My students have a paper to write every semester. This is the worst torture for them, of course. Not only to they have to write, but they have to visit a museum (often a revelation for them), and they have to read articles or encyclopedia entries or excerpts from books in order to evaluate the museum exhibit. I gave up on letting them find their own research because -- well, that's a whole other story about teaching them that "I put these search terms into Google and these were the first ten hits that came up" not being the best research method. I know they can't be learning that in their writing classes, but then, they can take a whole host of classes requiring writing and research without having taken the entry-level writing class. That is also another huge problem in the structure of the curriculum; and, dammit, I do actually have to teach them some history.
I digress. The point here being that they have a list of things to read, and these things are located somewhere in the library, either in the databases on the library web-site, in reserves, or -- gasp! -- on the shelves in books. I tell them this explicitly in class and on the instructions; but I'm realizing that knowing that the readings are there to be found is, for once, not the actual problem.
The actual problem is that there is a reason that they think research means "I put these search terms into Google and these were the first hits that came up." The reason is that their entire experience in finding things on their own involves that very method. They cannot imagine that there is another way to find information; and I face a room of ignorance -- not stupidity, not willful ignorance, but honest-to-god examples of people who don't know and don't know what they don't know -- that I cannot begin to fathom. Heck, I don't know what they don't know, and every time I think that I have assumed completely blank slates, and assumed a certain basic level of ability to figure out basic problems, I find that I am wrong.
I ran into this problem this week. A student chose a museum exhibit, and one of the readings for that exhibit is a long, essay entry in a specialized encyclopedia (and I cringe that I am considering an encyclopedia a legitimate source; but, see the above problem of blank slates and difficulties in figuring things out). Fortunately, this student was aware of what he didn't know or at least that he might not know, and asked questions.
"Can we find this online," he asked.
"No," I said. "This is an actual book in the library."
He looked perplexed.
"You know, those things with pages between two boards that are on the shelves?" I teased. Then, I apologized for teasing, although I meant it in good humor, because clearly he didn't get that this is something common that old fogies like me encounter among the younger generation and I was just as much teasing myself for being an old fogy as he was for being of this electric information age.
He still looked perplexed. "How do I find it?" he asked.
"In the online catalog," I said, assuming that was the end of it.
You know what assuming does, right? Fortunately, this student wasn't going to let me inadvertently make an ass out of him by assuming that he knew what the catalog was or how that might lead him to the book in question. After class, he came up to ask me, "How do I find it?"
"It's on the shelves," I said.
"Yeah, but where?"
I opened up the library website and showed him where to put in the title of the book, then showed him the book's record. "This is how you find out where it's located in the library," I said.
"Oh!" he said in the sort of tone that suggests he was thinking, "who knew it was that easy?" He pointed to the links in the record and asked, "so I just click on that and it will take me to the encyclopedia?"
"Hunh?" I thought, followed by, "oh! They are so used to encountering the concept of an encyclopedia in the form of Wikipedia that they think all encyclopedias are online. He thinks the record is a link, not a map." Not an irrational assumption, given that many encyclopedias have shifted to online forms.
"No," I told him. "This record gives you the call number, which tells you where to find the book in the library."
He gave me another perplexed look. His classmate, who had joined us because she had the very same questions, gave me a look as if I had just told them that the Easter Bunny would deliver the book to them.
"That's the call number there," I said, pointing. "It tells you where the book is located on the shelves."
They both looked at me as if I were speaking in Klingon and expected them to understand me perfectly. At which point this thought dawned on me: "they have never in their lives had to find a book in a library. I really am speaking Klingon to them." So, I asked, "you haven't ever had to do this have you?"
They gave me sheepish looks. "That's o.k.," I said. "I grew up with a librarian mother and I'm a librarian, too. I sometimes forget that not everyone knows this." So, I explained to them about the way that call numbers work, and that, if they get lost, they can ask the reference librarian.
Let me tell you, the librarians are ecstatic when you ask them library questions, not "where is the bathroom?" or "can you help me fix the printer?" I can't blame them! I feel the same way when I am asked a history question and not a grading question.
After they left, my head almost imploded. "How?" I thought. "How can you not know how to find a library book?"
How, indeed. They can't because, unlike me, they did not grow up in a house with a librarian or with people who went to libraries. (Shoot! I even had a feeling of being a real dinosaur because I remember card catalogs, which were in use as recently as 25 years ago, and they have no frame of reference for such a creature.) Libraries are not places that they have frequented, and they don't think of books as sources of information. If they go to libraries, they don't go to find information in the library itself. They they go to use the library computer to surf the internet for information or to print out documents. The library is, for them, essentially a big computer lab. Public libraries, with their funding slashed beyond viability, are not open when they can go to them, so they more often turn to the school's computer lab to do what they would otherwise do in a library, and they treat the school's library like a computer lab. If they study in either the public or the school's library, they go to study their textbooks and (god willing!) their notes. They don't think that they can just reach out and expand what they are learning by pulling a book off of the shelf or logging into the library databases. The riches of the library are right before their eyes, and they have no idea because they have not yet learned to recognize them.
I'm not being a Luddite. I know that libraries are not just about the books. They are Grand Centrals for information, be in online in books or with the help of the librarian. The problem is with what people call "information literacy," or, more accurately, the lack thereof. If the information is not in the first ten hits of a Google search -- and the Google search with only the specific terms of their chosen topic -- then it either must not exist, or the means of finding it is a mystery. Strategies for searching, or even knowing that there should be other ways to get at the information, seem unknowable.
The process of education should be a process of knowing what once seemed unknowable. Those two students now (let's hope!) know how to find more information. I think this is a great gift that I hope they can use. At the same time, I'm naively shocked that they just learned this. Yet, what in their experience has led them to learn this earlier. They are, after all, freshmen. I can't speak to their grade school experience because I don't know what goes on in grade school, really, other than lots of testing, and I certainly don't know what went on in their particular grade school, or on what they were concentrating regardless of what was going on.
What did occur to me is that the librarians and various writing teachers try to teach them information literacy, and we are all supposed to be doing so in these programs about writing across the curriculum or disciplines or whatever. The weakness of those programs, however, is that teaching this sort of literacy, especially when they arrive in our class with little to no foundation for it, takes a lot of time and we already have to actually teach the content of our own discipline. Heck, the same is true even in writing classes. Writing teachers have to teach about how to write a sentence, how to organize an essay, how to construct an argument, how to take notes. A single assignment or class or orientation does not suffice to make students even remotely capable of even the most basic research beyond "search terms in Google."
I start to wonder if, given this day and age and the habits that the students already bring to our school if maybe there should be more than a library orientation in order to teach students to effectively find and evaluate information. I wonder if a whole course should be devoted to this -- a course with as much weight as the freshman composition and college algebra and introductory survey courses of all disciplines. I'm thinking of something like the course on reference work that I took in library school, except tailored for freshmen of the information age. This seems like something too important to be left to a class meeting or an orientation or anything that doesn't require some focused exercise and discipline on basic research skills taught by information specialists. It would provide a foundation upon which professors could build in order to teach students how to research for their particular discipline (or, so one assumes, given that one big problem we also face is the fact that our students aren't transferring skills like writing a sentence from one class to another).
Meanwhile, I look out at my class and I wonder what do they not know and how can they figure out that they don't know it, and I wonder what I don't know that they don't know and how can I figure out that they don't know it. Things that I can't imagine not knowing because I don't remember a time when I didn't are things that they have no idea exist. How on earth can I breach that gap of ignorance on both sides to make the learning process slightly less painful and expect from them results that they have a remote possibility of achieving?