Study Hacks and Student Survival

I know it’s not true, but I feel like one of the only academic librarians who didn’t make the trip to Ohio last weekend! I’m looking forward to my fellow ACRLog bloggers recapping what inspired them, and I thought in the meantime I’d share something I learned from a past ACRL paper that has changed the way I introduce students to scholarly articles.

Margy MacMillan and Stephanie Rosenblatt’s 2015 paper is called “They’ve Found It. Can They Read It? Adding Academic Reading Strategies to Your IL Toolkit,” and it brought my attention to something I’d never noticed before, or perhaps had just gotten used to: scholarly literature is difficult for the new researcher, and yet most research papers require the use of scholarly articles, sometimes as the only permitted source.

I’ve also seen faculty forbid the use of reference books, at least as a source they can formally cite in their papers. This is unfortunate, since a subject encyclopedia is often the perfect source for a research paper in a general education course; the language is not so technical that it alienates the student, and the overview format ensures that the student understands the context of a topic. Turned away from subject encyclopedias and discouraged from using Wikipedia, students will develop their own research survival skills.

This brings me to the concept of study hacks. Buzzfeed, YouTube, and Instagram are popular sources for college survival tips and tricks, especially targeted to Generation Z readers. It’s interesting to read articles like this one from Buzzfeed or this reporting on Instagram how-to threads from the Atlantic. By reading the solutions this young-scholar community shares, I begin to understand what problems they experience and that gets me thinking about how I could help.

For example, I see college students on Twitter sharing this “hack”: If you want an article that is behind a paywall, just email the author and ask for a personal PDF copy. And as this tweet suggests, this strategy does seem supported by Twitter academics. But I can’t help but think, “What about interlibrary loan?” Personally reaching out to an author seems like so much more work to me than filling out an ILL form, but if students don’t see the usefulness or ease of our services, they will find their own means. I’m not going to warn students away from study hacks, because that’s like telling them not to use Google for research. It’s not realistic, and I can see the usefulness of their habits. Instead I will endeavor to pitch library services as their own kind of study hack, especially emphasizing how they can save a student’s time and sanity.

In fact, our friendly neighborhood blog coordinator Maura Smale addressed this in her ACRL paper this year: “Their strategies for understanding included searching for summaries online or using study guide websites like SparkNotes because “they break it down in a simple way.” Other students reported searching on YouTube, Google, and Google Scholar, as well as online (and offline) dictionaries for help with challenging reading.” These web tools might not seem as vetted as peer-reviewed research, but isn’t it better than a student having no idea what they’re quoting? Instead of telling them how they “should” conduct their research (pristinely, using only library resources, taking diligent notes, and using Zotero for every project), we should meet them where they are, and share healthy study behaviors in the name of “saving the time of the reader,” as Maura says.

MacMillan and Rosenblatt make a strong case for teaching students reading strategies, not only because the average student is not reading at the college level, but also because we are uniquely positioned to guide and encourage students in this area:

Not only is incorporating instruction on reading scholarly material our responsibility, but librarians, in many ways, are the people best equipped to do this. More than most faculty, our work requires us to read materials in other disciplines, whether it is to understand a new liaison area, develop a class, or assess materials for a collection. We are practiced in reading in fields that are new to us and likely more comfortable and accepting of it than others. This experience has given us strategies that we can pass on to students— novices in their own disciplines—to help them understand new jargon and unfamiliar information structures. We may also feel freer to criticize discourse in a discipline and to advocate for students against the incomprehensibility of densely-written articles.

At the very least, thinking about all this has made me compassionate for the students I encounter. Sometimes in the classroom I’ll ask something like, “How has reading scholarly research been for you so far?” and get shy silence until I add, “A little intimidating? Kind of dense?” The tension in the room immediately relaxes; we’re on the same side. From there I emphasize two things: 1) that academic research is not written for students in mind (we’re basically eavesdropping on a conversation at this stage), but 2) this gets easier with practice. You will learn the language of your major, and in the meantime, I’m here to give you strategies to get through this semester.

If you’re wondering, here are the strategies I now recommend:

  1. Read the abstract and conclusion first (your chance to make a “spoiler alert” joke that will only make the instructor laugh).
  2. Take notes as you read, even if that just means underlining parts you might want to use later.
  3. And finally, try to ask yourself what you specifically want out of a source. Looking for pieces of evidence rather filling a “2-5 reliable sources” quota makes it easier to read strategically.

