So my first job out of library school wasn’t actually a library job. It was a job working as an online writing tutor for a graduate program at a public institution in another state.(1) As my library career progressed, I held onto the writing tutor job as a side hustle for eight years, finally giving it up when I got tenure.
Thinking back on this job recently, I realized that because writing and research are so often intertwined, my work as a writing tutor actually informed my information literacy instruction in a number of interesting ways.
Thinking about using information, not just searching for it
As information literacy instructors, we spend a lot of time teaching students how to search for and evaluate information but don’t have much opportunity to then see how they actually use what they find. In my work as a writing tutor, this was flipped. By the time students came to me, they had already found their sources but often struggled to integrate the information from those sources into their writing in an effective manner.
The most common mistake I saw was with quotes. Many students I worked with didn’t so much write papers as they simply piled one quote on top of another so that very little of their own thinking was evident in their work. To be fair, for many of these students English was a second language and their facility with it was highly variable, so I can understand the attraction of using a lot of quotes. But I also saw students for whom English wasn’t a second language not just use too many quotes but use them poorly, often inserted into the paper without much context (or, in many cases, proper citation).
Getting an up close look at how students struggled to use the information they found in their research was in part what inspired the “un-research project” I later used in my own information literacy course. That project challenges students to build an annotated bibliography where they discuss not only the content and value of a source they’ve cited but also what role they think the source will play in their research, as far as adding new knowledge, supporting knowledge they already have, or presenting contradictory information that they’ll then have to address.
These days, I don’t use the un-research project anymore, at least not in the exact form that I described it in the original article I wrote, but I do still include a unit in my information literacy course that teaches students about using sources and talks about the different roles sources can play. One section of that lesson that students often highlight as particularly interesting is when I talk about quotes as a tool to support one’s thinking rather than replace it (advice I also gave my writing tutor students when I identified this issue in their work). Many students have shared that they had no idea there was an “incorrect” way to use quotes, which I think says a lot about an aspect of information literacy that we often don’t get to talk to students about when we’re busy demonstrating databases for one-shot sessions.
Confusion about plagiarism
Plagiarism was rampant in my work as a writing tutor. Again, a lot of this may have been due to language and cultural issues since many of the students were not native English speakers but it was something I saw across the board. Sometimes students would send me papers that were so full of plagiarism that I had to return them unmarked and tell them to come back when they had original work to share.
And these were graduate students.
Perhaps because of this, this was an institution where students were required to submit their work to a plagiarism detector before handing it in for a grade. I’m not a big fan of plagiarism detectors for a number of reasons but students often came to me confused as to why their papers were coming back with unacceptably high similarity scores.
Interestingly, the most common reason this happened wasn’t because the students had plagiarized. It was because they had used too many direct quotes. The quotes were flagged as plagiarism even if they were correctly cited, meaning no plagiarism was present. The best solution, I told them, was to replace the quoted information with paraphrases or summaries in their own words.
As I said above, having a lot of quotes in your work isn’t necessarily good writing or a good way to show your understanding of a topic or source but it’s also not evidence of academic dishonesty. The fact that it was being marked as such only confused what’s already a confusing issue to many students all the more.
It doesn’t help that many professors use scare tactics with their students when it comes to plagiarism, telling them that if they don’t cite a source correctly, they’re plagiarizing and could fail the assignment as a result.
The confusion around plagiarism that I observed in my writing tutor experience and from the stories students tell me about their professors’ threats has changed the way I teach about the topic in my information literacy instruction, usually as part of a larger unit on the value and ethical use of information. Plagiarism, I tell my students, does not mean citing incorrectly. It means not citing at all. That’s because plagiarism is defined as intentionally or unintentionally trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. By including a citation, you’re acknowledging that the thoughts and ideas you’re describing come from somewhere else. No matter how badly formatted that citation is, if it’s there, you cannot be plagiarizing and any professor or plagiarism detector that says otherwise deserves to be challenged on that point.
Making peace with citation generators
Speaking of citation.
When I first started my writing tutor job in 2011, the existence of citation generators or similar tools was still relatively new and using them was considered cheating. Students who used them (and you could always tell when they did) were asked to redo the work by hand. Some professors and librarians still view these tools with suspicion, believing that it’s important for students to learn how to create citations on their own.
Personally, I feel that it is important to teach students about giving credit to sources of information in a general sense but I question whether expecting them to learn all the picky details of a citation style is really needed. Beyond their academic lives, when will they need to use formal citation styles? Probably never, unless they become scholarly researchers themselves.
And even if they do, well. I’m a scholarly researcher and these days I rarely create citations from scratch. More often than not, I use the citation feature on whatever database I happen to be working in to generate a suggested citation for me. Once I have that, I look it over and make the necessary corrections (at least, the ones I catch) to the format before adding it to my work. I’m sure the citations I use aren’t perfect but of all the article rejections I’ve received, none of them were due to poor citation formatting, so I guess I’m doing okay.
When it came to my writing tutor students, there was only so much I could do because different professors had different attitudes when it came to citation and citation generators. But in my own information literacy classes, I stopped “warning” students against citation generators and instead started talking to them about how I use citation generators and similar tools in my own work and what a time saver it was for me on a project where I cited 80+ sources. Of course, I also make sure to tell them about the necessity of making corrections to the citations, which is the part they always forget to do, but I think being honest with them gives them a better understanding of the role tools like this can play in their work rather than just treating it as a shortcut on a tedious task.
These are some of the ways that my work as a writing tutor influenced my information literacy instruction. Now I think about it, there are probably some ways my information literacy background influenced my tutoring. That might be a topic worth exploring in a future post.
(1) I’m being purposely vague only because, while I’m grateful for the experience I had working in this program, not everything I have to say about it here or elsewhere is necessarily positive.