Category Archives: Higher Education

Postings about the higher education industry.

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.

Lingering Lockout Questions

It’s been a week since the faculty — including library faculty — at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus returned to the Fall semester. Just before the semester began, they were locked out by the university administration when their contract expired and before they could vote on a new contract. I know many of the librarians at LIU, some were formerly at my own university (City University of New York), and I count them as both colleagues and friends. I also live and work very close to the campus; I walk right by it on my way home each day.

While news of the lockout was initially slow to break, after the first few days both mainstream and education news began to run coverage of the lockout. If you weren’t following the lockout as it happened, you can catch up on the websites of my local paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and our own Barbara Fister’s great piece on Inside Higher Ed. And for a thoughtful discussion of the end of the lockout and future concerns, I recommend Emily Drabinski’s interview in Jacobin Magazine. Emily is both a librarian and the secretary of the faculty union (and, full disclosure, a friend); her Twitter updates were instrumental in getting the media attention that the lockout deserved.

I’m so relieved for the librarians, other faculty, and students that the lockout is over, that I no longer see police fences to corral protesters when I walk home past LIU’s campus. But I’m left with lots of questions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’d been a member of CUNY’s faculty union when I was Instruction Coordinator, the only union job I’ve ever had. As a Chief Librarian I’m now on the management side, since mine is a title that’s excluded from the union. CUNY has had its own lengthy contract negotiation process, settled only this past summer after the old contract expired in 2010. But I realized over the past few weeks that I know little about unions, the history of labor, and the impact on librarians and libraries. I care very much about library workers — at my place of work and libraries generally — and it’s clear I have work to do to learn more.

I’m also left with questions like “what’s next?” Certainly LIU’s faculty and administration go back to the bargaining table to begin contract negotiations again. But what’s next for academic libraries? For higher education more generally, at institutions with and without a union? When faculty are replaced (even temporarily) and students walk out, is the college still doing the work of a college?

Breaking Big: Transitioning from Small to Large Academic Libraries

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Michael Rodriguez, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut.

Navigating the transition from large to small academic library employers, or vice versa, can be challenging. Early-career librarians in particular can find themselves navigating radically new landscapes: specialized, bureaucratic, and complex.

Recently I moved from a small, career-focused, private, nonprofit institution in Florida, to a large, tier-one public research university in New England. Now six months along my new path, I am ready to share some generalizations and guidance about navigating the transition from small private to large public universities and libraries. (For the opposite path, check out Seven Keys to Switching from a Big Company to a Small One—yes, it’s a Harvard Business Review piece, but the advice applies equally to librarians.)

Scaling Size

Large public universities are vast and complex. Libraries can be six stories high and filled with millions of volumes. A hundred staff and student assistants may be working inside the building during business hours. Millions of dollars may be spent on collections and salaries. Contrast this with smaller universities, where the library may boast four staff, a $250,000 budget, and one big room lined with eighteen thousand volumes and branded “the library.” A difference of 25,000 students is another huge numerical contrast.

Imagine changing jobs from one to the other of these environments. Maybe you already have. Either way, this can be a stunning adjustment. Example 1: Walking from parking lot to office takes twenty times longer at my massive public university than it did at my small private university. Example 2: I still manage electronic resources, but my budget is fifty times larger. Example 3: I used to negotiate e-resource licenses solo; now we have attorneys who write five pages of state-mandated provisions into all new contracts.

How to thrive in a larger environment? Chunk your experience into bite-sized pieces. One hundred colleagues to get to know? Set up meetings with each of them in turn, and then allocate time each week to walk about and schmooze. Many complex projects to manage concurrently? Start using Evernote, Trello, a notepad, or other tracking tool to divide your projects into manageable tasks and triage them according to stakeholder impact. Rethink goals as forward momentum. Reassess priorities, eliminate redundancy and excess, and clean up data and processes. Like Thoreau, “simplify, simplify.”

Personalizing Bureaucracy

Small universities are intimate to the point of claustrophobic. You know a great many of the professors and students by name, you work closely with each colleague, and you run into the college president at the neighborhood bakery. In contrast, your large university is a bureaucracy, “effective through its mass rather than through its agility,” notes Peter Drucker. Generally you will need to navigate layer after layer of approval and mediation. Destroying 20-year-old papers requires permission from the state capital. Managers ask you to make appointments to see them. Implementing innovations can take way longer than they should because of the many stakeholders you must consult or persuade.

How to thrive amid bureaucracy? Accept that change is slower in complex environments and that large universities value consensus, whereas small organizations can just decide. So stay patient, but bring your enthusiasm and energy. Bureaucracy tends to sap drive from its members, so as a newcomer setting a faster pace, your drive adds value to the organization. And if you counter-interviewed your search committee as rigorously as they interviewed you, your new colleagues will appreciate you and your vitality.

