Monday, January 14, 2013

To Google as in to search for an Elk

First a little background: On January 1st a Boulder police officer shot and killed an elk, affectionately known in the community as “Big Boy.” According to several accounts the officer allegedly violated a department policy about discharging a weapon without permission. Furthermore, there were photographs of the officer holding the head and rack of the elk as a hunter would pose with a champion trophy (he wasn’t called “Big Boy” for nothing). Finally, the officer asked another officer (who allegedly called in sick that day) to haul the carcass to a taxidermist where it was butchered into meat. The citizens of this community, and the larger Boulder population, are outraged that such a peaceful biotic citizen as “Big Boy” could have been gunned down in the name of public safety. There is a very interesting story in all this about our relationship to “wildlife” in suburban communities. Outrage has led to town meetings, a memorial, a ballad, and a protest march through the Pearl Street Mall. My own opinion is that if the officer is proven guilty of violating department regulations and Colorado wildlife laws, he should be held accountable.

Now (finally) for the main point I wanted to make: The local news interviewed a young man in his early 20s who observed the protest march through the Pearl Street Mall. He told the reporter that he wanted to see what the rest of the country thought about the “Big Boy” incident so he “googled it.” I know others have commented on how the word google has become a verb. If nothing else, it is an example of how not only technology effects language, but also how adaptable the English language is to revision. As a teacher, however, I am a little alarmed and frustrated by this new addition to our lexicon. Don't get me wrong. Google is my search engine of choice, and I consider it the best tool on the web. Google means to search the internet, but, it has surreptitiously replaced the term research, a much more deliberate inquiry into an object. Google means to look up a topic like George Washington on the internet and be directed to the Wikipedia page, a couple of other short biographies (on many topics these multiple webpage merely repeat each other word-for-word), along with a local high school, and the famous bridge connecting New York and New Jersey. That skimming through a couple of thin internet biographies passes as research among college freshman these days (at least at the community college level) marks some degeneration of an essential skill. Firmly dedicated to the concept of a liberal arts education, I firmly believe research skills are important for a functioning democracy.

Part of research is to know the value of a source; they are not all created equal. In fact, teaching students how to evaluate the authority of a source is one of the toughest parts of teaching research. In the past, I handed out accepted webpages (the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, for example) and other tips (no books marked “juv” or “YA” in the library catalog, for the most elementary example). This could be paired with a library orientation, including how to use the databases to find print citations (including book reviews to help evaluate your sources), and how to use the catalog search engine more effectively. The first part of the research paper was to submit an annotated bibliography. This gave me the opportunity to filter the sources and discuss with students as needed. This method ate up lots of class time (always a scarce commodity in a survey course) and I felt as if I was doing too much hand- holding. This past fall, I tried a different technique; one that I hoped would give the students some more responsibility towards their own learning. I allowed students to select their topic after some classroom discussion and then move to an annotated bibliography. The next phase of the project consisted of meetings with individual students. My intent was to provide some individual attention to each student and have a more detailed discussion on the project depending on the student's individual needs. While the meetings themselves went well, and I got to know the students better, it did not fulfill the function of teaching them how to do the research. Maybe in the future I should just tell them to "google" how to right a term paper!   

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