(Make sure to check out the first installment of this series so all this makes sense!)
Part Two – Searching for Sources
Last week, I asked my students to determine the elements of effective communication so they could consider how Instagram would serve as a useful medium for brief historical narratives. This week, I wanted my class to work with databases available to them so they could develop worthwhile methods for finding sources–and, in turn, when and how to take alternate routes.
Talking about Sources
I began this week’s class with a general discussion about research methods. In order get a sense of what information-gathering skills my class already possessed, I wanted to cover three general points. First, I wanted to know how they encountered information on a daily basis–whether the news they read had already been mediated through their social media networks, or if they deliberately sought out journalism from its source, I also wanted to learn how my students did research for larger assignments in other classes. (I stressed we were in a shame-free zone, and I would not hold any less-than-kosher methods against them–especially because I had abysmal research methods during undergrad.) Finally, I wanted to gauge how familiar they were with their university’s online library system, particularly its collection of databases. I figured that I could not expect them to find sources unless I first knew how comfortable they were with the general process.
Most of my students asserted that they were quite familiar with the university’s online library system, and had already used its databases to conduct research. (Whether I had unfairly lowballed the skill set of survey course students–or had simply projected my own haphazard teenage work process–is a matter of debate.)
Assured my students could easily build upon last week’s discussion, I had them assemble into their teams and asked them to navigate the university library’s online databases. I wanted them to determine what kind of information they could find for their projects simply using library resources–and, in the process, figure out where these databases may be less-than-helpful.
My hope was that by wading through library databases together, my students would also begin to hone and narrow their team topic–developing something less massive than, say, “revolutions” or “colonialism.” I also hoped they would realize that, often, images are trickier to find on university databases than journal articles, as are relatively recent sources. Ideally, this would have inspired them to switch over to other methods–in particular, using a search engine.
Confident as my students generally were in their research method skills, they were less surefooted in how to apply those skills to hone a specific for their projects. Above all, students were hesitant to toggle between their library’s databases and a search engine. In particular, they seemed a surprised when I suggested they could Google results–even clickbait-y listicles–as a way to mine for keywords in their database queries. Part of developing an Internet Bullshit Detector is not only knowing when sources are fair and foul, but also sensing how deeply you can rely on any particular source. Sometimes, someone else’s cheap quick work can provide you enough clues to dig deeper and do something more substantive and meaningful.
In other words, I had somehow underestimated their comfort level with library resources, but also overestimated their ability to go between different methods of searching for information.
Meeting with each of the teams, I was able to troubleshoot both individual and group-sized challenges. Sometimes the issue stemmed from my initial team assignments. One group was still unsure what its broader project theme would be. I asked each member what, based on what they had looked into so far, they would be personally interested in researching further. I realized soon enough that the group of four made more sense as two duos: two working on the Lusophone world, and the other two working on France during and after World War Two. It makes more sense to let students with strong research interests clique off rather than have a larger group slug through a soggy and useless compromise. (This is seen elsewhere in academia as “The Random-Ass Conference Panel that Helps None of the Participants and Burdens the Moderator and Audience Alike”)
Putting Methods into Practice
I wanted to reinforce some of the methods that we eventually reached during the segment of class devoted to the Instagram project, so I turned the second half of class into another group exercise.
Breaking the class into three sections, I asked each to dive a bit deeper into a topic related to the material on slavery they read for that day: US confederates who moved to Brazil after the Civil War; slave labor practices in Florida tomato farms; and slavery in contemporary Mauritania.
I asked students to focus on both content and process: while I wanted each group to explain a bit about their assigned topic when we reassembled, I also wanted them to concentrate on the methods they used to find information about their topic. What could they gather from their university’s databases? Where did those databases fall short? And what information could they gather from their topic using effective search engine practices?
Each of the groups experienced potential pitfalls that, when we reframed them in general terms, could serve as useful research practices for their term projects:
- The group who looked into Brazilian confederates realized that search results between “os confederados,” “the confederados,” and “Brazilian confederates” were significantly different–and a reminder to consider variations in phrasing when researching a non-English/non-U.S. topic.
- The students who looked into Immokalee agricultural workers, meanwhile, realized that the university databases provided better geological information than historical information. Their library’s database resources may be a good place to learn about how patently absurd it is to grow tomatoes in Florida, but a general web search is going to provide more information on the (incredible) work done by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to put pressure on fast food and grocery companies to only purchase from farms with “clean labor” practices.
- Those who looked into slavery in Mauritania realized that the university’s Google Scholar function provided an ideal mediating function between historical data and recent developments in the ongoing enslavement of people in the country.
After we recapped, I reminded my students of the assignment printed on that week’s handout. I asked them to find several sources related to their specific project entry, using the same methods we’d built over that day’s class. I asked them to focus on method when writing their response: where did university databases provide useful secondary sources for their topic, and where did they have to turn to external search methods?
This week, I think I really underestimated the level of information literacy my students had coming into class. But at the same time, I also didn’t come in with any assessments to measure whether the skills my students said they had were sharp enough for historical research. I think this is tied into my aim not to overwhelm students with this project–I didn’t want the work to get in the way of the broader lessons to learn from the work. Nonetheless, I will likely develop a small activity to use at the beginning of this segment to see how nimbly students can search for different types of information. While I am not a fan of classwork for its own sake, this may be an instance that benefits from an in-class assignment or some loosely-framed form for students to complete.
I would also give the second half of this lesson more formal structure when I run it again. Giving students more direct questions upfront–“What are the limits of using databases for this topic? What credible sources did you gather using Google?”–would likely diminish the initial hesitation in the room when I have them break into groups.
I was surprised how long it took for students to be on board with the idea that Google is a useful device for finding worthwhile sources. In many ways it felt like a hypercorrection on their end–or, less judgmentally, that they have not had many opportunities to use search engines in a focused way as part of the legitimate research process.
In any case, while I failed on several grounds with this lesson, I believe that it can be refined when I run this project again.