This brings us to the key point: personalizing working relationships enables us to break through bureaucratic barriers. Be tough and hard-driving, on yourself above all, but be genuine, kind, and helpful too—and do not allow your frustration with the bureaucracy cause you to become frustrated with the people trapped in it. You’re new, and that fact will help you build positive relationships with even the most challenging personalities.

Broadening Scope

Isolation is a byproduct of specialization in large, complex organizations. Small-library staff may do reference, instruction, web design, budgets, resource management, etc. Large-library staff are generally hired for a specialized role. This is fine. The problem is that you can do your job without interacting much with folks outside your immediate working group. This is true for instruction librarians as much as it is for catalogers.

This hyper-specialization is ultimately pernicious. If you do not collaborate or socialize with a broad spectrum of colleagues, or understand how users engage with the services you provide, then you are isolated, not specialized. Isolation’s effects can be personal, such as loneliness and loss of motivation. Or they can be work-related. If people do not know you, they will not know to respect you. You will (A) lack control over the direction of your work, and (B) fail to exercise influence outside your cubicle walls.

The key is to broaden the scope of your specialized work. Start by applying or acquiring expertise in areas related to your specialization. For example, if you manage eresources, then get a handle on user experience. If you teach, then study up on open educational resources. Do not try to take over other people’s jobs—rather, identify service gaps of which to take ownership. Wrangle appointments to committees and task forces beyond the scope of your immediate duties. Gently, persistently remind your supervisors of the intersections between your work and others’. Communicate openly and frequently. Be transparent with internal stakeholders. Embrace interconnectivity. You’ll thrive.

Michael Rodriguez is an Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, which has fifteen times as many students and fifty times the operating budget of Hodges University in Florida, where he formerly served as E-Learning Librarian.

Critical Information Literacy for First-Generation College Students

Last week, I re-read James Elmborg’s seminal article “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice” as part of a homework assignment for an upcoming ACRL Immersion workshop. Every time I read it I engage with the text from a different perspective, and I always learn something new. It had been over a year since my last reading—during which I completed my first year as a reference and instruction librarian—and critical librarianship feels less theoretical and more intuitive to me now. In other words, as I read the article through the lens of my first year experiences, I reflected on the practical applications of critical information literacy in the classroom, behind the reference desk, and in the development of asynchronous materials.

After reading the article, I thought about all of the times I have messed up during an instruction session—not pushing back on instructors who insist that a librarian’s “job” is to present a laundry list of skills-based concepts during a thirty-minute one-shot session, making assumptions about students, and neglecting to discuss the lack of alternative ideas in the traditional peer-review process. But I also reflected on the aspects of critical information literacy that inherently have been part of my philosophy since day one, such as focusing on student-centered learning, admitting (and explicitly stating) to students that I am not an expert, and telling students “I don’t know, maybe we can find an answer together” when stumped by a question. Most important, this reading of Elmborg’s article spurred me to think more pedagogically about my work with first-generation college students (FGCS).

Critical lens. If we perceive education as a “profoundly political activity” and value librarianship as guided by a “student-centered educational philosophy,” then thinking critically about who our students are is arguably one of the most important parts of our jobs (p. 193). At my institution, approximately fifteen percent of the student body consists of FGCS, which equates to approximately 6,000 students. Expecting FGCS to seamlessly assimilate into the traditionally white elite sociocultural environment of a large private university (like mine) is negligent at best. There are many campus stakeholders who understand this and work with FGCS from the beginning of orientation week to them help navigate the social, cultural, political, and financial waters of my institution. But, there is still so much work to be done, especially within the realm of library instruction.

One of my favorite quotes from Elmborg’s article underscores the barriers that schools (and the libraries within them) need to overcome when reaching out to FGCS:

“Rather than define these students (those outside of an idealized student body) as ‘deficient,’ we might ask whether schools and curriculums themselves are a large part of the problem, especially when they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right. Indeed one of the primary challenges for contemporary education is to find ways to make it possible for all students to succeed, not just those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

So what does this mean for library instruction, which is the primary way that many students at my institution connect to the library? We must first assert our roles as educators. This not only helps us to gain more trust and authority from disciplinary faculty, but it grounds our fundamental purpose. As an educator, my most vital missions are bridging the gap between student and teacher, and breaking down the traditional role of educators as authoritative figures that perpetuate the banking cycle of neoliberal education. And for students whose parents or guardians did not attend or did not complete college, this endeavor becomes even more pressing.

