Room to Breathe

Open notebook with a pencil on it
Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

I like working in an academic environment because it follows a predictable emotional pattern—busy times in September and October, a little lull before Thanksgiving, the quietest January in the world. Of course, this depends on your job roles and how your school structures semesters, but I like knowing that across institutions, we’re all on a similar track. 

For me, library instruction has dropped off significantly for the semester at this point. I find more room to breathe, and with that there’s a little space to think about my performance. I’m a big fan of reflective teaching, but in the thick of back-to-back classes, there’s no time to assess myself. Then when I finally have a chance to think, I can’t remember the specifics of good and bad classes; they’ve pretty much become a blur of students and computer labs.

This year, I tried keeping a brief teacher journal. I didn’t worry about capturing much about each class, because I wanted the journal to be something I was able to keep up with. I just recorded the class, date, what went well and what I could improve. I tried to write about each session the same day or the day after, while the details were still fresh. 

Journaling isn’t a new practice for me—I’ve been keeping a personal journal since I was 13, and I’ve accumulated 30ish diaries of all shapes and sizes in my basement. (Sometimes I think, “Gee, what’s my endgame for all these journals? Ritual burning? Ah well, that’s a problem for my descendants!”) Every now and then when I’m feeling nostalgic, I’ll flip through a few.

The best part of having a 15-year record of your thoughts and feelings is that you can review them and see how you’ve grown…this can also be the worst part of having that much of your brain on the page. Insecurities I’d been obsessing over when I was 21 are total non-issues now. I read entries where I felt like my career was going nowhere, and it’s nice to “know what happens.” I’d say the main trend in my personal diaries is me learning to become comfortable with change.

And I saw trends in my teaching journal from the last year, too! Here’s a few:

  1. This was my first spring and fall semester at this new job. I see myself getting acclimated and learning about various faculty personalities.
  2. A repeated challenge for me was when I’d begin a class and realize that I’m the first person to talk about this assignment with the students. It throws me off when the teacher hasn’t introduced the research project to the class ahead of time. No one has had time to start thinking about a topic yet! I am still working on how to make the most of those classes.
  3. I noted the instructors whose teaching style I admired; I’ve come to know some of those instructors better since I started here, and it’s nice to see I was identifying role models early on.
  4. This line made me laugh: “I am finally in a groove, and I felt like I communicated things in a fun, easy to understand way. Just in time for my last class of the semester…” 

How’s this semester been for all of you? If you’re still in the thick of it, good luck! I hope you find some room to breathe soon.

“Student Needs Are Academic Needs”: My 2 Cents

This week I watched a new report, “Student Needs Are Academic Needs,” make the rounds of community college listserv discussions. I watched the discourse around this report get kinda heated, so I thought I’d share my reaction.

As a community college librarian, I was interested to read a study with community college students in mind. While our population overlaps with 4-year institutions, it’s meaningful to see the experiences of community college students examined here specifically. The researchers found that students “see the library not only as an informational resource, an academic resource, or simply a quiet place to study, but also as a community resource within the campus context.” 

I think that’s the part some readers are taking issue with: the idea that students see the library as the place for both academic support and personal assistance with things like childcare, wifi hotspots, and help navigating college.

I recognize the anxiety that comes up when strapped librarians read a report that says students would like to find social services and childcare at the library. There’s a legitimate fear that the library’s mission will become so broad in scope that our original vision is obscured, and that expanding our services will come at the cost of burned-out library workers. 

But I think we should be redirecting the conclusions of this report outside the library; share these results with our larger institution or funding body as an indication that the library needs more resources to provide or host desired services. It’s certainly not the intentions of the co-authors of this report to suggest that libraries must become all things to all people; they’re quoted in Inside Higher Ed as saying libraries shouldn’t take all of these ideas literally.

A report is just that: it reports on the state of things, in this case what students need. Students say the library is one of the most likely places they’d go for non-curricular help. If that is the case, then we should think creatively about how that help can be waiting for them where they are seeking it. I’m not threatened by these conclusions because my first thought when I hear that a student would access a social worker’s services if they were in the library is “Great, let’s collaborate with a social worker,” not “Oh, I guess I have to become a social worker now.” As Christine Wolff-Eisenberg said in that same IHE piece:

“A lot of these services are going to require deep collaboration so the library is not reinventing the wheel when other resources exist.” 

The ideas in this report spark my imagination more than my temper, but maybe I’m just in a particularly optimistic mood. Has your library tried or considered any programs like the service concepts posed in this report? 

Nothing New Under the Sun

Decorative image of a sun and clouds.

Photo by Tanishq Tiwari on Unsplash

At my community college, we’re piloting new information literacy instruction for English 101. The director hopes to move away from powerpoint lectures to give students more hands-on opportunities, and since I’m the liaison for the English department I’ve been spending a lot of my summer on this project, brainstorming, reading, and chewing the ends off all my pens.

