Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Research Paradigms

I was a junior in high school in 1992. I was in a class entitled "Humanities" which had two quasi-indenedent sections. One part was a history class which dealt with the facts and themes of the era. A study of zeitgeist and chronology; while the English class was a study of the literature from that time in history.

As part of this class I was to given the assignment to write a nice little term paper comparing and contrasting the works of Dante and Chaucer. It was to be in the neighborhood of twenty-pages with at least 10 sources and done according to the writing style that we had been introduced to in the previous two years.

Of course twenty-pages, even generously double spaced, is quite a few words, and meeting the number of sources would prove to be challenging.

One night my brother and I went racing to the local library. Now the population of our little town in Connecticut at the time was only starting to exceed the total number of cows by this time, and the library was good enough to find a nice selection of mystery novels, but finding literary criticism of medieval literature proved to be futile. I am guessing that the women on the library book procurement committee were not concerned with expanding the town's ken in that particular area.

Not to be so easily deterred, my brother and I raced off to the library in the next town over. This library was a stately building of stone, built by the mill barons of yesteryear. Sadly while I had been able to find Caesar's Gallic Wars in this library some years earlier, I was unable to find any literary criticism about Dante and Chaucer.

After this epic failure, we returned home. We would have to venture on another evening to the University library to find our information.

After a good thirty-minute drive through the back woods of the state, we arrived in Storrs, CT. The University of Connecticut indeed had a plethora of information on the subject. Being lowly high school students, we had to find the books on the shelves, and then do our research in the library by a combination of notation by hand (laptop!? what was that?) and photocopies of relevant pages.

Once the information was gathered, a paper was written, and all was well in the world.

That was nearly twenty years ago. Today, as I type this on my laptop, I do a Google search of "Dante and Chaucer comparison," and I get 439,000 results in 0.3 seconds, sitting here on my couch. No running to various libraries, no fast reading to glean quotations and facts from musty, esoteric tomes, no scribbling by hand on note cards. It is all here, in HTML, easily cut and pasted into word processors to be carefully read at my leisure and digested so as to write a nice paper.

So what twenty-years has given us is instant access to more information than we could possibly use and in mind-boggling fast speeds. Sadly while this should make life quite easy for the researcher, it has given rise to a number of other issues.

First off is the tendency to be a bit lazy. I understand that there are now services dedicated to doing their own search to see if our intrepid, if ethically deficient, student has cut and pasted whole papers, or "Franken-papered" a report from various snippets of other writers. In my day we had to quote or paraphrase with a citation and then add our own thinking to the mix. Evidently this is being lost somehow.

Another issue is the reliability of the sources. In my day, if you got your quotation or source from some published book, it was held to be correct or at least to a standard that a teacher would accept. Obviously literary or other research was not published at great expense if it hadn't gone through at least some sort of peer review. Today with the advent of Wiki's and blogs and the like, the researcher had better be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Just because I found 439,000 hits doesn't mean any of them are actually useful or even remotely accurate academic research that has been reviewed and accepted.

So today with information at our fingertips, we have to be ever mindful of what we are pulling out of cyberspace and use our own mind to see if that information, while easy to obtain, is worth the electrons that move it.