Tag Archives: reflection

The Born Librarian: My Professional Identity in Librarianship

creation
Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You may have noticed from my last post that lately I have been grappling with questions of my professional identity. For example, I tried to understand or argue for the importance of libraries, and my best answer was that libraries’ most important role is their role as a public space and gatekeeper of information. I have been using writing as a means to work through these important questions; my professional identity is very important to me, and I want to develop it deliberately and carefully.

I recently had a draft for this current post, only to decide that I was too negative about librarianship in it, that I questioned my professional role too much and had no sense of assuredness or confidence about the “fit” of the profession for me. The blog post was about being a generalist, how librarians are generalists, and how, essentially, I don’t want to be a generalist. My biggest fear is that to be a generalist means that I didn’t really know anything, that I have nothing in which to anchor my intellectual pursuits. Librarianship is very “meta” – all about access, discovery, evaluation, interpretation, use, creation, dissemination…but I want to know the substance and depth of this information that we are providing!

Then I asked my Dean and mentor, Patty Iannuzzi, to read the post, as it had been a direct response to learning that she values librarians’ being generalists, because it results in more balanced collections and services. The conversation was stimulating and a little unsettling, perhaps for both of us – for her because I have professional identity issues, and I’m not the only librarian who has them, for me because I realized, through attempting to answer her questions of me, just how shaky the ground is upon which I am standing in terms of my professional identity. Patty is the biggest champion of libraries that I know, and I felt badly revealing these doubts and insecurities to her. But I knew that if anyone could help me solve those issues, she could. Patty had several challenging questions for me, one of which was about why I do what I do, and what role librarians have. My answers for her felt grossly inadequate. They amounted to “helping people do research,” or “helping people access information.” My answers felt so simple, even shallow, and I wondered: what makes these activities unique to libraries anyway? The truth is, I am not sure that librarians are indispensable. After all, I went through all of my academic programs, up until library school, without ever having to really rely upon library services or sources even. I was required to purchase all my course texts, which were core readings in the disciplines.

Oh my! Have I chosen the wrong profession? I will admit, this was my second pick, an alternative to my original plan and dream for life. Certainly I would fall into the category of “failed academics,” (if such a category should even exist, but it sounds so negative)! I attempted to complete two PhD programs prior to entering the field. I finished a different master’s program with the intention of completing a PhD and going on to teach in a specific discipline. In all honesty, I chose librarianship because of its convenience, and chose to leave the program I was enrolled in to attend library school because I needed to move towards financial independence at a faster rate than I was currently. I needed something stable, and I needed something that would be more likely to land me an actual job.

I acted very quickly (deciding and then immediately applying in April, and receiving an acceptance letter a few weeks later for fall enrollment). As a consequence, I didn’t think too much about what it means to be a librarian, or the crises or growing pains that librarianship is experiencing as a profession. Maybe in the back of my mind I was aware of the clichés that librarianship was dying, but at the time, it seemed like a very good, practical career option; I knew there were still jobs out there. I believe that I made the right choice given my situation, because librarianship has provided me with a good, stable job and that was my top priority. I also happen to like what I do on a day-to-day basis, and when I tell others that I am a librarian, I say it with a sense of pride, because people respect and revere librarians. I simply have yet to figure out its significance for me as a profession – as a vocation or a calling. I am like Jason Bourne – I have an identity as a librarian, and I am trying to find out the truth about what that means. I don’t yet experience recollection in this role – it doesn’t feel familiar. It’s as if I have this new identity that comes with a past, a history, that is totally foreign to me.

I have faith that it will happen in time. In fact, I don’t think that attaining a sense of professional identity has to happen before one actually enters the profession and develops as a professional. That is because there are all sorts of factors we can’t predict before starting a career, and we can never really know what a particular career is like until we actually gain experience in it. Library school doesn’t teach you what librarianship is really like, only skills and some theory to help you work through or think about particular issues. Library school doesn’t take you to the essence, or the heart, of what it means to be a librarian. Library school doesn’t make you ask those important questions about professional identity. Now, library schools are becoming even more far-removed from actual libraries, becoming Schools of Information Science (including my alma mater). Does this mean they don’t even care about the physical spaces and services of actual libraries anymore? You can read more about that in Scott Walter and Carol Tilley’s College & Research Libraries editorial.

