Tag Archives: students

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.

desargues_theorem_alt-svg

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

Director at the Desk

This week I’m trying something I’ve never done before: I’m working one evening and one weekend shift at our Reference Desk. All librarians in the library where I work take a few short Friday evening shifts, including me, but until this semester I’d not yet done reference up to our later weeknight closing or all day on Saturday (though in the past I’ve taught classes at both times).

My main interest in taking these shifts is to learn more about what the library’s like during our evening and Saturday hours. We do a full headcount multiple times each semester of everyone using the library, and keep the usual statistics about reference transactions, circulation, and printing, so we do have some sense of how the library’s used when the full-timers aren’t there. And of course our evening and Saturday library faculty and staff share any concerns or news with us, too. But as both a library director and a researcher interested in how students do their academic work, I’ve been more and more curious to see for myself. How are students using the library outside of the standard work week? What areas of the library see the most use, and are there bottlenecks (if any)? Are there services or sections of the library that aren’t used in these off-hours?

I admit that I was somewhat nervous in the run up to this week. It’s not that I’m concerned about making grave errors — our work is important, but the library’s not an emergency room. But since I’m not on the desk often I feel like my reference skills are somewhat rusty. Our discovery layer was added after I became a director (and stopped teaching regularly), so I’m much less practiced at using it than I was with our online catalog. Technology questions can be tricky, too; I’m grateful that we’ve added a dedicated tech support staff member at the reference desk, which is a huge help for the inevitable questions about campus wifi or using the LMS, not to mention printer jams.

I drafted this post during the second half of my evening shift, and I was delighted to be there! I’m a little bit out of practice in explaining the research process clearly and concisely, but I’m getting better with each question. Midterms are only just over a week away so I’ve had a fair number of research consultations in between requests for the stapler and scanners. It’s been interesting to see the ebbs and flows — we are really, really busy during the 5-6pm class break, especially with students printing out assignments and readings before class, but then things slow down considerably. The quiet floor is quieter than during the day, and the talking floor is quieter, too. I still miss the regular interaction with students that I had before I became Chief Librarian, and it’s been great to have that experience again this week.

Other than scheduling enough time for me to eat before my shift started (which was entirely my own fault), I’m chalking up my stint at reference earlier this week as a success. Tomorrow’s Saturday, and I’m looking forward to going back for more.

The Time is Now: Scholarly Communication and Undergraduates

“Open Access empowers all scholars, not just those with a Ph.D appended to their last names.”

~char booth, open access as pedagogy

Several recent developments in the scholarly communication world have left the future feeling bleak. An April news piece in Science concluded that millions of pirated papers continue to be downloaded from Sci-Hub. The piece states that for access or convenience (or both), “[o]ver the 6 months leading up to March, Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents” for researchers around the globe (para 6). Some of the papers downloaded were open access, with more than 4,000 papers available from PLoS. Even more surprisingly, “some of the most intense use of Sci-Hub appears to be happening on the campuses of U.S. and European universities” (para 10).

Let me be clear: I believe that Sci-Hub and the work that Alexandra Elbakyan is doing is imperative and eye-opening (if for no other reason than that it “has hastened the speed and vigor of [the OA] conversation.”) But I wanted to share two immediate, visceral reactions that I had to these findings. The first is that this is undeniably an indictment of current library systems and how functional and accessible they are to our users, particularly if those that already have access through their library databases and Interlibrary Loan still prefer using Sci-Hub. The second, which is perhaps more important, is that this will have repercussions with vendors. Last open access week, our library hosted two showings of “The Internet’s Own Boy,” which is a documentary about Aaron Swartz’s life and work. One of the people interviewed for the documentary talked a bit about “underground” or illegal movements. This person expressed that they are important and even central to progress (particularly when all legal routes have been exhausted) but that they can inhibit the legal, mainstream progress that is in motion.* I have to wonder how strict vendors will be in the future in an effort to shut Sci-Hub—and sharing—down.

