Monthly Archives: April 2011

Why All The Fuss Over PhD Academic Librarians

While no one has called it Trzeciakgate yet, I can’t help but see some similarities between what’s happening now with his presentation at Penn State University and the whole Michael Gorman firestorm (then labeled “Gormangate”) of 2005. Are you too new to the profession to remember Gormangate? You can read all about it here. Suffice to say that he said a few things that were considered controversial (and just plain insulting), and quite a few librarians took it personally – and reacted swiftly and loudly. If you want to quickly catch up on who’s contributed to the Trzecial controversy as well as its origins, this post at Sense and Reference sums things up nicely. An alternate opinion was offered over at On Furlough. I guess we like to have a nice, juicy controversy every now and then – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s brought about the attacks on what Trzeciak had to say? He stated that at McMaster, where he is the Dean, his plan is to limit the hiring of traditional MLS librarians while focusing more on hiring PhD subject specialists and information technology professionals. Claiming that you think PhDs can do library work better than professional librarians is apparently the library profession’s equivalent of grabbing the third rail. The reaction to Trzeciak’s vision is not unlike that of a politician who talks about cutting social security or Medicare. While the level of negativity was mildly disturbing to me, I did appreciate that many positive and encouraging themes and ideas about the value of academic librarians emerged from the conversation.

I guess what I found most surprising about all the hostility towards Trzeciak’s ideas is that a good part of what he said is hardly new, innovative or revolutionary. It appears that some academic librarians are unaware that CLIR has since 2006 offered a program that systematically creates positions in academic libraries – and not just ARLs – for PhD holders who have decided they want a career in a library. I reacted to this program here at ACRLog when it was first announced. It’s called the CLIR PostDoctoral Library Fellows Program, and it basically offer instant access to library positions for the Fellows – and it’s a highly competitive program. If you are a PhD who’s facing a depressed job market in your field, a career in academic libraries may look downright inviting.

So while Trzeciak is perhaps the first Library Dean who has publicly commented on the merits of this program and sees it as a potential blueprint for future staffing in academic libraries, he’s hardly the first one to hire non-MLS PhDs to take positions that MLS holders would have filled in the past. Looking back, some, not all of the CLIR Fellows go on to earn the MLS, and they’ve made good contributions to the library literature.

As Lane Wilkerson wrote in the post mentioned above:

So, Jeff Trzeciak, if you can find PhDs who would rather work in a library than as teaching faculty in their subject areas, more power to you. But, I doubt that’s going to be the future of librarianship.

Well guess what? Trzeciak doesn’t have to go very far to find those PhDs. With the support of the CLIR program, they’re lining up for jobs in our libraries – and getting them while MLS graduates sit on the sidelines. I don’t think it’s going to be THE future, but it’s going to be an unavoidable consequence of a future in which library deans will be looking for ways to incorporate new skill sets into their organizations. If you want to better understand why this happening, perhaps you ought to read Jim Neal’s article on “feral librarians” if you happened to miss it when first published in 2006. You can attack Trzeciak’s ideas if it makes you feel better, but he’s hardly the first to promote these them, and he won’t be the last.

Citations Needed

Yesterday there was a fascinating article on Inside Higher Ed about a presentation at the recent Conference on College Composition and Communication. The presentation reported on research undertaken by composition faculty members Rebecca Moore Howard and Sandra Jamieson in their Citation Project, which focuses on understanding how students approach their research writing to help instructors help students avoid plagiarism. Their research team reviewed 160 introductory English Composition papers from 16 diverse colleges and universities and found that the student papers they examined were full of “patchwriting” — the term they use to describe improper paraphrasing that’s essentially inadvertent plagiarism — and very short on true summarizing.

While the ways in which students incorporate sources into their writing was the primary focus of the study, the researchers also examined student understanding of sources. Here the evidence is equally bleak: students relied heavily on brief documents that were less than five pages long, and most of the material they cited could be found in the beginning of the source, within the first few pages. The Citation Project team found little evidence that students were engaging deeply and thoughtfully with their research sources, rather they were, as the IHE article is titled, skimming the surface.

As many librarians commented when this article link made the rounds on Twitter yesterday, this hardly comes as a shock to us — many of our encounters with students at the reference desk and during instruction sessions corroborate these findings. Still, I admit to a tiny bit of surprise that it seems like librarians were only barely mentioned at the conference presentation:

“Whatever else the Internet has done,” Jamieson continued, “it has made it easier to find sources and harder to tell what’s junk.”

Some in the audience said the findings point to the need to place greater emphasis on teaching students how to select proper sources. “It’s probably not far off to say that their sources are the first hits on Google,” one audience member observed.

Another commenter was not prepared to give up on the 20th-century expectations of student research and citation. “There’s some value to reminding students about the authority on certain subjects that are not in a digital archive,” she said. “What we’ve forgotten is that libraries were the repositories where people made judicious claims about what sources are worth reading.”

