Searching for Kajiadelakis

by Carl Dyke

It’s a little stale now but I wanted to squeeze in an appreciative shout out to Tim Burke at Easily Distracted for his post “Anatomy of a Search.”

If there’s anything that I think needs to be learned through experience or through directly witnessing the experience of others, it’s online information-seeking. I don’t think you can give a useful general description of how to search that a student can usefully refer back to while doing their own research. When I teach research methods in the classroom, I often concentrate on doing real-time, live searches based on suggested topics from the class while narrating some of the ideas and choices I’m thinking about as I go from one resource to the next.

And then he goes through one in detail, looking for information on his great-grandfather-in-law, a Cretan war hero. It’s a fascinating process for those of us who like to find stuff out. Go read it, you won’t be sorry. His conclusions:

1) Serendipidity counts. If I started this search from the wrong place, I’d have gotten nowhere. It all starts with the museum in Zoniana.
2) Multiple iterations of the same search with different keywords turn up notably different results, each of which iterates further into separate branches of information. Harvesting keywords in each generation or branch of a search is the key art of searching.
3) Knowing when to stop travelling down one branching series of searches to come back to the central “spine” of inquiry is crucial.
4) Knowing when you’ve hit a point of diminishing returns within digital environments, at which point you need to go read authoritative scholarship, make personal contacts, or have direct experiences, is critical to success.
5) You have to know a few things already, or at least be able to make educated guesses. I got as far as I did because I know something about the effect of immigration on the spelling of names, because I could hack out a rough reading of a French document, because I know a bit about conflicts in the Balkans and the end of the Ottoman Empire, and so on.

What’s buried in these absolutely spot-on heuristics is a general cultural foundation and competence (habitus) that provides the ‘elementary’ interpretive screens that take the research problem from a paralyzing everything to a manageable something. “You have to know a few things already.” This is where so many of our students get stopped before they even start, although probably few of Tim’s at Swarthmore. What can we tell the ones who don’t even know where to begin? They just have to read more, listen more, learn more — a lot more so that their guesses may become educated ones; but that’s no quick solution.

UPDATE: While I’m at linking terrific Tim Burke research how-to posts, here’s one he did awhile back on finding primary sources.

4 Comments to “Searching for Kajiadelakis”

  1. I agree: a very nice post. The title of my dissertation was “Expert-Novice Differences in Scientific Journal Scanning.” 340 pages, plus or minus. Expert heuristic for processing it: skim the abstract, then put it back on the shelf.

  2. It would be an interesting experiment to pose problems like this to students, give them a set amount of time, and see what they came up with. As individuals? Or small groups? What difference would it make?

  3. John D, I remember you mentioning that diss. It sounds interesting; I might even read a chapter heading or two… 😉 You also reminded me of an earlier post I did on ‘the problem with history education’ that addressed the differences between expert and novice knowledge-generation.

    John M, I really like that suggestion and will probably do something like that now that our building is equipped with wireless. My first inclination would be to do it in small groups, to pool prior knowledge and eyes for keyword harvesting. I think that’s one way to compensate for individual background deficits. But the danger is that one or two students know enough to dominate the process, while the rest are left behind and default to ‘free riding’. Another way to do it would be to suggest that once they figure some things out they divide the labor, each pursuing different strands or perhaps seeking primary and secondary texts, contexts and intertexts, and images.

  4. I just can’t seem to remember what I’ve told to whom any more.

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