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.

Exploring artifacts of students’ learning trajectories, or The view from here

I’ve been serving on the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at my institution for a little over a year now. If you’re not familiar with the purpose and scope of an IRB, it’s generally the group’s charge to review, approve, and monitor research conducted with human subjects. It’s the IRB’s responsibility to ensure that researchers are taking steps to protect the safety, welfare, rights, and privacy of subjects.

A majority of the applications I’ve reviewed in the past year have been submitted by undergraduate student researchers. At my undergraduate-only institution, it’s not unusual for students to propose and conduct studies. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to see students’ research from this perspective. While I often consult with students working on research projects, it’s usually from my vantage point as a reference/instruction-type librarian. I confer with students as they identify topics of interest, explore the literature, identify gaps, develop searching and organizational strategies, and so on. My position as a member of the IRB offers me a different view of their work. In their IRB applications, students describe: their research aims and procedures, the characteristics of their intended subject population, how they will recruit subjects, how they will protect the privacy and anonymity of their subjects and obtain informed consent from them, how they will safeguard the data they collect, the risks involved in their proposed research, and how they will reduce those risks.

Each student’s application is unique, of course, but my colleagues and I have noticed a few challenges that seem to come up more often than not. Most common among these problem areas is the informed consent form. Northwestern University’s IRB describes the importance of informed consent well: “Obtaining informed consent is a basic ethical obligation and a legal requirement for researchers. This requirement is founded on the principle of respect for persons … [which] requires that individuals be treated as autonomous agents and that the rights and welfare of persons with diminished autonomy be appropriately protected. Potential participants must be provided with information about the research project that is understandable and that permits them to make an informed and voluntary decision about whether or not to participate. The amount of information and the manner of presentation will vary depending on the complexity and risk involved in the research study. Informed consent is an ongoing educational interaction between the investigator and the research participant that continues throughout the study.”

The informed consent form, then, is an important method of communication between researcher and potential subject. In my recent sample of applications, I’ve noticed students struggling to effectively convey their projects’ goals, benefits, and risks to potential subjects. Students sometimes leave out important information about what subjects will be asked to do in the studies. Students also often use very technical or formal language that is not only unfamiliar, but likely inaccessible, to people new to their study or discipline. Of course, we all struggle with this. Once we’re inside a research project or, for that matter, a topic or a process of any kind, it can be hard to step outside and see it from a beginner’s perspective.

It’s interesting, though, to perhaps consider the disconnects visible in the forms students have drafted as artifacts of their transitions from research newcomers to insiders. The students, as they work to research and design their own studies, become increasingly steeped in and comfortable with the methods, language, and conventions of the discipline. They may begin to take pleasure in their growing fluency even. Their facility and satisfaction is visible in the informed consent forms they design. They may not yet, however, have the metacognitive awareness to look past–or perhaps back on–their own trajectories to consider how to communicate effectively with their potential subjects, newcomers to their work. Of course, it’s possible that I’m overreaching a bit with this analysis.

Still, the connections between this work and information literacy teaching and learning seem rather notable to me, especially around the concepts of information ethics and audience. When I began this post, exploring these ideas and accompanying opportunities for teaching was my original purpose. What I find more useful at this moment, though, is this reminder about the journey from newcomer to insider and the viewpoints that journey affords, but also sometimes occludes. Despite my best intentions, where and how have I, by virtue of my sightlines, obscured the potential for others’ understanding or blocked their entry? I’ve written before about how librarians are uniquely positioned as translators, which I consider as one of our profession’s core strengths, opportunities, and responsibilities. I’m grateful for these reminders to pause and reconsider my own position, journey, and viewpoints and how that facilitates or hinders my interactions with my students, as well as my colleagues.

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Two perspective triangles, with their perspective axis and center” by Jujutacular is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Director at the Desk

This week I’m trying something I’ve never done before: I’m working one evening and one weekend shift at our Reference Desk. All librarians in the library where I work take a few short Friday evening shifts, including me, but until this semester I’d not yet done reference up to our later weeknight closing or all day on Saturday (though in the past I’ve taught classes at both times).

