All posts by Veronica Arellano Douglas

On Critical Habits of Mind

This semester I’ve been working with a First Year Seminar on Business Ethics & Corporate Responsibility. For their semester-long research assignment, each student selected a company from the 2016 Forbes Most Ethical Companies list. They were asked to investigate the company’s relationship to its customers, employees, the environment, and international suppliers (if applicable), and how these relationships reinforce or undermine the company’s values, ethics, and/or statements of corporate responsibility. It’s an amazing assignment developed by one of our college’s philosophy professors, one that is ripe for critical thinking, questioning, and information literacy.

Two weeks ago I met with the students in this class for a second time. I want to check-in with them and facilitate a workshop where they could ask questions, share concerns, and discuss their information needs. As with many library classes, what I thought students would need and what they ended up needing were not quite the same thing. The students in this class overwhelmingly needed help developing critical questions, and by that I mean questions that interrogate the public image that companies put forth into the world.

How does your company treat its employees?

Oh you know, good. They say they value them.

But what does valuing an employee mean? Do they pay a living wage? What are their benefits like? Do they offer paid parental leave? Childcare? Do they negotiate fairly with unions? Do they offer flexible schedules? Do they practice inclusion in recruitment and retention? Is diversity and comfort of employees a top priority?

The list goes on and on.

I realize that part of the ease with which I develop these questions comes from being a working adult, but a bigger part of my ability to do this comes from the critical habits of mind I’ve worked to develop over the years. I’ve reached a point where I just can’t turn my critical consciousness off (nor would I want to do so), but I recognize that not all students are quite there yet. Learning to ask questions, to interrogate information you read, takes time.

So we practiced.

We spent much of the class thinking of different questions to ask about each company in relation to each of its stakeholders. Things like, Where are they manufacturing their products? to What kinds of advertising do they practice? Students dutifully wrote these questions down and began to think about how they might apply to their research of their selected company, then I got a question I get all the time, but in this particular context, surprised me:

How do we know if the information we find is credible? How do we know if it’s good?

We’d just spent the majority of the class period interrogating  company statements of corporate responsibility and asking difficult questions about their companies’ actions in relation to their stated values and ethics. But students couldn’t continue that line of questioning to the information sources they were finding in online news outlets, websites, and library databases. I got lots of “if it’s from a .com site it’s not credible,” when all of our major news outlets end in .com. Or, and this one is always my favorite, “it’s based on unbiased facts, not someone’s opinion,” which is, of course, all kinds of problematic.

These exchanges reinforced my long-held belief that critical questioning is hard. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, but rather, it’s something we practice day in and day out. I finally stopped the students and said that “good” sources are hard to categorize, and that it’s really up to us to do our due diligence. The SAME way you are really digging deep into your companies and investigating them online is what you should be doing for EVERY INFORMATION SOURCE YOU FIND. Who is the author or publisher? What do you know about them? What is the point of view this piece is trying to share? How might this be helpful to you? What kinds of other information sources is this piece citing, agreeing with or refuting?

Checklists are easy. Questions are hard. It’s important that we facilitate opportunities for our students to practice critical questions, I would say, particularly NOW more than ever. We need to pick apart statements that are made on campaign trails and rallies, question narrow-minded views of the world, and challenge anti-everything populist rhetoric. Critical questioning is not just an information literacy or academic skill, it’s a life practice and habit of mind we’ll need in the years to come.

When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.

I Want You to Like Me

I know, intellectually, how naive it is to assume that other people, especially students, are here to help me fulfill myself—naive at best and arrogant at worst. But . . . my own growth as a teacher requires that I face such awkward facts. To become a better teacher, I must nurture a sense of self that both does and does not depend on the responses of others—and that is a true paradox.

–Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 73

I’d be lying if I said I entered my library classroom with no care for what the students think of me. As much as I want them to critically question and engage with the information we’ll be discussing over the next 1-2 hours, I also want them to like me. I want them to think I am approachable, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and if they happen to think I’m witty, that’s just icing on the cake.

