Summer doldrums: Regenerating some mojo, or How sweet it really is

The end of the semester / start of summer can be a difficult time. A hectic and demanding (and fun, to be sure) semester can be draining, and my motivation sometimes wanes. I’m not the only one plagued by this lethargy. It’s a common complaint for (and bond between!) those of us in higher ed. In late April and early May, June shines brightly as a coveted reward for us academic folk suffering from a touch of burnout. The promise of its wide-open schedule is alluring and sustaining. Yet June never really delivers, does it? Summer’s to-do list isn’t any shorter than the semester’s. In some ways, it’s just as demanding. The many projects and priorities set aside for more dedicated attention come summer pile up rather quickly. And the overflow from the semester quickly floods into summer, too. The fact that I started this blog post in early June and that it’s already the beginning of July by the time I’m publishing it is perhaps the perfect illustration of the tension between fatigue fallout and the heft of summer project lists.

So what to do when the feeling of weariness weighs me down? Time off, no doubt, is a restorative. But perhaps also taking stock of good fortune can revitalize me. When I look back on the decisions that led me to librarianship and my place in it now, I recognize more than a few riches.

It was in college, knee-deep in research for my senior thesis, that I first saw librarianship as a potential fit. I recall a rather clear moment of self-recognition: I was sitting down to yet another PsycINFO search at a library computer, my list of search terms and my pile of collected articles before me. (If only Zotero had existed then!) In that moment, I identified energy and empowerment in the joining of exploration and discovery with (what I hoped was) skillful use of tools and sources. The enjoyment that I now see I derived from the process of my research project marked my future.

Up to that point, I had been largely on track to pursue a career in clinical psychology. But a library path quickly started to feel like a better fit. It satisfied my hope to work in a helping profession, although in a different way than as a psychologist. And librarianship felt like a chance for perpetual learning. I loved this idea and still do. As a librarian, I thought I could satiate my desire to dabble in a wide spectrum of topics while helping others pursue their inquiries. The chance to help people and the chance to learn are what got me here, more or less, although it feels banal to say so. But these choices and these values have held true for me and still motivate me. It feels like a truly lucky thing to be learning something every day, to understand something today that I didn’t or couldn’t understand yesterday or last month or last year.

When I set my sights on a future of librarian-as-lifelong-learner, it was the acquisition of information itself I anticipated. But what I think I’ve actually learned most about are people and process. Sure, I gleaned interesting and important information about the impact of China’s water policy on human rights during a recent research consultation with a student. But what resonated still stronger with me was trying to understand what that student needed to advance his thinking in that moment, learning how that student learns and how best to mentor him. In helping him conceptualize his research questions and information needs, we uncovered and mapped his and others’ thinking. Through connecting users with information, I’ve learned about what we need and want, about how we teach and learn. It’s thanks to such close work with users and such frequent collaboration with colleagues that I’ve learned about how we think, behave, and communicate.

Given my inclination toward psychology, perhaps it’s not unexpected that I often see and interpret the world through this lens of mind and behavior. And no doubt that time and experience have facilitated my perspective, too. But there’s something unique about the nexus of people, content, and process in library work that affords such a vantage point. It’s with this outlook that I feel fortunate. It’s from here that I can feel my momentum regenerating.

What views does librarianship afford you? What do you call upon when your motivation flags? Let me know what you think in the comments…

Facilitating student learning and engagement with formative assessment

Information literacy instruction is a big part of my job. For a little context, I teach somewhere in the range of 35-45 classes per semester at my small liberal arts college. While a few of the sessions might sometimes be repeats for a course with multiple sections, they’re mostly unique classes running 75 minutes each. I’ve been teaching for some time now and while I’m a better teacher than I was ten or five years ago or even last year, there’s always plenty of room for improvement of course. A few months ago, I wrote a post about reflection on and in my teaching, about integrating “more direct discussion of process and purpose into my classes […] to lay bare for students the practice, reflection, and progression that complicates [information literacy] work, but also connects the gaps, that brings them closer to crossing the threshold.” Each year, I’ve been devoting more attention to trying to do just that: integrate process and purpose into my classes to improve student learning and engagement.