Should I recommend these methods as “study hacks,” or will I sound like Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat saying “How do you do, fellow kids”? I don’t know, but finding new ways to explain intimidating academic concepts will always keep my brain busy at the desk.

Library Jargon

 

German shepherd sitting in the grass, head tilted like he is confused or curious.
“Freya,” by Ashley Coombs

This is my first post for ACRLog in my new position as a community college librarian! Starting a new job, I see everything in a new light. Circulation processes, internal record-keeping, who to email for what: all this is fresh for me at this institution. My brain has to work much harder than when I’m settled and on autopilot. It’s a natural part of any transition, and though it’s sometimes uncomfortable, this perspective is also helping me re-evaluate my use of jargon is a big way.

Specialized library vocabulary can be an intimidating source of library anxiety. Erin L. McAfee says that “feelings of inadequacy, confusion, shyness, and frustration” are emotional barriers that create distance between us and our patrons. Jargon we don’t understand definitely leads to confusion and frustration, and I want to do everything I can to reduce that library anxiety and help all students feel like they can be welcome here.

I’m looking for ways to make my speech more accessible to new library users in the classroom and in teaching tools like LibGuides, but there is also research to show that students prefer a de-jargonized website as well. “Students prefer simple natural language,” and even if we include a glossary of terms on our website there’s no guarantee they’ll read it or get anything from it. Better to examine our language and meet students where they are, in my opinion. So what are some of the words I’d like to revisit?

“Reference” is a word I have increasing trouble with. When I call myself a reference librarian, I immediately explain, “That means I help you with research.” Should I start calling myself a “research librarian” as many institutions do? Luckily, my new institution has already dropped the word “reference” and just calls all their librarians “librarians.” And when “reference” means the start-your-research tools like encyclopedias and overviews, I’ve considered moving toward calling these simply “background info.”

There is also internal language that serves librarians but really shouldn’t be used when communicating with students. In my opinion, “PAC”/”OPAC” is internal language, and so is “serials.” Mark Aaron Polger’s study shows that while librarians prefer the term “database” on the library website, students are looking for a button that says “articles.” I think “database” is a word we’re all so comfortable using that we can’t think of a logical replacement. But based on these findings, I know I need to simply define a database as a place you search for articles.

Some people squirm at the idea of giving a definition that is not exhaustive. “A database doesn’t always contain articles!” or “Not everything that’s searchable is a database!” But isn’t it enough to get a first-time library user started? Couldn’t we get more specific once they’re comfortable or in a discipline-specific class?

Acronyms are another type of jargon that tempt librarians and college staff in general. Acronyms are often made in the service of speeding up communication, but they also create a group of people who are in the know and a group that has no idea what the alphabet soup means. Taking the time to spell out the acronym the first time it’s used is worth doing.

Tammi Owens’ presentation on library jargon concludes that “the library’s online presence should be engaging and empowering, not confusing, overwhelming, or anxiety-inducing.” Those words inspire me as a teacher too. There are plenty of teachers who project authority and expertise, and there are learners who benefit from that approach. But I like the idea of my classroom presence being engaging and empowering, not confusing or overwhelming. I want my students to understand me. I want them to feel like searching skills are within their capacity, and I’d rather be accessible than impressive. Acknowledging that jargon exists is the place to start, and endeavoring to define, simplify, or eliminate it is the way forward.

What words do you find yourself constantly defining? Are there words you wish librarians would stop using?

Student Workers: What do they owe us, and what do we owe them?

Whether you want to start a new habit or break an old one, the new year is a popular time to reconsider our patterns. In the academic library, the switch between semesters gives us a chance to start over – in the classroom, with our colleagues, and with our student workers. The questions I’ve been asking myself have to do with my role as a student supervisor: What do I owe these students and what should I expect from them?

We owe them mentoring.

Whether it’s in my job description or not, I’m more than a supervisor to our undergraduate student workers. I’m one of the main “adults” (by which I mean non-student, non-teacher) in their lives at school, a sounding board for homework questions but also the delicate issues of college social life. I can think of conversations from last semester where I thought, “Should I give my honest advice here, or let her make the mistakes I made and learned from when I was in college?” Mentoring student workers can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but it is very rewarding.

