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.

Shifting Gears for Summer in the Library

At my workplace — the City University of New York — our semesters run later than many others, and finals just ended for us yesterday. Today the library’s practically a ghost town, nearly empty of students during our short intersession before summer classes begin next Thursday.

As I imagine many of us do, I’ve been looking forward to this summer slowdown (though not the hot & humid weather that’s accompanied it this year). The summertime can offer mental, physical, and temporal space for us to work on library or research projects that can be tough to schedule during the academic year, or even just the opportunity to take a day to clean our offices and organize files (surely I’m not the only person who’s really looking forward to that day?).

I’ve had an unusually busy semester and am getting ready for a week of research leave coming up soon, so it’s not quite time for me to hit those summer projects yet. But I’ve already started thinking about how to organize my time this summer. Every year I’m surprised at how challenging it can be to schedule project work over the summer when it seems like it should be the exact opposite, since there are fewer meetings and other commitments. My fellow ACRLoggers (and others in higher ed) have written about this in the past, and today I find myself revisiting these posts for tips and suggestions:

And as we go into a long holiday weekend in the U.S., I hope everyone has a chance for rest, relaxation, and whatever forms of self-care you prefer, in order to start the summer off right.

Asking questions to create opportunities for conversation and learning

I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about challenges he’s been experiencing recently in some of his one-shot information literacy classes. He regularly makes time in class for students to work on their own research and to consult with them individually. Yet he described difficulty engaging students in one-on-one conversation about their progress. He described how he typically circulates the room, asking students “How’s it going?” hoping they might share their progress or pose a problem which would provide him a point of entry into conversation or an opportunity to advise the student. Instead, he said, students typically reply “I’m doing fine” or “I’m good.” Hopefully, such responses mean students really are progressing in their research, successfully applying the concepts from the session to their own work. Yet their polite reply to my colleague’s opening line shuts him out of even the possibility of conversation.

I knew exactly what my colleague meant. I’ve felt frustrated by the same scenario, too. I have often asked the same question and often gotten the same reply, essentially “no thanks.” My colleague wondered how he might create space for conversation without uncomfortably forcing the issue. While some students might indeed really be doing fine and not need assistance with research, plenty do. And even if their research is progressing well, that doesn’t mean a conversation about their work couldn’t be useful. I shared with my colleague some of the ways I’ve tried to open conversation with students during this kind of working time. Essentially, I’ve stopped asking “How are you doing?” and instead ask “What are you working on?,” “What topic or question are you researching?,” or “What have you been trying so far?” This slight variation has helped me open the door to conversation with even reticent students.

I’ve seen a variety of both cognitive and affective advantages via this small, but significant, shift. This type of question gives students fewer outs. It doesn’t require students to make a judgment of their progress (or lack thereof), either. Instead, it’s a low-stakes, low-judgment question that just asks them to account for what they’re doing so far. And once they’ve articulated what they’re doing, I can ask follow-up questions that help them probe their own steps and thinking and even identify problems or opportunities on their own. The conversation serves as a kind of formative assessment, too, helping me check in with students about their level of understanding and application of the concepts, practices, and tools we’ve been focusing on in class. I can then meet them where they are, clarifying or redirecting where needed or helping them advance further when appropriate.

This exchange with my colleague prompted me to reflect on my questioning practices in other ways and settings. I recognized this same shift across my pedagogy, in fact. Where I used to tell, I see that I now ask. Instead of first telling students how to construct a search or pick a source, for example, I instead start by asking how they would approach a search or select a source: “What steps would you take?,” “What choices would you make?,” and most importantly “Why?” When I meet with students in individual research consultations, I don’t just ask “What are you working on?,” but also “What are you hoping to accomplish in our meeting today?” These questions again help me meet students where they are and then scaffold instruction to help them develop progressively. Significantly, they also help give students a chance to construct their own learning, puzzle over their intentions and rationales, and make meaning for themselves. These questions help us (students and myself alike) recognize students’ agency in their research.

