Information literacy strategies and student agency: Connecting the dots with “dissection” activities

I’ve mentioned before (like here, here, and here, for example) that I’ve been trying to get students to think metacognitively about the strategy of their work. Such a lens helps students turn a concrete experience into a framework of best practices for their future application. In the case of the common information literacy session devoted to searching, for example, this means moving away from thinking about a series of keystrokes and clicks to instead thinking about the why: why we select particular search words, why we enter them in a database in such a way, why we get back a particular set of results, why we select individual sources, and so on. By talking about strategy, we reflect on the purpose and the effect of the choices we make. By turning our steps into best practices, we see how to apply them the next time around. Time and again, I’m excited to see how engaged students are in these conversations. Talking about strategies helps them recognize and enhance their agency in the research process.

I’ve been trying to embed this strategy lens wherever I can. I’ve had occasion in the past few weeks to work with some faculty and students on strategies for synthesizing information particularly. For example, I recently worked with a faculty member and students in a senior capstone psychology course. By the time students get to this course, they’ve likely had a number of information literacy sessions with me. An intensive experience in the sophomore/junior research methods course is a core part of their information literacy development in the major, but we’ve likely intersected in other anchor and elective courses, too. And that’s only the librarian-led information literacy experiences. There are plenty of other faculty-led information literacy learning experiences along the way. The capstone, then, is a course where we can make some assumptions about students’ past courses and knowledge. When the faculty member and I sat down to talk about our goals for this course, we honed in on what we see as students’ biggest continuing struggle: synthesizing sources. By this point, they can identify and narrow research questions, find peer-reviewed empirical journal articles, and read and understand the methodology and findings of those articles. They still struggle, though, with effectively putting those sources to work in their own writing. More specifically, we wanted students to consider how an empirical journal article’s introduction and literature review are constructed, as they think ahead to their own research and writing for the course’s major research project. To that end, we developed a few activities to help students work on developing their synthesis skills. Over the course of two consecutive sessions, we implemented the following plan.

Session 1

Part A – Working backward: Dissecting an article’s introduction and literature review

  • We selected an article that students had read for a previous class session so that they already had some familiarity with it. Students worked with their pre-existing research groups to read the article’s introduction and literature review. We developed the following questions to guide students’ close reading. We numbered the article’s paragraphs and asked students to specifically locate illustrative passages. After working through the questions in their small groups, we then discussed each question as an entire class.
    • Where and how do the authors discuss the real world significance of the topic and their research (i.e., why we should care)?
    • Where and how do the authors refer to and use theoretical frameworks?
    • Where and how do the authors give a bird’s eye view (i.e., overview) of research related to their topic?
    • Where and how do the authors discuss other studies’ findings?
    • Where and how do the authors discuss other studies’ designs/methods?
    • Where and how do the authors identify holes or gaps in the existing research?
    • Where and how do the authors introduce their own research question/study? How do they relate their question/study to the identified gaps in the existing research?

Part B – Working from the ground up: From a single article to patterns across articles

  • We talked about approaches to reading and notetaking to help students identify how to focus their attention on what’s important in an article and recognize patterns across sources. We modeled creating and using a chart to track individual sources and set up opportunities for pattern recognition and synthesis. We illustrated this reading/notetaking strategy with the following chart details:
    • In the chart, each column is a category/prompt about an aspect of an article (e.g., question, hypothesis, methods, measures used, findings, research gaps/recommendations, etc.) and each row is an article (e.g., Jones 2012, Rodriguez and Smith 2014).
    • Each cell of the chart gets populated with the students’ summary about that aspect of the article. This helps students to identify what’s important in each article and to succinctly paraphrase key elements.
    • Once completed, students can scan each category (i.e., column) in the chart to find themes, similarities, and differences across sources.
    • Students can organize the notes (i.e., cells) into groups by those themes, similarities, and differences, working toward an outline. Their summary and paraphrasing can begin to transform into sentences in each group or paragraph. Their ideas about the patterns they’ve identified can help them introduce and close the paragraphs and transition between sources in each paragraph.