We saw that students felt overwhelmed by the content of our traditional English 101 session, both in volume and complexity. So we scaled our learning outcomes for the one-shot way back — students don’t need to leave their first visit to the library as proficient searchers. We’re establishing a foundation of info lit concepts, and even more importantly, initiating a relationship between student and librarian. What this will mean in practice is two class visits: one informal, where we evaluate sources together with space for discussion, and one where we get into the specifics of database demonstrations and work on actual research for their assignment.

Earlier this month, I presented what I came up with to the rest of the teaching librarians. It was well-received, but funnily enough, someone who’s been at the institution awhile said my plan resembles what they used to do way back when.

I’ve only been in the library biz for about 4 years, so hearing that my “bold new ideas” echo the early 2000s gave me pause. Am I on the right track? Or is there some yet-undiscovered and perfect way to introduce students to types of information and help them tune in to their own critical thinking instincts? I came to the conclusion that there really is nothing under the sun, and we might switch up the methods of delivery as the information landscape evolves, but the goals of information literacy instruction remain the same.

In fact, focusing on the foundational concepts of information literacy is appropriate for English 101 students. I am learning that a good teacher doesn’t flood a student with way too much information on new subject. I have to have faith that the students who want to know more will return, or that another teacher in the future (someone I may never meet) will build on the knowledge I’m helping them create now.

And if our new program is really a callback to a few decades ago, that tells me that technology is not always the perfect tool for learning. When a row of computer screens come between me and the students, I’ve noticed that students are more reluctant to take an active role in the class. Sometimes a worksheet or the chairs pushed into a circle is the simplest way to get students talking.

So after all this research and my fantasy about the elaborate games and software I could use to “transform” the way instruction is done, I came back around and landed where we’ve always started. That was humbling, but I’m excited to start this new year with an open mind about what I can learn from past librarians and future students.

Thoughts on the OWL/Chegg partnership

On the ILI-L (Information Literacy Instruction) listserv, there’s been a discussion of the relatively new partnership between the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) and Chegg, the for-profit textbook rental company (also the creator of the Citation Machine service). The folks on the listserv caught me up on the implications of this partnership and Chegg’s reputation.

Until this story, I didn’t know that Chegg offered more than textbook rentals. They own Citation Machine, but they’ve also acquired BibMe, EasyBib, and Cite This For Me. Looking at these websites and seeing “a Chegg service” at the top of each page unnerved me. The top 4 Google results for “citation generator” all come from the same for-profit website. How had I never known this before? I was about to learn even more about how students use Chegg.

Educator and blogger John Royce’s post, “Not such a wise OWL” captures my reaction to this partnership. “Chegg makes me feel uneasy. It advertises “24/7 homework help,” online tutors and other study help and solutions manuals (solutions to problems posed in textbooks).” These tutors and study tools are behind a paywall, so I don’t have personal experience with them, but this makes me feel uneasy, too.

Another librarian shared this presentation about Chegg, which explores Chegg’s reputation for helping students cheat. The researcher links to college student tweets about Chegg’s homework help; “while Chegg claims to help students do their homework, students on Twitter are very clear that they use the site to do their homework for them.”

I wondered what this partnership would actually mean for the reliability of the OWL. Visiting the OWL’s MLA formatting and style guide, there’s now a widget at the top of each page that offers to cite your source automatically with MLA, disclosing underneath the box that it’s powered by Citation Machine. I noticed the OWL does link to a page about using citation machines responsibly, but I doubt many students would click or read that warning.

At my community college library, source documentation is a major instruction focus. Our institution uses NoodleBib and our own handouts, so I wouldn’t recommend Chegg’s Citation Machine either way. But I’ve used the Purdue OWL for answering particular or unfamiliar questions about citation styles; it’s a quick search and has plentiful examples for students to model their citations after. When you’re pressed for time, an online tool is easier than thumbing through a citation manual.

This integration of Chegg services into OWL guides reminds me of native advertising. I imagine many students wouldn’t notice that disclosure under the automatic citation box. They have come to trust the OWL for those late-night writing questions. Librarians (like myself!) have also relied on and trusted the OWL for precise citation information. This is my opinion, but I see Purdue incorporating this for-profit tool as a betrayal of that trust.

Anytime I teach information literacy, I encourage students to ask, “Who published this and why?” We talk about how advertising and sponcon have a clear self-interest that should make a user think twice about the impartiality of that information. So what to do with the OWL? The ILI-L listserv suggested a few OWL-like alternatives, like this one from Excelsior College and this Massey University resource. Other folks say they still link to the Purdue OWL on their research guides, but with a word of caution for the citation generator. I’m very curious about other library workers’ thoughts on this. Is citation education a part of your library’s responsibilities or priorities? What do you think of Chegg and/or this effort to monetize the OWL?