My main interest in taking these shifts is to learn more about what the library’s like during our evening and Saturday hours. We do a full headcount multiple times each semester of everyone using the library, and keep the usual statistics about reference transactions, circulation, and printing, so we do have some sense of how the library’s used when the full-timers aren’t there. And of course our evening and Saturday library faculty and staff share any concerns or news with us, too. But as both a library director and a researcher interested in how students do their academic work, I’ve been more and more curious to see for myself. How are students using the library outside of the standard work week? What areas of the library see the most use, and are there bottlenecks (if any)? Are there services or sections of the library that aren’t used in these off-hours?

I admit that I was somewhat nervous in the run up to this week. It’s not that I’m concerned about making grave errors — our work is important, but the library’s not an emergency room. But since I’m not on the desk often I feel like my reference skills are somewhat rusty. Our discovery layer was added after I became a director (and stopped teaching regularly), so I’m much less practiced at using it than I was with our online catalog. Technology questions can be tricky, too; I’m grateful that we’ve added a dedicated tech support staff member at the reference desk, which is a huge help for the inevitable questions about campus wifi or using the LMS, not to mention printer jams.

I drafted this post during the second half of my evening shift, and I was delighted to be there! I’m a little bit out of practice in explaining the research process clearly and concisely, but I’m getting better with each question. Midterms are only just over a week away so I’ve had a fair number of research consultations in between requests for the stapler and scanners. It’s been interesting to see the ebbs and flows — we are really, really busy during the 5-6pm class break, especially with students printing out assignments and readings before class, but then things slow down considerably. The quiet floor is quieter than during the day, and the talking floor is quieter, too. I still miss the regular interaction with students that I had before I became Chief Librarian, and it’s been great to have that experience again this week.

Other than scheduling enough time for me to eat before my shift started (which was entirely my own fault), I’m chalking up my stint at reference earlier this week as a success. Tomorrow’s Saturday, and I’m looking forward to going back for more.

Just Add Water: Resolutions for the New Semester

I’m firmly in the midcareer stage of librarianship, but every fall I’m still a little bit surprised by how quickly the campus and library go from quiet intersession to full and busy when classes begin. Our semester started last week at the college where I work. It’s like an instant soup mix: just add water and stir to reconstitute our campus community into a buzz of activity.

Folks in higher education are lucky that we can celebrate two New Years each year if we’d like to: in January and the start of the new academic year in the fall. On the first day of classes I erased my summer whiteboard to-do list and replaced it with our library goals for this year and my other upcoming library and research tasks, a little ritual that both helps me keep track of my schedule and gets me excited about all of the great work we have planned for the year.

All of which has me thinking about resolutions. I don’t make too big of a deal about New Years’ resolutions, though I do try to do a bit of reflection as a new academic year begins (and in January too), considering what I’d like to accomplish during the year and whether I should make any changes to get there. I was reminded that it’s resolution time again by a post last week on the Prof Hacker blog that suggests we ask ourselves “What do we want to make room for this fall?” (It’s a great post — feel free to head over to Prof Hacker to read it, I can wait here.)

Thinking about the resolutions I’ve made in the past, many involve making room in the ways that the Prof Hacker post discusses: for reading, taking breaks, writing, and long-term planning, among others. All are activities that are kind of nebulous and squishy. Typically nothing will immediately go wrong if I don’t do them, and there are plenty of tasks like paperwork to complete and requisitions to approve that have to happen by a specific deadline. It’s easy to let the deadline-driven stuff crowd out the nebulous stuff, a classic problem of short-term vs. long-term gain.

So this year my one resolution is both modest and sweeping: to make room for the squishy stuff on as many workdays as I can. Sometimes that will mean doing one pomodoro of writing before work, and other times it might look like catching up on my reading over lunch, or taking a break, even if only to walk around the block.

Do you have any new academic year resolutions? We’d love to hear about them in the comments. And best wishes for a great semester, too!

