Your Teacher is Wrong, You Can Use an Encyclopedia. But…

Writing is something that comes fairly easy to me. Granted, some days, it won’t come at all. Still, most of the time, when I need to write something, the words and the thoughts are there for me as I need them. I write a lot of non-fiction, mostly essays and the occasional critique here and there. While I’m not an expert, and never will be, I’ve written enough of these things for classes, for pleasure, and with the intent to publish that I feel I could pass along a few things to a high school or college student who might be working on that report, or term paper, or whatever writing assignment they’re forcing you to do.

When it comes to writing non-fiction, I find there are two things at play and they work together within the context of the paper. They’re the foundation, but they’re also the frame and structure of most non-fiction. Those two things are:

  1. The facts.
  2. The interpretation of the facts.

Now I do have a place I’m going with all of this, but to help move this along, let’s take a look at those two bits really quick and what they mean to a paper, essay, or even an entire book.

This right here is my favourite story about World War I.

This right here is my favourite story about World War I.

First, the facts. Facts are data. In many cases facts are like a digital element. The fact is the fact and anything counter to the fact is false. Of course there are grey areas in everything but let’s say I’m going to write an essay on World War I. To do that, I need facts. Fact one: Germany lost. Fact two: World War I started in 1914 and ended in 1918. Fact three: The French allied with the British and the Russians. The list goes on but those are some facts about World War I. To say their opposite would be wrong. If I tell you that Germany won the First World War, you’d look at me like I’m an idiot because Germany did not win World War I. Grey areas might pop up in the dates as to when the war started, but if you check any well sourced text on the issue, World War I started in 1914 and concluded in 1918. Those are facts, but facts have a big issue when it comes to a paper or essay.

Facts are boring.

A fact is just a fact. It’s like this computer I’m typing on. It’s dark blue. It’s running Android. Who cares? So what? And those two questions are answered by the second part of the foundation of non-fiction, the interpretation of the facts. Why did Germany lose World War I? Ah! Now there are a lot of answers to that question and a lot of ways to look at it and tonnes of ways to decide how to present that argument. France hooked up with Britain and Russia. So what? Well, it’s interesting when one considers that France never got along very well with those countries. It wasn’t all that long ago that France fought Britain in skirmishes all over Europe and Napoleon was famous for his losing the invasion of Russia. Now they’re all buddy-buddy? What changed?

See, that’s where things get interesting. Any teacher or professor who’s worth half a damn at their job doesn’t care about facts all that much. Facts are just what you use to support your argument or interpretation, and it’s the interpretation of the facts that makes for a interesting, grade A paper.

Okay, that out of the way, I can actually move on to what I wanted to talk about. I’ve watched too many students struggle with facts. They have their class texts, their books, their assigned readings, and so forth. They get their writing assignment and, typically, they’re instructed to use those texts in some way for the assignment. Fine, but then there comes an unhealthy habit that I want to point out and, hopefully, alleviate.

A student of history who’s working on a paper might not be an expert on World War I. That’s fine. That’s why they’re taking a class. I’m certainly not an expert on World War I because my area of expertise is the history of science. I could, however, talk a bit about the use of gas during the war and its deadly properties and why it was so deadly. So they have their assignment, they sit down to write, and find that they need a fact. For this example, let’s say they need the date of the beginning of the Battle of Gallipoli. So they dash off to their books and texts, combing through them. They remember reading about the battle, but where was it? What book? What page? Where’s that damn date?!

And here’s where I put on my librarian hat and say “You have multiple sources of information available to you, some of which are quicker to provide basic information than others. Have you considered looking online or in an encyclopedia for that date?”

Now then, I know a few teachers and they are going to recoil in horror at that statement. I can hear some of them now “How dare you! We do not allow encyclopedias or online sources to be cited within our writing assignments! We command the students to stick to the class texts!”

“Okay,” I say, and then I take off the librarian hat and put on my historian hat and reply “If a student is citing their source for a basic fact, then they are padding their source list and footnotes. Basic facts need no citation and if you require such in your assignments, then you are failing as a teacher.”

Educators' beliefs notwithstanding, these aren't actually tomes of eldritch evil.

Educators’ beliefs notwithstanding, these aren’t actually tomes of eldritch evil.

I’ve been a historian for a long time, and while my historical writings are mostly popular history which don’t usually come with citations and footnotes, I still remember how to write a professional history essay. Facts are facts and need no citations, and because they need no citations it doesn’t matter a bit where the student acquires knowledge of the fact so long as they verify that the information is correct. If that means hitting up Wikipedia and learning that the Gallipoli Campaign started on April 25, 1915 — then there isn’t anything wrong with that. Is that date wrong? No, and I know it’s not wrong because I corroborated it with another bit of information from another source. That date is perfectly correct and, because it’s a fact, no citation is needed anywhere and it remains a boring fact.

Too many students are taught what to study rather than how to study. We live in a world where we can carry much of the sum total of human knowledge in our pocket on a small computer that connects to a global information network while providing us instant communicative abilities with anyone in the world and it also happens to make phone calls. I don’t think high school curriculum has changed all that much since my high school days some mumblety-grumble years ago. We weren’t taught how to study at all. At best, at best, we were taught what not to use because it was “against the rules.” I always found it amusing, even then, that our high school library contained three or four sets of encyclopedias and even a few encyclopedias on CD-ROM (yes, it was that long ago), yet we weren’t allowed to use any of those sources in any of our papers.

So why did the school have them? If we can’t use them for anything it seemed a huge waste of money to buy them.

What we should have been taught, and what subsequent and previous generations should have been taught is that you can use them, but you can’t cite them. Moreover, they should’ve been taught why they can’t cite them, because an encyclopedia is little more than a collection of facts. Sure, there are basic interpretations of the facts, but they’re basic. Encyclopedias are basic fact books and since you can’t cite basic facts, then you can’t cite a book full of basic facts. Simple theory and philosophy, right?

But since these students were drilled that the encyclopedia is verboten, online sources are forbidden, Wikipedia is taboo, and even online databases and collections of periodicals are suspect; then they cannot use those for anything. If you’re a student, or if you’re a friend or parent of a student, or if you know a student, and you see them struggling with fact checking and acquisition; tell them it’s okay and they can use Wikipedia or an encyclopedia to get facts. When it comes to writing school papers, or even essays in the so-called “real world,” facts are abundant and boring. A collection of facts in a paper isn’t ever going to win a good grade, the magic lies in the interpretation of the facts. The grade comes from the translation of those facts into an argument and analysis which must come from the mind of the student. That’s where a winning paper is born, within the mind. Facts come from outside, it’s what comes from within that gets the grade.


    1. Ha! Actually it’s an Asus Transformer TF300 tablet with the associated keyboard dock. Plug the tablet to the keyboard dock and it becomes a 10.5 inch Android laptop. I’m actually working on a post about it that may go live as early as today. I love it and it’s a perfect walkin’ around computer. 🙂

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