On The Use of Sources, Citations, and Links

As educators, we spend a great deal of time trying to teach students how to research, how to use sources, and, perhaps most importantly of all, how to tell a good source from a bad one. I know how to help students do this in person, where we can work with lots of practical examples; I used to think it was possible to actively teach source evaluation online. I’ve created guides and handouts on source evaluation, as well as linked to other guides, like this one on “Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask” from UC Berkeley.

Of late, I’ve grown less sure that it’s possible to teach resource evaluation remotely, and more sure that it’s a skill that many people desperately need.

I’ve spent the last year working as a paid blogger. I’m writing about a variety of subjects in which I have some expertise, and I’m blogging much as I do on my own sites. I strive for accuracy and specificity, I provide citations, and I link to solid sources.

But my peers are much less likely to link to sources, or provide citations; and when they do link to a source, more often than not, it’s one that I’d identify as a resource to avoid. I note that most, if not all, my blogging colleagues are college educated, and many have graduate degrees. But increasingly, I’m noticing not only my colleagues’ blog posts have citation problems, but others’ blog posts and articles by professional journalists (both on line and in print), and discussion forum posts that demonstrate that the writers can’t actually tell if a resource is decent, or utter crap.

Here’s an example of a source a fellow paid blogger linked to in a post about Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The piece “Frankenstein: Themes, Images and Metaphor Birth, Biology and the Feminist Angle in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is from a Suite 101 site; pretty much anyone who is functionally literate in English can (and does) post on Suite 101. That’s generally true of most content sites, and I’m not meaning that as a slam; I think it’s a virtue. That said, there are problems with treating all content, from all sources, as equally valid. This piece opens with this sentences:

In 1818 Shelley created a much loved Gothic novel, Frankenstein, which she would use as a medium to present her ideas and thoughts on birth, biology and feminism. Birth is, for most women, considered to be one of the most important, precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced. Mary Shelley, in her novel Frankenstein took this theme and distorted it in order to produce one of the most famous gothic novels ever written.

There are some minor infelicities; much-loved needs a hyphen, Frankenstein isn’t the actual title of the novel, nor is it italicized as a title. But the real problem is that the ideas are trite, and that they are expressed as a string of prepositional phrases. There’s the ugly duplication in “ideas and thoughts,” and a fair amount of “hesitation” padding—“for most women,” “considered to be,” and then more synonym phrases—“precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced.”

And of course, there’s the paucity of thought inherent in the assertion itself—and the disconcerting agreement problem inherent in “considered to be one of the most” to modify “event,” in the singular.

No one is perfect, and heaven knows, I can’t spell or proof my own prose. I make mistakes all the time. But those two sentences were bad enough, given the absence of content, that I read them and wondered “who wrote this?”

The author is a grad student enrolled in a Comparative Literature M.A. program in London.

In other words, if you don’t know enough about Mary Shelley or her novel to realize that the piece is stupid, if you aren’t a sophisticated enough reader to know that the English is less than acceptable in terms of basic grammar and syntax (never mind style), then the author appears to have legitimate “credentials.”

I’m also noticing another issue related to an inability to evaluate a source; a phenomenon that researchers call the Dunning-Kruger Effect; that’s when “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it” (Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77 no. 6 (1999): 1121–34). Essentially, as blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes (quoting Kieran Healy):

[A]s a famous paper by Kruger and Dunning showed, people who are bad at what they do are generally also incapable of understanding that they suck&hmdasand this directly contributes to inflated self-perception. So, incompetence tends to make people cocky and people prefer cocky judgements over demonstrated expertise, which is pretty much the worst of both worlds.

On a community forum post recently, a mother explaining why she is against vaccination for her kids wrote:

I’ve read over thousands of pages of actual studies that were conducted on the individual adjuvents and attenuated viruses and bacterials. History of vaccines, of disease, demographics with a medical jargon book at hand if I didn’t understand something. I’ve read all the inserts to the vaccines, I’ve watched the vaccine (aka drug companies) companies. I’ve come to my conclusion that vaccination is not for me or mine.

This is someone who thinks Internet research—research she can’t understand without a specialized dictionary—gives her the same sort of qualifications as someone with an M.D. One reason I know that she isn’t an M.D. is that she gets basic science facts wrong, repeatedly, refers to outdated descriptions of how vaccinations are made, and thinks this site is a medically researched and scientifically valid site.

I don’t really have a solution on an individual level. But I do think one of the things we can do, all of us, as writers and educators, is keep providing better sources, better links and as kindly and gently as possible, point out why a particular citation is less than respectable. At least that way, by linking to good sources, we’ll eventually drive the lesser citations down in search engine rankings.

