November 19, 2014

Confronting false neutrality in professional expectations

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I've got neutrality on my mind lately, particularly from many excellent #critlib chats talking about a sense of false neutrality in libraries and library instruction. And also in thinking about educational technology in the sense of how we use it, and how it is designed. Likewise, my ACRL-track panel proposal for ALA 2015 with Emily Drabinski, Jenna Freedman, Kelly McElroy, and Annie Pho was accepted: "But we're neutral! And other librarian fictions confronted by #critlib."

But I specifically wanted to draw greater attention to a good discussion starting on Andy Woodworth's blog in the comments about re-imagining librarian "rockstars" that hasn't gained much traction (yet?). 

Although Andy does acknowledge it is a loaded term, I think the problem comes in trying to neutralize the idea of the rockstar--or leader. In the comments, Andromeda brought up an excellent point:
“all of the nuance that comes with human beings and their personality. Should a role model librarian be assertive, but not overbearing? Be outspoken, but not self-aggrandizing? Be confident, but not arrogant?” 
To me, these are questions that can’t be addressed without also addressing their gendered and racial overtones. You and I doing exactly the same thing – you might get read as “assertive” (a masculine virtue bespeaking leadership), whereas I might get read as “aggressive” or even “bitchy”. And when I hear our black colleagues talk about how they’re read doing that same thing, it’s “bitchy” or “angry” or even “scary”. 
All of those questions you ask carry additional “but not” adjectives that narrow, or even close, the space of the possible, for some people. 
It's problematic to think about what we should expect from our leaders as broad, neutral categories of traits if 1. desirable leadership traits are based on norms of white, middle-class, cis-het males and if 2. we truly hope to increase diversity within librarianship. I added a comment:
These are great things to think about, but I do think Andromeda’s points warrant greater focus. There can’t really be an “ideal” with ongoing systems of societal oppression. We could say an assertive and highly motivated person could be an example of what a good role model would look like, but if a number of our colleagues are judged differently when exhibiting those traits, then the way we think about leaders in the profession has to be nuanced and understood within the greater context of society. Likewise, when white, cis-het men wind up being the majority of keynotes or those who are most visible, that can dictate certain expectations for leaders that seem normal and neutral but are highly skewed.
I don't want the point of this post to be giving Andy a hard time...and interrupting myself, look at that. I clearly felt it necessary to qualify my thoughts and my post to ensure I don't come across as being "bitchy" or stirring the pot. I think it's important to look at how we might easily miss false neutrality in not just library instruction and library services in what we project outward to our public, but also our own internal perceptions and expectations for ourselves as "professionals" (which can be an additionally loaded term).

October 12, 2014

Moving away from teaching to the research paper

As I've been teaching a lot more classes lately that have a big research paper or capstone assignment attached in my new role as a subject liaison, I'm comparing it to my other work focusing on FYE-type instruction and student retention, thinking about engagement. This topic also came up in the Instructional Design Essentials ecourse I'm co-teaching with Erica DeFrain for ALA. Many participants in our course are starting to see the big red flags popping up with demo-based one-shots and student motivation as they have been working through designing their instruction or learning objects. As info lit instruction practice is moving more toward programmatic instruction and ensuring that an assignment is present so that there is more student buy-in and opportunities for assessment, I'm starting to question the assignment and (formal) assessment parts of library instruction... or, at least the research-paper-as-assignment.

The problem with one shots of course is that there is often an expectation to cram a ton of information into a 50-75min session that students will need to just remember for the rest of the semester and be able to complete their research papers "well." Not to mention library instruction becomes an isolated integration into the curriculum, particularly so when this type of instruction is in the form of skill-and-drill. There are many discussions going on--that have been going on for awhile now--pointing out that just teaching students how to use a database via a demo is not effective, and is boring for everyone (agreed!). Once students get to a point where they are writing a huge research paper, I almost feel like we've missed them, that they should have had more incremental, activity-based instruction, because this juncture in their instruction-need winds up being focused more on use of databases and just finding peer-reviewed articles to get the paper "done." I was teaching some undergrad students more context about what a literature review is for their required big paper, talking about their role as creators of knowledge, thinking of research as a conversation and where their research fits in, and crafting a narrative. I also did need to weave in database demos because the students had a certain requirement to fulfill. At the end of the session, I talked to the instructor to see if the session was what he was hoping for, especially since he had another section of the course coming in a few weeks later. He told me I really didn't need to talk about all that other stuff, all I really needed to do was point them to the databases because that's what they need for their paper. Students become so focused on the need to gather x amount of articles that other discussions become irrelevant and inefficient.

