“A Growing Impatience and a Real Passivity”

Last night, I was at a meeting for our LEAP speech/writing Pride instructors.  In attendance were experienced, terrific English 15 and CAS 100 instructors, sharing their teaching plans for the upcoming summer session, as well as some of their past experiences.

I was a little surprised when one of my favorite grad students got up in front of the group and stated that he discourages his students from using CQ Researcher as a source.  Or Opposing Viewpoints. and NO Wikipedia whatsoever. (maybe that last one wasn’t such a surprise.)

His very valid point was that students are increasingly having more and more trouble evaluating sources, and especially evaluating and accessing the ‘source within a source.’  If a CQ Researcher report cites information from a Newsweek article, the student has trouble parsing it out, and simply says, “According to CQ Researcher…”

The same problem exists with Wikipedia (and, I am assuming, the Viewpoints essays featured in the Opposing Viewpoints database.)  While Wikipedia may not be an authoritative source, the sources cited within the articles often are.  Yet students not only lack the skills to find these sources, they cannot see these sources as separate from the primary Wikipedia article.

I think the problem is that the playing field has become muddied.  Back in the dark ages when I was using the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for my freshman comp class, a source was a source.  A published, vetted source was just that, whether it was an article, a book, etc…  Wikipedia, Youtube, blogs, Flickr and more have brought an onslaught of unvetted and sometimes (perhaps more often that not) unauthoritative sources to our users.  The job of weeding out the good from within the bad has become even more overwhelming.

The question is, how do we teach our students to do this, without locking them out of a variety of sources relevant to their daily lives and perhaps their research?  The Washington Post article, Truth Can You Handle It? cuts to the core of this issue.

The essential question the article asks is, “For the Google generation, what happens to the concepts of truth and
knowledge in a user-generated world of information saturation?”  An ACRLog post goes on to discuss this, and how libraries (and librarians) play into this crucial lack of skills.

I appreciated being a part of this discussion last night.  It reminded me that the issues of evaluating information go far beyond the one-shot library session, and impact instructors as well as students.  This summer, I’m going to try to embed more evaluative skills in my instruction, and reprise an exercise I did last year on locating cited sources with Wikipedia articles.

P.S.  The quote in the title of this post is from the WaPo article and is in reference to students’ information seeking skills today.

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