Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Challenge Of Under-Prepared Students

Reference work may occasionally live up to its glamorous reputation. For every experience with a student of high potential that challenges the reference librarian’s skills and knowledge, there are more interactions with students who give the impression of being under-prepared for college-level research. So we academic librarians may groan a bit, but we ultimately dig in and use our skills to bring those students up to speed. But I never gave much thought to the anxiety that the under-prepared student causes for the faculty. Apparently that anxiety is far reaching.

A recently issued report titled Campus Commons: What Faculty, Financial Officers and Other Think About Controlling College Costs revealed the extent to which faculty are troubled and frustrated by students who get admitted yet are not ready for college-level work. What I found most unexpected was that the report, based on the description of its authors’ focus, at first appears to have little to do with the issue of how well prepared students are for college. The study was designed to capture information from college presidents, financial officers and faculty about ways in which higher education could improve its quality and achieve greater affordability. As I read the report in more detail I discovered that from the faculty perspective an important factor in improving quality is improving the students.

Here’s a summary of what the college presidents were most concerned about:

Instead of viewing higher education as a private good that benefits individuals, many presidents argue that the country must come to understand and act upon the idea that higher education is a public good that benefits the entire society. As a consequence, they believe it should receive a significant infusion of public reinvestment.

And the state financial officers had a somewhat different perspective:

They share the presidents’ concern that higher education is caught between declining state subsidies and rising internal costs, but many state financial officers interviewed for this report feel that colleges and universities can be more cost-effective. Many emphasize the need to graduate more students, and their first priority is often to increase the retention rates for those already enrolled.

The college financial officers did little to surprise with their mostly practical concerns:

Many of those interviewed were interested in increasing higher education productivity and were willing, at least in confidential interviews, to ask hard questions about higher education’s assumptions, especially about class size and teaching loads. Many were also interested in greater use of technology to save money.

The faculty brought a different perspective to the discussion about the challenges of higher education. For them the problem was mostly a lack of preparedness among students:

For the faculty members we interviewed, the major problem facing public higher education is declining quality. They often believed strongly that many incoming students are not ready for college, that they have weak academic skills and are not yet mature enough or self-disciplined enough to take advantage of what is offered. Although there is little indication
that faculty are unalterably wedded to the status quo, it is important to emphasize that most begin the conversation from a somewhat different mind-set. They may be eager to look at measures aimed at improving student preparation for college and open to those that focus on administrative
inefficiencies.

So what exactly did the faculty have to say about the challenges of higher education? Here are a few examples:

* To some degree it’s amazing that some of these students are actually given a high school diploma. You wonder what it was that they studied and learned and what was the whole basis other than seat time.

* I don’t know if they’ve been over-parented, or if they’re the millennium students who have
had the helicopter parents who hover and are there to take care of any little problem, but they just don’t really seem to be ready for the college atmosphere.

* Yep. We’ll be forced to lower standards and graduate more numbers. That’s why you get paid. You know what? You’re going to find ways to get that done.

There are several pages of this and it leaves one feeling that faculty, at least those interviewed for this report, are genuinely cynical about students and the future of higher education. Not only do they see under-prepared students as the problem, but they are skeptical about almost any plan to correct the problem. It all surprises me because I’ve come to know many faculty who are eternally optimistic about the potential of their students or who acknowledge that many students are under-prepared but that it’s the responsibility of the faculty, working collaboratively with librarians, tutors and other teaching and learning professionals, to help the students rise above their lack of preparation.

Academic librarians see their share of under-prepared students as well. They ask you questions at the reference desk or attend your instruction session. Who hasn’t encountered a student in an instruction session that doesn’t understand the difference between an article title and a journal title or has difficulty understanding the concept of a synonymous term. Do you silently cringe in disgust at the student’s lack of preparation or do you commit yourself to achieve a teachable moment? At my institution I understand that many of our students come from school districts where there are no libraries or librarians, where cut-and-paste Google research was accepted and even encouraged and that the joy of reading, owning books and visiting the public library may not have been family values. I’d like to think that academic librarians can participate in this debate about how to improve the quality and productivity of higher education. But when we do let’s be mindful that the issue of the under-prepared student is our challenge and opportunity – not our burden.

How We’re Walking the OA Walk

The good news about open access keeps coming. Here at ACRLog, we’ve followed the trend since Harvard’s Arts and Sciences faculty adopted an open access resolution. Boston university and MIT have made similar resolutions. Individual scholars like Danah Boyd have committed to making their work available online by boycotting publications that don’t allow it. And individual departments such as Stanford’s School of Education have stepped up. Recently Oregon State University librarians adopted an open access mandate, followed quickly by the University of Oregon. We’ve also been saddened when institutions fail to take up the cause. Yet, it seems to be movement on the move.

Well, at our last librarian’s meeting we adopted our own Open Access Pledge. It’s not as sophisticated as the ones that have been making news. We are a small library, with only six librarians, and we haven’t had the time or money to start up an institutional repository. We also, quite frankly, don’t have a terribly sophisticated grasp of all the OA arguments, the copyright issues, and the color choices. (Green? Gold? What about mauve?) We’ve also very, very busy trying to wrap up a big project, working with departments to make enough cuts that we can balance our budget next year – without scuttling our commitment to undergraduate research.

