Conversation about the First Year Seminar

Today, I was having a conversation via email with Charlotte Houtchens, one of UMW’s excellent reference librarians, and one of the “adjunct faculty” for our group teaching First Year Seminars next year. (Adjunct faculty are individuals with expertise of some type relevant to first year seminars, and who have committed to helping in an extended way those of us teaching the courses.)

In this conversation, we were discussing the workshop Charlotte is going to moderate among FYS faculty on evaluating electronic and print resources. After several iterations, it occurred to me that we ought to make the conversation more public so that other interested parties could contribute. Charlotte agreed to the suggestion–Here’s how the discussion went.

I would prefer to present less and facilitate more. I hope that if we all began talking together about the criteria we use to evaluate content in different kinds of formats and in our different disciplines we might find

1) that many of the criteria we use are so ingrained that we apply them at a subconscious level: Let’s bring them to our consciousness and identify them.
2) that our criteria have attributes in common: Let’s group them and see if we aren’t all taking a few of the same steps to evaluate information.
3) that our common criteria are actually applicable across a number of formats–including the Web: Let’s see if we can come up with a draft of a document (a Web page? a checklist? a what?) that might help students evaluate content regardless of format.

I’ll bring some ideas and examples to start stirring the pot. What do you think?

[ Here is how I responded: ]

I think the notion of evaluating resources and appropriate giving of credit is going to be critical for my course.

Here’s an excerpt from an article by Ferris and Wilder in the latest issue of Innovate, that strikes a chord:

The question of the accuracy or truthfulness of information is certainly not a new one for students; however, new technologies make it exponentially easier for anyone to publish inaccurate or untruthful information (as seen in the libel posted in Wikipedia mentioned above). … The question then becomes one of educators either continuing to try to steer their students clear of any untrustworthy information or, instead, recognizing the imperative for a new paradigm-one that focuses on helping students gain information literacy skills which would allow them to differentiate and make their own judgements regarding the accuracy of infomation [emphasis added]. If we accept Plato’s definition that knowledge is justifiable, believed truth, then our students, in order to be effective 21st century citizens, will have to be able to ask themselves if they believe in the truthfulness of a particular piece of information, and if they can justify that belief beyond simply saying “because the teacher said so.” To simply advise students to ignore any readily editable or unrefereed source, such as a wiki, runs the risk that they will not access information that may be of value to them, as more and more of this information is moved into wikis. Furthermore, it runs the risk of sending the message to the student that anything that might be easily published is not to be trusted, including anything published by the student.

[ Charlotte responds: This is terrific. This is just what I want us to talk about. ]

This ties in with the different conventions about borrowing ideas in online writing compared with traditional writing. To quote Brian Lamb’s Educause Review article: Content cloning across wikis-sometimes referred to in non-wiki circles as plagiarism-is sometimes acceptable.

[ At this point, Charlotte interjects: ]

Whoa. I’ll have to get back to you on this one. For me, personally and professionally, Brian is on VERY shaky ground. Call it what you will: “content cloning,” “sampling,” “lifting,” even “plagiarism” are NOT in the scholarly tradition. Let the people content clone all they like. In the academy, we give credit where credit is due. Have you seen the motto for Google Scholar? ? Stand on the shoulders of giants.

My students are going to be looking at resources from Day 1 and need to know how to evaluate their credibility, but also that ideas that are not their own need to be credited. I don’t intend this to be negative or punitive, just the appropriate convention that we will follow.

[ Charlotte: ]

This requirement that students evaluate the credibility of resources and give credit where credit is due is not AT ALL negative or punitive. I don’t even think it is as lightweight as an “appropriate convention.” In fact, it is one of the behaviors that identifies a student as belonging to our community of scholars. We stand on the shoulders of giants and acknowledge the work of the giants that went before us. I say “community of scholars” because I’m not crazy about the term “community of learners”: that sounds like a kindergarten.

What does this mean for the first year seminar? From day one, I would love to see us think of our role as that of initiating students into our community. At every step, I want to explain to students WHY we do things the way we do them, in the context of the traditions and values of scholarship and/or academia. When I had the “a ha” moment at the meeting last Thursday, and blurted, “It doesn’t matter whether we are using the tool of class discussion, or blogs, or wikis, or the next great technology, we are simply continuing the scholarly tradition of respectful conversation about things that matter.” and Gardner, said, “Exactly!” I didn’t get to finish what my real epiphany was. It wasn’t that the tools don’t matter . . . so all hail the newest tools. It was that the tools don’t matter . . . so let’s be sure to talk with our first year seminar students constantly about what DOES matter: our longstanding values as scholars and as members of the academy.