This is the issue with huge summative assessments, particularly the research paper. Barbara Fister has written about this problem at length, where she talks about Why the "Research Paper" isn't Working. I don't believe we have problems with student engagement when research papers are not attached to library instruction because our (potential) content isn't interesting, I think it's because traditionally (not everyone and not always, but typically in the past) a library instruction session divorced from an assignment *still* focused on a database demo. A database demo with no purpose, of course, is going to be agony for students (and the librarian). There are so many other things we could be doing, that some of us are doing, that serve as better options.

My perspective is that by the time students are writing huge research papers, they should have already had enough library instruction to where they could benefit from just a review of what they know. We should be scaffolding from the first year up instead of dumping all the boring mechanics of searching on students, with little other context, all at once. Now of course, much of this is out of our control, we get asked to do a one-shot where an assignment is already established, or even with efforts for collaboration, faculty might not want to work with us, or might just not feel they have the time. But when we can have a larger role in collaboration, especially for programmatic instruction, I try to suggest more scaffolding and lower-risk library instruction activities to enable greater discovery and discussion. Some of the best instruction sessions I've had have been with student success courses that don't have a big research paper, working with athletes, and working with a class examining social media that needed less help with "finding" and more so with creating a bigger discussion about information and communication. Unfortunately, I think this problem goes back to faculty not really knowing what we do and assuming we're just there to help students find things, as well as perceptions of librarians tying us to a "helper" role, so I think it just depends on the faculty we are working with and what our collaborative relationships are like. But I do think trying to move away from teaching to the research paper is one step in the right direction.

The Twitter convo continues from above...

September 26, 2014

#ccourses: Modeling student engagement and community

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I've had a chance to get to the rest of the #ccourses readings for Unit 1 and am thinking about "disruption," community, and real engagement of students. Although I do agree with Laura that disruption is a not-so-great term, I'm understanding that as used in this week's #ccourses readings, it's in the sense of describing the use of high-impact practices for education rather than traditional seat time. There is a huge initiative on my campus speaking to this, and I am very excited about it.
(Also see this discussion on A Beschdel test for higher ed disruption.)

Although I started off thinking about the WHY of my library instruction for UA students, I am changing gears in this post to reflect on a 4-week ecourse I am teaching with Erica DeFrain: ALA Instructional Design Essentials, for librarians. 

On one hand, we have some constraints: the course is only 4 weeks long, just about everyone in the class is a busy, working professional trying to squeeze in this professional development on top of their work week, and additionally, we are required to use a LMS, Moodle. On the other hand: we have a lot of freedom, we can design the course however we'd like using just about any model we'd like (and we have taken advantage of this!). 

With 69 students in the course and only two of us, we are incorporating a great deal of peer connection and assessment. It's definitely not only because it's a high ratio of students to instructors, but also because we believe this model will be most beneficial to students. Our students have varying levels of expertise, from some who are within 6 months of their first ever library job, to those who have well over 5 years of instruction experience and want to get a fresh perspective. With that, allowing students to share their expertise and form their own personal learning network is important. We want to give them as much ownership over the course as we can, while also keeping it organized enough for a busy, working professional to be able to just swoop in, get the gist, and make a little progress, if that's all they are able to do.

