Burke’s Parlor Tricks

From Library Babel Fish, November 11, 2011

Today a colleague and I were feeling discouraged about the library sessions we’d been having with first year students. We typically have fifty minutes to introduce students to the library and help them get started on an assignment that will give them practice writing in an academic mode. In fifty minutes you don’t get very far, particularly when the assignment asks them to find three or four quality articles on a topic. It’s not hard to find articles, but what do you do when you find 3,000 of them? Quite often the answer students are given is “limit your search to peer reviewed articles.” Great; that narrows it down to 2,340. And very few of those articles are written in such a way that a non-expert who isn’t highly skilled at skimming complex texts can grasp the main point without a lot of work.That’s daunting when you have 2,340 articles to sort out. Not surprisingly, the choices students make are often not very good ones.

We’ve worked hard to make libraries inhospitable for beginners. It wasn’t deliberate. Twenty years ago, before the age of abundance, we had a small number of the most basic and important journals in the disciplines we teach, and indexes that covered the basics. Now we have access to masses of journals and databases that include full text of thousands of journals, including many that we would never choose if they were a la carte. We librarians assumed the more, the merrier, but for the non-expert, it’s a nightmare.

We know from Project Information Literacy’s research that students actively try to reduce the number of choices they have to make in order to get their assignments done. We know from the Citation Project that first year students who use sources in their writing rarely write about them with much understanding. They don’t summarize their sources, they harvest quotes, and nearly half the time the quotes they use are from the first page of the source. We know from research conducted by Andrea Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford comparing thousands of undergraduate papers from 1986 and 2006 that first year students are asked to write longer papers and are much more likely to be asked to write using sources than in the past (see pages 792-3 of “Mistakes are a Fact of Life,” CCC June 2008). Writing that involves students in research and argument has triumphed, yet what first year students do to cope with these assignments seems to defeat the purpose, which we assume is to learn to do independent research, make critical choices among sources, and use them effectively in constructing a written argument. What students actually do, though, is go shopping for bits of stuff that they assemble according to instructions.

We realized that we both think conversation is a much more accurate and powerful way to think about academic writing, so we decided to work on a box of tricks to share with our first term seminar instructors – what we quickly started to call Burke’s Parlor Tricks. Kenneth Burke described the way we talk about ideas as an unending conversation. When we enter a parlor and try to join a conversation in progress, we first have to listen and try to figure out what’s going on. At some point, when we’ve picked up enough context, we can join in. And when we leave the parlor, we leave the conversation still in full flow. What we’d like to students to have is some sense of scholarship as conversation in progress and some tips on how to figure out who’s talking and how to pick up the threads without getting completely lost. Because when we throw them into a database that contains the full text of thousands of journals, we’re almost guaranteeing that they will be deafened by the cacophony. No wonder they’re eager to get out as fast as possible.

I’m not sure what we’ll ultimately put into this box of parlor tricks, or whether the conversation metaphor will work for students who are having to listen in to conversations that are so far from their previous experience, among people using words they don’t know, dropping names they’ve never heard – and getting graded on it. But it’s got to be better than what we’re doing now, taking them to databases stuffed with hundreds of thousands of articles and asking them to find three or four good texts to write from with little help to offer them other than “use scholarly sources.”

Hat tip to Meredith Farkas, who wrote a good blog post about the “scholarly sources’ conundrum.