Russell Hunt
St. Thomas University

"It was in the Computer":
Balancing Learning and Research for First Year Students (and Others)

[as published in Atlantic Universities' Teaching Showcase 2003: Proceedings. Ed. Todd Pettigrew and Denise Nevo. Sydeny: University College of Cape Breton,  Volume VIII, Spring 2004. 21-29.]

Students arrive at university with almost no knowledge about what research and scholarship are. Library tours or courses in internet research don't help much. Here are some tested strategies for helping students deepen their understanding.
About eight or ten years ago, before everybody was connected all the time, I had a class from our first year "Truth in Society" program in the library doing research. There were about six groups of five students, each doing research on a moment in history when, as we put it, people's beliefs were challenged or changed. We met at the library rather than in a classroom that day, and the three of us teaching in the program prowled around while the students worked (a faculty adviser at our university once called it "loitering with intent"). Occasionally we kibitzed actively; mostly we tried to catch people's eyes as they worked at the computers or wandered through the stacks and offer help and comfort.

At one point Karen (I'll call her) caught my eye and asked me to come and have a look at a reference she'd found. I no longer remember what it was, but I do know that it was neither a book title, accessed through the library's main catalog, nor a Web site. I think it was a listing of a journal article -- found, I thought with some surprise, by going through an online periodical index.

"Where did you ever find that?" I asked.

She paused. "It was in the computer."

I suddenly had a vision of what the search process was for her -- a sort of continual scrolling up of reams of almost random information, with no hint of its provenance or nature. Our hours of work at helping students get a grip on the strategies of research hadn't so much as touched that basic model.

A few years later, a colleague and I were at a conference on electronic text at Dalhousie. We were talking with a research librarian there about her presentation, which had had to do with helping students learn about research, and I mentioned Karen. She had a theory about that, she said. "People our age," she went on, "or at least people who grew up doing their research in the library, have a sort of physical model of what the geography of research is like. It's abstracted from a lot of libraries, usually, but it remains imaginatively physical. The card catalogue is there, the periodical indices are over there, the current periodicals are in there, the dictionaries and reference works are around back there, the stacks are up there, where there are floors or wings for humanities, social sciences, physics, government documents, archives."

That map, or model, offers us tools for categorizing -- metaphors, George Lakoff (1980) would say -- which are more powerful than abstract categories, more physical -- even physiological. We know intellectually, yes, what kinds of different things a journal article and an encyclopedia entry, a Weblog and a book chapter are, but actually that knowledge has as much to do with our physical sense of the kinds of things they are, and where they live, as with our awareness of the social structures underlying them.

By and large, our students have neither of those. They don't have the social and intellectual model of the status of these textual objects, and they also don't have the physical, visceral sense of them as separate and different. They have information, scrolling up the screen, increasingly undifferentiated even by appearance, as web sites and indices become more homogenous and attain uniform corporate interfaces. What is EBSCO, anyway, and how is it different from Academic Search Elite or the online MLA bibliography or Psych-lit or the library's front end for all of the above?

And I don't mean to say that it's just first year students, my main focus here today, who don't see the rich variety of this garden. The bright, intelligent, eager and sophisticated members of my honours seminar in Restoration and Eighteenth Century Drama and Theatre are not a whole lot better off in either of those ways. Though they have acquired significantly more moxie when it comes to locating information on, say, John Crowne's Destruction of Jerusalem, they mostly see the garden as little more than a collection of big plants and little plants.

Almost as radically as my first year students, their grasp of the nature of the discourse they're reading is very tenuous. This should not be a surprise. Almost all the academic prose they -- like any North American students -- have ever read has been in textbooks, where the kinds of questions we academics learn to ask of the texts we work with have almost no relevance, and in any case where the answers are concealed as thoroughly as possible. I'm referring to questions like these:

Though scholars rarely ask such questions consciously, it's clear they are almost invariably part of the reading stance professional readers bring to texts -- both texts in their field and articles they may happen to pick up in the magazines on the stand in the doctor's office. Such a stance is what my colleague Doug Vipond and I ("Point-Driven Understanding") have called "point-driven" or "dialogic" reading, and it involves placing the text in an imagined social context. That social context, for academic writing, is predominantly composed of other texts, which, of course, in turn invoke their own contexts. This rich process creates a rhetorical situation in which the way ideas and information are joined, subordinated, organized, framed, and proffered is as important as the ideas and information themselves -- or more so.

For students, however, however, whose academic reading has been predominantly in textbooks, or books treated as textbooks, none of these questions are relevant. The reading they've been invited to do has been what Vipond and I called "information-driven," in that their aim is not to figure out what the motives of the writer might be, but rather to internalize and remember what the writer says. In such a situation, it's really rather beside the point to ask about (for instance) what wing of the fight over automaticity the introductory chapter in your cognitive psych text represents, or what the author's allegiances and bona fides are. Why is the writer saying this? Simple: because it's true and important and I need to remember it.

