Writing and the New Technology for Research

(printed in Writing in the Disciplines, May 1993)

Three years ago I felt that I was at a professional dead end: I was chairman of a fractious department at a faltering university, tired of teaching students who seemed not to care, and frustrated that my enthusiasm for general education and interdisciplinary study seemed merely quixotic to most of my faculty colleagues. I had behind me a decade of experiments with in-class writing, production of handouts in place of textbooks, use of sound and visual materials, team teaching, treasure hunts in the library, and computer assignments, but I was restive and dissatisfied. In search of some means to create an interesting future and revive my enthusiasm for teaching, while on sabbatical I stopped in at the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons to inquire about auditing courses that would enable me to learn about the electronic future of libraries.

In short order I found myself enrolled in a Masters program and, at 47, after 17 years as a college professor, I had the opportunity to be the sort of student I had always claimed I wanted: active, intellectually engaged, willing to explore new territory and question assumptions. It was fun to be a listener instead of the person at the lectern, and very revealing to rethink the tasks of note-taking and research and writing in a new field and from a student perspective.

I came to realize that I had underestimated the depths of what my students didn't know, and that much of their unresponsiveness to my exhortations to read and think and explore was my own fault. I had been talking over their heads, and blaming them for being unmoved by what they had insufficient context and background to integrate into their own knowledge. I was also taking for granted that my students knew about and appreciated the intellectual tools that I had spent most of my life developing and acquiring.

My Simmons courses made me recognize that I had always been a reference librarian --that my magpie habits of general knowledge acquisition had value and application, that I loved the challenge of finding material that people wanted, and that reference encounters were wonderful opportunities for teaching. I explored many different aspects of the world of libraries, but I was most intrigued by developments in electronic access, and especially by the potentials of the Internet as an augmentation of the traditional tools of the library.

The Internet is a vast anarchy of interconnected computing resources, a webwork of nodes, links and data, a globe-straddling elephant groped by hordes of blind people. There is something for everybody in the Internet's vastnesses, but nobody is responsible for organizing the content or directing users to the resources they seek. Knowledge of resources and navigation instructions are passed from person to person, posted as electronic documents which anyone can retrieve, and described in various (quickly outdated) books, but the main means of discovery is personal experiment. In describing my own continuing odyssey in these realms I hope to convince you that anyone can enjoy and benefit from exploration; serendipity is often the guiding principle, but there are maps and guideposts available to direct the seeker to particular kinds of resources.

My own history of dealings with computers reaches back more than 30 years to a job as a research assistant, running punch cards through sorting machines and watching with envy as others learned programming languages. I began to use mainframe programs in my own work about 15 years ago, and bought my first microcomputer in 1984, to support map-making projects and for word processing. In the late 1980s I began to use the Macintosh as a teaching tool, and in 1990 I bought a modem so that I could explore bulletin board systems and electronic mail.

When I became a student at Simmons in 1991 I knew only vaguely of the existence of the Internet, and my journal tells me that I started to use the Internet less than two years ago --to search the online catalogs of distant libraries and to send electronic mail to my wife in Nova Scotia. I learned how to navigate and to retrieve documents by watching others and by experimenting, and quickly found that Internet access was essential to my own research. I spent my last year at Simmons managing the Library School computer lab and teaching aspiring librarians to use a wide variety of software and to access Internet resources.

Since my arrival at Washington and Lee in August (as Reference Librarian and Bibliographic Instruction Coordinator) I have continued to explore print and electronic tools, and I have begun to teach computer access skills in classes and to individuals. I am wrestling with questions of how to integrate electronic tools into library and classroom and research activities, what to teach to whom, and how?

