Monday, April 4, 2011

On the Reliability of Internet Sources

I have my students blogging, and in LIB 200, they are blogging on topics for research papers. We were discussing how technology ads are 'techno-romantic,' we looked at some new and old examples. After class, a student described to me how there was a giant dial on the new Mac laptop and it took 45 minutes for someone to write an e-mail. That sounded familiar. Of course, this was a video from The Onion a few years back. I didn't have the heart to correct this--the student had the spirit of the video correct--an attack on Mac advertising to make most anything desirable, right? I was reminded of how difficult it is to navigate the Internet for reliable sources.

Then a day or two later, someone forwarded me an article about Richard Branson, the Virgin Atlantic billionaire buying Pluto and re-christening at as planet. I clicked on the link. Hmmm. Seemed like a good publicity stunt, just about Sir Richard's speed. Only till the end did I see it was a good joke too. My readerly expectations were was that it was made-up, but I hovered back and forth in the provisionality of meaning, as literary critics say, I suppose as I skimmed it. This sort of makes sense, esp. with Virgin Atlantic's move into paid sub-orbital space flights, right? (Philip Roth said in it in about 1970--the world was always exceeding a fiction writer's ability to invent it.) True now, only moreso of course. Now much of the strange stuff is online, too, and we all have to deal with it.

Today we had our orientation session in the the Library for my ENG 101 class, and once again I'm struck by how students do not think at all about sources. We all know this, and our challenge is to get them to think about where information comes from, and to jumpstart their understanding and research repertoire with links to LexisNexis, EBSCOhost, etc. One thing that I've done to make their research lives easier is to provide direct links (in a new section of Blackboard which I call Research Links) to the common Library databases. These are also available in our course wiki. This makes it simpler to get to the good stuff, beyond Google, right....

Last of all, speaking of wikis, one good thing I said in class the other day was about Wikipedia. It's not necessarily bad that it is anonymous and crowdsourced (fine by me, but not all), but that it is still, fundamentally, just an encyclopedia article. (You don't just use an encyclopedia article for your research paper, not unless it is a book report in the 6th grade, right? Or you use one encyclopedia article and other, more substantial--and perhaps more argumentative / interpretative texts to set up a conversation around a topic.) I think the students got that. That's how I'm going to explain the pleasures and pitfalls of Wikipedia from now on I think....


  1. Isn't that really what education fails to do, make people ask about sources and reliability? Whenever I see so many educated degree holders blindly follow the latest vogue in politics I wonder whether education is of any value after all; but there is a difference between education that promotes the kind of thinking and sorting out you talk about and education that only focuses on career training and skills.

  2. There used to be a time when we all knew where "reliable" information came from: books, journals, The Royal Society, and Encyclopedia Britannica. (I'm being ironic here in case you missed the tone).

    These times are harder: not only did our students get their education under "No Child Left Behind" but they have to deal with the move of sources from print to screen (I'm thinking the databases) AND Google's aim to help us search anything that is searchable.

    I frankly find it no wonder they are lost.

    Not that we have been helping. For example, for a long while the MLA had the most byzantine way for documenting information from databases. I think the students were avoiding using articles from the databases just to avoid writing the citations! Also, looking something up using indexes (print) in some ways is easier that having to come up with keywords all on your own.

    Face it, kids, we had it good. Now all we can do is TRY to help our students maneuver through the mess the best we ten weeks or less. Good luck to us all.

  3. Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking your RSS feeds also, Thanks.

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  4. As part of an assignment last semester, I asked the class to individually evaluate a number of URLs provided. One of them was from the Onion and I think 75% of them identified it as a "real" news piece. Similar assignment given this week, so I'm curious if results will be the same. It was a little discouraging since it made it seem like no one was paying any attention to me at all.

    I could go on about Wikipedia for hours, but one thing that a lot of people don't realize is the extent that it privileges traditional (sometimes even paper!) sources to fulfill its golden "citation needed" rule.

    My favorite example is the entry on "headbanging" - see the "health issues" section. There's an ongoing debate about this, and previously it cited the BMJ as support for this claim:

    The British Medical Journal sounds pretty respectable, and the study linked to looked nice and respectable (also comes up in library database searches). Only thing is, in isolation, you wouldn't see that the BMJ Xmas issue is full of satirical pieces, many that sound plausible to outsiders. The headbanging piece is good: If I was unfamiliar with metal, perhaps it would not have been so obvious. (Some of those Wikipedia guys seemed to insist that this was real).