Much like I’m trying to help students develop an attitude of inquiry for their own research and learning, these questions help me cultivate my own attitude of inquiry for teaching. I don’t want to ask only the kind of questions that require students to parrot rote, meaningless responses at me. I want to foster meaningful and impactful learning moments where students construct their understanding and develop frameworks for their future use. These questions help me learn from and listen to my students.

listeningGood question” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Maintaining in Academic Libraries

The spring conference season is in full swing, and one weekend earlier this month it seemed like there were conferences of interest to me all over the place, judging from the hashtags in my Twitter timeline: #PLA2016, #SAA2016 (Society of American Archaeologists), #OAH2016 (Organization of American Historians), #DifferentGames2016, and #AERA16 (American Educational Research Association), just to name (more than) a few.

But of all of those great-looking events, most of my conference envy (and associated hashtag-following) was reserved for #maintainers, hashtag for The Maintainers: A Conference, at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. From the description on the conference website:

Many groups and individuals today celebrate “innovation.” The notion is influential not only in engineering and business, but also in the social sciences, arts, and humanities. For example, “innovation” has become a staple of analysis in popular histories – such as Walter Isaacson’s recent book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.

This conference takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time.

From the tweets I caught this conference looked fascinating, and you can read more about it in the shared conference notes doc (with many links to full papers) as well as in the essay Hail the Maintainers published in Aeon by conference organizers Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell the day before the conference. And since the conference I’ve been mulling over this tension of maintenance vs. innovation, and how it might be expressed in academic libraries.

Like our transit infrastructure, libraries require maintenance work to function, work that touches every part of our libraries: facilities, resources, services (in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of importance). This maintenance work, while crucial, sometimes seems easy to forget, especially as annual reporting season rolls around each year. Do we report the maintenance work we do? If we don’t report it, administrators, faculty, staff, and students outside the library might not know it’s happening, so I would argue that yes, we should report it.

But maintenance can’t be the only thing happening in academic libraries — as technology, access to information, and higher education more generally go through changes, libraries do as well. One danger of focusing only on maintenance is that it might prevent us from trying something new that could bring real benefits to us as workers or to the communities we serve. Adding new (or making changes to existing) facilities, resources, and services can also bring new requirements for maintenance. Perhaps there’s legacy maintenance that’s no longer needed, allowing us to balance between continuing and new efforts within the constraints of our time and budgets?

I bristle when I read the phrase “do more with less” because I want to resist the overwork and burnout that can happen to all of us, especially when necessary maintenance work can seem invisible or underappreciated. And I think that innovation as a buzzword can sometimes be used to encourage us to do more with less, to believe that innovation alone will overcome the limitations of funding and time. But I also don’t think that flat or declining budgets mean that we shouldn’t change — I think it’s worth our efforts to figure out if there is maintenance work that we can stop doing that can allow us to try something new (which, if successful, will of course require maintenance of its own).

Is maintenance the opposite of innovation in academic libraries? Can we do both? Must we do both? To be honest, I’m still puzzling through my thoughts about this, and I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

People and place: Musings on organizational culture

Last year, a few of my colleagues and I were awarded a small grant to develop an information literacy learning community for faculty, librarians, and staff in regional colleges and universities. In this first year of our grant, we’ve been facilitating discussion groups with stakeholders to better understand information literacy practices and needs at each of the six institutions. We’re trying to identify shared needs and themes across institutions so we can effectively shape the learning community. We’ve met with 80+ stakeholders. These discussion groups have been valuable and revealing. We’ve learned a good deal about each institution’s varied approaches to and perspectives on (not to mention challenges with) information literacy. We’ve been talking with stakeholders about institutional values and change, too. We want to find hooks to help connect the learning community to each campus and anticipate what might impede its implementation and success. Of course, we can glean this from the conversation generally–its nature and tone–but we have also been explicitly asking questions like: What’s valued on your campus? What drives change? What are obstacles to change?

