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When Researching, Do Your Research!

March 7, 2018

Why today’s Fenwick students need to be suspicious – and conduct proper ‘due diligence’ – when writing papers.

By Mark Vruno

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Librarian Elizabeth McKinley and the English Department are on a quest to help Fenwick students become more adept at conducting research.

By now we’ve all heard about fake news, but fake research? Oh, it’s out there alright, according to alumna and Fenwick Librarian Elizabeth McKinley ’08, who is assisting the Fenwick English Department in preparing scholarly writers for what to expect at the college level.

Last month Ms. McKinley and English Teacher Mr. Mark Hackman-Brooks presented collegiate-specific strategies to help students discern the validity and scholarly nature of print and online sources. McKinley’s PowerPoint presentation, entitled “Identifying Scholarly Sources,” was shown to students in the English IV Honors and AP classes taught by Mr. Hackman-Brooks, Ms. Mary Marcotte and Mr. Rick O'Connor. 

“The Internet is vast and home to many fabricated and misinformed articles,” McKinley points out. “Our students need to beware of fake news and fake research.” In her presentation she shared several strange-but-true tales of science fiction turned fact, including: how three college students at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) fooled the world of scientific journals and how a non-existent article has been cited some 400 times.

Conducting a simple Google search may be the lazy research paper writer’s way out, but the studious seniors and advanced-placement (AP) English students in attendance last month now know that a more viable online search-engine option (Google Scholar) is just a click away https://scholar.google.com/. Resource repositories such as JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, books and primary sources, also can help in more scholarly research pursuits.

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English Teacher Mr. Hackman-Brooks comes to Fenwick by way of De La Salle Institute, Northwestern University and Boston University.

An article’s repository may be as important as the credibility of its author, insists Mr. Hackman-Brooks, an English Teacher who came to Fenwick from De La Salle Institute in 2016. When evaluating a source, he advises, students need to consider where they found the article. “Was it accessed through a library database?” asks Hackman-Brooks. “Was it in a print journal?”

So, what makes an article “scholarly” or “academic?” These are the six criteria for which Fenwick’s writers are encouraged to seek:

  • Written by an expert in the field
  • Includes references and a thorough bibliography
  • Peer-reviewed (i.e. independent experts evaluate the article before publication)
  • Contains no advertising or flashy photos
  • Published by a credible, academic institution
  • Accessible through an online database or academic journal subscription

Searching beyond Google

Vetting the author and publisher is important, too, of course. Students need to confirm whether a given author is an expert. “Does he, she or they have a job outside of writing this paper?” Ms. McKinley asked students on February 20th. “For example, is he a professor of American Literature at Harvard University? And, is the author’s field relevant to the article’s topic?” Also, she adds, consider who published the article. Was it an academic organization or university?

Hackman-Brooks’ graduate research at Northwestern University (NU) in Evanston, Illinois, “clued me into better practices, such as paying closer attention to which press published an article, whether or not it was peer reviewed, what year it was published and varying years of publication in one’s research,” he explains. In 2017 his intense coverage of source I.D. earned him recognition as the “Distinguished Thesis Award” winner within the NU Master’s of Literature program. (Hackman-Brooks completed is under-graduate studies at Boston University, from where he graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in English Education.)​

Such concerns are more proof that students cannot always believe what they read, especially on the World Wide Web. Critical-thinking research skills extend to references as well. McKinley asks, “Does the article include in-text references and a bibliography? Do the sources look academic?” Sometimes the journal will include instructions to contributors, which help to validate its credibility, she adds.

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English students broke into groups for a research-vetting exercise on Feb. 20th.

Mr. Hackman-Brooks goes on to explain how to properly “signpost” the author of a critical article. Signposting in academic writing is where the author of a text is expected to present his or her argument in a clearly structured way, stating purpose, main points and conclusion. Topic sentences and signposts deliver an essay’s structure and meaning to a reader. “For the purposes of English class and the collegiate-style paper, signposting is a way to indicate an intervention (a way to alter the course of an idea) in an essay,” he notes. “It is a way to show which way your paper is heading in terms of your idea (or argument) and to tell who is helping to get you there and why they are a valid choice (i.e. a critic).

“Mentioning where a critic works or summarizing their work as a justification is part of signposting,” he continues. “Signposting is also a way to bring together disparate threads of an argument in a fluent way, so it also happens to be a form of transition.

Ms. McKinley notes, “Information literacy is an invaluable skill, especially in college, where students are expected to write long, well-organized and thoroughly researched papers that cite credible sources.” She also drew upon her research and writing skills developed during graduate school at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) as well as her time as Library Services Program Assistant at the Newberry Library, where she worked reference desk shifts, processed archival collections and assisted with grant applications. 

As part of the in-class exercise at Fenwick, she broke students into four groups, each of which evaluated an article to determine whether or not it is “scholarly.” Appointed spokespersons explained and defended why or why not, then reported their reasons back to their classmates. “Not only did students learn how to identify scholarly sources, but they also learned effective and sophisticated techniques for incorporating the sources into their papers,” says Ms. Marcotte, longtime English Teacher at Fenwick and former department chair.

The Fenwick Writing Model

“We identified this as a need, departmentally,” Marcotte continues, adding that the movement has evolved over the past eight years. In 2010, at the initiative of Marcotte and Writing Center Adviser Kati Macaluso, a former faculty member, the Fenwick Writing Program and Writing Center began a renewed strategy focused more on students’ transition from high school-level writing to collegiate-level writing and research.

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Ms. Mary Marcotte has been a mainstay for decades in the Fenwick English Department.

In October of that year Marcotte and Macaluso, along with a group of Write Place tutors, attended a University of Notre Dame symposium that focused on seeking a greater complexity in writing.  There, the Fenwick representatives were taught to consider writing as a collaboration between writer and tutor to help students achieve a more scholarly argument in written presentation.

Three weeks later Macaluso accompanied a group of students to the International Writing Center Association convention in Baltimore where the students delivered their discourse from the Notre Dame symposium, noting the importance of bridging the gap for writers from high school to college. The results of this writing-focused initiative culminated in the spring of 2011 when Ms. Macaluso presented "Moving Writing to the Center: The Value of Writing Centers in Secondary Education" at the Archdiocese conference where she encouraged Diocesan writing teachers to push students to higher-level writing. “At that time, this was an innovative concept and many schools used Fenwick as a model when they began to set up their own writing centers,” Marcotte recalls.

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Mr. John Schoeph is Chairperson of Fenwick's English Department.

As Mr. John Schoeph, current English Department chair, states: “The nature of February’s lesson not only fulfills our mission as a college preparatory school but surpasses the basics. Once in the college classroom, our students will already have an understanding of what constitutes a scholarly source and how to evaluate sources. One hurdle to collegiate academic achievement will likely no longer be an issue for these students thanks to the critical attention our English teachers are giving to this topic.” ​

VIDEO: Learning English at Fenwick Over the Years

 

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