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.

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?