Students who succeed in the ways we most like -- that is, the ones who show signs of becoming like us, going on to graduate work and so forth -- are the ones who have probably already begun to pick up the kind of language (and attitudes and assumptions) we use when we're talking about texts professionally. Those who haven't, don't, and of course they're in the vast majority.

One place where we all see evidence of the pervasiveness of this conception of text is in what we regularly think of as the plague of plagiarism in courses. I've written about this elsewhere ("Four Reasons"), so I won't belabor the point here, but as part of my attempt to make clear how much students are handicapped by their lack of understanding of the social relations of texts, let me ask you to think about this: a student who thinks of the American Literature article she's found on Walt Whitman's "Calamus" poems as information is not only ill-placed to see that the author's characterization of the poems isn't widely accepted in the field, or what parts of the argument are expected to be accepted and which are contentious, or why certain scholars are quoted and others not. She has learned to ignore verbs of attribution, markers of subordination and foregrounding -- indeed, to ignore whose voice she's reading. She has no way to think of the article as discourse. She's looking for information.

And when she finds it, that's what it is. The words it's couched in -- especially the little function words and phrases ("indeed," "of course," "says," "claims," "believes," "suggests," etc.) that place it in, and make it part of, the author's rhetorical machine -- are immaterial. As it happens, they're neatly grammatical, sometimes elegantly phrased, and so paraphrasing them would just make them worse. So, sometimes, the student says, "what do you mean, say it in my own words? I'm not nearly as good a writer as the author."

And of course the upshot is that those of us who do hear those rhetorical agendas in the text, who do attend to the ways in which the writer delicately adjusts her phrasing to her immediate and long-term purposes, immediately hear the falsity of the alien phrases cropping up in the student's text, and the plagiarism bell goes off. The fact that hearing that bell seems like magic to most students should tip us off: they think writing is blocks of information mechanically assembled into grammatical and, one hopes, elegant prose. Textbooks.

In my view, it's far more dangerous that students don't understand and cannot manipulate this sort of rich language than that they don't know who Samuel Johnson was. Addressing the problem of how written language really works and how you can join the community of those who use it is the most important thing postsecondary education can do.

Unfortunately, it seems to me clear that neither of the two strategies most used to help students understand this works very well. One, of course, is the lecture or handbook on documenting sources and avoiding plagiarism, 90% of which is guaranteed to be incomprehensible unless you already live in the world of academia, and speak the language. What is all this about the "ownership" of "the expression of an idea"? What do you mean by "theft"? How can I possibly "give credit" for everything that isn't original or common knowledge, when nothing's original and I have no way to know what's common knowledge?

The other strategy is the library tour. I used to conduct them, when I was a graduate student working at the library way back at the dawn of time, before the Internet, even before the personal computer. I was good at giving the tours. I was thorough, and clear, and occasionally amusing, and I knew I was good because I could see the light dawning on those fresh faces as I explained the Reader's Guide and the limitations of the card catalogue and the elegance of the Library of Congress cataloguing system. I knew it, that is, until one day I was working on the information desk, and a girl I remembered clearly from yesterday's tour came up. I remembered her because she'd been smiling and nodding with such eager comprehension.

She came up to the desk and asked a question. I no longer remember what it was (this was forty years ago) but I think it involved where the magazines were -- that belied such startling mother ignorance that I couldn't credit it, and for a moment thought she was joking. But no, she wasn't, and not only that, didn't remember that I'd given the tour until I reminded her.

That experience cured me forever of the forlorn hope that you could plant those structures in someone's head before she needed them, before she was ready to learn them. I never gave another tour.

What I've been doing here may sound like doomcrying. How texts work, and how to use them, is, in my view, the single most important thing we can help students understand, and yet there seems no way to tell them about it. Do we, then, simply have to do as we do about much learning, wait around a while, test people, wait some more and hope learning happens and then test again to see if it has, somehow, happened?

I don't, in fact, think so. I've been working for some years to help students learn to inhabit the world of academic discourse, to internalize the genres of discourse we use -- and, more important, to become better, more flexible learners of new genres of discourse. After all, the genres they learn to write as students will never form part of their armory of discourse again, unless they emulate us and go on to graduate school. What they'll be writing (and they will be writing) will be genres and forms we can't anticipate. (One thing they almost certainly won't do, by the way, is footnote and reference, cite and quote. But that's a story for another day.)

Here are some strategies I've been using to help students learn what I think is the most important thing they can learn, then. I offer them not so much as recommendations (some are pretty much limited to the specific contexts I teach in), but as examples, models, algorhythms you might find relevant to your own practice.

Here's something I've done this term with the students in the English section of our Truth in Society program. It's part of a larger attempt to help them see how the stuff around the information in prose is usually more important than the information itself.

