Down With W. Up With I.

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.

This entry was posted in Information Technology and Information Literacy. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Down With W. Up With I.

  1. back40 says:

    “but information and search define what and how we know as scholars, what we most are.”

    Isn’t this true for everyone? I think so. That strengthens your argument. . . not that it needs more strength.

  2. k8 says:

    I have to say I’m feeling a bit conflicted. I’m a compositionist with an MLS – I think we need both ‘W’ and ‘I’ courses, preferably ones that integrate both.

    You wrote: “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. ”

    In essence, I agree, but I also feel as if you relegate the teaching of writing as teaching a mere ‘skill.’ While I applaud many WAC programs, I wouldn’t agree that non-specialists are as qualified to teach writing. And I would argue that they often teach it as mere skill, rather than exploring the rhetorical moves and implications of writing within a discipline’s preferred genres.

    You are correct in that many faculty members aren’t as adept at research as they could be. I’ve heard my fellow grad students (people who supposedly learn to conduct library research within these information environments) give their students some horrendously incorrect research advice. It frightens me, really.

  3. Bravo, Tim! As I’ve been embroiled in Middlebury’s recent Wikipedia hubub (see for my blogging about the issue), it’s become quite clear to me that most students don’t understand how to navigate the vast amount of information that is more available & accessible than ever before – and that most faculty don’t either!

    So while I agree that Information Literacy needs to be incorporated into curricula, I am not confident that it would be implemented any differently than the PDCs you describe – faculty would teach the way they were trained to research 5-25+ years earlier within their disciplines specialized methods, and look skeptically at new avenues for publishing, collaboration, and peer review. And unlike writing, there aren’t departments that have a traditional purview on Info Lit (aside from libraries, who can be quite resistant to new media as well) that could lead the way. Call me cynical, but I’m doubtful that I courses could serve the noble goals you suggest. But keep suggesting & try to set some precedents…

  4. withywindle says:

    I do think that at places less elite than Swarthmore, concentrating on writing is still worth doing. Right now I’m grading a certain number of essays that are marginally grammatical. As for research–I have been recommending JSTOR to my students as a useful tool for their historiographical research paper. Also, “don’t just look at this university’s library catalog–look at the one at the university that’s just half an hour away! You can walk over there and take out books!”

    Let me shift the topic slightly: do you think there should be an I class for *graduate* students? I had to pick up a certain amount of stuff on the fly, and I was extraordinaily lucky to have an advisor with encyclopedic knowledge of the locations of sources in my field. But I sometimes thought that an I-101 course would have been handy.

  5. k8 says:

    Ummm…there’s a whole lot more to writing than grammar. Even those who write essays that are not “marginally grammatical” aren’t necessarily experts in academic genres and arguments. And to be honest, those are the things that, cognitively, are more difficult to master.

  6. The writing guru at my U says that all disciplines should teach writing in their discipline (which in his version includes research) and not depend on an English writing course or a writing program to do it for them. I think he’s right. Teaching the conventions of a discipline is best done by those in the discipline. But of course that means that non-humanities depts. have to overcome their own fears of (teaching) writing and everyone has to decide whether to devote specific course(s) (fr. sem/sr. sem?) to it, or incorporate it in every course. Of course, assigning writing means commenting and grading–he has all sorts of tips on how to do it quicker and better yourself and how to train students to assess each other’s and their own writing.

    Our U of course decided then to drop its writing requirement, institute a two-course oral speaking requirement, and kind of hope the info. literacy thing happens somewhere. Why listen to experts when you can make gen ed requirements compiled by Pataki cronies and corporate types even worse on your own?

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I do think we should still teach writing within our disciplines in the way that we do in our ordinary courses. In most of my classes, I try to pay instructional attention to writing. I just don’t think most of my students need a class where I pay *extraordinary* attention to writing.

