Things I mean to know

I’m a big fan of using low-stakes passive engagement activities to informally gather student perspectives. For me, this has most often been simply posting a question or poll related to a timely topic on a strategically-positioned whiteboard. I’m always interested to see what students post–I look eagerly for new responses every time I pass a board–and I try to think carefully about the insight their responses can offer. 

At my current library, we’ve used these questions or polls most often to gauge students’ preferences for services or features we’re planning, such as new furniture or space changes. We’ve also used them as a small way to promote well-being or students’ sense of connections, such as by inviting students to share study tips, messages of goodwill, or plans for the break at the end of the semester. Pre-pandemic, we posted these polls or questions on a regular basis, often weekly. But in the past year and a half, we have gotten away from this practice. First, because our campus was physically closed due to the pandemic, then because of concerns about handling shared materials (like the markers students would use to post their responses), and more recently because we’ve just been out of the habit of doing it.

I’ve been feeling the itch to start this up again so last week I posted a prompt asking students what questions or topics they’ve been researching this semester. I like the range of responses so far: from phyllosilicates to Tyrion Lannister. I posted this particular prompt partly because I’m just interested in the work students are doing. But I also hope that seeing this prompt–their fellow students’ research topics, but also just the question itself–might plant a seed to inspire their own curiosity. It’s just one question on a whiteboard, of course, but you never know what gets someone thinking.

In fact, this little whiteboard question has made me reflect anew not just on the professional and personal topics I’ve researched this semester, but also on my own inquiry mindset. My own research is more often than not driven by an imminent deadline or in reaction to an issue or problem that has arisen in my work or life, rather than because of innate curiosity in a topic. Rarely do I find myself exploring a question for its own sake just because I was interested. I think time/workload are partly to blame, but I’ve long framed this as a personal shortcoming. I think often about how much I admire–envy, even–people with a strong naturally inquisitive nature and their drive to satisfy their curiosity. 

This all got me thinking about a podcast episode I listened to some years ago. My memory of it is spotty, but the episode had something to do with the theme “things I mean to know.” I think the idea was more or less about getting to the bottom of the facts about the world that we take for granted: how do we really know they’re true? At the time, I was inspired to generate my own list of facts and universal truths that I wanted to investigate. I felt enlivened by the sense of inquiry and optimism that having such a list engendered. It felt like the beginning of something exciting. But the sad truth is that I let my list quickly fall by the wayside; I don’t know where it is now and I don’t think I made much, if any, progress on answering the questions I brainstormed.

As I survey today’s additions to the what-are-you-researching whiteboard prompt, I’m thinking about a still more abstract goal at the core of this little exercise. I also posed this question because I’m always looking for little ways to expand students’ understanding and awareness of research–big and small, academic and otherwise–as relevant to their interactions and experiences in the world, to see themselves in that word. And the same goes for me, really. The reflection brought about by writing this post first led me to think that perhaps I should generate a fresh list of “things I mean to know.” Surely, articulating a list of topics to pursue and questions to answer will invigorate me and offer a renewed sense of purpose, I thought. And that’s likely true, for a time. But, turning this lens on myself, I can see with fresh appreciation where my more innate inquiry tendencies–strengths, even?–lie. As a “process person,” I often relish uncovering, understanding, and effectively navigating the steps and behaviors that make up the path to a goal or product. I’ve long recognized and valued how empowering it can feel to have an understanding of the process–the how. I have typically used this as a guiding principle for my librarianship and focused on growing students’ awareness of process in order to support and advance their inquiry experiences. It’s been some time since I saw this spark, this drive as the way I motivate my own research, as a mark of my own curiosity.

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