And that is precisely why it seemed time to take a stand, even if it’s not a sophisticated one. Our pledge is simply to make every effort to ensure that our scholarship is freely available online, either because the publisher posts its content online (as does Inside Higher Ed or Library Journal), it’s a truly OA journal, or because the publication agreement allows self-archiving, which most credible library publications do. We also pledge to do the work of self-archiving, which really isn’t a lot of trouble for librarians who are tweaking the web daily. It mystifies me that so few librarians can be bothered.

This wasn’t a simple decision. Half of the department is on the tenure track. Their continuing employment depends on establishing professional credibility through publication. But we feel strongly that this is the right thing to do, and that taking these simple steps won’t damage the ability of our emerging scholars to thrive.

We’ve submitted a sobering report about the library’s finances for our next faculty meeting. In the last paragraph we wanted to show one way that our choices, our individual actions, can honor the spirit of open inquiry. It’s the least we can do.

open - push
CC photo by dullhunk

Widespread Ignorance About Google B.S.

According to a story in this morning’s Chronicle, many scholars remain “wary” of the Google Book Search project. This is perhaps to be expected (many librarians are wary of it, too, although I prefer to think of our work more as “due diligence”), but more distressing is the conclusion drawn by Pamela Samuelson (UC Berkeley School of Information and Co-Director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology) that there is “widespread ignorance [among our colleagues] about the agreement and its implications for the future of scholarship and research.”

Samuelson and her co-authors note that several provisions of the proposed Google B.S. settlement “seem to run contrary to scholarly norms and open-access policies that we think are widely shared in scholarly communities.” In the Chronicle’s report of their concerns, one can see the potential benefit on campus of a robust scholarly communications education program, i.e., one that engages librarians, faculty members, graduate students, and others (e.g., University Press, Graduate College, Office of Research) in a discussion of issues such as author rights, copyright management, open access policies and publishing, and the library and the press and the leaders of scholarly societies and professional associations (who are also often on our campuses) as the pillars supporting a new vision of the university’s role in the dissemination of research and scholarship.

Is Samuelson right? Is there “widespread ignorance” on your campus regarding the implications of the Google Book Search settlement? Is this part of a broader “teachable moment” on your campus on scholarly communication issues and the resources that your library is ready to put in play to help faculty to better understand these issues and to understand both the potential of large-scale digitization programs for enhancing discovery of scholarly materials, and the implications that taking one or another direction on those programs may have for the process of scholarly communication? Will you be taking advantage of that teachable moment?

Quick quiz: when Google Scholar went live, many information literacy instruction programs began to offer workshops on how to use Google Scholar as part of the research process; how many of you with scholarly communication education programs are planning (or have already conducted) workshops on the broader implications of Google Book Search for local understanding of author rights, open access alternatives, use of Creative Commons, etc.? Have you shared resources such as ARL’s Guide for the Perplexed? Who have been your campus partners in developing such programs?

We’re academic librarians. “Widespread ignorance” is something we should be able to help to address!

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

Faculty Blog Round Up: Teaching with Technology

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago we put out a call for someone to be our new faculty blog correspondent. With this post I’d like to introduce Laura Wimberley, the librarian we’ve selected to keep us up-to-date on what’s happening in the faculty blogosphere. Laura works at the Medical Center Library at the University of California San Diego. In addition to her MLIS – which she just completed – she also has an MA and PhD in Political Science. Her research interests include information policy, scholarly communication, and collection development. In addition to her posts here, you can read her at Libri & Libertas. We look forward to Laura’s future posts.

Much of what’s going on with faculty is very similar to what’s going on with librarians: Conferences are great, highly specialized, but exhausting! Or: Why, oh why, do students not cite sources after we work so hard with them? These experiences, we know.

What we don’t usually observe is the teaching, and this is one of the parts we need to stay in tune with. Here I’ve highlighted three posts with really innovative technology teaching techniques – ideas that you might not have thought about how to support from the library. Or maybe you’re dying to include blogging, Wikipedia, and gaming, and you didn’t know how to find faculty who are doing it, too. Either way, here’s a sample.

Acephalous is the blog of Scott Eric Kaufman, who teaches English at the University of California Irvine; he also contributes to the faculty group blogs The Valve (mostly literature) and Edge of the American West (mostly history).

SEK is blogging with his students in his undergraduate writing course the Rhetoric of Heroism. Because the course relies so heavily on detailed analysis of film and other visual iconography, a blog with embedded images seems like a wonderful way to communicate the material. I expect they’re watching and discussing the films together in class, but images are usually not the kind of thing students are accustomed to taking notes on (especially in the dark).

Jeremy Boggs, who blogs at ClioWeb, is a graduate student in American history at George Mason University. He’s also creative lead at the Center for History and New Media, so it’s not too surprising that he’s willing to take on the bete noire – Wikipedia. In his undergraduate American History Survey course, he assigns students to not just use, but create, Wikipedia articles, including citating sources, monitoring for follow-up collaboration, and writing a reflective essay. One of his students wrote the article that developed into the entry for Living Newspapers.

Another history professor, Rob MacDougall of the University of Western Ontario, blogs at Old is the New New (with a charming original steampunk blog theme). Rob uses the game Civilization to frame the course Science, Technology, and Global History. He asks his students to write an essay that reconceptualizes technology not as a serial, linear progress of development – as the game depicts it – but in some other way. How could we play a game that thinks of history as more contingent or branching or cyclic?

In this assignment, the game is laying bare a lot of social assumptions we carry around without realizing, and making them something students can analyze. If you ever need to justify a games collection in your library, this kind of work is a stellar example of such a collection could do.