Category Archives: Just Thinking

Use this category for raising questions and thinking out loud or reflecting on writings for which there is no real specific topic.

Reflections on the Job Hunt: Writing a Teaching Philosophy

As an LIS student graduating in May 2015, the job search is on my mind a lot these days. One of my more recent applications required a one-page teaching philosophy, in addition to a letter of interest and resume. Like many people that write a teaching philosophy for the first time, I have years of varied instructional experience but I often don’t take the time or space to do intentional, deliberate reflection of my teaching.

I think that ACRL’s recent decision to move forward with the proposed Framework, while simultaneously making a conscious stand not to rescind the Standards is more than relevant to this post. With that being said, I think there has been a multitude of brilliant blog posts on this topic, some of which have taken place on ACRLog. (For some of my personal favorites, see Meredith Farkas’ post, a reflection from Donna Witek, and a resource that Nicole Pagowsky shared).

Instead, I’d like to think more critically about why reflection is important, how it is often integrated into our daily lives (even if we don’t realize it), and what the construction of my teaching philosophy entailed. My hope is that this post might help other LIS students or recent grads in their journey to construct a coherent statement.

One of the reasons I like Twitter is that I am reminded daily about what other people in our field are doing, especially in relation to instruction. Many #critlib discussions have explored critical pedagogy and reflection. Now #moocmooc is exploring some of these topics in more depth while challenging participants to blog and reflect on their professional praxis. I’m personally hoping that these discussions will develop into a longer chapter on critical pedagogy and reflection or teaching assessment in an exciting work that’s still in progress.

One of the more recent #critlib conversations was about critical reference. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of the conversation about how to do good critical reference also applies to instruction. Here’s one of my favorite tweets from that conversation:

critlib conversation

I understand that potential employers want applicants to write a teaching philosophy so that they can make sure the person is well suited for their institution’s teaching culture and set of values. But what I learned is that it does so much more than that. It makes your teaching more intentional and nuanced. When you have to sit down and really ask yourself questions like “Why do I care about or place value on this instructional method?” or “What are the big questions I ask in my classroom?” you become a more thoughtful teacher.

This might seem really obvious but I’m not sure I realized the true value of reflection until I actually did it. As librarians face more and more time constraints, I think that this is something good to keep in mind. Yes, it might take a few hours to hash out how you teach and why, but if it improves your practice and your interactions with students isn’t it worth it?

I’d like to give a tangible—albeit cheesy—example to illustrate what I mean. I try to attend a yoga class at least once a week. It gives me a space to decenter and relax while stretching and improving my posture and strength. One of my favorite yoga classes is a hot yoga session at a swanky yoga center in town. There are a few reasons I like the class. The heat intensifies my stress relief, they let you borrow equipment, and it’s a fairly small, close-knit space. But to be honest, the biggest reason I go out of my way to attend the particular session is because of the instructor. He starts every class by telling students that the session isn’t about replicating the exact pose he is doing. It’s more about how your individual body feels in the pose. In other words, he empowers students to do what they can without feeling shame about not being as flexible as their neighbor. He also solidifies the expectations of the class by saying upfront what the goals are and then he reiterates those expectations by giving modifications for each pose and talking about how your body should feel instead of how it should look.

I am, of course, living on a graduate student budget and I can’t afford to go to this expensive class every week. I decided to compromise by going to a much cheaper yoga session sponsored by the student recreation center every now and then instead. I went to my first session last week and quickly learned that the instructional techniques used there are very different. This instructor scolded students for looking at their neighbors’ pose for guidance instead of looking directly at him. He made students stop the flow they were moving in so that they could move to one side of the room and watch him demonstrate exactly how poses should be done. He never talked about modifications for those with limited flexibility or injuries. In short, he made the practice tedious and maybe even discouraged newcomers from practicing yoga again.

There are many things I learned from these two very different experiences (besides the fact that you get what you pay for):

  • Teachers are not the keepers of knowledge. They are there to facilitate, mentor, and encourage. Being a guide can often be more productive than being an “expert”. And why can’t teachers be both?
  • If both of these instructors would have reflected on not only their respective sessions but also their teaching philosophy and their goals when teaching yoga, there would undoubtedly be some improvement. (Maybe this is me being optimistic or naive, but I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to be discouraging).
  • Teachers reflect on teaching even when we don’t mean to. If that one experience informed my teaching, I know that reflecting more consciously would be even more beneficial.