Homework for Session 2

  • Students in each research group identified an important article for their own research project, already underway. Each group member was to read the article and individually respond to the dissection guiding questions for that article’s introduction and literature review.
  • Students were to begin developing their own charts for notetaking and complete at least one row of the chart for the group’s common reading.

Session 2

  • Students worked with their research groups to discuss their responses to the dissection guiding questions, as well as their first steps on their notetaking charts. The faculty member and I consulted with each group.

Students’ responses to these activities were overwhelmingly positive. They were actively engaged in the small and large group discussions. Multiple students commented to me how much they wished they had learned these approaches sooner.

2000px-Gra_w_kropki_bazy.svgGra w kropki bazy – Dots (game)” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

While the above example was implemented with a group of seniors, there is certainly room to work on synthesis with younger students. A few weeks after the psychology capstone, I tried a similar activity with students in a first year seminar. At my institution, first year seminars are small, discussion-oriented courses that focus on students’ critical thinking and writing. This time, the faculty member, the course’s writing assistant (a more experienced student who is trained and embedded in the class as as a writing tutor/mentor), and I worked together to focus on helping students identify and evaluate how evidence is used in high quality popular literature (think essays published in The New Yorker or The Atlantic). By dissecting how authors use information differently in their essays to develop their ideas and engage readers, we wanted to help students become more critical consumers of information and also help them think about their use of information in their own writing. In a single course session, we implemented the following plan:

Dissecting an essay

  • We selected an essay recently published in The New Yorker related to the theme of the course. We asked students to read the essay in class and then, in a group of three, to locate and discuss key elements of the essay and their purposes, per the following guiding questions. We asked students to specifically locate illustrative passages. After working through the questions in their small groups, we discussed each question as an entire class.
    • Where can you locate the author’s thesis?
    • Where does the author use evidence to support her thesis?
      • Where does the integrate an anecdote? Why? To what effect?
      • Where does the author use quotations? Why? To what effect?
      • Where does the author cite academic research / data? Why? To what effect?
    • How does the author establish expertise and authority?
    • Where does the author pose questions? Why? To what effect? How does the author use evidence to answer the questions?
    • How does the author conclude the essay? How has the author used evidence in the essay to build to/support the conclusion?

Homework

  • Students were asked to read another article and again respond to the dissection guiding questions.

Once again, students were actively engaged in discussion. I was struck by the thoughtfulness of their contributions. The writing assistant in the first year seminar wrote me later to say how she appreciated that the activity and the guiding questions

“scaffolded student discussion and forced students to talk about ‘hard’ or ‘stressful’ topics (like the thesis, using evidence to support claims, determining how the author asserts power) one at a time, thus reducing the anxiety involved! Truthfully, I plan to use these questions to prompt myself next time a reading baffles me!”

I think it’s worth recognizing the affective language in her note: hard, stressful, anxiety, baffles. Developing strategies, as uncovered in these examples, can help students develop agency.

In both courses, guiding questions directed students to read closely and analyze sources incrementally. The guiding questions helped students recognize what’s important in a source and served as a model for how to critically read and analyze other sources. Moreover, the scaffolded questions served as a framework for students to make sense of the content itself and for their own writing and synthesis. By dissecting the sources for these key elements, students could see how each was constructed, decoding complexities that can sometimes seem a mystery and make research and writing feel insurmountable.

How do you help students develop strategies and agency? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

More Than Just Meetings: Thinking about Service to the Institution

Today was a Friday full of meetings for me that mostly took place outside of the library. I started out in the morning at the monthly(-ish) meeting of my college’s General Education Committee, along with other faculty and administrators from departments across the college. The college where I work is just beginning our preparation for an accreditation visit in a couple of years, so today we worked in small groups to consider the General Education course offerings for our students (among other tasks). After a brief stop in my office to answer a bit of email and grab my backpack, I hopped the subway to travel to my university’s central office for a training session on the new procedures for Chairs of the Faculty Student Disciplinary Committee on each campus. Lucky for me (and my fellow midday subway commuters), the second meeting came with lunch.

