Seriously, every time I say the word “synthesis” I feel like a I’m speaking Parseltongue.

I think that maybe what information literacy is really about is synthesis. It’s the ability to take what you learn here and apply it there. It’s the ability to connect seemingly unconnected things in a way that makes sense to you and possibly (but not necessarily) to others. We’re trying to teach synthesis. So, yeah, if you could just get that done in 50 minutes, that would be great.

Sarcasm aside, how are we supposed to accomplish this monumental task? Teaching synthesis needs to come from many angles and places, just like the information gathering that results in synthesis comes from many places. What an enormous responsibility to take on as one or two or even 10 or 20 librarians.

Why can’t we just trust that students will do it themselves, as a natural consequence of living? Because, well, given the choice most students would never synthesize anything. They would never choose to create something new out of what’s already there, at least not in a public forum.

Why not? Synthesis is really scary, that’s why. Creating something new that’s never been there before, based on your own ideas and opinions. That’s hard work and it takes guts. It requires taking a stand and sticking by it. Everyone else is probably just barfing up the same old stuff, so it’s easy to follow along. But let’s say that you grabbed a hold of your guts, did the work, and made something. Fantastic! You’re not done.

Next, you have to “jump naked into the void” as someone said at Quasi-Con. It’s not enough to just have created. You have to present your creations, those precious ideas that you painstakingly cultivated and you’re pretty sure are probably not that great anyway. You have to face judgement, often literally. There’s probably a grade riding on your creation. And let’s not forget (never forget) the judgement of your peers.

In the end, it’s probably not as bad as all that. There were probably no rotten tomatoes involved. Probably no one made fun of you or dismissed your ideas. Probably the whole thing went over better than you thought. Possibly lots better than you thought. You might even have ended up with something you’re really pleased with, but you’re also probably not much looking forward to the next round of synthesizing.

I mean, if this is the experience that we’re promoting, no wonder it’s not that popular when we start waving a banner.

Oh, sure, there’s euphoria too. There’s the incredibly thrill of having accomplished something, of maybe even having created something that someone else could find useful. There’s the relief of having just done it. But, really, if you told me that you sat down to write a paper and were all excited to get down to the business of synthesizing? I’d call you a liar.

I’m really curious to hear from experienced teachers. How do you trick students into synthesizing?

5 thoughts on “Sssssssynthesissssssss

  1. Kristin says:

    So … given two choices (be a librarian who aims for synthesis, or step aside and let it be someone else’s problem), which do you do? Does it depend on what kind of library you’re in?

    • Meggan says:

      I think it depends to a certain extent. When I’m working one-on-one with someone, I always push for synthesis. It’s much easier when you can look someone in the face and nudge them along according to their own strengths and weaknesses. When I’m standing in front of a room full of people who don’t want to be there, my push for synthesis might be more along the lines of “food for thought.” I figure there’s probably a way to work synthesizing moments into every lesson no matter how big or small, but I’m not experienced enough to know how.

  2. Naomi says:

    I really appreciated your comments about how scary synthesizing is. If definitely can feel like “jumping naked into the void.” So how do we make it not scary? I tried my best to model having an opinion, but also being humble. I made plenty of mistakes in front of my class, or was asked questions I didn’t know the answer to, and the best thing was to admit when I didn’t know! Or to thank them for correcting me, because then it built my understanding. I think that if students are allowed to make mistakes more often in class, and to build on those mistakes, they will feel more comfortable taking the risk of synthesizing.

    • Meggan says:

      I agree – being comfortable with making mistakes helps everyone in the end. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of people making mistakes in a professional context that were only made worse by trying to cover them up. Admit it, fix it, apologize, and move on.

  3. Miss Masura says:

    i think that a big part of synthesis is understanding the framework with which you will derive a new idea. in 500, we have to give synthesis presentations after every section, and i have noticed a huge trend: no one knows what synthesis means. A lot of people give a report on something new yet related to our topics, and a lot of people just summarize a couple readings. I think that a lot of this has to do with not fully understanding what synthesis is and not spending their portion of the semester trying to create a common framework/lens which will help them assert a new idea.

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