On Homeschooling

Tony Woodlief has written a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, opinion piece about why he and his spouse have chosen to homeschool their children. He writes, in part:

The reason we’ve broken with tradition, or perhaps reverted to a deeper tradition, is not because we oppose sex education, or because we think their egos are too tender for public schools. It’s because we can do a superior job of educating our children. We want to cultivate in them an intellectual breadth and curiosity that public schools no longer offer.

Somewhere there is now an indignant teacher typing an email to instruct me about his profession’s nobility. Perhaps some public schools educate children in multiple languages and musical instruments, have them reading classic literature by age seven, offer intensive studies of math, science, logic, and history, and coach them in public speaking and writing. The thing is, I don’t know where those schools are.

I think were I to have children, I’d want to do much the same thing. Not so much because my own K-12 experience was mostly horrendous, but because of the education I received from my over-educated, intellectually curious book-loving parents. They encouraged me, and provoked me, and fed my brain and mind, while most of the time I was, quite honestly, just parked in a holding pattern by well-meaning but over-worked teachers. (Granted, there were some exceptions: Mr. Muchnick, and Virgina Hall, to name two).

Had I stayed in high school, I would have graduated in 1980. My high school was, and is, one of the better ones in N.H., but I was essentially warehoused. I spent every spare moment in the library, and in the Keene Public Library, the tiny Westmoreland public library, the Brattleboro Public Library . . . not to mention reading pretty much everything else I got my eyes near, and being regularly “fed” books by my older siblings.

But, for a variety of reasons, despite some wonderful teachers, like Mr. Jobin, endlessly patient in French, I was invisible in high school; my guidance counselor told me that I wasn’t college material, and suggested I attend Colby Sawyer for a secretarial degree, where I could meet a nice young doctor from Dartmouth.

It’s much worse now, where “No child left behind” has frequently resulted in a cult of mediocrity.

Go read what Woodlief has to say. He makes a lot of sense.

How do we find excellent online teachers?

I’ve copied the following, with permission, from a post on an online forum. The original poster is a professional educator and adminstrator in a graduate program which relies on online instruction. I think the post asks some good questions.

It will come as no surprise to anyone here that the biggest challenge I face is not in finding excellent teachers who know their subject cold. Rather, it’s (you got it) finding people with all of that going for them who can write in the way that you have to in order to give of yourself, show yourself, online.

My big hiring mistakes have all had the same thing in common — they all glide around classrooms like they’ve spent a lifetime in the theater (i.e., they’re great “performers” and know their stuff so cold that they can hold students spellbound for three hours)… but ask them to commit that to paper, and it’s just no go. We’ve always given our own graduate faculty first crack at writing these courses… usually disastrous, because they’re as bad at writing what they do as they are good at doing it!

Asking for writing samples has been a waste of time… it’s just plain not the same genre, and there’s absolutely nothing to be gained from their last article in The Journal of American YouPickIts.

The same thing happens from time to time with the folks who tend the discussions in the class… they don’t know how to show or give themselves to students in their writing… and that’s what it takes when teaching and learning relationships have to happen and develop in print.

How can I “screen” those applicants with credentials and teaching success for their ability to function online, whose persona in print reflects an appreciation for the very specific art of being able to “talk” in black and white like they do in a classroom? Or am I doomed to a lifetime of having to endlessly edit the stuff of people who know something I need them to share, so that it doesn’t put my students into a coma?

What suggestions can we offer about finding applicants who will excel at online instruction?

Google No Longer Accepting Termpaper Mill Ads

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Google is no longer accepting AdWords ads from mills:

Academic paper-writing services, or “paper mills,” will no longer be able to buy search terms in the Google AdWords program, and thus their ads will no longer pop up in the “sponsored links” sections of a Google search-results page.

You can read the article here, if you’re a subscriber, anyway. They know they’ll have to hand-check sites, but they do seem to have an idea of what a mill is, and does, and how they work, which means they might even spot the more clever ones.

If I see a Google press release, or a more public article about Google’s policy, I’ll link it here.

Turnitin Sued

My friend Dawno alerted me to this story about anti-plagiarism service Turnitin.com being sued for copyright violation by four students. Turnitin is a service contracted by universities and schools. Faculty submit student papers for analysis by Turnitin which compares the text to papers stored in an internal database and to text stored on the Web; Turnitin uses an algorithm based-text-string analysis of the sort an experienced teacher engages in when we use our own skills and Google to spot plagiarism. Turnitin looks for strings that match within a few characters, and then provides a “report” that color codes text and and offers statistics and URLs.

I’ve had problem with the concepts behind Turnitin right from the start; I blogged about my concerns regarding violating student’s rights some time ago. Now, students are suing Turnitin for copyright violation because their papers are databased and used for subsequent comparisons without their permission; I suspect we’ll see a privacy violation, particularly in the context of FERPA soon.