This post is going to be of the “thinking out loud” variety – I’d love to hear what you think and how you talk about these things with students.
I used ProCon.org early on in my career but never really loved it. If memory serves, a lot of their references were internal links, which was not particularly helpful when trying to find additional sources. I also found that the idea of pro/con was a false binary for many of the topics students were looking into. I hadn’t really looked at it closely in several years.
However, as I think about search instruction and the challenges of generating search terms that help students find multiple viewpoints I’ve found myself wondering about ProCon as a site that would help students get a high-level understanding of the arguments on different sides of an issue, and perhaps find language and key vocabulary that would help them find more sources. As I started looking I also noticed that the articles/footnotes provide information about sources outside of ProCon – but no direct links which is kind of annoying.
I decided to use some research I was doing for an upcoming class on banned books as a way to get a sense of how I might use ProCon with students (or for myself). And I am a little unsettled by what I discovered.
The Banned Books page starts with an overview of the issue, and then presents the top 3 “pro” and “con” arguments. I know that many of these arguments are based on personal beliefs and world view, but Pro 2 seemed to be pointing to some actual research and I wanted to follow that trail. To the footnotes!
And… hmmm. These sources are not exactly what I expected to find. But I did my due diligence and looked up the sources. I started with footnote 19 because despite the loaded language in the title I had the impression that it was citing actual research, and I wanted to find it.
Aha! A link to an actual study!
A study about pornography use. Which is not exactly how it was framed in either the article or on ProCon’s page.
Footnote 17, which references the American Academy of Pediatrics, actually points to an opinion piece on a site called Politichicks. This is the paragraph that references the AAP – but there’s no link to a specific source.
I did not do an exhaustive search of AAP recommendations, but I couldn’t find anything they’d written in favor of restricting access to books. A 2009 report I found actually recommended reading as an alternative to heavy media use.
There is a lot of nuance to the question of whether or not exposure to violent media causes aggression and I’m not prepared to unpack all of that. But suffice it to say it’s more complex than the author presents it in the Politicks article – and MUCH more complex than the sentence presented on ProCon.
I did not do a deep dive into every issue presented on ProCon, but I found similar issues in many of the pages I did explore. On the page about homework I found a dead link to an article from Monster.com – I don’t know what the article said, but I do know that if a student came to me with an article from a job search site I would have many questions for them about if this was the best source for them to use. On the page about corporal punishment there is a reference that points to an article that has since been deleted and replaced with a counterargument. I know maintaining up-to-date links is a challenge, but this one is particularly egregious (I’ve contacted them to make them aware).
I was hoping to find some information about how ProCon selects and evaluates sources, but despite being listed in the table of contents in the FAQs, the section on Sources does not actually exist.
So, what do I do with all this? The thing is, the blurbs on ProCon DO accurately represent the viewpoints and arguments on different sides of an issue. But what responsibility does a site that has as its mission “To promote civility, critical thinking, education, and informed citizenship” have to accurately contextualize those arguments and the sources being presented? They are presenting arguments on debatable topics (though the “debatability” of some of their topics is, well, debatable) and arguments like this are inherently biased. But being an informed critical thinker also means backing up your arguments with credible sources and accurately contextualizing the information you’re citing. There is something about this that feels like “choosing your own facts” and that is not what critical thinking looks like.
I think there is a way to use ProCon to build critical thinking and analysis skills, though probably not in the way they intended. I’m wondering about asking students to do the same sort of tracing sources I did and using that to evaluate the strengths of different arguments. I still think it could be useful for understanding what arguments people are making on different sides of an issue, but I’m wary of the possibility that students will accept the arguments at face value – after all, they’re citing their sources, and many students have internalized the idea that a website that cites its sources is a reliable source. But what if those citations lead to less-than-reliable sources? But what if those sources are accurate representations of the arguments being made? As you can tell, I’m going in circles on this.
I will be teaching an independent research class this winter, and I’m considering using this as an exercise with my students – how do we contextualize our sources, how do we evaluate arguments and rhetorical strategies, how do we keep an eye out for logical fallacies. Curious to hear how other folks think about and use resources like this.