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Category: First Year Students

Result lists as a genre of writing

Idea – by me

I’ve been having a bit of an up-and-down teaching term this Fall — some classes going really well and some falling flat — but one thing that I’ve really enjoyed is that so many of the classes I’m working with are in new subject areas for me, or are taking different approaches than I’ve taken before. It’s felt like everything is new, an experiment, and if I look at it in that light I feel just a little better about the term as a whole.

One recent experiment consisted of actually speaking words in a lower level class that I’ve been mulling over off and on for years but have only ever uttered once in an advanced seminar several years ago. And I think it was ok. I think it was worth the few minutes of time it took, and I’ll think about where I can work it into other teaching I do.

The words? “Result lists are a genre like any other genre of reading. They may look different from tool to tool, but they all conform to certain conventions, and you can read a result list like a type of document, applying genre-specific reading strategies just like you’d approach an article differently than a mystery novel.”

The class I was teaching was of a type that I generally really enjoy: teaching students how to read instrumentally in order to do better research. And we talk about different kinds of reading: skimming, deep reading, and reading instrumentally. In lower level classes this generally involves me passing out a short reading (usually a newspaper or magazine article) and having students work together to generate lists of topics, key terms, and names associated with those topics by reading the article carefully. Sometimes I have them do this with the aid of a worksheet and sometimes I just do it with them on the chalk board.

And this time I added reading result lists as a type of reading that has its own specific place in a research strategy. Result lists come in many forms, but they will all help reveal the range of questions authors seek to answer that involve the search terms you use, patterns in authors or publications that revolve around the terms you used, and clues about the vocabulary of your topic which you can then take note of and use to revise your searches. They are highly condensed, jargonized reference “entries” that teach you a lot about patterns of publication, about vocabulary, and about where you can go next with your searching.

In this particular class I didn’t elaborate on speech genres in general, or explain that they’re “relatively stable types of utterances” that operate within a particular context and reflect “specific conditions and goals” (Bahktin 60). I didn’t even indulge in a geeky digression into the ways that “secondary” speech genres “arise in more complex and comparatively highly developed and organized cultural communication” (Bahktin 61-62). Does this remind you of scholarly communication pathways and norms? Disciplinary discourse conventions? Yeah, me too. But in a 45 minute class with first year, first term students I thought maybe Bahktin was a bridge too far.

Even so, understanding result lists in this way has really helped me, over the years, to get away from the frustration of “failed searches” and become far more comfortable with the idea that spending time opening results here and there and quickly gathering vocabulary and a sense of publishing patterns is one of the quickest ways to arrive at useful results, even if it at first feels like taking detours through a swamp full of weeds. I hope it will help those students, too.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1987. “The Problem of Speech Genres.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Slavic Series. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 60-102.

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Things we know about how information works that our students do not (yet)

Sometimes when I teach first year students how to use a book (the table of contents and index are the “google of the book” telling you what’s inside and where to find what you want) I get shocked looks from profs. In fact, last week one prof argued gently with me that I was surely mistaken that this kind of thing was news to our first year students. Surely they know how books work, how periodicals work, or that encyclopedias are often ordered alphabetically.

Well, thank goodness for Barbara Fister who just started compiling a list of just these kinds of things, where we have a tacit understanding of how information works but our students do not. Everything on her list resonates strongly with me and my experience of first and second year students.

Go read it! Tacit Knowledge and the Student Researcher


Teaching a session after they’ve written the paper

So here’s something I would never have thought of on my own but turns out to have been really great.

A professor that I work with often was teaching one of the 100-level Writing Seminars that get offered with some regularity. He’d set up the class so that students would have practice doing a variety of kinds of writing (observational, persuasive, etc), and they’d be reading a lot of op ed kinds of things (as well as They Say / I Say by Graff and Birkenstein) along the way to seed discussions and to model their writing on. Pretty typical first year writing seminar fare.

He was also working in formal drafts by having papers due and graded, and then having the term’s final paper be a reworking of one of those papers, using it as a glorified draft. And here’s where things got kind of interesting.

They didn’t really need me early on in the course. He wasn’t asking for more than could be found on the open web up until the time of the final paper, so having me come early would have been a waste of everyone’s time as they wondered what they were doing with me, I wondered what I was doing with them, and we all promptly forgot about the whole thing. But then by the time they might need me, they’d already written a pretty good version of their papers.

“That’s fine!” I said, “They need to know that the research process isn’t linear anyway, so let’s really and truly demonstrate going back to the research steps after having thought critically about their papers.” And so we did. Here’s how it went (it was a 2-hour class session):

Class Discussion

They spent the first third of class discussing the days’ reading, Evgeny Morozov’s “The Death of the Cyberflâneur” from the New York Times. As they did so, I noted down the phrases from the work that they were referencing, the related topics that they were connecting this work to, etc. (I also participated in the discussion a bit, because it was fascinating and lively.)

