when the library comes to you

At the beginning of each school year, when I send my college students off to seek information to support their argument position essays, I include an exercise that puts them in the library. I’m always amazed at how many of them not only have not been in the library, but how many don’t even know how to get to it! I suppose I’m biased, as I was was always more interested in the library than the classroom.

Having said that, I’ll admit that the library is not the first place I go for current information, looking for support on the topics of our argument papers. However, merely conducting a Google search is not the answer, as the results are likely to be unfocused at best and overwhelming at worst. And while Wikipedia is great for an introduction to a topic, it’s much too thin for an in-depth investigation, and can’t be used as a reference anyway.

Lately I’ve become entranced with Google Alerts. When handing out your syllabus at the beginning of a semester, require your students to sign up for Google Alerts on each of the writing topics.

For instance, suppose you are writing on the topic of the FISA bill, the president’s desire for warrantless spying to combat terrorism vs. Constitutional rights to privacy. I instructed Google Alerts to inform me whenever there is a news article on the topic. Once a day, the relevant article links are delivered to my email. In a little over a week, I’ve received over 200 relevant links. By simply scrolling through the titles and accompanying excerpts, I can see which will be most useful, and which sources most credible.

Think about this. I’ve made no time-consuming trips to the library, maneuvering through traffic and parking or inclement weather. I haven’t spent endless hours searching through the library’s limited collection of newspapers or magazines. Nor have I invested all the change in my wallet for making copies.

What did I do? I went to bed. And the next morning the research I needed was collected in my email. Or, through text messages. Or, in a gadget on my Google homepage.

I still send my students to the bricks-and-mortar library. But I’m fully cognizant of the fact that oftentimes they have a few things to teach me.

More on essays, research, and tools

input facilitates output

annotating the web

wikis unwrapped


the guilt of green

Undeniably, argument essays have become the centerpiece of every university’s freshman composition course. It can be tough, however, to engage our apolitical, sometimes downright apathetic, students into caring enough about an issue to stake much on a passionate argument.

Here’s a topic that may do the trick: Americans have long enjoyed growth and prosperity as they’ve developed into an economic superpower. China and India, two nations with huge populations and enormous productive potential, are ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Just at this time of unprecedented progress for developing nations, developed countries are recognizing the costs of overdevelopment and coming scarcity of resources. We want to go green. Is it fair to ask developing nations to curb their hard-won progress in favor of environmental restraint?

I think students will respond to this topic because it is their future they’re writing about. Yes, they love their SUV’s, they love driving, period. And they’ve grown up in a culture of waste. But they also have a conscience about the effects such waste have on the environment. In a sense, they are like the developing countries, just about to spread their own wings. How do they assess their own responsibilities?

Big Think has a set of six videos featuring viewpoints from various influential thinkers on this very issue. You’ll need to add some written articles to the syllabus, but hearing a mix of ideas can get the ball rolling. Have students summarize and respond to each speaker’s position to help them define their own stand. Here is the link to the videos at Big Think: Is it fair to ask developing countries to go green?