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Sometimes I look forward to the end-of-semester rush, when students’ final paperscome streaming into my office and mailbox. Icould have hundreds of pages of originalthought to read and evaluate. Once in awhile, it is truly exciting to a question I’veasked the class to discuss.But this past semester was different.I noticed a disturbing decline in both thequality of the writing and the originality ofthe thoughts expressed. What had happenedsince last fall? Did I ask worse questions? Weremy students unusually lazy? No. My class hadfallen victim to the latest easy way of writing a paper: doing their research on the World-Wide-Web.It’s easy to spot a research paper that is based primarily on information collected fromthe Web. First, the bibliography cites no books, just articles or pointers to places in that virtualland somewhere off any map: http://www.etc.Then a strange preponderance of material in the bibliography is curiously out of date. A lot ofstuff on the Web that is advertised as timely isactually at least a few years old. (One studentsubmitted a research paper last semester in whichall of his sources were articles published betweenSeptember and December 1995; that was probably the times span of the Web page onwhich he found them.)Another clue is the beautiful picturesand graphs that are inserted into the body of thestudent’s text. They look impressive, as thoughthey were the result of careful work and analysis, but actually they often bear little relation to the precise subject of the paper. Cut and pastedfrom the vast realm of what’s out there for thetaking, they masquerade as original work.Accompanying them are unattributed(no credit given to the original author) quotes (inwhich one can’t tell who made the statement orin what context ) and curiously detailedreferences to the kinds of things that are easy tofind on the Web (pages and pages of federaldocuments, corporate propaganda, or snippets ofcommentary by people whose credibility isdifficult to assess). Sadly, one finds fewreferences to careful, in-depth commentaries onthe subject of the paper, the kind of analysis thatrequires a book, rather than an article, for its fulldevelopment.Don’t get me wrong, I’m no neo-Luddite (someone who believes new technologyis bad or wrong). I am as enchanted as anyoneelse is by the potential of this new technology to provide instant information. But too much ofwhat passes for information these days is simplyadvertising for information. Screen after screenshows you where you can find out more, howyou can connect to this place or that. The acts oflinking and networking and randomly jumpingfrom here to there become as exciting orrewarding as actually finding anything ofintellectual value.Search Engines, with their half-bakedalgorithms, are closer to slot machines than tolibrary catalogues. You throw you query to thewind, and who knows what will come back toyou? You may get 234,468 supposed referencesto whatever you want to know. Perhaps one in athousand might actually help you. But it’s easyto be sidetracked or frustrated as you try to gothrough those Web pages one by one.Unfortunately, they’re not arranged in order ofimportance.What I’m describing is the hunt-and- peck method of writing a paper. We all knowthat word processing makes many first draftslook far more polished than they are. If the paper doesn’t reach the assigned five pages,readjust the margins, change the font size, and . ..
Of course, those machinations take uptime that the students could have spent revising
the paper. With programs to check one’sspelling and grammar now standard features onmost computers, one wonders why studentsmake any mistakes at all. But errors are as prevalent as ever, no matter how crisp thetypeface. Instead of becoming perfectionists, toomany students have become slackers, preferringto let the machine do their work for them.What the Web adds to the shortcutsmade possible by word processing is to makeresearch look too easy. You toss a query to themachine, wait a few minutes, and suddenly a lotof possible sources of information appear onyour screen. Instead of books that you have tocheck out of the library, read carefully,understand, synthesize, and then tactfullyexcerpt, these sources are quips, blips, pictures,and short summaries that may be downloadedmagically to the dorm-room computer screen.Fabulous, How simple! The only problem is thata paper consisting of summaries of summaries is bound to be fragmented and superficial, and todemonstrate more of a random montage than anability to sustain an argument through 10 to 15double-spaced pages,Of course, you can’t blame the studentsfor ignoring books. When college libraries arediverting funds from books to computertechnology that will be obsolete in two years atmost, they send a clear message to students:Don’t read, just connect. Surf. Download. Cutand paste. Originality becomes hard to separatefrom plagiarism if no author is cited on a Web page. Clearly, the words are up for grabs, andstudents much prefer the fabulous jumble to thehard work of stopping to think and make senseof what they’ve read.Libraries used to be repositories ofwords and ideas. Now they are seen as centersfor the retrieval of information. Some of thisinformation comes from other, bigger libraries,in the form of books that can take time to obtainthrough interlibrary loan. What happens to themany students (some things never change) whoscramble to write a paper the night before it’sdue? The computer screen, the gateway to theworld sitting right on their desks, promisesinstant access—but actually offers only a pale,two-dimensional version of a real library.But it’s also my fault. I take much ofthe blame for the decline in quality of studentresearch in my classes. I need to teach studentshow to read, to take time with language ideas, towork through arguments, to synthesize disparate(different) sources to come up with originalthought. I need to help my students understandhow to assess sources to determine theircredibility, as well as to trust their own ideasmore than snippets of thought that materialize ona screen. The placelessness (blamelessness) ofthe Web leads to an ethereal (intangible orvaporous) randomness of thought. Gone are the pathways of logic and passion, the sense of the progress of an argument. Chance holds sway,and it more often misses than hits. Judgmentmust be taught, as well as the methods ofexploration.I’m seeing my students’ attention spanswane and their ability to reason for themselvesdecline. I wish that the university’s computersystem would crash for a day, so that I couldencourage them to go outside, sit under a tree,and read a really good book—from start tofinish. I’d like them to sit for a while and ponderwhat it means to live in a world where somethings get easier and easier so rapidly that we canhardly keep track of how easy they’re getting,while other tasks remain as hard as ever—suchas doing research and writing a good paper thatteaches the writer something in the process.Knowledge does not emerge in a vacuum, but wedo need silence and space for sustained thought. Next semester, I’m going to urge my students toturn off their glowing boxes and think, if onlyonce in a while.
David Rothenburg is an associate professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute ofTechnology. He is the author of
Hand’s End:Technology and the Limits of Nature (
Universityof California Press, 1993) and editor of
Terra Nova: Journal of Nature and Culture (M.I.T.