One of my colleagues says that part of our role as student managers is to be a campus ally, and I agree. Undergraduates face all kinds of real world obstacles during their time in college, from stress and mental health to poverty and family needs. Our student workers view us as a stable presence that can help them navigate campus resources and personal dilemmas. Even as I recognize the emotional labor cost of this work, I believe we owe our students a mentoring relationship, interest in their lives and their success. It’s worth our time, and absolutely part of our job.

We owe them meaningful work.

There’s been a conversation at my library lately about giving our student workers more meaningful work, beyond administrative and clerical duties. We’ve been brainstorming how to ask more of our student workers while still honoring their pay grade and what’s fair. But I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “meaningful work” yet – should we give away all the fun tasks like social media and event planning? Don’t our students expect to get homework done at the desk?

Recently I’ve encountered two models for student work that I found interesting. Hailley Fargo makes a good case for encouraging student employees to provide peer-to-peer reference services in her article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe: “Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders…Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful.” Careful training and building student worker confidence so that they can handle more complex questions at the reference desk might be one answer to the meaningful work question.

I also had the privilege of meeting with the librarians at Gettysburg College and learning about their Peer Research Mentor (PRM) program, which was created to give student workers a high-impact learning experience beyond the traditional responsibilities of a library student gig. In both of these cases, the authors emphasize the importance of thorough and on-going training, and in an understaffed library that makes me tremble. But even if I am not sure how to find the time for this yet, I admire how the librarians at Gettysburg have worked to make the ongoing training fun and connected to real-world work responsibilities – from “research question of the week” activities to attending and running department meetings. Every library harnesses their student workforce differently, and comparing notes with other librarians will help our library find the way that works for us.

They owe us their labor – within reason.

If job creep bothers me in my position, then I should be a guardian against responsibilities sneaking up on my student employees as well. The librarian at Gettysburg who described the PRM program to me emphasized that these students are separately recruited, trained, and paid to reflect their additional responsibilities, and I think that’s key to harnessing student labor ethically.

I think that job descriptions should be as transparent as possible, regularly revisited, and created in collaboration between manager and employee. I don’t like the words “other duties as assigned,” because I think they crack the door for job creep, and I don’t want to exploit our student workers. And for good and bad, this is the first job of many of our student workers. It’s a good sandbox for them to learn professional norms like reliability, work attire, and taking initiative. It’s also a chance for their supervisors to demonstrate healthy management and boundaries.

We owe them respect.

In my tour of the library at Gettysburg, I was struck by how the staff worked to honor the contributions of their student workers. Student employees who work in rare book repair or the college archive are credited for their labor in archives publications and on the rare book containers themselves. The PRMs, with guidance from their librarian advisors, are trusted to design drop-in workshops and even help teach information literacy sessions. We should show that we value our student workers and their contributions to the library.

We often say they’re the public face of the library, and the assistance they provide makes a lot of things possible. At our library, student workers make regular shelving (and my lunch break!) possible. With great responsibility should come at least a little power – a say in programming or marketing materials, a voice at staff meetings perhaps, or their work memorialized by bookplates and other employee celebrations. Connecting the shelving, printer restocking, and front desk management to our larger mission makes those tasks meaningful too. It’s worth taking the time to help our student workforce see how they advance the mission of the library, and celebrating their contributions how we can.

As I conclude this blog post, I realize that I’ve been thinking out loud and I don’t have a simple definition for the give and take of the librarian/student worker relationship, but I’d like to continue this conversation. How does your library manage and/or mentor its student workforce?

How to Make it to Winter Break

It’s finally here: Finals Week. I’ve been reflecting on the emotional state of our students – I see a blend of exhaustion, procrastination, and shame that forms a vicious cycle in the last month of the semester. And although I’m not facing exams or major papers, I can relate. In fact, the general atmosphere of the library this time of year can make those emotions pretty infectious. Here’s how I’ve coped with the cycle of weariness and urgency in December.

Am I exhausted or burned out?

“Burnout” is a word I throw around, and sometimes I conflate actual burnout (chronic exposure to workplace stress) with ordinary fatigue. Kevin Harwell wrote an article called Burnout Strategies for Librarians that helped me understand the difference.

