Innovations in Education

Editor’s note: This contribution about the creative use of our very own Current Bibliography (CB), which is published regularly in Isis, actually serves a dual purpose. Not only does it fit nicely into this column about innovations in education—as you will see, Stephen Weldon, HSS Bibliographer and associate professor of history of science at the University of Oklahoma, has provided several innovative ways to integrate this valuable resource into the classroom—it also kicks off a brand new column about Isis CB and related matters.

Teaching with the Isis Bibliography

by Stephen P. Weldon

I am the Society’s Bibliographer, but I also teach undergraduate and graduate classes in history of science. I have integrated the CB into my classroom in several ways and would like to encourage more of you to do the same. In a survey that I co-developed last year, we asked HSS members to tell us how useful they found the Isis CB in both its print and online forms. The questions about pedagogical use were divided into three distinct activities: course preparation, encouraging student use, and actual use by students.

The survey showed that a lot of you who do use the Bibliography do not do so for teaching. Only a minority of respondents found the CB “very useful” or “essential” in pedagogy. Moreover, I discovered that even the teachers who do use it seldom employ it the way I do. Most commonly, people turn to it for course prep (see chart 1), which in most cases probably means finding sources to help prepare a lecture or locating items for the syllabus.

Less common is using the CB as an in-class resource to train students (see charts 2 & 3), yet it is in this latter use where I think the CB can shine.

Say, for instance, your students are working on a research paper with history of science content. There are great advantages to telling them to go there first. Let me be even more radical: Tell your students to bookmark the “IsisCB Explore” (and any other go-to sources you have!) on their cell phone. I do it myself, and more than once it has been a lifesaver in answering a question at a reception or helping me connect the dots when I’m listening to a paper at a conference.

Chart 1: Usefulness of CB for Course Preparation

Chart 2: Usefulness of CB for Teaching Students

Chart 3: Student Use of CB for Classwork

Two resources students should know about are IsisCB Explore, which is free, and the HSTM database hosted by EBSCO—if your library has a subscription. “Explore” is the easiest to access and work with, so I take students there first. There is no required login and it has powerful search features that make it fast and easy to use. Moreover, it is updated daily, so you are getting the latest material we have. If your library has a subscription to EBSCO’s HSTM database, students with history of medicine and history of technology topics may find that to be a more comprehensive starting point, although even “Explore” can get you a lot of those same citations. Also EBSCO is usually tied in to your academic library’s other databases, making it part of the bigger information ecosystem. If your library does not have a subscription, remember that HSS members receive complimentary access to the HSTM database.

But what lessons can you teach?

First, you can introduce students to the discipline. Explain how important it is to find reliable, peer-reviewed material that is historical. I don’t need to tell most of you that far too few students—even advanced undergraduates and, dare I say, some graduate students—can navigate their way to reliable historical sources online. And when they lose their way, Google becomes their default search and it’s usually downhill from there.

Second, you can explain the difference between full-content indexes like JSTOR and Google Scholar and metadata-only indexes like the CB, which only has titles and abstracts. It is tempting to think that full-text searches will always be better because they pick up everything that is discussed in articles and books, whereas resources like the CB cannot. But that’s not what I find. Although these full-text searches have their place in the research process, I find that many students who start with these databases often get disappointing results. This is primarily because they can’t find the historical work that is so often buried under scientific papers and non-historical articles.

JSTOR is a case in point. It is a go-to source for many students, but it seldom gives them more than a list of works with historical content. You can look in JSTOR or Google Scholar for Isaac Newton or influenza of 1918, and you are presented with hundreds of hits, but many are not suitable for a historical research paper. Start in the IsisCB space, however, and nearly everything you find is potentially relevant. Not only that, the CB shows you what’s hot in the field by featuring the most recent items. At the very least, if your students start here, your work as a teacher is drastically reduced when you look at their bibliography; there’s less of a chance you’ll have to reorient them to an entirely different set of literature.

Third, you can use the CB to encourage another good practice: organizing around evidence. Citations are the historians’ bricks and mortar, and there are several good tools out there that help students work with them. Bibliographic managers—Zotero and Endnote are the two most common—do a lot of work. With the touch of a button, you can grab citations from the IsisCB, HSTM, or pretty much any other reference database. Not only do these apps format citations, which is a great time-saver, they also build up a personal library on your computer and help you organize it. Of course, students using these tools need to be wary. The data they grab is not always in good form, so they must learn to be active users. They must, for example, proofread the data that is collected.

The IsisCB remains limited in some ways—it only has the metadata content, non-English scholarship is underrepresented (though I am in the process of changing that), and the CB doesn’t have the huge swaths of material that the big databases get. So, I am the last person to say that you should do all your research with the CB. And students need to learn this as well. Tracing footnotes and using other databases helps them become independent researchers. Good research involves a lot of footwork. My point, however, is that the CB can get students started on the right foot because it puts the leading scholarship of the history of science community at your fingertips.

This is only the beginning of what you can do with the CB. In the next issue of the Newsletter, I will get down into the weeds and explain how to take advantage of its many useful features.