Weaving It Together

Image from "Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving" by E.A. Posselt is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.
Image from “Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving” by E.A. Posselt (1899) is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.

I recently finished writing my narrative statement for my second year tenure review file. It felt like pulling teeth. The statement required me to weave together the aspects of my work as well as my research and service to tell a meaningful personal story about my professional purpose and goals. The other sections of the file–the description of accomplishments, presentations and publications, committee work, etc.–were a piece of cake by comparison. I’m not sure why the statement felt quite so difficult, but, boy, did it ever.

All my teeth-gnashing about my narrative statement made me think about a program I developed with colleagues this semester, a series of panel discussions that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We developed this program in order to celebrate the work of our faculty and staff. Even more importantly, though, the idea for this series grew out of a desire to share stories within our campus community about how we engage in research and creative work. We wanted to host conversations about process, not just product. In sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we were hoping panelists would reveal their steps and stages, but also the information literacy and digital literacy skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to each project. I was excited about the potential of this panel series because I think uncovering process is not just interesting, but empowering. And by increasing the transparency of their component parts, we hoped these kinds of research experiences might feel more approachable to our students.

In conversations with panelists as we prepared for the series, we offered guiding questions they might consider as they prepared their remarks like the following: How did you take your first steps?, How did you ask questions?, How did you identify a path for your research?, How did you engage with other scholars’ work on the topic to develop your own?, How did your work change course during the process?, What attitudes were important to your process?, What skills and tools were key to your process?, How did you gather/organize/analyze data?, How did you draw conclusions?, and What did you learn along the way?.

I had imagined panelists would likely select a particular publication or project and discuss some aspects of its development. Instead, most chose to talk about their undergraduate experiences and their entry into graduate work or their field. Panelists described choices they made, challenges they encountered, and how their paths changed over time. Embedded in each of their stories, too, were practices and perspectives related to information literacy that seemed to me to have been crucial to their process.

What strikes me most now, though, is how each panelist interpreted the program theme and the guiding questions and how they chose to tell the story of their work. When my collaborator and I asked our colleagues to talk about their research processes, I didn’t give much thought to how personal their stories might be. As I reflect on the difficulty I felt in drafting my narrative statement, I’m thinking about the balance I, too, was trying to strike. I’m thinking now about how we weave together process and purpose, personal and professional to help focus and understand our work.

Telling the stories of our spaces

Space is a challenge in my library. With limited square footage, we sometimes don’t have enough seating for the number of students seeking to use our space. We can’t accommodate all the furniture types and configurations we need for students’ assorted library space uses. We’re further challenged by the competition of different space uses (read: noise levels) in such close proximity. It’s not a surprise, then, that space improvement is a topic that’s on my mind quite often. We’re working to address these issues and needs with both small enhancements and larger-scale improvements, thinking about adjustments to our existing footprint while also advocating for an expansion.

Collecting and using data effectively is vital to our ability to identify, plan, and implement improvements. Relying on our assumptions about how students use and feel about space and services won’t cut it. So we’ve been using a variety of methods, both formal and informal, to inform our understanding of students and space–and how it could better meet their needs. Quantitative data like gate counts and service transactions document foot traffic and usage patterns. Occupancy rates show how many (or how few, as the case may be) seats we have in the library in relation to how many students we have. Enrollment trends and projections for our campus provide important context. Qualitative data–gathered through informal focus group meetings with student government and clubs and through questions posted on whiteboards in the library inviting students’ comments on space use and needs–contribute important, albeit selected, student perspectives to our understanding. And there are surely more data pieces we could gather and fit together in this puzzle. All this data can help us understand our current physical constraints and usage patterns and plan improved spaces.

Of course, space is tight on our campus for many departments and needs, not just the library. And competition for money is stiff. Funding for these improvements hinges, at least significantly if not entirely, on sharing the data in a meaningful and compelling way and effectively demonstrating our students’ needs. I’ve been searching around a bit for some inspiration or insight into how I might best tell the story of our students and space and stumbled across this from Jonathan Harris at just the right moment: “I think people have begun to forget how powerful human stories are, exchanging their sense of empathy for a fetishistic fascination with data, networks, patterns, and total information… Really, the data is just part of the story. The human stuff is the main stuff, and the data should enrich it.” Right when I was drowning in all the data visualization best practices and software recommendations–helpful in their own right to be sure–this timely reminder re-focused my view on the students at the center of our space story.

