I’ve written about the need for us to teach students the value of different types of sources, instead of simply breaking things up into a scholarly (good) / not scholarly (bad) dichotomy, but I have yet to turn this into any kind of lesson for a class. That is until last month, when I was asked to give an impromptu instruction session to a group of students in an Intro to Political Science class.
The students were assigned the writing of a literature review paper on a topic of their choosing related to politics. The professor of the course wanted her students to be aware of the differences between–you guessed it–academic/scholarly materials and everything else. I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to talk to students about the vast info-verse and how to distinguish “helpful” sources from “unhelpful” ones.
My mantra for the class: “There is a time and place for almost every information source out
Here’s what we did:
Students worked in groups to answer the following questions about an information source I gave them related to now deceased former-Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
1. What is this source (is it a website, magazine article, academic journal article, etc)?
2. What do you know about the author of this source?
3. Who is the intended audience of this source?
4. What is the purpose of this source?
5. What aspects of this source make you believe the content is accurate?
6. What makes this a helpful source to you?
7. If you were writing a literature review about Hugo Chavez and Venezuelan politics, would you include this source in your lit review? If yes, why? If no, why not, and how might you use it instead?
I tried to pick out sources that wouldn’t automatically be dismissed as not credible because I wanted this evaluation exercise to be fairly realistic. I am not a fan of evaluation exercises that use hoax websites or similar materials. Here’s what I used (in no particular citation style):
- Book: Dismantling Democracy in Venezuela: The Chavez Authoritarian Experiment by Allan R. Brewer-Carias
- Wikipedia Entry for Hugo Chavez
- Article from The Nation (2005): Hugo Chavez and Petro Populism by Christian Parenti
- Article from The New York Times (2013): Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s Polarizing Leader, Dies at 58 by Simon Romero
- Post from World Views a blog of the Washington Post (2013): Hugo Chavez’s Legacy in 6 Charts by Caitlin Dewey
- Academic journal article by Jose Pedro Zuquete (2008): The Missionary Politics of Hugo Chavez in Latin American Politics & Society, 50(1): 91-121.
After the students had enough time to work in their groups to look over their source and answer the questions I gave them, we came together as a class. I started off the discussion with this question: “Does any group have a source that they feel totally confident incorporating into their lit review?” The group with the academic journal article and the book were my only takers, but interestingly the group with The Nation article were sort of on the fence. They didn’t know what The Nation was, but the article seemed long and in-depth to them, which was a marker of some kind of scholarly-ness. So we talked a bit about how to find out more about publications when didn’t know much about them.
Overall the conversation was a good one. We discussed the usefulness of sources like the World Views blog to point us towards data and scholarly materials and just how to use Wikipedia to give us better background information and bolster our pool of search terms and ideas as we continue our research. We talked about the place of newspaper articles and their importance in relaying current information, and how books don’t always need to be read cover to cover. The students seemed to grasp the concept of picking the most useful sources instead of the most scholarly ones, and I can only hope that they take this concept with them as they start research for their own literature reviews.