Convincing Teens that Reading is Lame…Forever!
August 23, 2011 by Lane Wilkinson
|Image by liquidnight, on FLickr
By now you’ve probably come across the news that 90% of Internet users don’t know about using CTRL+F to search a web page or document (that’s Command+F for all you hipsters out there). Librarians are jumping on this statistic as a rallying cry for the importance of information literacy, digital literacy, keyboard literacy, or [insert modifier] literacy. Throw in the recent article at Inside Higher Ed about college students’ piss-poor research skills, and…wow…college students are having some serious trouble using technology. It’s starting to sound like the future of academic library instruction will be less about search strategies and more about removing choking hazards from the computer lab.
|“Where’s the link to ELMOSTOR?”
Image by Paul Mayne, on Flickr
I’ll admit that I’m skeptical about the 90% figure (simply because I haven’t seen the original research). But, let’s assume it’s true. Why should CTRL+F matter? Well, as Daniel Russell explains, “if you only learn one keyboard shortcut in your entire life, this should be it. Knowing how to rapidly spot the word, phrase or substring you’re looking for quickly will change the way you read texts online.” So, that’s it…CTRL+F will change the way you read!
I’ll admit that CTRL+F is an integral part of my search behavior. I search through electronic sources all day long for a living, and I couldn’t do it efficiently without the keyboard shortcut. I suspect that the same is true of the many librarians on Twitter who are spreading the 90% story like wildfire. Reference librarians are advanced researchers and CTRL+F is one of our most prized tools. But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, rather than being a simple shortcut, CTRL+F is actually an advanced tool that many student researchers aren’t yet ready for. That 90% figure might not be such a bad thing.
You see, I work with college students, the supposed “digital natives” whose research skills are routinely called into question
. When I’m not clearing paper-jams from the printer, I help students find sources for papers. Same goes for library instruction; we show students how to use both web and library resources to find the information they need. Typically, in both reference help and library instruction, librarians only take students to the document level. That is, we show them how to find their way to a relevant document, but we usually do not
show them how to search within the document. They still have to read the whole article or book to find the information they need for their paper.
The problem is that students aren’t actually absorbing what they’re reading. Research through the Citation Project
has provided evidence for what many of us already suspected: most students simply scan the book for a relevant quote and then copy and paste it into their “research” papers without actually absorbing or comprehending what they’re reading
. As Barbara Fister has recently argued
, this is a natural outcome of our insistence that students use a specified number of reputable sources to support their arguments, before
they are fully capable of comprehending and presenting arguments in the first place. Growing up in a “teach-to-the-test” environment, students learn to focus exclusively on finding articles that confirm preconceived notions and then parrot chunks of text in the hopes of scoring a passing grade. Fister writes, “This is not research. I’m not even sure it’s writing. It’s more or less organized transcription. It’s kind of like remix, kind of like mashup, only without being transformative.”
|Image by Kalexanderson, on Flickr
Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. The much vaunted CTRL+F is far from a simple, time-saving shortcut. When Russell writes
that CTRL+F “changes the way you read long documents” he’s absolutely right: CTRL+F changes the way we read…by making it so that we don’t have to read.
This can be a good thing. But, it can also be a barrier to real learning. Why read through a long, boring article when you can search for the exact phrase or fact you want? Are you one of those Luddites who “reads every single word until they find the one they’re looking for
“? What kind of n00b actually reads the whole book? Have a book report on Plato’s use of the Sun as metaphor? Don’t waste time reading
, simply CTRL+F your way through The Republic
Of course, I’m only talking about beginning researchers. Skilled researchers realize that you have to use the “Find” command in conjunction with an understanding and appreciation for the text as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with studying the arguments in The Republic and also using CTRL+F as a time-saver to get to that passage that you remember, but can’t find. There’s also nothing wrong with using CTRL+F to perform a meta-search on the frequency and location of a particular string of words in a long document. Skilled researchers know how to use CTRL+F. But, it doesn’t work in reverse; knowing about CTRL+F does not make you a skilled researcher. I know it’s tempting to confuse technology skills with critical thinking skills, but it just doesn’t work that way.
I’m not saying that the “Find” command necessarily leads to sloppy research. I just think that we need to appreciate it for what it is and we should be aware that it makes it ever so much easier to engage in the kind of cherry picking
described by Fister and the Citation Project. CTRL+F makes it easy to find a string of words, but it does nothing to help us comprehend a sustained argument. Sure, 90% of Internet users may not be familiar with the “Find” command. But, of the 10% who do
know about it, are they using it as an efficient tool, or are they using it as an intellectually irresponsible crutch? With all the hoopla about search engines negatively affecting our memory
, the last thing we need is to make it easier
to avoid learning.