Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Content Curation and the Research Story

I am late in jumping on the "curation" bandwagon.  I didn't get it, and thought it was just a trendy, jargon word for what librarians have always done.  Then I ran across a definition (which, unfortunately, I neither bookmarked, nor saved to de.licio.us,  Instapaper,  or Evernote, so cannot find now) that fomented one of those Eureka! moments for me.  Roughly paraphrased:

Collectors do just that: collect.  Curators, however, collect content as the initial stage in telling a story about the material collected (as in the best museums). In other words, curators put what they collect into context.

Wow! That resonated for me because, of course, that is what teachers ask students to do every time they assign a (well-designed!) research project.    And one of our most difficult jobs as information specialists is helping students not just make sense of their findings, but of fitting them into the larger context of the story they're trying to tell.  They may find a great YouTube video on the conflict in the Congo, but what does it add to their presentation on colonialism's aftermath? What nuance does it add to their thesis?  How does it relate to their other sources? Does it detract in any way and, if so, how do they account for it within the context of their overall point or "story"?

These are big, big questions.

Then I ran across this article this morning, describing journalism's own struggle with creating a coherent story from the plethora of info-babble and Twitter feeds.  If journalists--often our students' source--find this difficult, how much harder must it be for a 15-year-old? 

More importantly, how can we guide them in their story-telling without influencing their interpretations, or adding to what is already an over-whelming burden for many of them?

Students as Curators  

First, I think we need to explain their research to them in exactly these terms, including the museum analogy (or any other analogy you think will be relevant for them).    Students need to understand they are not just bookmarking ad nauseum, but trying to create a larger story.

Second, as students work with their sources, we should encourage (require?) them to jot down their ideas on  the source's relevance to their larger research "story."  Nothing as formal and time-consuming as an annotated bibliography, though I think those are a great way of a) forcing students to think more deeply about their source and b) ensuring they've actually read it, and aren't just including it to pad out their Works Cited  (Surely not!). 

While I would love to ask students to do these regularly, they are a lot of work, and I think there would be quite a bit of understandable push-back.  I'm a firm believer in choosing my battles!  It makes more sense to me to just ask them  to write quick ideas on their note-cards (real or digital).

Since many students don't have a clear idea of their thesis during the initial research stages, this would be an ongoing task, and their process in that (not the actual notes themselves) should be part of my assessment of their research.  Moreover, as they share their research notes with me, I would of course  nudge and guide their progress.  It's far more important to work with them during the process, than evaluate them after-the-fact!

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