Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon

Parlay and Protocol

Cartoon of cat and duck. Duck: "We invoke the right of parlay." Cat: "Damn and blast, they know the code!"

Photo courtesy of I Can Has Cheezburger.

By: Pam Kessinge, PCC Faculty Librarian

September 5, 2011

When a student faces disruptive knowledge gaps or misunderstood hypotheses, perhaps he or she could be afforded a “right of parlay” (Surowiecki ), to buy a brief stretch of time to think and catch up. The student could request staying the course with their chosen topic for a time, while agreeing to be transported safely elsewhere. Instructors accepting this challenge would respond by giving the student a list of concepts required for the academic level of research necessary for the class, and a list of resources for learning the concepts (Weimer).

Defining academic topics

More than once during a library instruction session, I have observed a student literally freeze, fingers hovering above the keyboard, body rigidly upright, their face still and blank, as I ask them what their topic might be.

“I don’t have one yet,” they say, hardly able to speak.

“What are you interested in? ” I say, trying to engage and encourage them.

“I’m not sure. I can’t think of anything.”

They might reply, “I’ve tried searching _____ (insert a personal interest, like snowboarding; the NFL strike; global warming; myasthenia gravis; or Miley Cyrus) and I can’t find a single thing!” Nothing, that is, which they think will fit the requirements of their assignment.

Worse yet, they may subscribe to one of any number of popular myths like the moon landing hoax; a zombie apocalypse; or AIDS conspiracies, and are looking only for supporting evidence in peer reviewed journals.

This inability to define a proper academic topic, at even an exploratory stage, can occur with all kinds of students, at all educational levels. Sometimes it is due to a momentary lack of effort or spotty preparedness. Or, apprehension about not achieving the proper outcomes for a research assignment may also incapacitate them.

It would be easy to become disenchanted by the attitude of such students. You can almost see them becoming demotivated; unwilling to follow up on their ideas, blindfolded, ready to walk the plank and drop into anonymity.

Yet, there are other, more complex, factors which inhibit writers at this stage of critical thinking.


First among the reasons for students who are struggling to define a topic could be a lack of understanding about how knowledge is constructed. The realm of academic and discipline-based information is new to most of them. Moreover, many students have low stores of knowledge about current news or historical events: these simply may be overwhelmed by infotainment.

Concomitant with that deficiency of general facts is the growing personalization of the information pushed to them through news feeds, blogs, and social networking. Eli Pariser notes in a TED Talk:

[There is a] kind of shift in how information is flowing online, and it is invisible….I was kinda surprised to notice one day that the conservatives had disappeared from my Facebook feed. And it turned out that what was going on was that Facebook was looking at which links I clicked on and it was noticing that I clicked more on my liberal friends links than my conservative friends links. And without consulting me about it, it had edited them out: they disappeared.

The supply of news items, including the perspective of the information and the point of view of the information providers, is silently and persistently attenuated to what users (including students) first click on in any given session. Only a very narrowly defined application of “relevancy” determines what will be immediately available to the user. Pariser, again:

So Facebook isn’t the only place that is doing this kind of invisible algorithmic editing of the web—Google’s doing it, too. If I search for something and you search for something even right now at the very same time we may get very different search results. Even if you’re logged out, one engineer told me, there are 57 signals that Google looks at, everything from what kind of computer you’re on, to what kind of browser you’re using, to where you’re located, that it uses to personally tailor your query results. Think about it for a second. There is no standard Google anymore. And you know, the funny thing about this is, is that it’s a hard thing to see. You can’t see how different your search results are from anyone else’s.” [Emphasis mine]

So where, in essence, does this action of the “filter bubble”, as Pariser terms it, take the user? He identifies two consequences:

One: “Showing us what we want to see, but not necessarily what we need to see.”

Two: “The algorithms don’t yet have the kind of embedded ethics that the editors did.”