I can admit this now, but would not have dreamed of sharing this desire early in my library career. My conception of the classroom then was as a space where individual needs and wants were secondary to the higher pursuit of learning. I would have told you my class was student-centered, learning-outcome-driven, and that my own needs and wants didn’t enter into my teaching. It would have been a bald-faced lie.

Silence in the classroom was difficult for me to stomach, and still is–I just handle it better now. I feel happiest when I have a good rapport with students in class, when I see them smile at me, when we share a laugh or two. There’s a big dollop of ego and narcissism that enters into the classroom with me, and if I don’t acknowledge it, if I try to negate it, it just works itself into the learning setting in insidious ways.

Parker Palmer’s vignette about his classroom interaction with the “Student from Hell” is one I come back to again and again. (You can find it in The Courage to Teach.) In it, he tries everything in his teaching arsenal to get one young man to engage with not just the material, but with him. He does so to the detriment of all other students in the room, so focused was he on getting this one student to like him, and ends up ending the class in a “black hole” of self-pity and doubt. Later he learns that the “Student from Hell” was in the middle of a difficult family situation that was putting a strain on his academic work and threatening to end his college career. It’s a powerful story, one that highlights the interplay between two persons with unique perspectives, experiences, and emotions and how these subjectivities meet in the classroom.

The classroom is not an unemotional place. It’s a space made up of human beings, teachers and students, who through their interactions can shape and influence one another’s identities and experiences. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks specifically addresses the denial of emotion and ego that so many teachers feel they must do in order create a truly “intellectual space,” and how it’s ultimately detrimental to the learning experience. An intellectual space is made up of people, and as people, we want to connect. We want to build relationships and forge friendships. Fear of rejection is powerful. There are moments when teaching can feel scary, because it’s not just about what you are teaching, it’s about you as a person and a teacher, and about your students as people. In some ways this is far more pronounced for librarians, who have a limited window in which to create meaningful connections with students.

I’ve found that acknowledging my own desire to be liked in the classroom and understanding the impact it has on my identity as a teacher has been incredibly freeing. I’m able to say, “you feel like that class was terrible because you didn’t quite feel a connection with the students, but maybe it wasn’t so bad.” I’m also able to think about the ways in which feeling like I have a classroom full of pals might lead me to think students are learning more than they are actually retaining. It’s a strange paradox, as Parker Palmer puts it, but it’s one that I’m willing to own up to these days.

Bite-sized Change

Editor’s Note: We welcome Veronica Arellano-Douglas to the ACRLog team. Veronica is a Research and Instruction Librarian at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Her research interests include critical librarianship, information literacy, and pedagogy; graphic design and visual communication in libraries; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS.

For years I believed that for change to have any kind of impact, it had to be drastic. I place the blame for this misapprehension squarely on the shoulders of cable TV producers and women’s magazine editors, who seem to have an uncanny ability to tap into the power transformation holds over the human psyche.  

Watch an exhausted working mom’s stunning makeover! See this outdated kitchen become a chef’s dream space! Read about the man who went from couch to triathlon in just 3 months!

I suppose I share some of the blame as well. No one forced me to watch hours of HGTV and What Not to Wear, and yet the promise of drastic change lured me in every time I turned on the TV. There’s inspiration that comes from seeing extreme transformation. It can teach us to dream big and marvel at the amazing capacity humans have for change. It can also be paralyzing. It can overwhelm us with the enormity of the process of change and leave us feeling like we’ll never live up to our potential.

How does change begin?

My library has been in a period of transition over the past few years. Expected retirements, unexpected departures, well-deserved parental leaves, and new additions have all had a significant impact on our library services and the day-to-day work of our library faculty and staff.  Understandably, we’ve been in reaction-mode for a while now–trying to maintain our core mission while deflecting potential negative impacts on services and workflow.