    K8 has a good point, but it’s one that has led me to think that even writing classes should really not be about writing but about argument and persuasion. I think teaching writing for many faculty begins too far downstream a lot of time, with writing itself.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t mean to say that writing is a mere “skill” in a way that information literacy is not, but I can see how it looks like I’m saying that. I just think it’s more that collective ownership over and responsibility for the things which are discussable about writing is (at least at my institution) well established. The piece that isn’t well-established is exactly what k8 suggests: the nature of argument and persuasion within disciplines, the root of writing. We maybe pay too much attention to its branches.

    I do think, however, that we’re at a time of enormous consequence for information, whereas the place of writing within knowledge production is by relative comparison stable. That’s part of what I think makes information more “discussable” in a liberal arts context: there are real branching pathways ahead, real decisions to be made.

  9. jpool says:

    Part of what you identify as personal insecurity about research methods I think all too often becomes a kind of de facto philosophical stance within the profession — that research is such a idiosyncratic process of diligent toil and happy accidents that it can’t possibly be taught and instead has to somehow be mystically learned by doing (not that there’s anything wrong with learning by doing as such, but that this often seems to substitute mentoring a student through a particular research problem for training in more generalizable research methods and principles). I shudder to think how often (in my admittedly small anecdotal experience) I’ve encountered senior research seminars that have had no real discussion of research methods beyond the standard let’s-have-the-librarians-talk-to-you-collectively session.

    To respond to withywindle, when I went through my graduate institution they only had a research methods course for Africanists, which as far as I was concerned was incredibly useful. They’ve now incorporated some aspects of general training in professional methodology, alongside some theoretical readings from across the discipline, into a first-year seminar, with, I get the impression, mixed results, but at least it’s a start.

    I think you also get to something important in the “To search like me, they’d have to be me.” line. I think it’s easy for advanced scholars to forget how much harder it is to do meaningful research without the store of background knowledge that they’ve accumulated over the years. Without the skills of “I’ve heard of them,” or “Maybe I should look in Suchandsuch’s bibliography,” or for that matter the ability to thumb through an introduction and distinguish roughly between a serious scholar and a one-off hack, it becomes much harder to determine the worth of each new land that one encounters.

    Part of what can complicate this training process for the foreseeable future is that information technology will remain mixed between increasingly useful and/or complicated electronic databases, print and paper reference works and, you know, books. At least a couple of years ago, there was a section of British Parliamentary records at Emory that remained caught between microform and an imagined future of electronic access, and so continued their existence as (non-reproducable) projection cards. This has probably been fixed by now, but, while the card catalog is dead, we’re still going to have to remain methodological cyborgs for some time.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I do believe that I can learn with diligence to describe at least some of the heuristics I’m using when I move into a new area of knowledge, and more, that my students can learn those heuristics from me. I think I can also teach them to be reflective about the heuristics they themselves have, and whether all of them are productive or not.

  11. k8 says:

    One thing I’ve found useful is learning about information seeking behaviors – particularly the differences between novice (i.e. students) and expert (i.e. faculty) researchers. It really helps me think about how I teach my students to approach research – especially when I combine it with rhetorical invention.
    A fairly decent (although somewhat older) article that deals with these differences is: Leckie, G. J. Desperately seeking citations: uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process. The Journal of Academic Librarianship v. 22 (May 1996) p. 201-8. (found in ProQuest, Education FullText, ScienceDirect, and Library Lit and Information FullText – yeah, my librarian side is pretty strong)

    This is one of my research areas, so I’m obviously more than a little interested. Anyway, I like to consider how students are approaching library-based research when I construct my assignments and when I provide instruction and prepare them for instruction from a librarian.

    Oh – and I very much consider teaching argument and persuasion to be part of teaching specific genres of writing. I think that most of us in Composition and Rhetoric would agree with that. Aristotle, Toulmin, and others regularly find their way into my classes.

  12. withywindle says:

    K8 – Thank you for the Leckie citation! I’ve just downloaded it.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, that looks really useful, thanks.