Thus, counter-intuitively, it is possible that the more often students use the web, and accept information pushed to them through social networking sites, the less likely will be their accumulation of empirical evidence or factual knowledge. Students’ search queries will be less effective as well. They will limit their review of information sources to the top results. Search engines will then further limit the scope of information, according to perceived preferences.


The difficulty for students is compounded by “counterknowledge” becoming part of the flow of general, accepted information.

Damian Thompson elaborates. “[We] are exposed to all sorts of empirically dubious information, much of it conceived in a spirit of credulity or carelessness rather than actual deceit” (12). He illustrates how people persist, despite clear and tested evidence, in believing that the MMR vaccine has a causal link to autism, or that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together. “Peddlers of counterknowledge often insist that their ideas should be taken seriously because no one has been able to come up with a better explanation for whatever mystery they have lighted upon. . .” he gently points out. “But this argument betrays their muddled thinking. The fact that a subject is genuinely puzzling, that there are gaps in our understanding of it, does not lower the standard of evidence we require in order to fill in the gaps” (14).

From my professional perspective, I can see how instructors cannot assume that students necessarily know much about what actually defines credible sources, what authority in research means, or what constitutes peer review. That problem of comprehending the information cycle and scholarly process persists across the curriculum. Sometimes the definition is discipline specific. Students have gaps in basic knowledge and pre-research experience at upper levels as well.


So what can an educator do to support a student who has at least pinpointed a topic and developed a statement of it, but one that is specious at best and wrong-headed at worst?

First, it would not be helpful or valuable to criticize them for what they don’t know, because that increases their inhibitive fear of failure (cf. Cox). One way a topic definition assignment could be changed into a success story would be to require the student to use two websites (or other sources) with opposing points of view and then to apply an evaluative framework to the websites in order to contrast their views. This creates a critical focus, and logically leads to questions about authenticity and accuracy.

The pons asinorum for undergraduate academic research used to be the requirement that students differentiate between library tools. They would have been advised to eschew web sites, Wikipedia in particular. Students were expected to use an online catalog search—to locate books using the classification system. Then they could do a bibliographic database search—for full text articles, sometimes limited to “scholarly” or “peer-reviewed.”

That simplistic reliance on format or mode of access—i.e., restricting students to print books or library databases only— in order to sort the mediated from the unmediated, the self-published and overly biased from the edited and professionally vetted, does not necessarily work anymore. Now the online catalog is a discovery tool, providing a mix of electronic sources (articles, audio files as well as e-books) along with records for printed books. Wikipedia has now gained some deserved credibility. Some scholarly journals are published only online. Whether information comes via a library tool or a printed page, or through a blog, what matters for appraising its value is determining who provides it and why. This is a step that few beginning researchers are prepared for. Students need to identify the criteria which indicate reliability, scoping, and authority when everything coming through their computer screens looks the same.

Some may stumble or object to the apparent extra work of evaluating sources in an academic context. But with some steering assistance from an instructor or support from a librarian, they could come to see how identifying aspects of their chosen sources and locating corroborating evidence could help them turn towards critical reasoning and academic success.

To get there, students need to be perceived as saying, “I claim the right to be given passage to knowledge” rather than just “I don’t care to know.”

The library offers helpful links and tutorials to fill in the information literacy gaps for students, under the research tab of the library website. Request a library skills instruction session with the library instruction request form or contact us to discuss how library faculty might collaborate with you.


There are several websites that are useful in testing the veracity of information or plausibility of theories. Some track current political issues and misinformation. Others archive examples of misleading or misrepresented claims of science or health. Some sites to try:

Works cited

Note: I would suggest that the most bewildering step for community college students in information literacy is to separate themselves from their own information universe, as Pariser (and others) have termed it. To hone the three legs that support an information literate approach to academic writing—their interest, at first, and as yet, not totally formed; their understanding of the topic combined in the crucible of their instructor’s learning outcomes and curricula; and then the nature of the “subject” itself, as refined and tested through scholarly discussion, which the student has yet to fully engage with—requires a lot of effort and experience over time.

Library & Learning
Vol. 3 Issue 6 September 2011

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