In response to my doubts and questions, Patty didn’t really have clear-cut answers for me, because I do not think there are clear-cut answers to such doubts. Those doubts are very real, and very personal. However, she did help me come to some realizations. She helped me to realize that it is okay to have doubts, that it is pretty normal at this point in my career – that is pretty normal for librarians in general – that I am not alone. She helped me understand that it is okay for me not to have a strong sense of professional identity right away, because that is something that I can develop over time, as I become more confident in the services that I provide, as I innovate more, and as I realize that my services are indispensable and beneficial to a large number of people. I can forge a path and make this profession my own. I know that this is possible because Patty, and many others, model it for me. I will simply develop my professional identity after-the-fact.

I once had a mentor who told me, “I want to help you become who you are.” I may not have been born a librarian; this hasn’t always been who I am, and I don’t quite yet own this identity. I have the potential to become who I am, though, and I am committed to this process. It may take patience. I’m not sure yet how it will happen. I just have to keep plowing forward, with openness to change, the willingness to innovate and create, and a lot of dedication to discovering out exactly what this means for my life, in this particular geographic location, and how I fit into the bigger picture of the profession. As I chase after this identity, this identity may actually chase after me too, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people, like Patty, to provide clues along the way.

Generosity at work

It seems to me that the interconnectedness of our work makes us library folk frequent collaborators. It often takes a number of people working together, for example, to select, acquire, receive, catalog, and provide access to resources. Or, for instance, how does a librarian have access to students for in-class instruction if not through collaboration with faculty? We are often skilled at working cooperatively and fostering partnerships within our libraries, across our campuses, and beyond.

The characteristics and quality of our many collaborations, however, can sometimes be disappointing–as is the case in all work environments, no doubt. It’s frustrating when work that is connected and should be collaborative is instead disjointed and siloed. It’s challenging to work with a difficult or defensive colleague or supervisor. And it’s depressing to recognize when we ourselves have been the source of a problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year and a half or so working with a faculty member at my institution on a fairly intensive teaching and research project. The course of our deepening and developing partnership has provided me an occasion to give a lot of thought to our collaboration and, by extension, the nature of collaboration more generally. This particular faculty member has been an especially generous collaborator. By generous, I don’t mean she has been nice or easy to work with, although she certainly has been those things. What stands out most to me is that she has never been territorial or defensive. She has had no tendency toward one-upsmanship. Instead, she has been at ease with and even eager for sharing ideas, work, and credit. She was as keen to hear my ideas as she was to share her own and just as likely to advance my interests as she was hers or, better yet, find common ground between them.

Indeed, when I reflect on the many people I’ve worked with, I feel grateful for all the generosity I can so easily call to mind. These people and moments were characterized by, much like my recent faculty partner, a ready willingness to share ideas, information, communication, and credit, an inclination to recognize the potential and the contributions of others. These were people who were accountable and took responsibility for their fair share of both work and mistakes. Rather than trying to stake personal claims, they sought to support and advance those around them such that everyone benefitted–individually and together.

As far back as elementary school, I’ve prided myself on being a good teammate or colleague, yet I now recognize how one-sided a collaborator I often have been. I cringe to recall the moments when I was certainly eager to help others, but not work with them. I see now how I was often resistant to others’ contributions and reluctant to hear criticisms. I was more than happy to give, but not to actually join forces. I wasn’t ill-intentioned, just perhaps (too) focused on self-reliance or proving myself.

A search for recommendations on how to be more generous at work turns up articles like this one and this one. The short version of their suggestions includes things like: be thoughtful, work hard, communicate readily, collaborate better, share credit, create positive working environments, and so on. While these things can be easy to know, they are often hard to do.

To be clear, I’m not talking about being nice here. I’m by no means against niceness or kindness. What I’m talking about, though, is developing and contributing to an environment of thick collegiality such that we can work effectively together in a “shared endeavor to create something rich in meaning.” Generosity, I think, helps makes this possible.

So how to become a more generous collaborator, leader, colleague, supervisor, supervisee, mentor, and/or teacher? Some research suggests that, perhaps like most things, practicing makes it easier. And my personal experience suggests the same. The more I practice generosity–that is, the more I cultivate the mindset and habits of a generous colleague or leader–the easier it is. And the more generosity I see around me and receive in return. It seems to me that respect and trust are at the core of this attitude and practice. Being generous both requires and helps promote trust and respect.