In some ways, these have been the most interesting parts of the conversations, providing a glimpse into how each campus works, what each campus most esteems, and how people communicate and participate in the life and work of each campus. These institutions are grouped primarily because of geographic proximity. The variations in institution type and mission, then, can explain some differences: the emphasis on undergraduate teaching in the small liberal arts college versus the emphasis on research in the university, for example. Financial status and its accompanying freedoms or restrictions–money may flow more freely at a well-endowed institution, for example, whereas resources may be more limited at a tuition-driven institution–can also influence people’s behaviors and outlooks. Still, the differences between the schools seem deeper and more nuanced than mission and money alone can explain. These conversations have really thrown the nature and impact of organizational culture into sharp relief.

What struck me most in our discussion groups were the differences in collegiality, interconnectedness, and agency: how participants spoke to and about each other, how interested participants seemed in the opportunity to learn from and share with each other in a future learning community, and how much power over and engagement in their campus environment they felt they had. Of course, individual personalities play a significant role in such interactions and outlooks. And, again, institutional mission and funding contribute, too. But there are still other forces that shape relationships, attitudes, and behavior. Jason Martin, for example, suggests that “rites and rituals,” or “the way we do things around here,” are powerful influences on and manifestations of an organization’s culture.

So as I reflect on the differences I’ve observed in the institutional snapshots afforded to me through these discussion groups, what I wonder about most is how does organizational culture change (for better or worse)? And then, how do we change organizational culture?


Swirl” by Zack Jones is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

A selection of examples from the corporate/business sector (like this one and this one) suggests that effective and sustained change requires a multi-faceted, and mostly top-down, approach including: leadership and management, control systems and reward systems, and more. Indeed, a skilled manager and/or a visionary leader (not necessarily one and the same, of course) are powerful motivators and change agents in both business and higher education generally, and libraries more specifically. Yet leadership in libraries–in my experience, at least–is often distributed. To ignore the role of individuals as not only players, but agents of change, seems both erroneous and perilous.

So what does organizational change look like in libraries? In their article about the University of Saskatchewan Library, Carol Shepstone and Lyn Currie stress the important role each library staff member plays in perpetuating an existing culture, identifying a preferred culture, and effectively changing culture. They identify staff new to the organization especially as important in influencing change.

I’ve witnessed and participated in large-scale organizational change directed by a titled leader and some of it has been to great effect. But it seems to me that organizational change can and does happen in smaller, more incremental ways, too. I think of the daily aspirations my colleagues and I pursue and the affirmations we try to offer each other. I think of how a single person’s tone or attitude or behavior can change the temperature of a room or the potential of an organization.

How do you think change happens? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Making strategy more transparent

I’m not one to make new year’s resolutions, per se. Still, I have been trying to work on something resolution-esque in the past few months, or maybe even for a year now, although it didn’t begin with any formal shape or label. However, it’s mid-February. It’s the end of week four of the semester and things are feeling rather hectic. My resolve seems weak and my desire for hibernation and Girl Scout cookies is strong. So right about now feels like a good time to check in for a kind of status report and a little refocusing and reinvigoration.

My “resolution” centers around the notion of strategy. I’ve been trying to work on better communicating with others the strategy behind what I’m doing and thinking. That is to say not just the items I cross off each day’s to do list, but how those items intersect in service of a larger plan or aim. For example, not just the classes I’m teaching today or next week or this month, but how selected classes connect as part of a scaffolded information literacy instruction plan for anchor, or core, courses in academic majors. Or that the assessment project I’m working on now is part of a larger plan for assessment that contributes to our multi-faceted understanding of students’ information literacy learning and outcomes. I’m not trying to blow smoke here. I’m just saying that what I see as strategy isn’t always apparent to others. How could it be if I didn’t tell anyone about what I’m thinking? I’m trying to work on this in large part by just talking about it more.

