A Source is a Source, Of Course, Of Course

All due apologies to Mr. Ed for the title.  My survey students are hard at work on their research papers which are due a week from today.  Despite my best efforts to intertwine research skills with survey-level content, I feel like I have failed my students in one important category; finding and evaluating sources.

My students still think that a source is a source of course (of course.) While most of them understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, some are still struggling.  And, I’m dumbfounded at the time it took to get even some of my best students to understand the difference.  I am more frustrated with the fact that many, maybe even most, still seem incapable of finding good sources.

You might remember that we started off the semester making a primary source database which I had hoped would allow us to discuss analyzing sources in a practical way.  And that part of the database was a great success.  Many students, however, put websites with questionable secondary source material onto the database.  Still others struggled to find primary source material despite the class session with a librarian focused solely on searching for sources.

I tried to have them think about evaluating sources they found in the same way they make decisions about other web content every day; asking them about reposted facebook status about privacy and twitter handles.  I tried showing them this great John Oliver bit about fake founders’ quotes:  https://youtu.be/xYwenG7HksM.  I got a lot of laughs out of the Oliver clip, but very little substantial discussion.  Finally, I printed out an especially egregious website and asked them to examine and evaluate it.  The crickets were deafeningly loud in a class that is usually exceptionally engaged.

In a fit of frustration, I typed up an email demanding that they only use paper sources for this research paper but I never sent it.  Because the truth is that they need to understand how to evaluate internet sources.  They get most of their news and opinions from the internet for better or for worse and if they can’t evaluate that information they lack an essential skill for their world. I don’t believe that they have no mechanisms for evaluating the digital world (although I think that many of their strategies are probably bad), but I DO think that I am failing to show them the connection between the surfing that they do for fun and the tools they need in their classes.

I have layers of protection built into the assignment—they have to email me links to online resources before they can use them and they have to use a certain number of books and articles—so I’m sure that the majority of my students will end up with decent sources.  But, I think that I have missed an opportunity to make a concrete contribution to their success as humans fully engaged with the world.

So, I’m asking for thoughts and advice.  How do we help students learn to find and evaluate sources? And how do we connect that academic knowledge to their life outside the classroom? Of course a source isn’t just a source.  Of course we as academics know this.  How do we help our students gain this skill?

3 thoughts on “A Source is a Source, Of Course, Of Course

  1. Thanks for this post. I have never been as bold as you in requiring research from survey students, but I have had similar problems in upper-division seminars.

    In the past, I have required students to find sources through only a select list of credible portals – LoC, archive.org, a curated Google books library, UNC’s DocSouth, ArtSTOR, Gilder-Lehman, etc. But I’m convicted by your acknowledgement that “they need to understand how to evaluate internet sources.”

    This does not help your current students, but maybe it would help to design a rubric for quality primary sources and have an additional assignment where the students evaluated one another’s sources. This could be a useful extension of your (really cool) primary source database assignment.

    Also, you might consider asking your students to write a short paragraph in response to this blog post. Perhaps they have ideas…

    • I think the rubric is a great idea! I think I’m usually to reactive of a teacher and a little more proactive approach like a rubric would probably help.

  2. I am wondering if they haven’t yet reached a “brain level” where they can differentiate between good and bad opinions or sources? I remember being a teenager and just not getting that you could have theories, but some theories made sense, and others didn’t! I argued with a teacher about how could she possibly know that black crows circling in a short story was a symbol of or foreshadowing death– couldn’t they mean anything the author wanted them to???? Then, as I got older, I realized the crows could mean death, or maybe disease, or maybe just bad things coming, but they certainly didn’t symbolize birth. But when I was younger I just could not understand.

    Anyway, this persistence of confusion might mean that they are just NOT going to get it, but maybe your class will provide an ah-hah moment for them later!

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