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here. I do think I’m better at this than I used to be, perhaps because of time, age, worldview, and because I’ve worked at it, too. I also know I can be better at it still. But the practice of promoting generous behaviors and attitude–the work of it and the reflection on it–has had a significant impact on my work relationships, quality, engagement, and satisfaction.

It would be naive to ignore the roles gender and other types of power and privilege, or lack thereof, can play in collaborative work and the work environment generally. Some might say, for example, that generosity is expected of women, and not men. Or some might say that to be “generous” actually means to be weak or timid or taken advantage of. There are challenging and troublesome expectations and stereotypes wrapped up in this conversation for sure. It’s reasonable to worry how this might reinforce divides, rather than challenge them. It seems to me, though, that generosity can help to subvert stereotyped expectations and structural inequalities by acknowledging others’ capabilities and accomplishments, by making space for voices otherwise unrecognized. I think practicing generosity at work opens communication, creates respect, and transforms our perspectives and practices for the better. Generosity can promote opportunities and engagement for us all.

Your thoughts? Drop us a line in the comments…

The Best Work I Do is at the Intersections

November was a whirlwind. I felt both overwhelmed and enlightened after #OpenEd15 in Vancouver last week. The conference empowered me to see a different side of the Open Education movement, which helped me realize just how much I still have to learn. Still, I found myself yearning for more critical, strategic conversations about openness. Both Robin DeRosa and Adam Heidebrink-Bruno have written brilliant reflections about this that echo my feelings.

I also just completed the interview process to become a curriculum designer/ presenter for ACRL’s Intersections initiative. While I didn’t end up getting the position, the interview process made me seriously reflect on how my work engages information literacy, scholarly communication, and rich and important intersections of both. After visiting an Anthropology of Social Movements course last week to talk about Open Access and activism, I knew that I needed to reflect on just how important these intersections are.

I have extensive experience with teaching information literacy sessions and concepts. I have created workshops, programming, and grant opportunities that engage altmetrics, OA, and other scholarly communication issues. I have talked to LIS classes and international librarians about how to not only find and evaluate OER but also how to share their own learning objects openly. Yet, I still struggle with articulating how exactly the intersections of these two areas are present in my work. I wholeheartedly believe that the intersections are integral and—dare I say it—the most important component of what I do. But that doesn’t mean that they are always tangible or even visible.

I think that this is explained, in part, by how ingrained they are in how I teach and engage.

ACRL’s Intersections of Scholarly Communication and Information Literacy document identifies three important intersections that librarians should strategically pursue:

1) economics of the distribution of scholarship (including access to scholarship, the changing nature of scholarly publishing, and the education of students to be knowledgeable content consumers and content creators);

2) digital literacies (including teaching new technologies and rights issues, and the emergence of multiple types of non-textual content);

3) our changing roles (including the imperative to contribute to the building of new infrastructures for scholarship, and deep involvement with creative approaches to teaching).

The document and responses to it hold that while scholarly communication outreach is traditionally focused on collections/faculty and information literacy work is traditionally focused on students/pedagogy, this dichotomy is continually blurring (pg. 20). Students are blogging, publishing in undergraduate journals, and deciding how to share their honors theses and other publications. Further, many experiential learning opportunities ask students to delve into digital content creation, which often intersects with librarians’ expertise in data literacy, intellectual property issues, and copyright. All librarians, particularly information literacy librarians that work closely with students, need to be knowledgeable about scholarly communication topics and think critically about how it redefines their work.

I find the ways that scholarly communication is being infused with information literacy even more interesting and exciting, partly because I believe that IL can make scholarly communication outreach more holistic and approachable. One of the best examples of this is librarians’ outreach on altmetrics and impact factor. Asking faculty and graduate students to think critically about how we evaluate scholarship and what impact really means to them as scholars and information consumers is information literacy. When I taught an altmetrics workshop, I didn’t just teach tools like the ISI’s JCR, Google Scholar, and Impact Story. I taught participants how to interrogate what impact is and the role it has in academia. I asked them to consider why the academy should value public discourse and impact. I pushed them to find a combination of metrics would give others a holistic view of their own impact. In my mind, this is “Scholarship as a Conversation” at its best. This is information literacy at its best.

