An Army of Box-Checking Monkeys

It’s syllabus-building time again. And it is Friday so I get to be pedantic and rude.

As I roll into my plans for the upcoming semester I find myself committing the very serious crime of putting way too much information into my syllabus.

And before we even get started this isn’t the staid back and forth conversation about whether a syllabus is a contract, or a general guideline, or whether we need to bleed onto the pages an oeuvre of existential introduction or just name rank and serial number. For that….see the discussion here….


IF it is the case that (and I’m touching on a whole other debated literature here) millennial students are good at completing tasks and checking boxes, then I have identified something that I can teach them…. STOP giving them all the data. Just stop it.

You know that section in your syllabus where you tell them that you will put all the electronic files of jstor articles up on blackboard for them; will email the files to them; will put all the articles together in an orderly fashion? …. yeah…. I stopped doing that.

Why? Because I’m done infantalizing them. Don’t get me wrong, they will freak out. And many will attend the first class with a blank stare and no article. Stand firm….this is a skill they must acquire to survive in the current era.

If we have an army of box-checking monkeys on our hands, then the solution is NOT to structure the world for them, but to force them to take the initiative on themselves. If the articles are readily available via WorldCat, or whatever database on their library’s website, then, as young scholars their job is to figure out how to get them…. to actually get them….and to (god forbid) act like a professional and ensure that their colleagues have a copy as well.

Incidentally…there’s more here than meets the eye. The presumption that the current generation of students is especially talented with technology is fundamentally wrong. They are familiar with technology, much in the same way that most drivers are familiar with cars. Most will have no idea what the difference is between a diesel engine and a gas engine; and the vast majority of students have no idea of the distinction between a Google search engine and their library search engine.  “You mean they have different stuff?” The word BOOLEAN has never once left their lips.

If we want them to succeed as young intellectuals, then they MUST take responsibility for sourcing and finding the knowledge that university libraries spend $$$$$ making available to them, only to be thwarted by over-coddling syllabi. Ask a librarian, no seriously….

In the introduction to the syllabus under required materials I list the required books for purchase followed by the words: you are responsible for locating and making a copy (paper or digital) of all the articles listed in the syllabus. REPEAT: If I do not provide a copy, I expect you to locate it on your own. Please ask me if you have difficulty using the library and I can schedule a library orientation session for the class.

Alright I’ve said my piece. I’m ready to take the hits…. fire away!!!!!

5 Replies to “An Army of Box-Checking Monkeys”

  1. I’m an academic librarian and a new follower of this blog, so naturally I searched the blog for “library.” Empowering students to learn how to access scholarship is great! Your librarians are so lucky to have you!

    1. If you have any suggestions for getting my students to initiate their own learning through library literacy I would love to hear what your institution is doing?

  2. We’re still working hard to integrate more information literacy and research skills into our university’s curriculum, but in thinking about your approach, here’s an idea: You still make them find the class readings, but earlier in the term you include a library instruction session that shows them not only how to read the citation and find the known item, but how library tools facilitate finding similar research (i.e. bibliography raiding, subject headings, citation tracking). Later in the semester you take the training wheels off all together, and make them all find their own reading for a discussion. It’s risky, but pedagogically may contribute to great independence in research and information seeking. Perhaps put some parameters on it, such as specifying a methodology used by the author, would keep the range of submissions manageable. Let me know if you try it, or contact me directly to discuss further.

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