It didn’t start out as anything momentous, just a little bit all the time. Initially, it was only a small activity here or there to break things up, to give students a chance to apply and test the concept or resource under discussion, and to scaffold to the next concept or resource. I would demo a search strategy or introduce a new database and then ask students to try it out for their own research topic. I would circle the class and consult individually as needed. After a few minutes of individual exploration, we would come back together to address questions or comments and then move on to the next resource, strategy, or concept. This appeared to be working well enough. Students seemed to be on board and making progress. By breaking a class into more discrete chunks and measuring the pace a bit, students had more of a chance to process and develop along the way. Spacing out the hands-on work kept students engaged all class long, too.

For some time, I’ve started classes by reviewing the assignment at hand to define and interpret related information needs, sometimes highlighting possible areas of confusion students might encounter. Students expressed appreciation for this kind of outlining and the shape and structure it gave them. I felt a shift, though, when I started asking students, rather than telling them, about their questions and goals at the outset of a class. Less Here are the kinds of information sources we’ll need to talk about today and more What kinds of information do you think you need to know how to access for this assignment? What do you hope that information will do for you? What have been sticky spots in your past research experiences that you want to clarify? I wanted students to acknowledge their stake in our class goals and this conversation modeled setting a scope for learning and information needs. We then used our collective brainstorm as a guiding plan for our class. More often than not, students offered the same needs, questions, and problems that I had anticipated and used to plan the session, but it felt more dynamic and collaboratively constructed this way. (Of course, I filled in the most glaring gaps when needed.)

So why not, I finally realized one day, extend the reach of this approach into the entire class? While scaffolding instruction with small activities had helped students process, develop, and engage, I was still leading the charge at the pace I set. But what if we turned things around?  What if, essentially, they experimented on their own in order to determine something that worked for them (and why!) and shared their thoughts with the class? What if we constructed the class together? Rather than telling them what to do at the outset of each concept chunk, I could first ask them to investigate. Instead of demonstrating, for example, recommended search strategies and directing students to apply them to their own research, I could ask students to experiment first with multiple search strategies in a recommended database for a common topic in order to share with the class the strategies they found valuable. The same goes for navigating, filtering, and refining search results or for evaluating sources and selecting the most relevant or for any concept or resource for that matter. Why not, I thought, ask students to take a first pass and experiment? We could then share ideas as a class, demonstrating and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of their tactics along the way, collaboratively building a list of best practices strategies. Students could then revisit their work, applying those best practices where needed.

This kind of experiment-first-then-build-together-then-revise approach is simple enough, but its advantages feel rather significant to me. It makes every class exciting, because it’s—in part, at least—unique and responsive to precisely those students’ needs. Of course I have a structure and goals in mind, prepared notes in hand, but it’s a flexible approach. While it’s not appropriate for every class, the low stakes/low prep makeup is readily applicable to different scenarios and content areas. The students and I are actively involved in constructing the work of the class together. Everyone has a chance to contribute and learn from each other. In particular, more experienced students get to share their knowledge while less experienced students learn from their peers. The expectation to contribute helps students pay attention to the work and to each other. Its scaffolded and iterative design helps students digest and apply information. Its reflective nature reveals for students practice and process, too; it models the metacognitive mindset behind how to learn, how to do research. I don’t mean to get too ebullient here. It’s not a panacea. But it has made a difference. It’s probably no surprise that this kind of teaching has required a degree of comfort, a different kind of classroom leadership, and a different kind of instinct that would have been much, much harder to conjure in my earlier teaching.

While I wasn’t aware of it initially and didn’t set out to make it so, I now recognize this as formative assessment. Not only do these small activities increase opportunities for engagement and learning, they serve as authentic assessment of students’ knowledge and abilities in the moment. They provide evidence of student learning and opportunities for action immediately. With that immediate input, I can adjust the nature and depth of instruction appropriately at the point of need. All in a way that’s authentic to and integrated in the work of the class.