The ACRL Intersections document built a valuable foundation for me to understand these intersections. But I’d like to use this space to push the boundaries. Are there intersections that are even more unique and, thus, less visible? Are there intersections that are pushing our job descriptions and our conceptions of our work even further? I’ll list a few that have been on my mind a lot lately. These are, of course, up for debate.

As I present Open Access issues to students, I have a slide that asks “how can libraries keep buying these journals? How can faculty keep publishing in them?” I usually talk about the faculty reward system and how faculty are incentivized to publish in high impact journals, regardless of their cost. But then Emily Drabinski tweeted something that made me reconsider my explanation:

emily's tweet

Since then, I’ve been thinking about discovery a lot. Scholarship is about more than tenure. Faculty want to share their life’s work with others that care about their niche too. What if, instead of using my watered down explanation, I asked students the question “why even publish in a journal? What is the benefit of doing so?” I think the result would be a much more rich conversation about indexing, how databases organize information, which journals are in each database, how information flows within the academy, and why we search the way that we do. It would bring “Searching as Strategic Exploration” to the next level. Instead of just teaching them Boolean, I would be teaching them all of the connecting dots for why Boolean is a useful searching mechanism within databases. Further, I would be connecting IL and SC in a rich and nuanced way.

I know what you’re thinking! Isn’t that too complicated for undergraduates? Don’t they just need a two minute explanation about AND/ OR/ NOT? In their recent book chapter about the intersections of IL and SC, Kim Duckett and Scott Warren provide an explanation for why they think complexity is both valuable and necessary:

True enculturation takes time, but if students must find, read, understand, and use peer-reviewed literature in a rhetorical style mimicking scholars, they deserve to have these concepts, tools, and values explained to them in order to facilitated the process of becoming more academically information literature and hence better students (29)

The second intersection I see is what I personally regard as the most interesting aspect of my work and the most valuable intersection of these areas that I live in. I attempted to articulate it in a recent Twitter debate:

sarah's tweet

I believe that the most integral statement in the Framework for Information Literacy is “Experts understand that value may be wielded by powerful interests in ways that marginalize certain voices” (para 16). Information production is an undeniable intersection that has value in the IL classroom just as much as it does in a SC consultation with a faculty member.

Last semester, my team started exploring how the concept of information privilege might be incorporated into our information literacy goals. In doing so, we want to make students aware of the great amount of information privilege and access they have while they are at Davidson. We also hope to make them aware of how they will lose that access. We frame this conversation around their opportunity to change the system as knowledge creators. We hold that they too are authors and can decide how they’d like to share and disseminate their own work.

A second goal of addressing information privilege focuses on who can enter the scholarly conversation. In almost every IL session I do, I find that students have a very shallow understanding of credibility and expertise. Scholarly communication through blogs, social media, and other informal channels is deemed illegitimate or untrustworthy, which often creates a barrier for many voices. Credentials are equated with PhDs, so a person’s lived experience isn’t even considered. Format is an oversimplified indicator of quality and a crutch for students really interrogating a publication’s vetting process. We should push our students to consider how they privilege specific information formats, voices, or vetting systems in their research and how this replicates privilege.

The second-most valuable intersection I’ve found is Open Educational Resources (OER). In my opinion, OER combine the most interesting aspects of SC and IL. OER outreach is focused on access and licensing but also instructional design and pedagogy. This brings me back to #OpenEd15 and the reflections that Robin and Adam wrote. Interestingly, Robin and Adam both use information production and social justice as a lens for understanding open education.

The most powerful portion of Adam’s post:

 Yet the amount of information produced needs to be measured in relation to its quality. Empirical studies suggest that, while it isn’t the industry-standard double-blind peer-review, the information on Wikipedia is fairly accurate. We’ve reiterated this finding for nearly a decade and still Wikipedia has not and will not become a widely accepted location for academic knowledge. Something else is going on. And I think it has to do with the grossly simplified definitions of “reliability” and “credibility” used in such studies. Researchers often assume that quality is a measure of error.

In an open context, however, I argue that quality is a measure of inclusion.

