This essay originally appeared in the Newsletter on Teaching Philosophy, 93, 1 (Spring 1994) 123-26. Copyright © 1994, Peter Suber.

A Year of Teaching with Dialog
Peter Suber, Philosophy Department, Earlham College

Most philosophers use Philosopher's Index; many use it online. Few know that the online version is only one of roughly 400 databases available from Dialog Information Services. There are other databases useful for philosophers (notably Francis from Questel Inc.), but I've had a good reason recently to focus on those available from Dialog: I've had free connect-time for over a year.

Dialog is heavily used by faculty and graduate students for research. High school students who will not enter a print library in the post-Nintendo age are also frequent users. But the group in between, undergraduate faculty whose primary responsibility is classroom teaching, and undergraduate students, use Dialog much less frequently.

To understand why, Dialog gave the faculty and students of Earlham College free connect-time for an entire academic year, 24 hours a day, starting in September 1990. (This gift was extended for another year, with a few restrictions, in 1991.) Our only obligation was to keep logs of our usage and help Dialog staff evaluate the usefulness of their service for our teaching and learning. Here is an edited version of my log.

The free Dialog time has been a delight for me, a gift of great value for the college, and a means of changing the attitudes of many faculty on campus. Some of my colleagues who had not accepted college computers for their offices decided to try them when Dialog became available. Some who swore that computers were unnecessary for their sort of teaching (based on the persuasive evidence of their own success without them), decided that maybe computers did have a place after all. Colleagues who shunned word processing as recently as 1989 became enthusiasts about computers, including word processing, after the Dialog gift. Faculty who were already power users felt less isolated and more useful. A culture of tip-swapping developed.

The fact that Dialog costs money everywhere but Earlham makes me uncomfortable in detailing the delights of the service. But my purpose is not to flaunt an extraordinary gift, but merely to show that online information can advance classroom teaching, not just research. (Toward the same end, several of my colleagues are publishing their logs in journals in their fields.) Moreover, Dialog's ordinary rates of $75 to $300 an hour can be reduced greatly for academic institutions.

These entries from my log represent my "top 20" uses during the first year of the experiment. I've selected the uses that were the most helpful, the least routine, the least predictable, or that best exemplify what online information can do for classroom teaching.

1. I spent a small amount of time looking for responses to my publications. Now I know that any harsh commentary has appeared only in third-rate journals not picked up by Philosopher's Index.

2. My wife, Liffey Thorpe, is a classicist who maintains a very large bibliography on women in Greek Antiquity. So far it has been compiled manually. Together we wrote a search script —a list of keywords connected by "and," "or," or "not"— and ran it in one literary data base. Several other data bases are potential targets of future searches (on history, archaeology, sociology, medicine, law, linguistics, and so on). We found about 75 single spaced pages of good hits, with only a few irrelevant pieces on contemporary Greek women. Liffey already had about 95% of the relevant hits. Of course, it is that last 5% that is very difficult to find in any other way. We saved our search script to run later in other data bases. We can also modify it to run again in the first data base and to exclude everything published before (say) September 1991.

3. I maintain several bibliographies that aim at completeness within their narrow scopes. Unfortunately, all but one of them are still on 3x5 cards. I ran many searches in Philosopher's Index and related databases (Arts and Humanities Search, Book Review Index, Criminal Justice Periodicals Index, Legal Resource Index, MathSci, MLA Bibliography, Religion Index, Social SciSearch...) to hone my search scripts and make them effective for my topics. When a script captures too many irrelevant works, you can pick less common keywords, change an "or" to "and", or add a "not". When a script excludes too many relevant works, you can use more common keywords, change an "and" to "or," or remove a "not". (There are also other, subtler strategies.) I have not save my hits to disk yet, because I'm not ready to search through the large number of entries to delete those I already have. But I have stored the search scripts; I know where the citations are when I need them.

4. In a seminar on "The Very Idea of Reason", I had aassigned Genevieve Lloyd's The Man of Reason: "Male" and "Female" in Western Philosophy. While it is the only book-length statement of a feminist objection to the classical models of reason, all of us in the class found it wanting. Some thought the connection between Lloyd's feminism and her critique of reason was obscure, and some thought her feminism was not very radical, and some thought both. We all suspected there were more incisive (if shorter) works for our purpose —somewhere. We reached these conclusions during the first hour of one of our two-hour class meetings. During the break I went to my office, dialed up Dialog, and found 24 promising hits within five minutes. Since I didn't then have a printer in my office, I copied the citations and abstracts to disk, "hung up" with Dialog, and brought my laptop computer to class second hour. We scrolled through the material together and talked about what looked good. That night, I made a printout of the hits and put it on reserve in the library.

