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Category: Teaching and Learning

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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Best Practices for Groups using Zotero

I was recently asked to write up some best practices for groups using Zotero, and I thought I’d share them here. While the language and specifics of these practices are all Zotero-centric, I’ve done very similar things with Mendeley and EndNote as well, though they don’t have standalone notes, so you have to make a well-named citation and use its notes fields to fulfill similar functions.

First off, it is worth it to pay for storage from Zotero. There are work-arounds using Box, but that adds a layer of complexity that I have seen go wrong when, for example, you have collaborators spread all over the place and not everyone is tech savvy or has library or IT support.

I’ve also seen people register a Zotero account and then share login credentials to that account with a group. This is not a good idea for a bunch of reasons. Everyone should have their own account and then be added to a group library.

With those two things as ground work, here are some things to consider as you launch a group project using Zotero. The larger your group or longer-term your project, the more these practices will matter.

Setting up the structure

  1. Create a space that serves as your “inbox” for new stuff, before it’s processed/corrected/tagged/whatever. That way you can go merrily along collecting collecting collecting, but not mess up the organizational structure or lose your unprocessed stuff in the giant pool of processed stuff. If it were me, I’d make my own personal zotero library into my inbox area, and only move things to the Group library once it had its PDF associated, metadata cleaned up, etc. Alternatively, you could have a tag that you associate with new stuff so that you can gather it all together and process it.
  2. In the main Group library, have a standalone note that describes the workflow of the group and defines how you are using tags, folders, and “related” items in this group. For example, some people use folders for procedural steps and tags for topic categorization, some people do the opposite, and some people do something else entirely. But this note will make it clear to the whole group how folders, tags, and “related” items function in this space.
  3. In the main Group library, have a standalone note for tag definitions. Name it something that will guarantee it’s at the top of an alphabetical list (like _TagDefs). Apply every tag to this note (so that it comes up whenever any tag is selected). In that note, list each of your tags and a brief definition so that everyone on the project knows what it means and how to apply it. Whenever you create a new tag, be sure to update this tag definitions note and then add that tag to the note as well.
  4. In each sub-folder in the Group Library, have a standalone note that describes what that folder is meant for.
  5. If you’re going to use tags systematically, I suggest UNCHECKING the preference that automatically gathers subject headings from databases, because these are all over the place and will clutter up your tag list. All the other check boxes on that main screen of the preferences help, but this one doesn’t unless you really only use one database/catalog and it has good set of subject terms.
  6. Plan on not having too many tags/folders. “Too many” is subjective, of course, but once you get scores of them they become very difficult to scan through and select. They should hit that sweet spot of functioning to gather together useful chunks of items rather than having only 1 or 2 items per tag/folder or having nearly all your items in a tag/folder. Novices to tagging tend to come up with too many, and constantly add new ones, which really doesn’t help with organizing a group library.
  7. It can be useful to have a way of tracking procedures, either using tags or folders. These would be like “needs ILL” or “follow up” (which I use for things where there’s a gold mine of a bibliography that I know I’m going to want to go back to and start looking up and saving relevant items from the references).

Saving/organizing items

  1. Save into your “inbox” space, however you’ve set that up. (Be aware that whatever folder is selected in Zotero, that’s where all your new saved items will go, so check this before going on a saving spree.)
  2. Check all the metadata Zotero pulled in when you save an item. Frequently there are capitalization/spelling/data errors that need to be corrected manually.
  3. If Zotero wasn’t able to pull in the PDF automatically, download and then drag the PDF in (and having the OpenURL resolver set up in preferences can help you with this — and if that didn’t sound like English to you, check out the instructions under “Making the “Library Lookup” option work like the library’s “Find It” button” in the top left-hand box on this guide for an example, though of course Carleton’s URL won’t work for other colleges).
  4. Once you’ve saved and cleaned up your item information, open the list of sub-items (the little triangle next to the item citation in Zotero) and right-click on the PDF, and then select “Rename File from Parent Metadata.” That way the PDF itself will have citation information in its file name, which saves headaches if you download it later on and end up with a million “out.pdf” or “1957ty3593.pdf” files on your computer.
  5. A single item can be saved to more than one sub-folder, which is far better than having multiple copies/versions of a single item.
  6. An often-overlooked function is the “related” function. This can link together versions of the same work, or an item with items it cites/is cited by, etc. In group work this helps other people see the connections that you’ve found between works. (It can be helpful to have a written definition of how people think of “related” so that, for example, someone doesn’t put all the books on cats together as “related” rather than just tagging them with the subject “cats.”)

So basically, the theme of all of this is to make it so that there’s explicit shared understanding of how to use the various functions, and then give every new item the TLC it needs in order to coexist with all the other items.

Have a favorite tip or practice? Leave it in the comments here!

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Data Management and the Humanities

Humanities Data: Document fragments from church archives in Cuba
Humanities Data: Document fragments from church archives in Cuba

This morning my colleagues Kristin Partlo and Sarah Calhoun presented with me on data management plans (DMPs). The session itself was mostly a conversation about some example DMPs from the collection of successful DMPs that was recently released by the National Endowment for the Humanities followed by conversations about how we might talk to faculty (using this DMP template as food for thought). But from this conversation a few themes crystalized for me.

Why would humanists care?

I think we often hear that “sharing the stuff of my research with the world” isn’t a huge motivator in the humanities. I’m not sure how broadly true that is, but it’s true enough with enough people that it bears thinking about. And I have heard skepticism, usually in the form of “nobody else will care about this stuff I’ve collected,” so how do we address that?