I make my first attempt at chipping away from these traditional roles by telling students that the classroom facilitates a conversation, not a lecture. I also tell students to call me by my first name (sometimes students become visibly uncomfortable with this prospect), and do NOT introduce myself as some sort of expert – because I am not. Yes, those letters behind my email signature represent Master of Library and Information Science, meaning that I completed the necessary coursework to gain the degree. But I explain that they probably know more than I do about many types of information, such as social media, and they bring unique sets of experiences to the table. If I am an expert, then they are, too.

I also try to do my very, very best not to frame one information source as “better” than the other. Rather, I frame the discussion around the purpose of the information, and the power structures inherent in information privilege. These ideas help all students feel comfortable in the classroom, not only “those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

Critical literacy and academic discourse. Elmborg posits that literacy events take many forms in higher education – lectures, debates, essays, etc. – and range from formal to informal (p. 196). These events function, on one hand, as a method of imparting standards in the community and, on the other, as a way of academic exclusion, i.e. they determine “who belongs in college and who does not” (p. 197). The stakes are high for all students, but especially for FGCS, whose families and friends may never have taken part in the tacit and explicit political and academic underpinnings of the college.

Many of my institution’s FGCS student task force’s conversations have revolved around this point. Office hours are a primary point of contention among our FGCS. If you do not have a family member or peer to initiate you in the structure of college, how do you know office hours are important and, in many cases, crucial for academic success? You do not. Similarly, several FGCS have expressed discomfort, at the least, and embarrassment at most, at the suggestion of going to the Writing Center or contacting a librarian for research help. These are institutionalized processes inherent in the politics of student success in the academy. Critical information literacy means that I, as an educator, take one-shot sessions as an opportunity to underscore the importance of office hours. I explain what the Writing Center does and encourage students to reach out if they need further assistance. If a student is reluctant or grappling with a particularly tricky research question, I remember their name and follow up with them after class. This provides no quick solution to the issue, but it starts the conversation. Critical information literacy means reflecting, challenging, and changing traditional academic models (tenure processes, peer-review, etc.) But what else can librarians do as educators to challenge academic exclusion?

Critically examine what we ask students to do and how we ask them to do it. Elmborg recently participated in a panel at the American Library Association Annual Conference panel Authority Is Constructed and Contextual: A Critical View. I live tweeted much of the presentation and continue to reflect on what Elmborg said about thesis statements.

CritLib copy

Thesis statements are so, so hard for me; often, I do not know what I am really trying to say until I have worked out some of the mechanics behind the argument. I do not have any real solution here for how to teach such complex work, but applying critical information literacy means being cognizant of the tremendous tasks we are asking students to do. Thesis statements *are* hard!

One of my favorite critical information literacy articles is Michelle Reale’s “Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom: Library Instruction that Gives Voice to Students and Builds a Community of Scholars”. During a library instruction session in a course titled English 299: Interpreting Literature, Reale engaged students in an activity to help them develop and interpret topics through a critical lens. Reale role-played the exercise with the course instructor to demonstrate how asking simple questions about feeling, meaning, and subtext lays the groundwork for employing critical theory to student’s assigned texts. Students who were working with the same text were paired together and then began replicating the exercise, conceptualizing their partner’s text to develop topics and possible keywords for database searches on critical theory (pp. 84-85). This preliminary exercise could lay the foundation for helping students develop thesis statements. Talking about their ideas with a peer yielded much more success than merely lecturing on thesis statements alone. Such an exercise helps transform the traditional power dynamic from teacher to student, to student to student and student to teacher. The exercise made critical theory more accessible.

We need to break stereotypes and back off of our own assumptions about this group. FCGS should not be synonymous with the word poor – all FGCS do not come from low-income families. Three out of five FCGS do not complete a degree within six years. More than a quarter of FGCS leave school after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher income second-generation students. Even knocking down a common definition for FGCS is contentious. Lots of work remains to be done, but a commitment to critical information literacy for FGCS is an important first step.

None of these ideas are revolutionary, and I am far from the first person to write about their own reflections of Elmborg’s article (many of those reflections are cited in Eamon Tewell’s article titled “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature”) or critical information literacy. But critical information literacy is crucial not just for FGCS – it is for everyone. The onus is on librarians to completely re-examine our purpose – are we educators? Is our professional identity tethered to being considered “experts”? Are we committed to agency – both our institutional agency and our student’s (especially marginalized groups) agency in the academy? How can we effectively operate in the tension between theory and practice in our daily work? In the ten years since Elmborg published the article, are we any closer to answering these questions?

References:

Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Reale, M. (2012). Critical pedagogy in the classroom: Library instruction that gives voice to students and builds a community of scholars. Journal of Library Innovation, 3(2), 80-88.