5. I was once talking in my office to a student from the same seminar. He wanted to write his final paper on Berkeley's concept of reason, but was having trouble finding secondary sources to help him. I dialed in while he waited and in a few minutes we had two good hits. In the process I discovered that, despite the large secondary literature on Berkeley, little has been written on his concept of reason.

6. A college committee consulted me on how Earlham could deal with racist and sexist graffiti on campus within the bounds of the First Amendment. (I am also a lawyer.) I knew that colleges and universities across the country were struggling with this problem, that many had written regulations, and that some had found their regulations challenged in court for violating the First Amendment rights of students and faculty. But I didn't know the range of attempted regulations, the exact words used to describe the offenses, or the outcomes of all the legal challenges. I thought wistfully about Lexis and Westlaw, two online databases with the full text of virtually every legal opinion by an American court. But neither is available through Dialog, and and both cost several hundred dollars an hour. However, Dialog does carry the full text of several important newspapers. I dialed in, entered the Washington Post database, and quickly found 34 hits all of which, on inspection, turned out to be germane. Some were news stories about the problems erupting on various campuses. Some were editorials. Some were news stories about lawsuits and court decisions. Very likely there were many germane articles that I didn't reach with this search; but I did find all the legal cases I had heard about. I copied the material to disk. After formatting and editing the text a bit with a word processor, I printed it all for the committee. This was much more helpful to the committee than I could have been alone. It also gave me information on which to base an opinion.

7. A colleague in physics thought that Dialog had nothing to offer him. I surprised him with a printout of citations on the physics of quantum computers (a subject of our recent conversations, thanks to Roger Penrose) and research on the cold big bang theory (his dissertation topic). I also knew that he was looking for software that contained graphic road maps of the United States; I found a complete list of such software on Dialog and gave it to him. He softened his judgment.

Another colleague who has done extensive research on the archaeo-astronomy of the Hopewell Indians of the Ohio Valley wondered what Dialog could do for him. I found eight new articles on Hopewell archaeology that he hadn't seen.

8. A student in a course on the ethics of consent and coercion wanted to do a research paper on paternalism in education. I helped her find 40 good citations, copied them to a disk, and printed them for her, all in real time while she waited. Since paternalism in education was also a research interest of mine, I kept a copy of the file.

9. A student in my reason seminar wanted to write a paper on "agriculture and reason". He was a good student who had already tried paper sources without success. This is just the kind of esoteric synthesis of topics that is easy to search in Dialog, difficult any other way. I found him citations to 15 articles that looked promising, copied them to disk, and printed them for him, while he waited.

10. For a public lecture I was writing, I looked for feminist critiques of autonomy ethics and found a good number. I also found a good number of feminist attempts to rehabilitate the concept of autonomy for feminist purposes. For the same lecture, I looked for details on the Family Protection Act and on the early attempts to criminalize spousal rape. I also researched court-ordered, involuntary Caesarean sections. In each case I found what I wanted: sometimes in Philosopher's Index, and sometimes in databases on medicine or law.

11. Because I had recently bought a store's demo model of a portable computer, and lacked the manuals (promised for later delivery), I looked up technical information on the machine. Curious, I went further, looking at reviews of the hardware and appraisals of its competition.

12. In a newspaper column of oddities, I'd read one or two sentences about a swindler who defrauded thousands of lonely men by selling them rights to Chonda-Za, a sexual paradise after death. For my course on consent and coercion I wanted to learn more details. "Chonda-Za" is a keyword that brings up no irrelevant articles; it brought me a fascinating abundance of newspaper stories on the cult.

13. I was working on a new preparation, a course on civil disobedience. I had a rudimentary bibliography, assembled manually over the years. I found seven databases relevant to civil disobedience and expanded my bibliography considerably. (Aside from Philosopher's Index, these were databases in religion, law, and politics.)

14. For a lecture, I wanted to use the results of some medical research reported in a Newsweek story. But the story did not give a full citation of its source. Armed only with the topic and the approximate date, I tried to track down the original article. Using the obvious keywords in the obvious medical databases, I came up dry. Puzzled, I let the problem fester and then, a week later, I thought to try the psychology databases. There it was: I found not only the details I needed for the lecture, but background information on methodology and citations to earlier work.

15. For a course on Metaphilosophy, I started to compile a bibliography of works that psychoanalyze philosophers using evidence from their published philosophies. I especially wanted reductive readings that replaced the philosopher's published reasons with the analyst's discovered causes. By the end of term I had a bibliography on this subject that must be at least 95% complete for English and German.

16. I read a quotation on the relevance of biography to philosophy. I wanted to follow it up for my Metaphilosophy course. It was supposed to come from E.C. Mossner's biography of Hume, which I own; but I could not find the quotation on the page cited. In Dialog I discovered that Mossner wrote more than one biography of Hume, and that more than one of them had more than one edition.

