Tag Archives: Information Literacy

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Winter Break

Finals end today at the college where I work, and the semester is coming to a close. I really value the stretch of slower days in the library during the intersession; it’s a great time to take stock of what we’re doing and where we’re headed. This semester was incredibly busy, with a big increase in enrollment and much more instruction than last fall, so I’m even more grateful for the temporary slowdown. This winter break I’ve got three big projects to I’m hoping to tackle:

1. Planning for Next Semester
The core of our library instruction program is a mandatory one-shot for all English Composition classes, and our instruction librarians met last week for a debrief and planning session. For next semester our focus is on increasing both student and faculty participation in these sessions. We brainstormed a number of strategies at our meeting and will start to implement them over the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to teaching the revised sessions next semester — it’ll be interesting to see how these changes impact student engagement.

2. Long-term Program Ideas
In addition to prepping for our Spring instruction sessions, I’m hoping to take some time this intersession to think more about the future of our information literacy and library instruction program. I’m especially interested in learning more about programs that feature intensive, one-on-one collaboration between librarians and faculty in other departments. I’m excited to dig into research on faculty development programs like the Undergraduate Information Competency Initiative at Cornell University, the information literacy workshops at James Madison University, and the Information Literacy Quality Enhancement Plan at Trinity University.

3. Research and Scholarly Work
I’ll have a few research leave days in January, so I’m planning to catch up on some research and writing. I’m working on a research project with a colleague this year and we’ve got a pile of data from interviews with faculty and students to start to analyze; I’m also beginning a study with another colleague. And, despite my best efforts at keeping up, I still have a stack of articles that I haven’t found time to get through this semester. If I can shrink that tower of paper by the end of the winter break, it will definitely feel like an accomplishment!

Gone Camping

It’s summertime, so last week I packed my bag and headed off to camp: LibCampNYC, a library unconference held at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

This was the first unconference I’d ever attended, having narrowly missed out on signing up for Library Camp NYC in 2007. One of the defining features of an unconference is its loose structure. I have to admit that I came into the day somewhat skeptical that the model would actually work, that 100+ people would be able to plan the day’s events on the fly first thing in the morning. While the organizers had done some pre-planning, arranging the topics proposed by participants on the preconference wiki into clusters of similar themes, the 4-5 sessions that ran in each timeslot were determined by the entire group. It was amazing to watch the schedule coalesce right before our eyes.

I went to four sessions over the course of the day, opting to stay in each one rather than move around. Lots of interesting things were discussed:

  • In the How should we handle the dinosaur known as the reference desk? session, the point was made that at academic libraries students may not feel comfortable approaching the reference desk when it’s not crowded because the librarian on duty looks busy, and students don’t want to interrupt. On the Twitter backchannel, bentleywg shared that his library places signs in front of the librarians’ computers on the ref desk that read “Please Interrupt Me.” Such a great idea!
  • I co-facilitated Information literacy instruction and strategies, and I was especially pleased that so many public librarians came to that session. It was so interesting to learn about the variety of opportunities that public librarians have to teach their patrons, from kids through adults, aspects of information literacy. I’ve often wondered about how my library could partner with the public library, since we only have our students for four years and public libraries have them for the rest of their lives (but that’s probably a topic for another post).
  • The Open access session was fairly free-form, with discussion on the topic ranging far and wide. Advocacy was a recurring thread, especially how academic librarians can educate faculty about open access on their campuses. One of the most interesting suggestions was to engage students in advocacy, as discussed at the SPARC session on this topic at ALA’s Midwinter meeting in 2008. For example, Students for Free Culture, a multi-campus organization, seems like a great partner for librarians working on OA issues.
  • The final session I attended was Critical pedagogy/critical information literacy, a topic I’m very interested in though just starting to read and learn about. A big theme in this discussion was the “tyranny of the one-shot,” with many librarians chewing over how to bring critical pedagogies to a library session that may be restricted to as little as 45 minutes.

