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Month: September 2012

On Discourse, Civility, and Vendors; or, JoVE and ACS and bullies

By sheer coincidence, one vendor demonstrated the fallacy of another vendor’s beliefs in the space of the last few days. I give you two vignettes:

The American Chemical Society dismissed Jenica’s report about SUNY Potsdam dropping their subscription to ACS by calling out blogs as unbalanced, discourteous things.

A spokesman for the American Chemical Society said that the group would not offer a response to Ms. Rogers’s blog post or the conversation that’s sprung up around it. “We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance, and common courtesy are not practiced and observed,” Glenn S. Ruskin, the group’s director of public affairs, said in an e-mail message. “As a matter of practice, ACS finds that direct engagement via telephone or face-to-face with individuals expressing concern over pricing or other related matters is the most productive means to finding common ground and resolution.” (from this morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education, with apologies for their paywall)

So public discussions on blogs and email lists lack civility, but private one-on-one communication is good for finding common ground. Got it.

Meanwhile, the JoVE sales force have taken that to heart and prefer to sell their product to individual faculty members rather than to librarians (actually a fairly typical practice), getting the faculty to request their product from the library. And apparently this one-on-one communication between individuals can also be unbalanced and discourteous. Here is the email one JoVE salesman sent to a faculty member who wasn’t really interested in the JoVE product in the first place.

—— Forwarded Message
From: Max Radbill <>
Date: Wed, 19 Sep 2012 10:18:24 -0700
Subject: Completion


I am writing not to ask if you ever evaluated JoVE, but to question your integrity. By asking me to set up a trial for what I am assuming you wanted only to use a protocol from JoVE and then be done with JoVE. This is the reason I am questioning your integrity. Before the trial you said,you would be able to evaluate JoVE in the time given and if useful for you and your student you would endorse JoVE highly. This, of course, never happened.

For me this is a completion of the transaction that has been lingering. My conclusion is that you lied to get what you want and you lack integrity.


Max Radbill
Account Manager
Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) <>
17 Sellers St., Cambridge, MA 02139
tel. 617.765.4362 (office) | tel. 774.254.3451 (mobile) |

You’ll want to read the full email string on that one, and JoVE’s apology is here.

I bet we’d have universally civil discourse if we took the humans out of the equation. Short of that, it seems that it’s possible to be a complete jerk in any format.

Work Cited:

Howard, J. (2012, September 26). “As Chemistry Journals’ Prices Rise, a Librarian Just Says No.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Washington, D.C.


MindMapping for Research

It’s the beginning of a new academic year, and this year’s thesis students are starting to come see me in panicked waves. The meetings are intense and exciting and full of possibility and fear and anticipation. Right now we’re mostly trying to come up with a Plan rather than specific sources. Given your interests and given the kinds of resources we each know of, what would be both stimulating and researchable here and now.*

Lately, I’ve been mentioning mindmapping more and more often as students wonder how to figure out if they’re original enough, or how to figure out if they’ve created a stable enough grounding in the relevant literature. I teach it sometimes as a way to build good searches with useful terms, but this is different. Sometimes the student has a clear question in mind, and we can draw in supporting bodies of research. Sometimes the student doesn’t have a clear question in mind yet, and we can draw in the supporting topics first — the things where they say “I’m kind of interested in x and y and want to see if they’re connected with z,” and then fill in the spaces between the topics to find the question.

After a session this morning, I’ve realized that I teach four distinct forms of mindmapping to move students from the very preliminary topic questing through to the production of the final product.

Types of mapping

1) Mapping sources to find concepts (early stage of work)

For the early stages in topic selection, students often have vague ideas about topics but haven’t yet come to a point where they’re able to say what piece of the topic they’re going to concentrate on. They know they want to do something with the implications of fictional characters’ names, for example, but haven’t really figured out exactly what about the names to pursue or maybe even what fiction to use as foundational examples. But they’re really interested in race and culture, and they know that fictional characters have names chosen for them by authors, so there’s got to be something they can do that combines the two.

For this, some students find it very helpful to keep their broad topic in mind while reading/skimming several readings. Each reading becomes a node, potentially related to other readings, but not necessarily. The students can then draw connections between readings, using this process to discover the concepts that may be key to their own work.

2) Collecting search terms and source type strategies

Another tricky part of early stage research, particularly in the humanities, is learning the vocabulary of your topic and learning what counts as evidence to the community of inquiry that you’re planning to enter. Unless you do these things, searching can be pretty impossible since it’s just term matching. If you’re using “self-concept” and your community of inquiry is using “identity” you’ll never retrieve the sources you need.

Similarly, if you produce an argument based on evidence that your community scoffs at, or if you need ideas for what kinds of sources would help you make explore your topic, watching what kinds of evidence show up in the literature can be a great strategy.