Do I Have to Be An Expert? Helping Students Understand and Confront Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome hit me hard as soon as I entered the job market. As I perused job announcements and skimmed the required and preferred qualification sections, a sinking feeling crept into my chest: How will anyone ever hire me without experience? How will I gain this necessary experience when all of these job announcements want candidates with experience? Do my MLIS and various internships fall short of this requirement? Will I ever get a job? Those fears may have subsided when I received my first job offer, but the sentiment definitely followed me into the first year of professional employment. And I am certainly not alone. From the discussions around emotional labor (which inherently includes imposter syndrome) during LIS Mental Health Week, to scholarly articles and blog posts, it is difficult to argue that imposter syndrome does not exist among academic librarians, especially new ones like me.

But I find less discussion about imposter syndrome among college students. As a subject liaison to a school experiencing unprecedented growth in its online program, much of my daily tasks revolve around curating and assessing library interventions for a large number of first-generation, distance, and non-traditional students. Many of these students are second-career students who haven’t stepped foot (virtually or otherwise) in a classroom in at least a few years, or, sometimes, as long as a decade or more. In addition to meeting the demands of a rigorous graduate program, these students also work at least part-time to support themselves and their families, and complete internships that are a required component of the curriculum. Additionally, the school recently revamped its curriculum to include more rigorous courses in research methodology and data analysis. So how is all of this affecting students?

Recently, I presented library instruction to a group of students in a foundation-year course about research and data analysis. During the Q & A portion, a student hesitantly asked whether practitioners had to understand statistics to be successful. The student was visibly frustrated, so I thought about it, and said that she didn’t need to be a statistician to be a good practitioner, but she did need baseline knowledge of statistics in order to understand this type of research. I relayed my own shortcomings in this area – I took statistics twice during my undergraduate degree and did poorly both times – but explained that it didn’t affect my ability to be a “successful” librarian. She seemed satisfied with the answer, but this experience reminded me that imposter syndrome is a very real phenomenon among students. Of course this student was upset, because everything in the curriculum leads students to believe they need to walk through the door as experts in this field. The student felt like an imposter. College may be the first time in students’ lives that they fully experience imposter syndrome, especially in an educational setting, and this student reminded me that helping students navigate these tacit areas of the college experience is just as important as helping them craft a good research question.

So what are the action items? What does “reaching out” look like? How can I help students who are wrestling with imposter syndrome while acknowledging the uniqueness of their experiences and the privilege of my own perspective as a gainfully employed librarian?

It starts with positive reinforcement. As an educator, acknowledge that students bring unique experiences and perspectives to the table. Then tell them that they do – even if their unique qualities do not include statistical prowess. I encourage students to reflect deeply on their goals and harness their abilities in those areas. A less grammatically correct way of saying this is, be the best at whatever you are good at.

Imposter syndrome is caused by the idea the we need to conform, that we need to be conventionally exceptional (oxymoronic much?). It is a direct result of the neoliberal model of higher education. Tell students that there is another way. I remind them that we need more people in the world who will foster collaboration instead of trying to the best individually. We exist in a time when we have too much competition, and not enough collaboration in academia and beyond.

When I sense imposter syndrome in a student, I use it as a teaching moment. But I don’t tell students that “everyone has it” because it is not incredibly helpful. Instead, I explain that imposter syndrome is false because you are not an imposter. Your experiences, opinions, and ideas are valuable. Look at your peers and examine why they are valuable. How can you help them? Maybe you can work together, and learn from each other.

The Caltech Counseling Center offers detailed explanations of imposter syndrome as it relates to students, suggestions for understanding imposter syndrome, and outlines the connection of imposter syndrome with gender. The University of Michigan has similar information for graduate students. Inside Higher Ed published a fantastic piece about imposter syndrome written by a graduate student. These sources may be immensely helpful for students who are beginning to understand the effects of imposter syndrome. But I also believe that there are grassroots, campus-wide efforts that we, as librarians, can implement to help undergraduate students who face imposter syndrome. We aren’t their professors (at least, most of us aren’t), but we aren’t their classmates either. For better or worse, we occupy neutral spaces on campus and can reach out to students in distinctive ways. Recently, I founded a first-generation college student initiative in my library. Among my many goals, I hope to help students navigate the tacit barriers that underlie the undergraduate college experience. Partnerships with student services groups, student caucuses, or other stakeholders across campus are among my other goals to help students mediate imposter syndrome.

As librarians, we are uniquely poised to help students with imposter syndrome. I take my role as an educator seriously and want to help students steer the range of problems they face during their academic careers. Instead of competition, I encourage collaboration. Rather than focus on perceived shortcomings, I encourage mindfulness in the areas in which they excel. And I remind students that imposter syndrome is false.

Everyone is an imposter, and nobody is an imposter.