Teaching Research Skills to “Generation Tech”

I don’t know about you, but as a historian I’m the first to admit that I have a tendency to get “old school” when it comes to doing my research. I’m not of the recipe card generation, but I do have an embarrassingly large collection of handwritten notebooks. I also still read actual physical books, and carry a notepad to talks. Between this, and the fact that I become more dependent upon urban dictionary when reading blogs, tweets and student emails with every passing year, I hardly consider myself either technical or particularly in touch with youth trends. So why then, am I writing a post that is going to attempt to impart wisdom about how to teach “Generation Tech” how to do research in the information age?


[Admit it, you had a love-hate relationship with it too]


The answer: because you don’t need to be either of those things in order to understand that mainstream technology works very differently than its academic counterparts. Moreover, I may not be as good with a computer as my colleagues doing Digital Humanities, but I’m no technopeasant either. Like the countless other mindless drones whose head is buried in their smartphone while waiting in line at the supermarket, I am guilty of spending too much time on my iPhone reading Reddit or checking Facebook. I am a consumer of technology and I try to make sure that I don’t become a fossil myself while I’m digging through the remnants of the past. And I now have a reasonable amount of experience doing just that, whether it be in the archives, or from the comfort of my own home, thanks to the ever-increasing supply of digitized archives and scholarly databases.

In some ways, my rather antiquated training is an asset when it comes to doing academic research. Yes, there are now a dizzying array of online resources and some mindbogglingly brilliant Digital Humanities projects. But there are also a hell of a lot of piggish, outdated, and downright obnoxious library catalogues, scholarly databases, and academic search tools which require a little more from their users than your average tablet, laptop, or smartphone will ever ask of you. In short, when you’re doing research, you can forget about a bunch of neat little apps or anything that resembles autocomplete. You’ve got to think more like you’re still dealing with those dusty old card catalogues, only now you can’t even have the satisfaction of physically touching them.

In sum, dealing with these tools is not an intuitive process. The first time I tried to research the answer to a complex academic question, I distinctly remember thinking that there was no “obvious” course of action guaranteed to get me the best results, and I didn’t grow up with the ability to “Google that shit.” Thus, if you think about it, it’s completely unreasonable to expect someone who is used to being able to look almost anything up instantaneously via their smartphone – and who doesn’t even have to type to access it, because that’s what Siri is for – to know how to navigate your average piece of academic technology. Google’s autocomplete function is great, as its ability to search for multiple permutations of a word. But it means that those who are used to its brilliance forget that not every search system was created equal.


[This is how we’re used to accessing information now]


After assigning a few independent research projects, I quickly learned that even my smartest students were missing what, to me, seemed like accessible sources. They couldn’t find all the pertinent books on their topic, let alone the journal articles or primary sources they needed. A few of them emailed me to bemoan their plight and this is when I learned that they were hopelessly flustered and more than a little bewildered by the process. For example, I had a student who had originally wanted to write on European women during the cold war. We narrowed down her topic to Alva Myrdal, but then she hit a roadblock. Every time she typed the name into an academic search tool, she found nothing. And so she concluded that nothing had been written. The same thing happened to a student who wanted to write on a topic related to Nazi Germany, and that’s when I realized what was going on. If there is one absolute truth in academia, it’s that there is no such thing as a dearth of material on any subject related to the Nazis.

One cannot simply type a very narrow search parameter into a library catalogue or database of primary sources. Many of these tools only search titles or the brief descriptions that someone has entered into the database about the source. But students don’t automatically know this because you can be that specific with Google and Google does indeed search the whole text. More importantly, you can’t type it in just one way. If “Alva Myrdal” doesn’t work, then perhaps you have to try “women, cold war, Europe” or “nuclear disarmament.”  And as this example demonstrates, depending on the topic, you might need to expand or contract the parameters of your search, trying people’s names, themes, eras, or associated events. It’s true: people should be able to figure this out on their own. But you know what, I have a PhD and I needed some help learning back in the day too. Once a process is habitualized, it can be hard to think outside the box. So, for me, it’s worth taking the 5 minutes to explain that many academic tools lack the refinement that people have come to expect of search engines. It’s also worth mentioning that this can actually lead to the discovery of some pretty amazing information that you would never otherwise have found.

Of course, there are lots of great open-access resources online these days too, and many of them are much more user friendly and easily Googleable. The issue obscuring these sources is that students are so used to being told not to use Wikipedia, blogs, or newsmedia as part of their research that they often don’t realize that some online collections – particularly collections of primary sources – are fair game. Therefore, my final suggestion is to spend a little time talking about useful open-access resources and how they differ from unverifiable accounts and/or opinion pieces when assigning a research project.  Depending on the type of assignment, your definitions for what is and isn’t an acceptable source will shift, so you are probably used to doing this anyway. But, collectively, we need to be a little more explicit and to encourage students to use the photo collections, out-of-copyright libraries, and primary source catalogues they can find online. So much more is available to our students than was available to us, and we do them a disservice if we don’t tell them to go out and read it!


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