What has helped you tell the story of your students and spaces? How have you made your story and advocacy most compelling? Your planning most effective? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

In and out of context: Musings on information literacy, institutional, and higher ed landscapes

After more than a decade at a private small liberal arts college, my recent transition to a large, public research university has been full of learning opportunities regarding both the content of my work and the culture of this organization. Since arriving, I’ve identified a need for jumpstarting and growing a dormant information literacy program. Developing information literacy initiatives–including course-embedded instruction and faculty development, for example–was a significant focus for me at my previous institution. My experiences and the expertise I developed there certainly apply here. Yet that application requires some translation; my previous work, no surprise, was deeply steeped in that institution’s context.

In my previous position, talking about information literacy by articulating its connections with critical thinking, for example, packed a solid punch for faculty and students. My former institution’s mission statement illustrates the context of our discourse and work, dedicated to the development of “independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile” and “committed to life-long learning.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of language and these values aren’t hard to find at my new institution either. In our general education learning objectives alone, I can point to both explicit and implicit language about information literacy. Telling the story of information literacy in terms of strengthening our abilities to think and learn and live is still compelling. But it doesn’t feel like it goes quite as far a distance here–where I’ve heard gen ed branded as “connecting curiosity and career,” for example–as it did in my previous context.

Surely, it’s not institutional culture alone that explains the difference. The landscape of higher ed altogether has been and continues to be shifting. Yesterday’s joint statement by AAC&U and AAUP, for example, characterizes the trend in this way: “Politicians have proposed linking tuition to the alleged market value of given majors. Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m against pre-professional training nor that liberal arts will save us. This is not an either/or situation. One of the reasons I sought this type of job at this type of institution was to find a new context, a new learning experience. After so much time at one institution, I wanted to see other ways that higher ed works. But I certainly still subscribe to the maxim that critical thinking is just as important, if not more, as content knowledge for our students’ (and our society’s) future success and that information literacy is an elemental part of those critical thinking habits, attitudes, and skills.

So as I’m thinking about growing our information literacy program here, I’m thinking about our institutional context and higher ed landscape with fresh eyes, too. I’m thinking now about all the ways to make the long reach of information literacy visible beyond the classroom. My thoughts turn first to the application and impact of information literacy skills in students’ internships, a signature experience on my campus. How have you illustrated the power of information literacy for your context(s)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

What is library space for?: Reflecting on space use and noise management

On some days, my library feels like it’s bursting at the seams with students. The library is a popular destination for students seeking space for their varying work needs, not to mention the myriad other reasons libraries make a great destination. Yet our space is quite small. And, as you might imagine, lots of people using a small space for different reasons presents challenges. Perhaps chief among those challenges is noise management. Handling noise conflicts is not fun or, at first glance, particularly interesting. But grappling with noise management and space use conflicts at my library this year has, I think, uncovered some interesting reactions, conversations, and questions.

The libraries I’ve worked in previously were large, even huge. Their ample square footage, multiple floors, and layouts provided natural zones that lent themselves to differing uses and inherently provided sound barriers. Even with those advantages, though, we still sometimes struggled with noise problems. I’ve been working at my current library for just about eight months so its particular noise challenges are relatively new to me. We’re lucky to have such an aesthetically pleasing space with attractive furnishings and lots of natural light. The architect made good use of the space, creatively lining the walls with the collection to maximize work/seating areas. Despite these assets, we are still hampered by its size (did I mention it’s small?) and open layout (essentially a string of rectangular classrooms with the walls removed). Noise carries across the space with surprising ease.

Students come to our library for many of the same reasons they visit any library: to find a quiet, even silent, space to study; to work with a partner or group; to do individual work, but in a group setting; to borrow library materials; to ask library staff for assistance; to use our computers, printers, and scanners; to socialize; to nap or relax; and more. Our small size inhibits our ability to be a place for all of these things for our students, but we’re trying to do our best. We have, for example, attempted to create zones designated for silent study and collaborative study at opposite ends of the space to help reduce noise contamination. We have experimented with a variety of approaches to noise management: signage, active monitoring of noise levels and intervention when noise spikes, white noise machines to help drown out noise, and so on. Noise still bleeds throughout the library’s close quarters.

Since I’ve joined this library, I’ve had a number of conversations with students about their space frustrations and needs. Because space is tight, I think students’ uses of the library space are more often subject to scrutiny and judgement by others seeking space for their own needs. I’ve been rather surprised by some students’ requests that library staff police and restrict access to the library space, set strict policies governing use, and impose harsh punishments for violating said policies. Why, some have inquired for example, should students be permitted to nap or relax in the lounge area when others need space for academic work? On a campus where space is such a hot commodity and silence is so hard to find, some have suggested, why isn’t the library entirely devoted to silent study?

