All posts by Jennifer Jarson

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

Small Steps, Big Picture

As I thought about composing a blog post this week, I felt that familiar frustration of searching not only for a good idea, but a big one. I feel like I’m often striving (read: struggling!) to make space for big picture thinking. I’m either consumed by small to-do list items that, while important, feel piecemeal or puzzling over how to make a big idea more precise and actionable. So it feels worthwhile now, as I reflect back on the semester, to consider how small things can have a sizable impact.

I’m recalling, for example, a few small changes I’ve made to some information evaluation activities this semester in order to deepen students’ critical thinking skills. For context, here’s an example of the kind of activity I had been using. I would ask students to work together to compare two sources that I gave them and talk about what made the sources reliable or not and if one source was more reliable than the other. As a class, we would then turn the characteristics they articulated into criteria that we thought generally make for reliable sources. It seemed like the activity helped students identify and articulate what made those particular sources reliable or not and permitted us to abstract to evaluation criteria that could be applied to other sources.

While effective in some ways, I began to see how this activity contributed to, rather than countered, the problem of oversimplified information evaluation. Generally, I have found that students can identify key criteria for source evaluation such as an author’s credentials, an author’s use of evidence to support claims, the publication’s reputation, and the presence of bias. Despite their facility with naming these characteristics, though, I’ve observed that students’ evaluation of them is sometimes simplistic. In this activity, it felt like students could easily say evidence, author, bias, etc., but those seemed like knee-jerk reactions. Instead of creating opportunities to balance a source’s strengths/weaknesses on a spectrum, this activity seemed to reinforce the checklist approach to information evaluation and students’ assumptions of sources as good versus bad.  

At the same time, I’ve noticed that increased attention to “fake news” in the media has heightened students’ awareness of the need to evaluate information. Yet many students seem more prone to dismiss a source altogether as biased or unreliable without careful evaluation. The “fake news” conversation seems to have bolstered some students’ simplistic evaluations rather than deepen them.

In an effort to introduce more nuance into students’ evaluation practices and attitudes, then, I experimented with a few small shifts and have so far landed with revisions like the following.

Small shift #1 – Students balance the characteristics of a single source.
I ask students to work with a partner to evaluate a single source. Specifically, I ask them to brainstorm two characteristics about a given source that make it reliable and/or not reliable. I set this up on the board in two columns. Students can write in either/both columns: two reliable, two not reliable, or one of each. Using the columns side-by-side helps to visually illustrate evaluation as a balance of characteristics; a source isn’t necessarily all good or all bad, but has strengths and weaknesses.

Small shift #2 – Students examine how other students balance the strengths and weaknesses of the source.
Sometimes different students will write similar characteristics in both columns (e.g., comments about evidence used in the source show up in both sides) helping students to recognize how others might evaluate the same characteristic as reliable when they see it as unreliable or vice versa. This helps illustrate the ways different readers might approach and interpret a source.

Small shift #3 – Rather than develop a list of evaluation criteria, we turn the characteristics they notice into questions to ask about sources.
In our class discussion, we talk about the characteristics of the source that they identify, but we don’t turn them into criteria. Instead we talk about them in terms of questions they might ask of any source. For example, they might cite “data” as a characteristic that suggests a source is reliable. With a little coaxing, they might expand, “well, I think the author in this source used a variety of types of evidence – statistics, interviews, research study, etc.” So we would turn that into questions to ask of any source (e.g., what type(s) of evidence are used? what is the quantity and quality of the evidence used?) rather than a criterion to check off.

Despite their smallness, these shifts have helped make space for conversation about pretty big ideas in information evaluation: interpretation, nuance, and balance. What small steps do you take to connect to the big picture? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

We’re All Ears: Learning By Listening

This post has been co-authored by Maura Smale and Jen Jarson.

The context

Jen: I started a new job at a new institution about two and a half weeks ago after 11 years at my previous institution. This new institution is rather different than my former one. That was a residential, small liberal arts college. This is a small commuter campus that’s part of a huge system. My new job has more administrative responsibilities, too. I learned new things every day in my previous position, of course, but there is something quite different about the blank slate of coming in to a new institution and a new position. So much to learn, so much to do, and so little context or history to help light the way.