What does this mean for academic librarians? While I’m glad we were mentioned tangentially, it hurts a bit to see a faculty discussion about how awful students’ research sources are that doesn’t include librarians. At the recent ACRL Conference I heard lots about our relationships with faculty, which many of us still find to be unsatisfyingly one-sided. There are a variety of strategies we can (and are) try(ing), but everyone’s local conditions are different, and there doesn’t seem to be one silver bullet.

Two other relevant readings I came across yesterday might help. Kim Leeder on In the Library with the Lead Pipe shares practical advice in her post outlining five steps for collaborating with faculty. And Bobbi Newman lets us know about the Great Librarian Write-Out, in which Patrick Sweeney is awarding $250 to a librarian who writes an article about libraries that gets published in a non-library publication.

What other strategies could we try to collaborate with faculty to increase student engagement with research sources? Are there any strategies that have worked well for you?

Context Matters

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Catherine Pellegrino, Reference Librarian and Instruction Coordinator at Saint Mary’s College. She blogs at Spurious Tuples.

Ever since I went to ACRL’s Institute for Information Literacy Immersion program in the summer of 2009, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the library instruction session with no demonstrations of databases. “What?” you say, “how could that possibly work?” Well, there are lots of variations on this teaching model, but the basic idea is that students learn better by doing than by being lectured at, and many of our traditional-aged college students are very good at figuring out user interfaces. So you set them up in small groups, have them figure out the database(s) on their own, and then the small groups report back to the class as a whole.

I’ve heard anecdotal reports from other librarians that this method works very well for them, but when I tried it with the students at my small liberal arts college, it kind of flopped. In fact, our students almost seem to want to be told about things, rather than figure them out on their own. One of the comments that I get fairly regularly on post-session assessments is “I wish you had gone into more detail about [database].” So for now, I’m not doing no-demonstration classes, although I’d like to find a way to make it work for our students, on our campus. And thinking about how to make it work for our students got me thinking about larger issues of campus cultural contexts.

When Maura contacted me about writing this guest post, I had just returned from a visit to my friend Iris Jastram, who is a reference and instruction librarian at Carleton College in Minnesota. While there, I had noted some differences between Carleton’s students and the students at my own college. Those observations spawned a conversation between Iris and me, and got me thinking about those same issues of campus cultural contexts, and how they affect information literacy instruction. So that’s what I thought I’d write about here.

Iris writes, on her own blog and elsewhere, about some of the things she can do with her information literacy instruction: she can explain to students how scholars index their own literature, and how to use that internal indexing to the students’ advantage in searching efficiently and effectively. She also works with students to help them find ways to uncover the specialized vocabulary that researchers in their disciplines use — both so that they can use that vocabulary effectively when searching for scholarly literature, and also so that they can use it when entering into that scholarly conversation themselves.

In short, Iris is able to tap into a campus culture and mindset where Carleton students, regardless of their ultimate career plans, are able to conceptualize themselves as apprentice scholars, and she’s able to use that to do things in her classroom that don’t work in mine.

I work at Saint Mary’s College, a Catholic women’s liberal arts college in Notre Dame, Indiana (just outside of South Bend). On the surface, we’re very similar to Carleton: about 1400-1500 students, small liberal arts college in the Midwest. But under the surface, there are some key differences: our professional programs (education, business, social work, and nursing) account for a large number of our students, while Carleton has no professional programs. Nearly all of Saint Mary’s science majors enter with the intention of going on in health professions (about half of them keep that intention through graduation) while only a small fraction of them go on to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the sciences.

More importantly, though — and this is what I observed on my visit to the Gould Library — Carleton College has a campus culture of intense engagement, of students who dive into their studies with gusto, of students for whom whatever is in front of them right now is the most important thing they’re working on. It’s not necessarily that they’re smarter — and my friend Marianne Reddin Aldrich’s observations about the students at her own liberal arts college helped me frame this issue — it’s just a campus culture of being really into things, whether they’re academic or otherwise.

That’s something that Saint Mary’s doesn’t precisely have, or if our students have it, it’s not visible in the classroom. (Our students are very committed to a lot of things, including a lot of service and volunteer work, and their religion and personal faith development, so perhaps those areas are where it’s visible, but those aren’t areas that I see in the library or in the classroom.) So when Iris said that when she “geeks out” over some really cool, powerful, or obscure database tool, it establishes a bond between her and her students, I had to reply that when I geek out over a similar tool, it actually distances me from my students.

And that brings me to the point that all these conversations and observations led me to: a question about how to engage these students, on this campus. What motivates them? What gets them as 100% engaged as the students at Carleton and Colorado College? What pedagogical strategies enable them to learn independently in the classroom? And I realized that I really don’t know. I know a lot about what “they” (whoever “they” are) say about “millennials,” but I’m realizing that local campus and classroom cultures also have powerful effects on students and their learning. So I’m trying to figure out how I can learn more about what drives our students: one thing I’m planning to do is engage in a semi-structured program of observing master teachers on our campus by auditing classes. But I need to find more ideas and strategies.

What engages your students? And how did you find that out?