This brings me to constructing my actual teaching philosophy. I tried to keep all of this in mind while doing so: what is important to me as a student, what good (and poor) experiences I have had with past teachers and why, and how a reflection might inform and represent my teaching. I searched for examples in many different places and asked my mentors to share their teaching philosophies with me. A quick Google search brings up an overwhelming amount of resources. There are many sample philosophies, checklists, and rubrics. If I had to simplify and just give a few pieces of advice, they would be the following:

  • Use examples from fields like rhetoric and composition. Sometimes it’s hard to find good library examples because our field is so diverse. Graduate students writing statements in these areas often have similar goals to our own (facilitating critical thinking, putting information in context, etc.) and I think we can learn a lot from them.
  • Be yourself! More than anything else, your energy should shine through. Think about how your lived experiences have guided your teaching practices and philosophy. Reflect on your role and why you believe in the importance of that role.
  • Give examples. Most of us can write all day about what we want to do in the classroom. But what do we actually do? How do the activities we create embody the concepts we want students to understand? This might seem harsh, but if you can’t give a practical, tangible example of how you teach a particular concept or philosophy, it might not be as important to you as you claim.

My philosophy is in no way perfect. I actually think of it as a living, developing document that I hope will continue to grow and change as I grow and change. Still, I think that sharing parts of it might help others are they are thinking about their own philosophy. Here are a few excerpts:

As an educator, my goal is to foster personal exploration, challenge critical thinking, and frame students’ experiences within larger societal issues. Multiple teaching experiences have taught me that this process only happens if students develop a sense of autonomy and accomplishment. My role, then, is less about being an expert who dictates content and authority and more about being a leader who guides students through learning in the context of their lived experiences.

 I am also an information expert with a tangible agenda for my classroom. The students of today are swimming in information, all of which differs in format, reliability, and means of production. Thus, today’s librarian teachers are facing a very different obstacle than the librarians of even twenty years ago. The challenge is not in teaching students how to find information, but instead in teaching them how to be critical, contextual consumers of the information they already have access to. Therefore, my role as an information expert shapes the way I teach the skills needed to understand the complicated relationship between knowledge, information production, and power.

My greatest calling as an instructor is to help students realize their responsibilities as citizens, consumers, friends, mentors, and ethical human beings. Teaching them not only how to be more information literate but also why it matters is the constant objective behind my instruction.

Have you written a teaching philosophy? How often do you revise it? What advice would you give to new librarians going through this process?

 

 

Don’t Write the Comments?

We had a month of especially active blogging in January and early February this year here at ACRLog. In addition to the regularly scheduled posts from Erin and Lindsay in our First Year Academic Librarian Experience series, there were also great posts about the upcoming Symposium on LIS Education from Sarah, and on better communicating our ideas to different audiences from Jennifer.

But what really pushed us over the top last month was a group of guest posts about the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education. First we featured the open letter from a group of New Jersey information literacy librarians sharing their concerns about the new Framework replacing the old Standards. Several responses followed: Ian Beilin and Nancy Foasberg wrote in support of the Framework, then by Jacob Berg responded to both the open letter and Beilin and Foasberg’s response. Donna Witek contributed a post on the Framework and assessment, and Lori Townsend, Silvia Lu, Amy Hofer, and Korey Brunetti closed out the month with their post expanding on threshold concepts.

Since the Framework was scheduled to be discussed and voted on at Midwinter at the end of January, the timing of this flurry of posts isn’t surprising. These Framework (and related) posts tackled big topics and issues, issues that academic and other librarians have been discussing in many venues. So I have to admit that I was surprised to see that there was practically no discussion of these posts here on ACRLog. One person left a comment on the threshold concepts post sharing a citation, and there were a couple of pingbacks from other blogs around the web linking to these posts.

The absence of discussion here on ACRLog seems even more remarkable given the presence of discussion in other venues. I’m active on Twitter and there have been many, many discussions about the IL Framework as a replacement for (or supplement to) the Standards for months now. Whenever a post is published on ACRLog it’s tweeted out automatically, and these Framework posts sparked many a 140 character response. I’m not on any listservs right now (I know, I know, somewhat scandalous for a librarian), and I’m also not on Facebook, but from what I gather there was discussion of these posts on various listservs and FB too.