Since the Science article was published, more has happened. It is difficult to say if these developments are a direct result of the Sci-Hub findings or simply part of vendors’ constant quest to create more revenue. In May, Kevin Smith published a blog post entitled “Tightening their Grip.” In the post, he discusses publishers ever-growing control over access to scholarship, including Wiley’s “control over the pre-peer review copy of scholarly manuscripts” (para 2). He ends the post by discussing Elsevier’s purchase of SSRN and their interest in data on scholars’ behavior and impact. Last week, Phil Davis wrote about two-step authentication and its possible repercussions for Sci-Hub. I would add that this addresses my first reaction—this could potentially make library systems even less intuitive for our users (which, in turn, makes Sci-Hub even more attractive!).

I hope I’ve made it clear that it’s incredibly messy. Yet, while all of this happens—we see more evidence that our students are using Sci-Hub and we watch Elsevier continue to acquire more pieces of scholarly workflow and the scholarly communication system—it becomes more and more evident to me that librarians are missing an important opportunity.

Most of our efforts to move the system closer to openness seem to focus on helping faculty understand the importance and impact of making their work open. This is a start but it is clear that out of all of the populations that the library engages, this group has perhaps the most developed and ingrained practices for sharing their work. I’m not implying that we shouldn’t try to work with faculty. But I am asserting that we aren’t doing enough to engage graduate students and undergraduate students. Yes, you read that right. Undergraduate students.

In 2010, Warren and Duckett claimed that undergraduate students “largely remain excluded” from scholarly communication outreach (pg. 352). While their article started a conversation and Davis-Kahl and Hensley have added to it, I believe that we haven’t come far enough. Amy Mark has written that “[b]ecause of how knowledge and expertise are arranged in the academy, there is little trust in the student voice” (pg. 5).

Even with more of an emphasis on the “student as creator” in library discourse, our outreach seems to reflect this claim. We seem to question whether undergraduates will be able to engage with the complexities of access or even care about the economics of scholarship. By doing this, we’re shortchanging our students, compromising their ability to be truly information literate, and impeding the greater open access movement. Introducing undergraduate students to the complexities of access and scholarly communication can make them more informed authors, information consumers, and future advocates for open access. Stephanie Davis-Kahl (2012) adds,

Asking students to consider if and how they want their own work to be shared and used by others shifts the nature of discussions from cautionary and reactive to reflective and proactive, and explicitly acknowledges that the students’ work is valued enough to be shared if they choose. (pg. 213; emphasis mine)

At my own institution, students get scholarly communication. I don’t mean that they understand the cost of information, how and why they can access it (more on this later), or the stakeholders in the scholarly communication system. I mean that they get the root of scholarly communication—that the point is to share so that knowledge can progress. As an example, in our college’s newspaper, The Davidsonian, there is a section called “The Yowl.” This satirical section pokes fun at the quirks of Davidson College and the greater Davidson community. Some of the satirical section headings have included “Davidson Creates New Interdisciplinary ‘Undecided’ Major” and “Local First Grader to Allow ‘Unsatisfactory’ Report Card Grade to Haunt Him for the Rest of His Life.” In the April 2016 issue, one of the headings read, “Student Excited for Thesis to Collect Dust in Dark Corner of the Library.”

I know that this is meant to humorous. But I also think that it is telling. Students understand that their work has to be shared to have an impact. Though they might not be able to articulate it, they might even be frustrated with the library’s inability to give them a mechanism to share their work widely through an institutional repository. They spend hours and hours of their time researching and writing important, original research and they don’t have an avenue to see this research have an impact in the world. Someone has to ILL the print copy of their thesis from us to even read it! As I think about this, I’m reminded of what a faculty member that I admire once said to me: “Davidson students’ work is too good to be sitting in a drawer somewhere. We have to share it.”

