When I first arrived at Swarthmore, we had a category of classes called PDCs, Primary Distribution Courses. Students were required to take six of them in their first two years here, two in each division. A PDC was supposed to do quite a variety of things: introduce students to the distinctive methodologies and outlook of a particular discipline, introduce students to the totality of a liberal arts curriculum and the connections between different disciplines, and teach students analytic writing.
Not long after I started teaching here, a re-evaluation of the PDC began. They had been around for quite a long time, well before I began here. One of the things we found was that the PDC over the years had lost any real pedagogical specificity and had largely become a label attached to the ordinary introductory course in a given department, that most departments did nothing particularly out of the ordinary with their PDCs. The college decided to replace the PDC with three things: a non-specific distribution requirement (three courses in each division), first-year seminars designed to give entering students a small and focused class alongside any large introductory courses they might be taking, and a requirement to take three courses designated as “W” or writing-intensive by graduation. (The last group of students to whom PDCs applied at all is graduating this spring.)
I liked this shift except that I was somewhat uncertain about the need for “W” classes. It’s not that I’m against dedicated instruction in writing, or the existence of a Writing Program, both of which I think are very important parts of our curriculum, sustained by dedicated and talented faculty.
Our students definitely need to continuously improve their analytic writing while they are here, and it would be wrong for faculty to just assume that will happen magically. When I hand back a paper, I do try to describe to the class as a whole some of the consistent issues or problems I saw in responses to the assignment. However, I think that if there is any skill that faculty here tend to pay pedagogical attention to in their classes, it is writing. There may have been a point in the past where faculty needed to see writing as their business, not just as something they outsourced to the English Department, but if so, the revolution is long since accomplished. I’m sure I have colleagues who could pay more attention to writing (or any attention at all), but I don’t think “W” classes will make them do so.
A skill-oriented class is very hard to teach well. You have to have some kind of thematic subject matter to study that is not the skill itself, or the whole course becomes arid and quasi-remedial. However, that subject matter can’t be part of a course sequence within a particular discipline, or you’ll inevitably end up sacrificing the skill-based content to coverage of the disciplinary subject. So these kinds of courses, done right, take a lot of thought and dedication, as well as taking away from what could be taught otherwise. It seems to me that a special category of classes, and the costs that come from trying to keep an adequate supply of such classes available, are best paid not for skills that we teach somewhat well (but could teach better) but instead for skills that we teach poorly or not at all.
Of all the skills that our students use while they are here and will need to use when they’re finished here, I think the biggest shortfall I presently see is not in writing, but in what is often called “information literacy”, or in a more old-fashioned sense, “research”. I keep hearing from hypemeisters about how technologically savvy and skilled 21st Century students are, how much they live in online spaces, and so on. I don’t really see that. I also hear sometimes from librarians, information specialists and so on about how horribly bad young people are at research. (A few presentations at the Future of Bibliographic Control meeting made this argument.) I don’t quite buy that either, at least not in its most forbidding form. If it’s true that most students today are unskilled information seekers, I suspect it’s true that they largely have been unskilled for the last forty years (or more), and it is only now that we’re fully appreciating that because of our technological ability to track information-seeking behavior at the level of process.
So if there is something to work on here, it is making full and effective use of a informationally rich environment and of powerful new tools rather than heading off some rough informational beast’s march to Bethlehem. On the other hand, I would surely agree that there is massive room for improvement in informational and research skills, and that I can easily imagine skills-based classes that would be dedicated to such a purpose.
The biggest problem here, however, is not the students. It is faculty. This is not a comment specific to Swarthmore. I think it applies across nearly the entirety of academia, and maybe more acutely to highly selective institutions. Faculty are attentive to writing across the disciplines because most of them feel competent to advise students on the basics of analytic writing. Faculty are attentive to research skills when those research skills are specifically confined to high-order disciplinary methodologies such as laboratory research, historical research in archives, or ethnographic study.
More generalized information-seeking, the kind you need to prepare a research paper or a bibliographic essay? Or simply the kind needed to find out information about a book, an issue, a problem? I think a lot of faculty spend very little instructional time on that kind of information literacy. Some of that, again, is the perceived need to cover the subject matter of a course. I don’t spend nearly as much time as I would like on information literacy, even in a course where I’m having the students work on research papers. (As I am in three classes this semester, which is largely the prompt for this post: I’m thinking about next week’s class sessions where I’m going to focus on research skills.)
Some of it, however, is that I think many faculty, particularly in the humanities and the social sciences, are ill at ease in the current informational environment. They are not themselves entirely sure of what tools are out there, or how to use them, let alone how to instruct students in the use of those tools.
That confusion is to some extent a universal condition right now, a consequence of the excess volume of information, of search tools that are much dumber underneath the surface than they initially appear to be, and of a confusing maze of interfaces, vendors and options. When some folks from ISI visited here a while back, and I showed them a bit of how I did search, I was embarassed a bit when they showed me that Web of Science already could do something that I said would be a useful capability to have in doing searches. On the other hand, I’m not that embarassed, given how cluttered and option-rich their interface is. (Yes, I’m channelling my colleague Barry Schwartz: save me from too many choices.)
I have a very hard time articulating to students how I find the information that I find, because at least some of my information-seeking behavior involves internalized, embedded knowledge that is peculiar to me. To search like me, they’d have to be me. I also get anxious about articulating how I do search because I know that it may reveal how many of my search habits are basically autodidactical hacks that make as little sense as some of the ways I used to solve more complicated algebra problems in the 11th grade. (I’d get the right answer, only in a way that took twice as much time as the standard way and involved some non-intuitive steps.) I’m sure some of my anxiety is also the generalized fear that most academics have that we perhaps do not know all the things that we’re supposed to know. If you were ever going to inadvertently reveal that, it would be through search.
All of this is exactly why I think we should have “I” classes rather than “W” classes, however: to bring information literacy and research back inside the curriculum, to make it our responsibility, to learn along with our students, to intellectualize it. Right now I think too many faculty outsource the whole thing to librarians and information technology specialists. It is right to do that in the sense that libraries and IT departments specialize in these issues, and are expert in them in a way that faculty as a whole are not. It is wrong to do that because in a liberal arts institution, that kind of externalization is a sign that faculty regard something as a mere skill that poses no conceptual, intellectual or discussable problems in its own right. That’s a flag to students that says, “Don’t pay much attention to this (except we’ll hold you responsible if you don’t somehow magically acquire these skills)”.
This is ultimately the reason I want “I” classes rather than “W” classes. I think the place of writing in the hierarchy of professional skills is well-established and well-understood. Information and research, on the other hand, are undergoing fantastic, huge mutations and dislocations. They demand to be discussed inside a liberal arts curriculum not just as skills to acquire but problems to solve, decisions to make and debate, as philosophies, methodologies and histories that define and shape what it means to be scholars far more intensely than analytic writing does. Writing is what we express and how we disseminate, but information and search define what and how we know as scholars, what we most are. We can’t hide from that, or continue to assume the existence of an imaginary card catalog the way an amputee feels phantom pain in missing limbs.