Tag Archives: audience

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.


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

Expanding Our (Conference) Audience

The week before Thanksgiving I joined thousands of anthropologists and others who descended on Chicago for the American Anthropological Association conference. My research partner Mariana Regalado and I participated in a roundtable session with colleagues from four other institutions who are also doing ethnographic work in libraries and higher education: Andrew Asher, Lesley Gourlay, Lori Jahnke, and Donna Lanclos. Our session discussed the myriad ways that college and university students engage with technology, and how students’ lived experiences can add detail that may be missing from data collected to inform strategic plans and administrative initiatives. Also threaded throughout was an interrogation of the idea of the undergraduate as digital native, which of course academic librarians readily identify as problematic. Donna both blogged about and Storified the session well, if you’re interested in the details.

The roundtable format at the AAAs was new to me, and I have to admit that I was a bit nervous before the session in part because I was not quite sure what to expect. From what I could glean beforehand it seemed like roundtables are intended to be a bit like what many library conferences call panel sessions, though somewhat less formal. We didn’t have papers to present or a linear slide deck, but rather began with each of us describing our projects, using a Prezi to offer a few visuals, then jumped in with the six of us discussing broad themes and talking points we’d identified beforehand. We had just under two hours for the session and there was lots of discussion and conversation with our audience.

And our audience was delightful! As a group they were highly engaged, with multiple folks asking questions and offering discussion points from their own experiences. Though smallish in number, we were lucky enough to have attendees who inhabited different roles in the higher education: full-time faculty members, adjunct faculty, graduate students, and even a thoughtful, well-spoken undergraduate who asked terrific questions and readily shared her frustrations and challenges with academic technology with us. It was fascinating to hear from an adjunct who shared her story of being assigned a new classroom chock full of the latest tech tools, and her struggles to use the technology in the absence of thorough training. And the undergraduate noted that sometimes her professors assign tech-heavy projects seemingly without a full understanding of the time and effort involved in pulling them off, assuming that all students her age have loads of experience with any new tech tool.

In some ways the session was like a mini-focus group, with the end result that the six of us on the roundtable left energized and enthusiastic for future research and collaboration. Since then I’ve been thinking not only about our research but also about the audience. At academic library conferences we tend to talk to and amongst ourselves — fellow academic librarians. Sometimes graduate students attend, but conferences are expensive, and since academic librarianship doesn’t have the strong tradition of the conference job interview the way many scholarly associations do, there’s perhaps not as much of a reason for MLIS students to attend conferences while still in graduate school.

But wouldn’t it be fabulous to have conversations — both formal presentations and informal — with faculty, students, and others who use and have a stake in academic libraries at our conferences? Of course we can hold focus groups at our own institutions, but there’s a different dynamic at conferences, in addition to the opportunity to speak with folks from other colleges and universities. I’m not sure that there’s enough relevant content for faculty and students from outside the library to come to a conference geared towards academic librarians, though. Have you been to any library conferences that drew attendees from outside of the world of academic libraries? Other than inviting non-library folks to present with us, are there other ways we could encourage them to attend?