In my time as an academic librarian, both as Instruction Coordinator and as Chief Librarian, I’ve done and continue to do a fair amount of academic service work outside of the library. I’ve blogged previously about my work directing a major grant-funded project at my college. Though my current service load is not nearly as heavy as it was then, it’s definitely the case that college and university service commitments can take me out of the library for chunks of time. And it can sometimes be challenging to balance service responsibilities with library work.

Despite the time management challenges (and I readily confess that I’m looking forward to a meeting-free weekend), there’s much to value in college and university service for academic librarians. In joining a couple of college and university committees fairly soon after I started at City Tech I was able to learn a lot about how the college and university work. Many of the committees outside the library involve decisions and processes that involve or affect the library. For example, at my college all proposals for new courses and programs go through our College Council (like a Faculty Senate) Curriculum Committee. While there is a form within the proposal package that each library subject specialist completes, it’s also useful for library faculty to see the inner workings of the curriculum process and to help evaluate proposals. Beyond curriculum and collections, college service can help familiarize library faculty with the processes that affect students in their careers at the college. At our Reference and Circulation Desks we field lots of questions from students that don’t technically have to do with library services and resources — especially for new students who might not be sure where to go to ask a question, our service desks can be a first stop.

College service especially can be an opportunity to meet faculty and staff in departments and offices outside of the library. My college does a great job in orienting new faculty, which usually results in a strong cohort of folks who’ve been hired around the same time. But service commitments can offer the chance to meet faculty in all departments and at all ranks — from untenured Assistant Professors to tenured Professors with a deep institutional memory. This can be useful in our library work as we consult or partner with faculty around library services and resources. And, if you’re in a tenure-track or promotable position, committee work can introduce you to some of the folks who may be on the evaluation committees when you put in for tenure or promotion. In my personal experience it’s a relief to walk into that promotion interview and see a few familiar faces around the table.

What kinds of extra-library service are you expected (or do you sign up) to do at your job? What have you learned in your college service that’s useful for your library work and career? Drop us a line in the comments.

Something’s Always Wrong – Depression and the First Year

I intended to write about something else entirely, but the past two months have been particularly difficult so I decided to share my story now.

To be clear, I am not depressed because I am a first-year librarian; I am a depressed person who is a first-year librarian. I was undiagnosed until my early twenties, but I had been experiencing symptoms of depression and panic disorder long before that. For almost as long as I can remember, both have been a part of my daily life. Now I am a first-year librarian at a large R1 university. So in addition to imposter syndrome, the stress associated with starting a new job in a new city, the crippling weight of student loan debt, and the endemic gender bias persistent higher education, I also grapple with major depression. That said, I know I’m not alone in this experience.

Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for ages people between the ages of 15 to 44 and is also more prevent in women than in men. Let that sink in for a moment. Depression is often accompanied with other mental health disorders. In my case it’s panic disorder, which, for me, means that I often experience sudden bouts of debilitating panic and fear. Approximately six million Americans have panic disorder and – you guessed it – women are more affected by it than men.

I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I have been diagnosed and can start managing my mental health problems with the help of a good insurance policy. I have a treatment plan that includes therapy and an emotional support animal. I also have a very supportive reporting officer who is sensitive to the complexities of my mental health. I’ve begun establishing boundaries between the workplace and my personal life in order to manage stress. I’ve also started doing yoga, which helps.

Despite my best efforts and the resources available to me, depression and anxiety still play a major role in my day-to-day life. Depression isn’t something that is easily “cured,” in fact most of us spend our lives simply trying to manage it. Mental health, especially for women in the workplace, is a complex and layered problem. While awareness of these issues is increasing, it’s still treated somewhat like a taboo. We often talk about depression and anxiety in academia, but it’s often depersonalized.