The day went by in a flash and was great fun. My only small frustration was that the sessions seemed too short. By the time the participants said a few words introducing ourselves and expressing our interest in the topic and the conversation really got going, the session time was nearly half gone. But it’s also true that longer sessions = fewer sessions, and I wouldn’t have wanted to drop any of the four that I attended.

Longer sessions would also have allowed for more space to accommodate the variety of experience with and interest in a topic that everyone brought to the sessions. And while I do think that this diversity of perspective added depth to our discussions, sometimes a conversational thread that was interesting to me was snipped short and I wished we had more time to for it. But of course that’s the spirit of an unconference, that the program evolves continuously. And that made the event one of the most exciting and learning-filled professional events that I’ve ever attended.

But I think that what I valued most about LibCampNYC was the ability to connect with librarians from across the profession. I spend most of my time with academic librarians, and it was great to have the opportunity to learn from my colleagues in public, special, medical, and other libraries. I also appreciated the diversity in experience — the mix of both newer and more seasoned librarians in addendance. And of course this was much more participatory than a typical conference, because the program and topics were determined by all of us, together.

If you’re interested in reading the session notes, you can find them on the LibCampNYC wiki. I can’t wait to go library camping again!

Thinking About the Future

As the end of the semester rolls around I’ve been sorting through the evaluations that we ask our English Composition I students to fill out at the end of their required library session. I was scrolling through the spreadsheet of student responses the other day and one in particular jumped out at me: “How will this help us in the future?”

It’s often said that there are no bad questions (and I agree), but there are also some really good questions and that’s one of them. Why DO our students need what we teach them in a library session? How will they apply what they’ve learned in our classes to their lives in the future?

I spend the first part of my classes trying to emphasize that information literacy and the research skills they’ll begin to learn in college are transferable knowledge. I give them concrete examples of the relevance of information literacy to their careers (preparing for job interviews, staying current in their fields, etc.) and their lives beyond college (finding health information, moving or traveling to a new place, etc.). I’m at a college of technical and professional studies, and planning for their future jobs is always on students’ minds.

I also point out that becoming a proficient searcher is relevant to their work here at college, when they’ll need to search for library materials, and for searching the internet (again, both in college and in their everyday lives). I stress that different questions require different information to answer, and the importance of evaluating information, especially on the internet but also “traditionally” published information.

Our time in the library sessions always seems too short, but I feel like I do a reasonably good job of explaining the relevance of research skills and information literacy to the lives of our students both in college and in the future. So, what happened in that class? Did the student come to the session late, or sleep (or web surf) through the beginning, when I usually cover these topics?

Or are the reasons I give to students not compelling enough? Maybe they’ve heard it all before, that every subject they’re required to study is relevant, and since they haven’t actually gotten to their post-college careers and lives it’s not real for them yet.

Whatever the student’s reason for asking the question, it’s still a good question. I’ve written it on a post-it and stuck it above my computer monitor so I can keep it in mind when thinking about the future of our information literacy and instruction program, too.

Faculty Involvement Makes All The Difference

In a previous post I expressed my vision for the future of information literacy – and in that vision it’s not the librarians teaching students the skills needed to be wise consumers of information – it’s the faculty. That’s why this Wired Campus post caught my attention. It’s about two faculty members who wrote a research guide for students, and who integrate some elements of information literacy (evaluating content) into their courses.

Students don’t research like they used to. And they have a hard time evaluating the credibility of information they find, both in print and online. At least that’s what two instructors at Mesa Community College saw in their courses. So the instructors, Rochelle L. Rodrigo and Susan K. Miller-Cochran, who is now an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University, wrote The Wadsworth Guide to Research, published this year by Cengage Learning. In November they presented some of their teaching strategies at the New Media Consortium’s Rock the Academy symposium, in Second Life.

Ms. Miller-Cochran talked to The Chronicle about how to help students determine when a source is reliable. She emphasizes the need for students to learn how to think critically about their information searches. In her class students learn about the publication process, and that leads them to better understand the difference between popular and scholarly literature – whatever format it is in. She said:

The most immediate difference is that my students don’t go to Wikipedia or Google first. When they come into class, that is usually their MO. Now they’re much more likely to go to a library database, for example. And when they use the library database, they might choose the option to search only for scholarly articles.

