Everyone should read this post on bias

Not this post on bias — this post on bias.

I’m having one of those days (actually two of those days in a row now) where everything I read is interesting and I want to talk about it more. So much so that I’m a little overwhelmed and end up not talking about anything. It takes something like this post from New Kid on the Hallway that seems to reach into my brain and pull out something that’s been bugging me and talk about it just like I wanted someone to talk about it.

This is my favorite part:

When you say that a historical author has a “bias,” you’re saying they incline a certain way. They lean in a certain direction. And that’s fine, as far as it goes.

The thing is, you inevitably declare that the author is “biased” as if this is all you have to say on the subject – as if discovering “bias” is some form of analysis.

I hate to tell you this, but it’s really not.

A billion times yes. It’s not. And the post rocks more because she goes on to talk about why it’s not as well as what the appropriate kind of analysis would look like.

The idea that the “checklist” approach to teaching website evaluation doesn’t work isn’t an original thought. But this issue in particular is the reason why checklists for website evaluation keep me up at night. This is why throwing in a “please tell my students about evaluating websites” as one part of a one-shot library session (or really, even as the only part of a one-shot library session) doesn’t work for me. Or why “let’s teach everything students need to know about evaluating information in one generic tutorial or handout” doesn’t work for me. Or really, why the very idea of teaching evaluation of resources as a separate skill distinct from the other thinking and learning students do – no matter how contextual and complex the methods used are — will never work for me.

Evaluating is near the top of Bloom’s taxonomy for a reason – this is hard stuff. This is the big leagues where cognition and learning are concerned. And if we try to teach it like it’s easy – like discovering something like bias (or any of the other things on the checklist) is the end of the story, no more thinking required, we’re teaching the wrong lesson. That kind of evaluation might help people filter out the truly bad stuff – but I think that most students today know full well that there is truly bad stuff out there and they already know how to identify it. Because identifying the truly bad stuff is really not that hard.

But those skills don’t help them at all when it comes to distinguishing the good from the great, or when they’re faced with a bevy of plausible interpretations. And if those skills become their evaluation habits – those habits will hurt them when they need to do real evaluation to solve really complex problems.

5 thoughts on “Everyone should read this post on bias

  1. Now, why couldn’t I have read this an hour before I talked to my class about how they addressed bias in their annotated bibliographies, rather than an hour after our final session?

    “The thing is, you inevitably declare that the author is “biased” as if this is all you have to say on the subject – as if discovering “bias” is some form of analysis.

    I hate to tell you this, but it’s really not.”

    I think I spent 10 minutes trying to say this, but I’m certain I only obfuscated the issue further.

    Sigh. Thanks for pointing it out, though.


  2. Nick – I know – I think I’ve spent a lot of time talking around this issue as well. I just think it’s easier to think about what’s wrong with this kind of lack-of-analysis when your focus is on the product of that analysis (a well synthesized and analyzed paper) instead of on the evaluation/analysis itself.

    Even an annotated bibliography, though much better than what we usually have to work with as librarian teachers, can be hard. After all, one *can* write an annotated bibliography that is a collection of disparate entries and still meet most of the requirements. Where once you see them try to synthesize those things together into an argument or narrative, the problems are much easier to talk about.

    Best – and is that a new blog I see attached to your name there?

  3. There will be a blog at informationgames.info eventually. I spent the weekend pretending to be a sysadmin and getting my feet wet administering the site.

    After working with the joint conference website and choosing to be satisfied with function while forgoing elegance, I decided that the next time I will be prepared. So now there is a domain registered, a server rented, and wordpress installed. If that is what makes a blog then I’ve got one. What I don’t have is content.

    I’m vaguely planning to install Drupal and Mediawiki as well, so this project is at least as much me playing at being a systems administrator as it is me playing at being an author.

  4. Rereading this and it’s still great. I try to tell students that they are also biased, that everyone is always biased, and they don’t believe me. They say – I am going to write a totally objective and non-biased paper. I say, #1 not possible, and #2 then it’s not an argument, which is the assignment. I used to think that it was the science students who were biased in favor of a belief in objectivity, but now I’m not so sure that the naive belief is not more wide spread. From “new kid” it appears that history students struggle just as much against their bias against bias.

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