You’re Out of Your Element – Students & Scholarly Publishing

Anne-Marie Deitering & Kate Gronemyer. (2011). Beyond peer-reviewed articles: Using blogs to enrich students’ understanding of scholarly work. portal: Libraries and the Academy 11(1), 489-503. Retrieved January 22, 2011 from Project MUSE database.

If I could hug an article, this one would get a big ol’ bear hug. I love the message, the ideas, the simplicity and the casual call-to-action embedded within.

Deitering and Gronemyer work closely with Oregon State University’s 200-level composition course (WR 222), much like our own Rhetoric 306/309. In the process of teaching library instruction classes to this population, they struggled with a way to help students effectively use peer-reviewed articles to write research papers or find evidence to support an argument.

As in other RIOT articles that we have discussed, the cognitive development plays a large role in finding, evaluating and using this information effectively. When it comes to mental models, generally students enter college with rigid ideas of absolute truths and exit with a more flexible understanding that knowledge is in flux. Deitering and Gronemyer cite the Reflective Judgement Model in particular because, “

[i]t is particularly useful in the context of information literacy instruction because it specifically examines how students understand the knowledge creation process and how they understand the value of expert or authoritative information. The model divides development into seven stages, grouped into three periods: pre-reflective thinking, quasi-reflective thinking, and reflective thinking. Pre-reflective thinkers still see knowledge as revealed and truths as absolute, while fully reflective thinkers know that knowledge is constructed and that there are problems for which there are no obvious solutions.

The ability to manage uncertainty within the massive streams of information that students consume is also, as Deitering and Gronemyer point out, a characteristic of an information literate person.

However, with a rigid understanding of what is right and wrong, the ability to actually use and interpret that scholarly information as evidence is incredibly difficult for undergraduates. It is even more difficult when they are introduced to this information without a context for the rules governing the process or how this information is used among the scholars with that field.

The latter point is one that I have never heard addressed in the literature before and because the authors make several good points about it, I’ll note them below:

  • Disciplines have shared standards that govern the process of creating new information.
  • The validation of research is crucial to building an archive of knowledge within a discipline.
  • Scholars never write to prove what is already accepted within that archive. Instead they use the archive to back up what their new research details.

Deitering and Gronemyer decide that for students to truly understand the place peer-reviewed articles in context, they must know that:

  • Research that inspires more research, more questions, and more inquiry is the best kind of research. Scholars are not trying to write the last word on their topics; to them, there is always another question to answer.
  • Relying on the ideas and the work of others makes an argument stronger, not weaker.

By incorporating the above ideas into a discussion of research, librarians or professors can show the importance and necessity behind disciplinary dialog. In fact, comparing different disciplinary models of publishing can also highlight the different information literacy skills that are intrinsically tied to a particular discipline.

We all understand the idea that asking students to read a peer-reviewed article without context is mostly bad pedagogy (and you aren’t going to win any five star Rate-My-Professor reviews). One of the authors cited in the article, Gerald Graff, differs by saying the real cause of the inability for undergraduates to comprehend scholarly literature is that it never specifically states why their research or their conclusions matter because to scholars, it’s all very obvious:

Graff further suggests that students not only fail to understand the significance of academic arguments but also (and more fundamentally) their purpose. They assume that academic authors want to win, or prevail, as one would in a debate. To students, winning an argument means that the argument is over. Academics engaged in normal science expect the argument will continue. This does not mean that they do not want to be convincing but that they want their contributions to the conversation to spark more ideas, more connections to other issues, and most of all, more research. Students often believe that a conclusion that is challenged or disputed is weak; scholars believe that conclusions so obvious that no one will argue with them are not worthy of publication; “claims that are arguable and solicit disagreement are a sign of an argument’s viability, not its failure.” In other words, where students see weakness, academics see impact.

On the contrary, what many of the students are accustomed to, across the disciplines, are the (supposedly) unbiased, “emotionless” textbook content that presents itself as an authoritative source, yet how often do we ask students to check the references in their textbooks or google the authors of specific chapters?

Deitering and Gronemyer suggest introducing students to blogs where scholars engage in these casual, yet extremely valuable conversations that contribute to their own research and publication processes.  The authors note in particular group discipline-specific blogs like Crooked Timber, Cliopatria or Cocktail Party Physics. This group of scholars will comment on each other’s work, while also fielding comments from the general public. Another blog, Wicked Anomie written by a graduate student, provides insight into the scholarly communication process while also addressing  how to teach this type of content using her personal narrative.  The authors also discuss specific tools like Google Blog search, Technorati, and also discipline-specific blogging sites that direct librarians to particular portals of blog content.

Using blogs in an instruction class may not be anything new, but the way in which the authors ask us to interpret and explain blogs in the context of scholarly communication is quite thought-provoking because:

  • it provides context for the subject matter, while showing a real-time conversation about that piece.
  • it shows that their voice does matter to a conversation (for example, one commenter on a scholarly blog was able to prove that research was plagiarized),
  • it will connect freely accessible content with proprietary journals that may not be available to students after they graduate.

So, now that blogs have been around the block for a while and their newness has rubbed off, what are you doing (or thinking about doing) with blogs that could incorporate the type of discussions mentioned in the article?

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