Robin adds that engaging and involving learners must be at the forefront “so that knowledge becomes a community endeavor rather than a commodity that needs to be made accessible” and that open licenses are much more valuable than open textbooks because the license “enables us to do more with the ideas that we ourselves as learners, teachers, scholars are generating.”

The OER movement, at its best, is about doing the important work of making knowledge creation both accessible and inclusive. It’s about moving beyond linear information presentation and instead asking students to have ownership and autonomy over their learning. It’s the same work that I try to do with my students in the information literacy classroom. The intersections enable us to go beyond increasing access; they give us a space to consider how we can foster increased participation and inclusivity through that access.

I started this post with recognizing how much November resembled a whirlwind for me. I wholeheartedly recognize that my writing here mirrors one as well. It is disjointed and maybe even scattered. But sometimes our best work comes as a blur. This is how many of my thoughts develop, how much of my work is shaped and improved. It’s an uncomfortable, confusing process. But as much as it is confusing, it is rewarding. Being intentional and honest about where I find value in my work, where I don’t, and how I need to improve is worth it.

Where do you do your best work? How is that place changing?

Note: This post does not represent ACRL or the ACRL Intersections Professional Development Working Group.

En/Countering a Cliché

One of the tools I use for my instruction sessions is a cartoon of a librarian sitting at the reference desk with her “Librarian” sign sticking out of the trash, replaced by a sign that says “Search Engine.” I use this as an attention grabber, both to insert a bit of self-deprecating humor as well as to make students think about what librarians actually do. Of course, it is also a chance to talk about the services that UNLV Libraries provides.

So it’s cute; librarians aren’t necessary anymore because now we have Google – it’s a cliché about librarianship, which many people might actually believe. In the age of ebooks and Google and remote access to databases and journals that are so user-friendly, with the pace of change in technology, do we really need actual people to help us find information? Clichés are clichés often because they contain some truth, and the truth in this case is disconcerting when this is your life’s work.

It seems that the library world does see changes in technology and in the public’s perceptions as a serious threat, or there wouldn’t be a need to continually re-invent ourselves and our profession, or talk so much about the future of libraries. Even some librarians believe outright that librarianship is dying. With all the marketing campaigns and headlines touting the benefits that we will see with the “Future of Libraries,” the library world is tacitly acknowledging the truth that the traditional services of libraries are becoming obsolete, at least to a certain extent.

So as I enter this profession full force – teaching instruction sessions, meeting with faculty and students, learning the collections, etc. – I find myself experiencing some doubts about my professional identity, especially as I realize that no, my services are not absolutely essential in order for professors to teach their classes effectively. Did I choose a career path that is still necessary and important today, one that will continue to be necessary and important in the future?

I know what you’re thinking…yet another blog post on the death of librarianship or its counterpart the “Future of Libraries.”

My contribution to this conversation – which I believe is unique– is that I think that we should embrace the “death of librarianship.” I think we should confront it head-on, rather than whisper about it amongst ourselves every time those outside the library world bring it up, or bemoan the decline in reference services, for example. In order to really educate others about librarianship, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. We should even have a sense of humor about it, for this is a way to cope with a painful reality. To the belief that librarianship is a dying profession, we should be able to say, “Yes, it is,” because librarianship in the traditional or historic sense is dying.

Then we should follow up that “Yes” with an “and.” I think acknowledgement and recognition that there is truth to this stereotype is the best first step towards devising a solution. Yes, librarianship as it has traditionally been practiced is dying, and actually it is in the process of reinventing itself into something else. Libraries/librarianship is emerging and will continue to emerge as a profession, a space, and a type of service that are still essential for society and for academia. What will this look like exactly? One thing is certain: we’re outgrowing many of the traditional aspects of librarianship, and things are going to look quite different.

I won’t rehash all the ways in which libraries are growing and changing; there are plenty of places to read about those. Data services is one area in academic librarianship in which lots of changes and growth are happening, and I’m getting to witness and participate in those changes at UNLV Libraries on the Data Team. What I do want to focus on, though, is the need for all libraries, academic and public (and special, too), to connect with their communities. This is one aspect of librarianship that is timeless. Yet now it is more important than ever that libraries fulfill this need to provide a common space that is centered on knowledge, really in order to help equip people with the knowledge that they need to make their lives better. We need to fight for this enduring truth about libraries even as we reinvent ourselves. It is a truth that, if upheld, will secure our future.

