Monday, 31 October 2005

huge sigh of relief

Hoo-rah, no more teaching. Just marking and mopping up for a few days more, then back to the other thing. But I do need to think a bit, while the semester is still fresh, about stuff that could be done better next semester.

One priority is working out a coherent position on students using the internet as a source of critical material on the texts they're studying - a position that they and I can both understand and be happy with. Some departments put a blanket ban on using the internet and send students to the library instead ("the library" including online scholarly journals, so it's not quite an outright paper fetish.) I have some sympathy with that position, especially after encountering many student essays citing paper mills - , crib sites , Wikipedia articles, IMDb user reviews, etc. Doesn't it go without saying that a plot synopsis posted on IMDb isn't going to enhance anyone's assignment? No, it doesn't, is what I've found out this year. But the thing is, students will google while they write whether they're forbidden to or not. Prohibition isn't going to make the problem go away, just drive it underground, and next thing you know, it's hello plagiarism! Not to mention a significant number of the students I teach don't have access to anything I would call a real library so the Internet is their only resource anyway.

So they use resources like IMDb. Not things like Jahsonic, Pseudopodium, Senses of Cinema, or even Strange Horizons, all of which have loads of interesting and thoughtful material related to the topics we've studied, and any of which I'd have leapt for joy to see come up in an assignment. This suggests to me they are not using Google as pointedly as they might. If you type in the name of a play by Shakespeare you will get about six pages of essay-for-sale results ranked over anything else. But if you type in the same title and a few well chosen keywords you get a much less homogenous and depressing collection of links to choose from and work through. I didn't point this out in class, and now I'm wondering why.

So a better search technique is one thing to talk about next year. Another is how to assess / evaluate search results. This is a bit more challenging - how do you teach someone to judge whether a writer knows what he or she is talking about - without imposing some conventional rule like "must be written by an academic and/or hosted on a university server"? Apart from the fact that this kind of rule (which I have seen around the place) excludes far too much of what makes the internet worthwhile, it doesn't do the student any favours in the long run to let him off the hook of exercising his judgement in this situation. I don't know if I can articulate how I myself distinguish the good stuff, though, so this is something I'll need to spend more time considering.

Also involved in this bundle of thoughts is a growing desire to bring my students' learning into dialogue with what I believe is being called Web 2.0 - the participatory, wiki-ised, decentralised, generative, collectively created internet (though I prefer the original term crackalackin' myself.) For example, next year I'm going to experiment with setting up communal accounts for each subject I teach in where every student has full access and can add, tag, comment on and delete links they find in the course of their travels. In theory this will make them more responsible for each others' learning and for the overall quality of the communal resource. (In practice it might mean that me and one other geek-type do all the work. We'll see.)

Of course it's all a bit pie-in-the-sky when at least a third of the people I taught this semester don't even have email addresses or an internet connection at home.


katy said...

I wish departments would develop an acceptable policy on this very thing, but of course in a department which might include a range of subjects including fan studies or digital media then even policies which stipulate what constitutes a credible source might not be that useful.

When I had to make a snap decision on this in the course I was running last semester I over-simplified the matter by stating that the only search engine students could use (except when researching fan practices) was Google Scholar. It was a temporary band-aid solution, but overall it seemed to yield better results than the earlier assessment in which I gave them vague directions about what counts as credible and a valid scholarly reference.

Lucy Tartan said...

Google Scholar....great idea. Shall steal that. Have you found that all of yours can actually use the internet? School is running an online teaching day next week, I think I'll go. It's mostly going to be about WebCT I suspect, but something might come of it.

Tiffany said...

Am suitably impressed by all this Laura - I love how much clear, incisive, forward-looking thought goes into your approach to teaching. Any uni would be *lucky* to have you as an academic.

Ampersand Duck said...

