Ilan Peleg, Charles A. Dana Professor of Government & Law
Q: I know that for many of your courses, you assign library research as graded homework. Can you tell me why you think it’s important to assign a grade to the student’s library work?
A: My students are required to submit an exercise to Terese Heidenwolf (Associate Director for Research & Instructional Services) and she grades them. Sometimes I don’t count it as an official part of the grade, but I still grade the exercise and give it back to them. It’s a part of the work of all of my courses to, first of all, familiarize them with the library in general. Many students don’t know that we have two libraries, web resources, all of that. Just as important is to familiarize students with the sources in the library that are relevant to a particular course. I’ve been told by students that they learn a lot of skills they can use in other courses. In the FYS, we say that there ought to be a library component, but I’m not sure that it’s in every FYS. But I think the library component is crucial, essential.
Q: Have you seen any measurable difference in your students’ research papers since you’ve been assigning and grading library research?
A: Terese and I have been doing this for quite some time, maybe seven or ten years. One thing about the exercises is that they structure the demand. Because it’s one thing to expect the students to read all the material and come prepared to class, but it’s another thing to take them to the Library and require them to submit a document by 4:00pm on Sept. 18. It’s more demanding, and they get the message. And I have never had a complaint on my course evaluations that I am unfair for asking students to do more than in other classes. Students appreciate the high expectations.
Mostly, I’ve noticed through the years an enormous amount of difference between the students who start their work early and others. I have a method for making them start early and I actually put it on my syllabus. It’s a whole process. Stage one is selecting a topic. Stage two is assigning the topic, getting my ok. This happens in the first two or three weeks of the semester so, for example in the Fall, they already have a topic by mid-September and can start working on it. Stage three is the annotated bibliography. This sort of frightens them, the term “annotated bibliography” (two very long Latin words). They write a paragraph per item and try to explain why this particular item is important. I grade them in accordance with how well they do the annotated bibliography and if they’ve been able to identify the most important items. I also ask them to look for a variety of sources, which is quite challenging – analytical and descriptive, foreign and American, primary and secondary. This gives them some sensitivity to the necessity of covering the topic. Stage four is writing the research paper. I stagger it in a way so that they have plenty of time in between. There is approximately a month and a half between the annotated bibliography and the paper. The bibliography is worth about 10% to 15% of the grade and, in my written reaction, I tell them which are good sources, bad sources, terrible sources. So they get the message of what it is I’m looking for. They also meet with the Writing Associate (WA) to get his or her feedback. And sometimes they talk to Terese or Ana Luhrs (Kirby Librarian) as well. This is the same in the First Year Seminar and the Senior Seminar. They get a lot of input, and often they produce wonderful papers as a result. I think the net result is better papers.
Q: What do you think is the hardest thing about library research for your students to grasp?
A: One of the things that I try to teach the students is the idea of systematic internet and library searching before they start writing. A lot of students (maybe not just students but the rest of us, as well) just start writing. I think you have to turn it around and start with the definition of the topic or problem or question or puzzle and then look for sources rather than finding sources and trying to fit them into a topic.
Another thing is that the quality of articles that are pulled from the computer is very diverse. Sometimes they come in their original form with the page numbers, but just as often they appear in other ways that don’t allow you to quote correctly or fully or accurately. So my policy, though not always successful, is to recommend to the students to find and read the original article. They have to quote and refer to sources correctly. And I’m usually not very pedantic. I don’t care if it’s MLA or Chicago as long as they’re consistent in their method of quoting.
It’s also very difficult for students to get away from the computer, go to the stacks, and search for books. I like to joke with them that there is a very good method that has been found for recording a lot of information in a concise manner…it’s called a book. I think that most of our students, this generation, think that if it’s not on the computer, then it’s not available. It’s easier if you don’t have to move. And frankly, one of the best ways of doing research is to pick up, go to a shelf, and look broadly at a particular section. Sometimes you find things you would never find any other way. That’s what I do, especially in a library of our size. I go to 373.56, or whatever, and move around in each direction. In our situation, it is very effective. I try to give these sorts of hints to the students.
Q: The kind of discerning that you’re trying to get students to understand – primary versus secondary sources, American versus international sources. Is this something you feel they can grasp in one semester?
A: I think so. Right now, I’m teaching a course about international conflict and cooperation. Each of the students is responsible for a particular conflict. So I always tell them, it’s not enough to read an analysis written by an American, even if it’s expert. You have to see how the locals, the combatants, feel about it. For example, if you are studying terrorism in Spain, you have to think about how the Spaniards feel, how the Basques feel. And when you read the sources, be aware of the fact that they are “biased,” that they have a particular perspective. So don’t accept reports about the number of casualties or reasons for going to war from a source that is clearly biased. Same thing about the Arab-Israeli conflict or any other conflict. On the other hand, we are so dominated by English language sources today that it’s not easy to move away from them. In some of the exercises, Terese and I explicitly tell the students to look beyond American sources. We say, for example, “find one non-U.S. source related to your topic,” and I think that’s useful. In GOV 234: American Security Policy I also want them to think about politics in ideological terms, so I tell them specifically to look for neoconservative sources and anti-neoconservative sources. I even give them a list of journals that are very neoconservative in tone like Commentary, National Interest, Weekly Standard. And then I tell them, ok, look at the neoconservatives but also look at the anti-neoconservatives like the Nation and the New York Times on the same topic. I think this sensitizes them to think about politics in an ideological manner.
Q: After your FYS, the students may go on to become Gov/Law majors, but they may not. Do you feel like you’re teaching them skills that they can use no matter where they end up?
A: Probably the most contact I have with future scientists and engineers is through the First Year Seminar. Maybe half of the students will not end up majoring in government and law or social science at all. This class gives them a very comprehensive introduction to research, including library research. But I continue assigning these types of exercises in every one of my courses.
These students are going to live their lives in a situation where information management is the name of the game. It doesn’t matter what they do in their lives, whether they go into the business community, which most of them will, or end up being physicians or professors or scientists or engineers. So I think what they get out of this exercise is an entry into this entire business of information management, which frankly I don’t think we do enough of at Lafayette. We have a captive audience with our First Year Seminars. If every FYS did this kind of thing, I think students would get better exposure to information management, to finding information, putting it together and so forth.
Q: Do you have different expectations of your first-years and majors in terms of quality of research that they can demonstrate?
A: No, my expectations are very high. One of the things that I like to do in my FYS, as soon as we begin the Seminar, is to give them a subliminal message: “forget about high school.” They sometimes come out of the first several sessions quite shaken up. Like, oh my gosh, he wants us to do an annotated bibliography. But I think all of us have to say to them, this is different than high school.
Q: Do you find that students that come to your upper level classes without having gone through the lower level classes with you…
A: In a certain way they are disadvantaged. I find there is a great amount of difference between the students who have gone through my FYS and those that took other FYSes. Maybe some of it is idiosyncratic, the students already know my nature and what I want. But in a more serious way, they know that they have to write a really good paper before it can pass the test.
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An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 22, no. 2).