On “Everything”: Reflections on working in a field that is all-encompassing

Everything is information. Even some physicists and philosophers believe that information might be the basis of reality itself. According to a physicist quoted in a PBS blog post, one can imagine a universe without matter or energy, but one cannot imagine a universe without information. Hegel, the philosopher, also famously stated, “The real is the rational, the rational is the real.” If the rational is what we can know, and information is defined as what we can know, then reality itself is information insofar as it is knowable. (Of course we may able to know more than just information, and I’ll elaborate upon that in Part I of this post.)

“Everything is information” is a predominant maxim in librarianship. Ever since library school, with the antelope-as-a-document example we learned, it is clear: librarians are all about this statement. A simple syllogism can then tell us, then, that librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. (If everything is information and librarianship focuses on everything having to do with information, such as the research lifecycle, then librarianship focuses on everything having to do with everything. Or, to be a little less meta, just everything!) Of course it may be more complex than this, depending upon definitions and grammatical nuances, and I am no logician. But the focus of our profession is all-encompassing.

In this post, I would like to run with this idea…see where it leads – a sort of thought experiment. I will do that in Part II of this post, and will ask: what are the implications of working in a field where the focus is everything? Yet, first I would like to address some of the problems with the maxim and present a preliminary critique of it. For Part I of this post, I will ask: Does Everything is Information take into account our lived experience? What place does knowledge have? My first draft of this post left out the distinction between information and knowledge, and some of my colleagues pointed this out to me. Now upon further reflection, I think this distinction is critical, because it throws into question the notion that Everything is Information and does a better job of accounting for lived experience.

Part I

Everything is Information suggests information is all there is, but what place does knowledge have, then, in reality? Does Everything is Information take into account the full range and types of human experience?

Along with Tony Stamatoplos, I am co-chairing the ACRL Anthropology and Sociology Section 2017 Program Planning Committee. We are hoping to propose a panel that will incorporate such a critique. We want to focus on non-textual information, on the lived experiences and physical/material realities of social activists, the kind of non-textual information they produce, and what role libraries can/should play when it comes to this kind of information. So of course the panel will address the distinctions between information, knowledge, and human understanding. We are hoping to invite Richard Gilman-Opalsky, a political philosopher, to be on a panel, along with an archivist with experience in this area and hopefully an activist who is on the ground. Gilman-Opalsky’s forthcoming book, Specters of Revolt – touches on some of these ideas, as well as how revolt is a form of philosophy that takes place from below as compared to philosophy from above, which characterizes the work done by scholars. While I have to wait for the book to be released, I know that Gilman-Opalsky challenges Thesis 11 from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Gilman-Opalsky believes that activities that change the world are already a form of philosophy. Gilman-Opalsky sees activism as a form of philosophy that is better than philosophy from above in many ways, because of its “collective, experimental, creative, and humanist dimensions” (Richard Gilman-Opalsky, personal email). His work points to the inherent rationality of revolt as well as the historical context of different movements, as revolt makes a lot more sense when understood within the context of surrounding events and root causes. Indeed, sometimes the absence of revolt is actually what is irrational, as revolt can be the most sensible response to a particular reality.

All of this is to say that “Everything is Information” is a gross reduction of “everything” that discounts the full range of human experience insofar as it leaves out knowledge and understanding. Certain things – physical, material realities, cannot be reduced to text, or even to bits. To reduce some things – experiences, perhaps – to text or to bits means they will be compromised somehow. Something is lost in the translation. To go with the example of activism, it is an embodiment of rationality, the result of history, a reaction to systemic violence and racism, for example, as well as the expression of various affective states stemming from prior experience. It is oftentimes an expression of anger and desire – desire for a better world free of injustice. None of these things can be reduced to information.

Yet we can have knowledge about activism. We observe it, have an awareness about it, and even participate in it. We understand it. We know it on a deeper level than we know, say, mathematical formulas, because it has to do with human experience, which is very complex.

