Uncle Frank's Diary
Number Nine

 

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Taking Candy from Strange Websites:
Do Not Be Fooled, Boys & Girls!


The Web is part of the solution to the huge challenge of organizing and making accessible the bewildering array of information, opinion, and art humanity cranks out with such fervent dedication. It is also part of the problem when it helps people root their lives in scurrilous “information,” ill-conceived ideas, and bad art.


 

“That’s what I want! That’s just what I need! Where can I get that?”

I sag, I sigh, my head falls upon my hand. Fortunately, my elbow is propped on the reference desk, or my head would thunk down onto the oak veneer.

Why the dispirited reaction? Yet another student has leaped to conclusions about what will serve the needs of the term paper she is writing when I help her with some preliminary searching in the library’s online resources.

Time and again, when I show students how to do some basic searching on their topics, they jump with a naïve faith and enthusiasm at the first catalog or index entry that looks as though it might be useful. Seeing a promising title in a list of 14 is good enough:   

“That’s the one! Just tell me where it is!”

What of drawing up a list of possibilities, and examining them, and comparing them, to see what pans out?

Are you kidding? Who has time for that?

“Yes, well,” I say, “that might be good. But it might be helpful to look at some of these other items…”

My voice trails off. I know the light of instant conviction in a student’s eyes; I know that I am trying to talk reason and caution to someone who is certain that the truth is at hand, in that one title that turned up in response to our little search. I might as well suggest to a true-believing Christian that God may not have a keen personal interest in his conduct or fate.

Lost in the Unfettered Web

And this is online searching not in the chaos of the Web, but in the relatively rigorous confines of the library’s catalog or other automated research systems—ProQuest, Lexis-Nexis, and so on. If that God in which so many are so trusting really troubles her/him/itself to monitor the activities of countless human beings (what a colossal bore that would be: “Whoa, that’s only the millionth time I’ve seen that happen in the last half hour!”), surely he, she, or it alone can imagine the phenomenal absence of critical intelligence that prevails on both sides when students go head-on into the unfettered Web.

Mere easy plagiarism is probably the least of the traps waiting there for careless students—and Web-based plagiarism is often pretty easy for teachers to track down. More ominous is the way the Web facilitates a timeless habit of students: doing the least possible to meet the demands of the assignment, even without copying someone else’s work.

Indifferent student research did not begin with the advent of Web browsers, of course. Uncle Frank knows: He wrote several papers, back in the pre-computer day, that did not raise beads of earnest, scholarly sweat on his forehead, and that he is glad have long since been consigned to oblivion.

The Same Old Laziness, or Something New?

So what’s the difference between lazy research on the Web and lazy research the old-fashioned way, with books and periodicals? Isn’t it the same old slovenliness exercised in a different venue?

I think maybe not. I think there is something qualitatively different about goofing off on an assignment via the Web, and goofing off by putting minimal effort into using periodical indexes, and book catalogs, and actually handling in the flesh a few journals and a book or two.

Yes, yes, the truly inspired uninspired student can fake a book report on Moby Dick (speaking of colossal bores) with the Classics Comics version and the Cliff Notes commentary, but—assuming that a student does do a teeny bit of work—looking up an article, however painfully, in Humanities Index, and checking out a book of Melville criticism (“We have to, the teacher’s making us”), some engagement takes place with something resembling systematic scholarship. The “system” comes, if not in the student’s own approach, then in the conscientious orderliness of the periodical index, in the intellectual discipline of the book catalog, and in the use of library materials presumably present at the scene because of a librarian’s or a prof’s selecting them in accord with thoughtful principles.

Rub up against this sort of thing even a little bit, now and then, and it leaves a mark worth wearing. Better, even, than a sunflower tattoo peeking out from above the rear waistband of your low-rider jeans.

But the Web at large? Yow. With no rules of entry, no standards, no review, no correction, no nothin’, the Web is a terrific source of useful and democratic content. It is also a terrific source of mindless drivel, worse than television at its most vapid. For every student who comes to me (and this happens) at the reference desk complaining that an entire afternoon’s search “on the Web” led to nothing useful, how many students decide that the twaddle they located with a search engine is good enough? I fear that the number is high.

The danger of the Web for naïve students lies chiefly in their assumption that because something is on the Web, it is therefore worth the space it occupies. They have faith when they should be skeptical. In 1977, a student could pick up Humanities Index in the same sort of faith his or her peer of today Googles the Web. The difference is that the faith the student of 1977 placed in that index was in at least some ways warranted. Inclusion in that periodical index connoted a journal’s achieving certain standards of utility and respectability.

Indiscriminate Groping

Sure, one could gripe about the decisions index editors made, but there were, at the minimum, considered decisions that affected research results—not simply the indiscriminate groping and grabbing that characterizes many “information” catches made on the Web. On the Web, the biased, the uninformed, and the agenda-ridden greet the innocent and the trusting.   It’s like watching little boys and girls climb into the cars of strangers who offer them candy. But try to tell a student pressed for time and not much interested in hard work that the candy at that Web site has arsenic in it!

In a particularly poisonous development, many (maybe most) search engines list high in their results pages the sites of outfits that have paid for such consideration. The Federal Trade Commission this June, reporting the results of an inquiry prompted by the consumer watchdog group Commercial Alert (http://www.commercialalert.org/), indicated widespread failure of leading search engines to be candid about their inclusion of paid advertising in search results.

Google is up-front about this practice and notes the sites that are sponsored entries. Others are not so forthright. At least when you’re watching television, you can usually tell the difference between the programs and the commercials. On the Web, what you’re led to believe is the “good stuff” resulting from your search may, in fact, be the stuff that somebody paid to have you see.

Isn’t that sweet?

Getting Untangled

A growing number of libraries are working to equip students and other users with some basic healthy skepticism about Web reliance. Where I work, our Web home page provides a link to a “Tips for Students” page that includes a section on critically evaluating Websites, with further links to other libraries’ efforts on this front. (The World-Wide Web Virtual Library maintains a page with many useful links to Website evaluation guides: http://www.vuw.ac.nz/~agsmith/evaln/evaln.htm).

Educators in general are becoming increasingly concerned about students’ casual reliance on the Web. In her piece “Point. Click. Think?” (Washington Post, July 16, 2002, p. CO1), Laura Sessions Stepp writes in a balanced way on the topic, citing both Web traps and advantages.

“The Internet makes it ungodly easy now for people who wish to be lazy,” Stepp quotes one Iowa librarian. At the same time, with some focused teaching, students can learn to distinguish between worthwhile and worthless (or worse) sites.

An old twist on an even older progressive homily notes that if you’re part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The Web is part of the solution to the huge challenge of organizing and making accessible the bewildering array of information, opinion, and art humanity cranks out with such fervent dedication. It is also part of the problem when it helps people root their lives in scurrilous “information,” ill-conceived ideas, and bad art.

Sometimes it makes Uncle Frank’s head hurt, and makes him want to join Nick Adams, watching the trout in the river from the railroad bridge at Seney. They can be very satisfying.

More satisfying than the Web, any day.