The Broken Promise, Part 4: A New Promise?

Collectively exploring topographies of information may well solve a problem most colleges face: first year composition/information literacy training. The typical second semester composition course combines instruction in information literacy and in the rhetorical forms of argument and persuasion. We expect students in these courses to ‘demonstrate their skills’ in one or more researched argumentative essays. There are, however, two interrelated problems with this approach.

First, it is very difficult to get students to perform adequate research. The usual explanations for this – lack of training or lack of commitment – obscure the real challenge, the complex cognitive environment of present-centeredness and its symptoms, cognitive economy and satisficing. Second, composition courses enroll students from disparate majors, and many of the enrollees know little about their disciplines or their planned professions. Teaching “general research skills” isn’t practicable: as anyone who has tried to actually teach keyword generation knows, keywords are keywords because they are nodes in a conceptual network established by a discipline or domain. Nor is teaching discipline-specific research always practicable: the typical “comp” instructor is not prepared to introduce students to their fields of study, identify problems practitioners face that can be addressed in research, and to guide the students through that research – student by student, major by major.

Recognizing this, many colleges offer information literacy or professional inquiry courses alongside the composition course. However, this simply puts the students in a Catch-22: they cannot adequately express their findings in Info Lit without the skills of Comp, but they cannot complete their assignments in Comp without the skills acquired in Info Lit.

Wait a minute. I’ve spent the last 5 maybe 10 years of my life as a passenger on the train, and now you’re telling me to get out and push? Mine is a click-acquire world, and yet  you want me to spend 10 hours of homework time a week messing around with keywords and a bunch of databases I’ve never used and if I don’t find anything then I’m gonna have to change topics which means I’m screwed for time cuz now I have to do the whole stupid process all over again and who knows whether that topic will work and even if I do find something I gotta read  a bunch of  18-page, block text, PDF format academic journal articles that read like you sound when you lecture with a head cold???

Little wonder that our Comp students either recycle papers from their high school English classes, even when the assignment explicitly forbids the topic, or write the paper from a single popular internet source and hope we won’t notice.

We need, the students need, a fully integrated writing-researching environment that meets their “get real” challenge. We should recombine the professional inquiry and composition efforts, offering first year, discipline-focused courses modeled after the upper division courses some colleges offer wherein professional writing is integrated into a domain content course. These upper division courses are successful because they combine narrowly focused content, problem-based learning, and genres the students will need in their careers (e.g., the business plan or the scientific report, as opposed to the MLA formatted, Big Issue based, Argumentative Essay).

If we implemented program-tailored seminars, could we still meet the curriculum goal of teaching students the rhetoric of argument and persuasion? Of course. A scientific report, a business plan or proposal, a well-supported editorial, even many blog entries employ argumentative and persuasive rhetoric. Would this prevent students from succumbing to information overload, the equivalent of a Depression in their cognitive economy? Hard to say. Overload is inescapable, but this approach at least might teach them how to limit the amount of input and how to focus the outputs.

Would it prevent satisficing? Not relevant. Satisficing is also inescapable. Whether we are developing a competitive analysis for the next quarterly review or struggling to complete an Op-Ed piece, there’s simply more stuff out there to look at than we have time for. These seminars would, however, show students the difference between judicious satisficing and plain old sloppy work.

OK then, will it provide a more academically satisfactory satisficing? Cynical answer: Anything is an improvement over the current situation in which the dominant “stopping criteria” – the reasons we throw up our hands, close our laptops, and walk away from the project – are despair and lack of time.

Better answer: If I am right, the instructor-coached, problem-probing, collaborative project is our best chance to introduce students to the elusive but essential LOOK WHAT I FOUND! moment. An extended project of that sort emphasizes the act and effort of coming to know, it helps students remain inquisitive; it turns a static and daunting topography of keywords and sources and information into a network of insights and comments and questions and applications. It demands that we individually get out of our seats so we can collectively reassure the future; it is both promise and example of escaping the orphaning now.


Scattered in these four parts are insights from students in my Introduction to Communications and Critical Thinking courses, and from Paul Rechichi’s senior capstone project research in particular. My thanks to all.

About caerdescri

Author, editor, educator.
This entry was posted in Education, Media Ecology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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