With growing inequalities in the US, the racial tensions that are making the news every day, and the many other oppressive systems around the globe, libraries, as free public spaces, are necessary. I recently had a conversation via email with my Political Science professor from my MA program about the importance of libraries, and he actually put it a lot better than I could have myself, so I include his quote here with his permission:

“I think the stronger case for libraries is to be developed in a social argument. In some way, the defense of libraries is like the defense of public space, that is, like the defense of a commons or commonwealth. In other words, both the library and the librarian find their strongest defense in the guardianship of a commonwealth of knowledge, produced by a diverse collectivity, and for the sharing and intergenerational transmission of that knowledge.” – Richard Gilman-Opalsky

A public space, a commons, which is centered on knowledge – what could be more important and vital to a society than that? Realizing this, I can then ask how it applies to me and my situation here at UNLV. UNLV Libraries may be focused on helping students get the grade, but it supports students in other ways as well. With its extended hours, UNLV Libraries provides common spaces for students to go when they have nowhere else to go. The Libraries provides some of the most popular spaces on campus. The Lied Library building was even open on Veterans Day and will be open for most of Winter Break. In providing this common space, the Libraries encourages the pursuit of knowledge by all students equally, including those who do not have access to computers at home or those who have no other place to go that is free from distraction.

Besides this, there are other steps I can take to make sure that my services support and fulfill this crucial mission of libraries. In my instruction sessions and research consultations, I can ask: am I operating under this kind of ethos that I espouse as a librarian? I can engage in self-reflective practices and examine my assumptions that I make about students, and even professors from cultures other than my own, to make sure that I am a part of creating this kind of environment in which all are equally free to pursue, create, and disseminate knowledge. My beliefs about other people affect how I approach the class and engage students and others, and hidden biases and prejudice seep through, often in very subtle ways. I like to think that I am self-aware and free from prejudice, but I know that neither of those things is completely possible. I can deliberately work to challenge those assumptions that I make, through self-reflection, dialogue with, and mentorship by, colleagues, and quite simply, additional practice – through my actions towards others. I’ll conclude with a quote from Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

“Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all). Faith in people is an a priori requirement for dialogue […]” (p. 90).

I strive to have faith, faith in my students and other users as well as in myself – that we are capable and worthy human beings – both for its own sake and because it is a requirement for the ethos of social justice – and critical librarianship – to inform and infuse my practice.

If we simply cater to the elite and the privileged, if we simply conform to the status quo, allowing the systematic oppression that surrounds us, we will surely lose our relevance and our importance faster than the changes in technology that threaten traditional librarianship. On the other hand, if we fight to make our profession socially just, which is necessary for ensuring that all can participate in this commonwealth of knowledge, and if we treat others with the dignity that is rightfully theirs, we will secure a future and thrive. Libraries will become vital again.

Dear diary: Using a reflective teaching journal for improvement and assessment?

A few months ago, I posted about how I’ve shifted to using more constructivist activities and formative assessments in classes. I wrote about how I think these pedagogical frameworks have helped me to strengthen student learning and engagement. I said things about how–by developing opportunities for students to experiment in classes with tools, strategies, and concepts in order to construct their understanding, at least in part–they can deepen and expand their learning. And I wrote, too, about how these activities serve as informal assessments of students’ knowledge, such that I can adjust instruction in real time to better meet students where they are. I’m still feeling rather enthusiastic about all of this. I’m sure there are a million ways for me to do this better still, but in every instance so far this has been an invaluable shift in my thinking and teaching, not to mention a welcome revitalization for my frame of mind.

The data I’m informally gathering have helped me learn a lot about my students and my teaching. About where they’re coming from and how they approach and interpret concepts and strategies. About what I assume or where we don’t connect. I worry, though, that I’m not maximizing the data. I want to grab hold of it a little more and put it to more use. The activities, approaches, and assessments I’ve been doing, though, are largely informal and the data sometimes feel fleeting and anecdotal. Without tangible artifacts of student work (such as worksheets, write-ups, polls, quizzes, or papers) to ground my analysis, I’ve been struggling with how to do that. Couldn’t I somehow compile it across classes for broader understanding of student learning? If I could analyze it more rigorously, could I better gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogy? I want to use it more thematically and systematically to inform improvements I can make in the classroom, assess and document students’ learning, and (hopefully!) demonstrate the impact of instruction. So how do I effectively turn this into recordable data for documentation, analysis, and reflection?