I hear a former teacher saying she wants my original work, not just my reporting what the experts think–as if, the expert opinions are less valuable. I understand that notion, but there is a new view of knowledge in Web 2.0 that suggests one’s knowledge is less about what you know and more about who you know, or more precisely, it’s about knowing how to find the answer. This is George Siemens’ idea of Connectivism.

[ Charlotte: ]

Perhaps she wasn’t suggesting that the expert opinions were less valuable than your opinion. Perhaps she was addressing the question of “reporting” and saying that what is valuable is the ability to critically analyze, synthesize, and build on what earlier experts were saying. “Standing on the shoulders” again?

I believe I hear what you’re saying here about Web 2.0. Knowing how to query, and navigate, and how the thing is put together is very important in the location of information. Finding THE answer implies that locating information is enough. But as your Platonist article writer suggests above, information is just the raw data of knowledge.

This is clearly a new paradigm, but I think it will fit a first year seminar well.

[ Charlotte: ]

Well, you’ve now heard my paradigm. Our role as teachers and guides in the academy is to initiate students into our community of scholars. They won’t all buy in TOTALLY . They won’t all become professors or researchers. But maybe they will have a lifelong understanding of our values and affinity for the important work that we do in the world.

[ My response to hers: ]

My point in quoting Brian is not to suggest that plagiarism is okay. I don’t even think that Brian is suggesting that. I think I was trying to say crudely just what you expressed more elegantly. Let me try again:

1. Writing in blogs and wikis tends to be less formal than formal essays. One result is that bloggers and wikiers are more casual about citing sources. This is common practice.

2. My class is designed to be a journey of discovery. I intend my students to read and think widely and to bring back to class the ideas they find interesting. Some of these ideas, especially early on, will be the ideas of others. That’s okay, in fact, it’s expected.

3. Even though we may be presenting the ideas we discover in wikis and blogs, I want them to know that I will “give them credit” for the quality of the ideas they present, whether they are original or not. (As if anything could be completely original.) But, what is important is that they credit the originator, if it’s not them.

4. In other words, I’m trying to get them to do a type of scholarly writing using the forms of blogs and wikis. Since it’s scholarly writing, I expect them to follow the conventions of scholarly writing which include citing sources.

5. I am not arguing for one citation style over another. To me that is a very minor issue, but I suspect that students see it differently. I worry that students see crediting sources as a technical issue, like proper grammar, which doesn’t affect the “content” of one’s writing. It’s something negative that should be avoided, rather than something positive that enhances your work.

Here are some initial ideas for a discussion on this topic:

You’ve been taught that plagiarism is a no-no. But acknowledging sources, particularly in a web environment is really a positive, good thing—it’s something you’ll want to do (rather than a no-no). Here’s why: What is a web (of connections)? Every time you acknowledge a source, especially if you link electronically, you create another connection making the web richer.

Additionally, contrary to what you might think, when you acknowledge a source you make your work stronger. Why? By citing the experts, you show that you’re familiar with their points of view, and as a result you give your work more credibility than it would have without the citations.

This entry was posted in First Year Seminar, Teaching and Learning. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Conversation about the First Year Seminar

  1. Gardner says:

    Thanks for an amazingly rich blog post. On the evidence of this exchange, Charlotte would make a terrific blogger.

    Two quick thoughts:

    1. It’s not about the technology, but on one level the tools do matter, as some tools (and they’re IT tools, yes) enable certain kinds of productive conversation that couldn’t otherwise happen. Quoting C. S. Lewis, I think of the codex, on which all exact scholarship depends. Scrolls won’t cut it.

    2. Banter is fine, and protocol is fine, but there’s nothing like a real conversation, even at a basic level, about something that matters. It’s like a glider catching a thermal and spiralling upwards until vast tracts of land lie open to one’s gaze. THAT’s what I want–and to kindle a lifelong hunger for that in my students. To get there, every conversation needs to have a meta-level somehow explicit. I think IT-mediated conversations foster that kind of meta-awareness because of their potential for persistence, editability, and presence in the world.

  2. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » Second Meeting with IT Staff

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *