On October 29th, at a conference at MIT on academic writing in the 21st century, I took part in a conversation about the Googlization of knowledge. Very interesting because it suggested that the new search tools which are part of everyday life are changing our relationship with knowledge, that they have some sort of epistemological effect. I can’t unfold that idea at length; I heard it from Andrea Volpe of MIT. (A book titled The Googlization of Everything was published this year by University of California Press. The author is Siva Vaidhyanathan.)

When I tried to build on that thought, I ended up saying things that seemed fairly obvious at a second look, but in hopes that they’re worth saying out loud, here’s what I’ve got so far.

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          Keyword searching is clearly something very different from the way librarians curate knowledge, structure it into categories, build ways to access it. I don’t know enough about librarianship to be able to say more precisely what is being lost, but something has to be lost when the user of Google becomes the do-it-yourself curator, and the act of curating consists of typing in a keyword or a series of keywords.

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          Though Google can be a gateway to knowledge, it does not have knowledge. Google is not a knower, not an intelligence. It’s more like an infinite filing cabinet that can reorganize its files instantly on the basis of keywords. It definitely cannot do anything grounded in a personal relationship with the user. If its algorithm commits acts of judgment about which links to display first, those judgments cannot be in any way connected to communication with the user, or to knowledge of the user’s intentions.

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          The items which turn up on Google are links that lead to products of human intelligence, texts intended as acts of communication, but only a tiny snippet of each item is visible and often these snippets are cut off in the middle of a sentence; the words appearing in a Google item are a teaser at best, sometimes almost meaningless out of context. Yet these few words become the basis of decisions to click or not to click on a given link. A reader glancing at an article on paper would not only take in more words in a few seconds, she would be holding the entire text which she could immediately flip through, perhaps reading section headers or noticing illustrations. There would be orders of magnitude more opportunities for something in the text to look interesting, and the decision to read or not to read would be based on vastly more exposure to the thing itself, even after one minute of skimming the article.

Of course, prior to that one minute it could take considerable time to get one’s hands on the printed text. The Google tradeoff is that you get speed and quantity if you give up the richness of the actual experience. Google returns a vast number of extremely thin and extremely partial representations of texts, instantly. The trouble, by this account, is that as a gateway it doesn’t give you enough sense of what it is a gateway to.

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          If one were to slow down and find a number of actual articles, the skimming process described above would come into play, but this is often impeded not only by the sheer difficulty of slowing down (Google sets a pace: instantaneous), but by the discovery that the article one wants is owned by some giant publisher (e.g., Springer, Elsevier) and the full text can only be had for a steep fee. What are my choices, then, if I don’t leave my computer?

Settle for the abstract.

See if I can access the article through my college’s library; this leads to searching other databases, often with an embarrassing lack of success. Aren’t professors supposed to know how to do these things?

Try to find a link where someone has posted it on the internet free of charge.

Request the item through interlibrary loan.

Probably in the heat of the moment I read the abstract and move on, making a mental note to try one of the other routes; or maybe I do try another route. Meanwhile, the original search hangs suspended, frustratingly incomplete. I have a vague but nagging memory of having seen other titles that triggered a feeling of “I should look at that.” I am pulled and driven in multiple directions. The net effect is that I find it almost impossible to stop and think for long once I have dived into the Google vortex. Instead I’m reading parts of things at top speed in an effort to identify what I’m supposedly going to think about later (but will the hypothetical “later” ever come?). Some of the things I read contain links that I can’t resist following. This proliferation and inundation continues until I reach a stage of nearly complete overwhelm and realize that if I don’t stop clicking on things, I will be working with a burned-out remnant of my former brain.

          I’m not saying this process is useless; it does produce worthwhile results. One way and another, I eventually do discover and get possession of texts that really teach me something and move my thinking along. But if this is my experience, and somehow it finally works for me, is it therefore what I’m trying to teach my students to do on a “research paper”? If I find it this challenging, what does it look like to a first-year student? What do I already know, perhaps without having to be aware that I know it, that allows me ultimately to use this tool to my advantage?

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Hyperlinks are great things, until they aren’t.

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A Research Story with Five Obvious Lessons

In 2007 I started a research project from this thought: “I want to write about water.” I was exactly like the student with a poorly focused idea for a paper topic. “Water” is totally impossible as a keyword, that’s three billion hits on Google. In my sabbatical application I did little to focus the topic by saying I wanted to write about “water and human survival.”

One of the first bits of research I did was to attend a one-day conference about water and public health in the developing world, which turned out to be about such things as cholera beds and composting toilets. Intriguing in a way, but holding zero promise as subjects I might write about. I read parts of a couple of books about water that I got because they looked interesting. (Right from the start, the “looks interesting” criterion came into play.) I found that in those books were various things I, again, had no interest in writing about. I eliminated vast fields of potential subject matter before I got through half a book. The various water-related crises unfolding around the globe were almost too discouraging to think about, the people who wrote about them knew 800 times more than I ever would, and the book about them had been written dozens of times already. Okay, I couldn’t write about drought, draining aquifers, and impending disaster.

I looked at some other books and, for reasons like the above, didn’t want to read them. I wrote a bunch of pages about what I wasn’t going to do and why. I tried to define what I should do for a reader; in the absence of a clear subject, this didn’t get me very far.

I picked up a book that was recommended to me by my nephew Josh Jelly-Schapiro, who was a grad student at Berkeley at the time, in geography. In other words, I described my vague, nascent project to someone who was well-read in a relevant field, and he came up with “You should read this.” I trusted his discernment and his taste. I knew him personally and had talked with him many times about books and ideas we both cared about. Without a doubt this made me more receptive to the book he recommended, more sure I would find something worthwhile in it, even if all it did was give me a better understanding of what Josh was up to as a Ph.D. student.

Bingo – before I got through the introduction, I connected to this book, I felt like it was taking me somewhere I wanted to go. In fact it did, though I could never have predicted where I would eventually end up, a couple of years later.

This story seems as though it should have relevance to the situation of a student who begins with only the vaguest notion of what research she wants to pursue. Five obvious lessons follow, for me:

1. If you start with a poorly defined keyword, you get so much potential input that it’s useless.

2. You have to do some research to find out what you don’t want to write about.

3. The process takes a long time. We don’t typically give students multiple months to develop a “research paper.” In 2007 when I started that project, I was on sabbatical, and yet it took about a month to formulate what seemed like a clear, well-articulated statement of what I was really interested in, which proved not to be water itself so much as what looking at water could tell me about our relationship with nature. It took more months to go the next step and see that my real focus was how we think about that relationship.

4. You have to refine your focus, but how? The first step was to apply the “looks interesting” criterion. Research is personal in some way; what I’m interested in, and not interested in, is peculiar to me.

5. I got a key piece of help from a more knowledgeable authority whom I personally knew and trusted. Finding a book by means of my nephew Josh could be called the opposite of a Google search. It was a personal event, grounded in relationship. The result was based on human intelligence, both in the sense of his knowledge of the field of geography, and his judgment of what would be useful to me, based not on a few keywords, but on a conversation about my nebulous interest in water. This doesn’t seem all that different from the help that could be given by a teacher, if she and the student have a good relationship.

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          It seems that the very earliest stages of research are the most dicey, the most uncertain, the least programmable. And when we teach the “research paper” in a first-year writing course, aren’t we working on the earliest stages? In other words, are we not in some sense inevitably presenting novices with the most confusing part of the task right off the bat?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t, or that we can help doing this. I’m saying we might need to think more about what we’re actually asking of our students.

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