Monday, April 22, 2013

Extended metaphors: useful or too much?

During my undergraduate library internship I was required to read and review articles about academic librarianship. It's been 7 years, but one of those articles has stuck with me.

The article described the utility of using metaphors to teach research skills. The metaphor this author used was that of making a salad. It went into great detail about each type of thing you might put in a salad and what its research counterpart would be. While reading it, all I could think does that help? The students have two things to remember now the actual process and the metaphor. I simply couldn't understand how those two processes were related. After writing my review/critique of the article, I put the idea of using such an extended metaphor out of my mind and proceeded to get my MLS, not really expecting to teach.

Fast forward almost five years teaching undergraduates the ins and outs of information literacy, and I might just be changing my mind about that extended metaphor idea. I'm not sure I'm ready to jump into that salad metaphor, but I have employed a few of my own in the past few semesters.

While watching Castle one night (see this post for more about my tv viewing habits and IL) I figured out how I was going to explain what being a historian meant to my undergrads in a gen ed course. Being a historian is like being a detective and a story-teller. First you need to look at your primary source and figure out what is going on. Then, you need to figure out what kind of story that artifact can help you tell. What is the broader narrative that the artifact fits into? (For those of you who haven't seen the show, Castle is about a dectective in the NYPD who is shadowed by an award-winning mystery writer!) I used the metaphor in class the following week. I'm not sure the students embraced it entirely, but it did seem to resonate or at least make sense to them.

Later in the semester I was struggling to explain the process of writing an evidence-based argument in a research paper. As a class we were working with a research question, 4 articles and trying to figure out what kinds of things we're looking for in the articles. And what the difference between the factors we were finding and the facts. And then it hit me mid-discussion, it's basically a murder mystery.

I'd previously used the idea of quoting something from a literature review as being "academic hearsay." But expanding the metaphor worked well. Your reference question essentially becomes a "who done it?" You find evidence (i.e. just the facts, ma'am) from the articles. You combine all the evidence to come to a conclusion about who the culprit is. That culprit (the factors to college student success--our research question) becomes your thesis. And then you spend the paper trying to prove that your guy (thesis) actually did it using the evidence. The intro and conclusion of your paper can be a bit more theatrical, like the opening and closing statements you see on legal shows. As a metaphor it works decently well. And it relates something the students understand to a new process without the huge disconnect.

What do you think? Do you use metaphor in your instruction? What's your favorite? Does it work or do you get the blank stares of disconnect from your students?


  1. I like this a lot and I think it helps the students better relate the method to the content. I'm a big fan of metaphor but it can be tricky finding just the right one.

  2. I use metaphors sometimes & I think they usually work. I just try not to extend them too far lest the metaphor break down. My favorites, which I came up with on the fly yet continue to use:

    1) Coming up with a thesis statement is like giving birth. Messy & painful but worth it in the end. (The students either cringe or laugh but I think they get the point.)

    2) Thinking of a scholarly article as a sandwich when preparing to read. Carb-load by reading the abstract, intro, & discussion sections first. Then get to the meat (results).

    3) Call number is like the address of the book. Collection (circulating, reference, reserves, etc.) is like the neighborhood.