Maura: I’ve been a library faculty member at my college for 9 years, three of those as director of the library. But like Jen, right now I find myself in a period of settling in to something changed. I was out on a research sabbatical for six months–most of this calendar year–beginning in early February and returning to the library just last week. I’m in the same job and institution, though the day to day rhythm of my work is vastly different than it was a few weeks ago. As I’ve been settling back in (and trying to remember where I left things in the folders and drawers in my office) I’ve been struck by the similarities to starting a new job. I still have my institutional and historical context, but there’s lots for me to learn (and relearn), too.

What are (the right) questions to ask when you’re trying to (re)learn about a job/institution?

Maura: Since I got back I’ve been arranging meetings with my colleagues to catch up on last semester and their work, and sometimes feel like the questions I’ve asked are quite similar to those I asked when I first became Chief Librarian. What have you been working on? How’re your projects, research, and other work going? Have you hit any roadblocks? Is there any support I can offer? I’m grateful to all of my colleagues, especially my colleague who served as interim director when I was out, for keeping everything running in the Spring. But because nothing is ever truly static there were a few unexpected situations and opportunities that came up while I was away. Learning about those really is like having a new job (though in the same organizational context), especially coming up to speed on new projects in the library for this academic year that hadn’t yet appeared on the horizon before I left on leave.

Jen: I, too, am trying to meet with as many of my new colleagues as I can. For me, that includes library and non-library folks at my local campus, as well as folks in the libraries at other campuses. To prepare for each meeting, I take stock of my running list of questions and choose those that seem most relevant to that person or group. As I look over this list now, I recognize that the questions are a mix of specific (such as, what assessments of student learning outcomes have been done recently?) and open-ended (for example, tell me about your work and responsibilities, how do you think students perceive the library?, what could the library be doing to better meet students’ needs?). Both types of questions provide me with useful information and open avenues for exploration. While the nature or phrasing of some lines of inquiry are likely more productive than others, just showing a sincere interest in others’ goals and challenges and seeking opportunities for alignment and collaboration feels like an important part of what makes this kind of outreach fruitful.

What should we listen for when in meetings, either individually or with committees or teams, both inside and outside the library?

Maura: Listening is important–I’m always working to improve my listening skills (and I think it’s a lifelong process, at least for me). In coming back after sabbatical I’m reminding myself to listen as much as I can: in one on one meetings, in committees, in casual conversations. I’ve been spending some time walking around the library and campus to listen, too, though since our semester hasn’t begun yet it’s still fairly quiet. Typically in conversations we focus on the topic at hand, and I’m reminding myself to listen with both ears open. I’m trying to pay extra attention, not just to the specific task being discussed but to projects and processes in the library as a whole.

Jen: Like Maura, I’m trying to listen on a number of levels. I’m listening for actionable improvements and opportunities, whether in the here-and-now or in the near or distant future. I’m also listening to uncover further questions I should be asking, those that I haven’t yet been able to fathom. I’m listening to understand priorities and goals and challenges and how the library plays a role in supporting or addressing them. I’m listening to figure out how the many moving parts of this large organization fit together and how to navigate and communicate best within and across it. I’m trying to listen for what the other person is really saying, rather than only what I expect or assume they’re telling me. I’m listening for the moments and places where our interests intersect and where we can best collaborate to advance student learning.

What questions do you think are most important to ask when you start a new position or return after time away? What do you wish a new/returning colleague would ask you? What do you find most important to listen for? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like?

Perhaps you, too, have been following some of the recent instances of student shaming and blaming. I’m referring particularly to the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the author suggests a fictional student is lying about a grandmother’s death as a way to get out of finals. I’m also referring to the session at the 2017 ACRL conference in which a few presenters disparagingly referred to their students as “our sweet dum-dums.” Even just a sample of the incisive commentaries on these and similar instances of student shaming (check out, for example, pieces from Acclimatrix, Jesse Stommel, Jordan Noyes, Joshua Eyler, and Veronica Arellano Douglas to name a few) illustrate how incongruous this talk is with the very real empathy, care, and respect I know we have for our students.

We could dissect the problems that are at the core of these troublesome statements further. We could discuss what happens when we talk like this and why it’s imperative that we don’t. We could reflect on the times we’ve inadvertently said regrettable things ourselves. But what I’m more interested to think about now is how we exercise our empathy, care, and respect for students, and how we can do it better still. What does it mean to keep students at the center of our library practice?