In spite of this fixation on this maxim, we actually do take knowledge into account in librarianship, as well, as a part of the research lifecycle, which includes a deep understanding of information in order to be able to communicate it to others, and that is necessary for the whole field of scholarly communication. We cannot communicate well what we do not understand ourselves. Yet in librarianship, sometimes it seems that we minimize the importance of knowledge or understanding, valuing information and evidence more highly. With scholarly communication, the focus seems to be on the transmission or dissemination of information, not knowledge or understanding. At this point, I am merely speculating as I haven’t thoroughly examined these ideas in order to make an informed critique of the place of knowledge in librarianship. I wonder what such an examination might reveal?

Part II

Back to Everything is Information, a thought experiment. What does it imply for us? I will also take into account that librarianship covers knowledge and understanding as well, not just information. We do truly cover everything! What are the implications of working in an all-encompassing field?

First, there is this idea that as our focus is information, we gather, process, comprehend, understand, and create information that is about information. This is very meta, and I think as human beings who are rational, sensing, thinking creatures we have a need for this meta aspect to thought that is provided by our field. We have a need to think about and ask questions about what information, knowledge, and understanding are – in order to fully engage with them, experience them, and create new knowledge (although Plato would disagree with that last bit – there is no new knowledge!). Speaking of Plato, just as philosophers point to the human need to think about reality, so we, as librarians, point to the human need to think about information and knowledge. Insofar as we facilitate these processes, our field – and thinking about everything – will never go out of style.

I also think this means as librarians, we really have opportunities to be creative and think outside the box. There are many different ways to think about information and knowledge, and thus many different ways to think about our field. Especially with information literacy instruction, there are all kinds of ways we can rethink the meaning and practices within information literacy. For example, information literacy also includes literacy – reading and comprehending information. This type of skill certainly crosses the distinction between information and knowledge, as to read deeply and comprehend a text is to have knowledge of the content or topic of the text. On this basis, I developed a critical reading workshop to help undergraduates learn skills in reading dense theoretical texts. These are skills that are important, yet often left to classroom instructors who in most cases probably can rarely take the time to teach such skills. As experts in information literacy and literacy, we are perfectly positioned to do so. This example, too, points to this idea that as information professionals and librarians, we need to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the information/knowledge distinction, and what constitutes knowledge, because students learn from us, as well, how to arrive at a place where they actually know something. We don’t just look at the evidence when we teach information literacy. Even evaluation and formulating a research question require some degree of knowledge, and we assist with these activities.

Finally, the fact that librarianship is very meta also means that the library means different things to different people, and serves different roles for different people. The library isn’t everything to everybody, but it is something to everyone. That is a good thing, but it also can be a point of confusion and contention, especially between librarians and those outside the profession. The broadness and narrowness of our field (as etymologically, it is simply a place for books) sometimes means that the importance of the librarianship is minimized or discounted, but librarians will always be tasked with providing a space where “everything” can be explored, a space where the mind grows – where the real is the rational – a space where we can gather the evidence or information, contemplate it, and experience knowledge and understanding. This is profound.

First-Generation College Students – How Can the Library Help?

Three months into my current position, I realized that one of my biggest professional goals was to work with first-generation college students (FGCS). Inspired by a presentation about FGCS on campus at a Teaching with Technology conference sponsored by the campus Center for Teaching and Learning, I immediately marched into my reporting officer’s office seeking guidance on how to make this happen. As a social work librarian at my current institution, my primary outreach focus is on students and faculty who participate in the Master of Social Work program in the School of Social Work, and my secondary focus is participation in campus-wide reference and instruction programs for undergraduate and graduate students. I was worried about whether I’d have the opportunity to achieve this goal in my current position – could I cross the lateral boundaries of my immediate job responsibilities to work with this student population? Would that be a major faux pas? Did any of my colleagues want to join me? Would campus stakeholders be willing to collaborate (or, at least, provide insight) on library initiatives? Luckily, I have an endlessly supportive reporting officer who encouraged me to rally support from both academic and non-academic partners across campus.

Here is some background. I was not an FGCS myself, but I taught many of them in my introduction to information literacy course during graduate school. Planning, coordinating, and delivering lesson plans for that course was probably the most challenging part of my job assignment as a teaching assistant, but it was also the most rewarding – the experience also inspired me to pursue instruction as a library career. If possible, I wanted to continue working with this student population but knew that it may not be within the purview of my job responsibilities, especially in my first job.

