Archive for February, 2011

“Using Sources as Tools for Analysis”

Monday, February 21st, 2011

About Aaron McCollough

English Literature Librarian, University of Michigan

In recent months, my colleagues and I here at the University of Michigan Library have been reviewing our approach to information literacy instruction. Doing so is, no doubt, the kind of thing an organization should engage in almost constantly.


Among other things, this review has revealed that a dramatically high percentage of our library instruction is currently being directed at entry-level English classes. While it may not be an earth-shattering revelation, knowing this seems to oblige some new thinking about how best to approach such a high concentration of new library users (serving the patrons well and sparing the instruction librarians any undue redundancies). Also, insofar as the curriculum for these entry-level English classes is homogenous (although much of it isn’t), we’d like to adapt our instruction to its particular learning goals.


In service of these aims, I’ve been consulting with faculty in the English Department Writing Program about ideas for “Do-it-Yourself” information literacy instruction modules. The point of such modules is to offer faculty and graduate student instructors a way to begin directly integrating information literacy into their classes. These modules aren’t meant to replace the traditional 50-minute one-shot instruction session but rather to supplement it by delivering the most basic information in advance and by smoothing the transition between “course content” on the one hand and “library instruction” on the other.




The preceding three paragraphs are all a long preamble to what I’d really like to talk about in this post. In my attempts to develop the aforementioned instruction modules, I’ve been quizzing members of the writing faculty about the kind of content they’d find most useful in this format. Today, I got an interesting response. The assistant director of the program asked me to think about providing a module on the following topic: “Beyond the Research paper–using sources as tools for analysis.” He went on to emphasize how important it is to first- and second-year students to understand that gathering secondary source material is not an arbitrary task and that the sources themselves are meant to do something in a paper.


If writing instructors find it challenging to instill this lesson in students minds, there’s every reason to believe we librarians might have some difficulty, too, but I like a good challenge…


So. In order to begin thinking about how to approach this topic as a librarian, I’ve begun with thinking about the way we tend to teach students about plagiarism and how to avoid it. After all, plagiarism is the ultimate failure in the proper use of sources. In order to avoid such a failure, we teach students to identify what they are interested in before they start diving into their sources and to take fastidious notes based on those interests as they are reading their sources. We teach them to summarize, to paraphrase, to quote properly, and to give credit where it’s due. But the task at hand isn’t about what we don’t want students to be doing, it’s about what we do want students to be doing.


In order to turn things around, then, so that the emphasis is on making sources interact “as tools for analysis,” I think we have to probe how we expect students to understand the terms “analysis” and “sources.”


What is analysis? What is a source? There are plenty of ways to answer these questions, of course, but as far as the “discourse conventions” of English Literature study go, the range is not really that wide. I put it to my fellow LES librarians to help me answer this question.


I do have some ideas. I wonder what you think.


Isn’t Analysis something like an operation requiring one to take a critical position on something unclear, debatable, or otherwise interesting in a text (probably, but not necessarily, a literary text)?


Isn’t a Source another text that has already taken a critical position on the thing one is attempting to analyze? Isn’t it therefore an example of analysis, the successfulness of which is open to debate?


In order to teach how students of English Literature incorporate secondary source material into the production of new analytical perspectives, I wonder if we don’t have to teach a specific feature of critical thinking. Don’t we have to teach students to think of sources almost etymologically poetically, as streams of ideas (some stronger, some weaker) to draw from selectively as they develop their own thoughts?


Clearly this is a work in progress, but I’d love to know what others think about this set of questions and where it might lead.