That’s why I’m writing about this here. It’s very much accepted that depression and anxiety often take a toll on undergraduate and graduate students, but we often don’t talk about how it continues to effect people once they’ve graduated and accepted their first job. What I hope to share with you is the experience of one first-year academic librarian as she struggles to make manage these common mental health problems on top of the stresses of starting a new job.

Academia can be a harsh work environment. Here the myth of eighty hour work weeks still persists, the job search process can be particularly debasing, and new hires often feel overwhelmed by the feeling that they are falling behind or underperforming. Because of the nature of the work, many academics feel like they can never really escape their work. And then there are the pressures of pursuing tenure, which affixes another layer of anxiety and fear.

In the LIS world, Twitter is one of the main channels we use to build networks of support, circulate new or interesting articles, and engage in conversations about our work. But social media comes with its own pressures. I have found that my desire to engage with my online community has led to me Tweeting after working hours and on weekends — time which should be reserved for my non-librarian self and my family.

Lately, I’ve been struggling to balance my intense preoccupation with being grateful for my job, and unsatisfied and ambitious with my work – call it a sort of workplace Stockholm Syndrome. I feel so lucky to have a job, but also unsatisfied with many of the tacit pressures that underlie the job description. This, in turn, triggers panic and worsens my fears that I might appear ungrateful to observers, and that I may not fit into this world after all.

I’ve been reading a lot about mental health in academia. It’s probably too much to list here, but Google “mental health academia” or read some of the stories under the #lismentalhealth hashtag on Twitter and you’ll see how many people are talking about this issue. There are many powerful stories out there, and I’m grateful to be in such a supportive community where we are all bent on raising consciousness in this arena.

I often see suggestions like mediation, yoga, and finding hobbies as suggestions for combating these stressors. While they are great suggestions, I still worry that we are missing the point.

Until recently, mental health in academia was diluted to general statements like “every librarian needs a therapist,” or “we need to support our colleagues with depression or anxiety,” or “imposter syndrome is a real thing.” Of course it is tremendous that we are admitting these facts as community, and awareness is the first step toward a sea change. But, suggesting that exercise or picking up knitting are solutions to these problems is a step in the wrong direction.

But this is just my truth, and part of managing my own mental health is coming to grips with what works for me. Everyone has their own truth, and whatever yours is, don’t ever feel like it’s abnormal.

So, what solutions do I have? For me, navigating my depression in academia means that I set very sharp boundaries on my time. I have never been someone who can work ten or twelve hours straight. I don’t feel guilty about not working on the weekends (when I can help it). If I am not on email duty, I stop responding to email after 5:00-6:00 in the evening, and I’m gradually working on not checking it altogether after that time.

I also vacillate between checking Twitter daily to not checking it for weeks. Social media (Twitter especially) is a precarious place for me. While I find it a great tool for connecting to others in the field, it engenders an overwhelming sense of Keeping up With the Joneses. When that happens, I take a break.

It is also pretty important for me to rely on family and friends who aren’t librarians. I can’t talk about being a librarian all the time and need a social life that isn’t connected to my job. I’m also becoming more comfortable with saying “no” and protecting my time. There’s a lot of pressure to volunteer for everything as a first-year faculty member, but I’ve learned to know my limits. This is both a professional and personal struggle, but I’m getting there.

This is just what works for me.

Mostly, I just think it’s important to keep this narrative open, so I’m taking this position of privilege to do it. So, on those days when I am crying before leaving for work, feeling like a total failure for not measuring up to my colleagues’ success, or comparing my student loan debt to my annual adjusted gross income, maybe writing about it here can help me find out that I’m not alone. Hopefully, it’ll do the same for you.

Getting rejected in the library world. What now?

I would like to address something that might be slightly uncomfortable topic for some. Rejection.  I know it’s definitely uncomfortable for me. I had planned to write about this topic, but I had planned to write about it near the end of my tenure at ACRLog.

Rejection comes in many forms, but the rejection that I am talking about is the type you get in this profession. Rejection of a proposal, job-position, book chapter, grant, or article. As a first-year academic librarian, the first year (so far) has been great, stressful, and eye-opening. I would not trade this for the world, but that also means accepting what comes with it.