I think one of the hardest things to gauge is what is actually the student's personal writing style and what is just very clever (or horrible) cobbling of other matter. Maybe there should be a compulsory on-the-spot session of creative writing at the start of every year, just ten minutes of writing about anything they want -- their cat, daleks, going shopping -- anything that can fill an A4 without touching a computer or a dictionary. It can be put on file and then the teacher has a source document to compare against any written piece submitted!


Galaxy said...

I've noticed that students often choose the first item or two on the search results list and it is more often than not a wikipedia entry or if you're teaching something like 'Heart of Darkness' or Shakespeare, then it's very likely to be one of many free notes and essays available.

I have put a ban on using wikipedia because students often don't look beyond it to do more thorough and better directed searches. I do think, with first years in particular, it's better to offer very clear boundaries, and as they move on they can begin to judge their sources more effectively, and even know when it is appropriate to use non-scholarly sources.

I have found it best to recommend students use a minimum number of refereed/peer-reviewed sources which is determined in relation to the length of the essay in question. If students are doing research into fan practices or need to use material from non-scholarly sources, then I tend to suggest that those sources are used in addition to the minimum scholarly sources. Also, it's not a hard and fast distinction, but I would characterise fan sites and New Idea etc as primary sources, rather than secondary sources; they are texts that students would draw upon as evidence of fan practices, star personas etc

Does your department/university/student support services produce any material that guides students in these matters? It's good to be able to refer them to already existing material, so you can ensure some consistency about the information they get, as well as saving yourself some work.

And then there's the terrible realisation that you can lead a horse to water...

genevieve said...

The general level of information literacy sounds pretty low there, Laura. Have you asked the librarians what kind of interest they are getting with IT training? there should be a blanket session offered to all new students in every course. (Deakin provides a CD - their induction materials are terrific.)
It would be interesting to know if some of those students are playing dumb about email though.

I've had some interesting results introducing my first- year drama stude daughter to electronic databases. She is a pretty literate young person and can use apostrophes when needed, but more importantly, her bullshit antenna is remarkably acute for an 18 year old. However the level of media savviness and general knowledge that her peers do not possess is pretty scary. It's not just the parents who need broadband to investigate fences, IMHO.

Lucy Tartan said...

Plagiarism is actually surprisingly easy to detect. The patchwork kind always looks patchy and the great huge swathes kind gives itself away by either being off-topic or being too clever by half. Legendary in my department is the student several years ago now who downloaded an entire essay from Studies in Romanticism and went through changing "Emily Dickinson" to "Gwen Harwood".

The students often ask how many references I want them to put in their essays. I can see there are good reasons for setting standards of that kind, but at the same time, I'm trying to teach them to think and write critically, and a big part of that is developing a feel for what's relevant in what contexts. I also try to make a point of recommending extra reading which isn't always scholarly - if we're studying Washington Square and they haven't read any other James, I'll suggest they read Daisy Miller and a few short stories and a preface or two before they go exclusively reading more esoteric and specialised commentary. I read a lot of criticism in my undergrad days which is old hat and out of date now.

I'm thinking mostly of my students at LTU's Mildura campus, Genevieve. They are just as intelligent and capapble as he city students but they don't have access to one tenth of the resources the city people take for granted. The librarian there is fantastic but she's not a magician. The university is very new and it's attached to the Mildura TAFE and shares its library. If you've ever seem a country TAFE library you'll have an idea of why they need to learn a lot very fast about using the internet. Like for instance I counted the books in the Shakespeare section and there are 60 times more books in the city library, plus all the journals....
They do have access to an excellent online collection with lots of full text articles, but to be quite honest, these aren't very helpful to undergrads who are still building up a picture of the discipline and have very large gaps in their understanding of literary history. The typical scholarly article gives them a highly specialised and very narrow perspective on a topic which they generally have absolutely no chance of placing in its broader context.

And no they really don't all have internet access at home. Many are either living in town (their families live too far out) on very small budgets or are living at home on farms or in large families. Internet access isn't as cheap as it needs to be to really be accessible. They can use the computer lab in the university on the days they come in for classes.