And of course, following up on people or institutions mentioned in the literature is another great way to build future searches based on readings you’ve found.

So for this kind of map, I have students think about their major concepts, and then fill in those concepts with terms, source type ideas, and people/institutions associated with that concept. These all become fodder for future searches.

3) Mapping concepts to find your own question

Once students have solidified the core concepts of their work a bit more, they still need to figure out how to assimilate the source material into something that original rather than duplicating others’ work or simply patching together quotes from here and there. For this, a pretty traditional mindmap can help.

I have students plot out their key concepts and list the key sources for each concept (for students to did option 1, these can often be the labels they assigned to the connecting lines between sources — in fact, the whole map is like the inverse of option 1). This time we pay close attention to the spaces between concepts. Students can then see what has and what has not been covered by their source material and figure out what they’re adding to the conversation. “People have covered x, y, and z, but I’m going to take these parts of what they have said and add this new idea.”

4) Mapping to test the completeness of your evidence

And finally, for students who are thinking critically about their work and want to be sure they’ve made a rock-solid case for their position, I have them think about building a bridge between themselves and their readers. Their paper is supposed to walk their readers from Belief A (the reader’s start point) to Belief B (what the student hopes the reader will believe after reading the paper). We start thinking “Well, they’d have to be on board with the assumption that x, and know about y event…”

Each of these concepts contributes a bit of itself to the students’ goals, forming one of the planks in the bridge the student is building.

It’s also a way to think about potentially interesting ideas that aren’t actually necessary to the paper.

Tools I use

Generally, if I’m working with students in a class setting or in my office, we do one of these types of mindmaps and we do it using whiteboards. Low-tech and potentially messy, but it gets the point across.

For myself and my own thinking, I do this kind of thing on paper if I’m thinking on the fly or if I’m not intending to use it as the basis for a long-term project. It’s faster and there’s something helpful in the tactile and kinesthetic activity itself — the sketchiness. (Now that I’m getting used to drawing on my iPad, I can imagine the pencil/paper version moving to the iPad from now on. Incidentally, I did the sample maps for this post using the iPad.)

If I’m doing a long project (where I know the map will get pretty big and where I’ll probably be rearranging nodes as my thinking becomes more nuanced and clearer), I use MindNode.

* Over the years, these meetings have grown from being (literally) introductions to the catalog and one major database in their field to being highly collaborative sessions where each of us brings our own expertise to the project of finding an interesting, original, and researchable topic. What a relief! There was nothing more demoralizing than covering such basics with thesis students.


ENGL 395: Latin@Bodies on the (Poetry) Line [session 4]

You’ve made it to the final installment of this four-part Information Literacy curriculum that I’ve used now, with some content tweaks, in two senior seminars in two different departments. Both times, it resulted in far more productive one-on-one meetings between me and the students, and both times that faculty members said that they thought it paid off for them as well. For me, the research consultations I had with students from these classes felt far more collaborative, far more like the students were bringing their own subject expertise to the table and their own critical thinking and problem solving. They had almost always done more preparation and solo work before seeking me out, but had made good choices about coming to see me before wasting a whole bunch of time and getting overly frustrated with their work. And in both cases, the students greeted me cheerfully in hallways and the students center, updating me on their progress and generally behaving as if I was a trusted and welcome partner in their disciplinary work.

I will definitely keep working to integrate similar information literacy interventions in as many departments as I can. Granted, scheduling 4 sessions can seem daunting, but I have found multiple sessions alleviate many of the time-consuming and frustrating aspects of research support, making the scheduling a wonderful investment in a happier and more productive term for me.

Here, one last time, is the over view of the whole mini-curriculum:

  1. Presearch — identifying and preparing to join scholarly conversations
  2. Bibliography as an intellectual product
  3. The Literature Review — mapping your scholarly conversation
  4. Creativity in Constraint (You Are Here)

Session 4: Creativity in Constraint (10 minutes, generously)

This was my final chance to meet the group as a whole. They were getting ready to write their papers, and we had already showed them ways that the nearly unlimited sources can be relevant to their work. But we didn’t want to leave them with the paralysis of topics that were too massive or that tried to account for too many branchings in the literature. We wanted them to once again see their work as creative and intellectual work over which they have authority.

After taking a few minutes to get a sense for how they were feeling about their progress and if there were any questions they had for me, I talked briefly about the glories and challenges of creativity in constraint. This is a phrase I picked up from Eric Celeste, who comes back to that theme over and over in his writing. And for upper division students especially, it seems to be a concept that helps them move past the temptation to summarize everything rather than make a focused contribution in one area.

I talk about cropping photographs, and how the images gesture toward vast amounts of information that are left out of the frame, but that viewers can easily imagine. Similarly, papers gesture towards whole swaths of the literature that they don’t deal with directly. And that isn’t a sign of weakness — of not managing to fit everything in. Rather it’s a sign of careful decision making, of thinking “what do my readers most need to focus on and what can they fill in for themselves” and “what do I most want them to see that they may not have seen in this way before.”