Even in our post-Andrew Sullivan era, I still read plenty of real live, not-dead-yet blogs — indeed, trying to keep up with my RSS reader is sometimes a challenge. But it’s been interesting to see the comments, the conversations, move elsewhere on the internet lately. Not that our ACRLog comments have been totally silent, but more often than not I login to find that the comment approval page is pretty quiet. This is despite some of the obvious advantages to blog comments over other options (though as anyone who’s ever encountered a troll can attest, there are disadvantages too). While Twitter can offer the opportunity to immediately engage with folks over a topic or issue — and there are many, many librarians on Twitter — the 140 character limit for tweets can often feel constraining when the topic or issue is large or complex. Listservs allow for longer-form responses, but of course are limited to those who subscribe to them; as a walled-garden, Facebook also suffers from audience exclusivity.

All of which has me wondering if there’s a way to combine these different media to enable interested folks to participate in the conversation using whichever platform they prefer. I know there are plugins out there that can pull media streams together, but can these be combined in a way that’s less about displaying information and more about encouraging discussion? Or is that too much work to solve a problem that’s not really a problem? Should we be concerned that different conversations about the same topics in librarianship are happening in different online places, perhaps with little crossover?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments. :)

Mixed messages, missed opportunities? Writing it better

At the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference a few months ago, Zeynep Tufekci gave a great keynote presentation.  Tufekci, who grew up in Turkey’s media-controlled environment,  researches how technology impacts social and political change.  She described how the accessibility of social media enhanced the scale and visibility of, for example, the Gezi Park protests.  In her talk, Tufekci also advocated for academics to “research out loud,” to make their scholarship visible and accessible for a wider, public audience.  Rather than restrict academic thought to slow, inaccessible, peer-reviewed channels, she said, academics should bring complex ideas into the public sphere for wider dissemination and consumption.  Through her “public” writing (in venues like Medium and the New York Times, for example), Tufekci said she is “doing her research thinking out in the open” and trying to “inject ideas of power, of equity, of justice” to effect change.  There’s a lot of public demand for it, she told us, if you make it accessible and approachable.  We just, she said with a chuckle, have to “write it better.”

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Steven Pinker explored the various reasons why academic writing generally “stinks.”  Is it because academics dress up their meaningless prattle in fancy language in order to hide its insignificance?  Is it unavoidable because the subject matter is just that complicated?  No, Pinker said to these and other commonly held hypotheses.  Instead, he said, academic writing is dense and sometimes unintelligible because it’s difficult for experts to step outside themselves (and outside their expert ways of knowing) to imagine their subject from a reader’s perspective.  “The curse of knowledge is a major reason that good scholars write bad prose,” he said.  “It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know—that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day.  And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail.”

Tufekci and Pinker, then, are on the same page.  The ideas of the academy can and should be accessible to a wider audience, they’re urging.  To reach readers, academics should write better.  In order to write better, academics must know their readers and think like their readers.  Sure, you might be thinking, I could have told you that.  We library folks are rather accustomed to trying to think like our “readers,” our users, aren’t we?  So what message might there be in this for us?  Is it that we should continually hone our communications whether in instruction, marketing, web design, systems, cataloging, or advocacy?  Yes.  Is it that we should stop worrying that if we make things too simple for our users we’ll create our own much-feared obsolescence?  Probably.  Is it that we should reflect on whether we’re truly thinking like our audience or trying to make them think (or work) like us?  That, too.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a friend who is a faculty member at my institution.  We were both expressing frustration about recent instances of not being heard.  Perhaps you know the feeling, too.  During class, for example, a student might ask a question that we just that minute finished answering.  Or in a meeting, we might make a suggestion that seems to fall on deaf ears.  Then just a few minutes later, we hear the very same thing from a colleague across the table and this time the group responds with enthusiasm.  If you’re like me, these can be discouraging disconnects, to say the least.  Why weren’t we heard?, we wonder.  Why couldn’t they hear us?  These are perhaps not so different from those larger scale disconnects, too.  When we might, let’s say, advocate with our administration for additional funding for a new initiative or collections or a redesign of library space and our well-researched, much needed proposal isn’t approved.  Perhaps these are all opportunities we might take to reconsider our audience and “write it better.”

