In my last post, I introduced the first part of a writing about writing assignment for students enrolled in both my FYC course and an ESL co-requisite support course. In a course-long project, students are exploring, describing, and analyzing a discourse community. The theoretical framework for their use of sources comes from Joseph Bizup’s 2008 article, “BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing.”
This past week, students began to look for their sources, incrementally building what my colleague Ruth Holmes has called a Progressive Annotated Bibliography, or PAB. For the first PAB entry, students looked for a general background source, something which provides an overview of the discourse community—its membership, goals, authorities, and purposes. Each PAB installment includes three parts: the MLA works cited entry for the source, a paragraph-length summary, and a source trail/comments paragraph, in which students describe their process of finding source (including any leads that took them in the wrong direction and sources they reviewed but abandoned) and their assessment of the value of the source for their investigation.
My students are studying a wide variety of communities, including surgical technology, accounting, importing/exporting with Latin America, cybersecurity, and language teaching. Their first PABs were, for the most part, well-constructed and insightful, particularly in their evaluation of the source quality and their search process.
PAB #2, however, has proven problematic. After reminding students of the purpose of the research project, I explained the goal for our second source, which is an exhibit source (in Bizup’s terms). Specifically, I asked the students to find an example of a text written by the discourse community for its members. Our strategy was (I thought) straightforward: find the website of a relevant and recognized professional organization and select an article or text that communicates about an area of interest for discourse community members. As I illustrated the search process, I reminded students that our goal was to understand how members of this discourse community create texts, share information, and use language—all parts of what Gee has called Discourse.
Emails began filling my inbox within a few hours after class, and most suggested confusion about how to evaluate the sources they found. I realized students were wrestling with a mismatch between what I was asking of them and what they had done in previous courses:
- I found the professional website, but it’s a .org, so it’s probably not reliable. Can I just go to a database?
- I can’t find an article describing how members of the group communicate. What should I do?
- I searched for “communication and discourse” with my group, but I didn’t find anything that talks about secondary discourse. There’s nothing about how the group communicates.
- I found this blog on the organization website, but blogs are not good sources.
- I don’t think my source is peer-reviewed. Will you count off for that?
- Can I use Wikipedia?
- Does the article have to be from this year?
These questions reveal a great deal about previous instruction in research methods, and they indicate that while my students are familiar with some of the vocabulary of information literacy (credibility, reliability, peer-review, scholarly, etc.), they define these terms as absolutes, rather than seeing them as contextually defined. Moreover, the students were puzzled by the notion of an exhibit source—suggesting a narrow understanding of the purpose of academic research. That the research process can use sources in different ways--and that context determines what reliability or relevance actually means--does not match their previous experiences.
I think the students are encountering threshold concepts about research–ideas which are troubling because they do not necessarily align with previous instruction or experience. Specifically, they are wrestling with some of the threshold concepts for information literacy as identified by Association of College and Research Librarians: “authority is constructed and contextual,” “searching as strategic exploration,” and “scholarship as conversation.”
One of the advantages of beginning a research process early in the term is that we still have 11 weeks to work through some of these questions, and students will be able to revisit sources, summaries, and their growing understanding of not only their target discourse community, but also the complexities of information literacy.
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