And with that, I renew my invitation to come visit me in my office as they finish up their papers.


ENGL 395: Latin@Bodies on the (Poetry) Line [session 3]

As I mentioned earlier, last spring an English professor and I repeated an experiment that I’d conducted with American Studies juniors the year before, wherein we integrated information literacy concepts into several key points in their seminar. In each case, I met with the students 4 times, sometimes for as little as 10 or 15 minutes, and sometimes as long as the full class period. In every case, I worked with the students on concepts that were simultaneously part of an advanced information literacy “curriculum” of sorts as well as timed to help them accomplish an upcoming assignment.

Here’s the overview:

  1. Presearch — identifying and preparing to join scholarly conversations
  2. Bibliography as an intellectual product
  3. The Literature Review — mapping your scholarly conversation (You Are Here)
  4. Creativity in Constraint

Session 3: The Literature Review

In talking about this session with the professor beforehand, she stressed that she wanted the students to “see their own authority” within the scholarly conversation. We were building on the theme of bibliographies being more than just lists and hoping to move the students toward thinking about the function of sources in scholarly work. Sources that function as background, evidence, arguments from other scholars writing on the same topic, and methodological/theoretical foundations.*

The previous week, the professor had asked students to bring in outside reading that complemented or augmented their understandings of the poetry they were reading that week, and she’d been pretty disappointed with the results. We had hoped to push students beyond finding things “on my topic” toward finding things that had intellectual and thematic resonance with their poetry, especially since there’s just not a whole lot of criticism out there that’s specifically about the poetry they were reading.

Based on that experience, she and I decided to ask them to try again and bring an article with them to class that was not about the assigned poetry, but that helped illuminate some key aspect of the poetry. She and I would guide them through mapping their supplemental readings to each other and to the poetry on the big blackboards in the classroom to help the students imagine how readings could be related when they weren’t about the same thing, and then we’d move from there to talking about the various levels on which the sources functioned and how they might function in a literature review.

Thematic Mapping (1 hour)

We started well enough, reading an article together that the professor had assigned for that day, talking through the article in fairly standard ways, and also talking through the kinds of sources the author invoked, and the functions that those sources played in her argument. Some sources were just barely related in topic, but contributed theoretical approaches that the author could apply, or arguments that applied by analogy. Other sources were clearly directly related to the poetry the author was writing about.

Then we transitioned to the exercise using the articles the students had found and brought to class.

Things were a little shaky at first. The students first seemed confused by and then resistant to the exercise of mapping their articles to one another. We asked them to write their article’s citation on the board and then list underneath it several key themes that it helped illuminate (things like “body,” “Other,” “self,” “national identity” etc, were some of the broad themes that the poetry dealt with, for example). Then we could start drawing connecting (literally) between the articles using these themes as connection points, even when the articles were about drastically different specific topics. All along, we tried to draw the students out a bit, getting them to talk through how other students’ articles augmented their readings of their own articles, and how the growing collection of sources they were creating all helped illuminate aspects of the poetry.

The push-back was fascinating. One student, after making skeptical noises for some time, finally articulated what she didn’t like about the process. She said, “It seems like we’re reducing these articles down to their least interesting, most simplistic components.” This, it seemed to her, was the opposite of what they should rightly be doing in a college class. It’s in many ways the opposite of everything English Lit majors are all about — unpacking, reading between the lines, finding the subtext. This was packing, skimming the lines, and hanging as many articles from the same category marker as we could.

Another student countered that no, this was something she really needed — some discussion of how to read on multiple levels at once, simultaneously unpacking and packing, as it were. And this started a conversation between all of us (including the professor and myself) about the multiple levels of reading that go into literary criticism, and particularly criticism that draws on other criticism or theory.

The Literature Review (half an hour)

The second part of the class was far more straight forward. We talked about how literature reviews look in other fields (often as a somewhat stand-alone thing) and how in the humanities, the epistemology is all based on a conversation paradigm, so literature reviews mirror this by integrating sources throughout the paper rather dealing with them primarily in one discrete section.

We talked about how the literature can function in a variety of ways (again riffing loosely off of Bizup’s BEAM model). It also performs a variety of services to the readers of the finished writing, allowing readers to use one text as a jumping-off point into related areas, lending credibility, and mapping out common ground between the writer and the reader (as if the writer is saying, “You know Foucault, and I know Foucault, so let me skip through all the summarizing and just point out why I think his work is important to what I’m saying, which will help you understand what I’m saying, and also signal that I’m not just pulling this idea from nowhere”).

* This is the BEAM model articulated in Bizup, Joseph. “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.” Rhetoric Review 27.1 (2008): 72-86.