This last academic year was different. It was time for a change of our own making.

Although we continued to tread water in our daily practice, my colleagues and I decided to take a more proactive approach to our relationship with our students. Knowing that our Anthropology faculty frequently collaborated with campus units on ethnographic research projects for its majors, in fall 2015 we offered ourselves and the Library as “clients” to students in an Applied Anthropology course. Our intent was the learn more about the students at our quirky, small, public, liberal arts, honors college. We wanted to know more about how they integrate the library’s resources into their academic work, interact with librarians, and use the library space throughout their day. Working under the guidance and mentorship of their professor and experienced researcher Dr. Bill Roberts, the Applied Anthropology students created research questions, determined which ethnographic research methods would best answer those questions, and carried out the methods with us–the librarians–as additional researchers.

It was participatory action research at its best. Librarians and students were both researchers and research “subjects,” continuously making meaning from discussions with one another and modifying research questions as new information was gathered. Everyone had a stake in this project. The anthropology faculty member and students were so enthused that they continued their work in a new class in the spring and will likely take it up again this coming fall. You can read more about the project and our specific methods on our Library Ethnography Project Libguide.

What do we do with all this information?

This ethnographic project was meaningful as an act of collaboration and as an opportunity for faculty, students, and librarians to learn from one another. But it was also important to all of us that this process be practical, that it produce data that would lead to positive change for the library and students. Or, in the words of one of my amazing colleagues, “So… we’re actually doing to do something with this information, right?”

Right. But what exactly should we do?

Qualitative data (the kind gathered from surveys, focus groups, and free-listing) is big, unwieldy, and complex. It can feel intimidating and overwhelming. It’s easy to give into the mistaken belief that just because the project itself was big–lots of time, lots of people involved–the changes it inspires need to be equally big. There’s pressure to create the kind of dramatic transformation that would lead to a research article, a feature in Library Journal, or a mention in AL Direct.

But change doesn’t have to be big to be impactful.  

One of our project collaborators, a cataloger by training, grouped and categorized much of the qualitative information gleaned from our open-ended survey questions and focus groups into “actionable issues.” (Annie Armstrong, Catherine Lantz, Annie Pho, and Glenda Insua gave a fantastic presentation at LOEX 2016 on action coding, or coding qualitative information for change if you’re interested in learning more about this practice.) What was most surprising to us was the mundanity of the issues and concerns our students brought up again and again:

  • The temperature in the building is erratic and uncomfortable.
  • Our discovery layer is confusing and unhelpful at times.
  • There are never enough outlets available.
  • It is not clear where certain things are located in the library or what services are available.
  • Reservations for group study rooms are confusing.
  • The library is too loud.

There were of course, other issues, but you can see that the over all theme centers around quite small, ground-level, day-to-day issues. They don’t require a giant library renovation or a complete overhaul of services, but they do inspire change. Through this project, we’ve learned that there are small things we can change about our library and our work that can positively impact our students’ experiences in the library. Things like

  • Designating a portion of our 2nd floor as quiet study space.
  • Posting daily reservation schedules on our group study room doors.
  • Creating aesthetically-pleasing and cohesive signage for our library.
  • Changing our implementation of the default discovery layer settings.
  • Creating monthly PSAs and advertising campaigns highlighting specific library services, parts of the collection, or aspects of the building.
  • Making more extension cords available around the building for student use.

These are our immediate responses to things that are directly under our control. They aren’t earth-shattering, but we think they’ll make a difference to our students and be noticeable to them in the fall. We also have long-term actions we’d ultimately like to see happen, but we aren’t letting the need for radical transformation prevent us from making the small, necessary changes that are easy for a small library like ours.

There’s still another month left before our students return and classes begin, and we’re using the time to carry out some of the actions listed above. What kind of changes (big or small) have you implemented or discussed in your library this summer?