Following Up and Website Evaluation

As the discussion was wrapping up, the professor asked me, “How would we find out more about Morozov? Is he respected? Has he written other things?”

Chalkboard after class

So I, of course, started from his Wikipedia page, which always gives us a chance to talk about the uses and misuses of Wikipedia, which leads into a nice discussion of authority and how we determine it, which always ends with us agreeing that finding out who caused something to be put up online has a lot to do with how much weight we give to whatever it is we’re looking at. As we found things, I also started a little mindmap on the chalk board of the kinds of topics Morozov publishes on as well as the related terms/topics that had come up during their discussion.

(This is actually not the best example of how this mind-map worked because we did a lot of talking and I did less writing, so you can’t really see that we were using it not just to visualize the topic but also to come up with related terms to use for later search. But more on that in a bit)


Research and your final paper

The professor and I both talked a bit about the process of looking critically at your drafts to identify where your reader may need you to give them some evidence before they’ll be willing to follow you along from point A to point B. Evidence is like a bridge that you construct to fill the gap between where your reader is and where you’d like them to be.

Circular research process

Furthermore, this process of having a really good draft in hand, reading it critically, and then finding new evidence to fill gaps you didn’t see before is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s great! The research process is circular, so trying to hammer it out flat will often get you less great results.

See? It looks like this. You are currently re-examining your topic. Again. And ideally you’ll do it often.

At this point we had them pair off, exchange their drafts, and work together to identify places where either hard evidence or other external voices might help them make their papers more effective. Then they reported on their discussions and we all brainstormed together where those kinds of sources might have been published — books? newspapers? scholarly articles? blogs?

They were pretty invested in also talking about readability and tone and stuff, which wasn’t really the point of the exercise, but which I pointed out also has an impact on the kinds of sources you might choose. If you’re going for a very coloquial tone, you might not need an analysis of a massive World Bank data set. Maybe you could just find a journalist reporting summary figures.

Anyway, from here we went into actual searching. We listed off the major kinds of sources that people said they’d need (predictably it was newspapers, census statistics, articles and books). I told them that the strategies were were going to use to find newspaper articles and to find scholarly articles would also help them find books and more web sources (free text vs indexing searching, but I didn’t say that). We worked from their research guide and we used the Cyberflâneur article’s topic (already somewhat mindmapped and already fully discussed in class) as our example.

Taking terms that we’d already seen used in the day’s readings and in Mozorov’s wikipedia article and in our mind map, clumped them into topics, so that we could say “If I’m doing research on social networking, relevant articles may not have used that term but may have talked about the names of specific social networks, like Facebook or Twitter. And if I’m talking about individualism in this context, other terms like privacy or performativity or “personal data” might be useful.” (This part of the class is always highly interactive, with them supplying nearly all of the terms and me putting them on the board or into our search boxes.) Then I do my brief venn diagram of Boolean to show how to teach the computer what we mean by “social networks” and “individualism,” and then we do that on the screen. We talk through the weirdness of the computer not understanding words, just matching letters in a row, so our job is to come up with words that would likely appear in a useful article but would likely not appear in all articles. (If this process of using terms in our readings to help us generate searches, yes, this is the Term Economy and Instrumental Reading at work.) Then we look at our results, map the interesting ones, glean the interesting terms, and make another search.

The class wraps up with them doing this on their own topics, using the Term Diary to track the useful terms they’re finding, and then reporting back to us some of the more useful/interesting terms they found that they wouldn’t have thought to search on in the first place.

And there you have it. My first experiment with teaching for students who had already written their papers. I really have to hand it to the professor for setting things up this way, and for starting us off with a discussion the way he did. He got their participatory juices flowing and I just road that momentum, but it sure made for a fun class session.


Some 100-level information literacy concepts in lesson plan form

Several people have asked for examples of my lesson plans lately, which is both flattering and terrifying. Flattering for all the obvious reasons, and terrifying because I can always see the flaws in my lessons when I write them out to share, and terrifying because my “lesson plans” are the barest sketches of outlines regardless of how many hours I’ve put into preparation, tailoring the class to the specific assignment at hand and trying to match the course professors’ ultimate learning goals as much as possible. When I get into the classroom with 2 or 3 learning goals firmly in mind, an interactive exercise or two up my sleeve, and notes about readings the students have been or will be doing and how to mesh those with my own session, the actually class is more like jazz — playing off of the outline and goals but also off of the students and the course professor.

So lesson plans are kind of hard for me to write down in a way that feels authentic. Still, with all that as preamble, it occurs to me that even sketches can help people looking for ideas. I’ve benefited greatly from colleagues sharing their sketches with me. So here goes. (I’ve chosen to focus on 100-level classes because the people asked me about those specifically.)