Sometimes I think maybe it’s a matter of vocabulary, so talking about creating “an archive” or “a digital collection” might capture imaginations where “manage/share your data” won’t. Even talking about how a bibliography is a described dataset can be useful because humanists are very familiar with practices of collecting, organizing, and sharing bibliographic information, usually at the ends of articles, books, and syllabi, but sometimes independently. Humanists have actually been doing data management since forever when you think about bibliographies. In this context, we care about versions (editions), standardized and encoded “data fields” (so that other researchers know if you’re referring to a title of a chapter, article, or book, for example), durable URLs whenever possible… Bibliographies are rich with descriptive and preservationist practices that can help inform management and sharing of files and information more broadly.

I think another aspect of why Humanists might care involves thinking about sharing with the sympathetic collaborator that is your future self. Your future self will forget the ins and outs of where you put or how you named your image files, or what the columns on your spreadsheet actually mean. Our computers are chalk full of the stuff of our research — PDFs, draft versions, images, audio, video. Knowing where all of those things are requires management of all of that data just so that you can find things again later.

Learn through analogy with the known

Kristin talks about how the monograph is largely self-describing. It has title, author, and publisher information in predictable spaces. There’s the table of contents, often an index and bibliography, and things like introductions and conclusions that describe the book for you.

Then there are style guides and formal or informal glossaries that people adopt, and these serve to help make your data (“data” writ large) understandable and consistent for other readers.

These are things that are familiar, so it’s easier to point to these things and remind ourselves that we’ve already seen the usefulness of self-describing units of scholarship and of somewhat standardized best practices. Now we just need to apply it to the digital stuff we’re working with more and more these days.

And in the past, libraries and archives were the main places that managed the sharing of shareable humanities data (primary and secondary sources), but the sharing involved researchers traveling to those collections (humanities “datasets”) to use them. Now individual researchers can create collections, or use collections without physically traveling from dataset to dataset. But this also means that researchers now have more responsibility to do some of the description and standardization that libraries, archives, and publishers formerly did a lot of. So yes, the work feels different, but it’s built on the same principles that humanists already value.

Formal vs informal data management

One of the interesting themes of our session and all the other data-related sessions I attended is that people talk a lot about the data management requirements of grant-funded projects. Meanwhile, I haven’t supported that work at all, but I have helped quite a few people manage their own individual or collaborative non-grant-funded projects. And I really think that data management becomes much more alive and broadly useful if I think about how the best practices identified and codified by grant funding agencies help us think about best practices for regular, every-day digital life, right down to the daily action of naming and putting a file into a folder on my computer. For me and for the people I’ve worked with so far, formal DMPs are alien things that don’t intersect with my life and research. But the spirit and practices reflected in those DMPs? THOSE I care deeply about. So perhaps shifting language from compliance to best practices, and shifting focus from grants to every day organizational practices, perhaps these things can help make data management less of an alien object that only scientists and social scientists ever touch.

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Tangible information literacy

Books HD
Photo by Abhi Sharma

One of the professors I work with a lot on campus has me join her American Studies Methods course a couple of times each term she teaches the course. The first time centers around three main questions:

  1. Where does your research question sit within the theory of the field?
  2. Where does the information you’ll need to explore your question sit within the archive of the field? (“Archive” here means the universe of sources useful within the field.)
  3. And how much of the archive of the field is necessary for your purposes?

Last year we had them mind-map their research questions onto the blackboard in among the major topics of American Studies research that they’ve been studying. Then we used these mindmaps as the basis for search strategies for primary and secondary sources.

This year for various reasons we didn’t do a full class on the information literacy of American Studies. Instead, I visited their class for the full class period and participated in their conversations about the two readings assigned for that day, pitching my participation to help draw out the patterns of information use in each of the readings.

What can we tell about the theoretical foundations of the author’s claim based on the bibliography? Who are the major voices the author claims as theoretical kin? What kinds of primary sources appear and how does the author use them? Why these sources and not others?

To help us grapple with the archive of these readings, I spent the morning hunting down every single primary and secondary source that Amy Kaplan used in her article “Manifest Domesticity” (American Literature 70.3 (1998): 581–606) and piled them up on the classroom tables. We had print copies of many of the early 19th century monographs and periodicals that Kaplan marshaled in her readings of the overlap between the rhetoric of empire building and of domesticity. What we didn’t have in print we had in digitized primary source collections, so I could print off a few pages of each. And of the secondary sources we had ready access to all but 2 of the books, one of which could have come over from St. Olaf if I’d planned ahead a little more.

So there we sat, exploring Kaplans scholarship while her archive lay there in front of us for direct exploration, manipulation, and interrogation.

I’m not sure what the students got out of the exercise. I hope they sensed the possibilities for their own research – that writing from 190 years ago is not exotic and out of reach and that the major voices in their field are represented here in our library’s collection. I hope they enjoyed holding paper and ink from the 1830s in their own hands. I especially hope that they sensed the vital research practice of mining other scholars’ bibliographies.

For me, I experienced wonder at just how much is accessible these days even in a curricular collection on a small liberal arts college campus. And I admit that it was a thrill to open those pages and see what other scholars saw, exactly as they saw it.

It certainly wasn’t a traditional library session, but I hope it was as useful. It was certainly fun.

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