By talking about it more, I mean I’m trying to clarify my strategy for myself and articulate it more clearly for others. I’m trying to communicate in different ways–both abstract concepts and concrete examples, both words and graphics–to make stronger connections. I’m trying to be more transparent about what I’m thinking and how I’m connecting the dots. But I’m also trying to carefully listen to what others have to say to see how my thinking and my work is part of a still larger whole. This librarian-led scaffolded information literacy instruction plan for a series of anchor courses in the psychology major that I mentioned a moment ago, for example, is only part of still more expansive information literacy teaching and learning for psychology students. So when I meet with psychology faculty, I talk about students’ development across that series of courses, but I ask about where and how they are also teaching information literacy in those courses and others, as well. We talk together about assignment design and course goals and students’ needs. It’s not about some great reveal, as if by magic, at the end. Talking about it along the way makes the individual steps and component parts more connected, more meaningful, more collaborative, and, therefore more successful.


R-chie overlapping structure arc diagram by Daniel Lai, Jeff Proctor, Jing Yun and Irmtraud Meyer” by dullhunk is licensed under CC BY 2.0

I’ve been focusing on strategy directly with students, too, in the classroom and during research consultations. When I ask students to experiment with a research question in a database, for example, I frame our discussion of their approaches as “best practices for search strategies.” We talk not only about which words they typed in, but why they picked the words they did and what impact their choices had on search results. We add things like “identify major concept words” and “use synonyms for major concepts words” to our list of strategies. I think this metacognitive approach helps students turn a concrete experience into a framework for future application. I am increasingly talking with students about what their strategies are, how they are (and should be) developing strategies, and how strategies can give them agency over their research processes and learning. When we talk about strategies for organizing, reading, or synthesizing sources, students are (mostly, not all–let’s be real) interested. I try to be transparent about my strategies, too: why we’re doing what we’re the classroom. Students seem eager for a framework that helps them decode, maneuver, manage, and direct their work. They are engaged in these conversations. Never have I seen them take more notes than when we talk about strategy.

It’s well and good to intend to work on strategy and think about the big picture–indeed, it’s an attitude or habit of mind–but the reality is that it takes practice, requires space, and demands reflection. Part of my “resolution” is also to get better at strategic thinking and work. My attempts to make time and space have so far included three approaches.

  1. Visual organization. I’m a big fan of lists and post-its and paper. I write everything down to keep track of ideas and tasks big and small. I regularly organize and reorganize these notes. I’ve started grouping them by theme or project in a chart, rather than just simple lists. The visual layout has been a helpful reminder of how small items are part of a larger whole. It helps me think about connections.
  2. Scheduling time for strategic thinking. I’m not doing so well on this one, to be honest. It’s rather easy to lose the thread of this practice when you’re suffering from email/instruction/meeting/life overload. As a case in point, I jotted down about three (probably more interesting) ideas for this blog post that I was excited about, but they all required more big picture thinking and research than I could make happen before this deadline. I’ve been trying to schedule time in my calendar for strategy, just like I schedule meetings. But then I catch up with email instead or I schedule in a student who needs last-minute help or I cross a few other little things off my to do list. Even though I blocked two hours in my schedule to work on reviewing results of recent assessment projects to find connecting themes across them, I let the other stuff in. Those things were more pressing, but also just more easily accomplished. Of course, the pace of the semester doesn’t always permit open blocks of time to devote to the bigger picture. But I also need to work on sticking to it.
  3. Research, presentation, and publication. The motivation of an approaching conference presentation or a writing commitment forces my hand to think and reflect more strategically and meaningfully, not just in passing, about the big picture of my daily work. I’ve been seeking more opportunities for this kind of structure because it’s been so helpful for processing, interpreting, and meaning-making.

How do you motivate your strategic thinking? How do you make room in your daily and weekly schedule? Or perhaps, how do you use small chunks of time for big picture thinking and work? I’m eager to hear your strategies in the comments…