These noise management challenges and conflicts over space use have led me to reflect on and question my values and assumptions regarding library space. What responsibilities do library staff have for policing students’ uses of the library? What library space needs and uses should take priority? What is library space for? So far I’ve landed here… I care and am concerned about our students’ needs. I want our library to be responsive to our students. Yet I’m wary of taking any steps that limit the library’s function as a learning space. As educators and leaders on our campus, I think it’s our responsibility to promote a more multi-faceted vision of what learning means and looks like, and all the ways library space is learning space. I think it’s our responsibility to work to balance students’ differing needs and make the space as welcoming and usable as possible for as many students as possible.

How do you manage noise challenges in your library? How do you balance and promote library space as learning space for various needs? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

 

Small Steps, Big Picture

As I thought about composing a blog post this week, I felt that familiar frustration of searching not only for a good idea, but a big one. I feel like I’m often striving (read: struggling!) to make space for big picture thinking. I’m either consumed by small to-do list items that, while important, feel piecemeal or puzzling over how to make a big idea more precise and actionable. So it feels worthwhile now, as I reflect back on the semester, to consider how small things can have a sizable impact.

I’m recalling, for example, a few small changes I’ve made to some information evaluation activities this semester in order to deepen students’ critical thinking skills. For context, here’s an example of the kind of activity I had been using. I would ask students to work together to compare two sources that I gave them and talk about what made the sources reliable or not and if one source was more reliable than the other. As a class, we would then turn the characteristics they articulated into criteria that we thought generally make for reliable sources. It seemed like the activity helped students identify and articulate what made those particular sources reliable or not and permitted us to abstract to evaluation criteria that could be applied to other sources.

While effective in some ways, I began to see how this activity contributed to, rather than countered, the problem of oversimplified information evaluation. Generally, I have found that students can identify key criteria for source evaluation such as an author’s credentials, an author’s use of evidence to support claims, the publication’s reputation, and the presence of bias. Despite their facility with naming these characteristics, though, I’ve observed that students’ evaluation of them is sometimes simplistic. In this activity, it felt like students could easily say evidence, author, bias, etc., but those seemed like knee-jerk reactions. Instead of creating opportunities to balance a source’s strengths/weaknesses on a spectrum, this activity seemed to reinforce the checklist approach to information evaluation and students’ assumptions of sources as good versus bad.  

At the same time, I’ve noticed that increased attention to “fake news” in the media has heightened students’ awareness of the need to evaluate information. Yet many students seem more prone to dismiss a source altogether as biased or unreliable without careful evaluation. The “fake news” conversation seems to have bolstered some students’ simplistic evaluations rather than deepen them.

In an effort to introduce more nuance into students’ evaluation practices and attitudes, then, I experimented with a few small shifts and have so far landed with revisions like the following.

Small shift #1 – Students balance the characteristics of a single source.
I ask students to work with a partner to evaluate a single source. Specifically, I ask them to brainstorm two characteristics about a given source that make it reliable and/or not reliable. I set this up on the board in two columns. Students can write in either/both columns: two reliable, two not reliable, or one of each. Using the columns side-by-side helps to visually illustrate evaluation as a balance of characteristics; a source isn’t necessarily all good or all bad, but has strengths and weaknesses.

Small shift #2 – Students examine how other students balance the strengths and weaknesses of the source.
Sometimes different students will write similar characteristics in both columns (e.g., comments about evidence used in the source show up in both sides) helping students to recognize how others might evaluate the same characteristic as reliable when they see it as unreliable or vice versa. This helps illustrate the ways different readers might approach and interpret a source.

Small shift #3 – Rather than develop a list of evaluation criteria, we turn the characteristics they notice into questions to ask about sources.
In our class discussion, we talk about the characteristics of the source that they identify, but we don’t turn them into criteria. Instead we talk about them in terms of questions they might ask of any source. For example, they might cite “data” as a characteristic that suggests a source is reliable. With a little coaxing, they might expand, “well, I think the author in this source used a variety of types of evidence – statistics, interviews, research study, etc.” So we would turn that into questions to ask of any source (e.g., what type(s) of evidence are used? what is the quantity and quality of the evidence used?) rather than a criterion to check off.

Despite their smallness, these shifts have helped make space for conversation about pretty big ideas in information evaluation: interpretation, nuance, and balance. What small steps do you take to connect to the big picture? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.