Using Sherlock to Teach Sources v. the Literature

One of the challenges with students is that they often aren’t trained to recognize the difference between sources and the literature.  We may attempt to teach them the difference between primary and secondary, or scholarly and non-scholarly, but even amongst solid scholarly sources there are differences: there are the key works that make up the core of the literature on a debate, and there are the sources that sit on the fringes of the debate or never even quite enter into it.  Students think sources are something to use to prove their point, rather than a place to start out their process to discover what others have already discovered.  Even if you can get them to accept that scholarly sources are superior to, say, Wikipedia (a daunting task!), it can be difficult to explain to them that there is a difference between the literature and random sources, and that its important.

Enter Sherlock Holmes.

I’m a bit obsessed with the new BBC series called Sherlock, which if you haven’t seen it is a clever modern retelling of the stories.  Imagine Sherlock Holmes with a smartphone, and you have the heart of this series.  There is one particular scene in the first season that is useful in helping students understand the core of the above lesson.  In episode 3, starting at 19:53 (per Netflix instant), Sherlock asks Watson’s opinion of a pair of sneakers.  With encouragement, Watson notes some facts about them and their owner from the worn sole, clean appearance, and writing on the inside.  He asks Sherlock how he does, and he replies ‘Well, John.  Very well.  Of course you missed everything of importance.”  Sherlock then figures out the ‘important’ details–that the child had a skin condition, that he was from Sussex, and that he loved the shoes dearly.

I used this in my methods class today to get students thinking ‘What would Sherlock Do?’.  In other words, finding facts is not particularly difficult, but it also doesn’t tell us the whole story, and without the right facts, we are left completely in the dark about the phenomenon we are studying.  The right facts–or the literature–put us on the path of discovery.  Finding the right facts also means that Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t think of us as idiots…so again, ‘What would Sherlock Do?’  An amusing way to teach a simple but incredibly important lesson, and usable not only in methods, but any class where you expect students to use scholarly sources or do a literature review for a research paper.

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