On the Value of Teaching the Chemical Structure of Water

by Paul Gatz

The American writer David Foster Wallace began his 2005 commencement address to the students of Kenyon College (published in 2009 as This Is Water) with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

While Wallace takes this story and uses it to reflect on boredom, freedom, and other weighty matters, it stands out as an apt analogy for how we interact with information these days. With our mobile devices always within reach, offering wireless access to an unprecedentedly vast amount of information that is easily discoverable through the black-box magic algorithms of Google, our lives have become seamlessly integrated with the online information universe – so much so that life beyond that universe becomes unthinkable.

When the alternative becomes unthinkable, the actual becomes the default. And, to borrow from Wallace again, adjusting your “natural default-setting” takes serious effort. If you teach legal research and want your students to be able to critically evaluate information, the difficulty of adjusting default settings regarding information use should be both familiar and troubling.

To start off my Advanced Legal Research class this semester, I therefore wanted to do something to shake my students out of their default settings – to call attention to the water all around them. My colleague Ingrid Mattson does something along these lines in her Advanced Legal Research course, when she provides her students an overview of how Google’s search and ranking operations work. This sort of peek under the hood empowers students to be able to question the results they receive and to strategize ways around Google’s limitations.

img_0954

This is not water.

The value of this knowledge of the underlying structure is that it, in turn, structures the student’s own thoughts about their research process. Indeed, the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education recognizes that a key part of being able to access relevant information is developing an understanding of “how information systems (i.e., collections of recorded information) are organized.” I therefore decided to begin the semester by introducing my students to some basic concepts from library and information science to start them thinking about information as something that possesses an organized structure that both enables and limits the retrieval of relevant information.

My choice of concepts to introduce was greatly influenced by my own experience as a law student in Paul Healey’s Advanced Legal Research course at the University of Illinois. Professor Healey’s class first introduced me to the information retrieval concepts of recall and precision, as well as the general library science idea of intermediation. In addition, he also invited Anne Robbins, the acquisitions librarian at Illinois, to give a guest lecture on the structure of information, in which she covered concepts like metadata, access points, and taxonomies. Sitting in that class as a 3L, my understanding of legal research was transformed from a practical knowledge of the mechanistic application of specific sources to a critical awareness of legal information as something existing within a structured context.

Since my course has two credits fewer than Professor Healey’s, and since I lack Professor Robbins’s detailed expertise, I decided to focus solely on recall and precision, along with intermediation, for my initial class meeting. Before class, I asked my students to read an excerpt from Relevant Search by John Berryman that helpfully illustrates the concepts of recall and precision in an accessible manner. In class, I wove those concepts together with intermediation to suggest a distinction between search, which is our default setting for information retrieval, and research, which involves a greater awareness of the tools and sources at our disposal.

Search is bound by the trade-offs between recall – the retrieval of all the relevant documents in a database – and precision – the retrieval of only relevant documents. The higher the recall of a given search, the less likely it is to be precise, and vice-versa. In practice, multiple searches are therefore necessary, as the searcher calibrates the search to generate a manageable number of hits without missing anything directly on point.

Research, on the other hand, relies on intermediation as a shortcut around this endless searching and sifting. I provide a broad definition of intermediation as any act of human intervention designed to help researchers find their way within a text or between texts, including as examples a table of contents, indexes, headnotes and key numbers, secondary sources, and even librarians. These are tools that not only structure and organize legal information, but also enable the user to understand the content of that information.

Wallace ends his address by emphasizing the importance of “a simple awareness.” I don’t expect every student to carry these concepts with them into practice, although I will be sure to call back to them throughout the semester. But I hope they leave my class having developed an awareness of the information all around them – how it fits together, how it works, and how they can navigate it.

I would be interested to learn about how others incorporate LIS concepts or details about information structure and organization into their courses. If you’re so inclined, please share in the comments below.

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