And while they get the root of why scholarly communication is important, so many of our students don’t understand how and why access happens. A few weeks ago, my colleagues Cara Evanson, James Sponsel, and I presented at Library Instruction West. We talked about an assessment we created last year that utilized case studies to better understand students’ misconceptions and understandings of the research process. One of our most important findings was that our students didn’t understand the complexities of access. I presented this finding by using the following slide, which is composed of student quotes. All of the quotes are from incoming Davidson students who were asked to evaluate at least two case studies, one of which describes a researcher hitting a paywall:

access quotesStudents didn’t understand that non-scholarly information, like articles in the New York Times, can also live behind paywalls. They didn’t understand the limitations set by copyright and what that means for access. They didn’t even understand why someone might have to pay for information or, surprisingly, that some people just can’t afford to pay for information. I know that this might appear to reflect poorly on our students. I would argue that this is just as much a reflection of librarians.

These students have presumably accessed subscription-based content, possibly with the help of a librarian. But no one ever explained to them why they could access the content, who couldn’t access the content, what that meant for progress and knowledge creation, and what their role in all of this was. Do we systematically explain to students that they will lose access when they graduate? Many of them might be using Sci-Hub right now. Do we even engage them in why Sci-Hub exists? Are we transparent about the role they play in changing the system as an information creator? Don’t we think that their understanding of these systems is central to information literacy?

I’m in the process of co-authoring an article that will present some of the ways we’ve had success in answering these questions at Davidson. I know that I don’t have it all figured yet. But I do know that these questions have to be answered in an institutionally-relevant way. We have to use the context of our specific information literacy programs, missions, workflows, and student bodies to engage these questions on our campuses in a way that makes sense. We have to tailor our programs and outreach to fill this gap.

I also know that this work has to be built upon some basic principles: undergraduate students are legitimate creators of information now. They will be the faculty members, scholars, and citizens of the future. Right now, we meticulously train them to use resources they’ll lose days after they graduate. We’re doing them—and ourselves—a great disservice by not introducing them to the complex, ethical questions surrounding openness.

*I am not critiquing the underground movements both Swartz and Elbakyan have created. It is both shortsighted and privileged to claim that progress can only happen through legal venues. It is outside the scope of this post to get into the complexities of ethics and progress but others have started to speak publicly about this. See John Sherer on our collective needs (last paragraph), Kevin Smith on malum prohibitum and malum in se, and Carolyn Gardner on libraries’ complex position.

Asking questions to create opportunities for conversation and learning

I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about challenges he’s been experiencing recently in some of his one-shot information literacy classes. He regularly makes time in class for students to work on their own research and to consult with them individually. Yet he described difficulty engaging students in one-on-one conversation about their progress. He described how he typically circulates the room, asking students “How’s it going?” hoping they might share their progress or pose a problem which would provide him a point of entry into conversation or an opportunity to advise the student. Instead, he said, students typically reply “I’m doing fine” or “I’m good.” Hopefully, such responses mean students really are progressing in their research, successfully applying the concepts from the session to their own work. Yet their polite reply to my colleague’s opening line shuts him out of even the possibility of conversation.

I knew exactly what my colleague meant. I’ve felt frustrated by the same scenario, too. I have often asked the same question and often gotten the same reply, essentially “no thanks.” My colleague wondered how he might create space for conversation without uncomfortably forcing the issue. While some students might indeed really be doing fine and not need assistance with research, plenty do. And even if their research is progressing well, that doesn’t mean a conversation about their work couldn’t be useful. I shared with my colleague some of the ways I’ve tried to open conversation with students during this kind of working time. Essentially, I’ve stopped asking “How are you doing?” and instead ask “What are you working on?,” “What topic or question are you researching?,” or “What have you been trying so far?” This slight variation has helped me open the door to conversation with even reticent students.