A key element of burnout is depersonalization, where you start to see your library patrons as “queries, questions, or cases, rather than people.” When students approach the desk and my first reaction is dread, that’s when I know it’s time to take a break and recharge. For me, this increased cynicism is the major symptom, but it’s not the only facet of burnout. The other two major pieces of burnout are overwhelming exhaustion and “a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

So if you’re dead-tired, you’ve started to see your daily responsibilities as irritating stressors, and you can’t remember why you signed up for all this in the first place – congratulations, you have something in common with students at finals week. But for students and librarians alike, there may be a remedy!

Of course the long-term remedy is to take meaningful breaks and adjust your workload. But it’s December; many of us just need a solution to get us to the winter break. These are the strategies I’ve use when I feel like my resources are all but used up. My recommendations come in the form of two mental exercises:

  1. List your accomplishments
  2. Practice compassion (for others and yourself)

List Your Accomplishments

I happened upon this exercise by accident, but I found it surprisingly meaningful. First, make a list of the things you’ve achieved this year. It can be as granular or as general as you’d like. I focused on professional accomplishments from 2018, but you could incorporate your personal achievements or progress you’ve made on creative or financial goals as well.

Then I found someone who was willing to hear me read off this list of accomplishments. Maybe you already have some kind of check-in with your supervisor at the end of the year, or maybe you can pull your best work friend aside for a few minutes while you toot your own horn. I read my list to my husband, and it was meaningful to share how much I’d learned in one year.

Creating a list of your accomplishments might offset how motivation seems to dry up in December. This exercise helped me say to myself, “I know you don’t feel motivated and you just wish it was Winter Break already. But look at all you did get done this year.” The burned-out feeling of inefficacy, the sense of diminished personal accomplishment, can be counterbalanced by an objective list of things you did indeed achieve.

While I haven’t assigned this exercise to any of my students, I’ve been able to informally remind them of the ways I’ve seen them grow over the semester. Being reminded of how far you’ve already come may be a useful jolt to help you cross the finish line.

Practice Compassion

Shame is a major emotion students are feeling this time of year. Shame prevents them from moving forward on projects, even as due dates draw perilously near. It discourages them from asking help. I’ve been thoughtful about how I contribute to an environment of shame, and how I can instead encourage self-compassion.

I’ve talked with faculty who believe that intense pressure can force better academic results from students. After all, if they’re just “lazy” and carelessly procrastinating all semester, then the “tough love” of a scary deadline could be an effective motivator. However, I’ve read some blogs and essays by educators who insist that a shaming approach is counterproductive. Instead, Leslie Bayers and Eileen Camfield call for “academic empathy”:

“Brené Brown offers a definition of shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love” (60). She observes that shame produces fear, risk-aversion, and the creation of a negative shame spiral. In Brown’s description, shame has no prosocial effects: “Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all—there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior” (72)…shame not only hurts students but in fact also creates barriers to equitable teaching and learning.”

In fact, even the “lazy student” trope should be interrogated. Devon Price critiques the myth of the lazy student better than I can in this piece on Medium:

People love to blame procrastinators for their behavior. Putting off work sure looks lazy, to an untrained eye. Even the people who are actively doing the procrastinating can mistake their behavior for laziness. You’re supposed to be doing something, and you’re not doing it — that’s a moral failure right? That means you’re weak-willed, unmotivated, and lazy, doesn’t it?

For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being “good enough” or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.

Most librarians react with compassion when we watch students ride the procrastination/shame spiral. But is it as easy for you to be compassionate to yourself? Shortly after graduating my therapist advised me to let go of the need to be perfect, to strive for personal excellence instead. (This is the grown-up version of “Just try your best.”)

So the message I want to communicate to my colleagues and my students this time of year is: be gentle with yourself. Shame makes us isolate ourselves and berate ourselves for not doing enough, but it’s counterproductive. Take your time. Take breaks. Ask for help. You got this.

Quality Time: The Presentation That Changed My Work Life

Have you ever learned something that radically changed the way you work? I experienced that kind of paradigm shift this summer during a Professional Development Day on my campus.

The session was on time management, led by David Gurzick, a professor of management at Hood College. I walked in expecting to hear about tools like Trello and Evernote, or maybe bullet journaling. But the session wasn’t about the HOW or WHAT, but the WHEN. Using workplace research and Daniel Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Dr. Gurzick talked us through how our brains function throughout the day, and how to match the right task to the right time. Dr. Gurzick’s talk and the book When have transformed how I structure my day.