When I read a statement like this coming from a faculty member it pretty much validates, for me, everything I’ve said and written in the last 10 years about the vital role faculty can play in changing student research behavior when they make it a priority and integrate it into their course material. Just consider the amount of time Miller-Cochran’s students must spend on research skill development compared to an instructor who invites in a librarian to offer a one-time instruction session. And we know that students place enormous trust in what faculty tell them. As expected there were multiple comments to this post from librarians communicating a “we’re here to help you” message.

Then shortly after this article appeared, Inside Higher Ed came up with another example of faculty designing an information literacy component into their course. In an article about changes in the teaching of history at community colleges we learned that some faculty are “focusing on basic information literacy and research skills, which their students tend to lack.” Could our faculty colleagues finally be getting the message? We learn that Brian Casserly of North Seattle Community College uses assignments in a U.S. survey history course to teach the basics of conducting research and writing a research paper. I wish more faculty would consider taking on greater responsibility for teaching research skills in their courses as Casserly does.

But I can imagine some information literacy and instruction librarians asking themselves “if faculty do ever fully integrate this into their courses and teach it without me – what will I do for a living?” The possibility of librarians being made obsolete by faculty following the examples described above, I think, is highly unlikely. But even if the majority of faculty did, I think that academic librarians would still be needed to support the development and design of instructional activity and digital-learning materials. Our new opportunity would be back-end support – making sure faculty were up-to-date on the e-resources and well equipped with the tools to integrate them into their courses. This could be a whole new growth area for librarian educators. That’s where I’ve advocated the growing importance of instructional design and technology in the work of librarians. I don’t know exactly where academic librarians will be in the future, but if it wasn’t at the front of the classroom that would be fine with me – as long as we play a role in what happens there.

Long Lost Motivation

In the current-day liturgy of teaching, it seems that motivating students is key. Once you have students motivated, supposedly, they will easily absorb what may otherwise seem dry or mundane. So a teacher’s plan should not be to transmit the material, but to motivate the students to learn the material for themselves while acting as a guiding frame. For librarians who teach, then, the challenge is to motivate students to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information.

I know it’s possible to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information, because it happened to me. But that was in graduate school, after many years of appreciating libraries and learning. The question I keep returning to is, what’s the formula for librarians to motivate students in a meaningful way during a brief reference transaction, or at best a library instruction session? Particularly in context, where research is only one part of a broader assignment or class?
(And don’t mistake this as a call for credit-bearing IL courses — I agree with Steven Bell’s recent post)

One recent reference desk transaction that I consider particularly successful involved a patron writing an argumentative paper about how x causes y. She wanted to find research supporting her view. So we tracked down some research, looked at some studies, and found that x has not been conclusively shown to cause y, but there are correlations, and many sources have used these correlations to prescribe certain behaviors. This was a wonderful information literacy lesson because it demonstrated how information is generated and then interpreted, and it was directly relevant to the context of her need. It was also representative of most of the reference questions I handle, in that patrons really don’t care about the intricacies of the catalog or databases until they have a specific question. It’s only when learning search tools and finding aids is integrated into answering a question that the search for information becomes interesting. In a class, though, I find this level of customization is not always possible.

I also do want to promote student independence in information-seeking behaviors, but wouldn’t you hate it if you walked up to some computer guru, asked her to show you how to do something, & she said “I’m not going to show you how to do it, but I’ll show you how I figured it out. I read the tutorial and went to a bunch of training classes, and then I played with it a bunch.” Everyone looks for similar shortcuts all the time, but shortcuts are meaningless without context. So context is essential to library instruction — we have to make library tools relevant to a certain class, or assignments, for the lesson to work.

In conclusion (sort of), it is easier but insufficient to simply feed students the shortcuts (i.e. the finding aids) without a context. We have to come up with truly thrilling examples of how information works, but much of the time we are preoccupied with thinking about how the tools work. Obviously it will vary by discipline, but does anyone have any great examples they’d like to share here? Or perhaps there’s a forum for this type of idea-generation that I haven’t found yet?