Google research versus the index shuffle

There’s an article on eSchool News (which I found via NCTE inbox) that might serve as a nice counterweight to the Nick Carr article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” called “Rethinking research in the Google era.” eSchool News site has a kind of annoying login procedure. But beyond that, it’s still a worthwhile article that more or less draws the same conclusion that both I and my students drew from the Carr article: skimming stuff on the web is not mutually exclusive from reading deeply, and we’ve been doing this skimming kind of thing for a long time.

I thought this quote summed up the article, more or less:

Jim Bosco, professor emeritus at Western Michigan University, says there has “always been the concern that with new technology comes hell. It began with Socrates being concerned that writing had a horrible effect on learning, because up until that point all learning was done through oral tradition. It’s continued with printing and then television. It’s a reoccurring trend throughout history.”

Though he admits there’s some truth to the idea that with newer traditions, something is lost from the old traditions, “that’s just the way progress works,” he said.

Bosco also agrees that scanning and skimming are nothing new for students.

“If people think it’s only the students now, [who] have access to the internet, who skim over information and write papers that are just a collage of quotes and material pulled from other articles, they’re wrong,” he said. “As a teacher who’s old enough to have reviewed papers both before and after the internet, let me tell you: Students in the past used to write papers in the same way. There will always be students who write papers where it’s obvious they have no deep understanding of the material. It’s not a new phenomenon–it’s just better automated now.”

In reading this– especially those last two sentences– I am reminded of a particular time in my undergraduate experience, an infamous gen ed class I took with my friend Chris W. that was basically about the history European nationalism and which was taught by a guy who was apparently known as one of the “TA Emeritus” since he had been doing that bit for so long.

I remember at least one paper I wrote for that class that was based entirely on what I referred to as the “index shuffle.” I looked at the index, picked a listing that seemed both interesting and plentiful with answers, read those pages (and the ones around it), and wrote an essay. I believe I ended up with a B on that paper and also in that class.

TA Emeritus overheard Chris and I discussing this strategy one day late in the term, after we had all gotten to known each other a bit, and we chatted about it one day after class. TA Emeritus said to me “At first Steve, I was disappointed that you had not completed all of the reading. But then I realized that you had learned and masted a valuable college survival skill.” So the way I look at it, I might not have learned directly a lot about European nationalism, I did learn more about writing, even if what I learned was kind of a bad/shortcut strategy along the lines of Google and/or Wikipedia research.

Of course, for the next project in that class, one that involved writing about a book that did not include an index, I was screwed.

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