Information and the Future

This is the blog of the Information and the Future task force of the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University. The IF task force exists to explore the role of libraries in the future of Christian higher education.

Monday, February 16, 2009

On the human task of research

Below Rebecca wonders aloud about the future prospects of our species. Specifically if our place will be eclipsed by machines. I think this is an important and relevant questions for librarians to be engaging with.

In my experience, typically when someone suggests that human can be replaced by machines it is not b/c the machines are so great but because their few of humanity is so small. If research, for example, was only finding and evaluating information and then summarizing and arranging the data it is possible that machines could do all of that. But I think that misses the point of research.

I believe that research, on the one hand, should be about asking questions, specifically the creative, philosophical questions that only a human can ask. Beginning with the research problem, or thesis, the question asking continues as data is found and explored from different angles. Angles that are often most fruitful when they connect with our own stories and experiences. Posing philosophical questions, like appreciating sunsets is something that I think is crucial to being human and not the type of things that microchips can do meaningfully.

On the other hand, I think that research is a practice which bestows great rewards to the practitioner. To take on a research project is to embark on a quest to discover what you don't know. Along the way the researcher (hopefully) develops patience, diligence, and the ability to empathize with different points of view. It is likely that the development of these character traits is often more to be valued then the results of the research. Thus I think research can be understood as promoting virtue - helping us discover the good in a moral not mechanistic sense.

Unfortunately, I think the library profession does not do enough to highlight these aspects of research. It becomes easy for us to make finding more and better sources the focus of research often leaving the researcher so swamped with data that they have no time to ask meaningful questions and spend time simply pondering. Likewise, in our attempt to help make the process as efficient as possible we diminish the character building aspect of research. The final paper becomes more important than the practice. Research is just a hoop to jump through to get the degree and the more the process can be expedited the better. So much so that one wonders, can't a machine just do this so we don't have to be bothered.

There is a lot more that could be said on this topic. I know that if I were ever to assign a research project in the future, I would encourage students to spend more time with fewer texts hoping to encourage more thinking and less hunting for more and more data.


  • At 8:21 PM, Blogger Rebecca said…

    These are some good thoughts about what is essentially human about research and cannot (hopefully) be ever replicated by machines.

    It reminds me a few years ago when reading about instruction, there was a trend to emphasize less the "click here" method of instruction, which focused just on using the databases and other systems. Instead, it was suggested that we focus on higher-level critical thinking skills such as evaluation.

    This takes it a step further to look at integration and use of the information. However, it makes me wonder about the librarian's role in this. (Always a blurry question with instruction.) It seems like this is something that fits with the professor's role in teaching the students to think more deeply about the topics they're teaching.

    I wonder if this is also why some professors have stopped assigning research papers and are instead having the students just focus on the reading for the class. With so much information out there, maybe they are thinking it's better to have the students focus all their attention on the good resources he wants them to use.


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