As Randy Bass describes, features of participatory culture communities include:
  • "low barriers to entry
  • strong support for sharing one's contributions
  • informal mentorship, from experienced to novice
  • a sense of connection to each other
  • a sense of ownership in what's being created
  • a strong collaborative sense that something is at stake"
We are integrating these features in our course through relying heavily on a peer network. We encourage student ownership of discussion boards, Twitter engagement, and commenting on blog posts. We also have peers endorse the posts they find most useful to them in their learning for the week. Although I am using and researching digital badges in other ways and am including them in this course, they are not the focus, but briefly, they help visualize the peer process.

#ideala ecourse badges that participants can earn

We feel the badges provide a sense of ownership over what is being created (along with the course Zotero group we created so students have access to readings after they no longer have access to Moodle, and it is here that they are encouraged to add resources that they find important to save and share with peers). This can provide mentorship as well, between who is endorsing as the mentor, and for the endorser to feel mentored by the peer(s) they select.

I love how Cathy Davidson talks about How a class becomes a community, and we are mirroring her discussion of teacher as facilitator and guide-on-the-side. Three of her principles for her course especially stood out to me: "Educators must develop methods of assessment that fit our digital age and prioritize lifelong learning; A model classroom environment draws on every participant's unique expertise for the greater good of collective goals; and There's a difference between high standards and standardization, and it's our goal to discover the digital possibilities to support the former and transform the latter."

We are going to see how this plays out more as the course continues (we are only in week 2 right now), but so far it seems successful. I'm excited to continue with #ccourses content and see how to implement these concepts and praxis into our course, as well as have a lengthier reflection on assessment.

September 20, 2014

Starting with the WHY: #ccourses Unit 1

The first activity for #ccourses is looking at the why of why we teach. As Mike Wesch says on the #ccourses site:
We usually start by addressing the “What” question first. We have a course title or subject area and we begin populating our syllabus with the “whats” to be learned. Or, we peruse textbooks looking for the text that we think best covers the field. If we have time, we address the “How” question by considering how we can best teach the material. We sharpen our teaching technique, seek out better examples for the more difficult concepts, compile photos and videos to improve our presentations, and seek other ways to get the students engaged with the material. We may jump to incorporate the latest tools and techniques, whether it is social or interactive media or a new technique like a flipped classroom.  Our syllabus, teaching materials, and educational technology in order, we rush into the semester, rarely asking, “Why?”
As a librarian teaching library research skills / information literacy (IL), my first inclination would be to say that I'm motivated to teach students because IL prepares individuals to become active members in a participatory democracy, questioning the status quo, and knowing how to find and use quality information.

This grounding also prepares students to become creators and critics of knowledge, rather than just consumers. I think this latter point especially resonates with me. IL can pair with any discipline to help students find their voice within their chosen area of interest. I also find this near and dear personally from growing up reading, making, and distributing zines, DIY music, and cultural/community events. I felt my personal interests brought me into Freire's notion of "critical consciousness," and once I discovered the library on my own as an undergrad, I finally started to become interested in my courses because I could see how my learning was applying to my life.

Prior to that awakening, I was a disconnected and uninterested student through most of high school and most of college as an undergrad. I dropped out for awhile at one point, planning to never go back. When I did go back to school, I was just going through the motions until about my last year when I started to become energized about learning. I think this strongly affects my perspective on teaching and learning as an educator now.

In my current position, I am the faculty librarian liaison to retention* efforts across campus, so I am always reflecting back on my experiences and how that might apply to current students considering dropping out. Though, as a fairly privileged white, middle class, cisgender and hetero lady, my experiences definitely do not translate to many on campus. However, I feel like I at least have more awareness of issues surrounding retention. So in my work with these groups, my why especially leads me to think about helping students feel connected on campus, on feeling like they can get access to knowledge and information in the library that affects their lives on a personal level and that they can tie that into their studies.

Really excited about what's to come with #ccourses, taking this approach to instruction is so important.

*And of course retention does not mean only students who don't want to be in school. Students who are affected by circumstances out of their control make staying in college difficult, as well as students who might be high achievers who feel disconnected or disappointed and would want to transfer. "Retention" can apply to all types of students with varying circumstances and needs.