Scholarship as Conversation: Teaching the Deep Structure of Attribution with Authentic Problem Contexts

Alex Carroll and Robin Dasler have an important new article out on “Scholarship is a Conversation: Discourse, Attribution, and Twitter’s Role in Information Literacy Instruction” in The Journal of Creative Library Practice that I wanted to draw to the attention of our readers. The article nicely models how we can teach the deep, conceptual structure of something like “why it’s important to cite stuff,” and does so while building a narrative around scholarship as conversation, using a relevant case study students will understand – Twitter – as a meaningful, real-life example.

In my view, one reason this kind of instruction is deeply valuable is that, according to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham’s summary of the research on the cognitive science of learning,

The surest way to help students understand an abstraction is to expose them to many different versions of the abstraction […] new things are understood by relating them to things we already understand [… ] it’s not simply that giving concrete examples helps. They must also be familiar examples … It’s not the concreteness, it’s the familiarity that is important.

Why Don’t Students Like School? pp. 88-90.

Hence, using Twitter – a concrete example that is familiar to students – is a really effective method from the standpoint of evidence-based teaching practice to teach students the difficult abstract ideas of “attribution” and “scholarship as conversation.”

An excerpt from “Scholarship is a Conversation“:

When addressing scholarly attribution, citation, and plagiarism in one-shot instruction sessions, librarians often fail to present these issues in a manner that has relevance for students. Librarians often focus on intellectual honesty and the potential ramifications of plagiarism, both individual pursuits, rather than explaining that by creating an academic work, students are participating in academic discourse […]

One of the major deficiencies of this compliance-based instruction is that it presents students with a false dichotomy that does not align with their authentic life experiences; plagiarism is demonstrated as a black and white issue, rather than existing in shades of gray. Students who have come of age within a twenty-first century information ecosystem rife with remix and parody culture will likely find teaching that presents the re-use of source material as a non-nuanced issue unconvincing. Because students respond positively to instruction that aligns with their authentic experiences, this suggests that librarians need to develop new methods for teaching attribution and scholarly discourse that not only recognize the nuance inherent to these topics, but also presents these concepts within a familiar framework . As a familiar platform for social interaction with multiple avenues for giving credit and a shorter timescale, Twitter presents an opportunity to place attribution, plagiarism, and integrity into a humanizing, real world context that models how discourse unfolds in an authentic manner for learners. By embedding attribution instruction into a meaningful context, librarians and other educators can make substantial and much needed improvements to traditional compliance-based instruction, which is often built upon the slow, rigid, and unfamiliar patterns of how to cite scholarly works […]

Rather than limiting attribution to the realm of in-text citation and bibliographies, librarians working within libraries of all types should consider connecting these issues to case studies, which can convey to the public and students of all ages that attribution and copyright have relevance beyond the confines of academic writing.

Great case study in teaching students in a relevant way that moves beyond pointing and clicking; definitely worth a read, and a fine example of quality work in evidence-based information literacy instruction.


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