First, I gave the students a list of about fifteen or twenty periodicals I thought they might find at least distantly interesting, but which have pretensions to intellectual authority or challenge -- periodicals such as Commentary, Harper's, the Catholic New Times, the Columbia Journalism Review (we'd watched part of Manufacturing Consent to start the course off). I told them to find the current periodical reading room, spend some time in it, size it up, browse through a range of periodicals, write a short report on their impressions, and decide on one of the periodicals on the list to spend a bit more time with. They were to pick one article they thought worth discussing in the light of our concern for the language of persuasion, and write a short argument urging the rest of us to read their article.

At a class meeting groups read other group members' recommendations and decided on one most persuasive one, and presented their decision to the rest of the class. We listened and voted, and finally decided on two, which were photocopied and discussed. After we'd spent some time discussing loaded phrasing and spin in one of them -- an article by Robert Bork ("Civil Liberties") on liberals whining about civil liberties in the wake of 9/11 -- I constructed a list of questions about references in the article -- "Who is Robert Bork?" "What is McCarthyism?" "Who are Johnny Cochrane and Lance Ito?" "What is Commentary?" and said, "go see what you can find out, and keep a meticulously detailed record of every step you take in finding it."

Next class we did a round in which each member of class said what she'd found, and how it arose and seemed to function in Bork's article, and whether what she'd found changed how she understood the article. At the end of class I asked them to exchange their research diaries, and before next class to go to the library, or out on the Internet, and replicate the search, keeping track of what problems they had and of what they found that might add to the understanding the previous researcher brought back.

The following week, when their sociology, religious studies and English courses went back to being taught as one combined class, they went back to the library with somewhat larger list of periodicals, and read articles looking for references in current periodicals to historical incidents where people's beliefs have been challenged or changed. They spent a week reading and looking. At the end we decided, as a class, on the basis of written arguments quoting the articles, on a set of these events to investigate further. Groups took each of the possible incidents and conducted preliminary research -- this is their first serious library research -- to find out whether there are sufficient resources to study the subject, whether beliefs actually were at stake, whether there's interest in the class in pursuing them, and write "feasibility studies" recommending whether or not the incident is worth exploring further. We narrowed down the choices through a long, occasionally acrimonious discussion, and groups are assigned to spend most of the rest of the term finding out about the event and preparing an extensive report for the rest of the class on what it has to tell us about the focal question of the program, "how do people come to believe what they do?"

Later in the process, they will construct their own report on one of these incidents, using standard resources for research, but with the difference from the usual ways in which undergraduate research is done that they have regular group meetings in which they exchange information, references, and strategies, and consult with the teachers in the course.

As I think will be clear, there are a number of opportunities there for students to begin learning about the mechanisms of intertextuality, and especially about the extent to which texts speak with and to each other and perform functions beyond the conveying of information.

One thing about all this writing needs to be clear: all of it is done, not to receive a grade from the instructors, but rather to inform or persuade others in the class. The writing isn't turned in, marked and graded, and forgotten: it's used. Consequences flow from whether your feasibility study is judged as convincing or not, and the consequences are not only educational but practical and social. This means that when they use authorities, when they quote from resources or list them, it's possible that their motives can be the same as those which drive scholars: the exchange of information, sure, but equally the participation in a rhetorical discourse community of exploration and discovery. We regularly see, as one result of this immersion in a scholarly enterprise, that students begin citing and quoting each other.

There are many ways to make written discourse serve social functions; I use some of them in this and other courses. I've written about a number of them elsewhere ("Making Student Writing Count"), as well. But for me, the bottom line is this: scholarship is about achieving social goals through the exchange of information and ideas, and to the extent we make it possible for our students to experience this, to inhabit the world of discourse-based exploration, to exactly that extent they have the opportunity to learn to manipulate text in the ways we think of as enacting and fulfilling the goals of a liberal education.


Bork, Robert. "Civil Liberties After 9/11." Commentary (July-August 2003), 29-36.

Hunt, Russell A. "Four Reasons to be Happy about Internet Plagiarism." Teaching Perspectives (St. Thomas University) 5 (December 2002), [1-5]. Repr. Teaching Options Pedagogiques (University of Ottawa) 6:4 (August 2003), 3-5.

-----. "Making Student Writing Count: The Experience of 'From the Page to the Stage'." Atlantic Universities' Teaching Showcase 2001: Proceedings. Ed. Gary Tucker and Denise Nevo. Halifax: Mount St. Vincent University, Spring 2002. 121-130.

-----. "Whitman's Poetics and the Unity of 'Calamus'." American Literature 46:4 (January, 1975), 482-494.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Vipond, Douglas, and Russell A. Hunt. "Point-Driven Understanding: Pragmatic and Cognitive Dimensions of Literary Reading." Poetics 13 (June 1984), 261-277.