The Database and the Essay: Possible Classroom Application

In the Activities section at the end of his chapter in Writing New Media, Johndan Johnson-Eilola presents some compelling ideas for instructors to help their students take a more critical look at the way we use search engines in our academic and personal lives.  Johnson-Eilola’s activity descriptions got me thinking about how I could extend the topic of critical information literacy, with a particular focus on search engine results and analysis, into my own Freshman Composition classroom.

As I read Activity 2 on p. 230, I realized I might be able to tweak the exercise for use with a particular project that my students are actually currently working on.  The project involves students researching a relationship about which they have previously written a personal (non research-based) essay.  The relationships are unique in that they cannot involve two humans, but rather a human and a non-human life form, concrete activity, or object.  The nature of the assigned relationship lends itself to a great variety of results; some students have chosen to write about relationships with music/musical instruments, cars, running, photography, job responsibilities, the list goes on.  For the first part of this assignment, I could follow Johnson-Eilola’s idea of assigning different search engines to students (Google, Yahoo, Bing, Lycos, Dogpile, etc.—maybe 3 or 4 apiece) to research their particular relationships.  When I have informally polled the students in previous class sessions, the vast majority say they prefer to use Google almost every time they perform an online search.  So assigning different search engines would be an interesting exercise in exposure to and analysis of different search results depending on the particular search engine.  Also, as Johnson- Eilola points out, “students (and nearly everyone) needs to learn both how that search engine works as well as instances in which using a different search engine would be helpful”(230).

Then, instead of assigning three terms for students to look up on their assigned search engine, I would have students search for a keyword related to their relationship project.  For example, a student who is focusing on his relationship to working out might look up “weightlifting” or “fitness”.  The students would use the same term in each search engine, and compare the results using the four questions that Johnson-Eilola suggests on p. 231.

Following their independent research, I would ask students to get into small groups according to their assigned search engines and discuss their findings with their classmates.  Together they could analyze their results and present a kind of “search engine rating” to the rest of the class, based on their compiled information.

I can see that this might be a nice lead-in activity to my “assessing the credibility of internal and external online information” exercise (see earlier entry about Halavais’ “Search Engine Society”), that I do with my Freshman Composition classes every semester.  It might even be a good co-activity, in which students are asked to assess not only the search results themselves, but also the credibility of the results on each search engine.  We could then compare the online search engine results to those results found on the college library database.  Because they would experiment with various online locations for research in this activity, students could become more informed about the decisions they make when conducting online research.

By incorporating such an activity into my English classes, I would hope to instill a more critical consciousness into my students as they conduct personal research, but I would also hope that such an activity that involves group discussion and sharing of search results would contribute to a more social and networked kind of research process.  As they form connections between and across online spaces by exploring various search engines, and subsequently share their findings, thoughts, and interpretations with others in their groups and with the class, I am wondering if my students might be participating in a kind of English <A> that Rice envisions when he says that, “[t]he student, the text, the word, the image, the space, and so on are tagged in relationships”(64).  I must admit that I am still trying to wrap my mind around exactly what English <A> might look like in practice, but I think that by extending independent research into a more critical and social discussion of search results, and sharing of ideas and connections between these ideas, I might begin to approach the kind of networking (both online and in the classroom) that is so integral to new media writing.

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