For the past few weeks, I’ve been working closely with some first-year students on their first college research paper. This week, they presented their research projects so far; it was really gratifying to see that every single one extensively used library resources in constructing their arguments.
While it’s still a few weeks away from the final research paper being done, it was interesting to notice, in general, the students who had fewer sources but had clearly spent more time with them had constructed much more nuanced arguments. I might have expected that more of a breadth of secondary sources would help in the creation of the argument, but, at least so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
So that got me to thinking about a recent article from Harvard Magazine, about the “power of patience” and how teachers (especially at the college level) can help students engage with deep structure and really seeing/reading something—a skill that is becoming a lost art.
In the article, Harvard art history professor Jennifer Roberts describes an assignment that she gives to her students: They have to spend three hours looking at a painting while writing down their observations. Roberts says that “the time span is explicitly designed to seem excessive,” the opposite extreme of what students are normally conditioned to expect in assignments.
Roberts makes herself take part in this exercise as well, in her own work. And the outcome is this:
What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.
Especially in librarianship, I think we often lose sight of the difference between access to a source and engaging with that source. Certainly I do: Sometimes I’m so focused on getting the students the “twelve secondary scholarly sources” they need, that we spend all of our time finding things and not analyzing them.
What this tells me is that in order to get students to the level of scholarly work that we hope for and expect, maybe we need to reevaluate the focus of both assignment design and library sessions. What if we required less sources, and scaffolded a close reading like Roberts describes into the assignment? At my library, we stress evaluating sources and integrating them into a new argument in our information literacy definition. In many ways, this seems like the next step: Although students might feel like the exercise is excessive, having them participate in a more drawn-out process like this does demonstrate the type of patience that is required of scholars in any field. If the purpose of college is to train students in these disciplinary strategies, then teaching them patience with a source (visual, textual, or otherwise) is absolutely key to achieving that kind of deep engagement that is a hallmark of quality scholarship.
There are multiple ways that the library can engage with this idea—spending more time with evaluation and source integration; collaborating with faculty to demonstrate the key components of the discipline in sources and how they are reflected in database structure; dissecting the various parts of a scholarly article and how they work together; and I’m sure many, many more things.
There’s no doubt that speed and efficiency is valued today. Which means that the close, critical work that scholars engage with is no longer the norm, though it is no less valuable or crucial than ever before (the argument could be made that it’s more important than ever). But we can certainly teach patience and deep engagement and embody it ourselves–it just takes a little time.