Both Dr. Gurzick and When emphasize the importance of timing and becoming aware of what researchers have found to be the natural pattern of the average work day. Over the course of a day, most peoples’ moods follow a consistent pattern that starts high in the morning, dips in the afternoon, and rises for the rest of the evening. Pink calls these phases of the day the peak, trough, and recovery:

Image of graph that spikes, dips low, and gradually rises again over the period of 12 hours.

“During the peak, which for most of us is the morning, we’re better at analytic tasks. That’s when we’re most vigilant, when we’re able to bat away distractions and concentrate deeply. During the trough, which for most of us is the early-to-mid-afternoon, we should do our administrative tasks—answering routine emails, filling out expense reports. And during the recovery, which for most of us is the late afternoon and early evening, we’re better at insight problems. Our mood then is better than during the trough. And we’re less vigilant than during the peak. That looseness—letting in a few distractions—opens us to new possibilities and boosts our creativity.” (Daniel Pink, interview on Scientific American)

Being invited to notice this pattern hidden in everyday life was personally revolutionary. I can easily see the clear rhythm of peak-trough-recovery in my day. And if this pattern doesn’t resonate with you, you might be a night owl. For night owls this rhythm is actually reversed – you wake up in the recovery phase, hit your trough in the middle of the day, and are the most alert to detail in a peak phase till bedtime.

So how did I work these ideas into my library life? Well, at my library we don’t have a strict schedule for desk shifts. Like I imagine many directors and department heads, my boss doesn’t direct my day hour by hour. So I have at least the illusion that I’m in charge of how I spend my time, which can be both good and bad. There are definitely days where I feel like I’ve lost half the day fighting my own distractions and discouragements.

In fact, during the quiet of the summer, structuring my own day was particularly challenging. Without classes to teach or students to interrupt me, I struggled to prioritize tasks. My habit was to do the “easy” things first, like reading email and shelving books. What I didn’t realize until Dr. Gurzick’s talk was that I was wasting my strongest brainpower on the tasks that required the least attention and energy. Simply by becoming aware of when I focus best and when my mood is the most hopeful, I have been able to harness the work hours more effectively. For example, I’m working on this blog post at 11:00 in the morning because I know this is the best time for me to write thoughtfully.

Dr. Gurzick also shared this matrix, which illustrates a few types of work that we all have to do every day:

2x2 grid that shows an axis of high to low engagement and an axis of high to low challenge. Highly engaged, not challenging work = rote; Hihgly engaged, challenging work = "focus"; Low engagement, low challenge = "bored"; low engagement, high challenge = "frustrated"From Bored Mondays and Focused Afternoons: The Rhythm of Attention and Online Activity in the Workplace by Gloria Mark, Shamsi T. Iqbal, Mary Czerwinski, Paul Johns

In the mornings, I am tempted to do “rote” work: tasks I find fun but not challenging, like shelving books or cutting out images for the bulletin board. According to When, this is my peak time – the time for vigilance and analysis. So now instead of wasting my sharpest attention on clip art, I tackle writing first thing in the morning. An unexpected benefit of this: the afternoons are more fun, now that I’m not forcing myself through punishingly slow writing sessions. I’ve learned to downshift into rote tasks that match my energy level during the afternoon slump.

I also let this awareness of my brain’s peak, trough, and recovery times help me choose meeting and break times strategically. Although I might have no say in when a class takes place, if I’m scheduled to teach right after lunch (during my sleepy time), I might take a brisk walk to jumpstart my mind.

When you learn a new way of seeing the world that resonates, it’s hard not to evangelize it to everyone you meet. “Hey, have you heard of minimalism?” “Have you ever tried yoga?” But one gem from this book did catch on with my co-workers – the reason we’ve all been crabby and directionless during our staff meetings is because we keep scheduling them for the end of the day! We now shoot for 10:00 or 11:00 am, when people are more alert and less prone to pessimism.

You don’t always have control of what you need to do in a given workday, and sometimes your day is derailed by the surprises of librarianship. But being aware of your brain’s peak functioning times may help you structure your day to best advantage. Especially if you have some flexibility in your daily schedule, I recommend checking out Pink’s book and thinking about what you do when.

Notes:

  • Many thanks to David Gurzick for his talk and sharing his slides with me!
  • For a preview of Daniel Pink’s book, you can check out this planner he has made available online.