ACRL 2011: Walking The Talk

If you attended ACRL 2011 I hope you enjoyed it. I just completed the evaluation (be sure to complete it if you attended), and gave the conference high marks (disclosure: I co-chaired the keynotes committee). One of the things I really like about the ACRL conference is that it constantly evolves. A number of new initiatives were introduced this year. Some risks were taken, and some new things worked better than others. A few of the standbys may not be working as well as they used to. But it’s the way we want our own academic libraries to function – taking risks to try new things for the benefit of the end user – or in this case – you – the conference attendee. We have speakers who encourage us to take risks in the name of change. We read it in our literature. Be an innovator. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. You know the talk. Well, for me, the message of ACRL 2011 is that we need to walk the talk – and that’s just what ACRL did.

Take the choice of Clinton Kelly as the final keynote speaker. Not everyone agrees that this was a wise choice. For their final keynoter big library conferences usually go for NPR personalities, distinguished authors or highly recognized library advocates – especially if they are Hollywood personalities. Kelly is none of those. He’s the star of a TLC reality show. Not just any show but one with a strong message about personal change. Kelly shared seven rules for change, and spent more time on Q&A than most speakers. Maybe you liked it, maybe you didn’t. The point is that ACRL didn’t play it safe. They took a risk, and based on the reaction in the audience I’d say it was a risk well worth taking that paid off by giving attendees a great end to the conference.

Take the conference bag for example. For the years 2009 and 2007 ACRL conferences I’ve featured photos of the ACRL conference bag. Guess what? There is no ACRL conference bag in 2011. While I personally miss the bag – well not having it – just being able to critique it and provide a photo for you – I support the decision not to have one. The conference factsheet indicates that the members indicated that the bag just wasn’t necessary. We all have plenty of these bags. If you come to the conference and you really, really need a bag for your stuff, you can always find a vendor at the exhibits giving them away. And we all know librarians prefer to score exhibit hall swag anyway.

What else was new/different/risky? For example:

* Reduced time allowed for contributed papers from two 30-minute slots to three 20-minute slots. On the upside more librarians got to give a paper which is great. On the downside (experienced personally) it is tough to summarize months of research in 12 minutes – but constraints should bring out our creative side. Also on the upside, if the speaker is not so great, it won’t last long. I vote a thumbs up for this change. A risk worth taking.

* Introduction of the IdeaPower Unconference. I only got to one of these but it was packed. My take is that these are lightning talks with Q&A at the end. Sometimes I wasn’t exactly sure what the idea was, although I could tell it was about a project someone tried at their library. Whatever you thought of the presentations, it did give more attendees a chance to participate and present, and from what I heard this was really popular and well received. So this one gets a thumbs up too – not all that risky but it could have bombed.

* Moving the Cyber Zed Shed out of the Shed and into an actual conference room. While I understand the rationale for this – in 2007 and 2009 the CZS was packed to the gills – moving it to a regular room just seemed to take some of the wind out of the CZS sail. Maybe it was that it just didn’t have the “alternate conference” vibe that it used to. I’m going to give this a thumbs down. Either move it back into the exhibit hall or some weird spot or put it to rest. If you can’t get in because the area is small, well, there’s always another program. Again, not a huge risk but a change well worth trying.

*Heavy promotion of conference tweeting. This is not all that risky or groundbreaking these days. Seems like every library conference is judging itself by the volume of tweets it generates – and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Seems like we were just trying to encourage live blogging – but I think there are hardly any blog posts about the conference at all – and I think that’s our loss. I read that the conference generated approximately 8,500 tweets. I did attend two sessions where presenters asked attendees to tweet back responses relevant to the presentation. In at least one of them an attendee protested that he didn’t have a twitter account, and therefore couldn’t participate.

I guess my thinking on this is that if everyone is tweeting about the presentations during the presentations – is anyone really paying attention to what the presenters are saying. I know all the tweeters will say they multi-task well and can tweet and listen. Not me. I was tweeting when asked to, and I know for a fact that I missed something the presenter said because other people were chuckling and I had no clue. There’s no way I would even have attempted to tweet during Jaron Lanier’s keynote – I didn’t want to miss a word he said. Yet other folks were tweeting a plenty. I’m sure they missed something. A presentation of mine didn’t get much tweeting action. I don’t know what that means. Maybe I gave nothing to tweet about. Maybe I kept the audience so engaged that they didn’t want to stop and tweet. I hope it’s the latter. Anyway, I think I’ll do more listening and less tweeting – to me you start tweeting when you are bored and need a distraction to keep yourself engaged. Next time, let’s have a conference with such great speakers that the number of tweets actually goes down. So I turn my thumb sideways on this one. Great for those who like it, but forgettable for those who would rather listen to the talks without distraction or who don’t have a twitter account. Who the heck even knows how we’ll be communicating electronically in 2013.

Speaking of 2013, ACRL 2013 will be in Indianapolis – an up and coming city with a vibrant downtown (I was just there two weeks ago so I know). Will they go with “Start Your Engine – Racing to Our Future” as the Conference theme (Indy 500 – get it). Who knows? One thing I do know is that ACRL is the type of conference that doesn’t rest on its laurels. There will be changes. There will be evolution. Risks will be taken. You can count on it.