Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wading through Stacks

Adam Graber directed me to this New York Times article about the consequences of digital (and hence, mashable) texts. The whole thing is interesting in its entirety, but what drew my attention was this quote:

“Online research enables scholars to power-search for nuggets of information that might support their theses, saving them the time of wading through stacks of material that might prove marginal but that might have also prompted them to reconsider or refine their original thinking.”

This strikes me as a very real problem. It’s really easy to be a bad scholar. The task of refining your thinking and mastering your subject requires time, focus, and discipline—three things we have in short supply. For all their benefits, digital texts make it easier to veil poor thinking and inadequate mastery of the subject. The power of machine searching delivers a trade-off: a vastly greater pool of data with a vastly more superficial grasp of it. The efficiency of search obsoletes that horribly inefficient part of research, “wading through stacks of material.”

(Perhaps I should qualify my pronouncements: I obviously speak for myself, not for all of academia. My academic credentials amount to a master’s degree and a single journal article*. The temptations and follies I describe are my own.)

A few weeks later, Adam noted that Oxford University Press is trying to address these concerns. In brief, they’re producing “a straightforward, hyperlinked collection of professionally-produced, peer-reviewed bibliographies in different subject areas—sort of a giant, interactive syllabus put together by OUP and teams of scholars in different disciplines.”

The Oxford Bibliographies will no doubt have efficient search capabilities, quick retrieval of the desired documents, and a large pool of data in one place. But by foregrounding the texts that scholars have judged most important, they encourage you to wade through material that should be known, even (especially?) if it’s irrelevant or destructive to your thesis.

As you can tell, I like this image of “wading through stacks.” It sounds like a mixed metaphor, but it makes me think of walking the key shelves in the library stacks. The mass of (potentially) relevant titles thicken the air in that spot, slowing your pace to a shuffle. You look up and down the shelf, pulling out a volume, browsing, letting your mind quicken as your feet slow.

Interestingly, the library in which I picture myself wading like this is the University of Edinburgh library, where I spent a mere six months (as opposed to the four years at the University of Minnesota and three years at Trinity University). I suppose it’s related to the fact that British syllabi encourage more wading. Instead of telling you about the five required books and when you’re supposed to read each chapter, British syllabi give you a list of forty books and tell you to have fun. Read around, master the subject, and at the end of term, write a big old essay about the subject (which will be 100% of your grade for the course).

In my experience, this system results in lower grades but better habits.


*Forthcoming :-)


AbigailSchindler said...

I have a lot I could say on this topic, but I'll just say this: having access to electronic articles makes the process of research much more efficient.

Doing research with electronic databases also doesn't preclude thinking deeply about the subject or reading texts that aren't directly related to the subject (which are often very illuminating).

There are intricate search strategies that library science experts use to make the most of electronic databases, but even the best search strategies will leave out important works. In my humble opinion, the key to getting the breadth of articles, books, and other works that is necessary for truly good academic work is peer review. This is something that electronic databases can't provide, but neither can wading through stacks at the library. Just picking up books from the library stacks will never be as helpful as getting a list of recommendations from another scholar. The Oxford University Press project you mentioned is a step toward this direction, but it will never beat interacting one-on-one with other scholars in your field.

I'm at a "Research 1" University right now, so I've become familiar that tenure-tracked professors have to feverishly publish and present. This had given me some insight on how people who do high-velocity publishing actually write all those articles. To be blunt, it's usually a) with a great deal of help from student assistants who are on their own to do the "wading through the stacks", and/or b) re-using large chunks of previous literature reviews, articles, and grant write-ups, throwing a few new citations in there for flavor.

I'd also like to talk about the difference in quality and production in older (less familiar with electronic databases) and younger (more familiar) researchers. Or I could talk about the sources you have access to electronically using the right keywords that you never would have discovered because it's on the "wrong" library shelf... maybe I should start me own blog :-).

AbigailSchindler said...

"When the only information on the topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration. But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist." (Peter Norvig-