The informality of this approach is part of what makes it flexible, low prep, and engaging. It’s such a rich site for documentation and evaluation of student learning, though. I want to capture the richness of this knowledge, demonstrate the impact of instruction, document students’ learning. But I’m struggling with this. I haven’t yet figured out how to do this effectively and systematically. Some formative assessments result in student work artifacts that can illustrate learning or continuing areas of difficulty, but the shape my implementation has so far taken results in less tangible products. At the ACRL 2015 conference a few weeks ago, I attended a great session led by Mary Snyder Broussard, Carrie Donovan, Michelle Dunaway, and Teague Orblych: “Learning Diagnostics: Using Formative Assessment to Sustainably Improve Teaching & Learning.” When I posed this question in the session, Mary suggested using a “teacher journal” to record my qualitative reflections and takeaways after each class and to notice trends over time. I’m interested in experimenting with this idea, but I’m still searching for something that might better capture student learning, rather than only my perception of it. I’m curious to read Mary’s book Snapshots of Reality: A Practical Guide to Formative Assessment in Library Instruction, as well as Michelle and Teague’s article “Formative Assessment: Transforming Information Literacy Instruction” to see if I might be able to grab onto or adapt any other documentation practices.

Do you use formative assessment in your teaching? How do you document this kind of informal evidence of student learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Mixed messages, missed opportunities? Writing it better

At the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference a few months ago, Zeynep Tufekci gave a great keynote presentation.  Tufekci, who grew up in Turkey’s media-controlled environment,  researches how technology impacts social and political change.  She described how the accessibility of social media enhanced the scale and visibility of, for example, the Gezi Park protests.  In her talk, Tufekci also advocated for academics to “research out loud,” to make their scholarship visible and accessible for a wider, public audience.  Rather than restrict academic thought to slow, inaccessible, peer-reviewed channels, she said, academics should bring complex ideas into the public sphere for wider dissemination and consumption.  Through her “public” writing (in venues like Medium and the New York Times, for example), Tufekci said she is “doing her research thinking out in the open” and trying to “inject ideas of power, of equity, of justice” to effect change.  There’s a lot of public demand for it, she told us, if you make it accessible and approachable.  We just, she said with a chuckle, have to “write it better.”

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Steven Pinker explored the various reasons why academic writing generally “stinks.”  Is it because academics dress up their meaningless prattle in fancy language in order to hide its insignificance?  Is it unavoidable because the subject matter is just that complicated?  No, Pinker said to these and other commonly held hypotheses.  Instead, he said, academic writing is dense and sometimes unintelligible because it’s difficult for experts to step outside themselves (and outside their expert ways of knowing) to imagine their subject from a reader’s perspective.  “The curse of knowledge is a major reason that good scholars write bad prose,” he said.  “It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know—that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day.  And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail.”

Tufekci and Pinker, then, are on the same page.  The ideas of the academy can and should be accessible to a wider audience, they’re urging.  To reach readers, academics should write better.  In order to write better, academics must know their readers and think like their readers.  Sure, you might be thinking, I could have told you that.  We library folks are rather accustomed to trying to think like our “readers,” our users, aren’t we?  So what message might there be in this for us?  Is it that we should continually hone our communications whether in instruction, marketing, web design, systems, cataloging, or advocacy?  Yes.  Is it that we should stop worrying that if we make things too simple for our users we’ll create our own much-feared obsolescence?  Probably.  Is it that we should reflect on whether we’re truly thinking like our audience or trying to make them think (or work) like us?  That, too.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a friend who is a faculty member at my institution.  We were both expressing frustration about recent instances of not being heard.  Perhaps you know the feeling, too.  During class, for example, a student might ask a question that we just that minute finished answering.  Or in a meeting, we might make a suggestion that seems to fall on deaf ears.  Then just a few minutes later, we hear the very same thing from a colleague across the table and this time the group responds with enthusiasm.  If you’re like me, these can be discouraging disconnects, to say the least.  Why weren’t we heard?, we wonder.  Why couldn’t they hear us?  These are perhaps not so different from those larger scale disconnects, too.  When we might, let’s say, advocate with our administration for additional funding for a new initiative or collections or a redesign of library space and our well-researched, much needed proposal isn’t approved.  Perhaps these are all opportunities we might take to reconsider our audience and “write it better.”