So what does “writing it better” mean exactly?  While it likely varies for each of us, I expect there’s some common ground.  “Writing it better” is certainly about clarity and precision of ideas and language.  But I think it’s also about building and establishing our credibility and making emotional connections to our audience, while thinking strategically.  I think it’s about our relationships and values–to the ideas themselves and to our audience.  It’s about an openness and generosity of mind and heart that helps us to consider others’ perspectives.  What does “write it better” mean to you?

Like a Real Library?

I’m a regular reader of Matt Reed’s Confessions of a Community College Dean blog over at Inside Higher Ed, and last week he published a post that has had me thinking ever since. His post “Like a Real College” reflects on the experiences that hybrid and online learning in colleges and universities sometimes leave behind, like graduation ceremonies and in-person social interactions. Reed notes:

I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students. They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.” I’ve heard those words enough times that I can’t write them off as flukes anymore.

How does this translate to academic libraries? Lots of recent research has shown that many students appreciate what we think of as a traditional library atmosphere for doing their academic work: book stacks, good lighting, table and carrel desk seating, and quiet (see Antell and Engel, Applegate [paywall], and Jackson and Hahn, to name just a few). My research partner Mariana Regalado and I heard similar preferences from the students we spoke to in our research, several of whom also specifically mentioned their admiration for the the very formal, serious library at one CUNY college. To me this suggests that our library space planning and renovations need to balance collections and study space, and acknowledge the importance of books and other physical academic materials for environmental as well as informational reasons.

But what about online learning or competency based degrees, as Reed refers to in his column? How can the academic library contribute to the “real college” feeling that students say they want? Online learning seems to pull apart the collections and workspace roles of the library. And while not always the easiest or most user-friendly experience, online access to our college and university library collections is often (and increasingly) possible.

Is it possible to replicate, or even approach, the traditional academic library experience for studying and academic work with online-only students? One question I have sounds almost too simple to be asked, but also seems fundamental to the online student experience. Where, exactly, are our students when they do their online and hybrid coursework? At home? At the public library? At a coffeeshop (or McDonald’s)?

The college where I work is still very focused on our students in face-to-face classes, and we don’t have any fully-online degrees (though the university that my college is part of does). Anecdotally, we do see students working on their coursework for online or hybrid classes in our library computer labs, though I’m sure they also work on it elsewhere. But I’d be interested to hear about other academic libraries that have grappled with this: are there things we can do to bring the traditional, library-as-place to online-only students? Is the “real library” experience possible?

On Working and Not-working

What’d you do this past weekend? Though I’m in NYC I was unfortunately unable to attend the Digital Labor conference at the New School, which looked like a terrific and interesting event. Instead I planned to follow along on Twitter, but that ended up not happening because I had a bunch of things to catch up on: a peer review, a revise & resubmit, some conference organizing tasks, drafting this post. You know, work. The irony that I didn’t have time to check in on a digital labor conference on Twitter in part because of the digital labor I was doing is not lost on me.

How many of us work on weekends even after we’ve worked the whole week? How many of us are carrying lots of vacation days because we haven’t felt that we could take them? This might be due in part to the having-a-job-that-you-love problem: many of us do truly love our jobs and our work, and feel fortunate to have them. And since academic librarianship often requires or encourages us to do research and scholarship, it can be all too easy to let that work spill over into evenings and weekends. I’m most definitely prone to this, and I do find myself working during non-worktimes.

Also, as I learned recently when our HR department sent out their biannual reminder of leave time accrued, I have a balance of vacation days that are beginning to pile up (though not enough to lose them, thankfully). This semester I’ve been perhaps more guilty of non-worktime work and not taking leave than in the past, in part because coming up to speed on my new management responsibilities at work haven’t left me with much room to spare during the week, especially for research and writing. Different folks have different tolerances for and interests in working during off hours, and that’s okay. There may be other reasons for extra work besides the feeling that there’s work to catch up on: maybe you’re working on another degree, or writing a book.

We all deserve to use the leave time we’ve earned, and there are demonstrable benefits for workers (and workplaces) in taking time off. But in my new position I’ve been thinking about extra work in an additional way, and realizing that there are impacts on the library, too. How can we have a complete, realistic picture of the work of the library when there’s unused leave time? Some folks may feel overworked, some just right, and hopefully no one feels like they have too little work to do. It’s difficult to balance workloads or to plan to add new services and projects if we carry over our leave time rather than use it.

I’m thinking of this as a pre-New Year’s resolution: I’m going to try and be better about using my time off, and invite you to join me.