I think it’s worth checking in with the significant history and usage of the term “student-centered” in pedagogical contexts. There, we might see the concept phrased as “student-centered learning,” particularly when contrasted against “teacher-centered learning.” We might sometimes see it called “student-centered teaching” or “learner-centered education.” While these terms might indicate slightly different philosophical orientations, they are essentially variations of the same.

Maryellen Weimer says that learner-centered education is about learning skills for learning, alongside content. It requires learners to reflect on the what and the how of their learning. It invites students as collaborators and leaders of their learning. Learner-centered education, or student-centered education, changes the balance of power and control. “The goal of learner-centered teaching,” Weimer writes, “is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulating learners” (p. 10). In the learner-centered environment, learners have a lot of responsibility and, as Phyllis Blumberg asserts, the instructor’s role “shift[s] . . . from givers of information to facilitators of student learning or creators of an environment for learning” (p. xix).

When we talk about student-centered, then, we’re talking about engaging students in high-impact practices and with skills and resources that contribute to their learning and help them continue to learn. We’re talking about helping students succeed and continue to be successful. We’re talking about empowering our students to be active agents in their own learning.

Student-centered is a guiding principle by which we chart our path. Student-centered is an attitude or a disposition, a way of working.

A student-centered way of working means practicing empathy for students. It means inviting students to co-construct meaningful learning experiences and environments. It also means challenging our students to think deeply, critically. It means challenging them to challenge their assumptions and themselves, and to go further.

A student-centered lens on our library practice means enhancing the role of assessment in our decision-making and improvement, asking what kind of impact we are having (or not having) on student learning and success. It means enhancing student voices in our decision-making, inviting their input in formal and informal ways. This way of working means cultivating an attitude of flexibility, innovation, and improvement. It means collaborating across a library, across an institution.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Building OER Momentum with a Mini-Grant Program

At my institution, we’ve been talking more about open education in the past year. Open access has long been on our agenda, but open education is such a large umbrella. We’ve begun to bring other open education-related work to the fore.

I wrote about open pedagogy in the context of information literacy in a blog post this past fall, while reflecting on Jim Groom’s visit to our campus for our Domain of One’s Own launch. Earlier this semester, Robin DeRosa came to campus to help us grow the conversation around open pedagogy and open educational resources (OER). My colleague, Lora Taub-Pervizpour, shared some curated articles and videos in two great posts (here and here) as our community prepared for Robin’s visit. These conversations have helped us focus in on our motivations for deepening our OER work. Helping to reduce financial burdens/barriers for our students by lowering textbook/course materials costs is a significant motivator for our OER interest, as is often the case. But the pedagogical opportunities OER can help to create are particularly energizing for our community, so deeply invested in teaching. (Check out David Wiley’s recent posts “How is Open Pedagogy Different?” and “When Opens Collide” for some interesting discussion on open pedagogy.)

As open education efforts on our campus continue, my colleagues and I are planning to launch a small grant initiative to help build momentum. We are imagining these stipends as a way to support faculty/instructors interested in adopting, adapting, and creating OER for their courses. We are also excited about the pedagogical possibilities that OER work might offer, so I’m particularly enthusiastic about the option we’re including to support the development of assignments in which students collaborate in the OER work of the course.

We’re developing the application guidelines and evaluation criteria for this grant initiative now. A few searches easily turn up helpful examples of such initiatives at a range of institution types: American University, Bucknell University, College of William & Mary, Davidson College, Old Dominion University, University of Kansas, and Utah State University, to name a few. These have been helpful in informing how we’re shaping and framing our application and outreach process. But I’m particularly eager to hear reflections on the successes, challenges, and outcomes of the work from those who have already taken a lap around this track. I recently revisited Sarah Crissinger’s thoughtful and helpful reflections on her OER work with faculty (part 1, part 2, part 3). Yet I’m eager for more and find myself wondering about your thoughts. I expect many of you have experience administering OER-related initiatives with similar goals. If so, how have you framed your program? What have you found to be important to your success? What barriers have you encountered? Or perhaps you are someone who has participated in this kind of initiative (or would like to). If so, what kinds of guidelines or support were (or would be) most useful? I would love to hear about your experiences and thoughts in the comments.