Category Archives: Teaching

On Critical Habits of Mind

This semester I’ve been working with a First Year Seminar on Business Ethics & Corporate Responsibility. For their semester-long research assignment, each student selected a company from the 2016 Forbes Most Ethical Companies list. They were asked to investigate the company’s relationship to its customers, employees, the environment, and international suppliers (if applicable), and how these relationships reinforce or undermine the company’s values, ethics, and/or statements of corporate responsibility. It’s an amazing assignment developed by one of our college’s philosophy professors, one that is ripe for critical thinking, questioning, and information literacy.

Two weeks ago I met with the students in this class for a second time. I want to check-in with them and facilitate a workshop where they could ask questions, share concerns, and discuss their information needs. As with many library classes, what I thought students would need and what they ended up needing were not quite the same thing. The students in this class overwhelmingly needed help developing critical questions, and by that I mean questions that interrogate the public image that companies put forth into the world.

How does your company treat its employees?

Oh you know, good. They say they value them.

But what does valuing an employee mean? Do they pay a living wage? What are their benefits like? Do they offer paid parental leave? Childcare? Do they negotiate fairly with unions? Do they offer flexible schedules? Do they practice inclusion in recruitment and retention? Is diversity and comfort of employees a top priority?

The list goes on and on.

I realize that part of the ease with which I develop these questions comes from being a working adult, but a bigger part of my ability to do this comes from the critical habits of mind I’ve worked to develop over the years. I’ve reached a point where I just can’t turn my critical consciousness off (nor would I want to do so), but I recognize that not all students are quite there yet. Learning to ask questions, to interrogate information you read, takes time.

So we practiced.

We spent much of the class thinking of different questions to ask about each company in relation to each of its stakeholders. Things like, Where are they manufacturing their products? to What kinds of advertising do they practice? Students dutifully wrote these questions down and began to think about how they might apply to their research of their selected company, then I got a question I get all the time, but in this particular context, surprised me:

How do we know if the information we find is credible? How do we know if it’s good?

We’d just spent the majority of the class period interrogating  company statements of corporate responsibility and asking difficult questions about their companies’ actions in relation to their stated values and ethics. But students couldn’t continue that line of questioning to the information sources they were finding in online news outlets, websites, and library databases. I got lots of “if it’s from a .com site it’s not credible,” when all of our major news outlets end in .com. Or, and this one is always my favorite, “it’s based on unbiased facts, not someone’s opinion,” which is, of course, all kinds of problematic.

These exchanges reinforced my long-held belief that critical questioning is hard. It’s not something we’re born knowing how to do, but rather, it’s something we practice day in and day out. I finally stopped the students and said that “good” sources are hard to categorize, and that it’s really up to us to do our due diligence. The SAME way you are really digging deep into your companies and investigating them online is what you should be doing for EVERY INFORMATION SOURCE YOU FIND. Who is the author or publisher? What do you know about them? What is the point of view this piece is trying to share? How might this be helpful to you? What kinds of other information sources is this piece citing, agreeing with or refuting?

Checklists are easy. Questions are hard. It’s important that we facilitate opportunities for our students to practice critical questions, I would say, particularly NOW more than ever. We need to pick apart statements that are made on campaign trails and rallies, question narrow-minded views of the world, and challenge anti-everything populist rhetoric. Critical questioning is not just an information literacy or academic skill, it’s a life practice and habit of mind we’ll need in the years to come.

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.

Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sara Harrington, Head of Arts and Archives at Ohio University Libraries.

The ACRL Instruction Section charged a Task Force with revising the Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators. On November 2, 2016 the new draft document “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education” was released to the ILI-l listserv for review and comment by stakeholders.

Major changes in the revision include a shift in language from proficiencies to roles and from “instruction librarian” to “teaching librarian,” a structural change from a list to a conceptual model, and a change in focus from skills to strengths needed to thrive in each of the roles. The document is intended to help both clarify roles which may be assumed by a proficient teaching librarian as well as inspire new roles.

Included in the draft is a summary of the Task Force’s charge, the timeline and approach the Task Force followed, a discussion of the contexts framing the draft, and guidelines for intended use.

The document is divided into the following sections:

  • Charge and History
  • Approach
  • Context
  • How the Document was Created
  • Purpose of the Roles
  • Intended Use
  • Roles
  • Bibliography

The Roles Are:

  • Advocate
  • Coordinator
  • Instructional Designer
  • Lifelong Learner
  • Leader
  • Teacher
  • Teaching Partner

Each role is accompanied by a short description of the function and activities exemplified by the role, and a series of strengths demonstrated by the proficient teaching librarian working in that role.

A previous ACRLog post discussed the role of Advocate.

Word, Google doc, and PDF versions of the full draft are available:

The Task Force invites your comments on the draft. Your feedback can be submitted on ACRLog using the comment box below, or you can send an email to: teachinglibrarianroles@gmail.com. (The comment function at each location where the document is posted is not available.)

  1. Write up your comments and use one of the feedback methods listed above.
  2. Comments sent to teachinglibrarianroles@gmail.com will have identifying information redacted to maintain privacy and will be posted to a publicly available Google doc.
  3. Names and email addresses of those sending email to teachinglibrarianroles@gmail.com will not be shared with anyone outside the Task Force.
  4. A narrative summary of comments will also be prepared by the Task Force.