17. Early in spring term, I taught the students in my seminar on civil disobedience how to use Dialog, and we used Dialog for the rest of the term. Knowing they would have free access to Dialog, I assigned a significant research paper.

18. One of my civil disobedience students told me she couldn't find any literature on the origin of civil disobedience. I couldn't believe there was none, and in any case wanted to find something on the subject myself. Looking in the seven databases most relevant to civil disobedience, I found only one citation. She was right. Using paper sources to prove a negative like this, or even to show its probability, would be virtually impossible. (We should also remember that the literature indexed online is rarely more than 50 years old in any discipline.)

19. One of my civil disobedience students told me he couldn't find any literature on the Methodists' concept of conscience. I found 15 good hits for him, copied them to disk, and printed them for him, all during one of the breaks in our seminar.

20. A colleague and I were collaborating on an article. I used Dialog to see whether we'd been preempted. Answer: not yet.


These are the highlights. The routine uses are just as helpful and more frequent: checking whether a book is in print, finding the latest edition of a book, getting a book's ISBN for a bookstore order, finding full citations of books and articles when one possesses only partial information, enlarging bibliographies, discovering what is available on a certain topic, finding responses to so-and-so's article or book.

One reason it is easy to find information in databases one has never used, say, on medicine or law or physics, is that the search commands for all of Dialog's databases are the same. So if you learn those for Philosopher's Index, then you are already equipped for multi-disciplinary research.

In general, free access to a large number of varied academic databases enhances classroom teaching in many small, unexpected ways. There are a thousand questions I'd like answered when I'm preparing a lecture or discussion. Most are too small to get me to walk 200 yards to the library. Very few are too small to get me to dial up Dialog. One result is accurate, up-do-date detail, whether I am talking about the secondary literature of a philosopher or a headline case in medical ethics.

Another result is serendipitous discovery, analogous to joyful finds on a lazy hour in the library stacks. Serendipity in Dialog, however, is easier on the arms than serendipity in a print library. Instead of lugging a stack of books to the front desk (and then back across campus, and then up the stairs to one's office), one can read abstracts online and send citations to disk files or a printer.

Another is that one becomes a more helpful resource for students. Before Dialog, if a student told me there was almost nothing written on Berkeley's concept of reason, or the origin of civil disobedience, I would have doubted her word. With Dialog, I can support her. I can help students find the literature they need for unusual paper topics. I can write syllabi that reflect what has been written on a topic, not merely the subset that I already knew about. I can make quicker mid-course corrections in seminars. If I want a particular viewpoint represented in a reading list, I can find it.

For many searches, the amount of literature available is immense. An online service like Dialog makes this painfully clear. Unless one's topic happens to match a catalogue topic and one finds entire shelves of books on the same subject, print libraries rarely force the awareness of this immensity on scholars, let alone the casual browser. For journal literature, this immensity is necessarily hidden in a print library.

Faculty whose search scripts garner huge sets of citations will have criteria for winnowing them. They will know what subtopics to search; they will know something about the reputation of authors and the quality of journals; they will know how to decipher words in titles that reveal methodological school or historical affiliation. In general, undergraduate students will not possess this knowledge. Hence, they will lack the most useful filters for managing information overload.

This imposes a task on the teacher. The task is not to be the students' filter, for that is authoritarian. The task is to help students acquire authoritative filters of their own. I've argued elsewhere that students cannot acquire such filters until they have mastered a discipline, for the only authoritative filter is disciplinary knowledge.[Note 1]

This creates a paradox for teachers who wish to help students acquire their first mastery of a discipline with the help of large databases: at first, it is too soon to expect students to judge for themselves what is worth selecting from a huge list of citations and, when they are able to do so, it is too late, for by then they will already have acquired their first mastery of the discpline.

The paradox is the same for students in a print culture, which is why Meno could raise it for Socrates. But it is more vivid and pervasive in an online culture. Solving or dissolving it is the same thing as undergraduate education. This was one of the most unexpected but profound benefits of the Dialog gift for me: a sharp provocation to think again about what I am trying to accomplish in the classroom and how I plan to accomplish it.


1. See my "How Teachers Teach, How Students Learn: Teaching in a Blizzard of Information," in Evan Farber (ed.), Teaching and Technology: The Impact of Unlimited Information Access on Classroom Teaching, Pierian Press, 1991, pp. 67-74, esp. 73-74; abridged in "Teaching in a Blizzard of Information," Issues in Science and Technology, 5, 4 (July 1989) 29-31. [Resume]

Ribbon] Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A. Copyright © 1994, Peter Suber.