“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.

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.