Please submit your comments by December 1, 2016.

The Task Force will then compile the feedback and submit recommendations for revision to the ACRL/IS Executive Committee by Midwinter 2017.

We encourage you to review the document and provide your feedback in order to make the document a truly useful tool for librarians, instruction coordinators, administrators, library school students, and others.

The Task Force hopes to receive constructive response to this draft over the next few weeks. We intend to summarize all comments and share them before everything goes forward to the ACRL/IS Executive Committee.

Thank you!

Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators Revision Task Force Members
Dawn Amsberry, Penn State, Member, dua4@psu.edu
Candice Benjes-Small, Radford University, Member, cbsmall@radford.edu
Sara Harrington, Ohio University, Co-chair harrings@ohio.edu
Sara Miller, Michigan State University, Member and IS Executive Board Liaison, smiller@mail.lib.msu.edu
Courtney Mlinar, Austin Community College, Member, courtney.mlinar@austincc.edu
Carroll Wetzel Wilkinson, West Virginia University, Co-chair, cwilkins@wvu.edu

What does open pedagogy for information literacy look like?

We’re launching Domain of One’s Own at my institution this year. If you haven’t heard of Domains, it’s a program that helps institutions offer students, faculty, and staff online spaces that they control. Domains grew out of a project at the University of Mary Washington (UMW). Co-founders Jim Groom and Tim Owens have since spun it into a venture all its own. Their company, Reclaim Hosting, has so far launched Domains programs at over 40 institutions. At my institution, our Domains initiative will enable members of our campus community to publish, curate, and share their work online. They will be able to register their own domain names, associate them with a hosted web space, and easily install a variety of applications in order to experiment with both digital tools and digital literacy practices. Digital identity and data ownership are at the core of Domains; it’s about understanding the data that makes up your digital presence, developing facility with digital tools and spaces, and defining who you are online.

We’re launching a few key initiatives as part of our Domains kickoff, most notably a faculty learning community and a cohort of students training to become digital learning assistants. As part of our Domains launch, co-founder Jim Groom came to campus for a series of kickoff events last week. (My colleague Lora Taub-Pervizpour, who has spearheaded Domains on our campus, wrote a great post about Jim’s visit that you might find interesting.) While on campus, Jim talked about how his work at UMW grew into Domains and was, at least in part, motivated by the frustrations of learning management systems. In restricted spaces like Blackboard, Moodle, and Canvas, student learning and work products are locked down and immobile. In “The Web We Need to Give Students,” Audrey Watters wrote about how Domains, by contrast, permits students to work in their own spaces. “And then—contrary to what happens at most schools, where a student’s work exists only inside a learning management system and cannot be accessed once the semester is over—the domain and all its content are the student’s to take with them. It is, after all, their education, their intellectual development, their work.” (For some more good reading on Domains, see “A Domain of One’s Own in a Post-Ownership Society” again by Audrey Watters, as well as “Do I Own My Domain If You Grade It?” by Andrew Rikard.)

But this is not (meant to be) a post about Domains really. Instead, all this Domains talk has me thinking about pedagogy and learning. Because Domains is also about openness and transparency.

The success of Domains, Jim said in his keynote, is not about technology. Instead, its success is the openness it facilitates: thinking out loud, engaging in reflective practice with a community of peers. As part of the Domains story, Jim shared his experiences creating ds106, an open, online course on digital storytelling. As described on the site, the course was “part storytelling workshop, part technology training, and, most importantly, part critical interrogation of the digital landscape that is ever increasingly mediating how we communicate with one another.” The course embodied openness in many ways. UMW students enrolled in the semester-long course and served as its core community, but the course was open to anyone who wanted to participate alongside the UMW students. But the part that piqued my interest most was its open pedagogy; Jim talked about how he did the assignments with the students and also described how students created the assignments. “The only reason it worked,” Jim said, “was because we built an open ecosystem for it to thrive.”

This prompted me to reflect on what open pedagogy means, what potential it holds. (Check out “‘Open’ for the Public: Using Open Education to Build a Case for Public Higher Ed”, “Open Pedagogy: Connection, Community, and Transparency”, and “Eight Qualities of Open Pedagogy” for some quick, getting-started readings on open pedagogy.) To me, open pedagogy is an invitation for learning. What grabs me most are the qualities of transparency, community, and responsiveness at its core.

In information literacy teaching and learning, for example, fostering transparency in the classroom might happen when we simply articulate the learning goals for a class or uncover research strategies to expose the what, how, and why of our processes. Open pedagogy means helping students think metacognitively about the strategy of their work to make learning more meaningful and transferable. It also means making the method and purpose of our teaching transparent to students.

Open pedagogy is also about community, inviting students to co-construct learning experiences. Whether asking students to design their own assignments as in Jim’s ds106 case or developing activities grounded in constructivist and self-regulated learning theories or even just asking students about their habits, perspectives, and approaches before telling them what they should do, co-constructed learning increases student agency and investment.

Open pedagogy is about being flexible and responsive. It means meeting learners where they are, rather than where we think they are or should be.

I’m interested to recognize the small ways I’m practicing open pedagogy, but I’m still more interested to identify the opportunities–big and small–that I haven’t yet grabbed hold of. What does open pedagogy for information literacy look like for you? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.