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.

“Playable, not just performable”: Telling the story of information literacy

I was reading Carrie Brownstein’s book, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir, a month or two ago, and a particular passage grabbed me so much that I keep going back to it. If you don’t know Carrie’s work, the short version is that she’s an indie rock/punk icon (best known for her band Sleater-Kinney) and more recently an indie comedy star, too (of TV series Portlandia fame).

Early on in her book, Carrie reflects on the massive stadium-size concerts she attended as a girl. Seeing Madonna and George Michael live was awe-inspiring and set her young adolescent heart and mind alight. She describes “witnessing” the “spectacle” of these events: “The experience … was immense; the grandiosity was ungraspable, it was the Olympics, it was a mountain, it was outer space.”

But Carrie’s story is not just about watching and witnessing; it’s about becoming and making. Which brings me to the part I really love (the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Yet the music I was hearing and the concerts I was witnessing were also mystifying and inaccessible. It was the ‘80s, and much of what I loved was synthed-out pop and Top 40 music, more programmed than played. The music was in the room and in my body, yet I had no idea how it had been assembled or how to break it apart.

This, I thought to myself, is exactly what I mean when I talk about information literacy. Carrie’s reflection continued as she described how she bought her first guitar and started going to punk and rock shows at smaller venues (again, the underlining is mine for emphasis):

Here I could get close to the players themselves. I could see how the drums worked with the guitars and bass, I could watch fingers move along frets and feet stomp down on effects pedals, I saw the set lists taped to the floor, and sometimes I was close enough to see the amp or pickup settings. I observed the nature of the bands, their internal interactions, their relationships to one another, as much as I listened. It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable–that it had a process and a seed, a beginning, middle, and end. Everyone who plays music needs to have a moment that ignites and inspires them, calls them into the world of sound and urges them to make it. And I suppose this form of witness could happen aurally; perhaps it’s as easy as hearing an Andy Gill riff or a Kim Gordon cadence and knowing intuitively how that all works. Then you form those sounds yourself, with your own hands and your own voice. Or maybe you see it on a video, in footage of a musician who finally translates and unlocks what you thought was a mystery. For me, however, I needed to be there–to see guitarists … in the wholly relatable attire of threadbare T-shirts and jean shorts, enact a weird nerd sexiness, strangely minimal, maximally perverse. I could watch them play songs that weren’t coming out of thin air or from behind a curtain. I needed to press myself up against small stages, risking crushed toes, bruised sides, and the unpredictable undulation of the pit, just so I could get a glimpse of who I wanted to be.

It was in the small clubs with small bands, up close and personal, that Carrie could not only experience the music and witness the final product in all its glory, but also figure out how the music was constructed. And better still, how she could construct it, too. I’m not suggesting information literacy has the allure of music shows, large or small. Ha! Instead, I’m saying that I recognize in Carrie’s reflection the power of uncovering process to enable an individual’s participation and agency that is also at the core of information literacy. Her story serves as an illustration of the disconnects that students experience and why it’s important to help them uncover, develop, and articulate process. To see the “mystifying” final product (of scholarly research as published in a journal article or book, for example) is impressive and edifying, but for many is a closed door. To instead understand how something (again, that research) is made–to see its final whole, but also the pieces that make it up and the process of its making–is to open the door to one’s own potential participation.

A few months ago, I posted about some activities I used with students to “dissect” articles. Through these guided activities, we explored how sample articles (one from a scholarly journal, one from The New Yorker) were constructed. The most immediate goal was to help students parse these samples to see how authors use and synthesize sources and to what effect. Dissecting the sources broke open the elegant final products such that students could better see their component parts. By “decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable,” then, the goal was to set students up for constructing their own work, helping them recognize their own potential participation. Not quite the blood and guts of the pit at a punk rock show, but still a developmental and empowering step in its own right.

I’ve put Carrie’s story to use a few times in recent weeks, most notably in conversation with faculty about assignment design and pedagogy. The anecdote’s resonance was apparent in their faces and in our conversation. It occurs to me that this is, at least in part, the kind of thing I meant when I wrote about “writing it better” over a year ago. I’m calling to mind now some of the disappointing moments when I attempted to show others the breadth and depth of information literacy as I see it, but my message fell short or our connection was missed. Compelling examples, stories, and metaphors go a long way to helping us all recognize our common ground. How do you effectively tell the story of information literacy and its power? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments…

Invisible Disabilities, Self Care, and a Generous Heart

This has all been said before, and better than by me. Not to bury the lede – practice self care and have a generous heart.

One of the insights I’ve gained as I’ve grown older, is how deeply and comprehensively injuries and illness can effect someone. Or non medical issues – the regular ups and downs of life. Especially on the job.

A few weeks ago a friend called out a scholar for not caring about their research. The presentation was bad, they were unenthusiastic and, frankly, it sounds like it sucked. It sucked for my friend to sit through it. Maybe the presenter doesn’t care, and if a presenter doesn’t care it’s hard for anyone else to care. But I kept defending this unknown person, thinking maybe they were doing the absolute best they could and we just don’t know what is going on.

What if they have plantar fasciitis and standing is painful? Or if they have a bulging disc between their vertebra that is pressing directly on a nerve? What if they suffer depression – that wounds so many, kills some, and hides in plain sight?

What if they have lost someone?

What if they have an autoimmune disorder that is causing a cascade of seemingly unconnected problems that just makes them tired and miserable? Maybe their doctor thinks they are a hypochondriac.

Migraines.

Microaggressions.

Muscular sclerosis.

HIV.

Prescription drug side effects.

Nonacceptance of gender identity.

A belittling, tyrannical supervisor.

Their child is being bullied.

Parkinson’s.

Marital problems.

Financial troubles.

Sick family.

Othering.

You get the idea.

There are a nearly infinite number of reasons someone might be flat or uninspired that have nothing to do with their passion for a subject. Personal matters and illness can intersect in ways both traumatic and invisible that harm our work performance – and I mean the affective state we try to project.

As I age and endure some of these issues I usually choose not to share my troubles with coworkers. I imagine they are doing the same – the best they can. (EDIT – a friend notes this suggests that people normally and perhaps should hide their problems. She is right, and that is not what I wanted to communicate. I was speaking to my tendency to not share. Sharing of problems can be therapeutic and I hope people can seek help and not be isolated by the problems they face.) I  have had to become better at self care to combat the little aches that accrue as my birthdays pile up. I get off lightly and I never will know what others are enduring. Maybe you are healthy and happy in your job – awesome! But please have a generous heart and at least assume others are doing their best within the framework of their life. And of course, practice self care to the extent you can.

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.