I’ve seen a variety of both cognitive and affective advantages via this small, but significant, shift. This type of question gives students fewer outs. It doesn’t require students to make a judgment of their progress (or lack thereof), either. Instead, it’s a low-stakes, low-judgment question that just asks them to account for what they’re doing so far. And once they’ve articulated what they’re doing, I can ask follow-up questions that help them probe their own steps and thinking and even identify problems or opportunities on their own. The conversation serves as a kind of formative assessment, too, helping me check in with students about their level of understanding and application of the concepts, practices, and tools we’ve been focusing on in class. I can then meet them where they are, clarifying or redirecting where needed or helping them advance further when appropriate.

This exchange with my colleague prompted me to reflect on my questioning practices in other ways and settings. I recognized this same shift across my pedagogy, in fact. Where I used to tell, I see that I now ask. Instead of first telling students how to construct a search or pick a source, for example, I instead start by asking how they would approach a search or select a source: “What steps would you take?,” “What choices would you make?,” and most importantly “Why?” When I meet with students in individual research consultations, I don’t just ask “What are you working on?,” but also “What are you hoping to accomplish in our meeting today?” These questions again help me meet students where they are and then scaffold instruction to help them develop progressively. Significantly, they also help give students a chance to construct their own learning, puzzle over their intentions and rationales, and make meaning for themselves. These questions help us (students and myself alike) recognize students’ agency in their research.

Much like I’m trying to help students develop an attitude of inquiry for their own research and learning, these questions help me cultivate my own attitude of inquiry for teaching. I don’t want to ask only the kind of questions that require students to parrot rote, meaningless responses at me. I want to foster meaningful and impactful learning moments where students construct their understanding and develop frameworks for their future use. These questions help me learn from and listen to my students.

listeningGood question” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Keeping Our Batteries Charged

Now that I’m in my second year as Chief Librarian, the questions about what I miss about my prior role as Instruction Coordinator come much less often. My answer is the same, though: I still miss teaching and reference, and the opportunities they offer to work with our students. I’d guess that’s common among folks with an instruction background who move to directorships — we’re no longer front of the house, actively working with patrons, to use a restaurant example (though we’re not really back of the house either, and some days it feels like we’re all over the house). We work for the students all the time, but that work can be behind the scenes and often doesn’t allow us to interact with students in the same way we did before.

It’s mid-semester, the library’s crowded, and my colleagues and I are busy, all working hard to make sure our students have what they need for their academic work. So of course that’s the best time to start on a new research project, right? In my quieter and ambitious moments at the beginning of last summer I thought “yes!” So here I am, hopping on the overcommitment train and speeding through the fall. (I’m not quite sure where this new, train-based metaphor is going — clearly I’ve exited the dining car — but it’s been a busy week so let’s keep it.)

My research continues work that I’ve done in the past to learn more about our students’ lived experiences: how, where, and when they do their academic work, and what tools they use, especially digital technologies. Which means that, among other things, I get to schedule interviews with 20 students on my campus to talk with them about what they do on a typical school day. It’s been tricky to schedule the interviews — we’re a commuter college so often our students only come to campus a few days each week, and my own schedule is typically on the meeting-heavy side.

But it’s worth the persistence (and many, many, many emails) to plan the interviews, even during one of the busiest parts of the semester (so many emails). Because it’s incredibly energizing to talk to our students. In the past week I’ve heard students praise the library’s carrels for distraction-free studying, explain how they take the (free!) Ikea shuttle bus to play basketball with their cousin after classes, show me a book from our library about electronic surveillance that they’re reading for fun, and tell me that they prefer to use a desktop computer for “real research” rather than their tablet. Our students and the work they do here at City Tech are inspiring and amazing, and just having the chance to listen to their experiences has been a surprising — and needed — source of energy for me this semester.

Keeping ourselves focused and recharged during the semester can be tough, and while there are lots of outside-of-work examples of self-care that are important, I’ve found it helpful to think on those every(work)day energizing opportunities too. What helps you recharge your batteries during the mid-semester rush? Drop us a line in the comments.