At my current institution, the number of FGCS is increasing and the number of corresponding university services dedicated to FGCS is, thankfully, increasing as well. Groups dedicated to peer mentoring, career services, and internships for FCGS are going strong on campus, some of them with years of institutional history and experience under their belts. The First Generation College Student Task Force guides many of these groups. Developed under the auspice of the Office for Diversity and Strategic Initiatives, the group is dedicated to connecting FGCS students with myriad resources available to them on campus. In addition to connecting students to academic resources such as the Writing Center and cultural resources such as El Centro Chicano, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, and the Women’s Student Assembly, the Task Force encourages student well being and offers support for stress management. The Task Force also supports FGCS fellowships, awards, internships, and study abroad programs

So how did the library fit into this campus support system for FGCS? Was there a need for a library program for FGCS? I certainly wasn’t sure. I knew that collaboration was key – collaboration with my library colleagues and campus groups dedicated to helping FGCS.

It took six months for me to put out a call to library staff and faculty. I sent an email via the lib-all listserv (which was terrifying!) to gauge interest. Were any of my colleagues interested in starting a FGCS working group in the library? They were. We ended up with a fairly agile group of library faculty and staff – many whom were FGCS themselves – who wanted to develop library interventions for FGCS or, at least, think more intentionally about library outreach to this student population.

But what should these library interventions look like? Are they workshops? Personal librarian programs? A position dedicated to FGCS? Our initial conversations were informal and concentrated on reviewing the literature on FGCS and learning more about campus FGCS partners. We started out as an information-seeking group. We knew that the insight of campus partners dedicated to FGCS was crucial to guiding our charge. And let me tell you, it took time to gain buy-in from these partners – understandably so. Like so many on college campuses, these groups are understaffed and over worked; we were a freshly developed group who needed more of their time. So immediate buy-in was, frankly, non-existent. After months of contacting the Task Force, introducing myself to stakeholders, and describing the charge of our library group, I finally convinced the Vice Dean and Assistant Dean of Diversity and Strategic Initiatives – and leaders of the Task Force – to chat with our group about how the library could help FGCS.

We learned that 16% of the undergraduates at our institution are FGCS, defined as students where neither parents attended or completed college. We learned more about the many academic and non-academic campus groups dedicated to FGCS. We talked about the tacit barriers to college, such as working full-time while maintaining a full course load, managing anxiety about financial support, and negotiating the pressure to select a career aligned with familial goals or values. They discussed how crucial it is to include families in the FGCS experience. The Vice Dean, who teaches a general education seminar, talked to us in-depth about his philosophy and lesson plans for the class. I knew that many FGCS don’t self-identify as FCGS, but these conversations encouraged me to really ruminate on what that meant for our groups’ outreach philosophy. We were slated to meet for only an hour but collaboration flowed beyond that allotted time frame.

This conversation caused us to completely re-shift our focus. Instead of focusing on developing robust workshops, we are focused on changing the library’s perspective among FGCS. We need to simplify library language and heighten the library’s visibility on campus, which means that we need to get out of the library to help FGCS where they naturally fall on campus. We need to focus on what we can do to help them succeed in college. We need to educate academic advisors and campus peer mentoring groups on what the libraries has to offer FGCS. I’m focusing on developing an interactive library tutorial about many of the tacit barriers to academic success – such as breaking down the stigma of attending office hours, or reaching out the Writing Center for help. I’m also focusing my effort on developing campus awareness of OER and laying the groundwork on, hopefully, lowering the costs associated with textbook purchases.

Of course, all of this is in development. But our group now has a set of goals, and that’s a big deal! Group participation may wax and wane during the academic year, but at least we have an objective and related goals. But I’d love to learn more about what other university libraries provide for FGCS. Does your library provide outreach to FGCS? Are such outreach initiatives folded into another program? How does your library approach this outreach experience? I’d really like to develop a support network for librarians to share and collaborate on ideas for FGCS library programs. If you’d like to reach out to me directly (again, I’d really like to hear from you!), I’m on Twitter @therealcalliek.