I submitted an article for an academic journal and in less than 24 hours, I got a rejection. Now, a rejection stings, but it stings even more when you read the comments.

“this draft would not be publishable as a scholarly article. It is really a rambling excessively personal  recollection of various experiences, without a clear thesis or focus. “

Ouch (to say the least). I had to go back into my email and fetch the rejection and copy and paste it into this blog post…and that alone was hard. I was crushed, sad, lost, and many other things that I cannot find the words for. I was still at work and it was right before my hour at the reference desk. I had to keep it together and keep myself from staring at the computer screen. Now, rejection is different for everyone. For the first couple of hours, I felt frustration and like the wind had been knocked out of me.

This frustration was not towards the journal or the reviewers, but it was frustration and anger towards myself. “This is my fault”, “I knew I wasn’t ready,” “This was my responsibility” were the thoughts in my head.

A lot of students in library school present at conferences or get their feet wet. I, however, did not get my feet wet. I did not have any experience with presenting or publishing, but I was eager to do so. It was a lot harder than I thought, but I knew that if one day I wanted to work as a tenure-track librarian, then I needed to get my act together. This was my first submission and the first rejection. Needless to say, it stung.

Now what? What was next? I needed to move past this and continue with my professional life.

“Moving past” are the keywords. It is not “getting over it.” No one wants to feel what I felt, but I believe it’s important to keep moving forward.

My first thought and question was if anyone had written about his or her rejections. At the time of my rejection, I would have never published my experience. I was too embarrassed and too ashamed.

I found a blog post that detailed the writer’s rejection with a well-respect library position in this country. In “We need to share our rejections,” Brianna Marshall aspired to become a candidate for the North Carolina State University Fellowship Program (NCSU). As it turns out, Brianna was not part of the pool of final candidates.

“It was hard to feel good about myself. Instead, I felt deeply disappointed and humiliated.” As I read these words, I instantly felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I knew I was not alone. I was so grateful that someone had been brave enough to write about their experience and to have the courage to put it out there for all to see.

“I remind myself that moving forward is a good thing even if it’s not always easy.” And so this is what I needed to do. I needed to pick myself up, make a plan, and move ahead. I had told myself that it was going to be alright, but for the first time, I actually believed it.

I believe that people can succeed on their own. However, when they fail, the help of others is absolutely essential. The rejection had sunk in and reading Brianna’s blog suddenly brought a moment of clarity. I do not know about you all, but when I experience these moments, I cannot sit still. I have to make a plan, I have to take action.

So, if anyone is in this position, here are a few things that helped.

  • Take some time for yourself and let it sink in
  • I strongly recommend reading Brianna Marshall’s Blog post “We need to share our rejections.” It made me feel so much better and I hope it can do the same for you
  • Once you feel a little better, make a list of goals. Both short and long term. What do you want to accomplish this semester? who can help you? How can you do it?

For myself, I find it therapeutic and important that I keep myself busy, especially after a rejection.

And here is the most important thing. Keep applying. Don’t stop. It could be hard to write something else or apply for a conference because of the fear of rejection. Not applying because of that fear would be worse.

 

To my surprise, many good things came out of this rejection. They were determination, acceptance, patience, and a feeling that maybe I should not be so hard on myself. I think this is definitely a situation where you can learn from your mistakes, but I also think that once all the harsh feelings pass, you can move on. That’s what I did, I submitted proposals for a conference and a symposium, and guess what? I got a panel proposal accepted for a national conference in California and a symposium for critical libraries and pedagogy.

I am proud of myself and know that rejection is a part of life, but that doesn’t mean stopping and giving up. It means moving forward and doing work that you can be proud of.

I know scholarship will be a difficult and long process for me, but I think I can do it. I hope that this post serves as a way for others to see that it’s not the end of the road if you get rejected, and most importantly, that we can and should talk about this topic.

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.

the_larger_whole

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 doing.in 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…