  14. Western Dave says:

    As a member of the class of ’89, the last class that did not have PDC requirements, I think you underestimate the role that PDCs (now Ws) played in upping the ante around writing at Swarthmore. I can only think of one class I took in my first two years where writing was thoughtfully taught (shout out to Chuck Beitz!). Too often, the one paper for the class came back over the summer or after the next term started, which wasn’t helpful. For me, learning to write was something that happened in graduate school. When I came back to teach at Swarthmore a decade later, everyone was more aware of writing and how to teach it well within the discipline. Because of the training that went down when PDCs were initiated (and there was a lot of it), the faculty improved as a whole and institutional knowledge was created that helped new faculty learn how to do these things well. Don’t underestimate how fragile this is!
    The I requirement is an excellent idea. Like the PDCs, it should involve a fair amount of faculty training before implementation. One of the most useful things I did with my environmental history class was a library day complete with structured activities. The librarian (whose name I forget, sorry!) and I spent an hour or so planning the class, including the activities. Students had to find images from a particular data base, an old NYT article pertaining to a particular event, find four books on a particular topic and so on. It was well worth it and the term papers I got at the end of the year were, for the most part, very strong. The student feedback indicated that they really appreciated this aspect of the course, especially juniors and seniors who were external exam and did not have a lot of experience. I would say a good half the class used ILL for their papers, which struck me as a high proportion. I used it once, unsuccessfully as an undergraduate. A handful (four out of twenty something?) used Spring Break to hit a local archive or collection for their project. So go forward with the I class!

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    I think your history is spot-on. I just think that the revolution that PDCs brought about was accomplished by the late 1990s, though: I don’t see it going away.

    I’ve done some “scavenger hunts” in a limited way as an information-seeking exercise, and I’m going to keep thinking about ways to break down information-seeking into teachable chunks.

  16. Jerry White says:

    I read jpool’s comment and shuddered with recognition. What s/he describes as the defacto philosophical stance, that “research is such a idiosyncratic process of diligent toil and happy accidents that it can’t possibly be taught and instead has to somehow be mystically learned by doing” pretty well sums up my approach. Every term, I literally have a “let’s-have-the-librarians-talk-to-you-collectively session”; well, one librarian, actually, our subject librarian, who does a great 90-minute session that introduces the students to the relevant databases and search syntax. So perhaps I am the very embodiment of the faculty-level problem here.

    But I really believe that a lot of research — at least in the humanities — is indeed about happy accidents, and that these accidents are a product of nothing but time time time time among the stacks, and so yes, diligent toil. The problem I have with the new technology of research is that so much of it seems awfully dependent on figuring out the right keywords for the search engine. As far as I can tell this both eliminates — or at least vastly reduces — the chances for surprise, and, I think more damagingly to undergraduates, gives the illusion that if something doesn’t come back from your search terms then “there’s nothing out there.”

    Certainly at the graduate level we need better kinds of training in archival methods, bibliography, etc. I got exactly none of this as part of my PhD in Comparative Literature and I have had to make up for a lot of lost time on my own, mostly incompetently, I fear. But at the undergraduate level I feel like our time is better spent cultivating a general sense of intellectual curiosity but more importantly trying to instill stamina, patience and openness to failure. I can’t think of better ways to acquire these “skills” than spending as much time in the library as possible, with only a vague sense of what you’re looking for.

  17. Laura says:

    A lot to unpack here. As someone who’s trained as a writing specialist and who works as an IT specialist, I think you’ve made a lot of valid points. I turned down a job recently because the writing courses were being taught as skill courses where you just taught thesis statements and grammar and god knows what else without having anything of substance to write about. Shudder. Finding information is not just important for academic research, but for life. A least a few times a day, I find myself turning to various search engines in order to find good information. And I read and digest a ton of information every day. I think information literacy is about finding what you need, but also about knowing what to do with it. Perhaps a good model to begin with is not “outsourcing” but partnering. Instead of having a librarian come talk to the class once or having an IT person come demonstrate technical tools once, one could create a partnership where those folks work with the class on a regular basis. I’m not sure how the logistics of this would work, but I’m sure there are many possibilities. To back up your point that faculty sometimes don’t fully appreciate the importance of this skill, I once saw survey data that showed that faculty expected students to learn how to find information, but they expected them to learn that skill from anyone but the faculty themselves, sometimes seemingly by sheer osmosis.

Comments are closed.