At a session at the ACRL conference this past spring, it was suggested to me that I try using a reflective teaching journal. If you’re like me, the skeptical (or even cynical) voice in your head just kicked in. A reflective teaching journal? Maybe it sounds a little hokey. I admit that it did to me. But then I started thinking about the intensively qualitative nature of the data I’m interested in. I started thinking about how productive reflection often is for me. And then I read Elizabeth Tompkins’ article, recommended to me by a colleague, which opened my eyes a bit to what shape(s) a teaching journal might take.

In “A reflective teaching journal: An instructional improvement tool for academic librarians,” Tompkins reviewed relevant literature and described her own experience keeping a journal to document and reflect on instruction. A reflective teaching journal isn’t the same as a diary or a log, Tompkins noted. A journal brings together the “personal reflections” of a diary with the “empirical descriptions” of a log in order to “examine experiences, and to pose questions and solutions for reflection and improvement.” Tompkins reviewed a variety of journaling methods, as described in the literature:

  • Hobson (1996) used a double-entry format to “separate out descriptive writing from reflections. For example, an author would describe an experience on the left side of the journal while placing his or her reflections on the right.”
  • Shepherd (2006) used guiding questions to “make sense of complex situations.” For example:
    • “How do I feel about this?”
    • “What do I think about this?”
    • “What have I learned from this?”
    • “What action will I take as a result of my lessons learned?”
    • “What have I learned from what I’ve done?”
    • “What have I done with what I learned?”
  • Gorman (1998) concentrated on “concrete issues that were problematic in his classroom.” The journal also “served as a record keeper, capturing his students’ progress before and after he instituted new instruction techniques.”
  • Jay and Johnson (2002) classified three levels of reflection: descriptive, comparative, and critical.
    • “Central to the descriptive phase is asking questions about what is taking place. […] It is crucial to find significance in the problem under consideration. It is important to separate out the relevant facts with sufficient detail to avoid jumping to conclusions.”
    • “Comparative reflection involves looking at the area of concern from a variety of viewpoints. […] Examining a situation from the outlook of others may result in uncovering implications that may otherwise have been missed.”
    • “Employ critical reflection to search for the deeper meaning of a situation. […] Contains an element of judgment, allowing the practitioner to look for the most beneficial method of resolving a problem. Ideally, critical reflection will lead the educator to develop a repertoire of best practices. […] Not the ‘last step,’ but rather ‘the constant returning to one’s own understanding of the problem at hand.’”

Still not convinced? If this seems cheesy or prescriptive, I feel you. Or maybe it seems like nothing special. Tompkins cited one critic who “dismisses reflection as a trendy buzzword for merely thinking about what one is doing.” What’s the big deal, right? To me it’s partly about intentionality. As E.M. Forster wrote, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” I want to increase and focus my attention and devote more time and mental space to processing. Time and mental space are always in short supply, it seems, so the structure of a journal feels like it might force my hand. It’s also about data collection. I want to try to move from the instance and the anecdotal to the bigger picture and the systematic. In her article, Tompkins concentrates on using journals for instructional improvements, and therefore the instructor’s perspective. Students are inherent therein, but I hope to spotlight the student perspective and learning more.

So I’m going to give it a shot. I’m not yet committed to any single approach, other than the doing of it. So far, I seem to tend toward models of guiding questions with descriptive, comparative, and critical lenses. I plan to experiment with different structures, though, as described by Tompkins and others–or make it up as I go–and see what works, as long as I can work toward the goals I have in mind:

  • Document what I’m doing and learning so that it’s less transitory
  • Direct and heighten my attention to what I care about in the classroom, what works and doesn’t, what helps students
  • Facilitate my thoughts on how to teach better
  • Capture evidence of student learning in individual classes and across classes
  • Consider how this work demonstrates the value that the library and librarians contribute to student learning
  • Generally try to connect some dots

Your thoughts? How do you grab hold of your daily teaching and learning experiences and make meaning of them? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.