How We Search Now

Recently, I’ve begun to accept that an expanding part of my job as a teacher of undergraduates is to help them improve their information literacy skills. Digital culture has exponentially increased the amount of “information” available while also obscuring ways to make sense of it. Perhaps, like me, you can see the resistance flicker across students’ faces when you project the library’s website and broach the topic of search skills. I see students thinking, “Can’t Google just tell me what I need to know?” Perhaps, like me, you’ve worked up a spiel about the value of the databases for which their tuition dollars pay, including caveats about Wikipedia and the risks of broad Google searches made vulnerable to “optimization” and “content suppression.” Only recently did a new question cross my mind: What if my students think about their vocational discernment like just another Google search? As the question sank in, I wondered whether such an approach to vocation might be feeding certain forms of anxiety in students.

Undoubtedly, the ability to find information rapidly to answer our pressing questions has had transformative effects. More than once when my daughters were babies did I wonder how people parented before they could quickly call up images of twelve different rashes. Some problems are readily solved with a quick Google search or YouTube video: whether to prune your hydrangeas in the summer or the fall; how to convert self-rising to plain flour in a cake recipe; if quokkas are really as sweet-tempered as they appear or not. Some problems can prove more recalcitrant: an evening buying plane tickets has been known to reduce me to moaning about the halcyon days of travel agents. And here, at a relatively low level, we are already face-to-face with the problem of “search skills.” If even the vast resources of the interwebs leave us exhausted and frustrated when we are trying to schedule a family vacation, then what good is all that information when we are searching for the answers to complex questions? Perhaps more importantly, how effective will we be at finding answers to such questions if we’ve largely honed our search skills by entering search terms in little white boxes and stalling out before we get to page two of the results?

The question isn’t too far-fetched. Type “How do I …” into Google, and the autocomplete feature fills in some fairly anodyne possibilities: “register to vote … take a screenshot … renew my passport?” But it doesn’t take long for things to take a darker turn: “Why do I … sweat so much … bruise so easily … have no friends … hate myself?” Such existentialist mooning is not just for adolescents. In recent years, I’ve seen in myself an increasing tendency to turn to search engines with questions that their algorithms are not equipped to handle. A year ago, I lost a dear friend, and even in the immediate shock of the loss, I found myself staring at my computer screen, subconsciously wondering how to Google my way free of grief. How to write a eulogy. How to cope when your best friend dies. It doesn’t take too long to get to Why am I crying all the time? I was, I could see, in need of my own tutorial on the research process.

Computer algorithms feed our desire for simple answers. When I’m teaching information literacy skills and guiding students through the research process, they tend to want search strategies that will function as a checklist and let them glide along a clearly defined path to the right answer. As scholars, though, we know that searching is iterative and recursive. A genuine research process, sketched on paper, would almost certainly look not at all like a line but rather like the branching roots of an oak tree, the lines of inquiry sometimes criss-crossing each other, occasionally knotting together before twisting apart and burrowing deeper. You have to be able to tolerate uncertainty, I coach my students; you have to keep track of how your research question may be changing as you get deeper into the topic. Even though I know that it’s hard to believe, I will sometimes say, “This is the really fun part—throwing out a line into the dark and hauling yourself along. You make your path as you go.” They are not often with me at this point. If the library website can turn up ten articles on O Pioneers! in fractions of a second, they seem to be thinking, then what more do we need? But everything that I’m saying has a wider resonance, for it applies not just to academic questions but also to the kind of ill-structured problems that students will confront regularly after graduating if they have not already begun to grapple with them.

As researchers, we know at least some of what students need, such as a less functionalist approach to searching that restores to the process a necessary element of idiosyncrasy. Certainly we search—in research as in life—to get somewhere. I do not let my students leave class thinking that research is all about the journey and not the destination. But, as I explain in class, scholarship’s vertiginous promise is that we can produce new knowledge. Students may understandably feel out of their depth here, which is fair. Who among us doesn’t find research ever so slightly daunting? It’s worth highlighting for students that, if we are to find out something new, our research cannot begin with the conviction, fostered by search engines, that the answers lie outside ourselves and in the hands of others. We can advise them to refine search terms, but ultimately we and our students confront the fact that our humanness matters too. As much as we must master the controlled vocabulary of our source material, we do so to understand where the gaps exist into which we can insert our own conjectures.

We are not growing our own ideas from bare roots but grafting them onto work that has already been done

One last ingredient of authentic research worth connecting to vocational discernment is the value of treating sources not as repositories of truth but as guides that can offer fresh ways to approach our research questions. Sources, I point out in class, are not always simply troves of facts; they can be companions for students’ own thought processes. I suggest that students may have to learn to think with their sources, not just mine them for information. A horticultural metaphor can help here: we are not growing our own ideas from bare roots but grafting them onto work that has already been done. To make some sense of my grief this past year, I had to remember my own vocation of English professor and learn to turn not to internet wisdom but to literature (though the Mayo Clinic’s warning that crying can come from cutting onions was good for a laugh). No amount of browsing self-help websites can outmatch coming back to the otherwise-ascetic Philip Larkin’s indulgent reminder, “What will survive of us is love.” With all our experience, we are not invulnerable to the seductions of algorithmically curated answers. But we can draw on that experience to help our students learn to search authentically—and thereby help them learn to tolerate the manifold uncertainties that life brings.

Joanne E. Myers is an associate professor of English at Gettysburg College, where she teaches courses on 18th-century British literature and book history. Her recent publications include articles on the penal laws in 18th-century Britain and the role of conversion in Jane Barker’s fiction. From 2005-2007, she was a Lilly Fellow in the Humanities at Valparaiso University. For other posts by Joanne, click here.

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