Monday, November 07, 2005

Article Note: Using Government Information to Teach Source Evaluation

Citation for the article:

Hogenboom, Karen. "Going Beyond .gov: Using Government Information to Teach Evaluation of Sources." portal: Libraries and the Academy. 5.4 (2005): 455-466.

I read this article through Project Muse, so it may be available for readers with access to the database.

This article describes how government information can be used to teach students the process of evaluating information sources. In fact, it also discusses how some government resources can be used to illustrate the research process. Usually, librarians tell students that websites with the .gov URL extension are good and reliable sources for a research assignment. This article proposes that .gov sources can be used for teaching critical thinking skills as well.

The article opens with a brief summary of arguments in favor of teaching critical thinking and the role of librarians in that process. This process ideally should entail the collaboration of faculty, librarians, and even the campus writing center. According to Hogenboom, "the librarian's role is often in the early stages of the process, showing students sources that demonstrate various concepts in critical thinking, as well as showing them how to find sources appropriate to their purposes, both for the specific project that brought them to the library and in general" (456). The literature review gives some definitions of information literacy and critical thinking to provide a context. This review also recalls how often faculty express concern over the fact that students seem to be doing more cut-and-paste than actually presenting arguments in their papers.

The author then opens the discussion as follows:

"One of the challenges of teaching students to evaluate sources is finding examples that demonstrate how audience, purpose, and point of view affect communication so that students can see below the surface of the information. It is also difficult to find examples that model critical thinking in action and to give students tools for examining the sources they are evaluating. Government information can help in all of these areas" (457).

This summarizes her argument, which then goes on to illustrate by showing how government sources do these things. She discusses how information can vary from one administration to the next. She points out that reports from different administrations can be used to compare points of view and agendas. The idea here is that government sources can convey biases and agendas. For instance, the Health and Human Services Department's information on sex education varies from the Clinton Administration, which highlighted condoms in preventing HIV, to the Bush Administration, which currently emphasizes abstinence and downplays the role of condoms. In addition, "even reports that seem non-controversial, like an agency's annual report, often present information in a way that is most beneficial to the agency issuing the report or to the current administration" (457).

The author then uses congressional hearings and related documents to further illustrate her argument. She goes over what a hearing does, how it differs from a report, and then how information can change in the process of going from the hearing to the report to debate on the floor of Congress. She explains what a hearing can do:

"Congressional hearings are often scheduled in order to hear from experts with differing points on a topic that the congressional committee is considering. Students can look at a single document, the hearing transcript, and see all the information they need in order to discover the point of view of the various witnesses, including their affiliation, relationship to the topic, and qualifications to speak about the issue under consideration. By looking at witnesses' testimonies, they can see how their points of view influence the information they present" (458).

The first part of that statement is something I often tell my students in instruction sessions. It often happens in the context of doing a search, and we come across a government document. A student or two may be tempted to skip it because it is a government document, and I get to tell them how helpful such a document can be because of how it can gather a broad range of information on a topic. This usually happens on the fly; it is a quick mention as part of the larger lesson. I like her additional explanation about the information in the hearing and about the different witnesses. I may be able to integrate some more, but since my sessions are often one-shots, time to expand may be minimal. However, it can be an incentive for me to find ways to bring this type of material more into my sessions. Hogenboom adds that "given the partisan nature of government and politics, these sources often contain clear examples that give students a solid understanding of the concept of point of view, an understanding they can then apply in less obvious situations" (458). Furthermore, government information sources also illustrate writing for different audiences. Hogenboom writes, "because government agencies write for the general public, specialists, the bodies to which they are accountable, and other groups, the differences in how information on the same subject is presented to different audiences by the same corporate author can be easily demonstrated" (461). She gives the example of the Department of Education's information on NCLB. There is a difference between the section for parents and the section for teachers in terms of content and presentation because the information is for different audiences.

The author also explains that government resources can be used to evaluate secondary sources. This applies to news accounts and others discussing the government information and findings. She goes on to write that "students not only need to look at the opinions expressed by various commentators but they also need to uncover the criteria being used by each commentator. They should look at the original report to see if the commentator's criteria for evaluating the report are reasonable and if the criteria are applied fairly and consistently" (461). This is not an easy task to teach. In fact, it is not a easy thing to do, but if students are to learn how to be well informed critical thinkers, they need to be taught how to go back to sources and verify what they read. In the case of statistics, as one example, going back to the source of the numbers can often reveal what a reporter or scholar chose to emphasize and leave out of a paper or article.

Hogenboom does recognize that not all instruction sessions have the time to integrate government documents in depth. However, she advocates doing so to the extent that it is possible. For example, for the short one-shot sessions, she suggests that "pointing out what congressional hearings look like in the online catalog and their value for finding experts with a variety of perspectives on a topic or explaining how to trace statistics cited in a secondary source are better ideas. . . ." (462). This is a strength of the article, giving ideas that librarians can use in their next session. She provides hints and advice for using government sources in various types of sessions. However the librarian does this, the needs of the students need to be taken into account.

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