First, there are several modules that I’ve already written about here in more or less detail. While they shift with the given context, I love to work them in whenever relevant, and I think they help 100-level students begin to get some practice with the kind of critical information literacy that my colleagues and I wrote about in our recent article CSI(L) Carleton: Forensic Librarians and Reflective Practices. Other similar modules are linked to in the lessons plans I’ve sketched out later in the post.

  • The value of book reviews
    I started toying with this before the Information Literacy in Student Writing really got going, but I’ve continued to use book reviews as valuable sources since and worked it in whenever I can because of  the useful habits of mind it helps develop.
  • Citation as a lens for interdisciplinarity
    This one really is a fleshed out lesson plan (which takes about 20 minutes) and the main points of which I’ve used over and over again in many courses with great success.
  • Turning topics into searches
    Builds off of the idea of concept mapping in ways that then generate source decisions and search terms in very practical ways. This takes about 15 minutes and it helps if you have some seeds to start with that you can lay out on the board as the students are working.

Most classes need to get at some combination of conceptual and practical learning goals, so here are two very different sessions that I’ve given recently. I chose the first NOT because it’s one of my crowning achievements. It’s anything but that and I’d love to hear ideas for streamlining it. But it does show the combination of practical and conceptual, and it’s a multi-cultural topic (which matches the needs of at least one of the people who asked for a lesson plan example). In terms of the match with the concepts we wrote about in the “CSI(L) Carleton” article, this class teach concrete search skills but emphasize the context-building nature of scholarship, the importance of watching for the breadcrumbs scholars leave for you in their writing to tell you what they’re drawing on, what related concepts are important, and the purpose of using sources in the first place.

The second is one of the sessions I did for a course that has no formal research component, building off of what I learned from the “Evaluation” section of the “CSi(L) Carleton” article. You’ll notice it looks a lot like a class for a research paper. The main difference is in the framing — emphasizing that this kind of looking and the habits involved are useful for all kinds of work.

CCST 100: Growing Up Cross Culturally (had to be taught in a room with no student computers)

Assignment: Write a paper based on one of the cross-cultural studies topics they’ve talked about in class (which follow the life-stages and study how cultures influencing each other can change the way people experience those life stages, such as birth, childhood, adolescence, marriage, adulthood, old age, and death). Find a few sources (3-5-ish) outside of course readings to support your arguments. Students are encouraged to take inspiration from recent international news/culture stories.

Resources: Research GuideNew York Times article on Japanese tooth un-straightening, and a Term Diary

Introduction (10 minutes)

  • Why only a few sources?
    The purpose of your sources is not to provide an exhaustive list of everything written on your topic. It’s also not to allow you to write a report. Instead, you’re writing your own paper, and you’re using a few outside voices to help you situated your ideas within the “conversation” that’s already happening on a topic. Conversations don’t work well if you parrot back what everyone says, but they also don’t work well if you just go on in a monologue and make everyone sit back and listen. Conversations work well when you build on what people have said and contribute new ideas or perspectives.
  • What constitutes “on my topic”?
    We often look for things that are “on our topics” but sometimes it’s more interesting (or necessary, if the topic is too new) to look for related topics or analogous topics and talk about how they support or contribute to your understanding of your topic. THIS IS OK. Scholars do it all the time and for this assignment it’s almost a given that you’ll have to do the same. Give some examples. (First year students often don’t realize this is allowed.)

Brainstorming Exercise (working in small groups – 20 minutes)

  • Term economy (see this blog post)
    Computers can’t read. They match letters in a row. Consequently, we have to figure out what letters in a row to feed into the computer to make it spit out the results we want. This is why we’ll be using a term diary to record keywords and phrases as we go along today, and then using those to help us come up with new searches.

In small groups, read the New York Times article on the new fad where Japanese women make their teeth crooked. Answer the following questions and report back. We’ll use these concepts and terms for our searches in the rest of the session.

  1. What concepts is this related to? (symmetry, beauty, youth culture, individualism, etc)
  2. Who might have written more about this or related concepts?
  3. What questions might they have asked of these topics?
  4. Where might these things have been published? (blogs, newspapers, academic articles, books, etc)
  5. What are some key terms associated with these topics?

Wikipedia with a glance at Goolge (5 minutes)

  • Basic searches using key terms already generated. These will inevitably reveal a wikipedia article. Mention that this is wonderful. Watch students faint in surprise…
  • discussion: You’ve heard that wikipedia isn’t good to use — why is that? What might it be good for? (use as a jumping-off place like any other reference work, good for term gathering and to point you toward related concepts and further reading — bibliographies are wonderful things)
  • term gathering and source gathering as we jump around and follow links through Wikipedia together with students leading as much as possible– add to our growing list of terms in our term diaries (In this year’s class, we stumbled on the term “wabi-sabi” which is about the many things, including the aesthetic of asymmetry.)

