Sunday, January 20, 2013

This is what happens when you require certain types of sources

During lunch on Saturday a student came up to me to ask me about sources he wanted to use for a project.

Student: You know how on Wikipedia they list their sources on the bottom of the page? Is it okay to use those?
Me: Of course. That's how research works--you see what sources other people are using when they research similar topics and then you use those sources for your own research.
Student: So I can cite a book even if I haven't seen it?
Me: Wait, what?
Student: There's a book on my topic in the references on Wikipedia, and I want to cite it in my bibliography.
Me: Even though you've never read any of the information in the book, or even seen it?
Student: Yeah.
Me: No.

And then we talked about how to get to our Biography databases and other places to look for actual information, and then I sat down and banged my head against the table for a while and then ate my lunch.

I often hear other librarians get frustrated with teachers who require that students have X number of print sources (particularly when they won't accept digital content as meeting that requirement) and I occasionally share those frustrations (though anytime I have approached a colleague with concerns about such requirements, every last one of them has been receptive and flexible). Selecting sources based on container rather than content seems counterintuitive.

But I also understand why teachers have those requirements, and the goals they're trying to accomplish make sense to me.

Sometimes consulting a print book is the best possible starting point for a student simply because the information in there is limited. Even the largest book is puny compared to a list of search results on Google. The table of contents and index of a book are far easier to navigate and interpret than most database search result--and learning how to navigate a table of contents and index is helpful when it comes to understanding how other types of searches work. And yes, students need to learn how to navigate all kinds of search results, but those aren't necessarily the skills they need to be focusing on at every stage of every research process. 

More importantly, without the requirement of having to have a print book, or a database article, or any particular type of source, there are many students who would never even consult these resources.Without (seemingly arbitrary) requirements, many students would not push themselves out of their comfort zones when researching. They'd simply stick with the resources and formats that they've always used. And good research strategies and skills are, in many ways, about moving out of your comfort zone; most of us don't leave our comfort zone easily, and those requirements can help pull students out of theirs.
But sometimes the sources that meet the requirements aren't the best sources for a project. Sometimes what I have in physical format in the library is inferior to what can be found online, through a database or a website. And sometimes a book on the library's shelves has the perfect bit of information that will become an "aha!" moment for a student.

This is one of those "easy to answer in an ideal world" questions for me. In an ideal world, there would always be the time, and structure, and support for students to consult a diverse array of sources before settling on the ones that best met their needs. Students would willingly move out of their comfort zone--or at least not actively resist.

But most of us don't work in that ideal world. There are limits to our time. There are limits to our resources. But we can nudge around the edges. We can encourage, and we can push, and we can cajole. We can challenge ourselves, and our colleagues, and our students to think broadly about what types of sources we use, and why. And at the very least we can be clear that someone else's Works Cited page can be an excellent source--but not one to copy and paste into your own.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A tale of two conferences

While going through my inbox the other day I clicked on a link about an upcoming conference in my area; I was hoping to find out a bit more, but also saw that they were still seeking proposals. Having been on both ends of the request for proposals, I'm always interested in to see what different organizations ask for.

The request was pretty standard, until I got to the section on AV requirements; the form specified that standard AV equipment would be provided, including overhead projector and VCR/monitor. Presenters were asked to bring their own LCD projector, if possible.

About an hour or so later I got another e-mail, asking me to participate in a conference program described as "Battledecks meets TED."

The first call for proposals was like almost every call I've ever seen, until I got to the AV section. The only distinguishing feature was the listing of technology that I did not think was still in popular usage

The second call was also very similar to requests I've seen. Except in this case the distinguishing feature was how they described the "feel" they wanted a presentation to have.

I go to a lot of conferences (fewer this year than in years past, but I still have several under my belt), and I have a pretty extensive online network for resources and ideas. And there is a lot of overlap in terms of sessions, topics, ideas, and even attendees. Which is great. But even with that overlap, different conferences and different online communities often end up having a different feel for me. Despite being able to get the same types of information from many different places, I often feel myself pulled towards particular learning communities.

I'd never given that much thought, but seeing these two very similar--and very, very different--calls for proposals so close together brought the idea to the forefront of my mind. While these two conferences are likely to have a significant overlap of ideas, there's only one I'm interested in attending (just to be clear, it's the "Battledecks meets TED" one. Because, obviously).

There are a lot of ways to present and share the same information. I've been to sessions (or read articles) on very similar topics that leave me with very different feelings. In one I may walk away feeling energized and ready to put an idea into action; in another I may walk away feeling like I've just been chastised for being behind the curve.

I'm thinking about this more consciously as I "Mark All As Read" some blogs in my Google Reader, while reading and reflecting on others. I pore over every article in some journals, while casually flipping through others before tossing them aside. I make plans to attend (in person or virtually) some conferences, while saying, "Eh, maybe some other year" to others.

When I talk to my students about research, I tell them that the issue I most regularly faced when doing research in high school was not being able to find enough information; that is, most often, not the challenge they face. The challenge they confront is focusing and narrowing and separating the wheat from the chaff.

I'm working on applying that idea more consciously to my own professional research. Finding ideas and information is no longer the challenge. Finding a professional network that inspires and challenges and supports me is. And this is not just about surrounding myself with people who share all the same ideas--I want to be surrounded by people who push my thinking in new directions, without making me feel like I'm a failure if I'm not already doing X, Y, and Z.

So I'm trying to more consciously look for the feel I get from really inspiring conference experiences from my online networks. Do they leave me feeling overwhelmed? Underwhelmed? Inspired? Chastised? Excited? Encouraged?

The right network for me will be the wrong network for someone else. But I should be as discerning in selecting my sources as I encourage my students to be in selecting theirs.