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Reflections from MILEX

Last month I attended MILEX, a Maryland library conference. The subject was Culturally Responsive Teaching in Libraries, and it gave me a lot to think about. The timing was great: I’ve been looking forward to reflecting on my teaching practices this summer. As I’ve written in the past, library school did not prepare me for productively thinking about pedagogy, so I’m always eager to learn about different approaches from my peers.

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) was a new term for me (one of the reasons I wanted to attend this conference). Ashleigh Coren, the keynote, asked us to write our own definitions of CRT before sharing an “official” one. This exercise showed me that most of us intuitively grasp what culturally responsive teaching must include: understanding your audience, inclusive language, and Universal Design for Learning. Coren shared Gloria Ladson-Billings’ definition: “a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning,” with these main characteristics:

  1. Positive perspectives on parents and families
  2. Communication of high expectations
  3. Learning within the context of culture
  4. Student-centered instruction
  5. Culturally mediated instruction
  6. Reshaping the curriculum
  7. Teacher as facilitator

We spent the rest of the day exploring applications of CRT, discussing teacher efforts and exercises that successfully make space for multiple perspectives as well as those that were less successful. Here are a few of my main takeaways.

All of the presenters touched on the importance of disclosing a bit of who you are at the beginning of class. This might seem 101, but I truly never considered meaningfully introducing myself to students in a one-shot. I feel pressed for time and I assume they don’t really care who I am or why I do this work. I just launch in after a quick, “This is my name, this is what librarians can do for you” spiel. But CRT isn’t just knowledge of the identities, learning styles, and values students bring to a classroom, but an awareness of my own identity, worldview, and blind spots. These students are going to meet me for 50 minutes one day, and if I don’t share anything about myself, why should they trust my expertise? Why should I expect them to feel comfortable approaching me or admitting they don’t know something if I remain a complete stranger to them? This conference helped me see how the disclosure of personal information (to the degree that you’re comfortable) can build trust with your students.

For example, several people at the conference suggested sharing your pronouns as part of your one-shot introduction. I know a lot of librarians already do this, or have pronouns in their email signature or name badge. This not only reveals something about your identity, but also communicates a degree of inclusion, even safety, in your classroom. Again, this must be to the degree you are comfortable, but as a cis woman I see this as a simple change I can make starting today.

Another lightbulb moment for me: reach out to the faculty ahead of the one-shot and ask about the classroom culture. I never think to do this. I ask for assignment instructions, resource requirements, and maybe potential topics, but it would be great to know ahead of time if the class is shy, prefers small-group work, or has lively group discussions. Asking the instructor about her classroom culture also shows that I care about her students’ comfort enough to adapt my one-shot to resemble their classroom environment.

For me the best part of CRT is student-centered instruction, where the teacher is a facilitator rather than sole bearer of knowledge. For librarians looking to make one-shots more engaging, I recommend turning over some control to the students. For one thing, it introduces a little bit of the unknown to your classroom, which always spices things up. But also, as Coren said after her keynote, “students think they know less than they do.” In the reverse: they know more than they think they do, and I believe they know more than we think they do.

CRT demands awareness of the student perspective, but also appreciation for their insights and experience. No one is a blank slate. Anyone who has made it to college has encountered information already, using strategies that work for them. I don’t want to be an instrument of assimilation, telling students that there’s one right way to navigate ideas, that there’s one right way to measure truth. My way is not a blank slate either; it’s informed by my identity, my education, and my privilege. I want to foster a learning environment where students bring their own instincts and cultural values to the research process.

I wanted to end with specific strategies to make your classroom culturally responsive and welcoming to all, because the practical takeaways are always my favorite part of a professional conference:

  • Create a safe place for students. Disclose pronouns and establish ground rules for group discussion.
  • Introduce yourself and explain where you’re coming from.
  • Spell out library jargon. Specifically, write the words you’re defining on the board or in your slide.
  • Repeat directions. Go slowly.
  • Allow time for small group discussions before asking people to share their answer with the class (think-pair-share style). Lindsay Inge Carpenter suggested that collectivist cultures might favor this approach; it also helps shy people feel comfortable speaking up.
  • Make your classroom a “no stupid questions” environment. Tell students they won’t be punished for asking about plagiarism or other topics they might be nervous about.
  • Regularly do peer observation with colleagues.
  • Know that cultural competency is not a box to check, but a skill to build over time.

Correction: Originally I had misattributed Ashleigh Coren’s quote about student knowledge to her keynote. The quote came from the Q&A that followed, not from her formal address. This post has been updated to reflect this.