So what does “writing it better” mean exactly?  While it likely varies for each of us, I expect there’s some common ground.  “Writing it better” is certainly about clarity and precision of ideas and language.  But I think it’s also about building and establishing our credibility and making emotional connections to our audience, while thinking strategically.  I think it’s about our relationships and values–to the ideas themselves and to our audience.  It’s about an openness and generosity of mind and heart that helps us to consider others’ perspectives.  What does “write it better” mean to you?

Across Divides: Librarian as Translator

Editor’s Note: We welcome Jennifer Jarson to the ACRLog team. Jennifer is the Information Literacy and Assessment Librarian and Social Sciences Subject Specialist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Her research interests include information literacy and student learning pedagogy and assessment, as well as issues regarding communication, collaboration, and leadership.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a few discussion sessions with faculty at my institution who had participated in a recent information literacy study.  Together, we reviewed and interpreted some of the more significant themes of the study’s findings.  We discussed, for example, evidence of students’ competencies and sites of their struggles, our teaching and learning goals and the gaps between our goals and our realities, and so on.  As we identified areas of students’ disconnects, some faculty began to identify a disconnect of their own.  We need help, they said, to better understand conventions and ways of knowing outside our own disciplines.  We recognize that disciplines view and value source types differently, for example, or cite differently, but we don’t know how and why.  As the discussion continued, faculty described wanting to better understand the perspectives that students from different disciplinary backgrounds are bringing to their classes.  In core courses within their departments, faculty described comfort with their own disciplinary traditions, of course, traditions in which their students are becoming knowledgeable or are already well-versed.  Yet, in the increasingly interdisciplinary areas of our evolving liberal arts curriculum — first year seminars and cluster courses, to name a few — faculty described feeling a little more at sea.  So deeply steeped in their own disciplinary traditions, they asked for a little help interpreting other disciplines’ points of view and the varying research approaches through which students might be passing on the way to their classes.

This request — for librarian to operate as translator — is not unfamiliar territory.  We librarians frequently work as translators, as interpreters.  In fact, it seems rather like our home turf.  Facility with different ways of knowing and organization is our wheelhouse. Decoding those schema and perspectives for our different user groups is a language in which we’re fluent.  We interpret our users’ needs when we engage in a reference interview.  We translate their needs into search strategies to best fit database structures or into relevant subject headings in a catalog.  We interpret for students an assignment’s purpose or their professors’ expectations.  We interpret for faculty points of research/information literacy confusion and difficulty commonly experienced by students.  We decipher for users the elements of citations and clarify their means of access.  The librarian-as-interpreter (or perhaps we should say negotiator?) paradigm holds in navigating relationships between faculty and student, faculty and faculty, discipline and discipline, and information resource and user.  It’s in my sphere of public services that I’ve given this topic most thought, but the librarian-as-translator trope doesn’t end there.  The parallel surely continues in cataloging, systems, web design, and beyond.

So what is it about librarians that situates us in this role?  And serves us well in it?  It’s the nature of our work itself, no doubt.  By working with our users, we see through their eyes.  It’s the philosophies and values at our profession’s core (Ranganathan, anyone?), however debated our philosophies might be.  With deep respect for our users and our resources alike, we aim to bridge the gaps between them.  It’s the nature of our location, at the intersections of so many points in our information ecologies and our campus landscapes.

Access to these points — these viewpoints, these skill sets — is not something to take lightly or ignore.  Our unique position affords us opportunities to reach across divides of perspectives, stakeholders, and disciplines.  At the same time, we must take care to evaluate our neutrality in such a position; we must recognize the role we play and our responsibilities in these acts of translation.  With an ear tuned accordingly, we can bring a diversity of voices to our varied campus tables.

What are you hearing?  For whom and how are you interpreting?  I would love to discuss your thoughts in the comments…