The Library and University Computing are the threshold and lintel of the electronic gateway to global information resources, and changes wrought by computers in libraries are much more revolutionary than the replacement of card catalogs by computer terminals. At Washington and Lee the online catalog named for Miss Annie White allows us to connect to other libraries and to a range of tools and resources that didn't exist five years ago. It is very easy to forget how rapidly the world of scholarship has changed because of these developments. A year ago ANNIE was brand new and Associate Law Librarian John Doyle's glorious Netlink gateway to more than 2500 resources on the Internet was just beginning. Two years ago the Internet navigation aid called Gopher was newly invented at the University of Minnesota. Three years ago the Internet was known to perhaps a tenth of those who now use it. A decade ago microcomputers were a rarity, and the Macintosh had not been introduced.

When microcomputers first arrived on our desks they offered the potential of enhanced personal productivity through easier revision of manuscripts, personal command over the scope and management of record-keeping, and more direct control over the collection and analysis of data. The image of the individual working with a desktop computer as a closed system is, however, inappropriate to what university computer users actually do now, and even more so to what they will soon find themselves doing. The computer is as much a communication tool as a calculator, a drawing board, or a secretarial assistant. Thanks to network connections and modems users can now routinely work with many computers via the Internet, and thus have the possibility of connection with others anywhere in the world.

Last fall at Washington and Lee half of the freshman class arrived with computers; in the fall of this year the new telephone system will make dormitory connection ubiquitous. By a year from now we can expect that all faculty will be on the campus network --that, in short, Washington and Lee will be physically wired into a single electronic environment. Year by year we will have progressively more powerful visualization tools on our desktops, which will provide access to a truly vast --and really global -- array of information sources. We must develop effective teaching strategies to introduce our students to these riches and help them find what they seek, evaluate what they find, and put the results to work in creative scholarship. We will learn to think differently about the contents and interrelationship of our disciplines as this electronic evolution proceeds, and as new research and information access tools change the nature of the questions it is possible to ask. In this context research skills should be taught collaboratively, drawing upon the capabilities, knowledge, and energies of disciplinary faculty, librarians, and students themselves.

Computers have profoundly influenced the process of writing. Convenient editing and easy production of multiple drafts of work in progress are obvious advantages of computer-based writing, but the real advance comes as networked computers allow people to work together on a problem or a text. E-mail serves this function in many disciplines, and provides an ever more essential channel of communication among colleagues, who participate in extramural electronic conferences in scores of disciplines. Within the university e-mail could serve as a conduit among members of a class, and for communications between professor and student. Sheila Tobias describes just such a collaboration in the teaching of physics at Case Western Reserve (in Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: why some things work and most don't [Q183.3 .A1 T6 1992]), and kindred experiments are being conducted across the spectrum of university dosciplines.

My responsibility as Bibliographic Instruction Coordinator is to devise and implement library components for existing courses and to support more effective use of library and Internet resources. Traditional print-based approaches to teaching the use of the library emphasize the trove within the the library's walls, but are inadequate to the complexities of electronic libraries, exemplified by a whole new terminology --gophers, WAIS servers, LISTSERVs, e-texts, ARCHIE, VERONICA, Usenet readers and more. The challenge of making the new technologies accessible to and useful for members of the university community is exciting and more than a bit daunting. In such an information-rich environment, once one has access the problem is to learn to screen out the irrelevant. In the words of cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling, "what's important --increasingly important-- is the process by which you figure out what to look at."

A series of Internet workshops for faculty in May was the beginning of what I think will become a regular part of my activities as a librarian. I have been working with Ruth Floyd (Director of Academic Computing) to develop the Washington and Lee Gopher into an effective supplement to more traditional library resources, and I expect to be involved in introducing incoming freshmen to the potentials of electronic access. Over the next few years the level of knowledge about and use of network resources will rise dramatically, and I look forward to supporting and encouraging the kind of exploration of these resources that will make our students more effective information finders and library users.. I want to assist faculty members to develop classes in information access, in both the traditional and the new media, designed to teach immediately useful skills centered on particular research problems. These activities seem to me to provide an ideal mix of teaching, research and writing opportunities, and I seek invitations to participate in classes, opportunities to assist individuals in developing their own skills in Internet navigation, and intriguing reference questions to answer. I can be reached at x8647 and by e-mail (blackmer.h@wlu.edu).