LexisNexis, for the international coverage (10 minutes)

  • Point out that we’re searching “every word the journalists wrote” so think like a journalist when coming up with terms to try.
  • Try several searches using the terms we already found (letting students choose). Collect new terms, concepts, and potential authors/experts along the way.
  • Introduce the idea of concept clusters (i.e. boolean searching)

Academic Search Premier (10 minutes)

  • Explain the differences between free-text databases and indexing/abstracting databases — now we have to think like scholars/librarians when choosing terms to use
  • how to limit to scholarly articles
  • discussion of how scholarly articles differ from newspapers in terms of scope and topic coverage
  • student-lead searching as before, this time introducing the power of subject headings.

Books (5 minutes)

  • Books often contain much broader topics than articles, so now we have to zoom out and look at broader topics that might give us good foundations for our topic.
  • student-lead searching as before, pointing out the importance and power of subject headings.
  • Point out call numbers — remind students that they can ask for help, especially the first few times they use call numbers to locate books
  • There is no one perfect search — try combinations of terms and write down new terms/concepts as you come across them
  • Librarians can help you, so come talk to us about your specific topics.
Some things I’ll change next time:
  • TOO MUCH STUFF — The constraints of space and the breadth of the assignment were working against us, but really it was too many things. Next time I will almost certainly cut out the books section. I just don’t know yet what to do about the rest, but this is probably double what it should have been.
  • Emphasize the brainstorming/problem-solving part of when searches fail — The students didn’t seem to understand well enough why we weren’t concerned with failed searches so next time we need to build failed searches more explicitly into the expectations.

ENGL 100: Visions of the Waste Land

Context: This course had no research component. It was important to the professor that students learn to read closely and delve into the primary source text. However, the professor and I both realized that it can be hard to find interesting things in texts if you lack the context to know what’s interesting when you see it. So we devised this context-building session and assignment to help students know how to build up their own knowledge to the point where they can accomplish the kind of careful reading the professor wanted.

Assignment: Select an article that is illuminating, write a 200-word summary to be handed in, be prepared to lead the class in a discussion of a passage in the book based on both your interpretation and the article you found.

Resources: Research Guide

Introduction (5 minutes)

  • Matching Evidence to Audience
    There are lots of kind of evidence, and in other courses you’ll be asked to find books and articles and statistics and images and who knows what else to back up your arguments. Lead a little discussion about kinds of evidence that may matter to some audiences but not others, like blogs or something your aunt said or aggregate statistics vs data.  In this course your evidence is the text itself and your audience is not interested in other kinds of evidence.
  • Context-Building
    However, all of this doesn’t mean that YOU aren’t allowed to know things other than the text. Far from it. Context-building helps you figure out what questions to ask of the text and also to see how other scholars in the field have accomplished this kind of thing so that you can model yourself a bit on their approaches.

Finding Models to inspire you and aspire to: (5 minutes)

  • Show how to search within the publication “The Explicator.”

Finding the backgrounds of words: OED (use “smashing” as an example) (5 minutes)

  • How words get into the OED
  • What’s in there (etymologies and date charts and quotes)

Scholarly articles often provide a lot of context/insight: JSTOR (20 minutes)

  • Limit to literary journals only
  • Building concept clusters
  • Brainstorm together about some concepts that might be interesting to follow up and what words might be associated with those concepts. Work together to cluster those concept (having students write on the whiteboard together)
  • Have students work in small groups to find an article and report back on why they chose the article they did (emphasizing aspects of evaluation by making them articulate a choice and discuss it together).

Following up on a citation (15 minutes)

  • Usually one of the best ways to find information because scholars index their own literature. Bibliographies are creative things build from experience and wide readings, which means you can find connections to things you wouldn’t find purely by searching.
  • Explain that book citations list a place and publisher while articles don’t, and how to follow up on book citations (catalog) vs article citations (A-Z list) – this whole thing takes about a minute.
  • Working in small groups again, use the article they found JSTOR to find a book or article that we have access to. Bonus points if you find a book citation that we have access to.
  • Go together to collect one of the found books from the stacks (have an example on hand just in case nobody found a book that’s available). Look at near-by books to talk about what kinds of context that helps them build. Mention that similar call numbers in different areas of the library (reference, periodicals, etc) will be about similar topics. Show the “Google of the book” (i.e. the index) of a book.

Wrap-up (10 minutes)

  • Group discussion about how what we’ve found today applies to what they’re reading. Any words or themes that seem more important now?
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