes, they had.

And that’s when I realized that she didn’t understand the scholarly code for “I disagree.” As I explained that scholars often know each other, and that even if they don’t, they have to build reputations and position themselves positively within their fields, and that they therefore cast disagreement in terms of creating alternate positions based on similar evidence, the girl’s eyes got big and her mouth fell open. When I finished with, “So you see, ‘He says x and she says y but I say z‘ is code for ‘I disagree with those other people,'” the student couldn’t contain herself any longer. “This is HUGE!!” She gasped.

And suddenly a whole world of opposing evidence opened up for her, right in the literature reviews of the articles she’d already found. She was ecstatic.

5 thoughts on “Scholarly Code for "I Disagree"

  1. Nothing like a good ole fashioned straw man to say “I really hate your research.” :)

    Joke. It is a joke. (Ducks away from the environmental science profs.)

  2. Oh, those light-bulb moments are definitely the best. Just a trickle of them here and there is enough to keep me questing for more of them. Too bad I so often flounder in between these mountain top experiences. *sigh*

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