Friday, November 26, 2010

On the importance of looking things up…

The following is a post by Arnold Zwicky, whose piece on Eleanor Gould Packard I recently shared via our blog.

John McIntyre’s latest Baltimore Sun column, “Just look it up”, begins:

When an article assigned in my editing class contains an uncommon word, I ask my students what it means. The usual response is a row of blank stares. It appears that they just shrug when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. And then I explain to them that if you release an article that contains words you do not understand, you have not really edited it. But you will be held accountable for anything in it that is wrong.

An article on Newswise, “Study Shows Universities May be Failing to Sufficiently Teach Basic Research Skills,” suggests that many students don’t use the library and fail to take full advantage of electronic sources—in fact, don’t have a clear sense of how to begin research.

A salient paragraph: “To manage large amounts of information, the report says, ‘students in both large universities and small colleges use a risk-averse strategy based on efficiency and predictability.’ In other words, students avoid drowning by limiting the sources they turn to and the amount of information they take in.”

There is another side to this phenomenon, the willingness, displayed widely on the Internet, to make assertions or challenge other people’s work without troubling to check. What is a character flaw in civilians is a sin in copy editors, as Carol Fisher Saller explains today at The Subversive Copy Editor.

Oi. All the riches of the net and the web, and instead of taking advantage of them, some people are (apparently) overwhelmed by the material and contract their search strategies. Of course, university libraries are themselves vast and hard to navigate, but now people have the immensity of the net and the web at their fingertips, and tools for searching through them. Why don’t they use them?

Some time ago, I suggested (in deliberately hyperbolic language) on Language Log that “the InterWeb makes people lazy and stupid”, citing some instances of the effect, noting in particular that users of these resources have come to expect that everything of consequence will have clickable links, so that when no such link is provided the users treat the information in question as simply unavailable.

Wikipedia and some other sites provide clickable links, but in such profusion that most users just disregard them, though as I saw when I complained about “link fanaticism” on Language Log, many people enjoy the kind of random exploration all those links invite; you can find all sorts of neat stuff. But for people who are actually trying to find out about some specific topic, or who ought to be, the profusion of links undermines the utility of the resources; there are just too many.

Next, lots of people have come to view the net and the web as primarily social places, as locales for communicating opinions, personal news, reactions, anecdotes, reminiscences, gossip, and so on, in loosely connected, rapidly written exchanges — a view that threatens to overwhelm sites that were intended as locations for serious discussion on intellectual, technical, scientific, artistic, professional, and academic matters. I complained two years ago about Language Log comments, and how the blog’s stated policy was frequently and flagrantly violated. (The American Dialect Society mailing list suffers from similar problems.) As the readership of Language Log has expanded, significantly, these problems have gotten much worse. (I’ve said to the other bloggers that I think we’re experiencing a Success Disaster.)

A perennial problem on both LLog and ADS-L is that so many commenters/posters don’t use standard reference works (despite their being recommended again and again; I’ve gotten very testy about it) or check the archives to see if the topic has been discussed before — yes, I know, this can be difficult to impossible to do in some cases — so discussion proceeds from the ground up, chaotically, time after time.

If you’re someone trying to find information, or someone who should be, then you’re looking at a roiling sea of material, without a rudder or compass. So maybe it makes sense for students to pull back and rely on just a few sources. Or, worse, just ask their friends.

It gets worse. The wonderful resources available to students — to all of us — are shot through with looniness, falsehoods (honestly believed or maliciously spread), parodies, confused thinking, and other pitfalls. In a discussion a while back on ADS-L it became clear that a great many students had no way to think critically about what they read and so gullibly accepted all sorts of things.

It’s no good just mocking the students who get caught up in these many traps. They need help, of several kinds: training in critical thinking, information about good reference sources (John McIntyre went on to list a few for copy editors), advice about how to thread their way through all that material, good examples of how more experienced writers and thinkers work their way through it.

And someone needs to keep saying: You Could Look It Up! Even if you’re not a copy editor (or fact-checker), not looking it up is still, as Carol Fisher Saller put it, a character flaw.

1 comment:

Chad said...

Ah, as much as I don't want to believe Zwicky's claims about college and university students, I can't help but acknowledge the validity behind his claims and share his lament.

I wish to be a community college English professor one day, yet I fear for the declining state of student capability, interest, and curiosity.