Staying the Course

Classes started at my college last Thursday, officially bringing the winter intersession to an end. While the library was fairly quiet in January, I kept myself busy with a couple of big projects, including getting ready to teach our library’s first credit-bearing course this semester.

It’s been exciting (and, I admit it, a little scary) prepping for the course. I spent lots of time researching courses offered by academic libraries while creating our course last year before it passed through the college’s curriculum approval process. I’m using a textbook and supplementing it with lots of readings from articles, books and websites. I’ve sincerely appreciated the willingness of my fellow academic librarians to share their syllabi and class plans online, which helped enormously as I updated my syllabus last month.

And it’s no surprise that it’s a big time investment to teach a semester-length course. Since this is the first semester out for us our enrollment is on the low side, which will lessen the amount of time I’ll spend on some aspects of the course, like grading. But we expect enrollment to increase in the future. There are several new majors in development at my college, and some of the faculty in those departments have expressed interest in requiring their students to take our new course. It’ll be interesting to see how the course develops.

There has been and continues to be lots of debate over whether credit-bearing courses are the best way for academic librarians to advance information literacy at their institutions. I’m of the opinion that there’s no one right way for IL, and that different strategies will be successful at different institutions. I see our course as another way to offer library instruction; we’re still continuing with our one-shots, individual research consultations, and other instruction options.

One of the things I’m most looking forward to is the chance to work with students for a full semester. While I enjoy teaching one-shot BIs, of course there’s never enough time to cover everything I’d like to in one or even a few library instruction sessions. It’ll be great to tackle topics like the production of information, evaluation, and information ethics in much more detail in the course than is possible in a one-shot. Let the semester begin!

Browsing, Searching and Finding

January always brings lots of discussion about the future, and probably even more so this year now that we’re a decade into the second millennium. Collections are central in much talk about the future of academic libraries, which naturally leads me to thoughts about browsing.

I have a confession to make: I don’t browse through academic library stacks much anymore. There seem to be a few reasons for this:

  • I work at a small college library which is part of a larger university system that includes over 20 schools, each with its own library. Many of the books I need I borrow from the other colleges in the system via our shared catalog.
  • The discovery methods I use have shifted away from browsing. Typically I learn about new books through association news, ads in library science journals and magazines, or via blogs, Twitter or other internet sources. (It’s hard to say whether there’s a feedback loop here: if I worked in a larger library would I browse more?)
  • I also read across a wider range of disciplines than I did before I was a librarian. When I was an archaeologist there were a couple of call number ranges in close proximity to each other that I’d occasionally browse through (good old CC and GN), but if I tried that now I’d be all over the library.
  • And, I sheepishly admit to a bit of browsing fear: I always seem to have plenty to read, from journal articles to the biblioblogosphere to the three work-related books sitting on my desk right now. So I’m somewhat scared to spend time browsing in case I find more than I have time to read.

Though they definitely use the library, I don’t typically see faculty at my college browsing our stacks, either (maybe their reasons are similar to mine?). But I have noticed that students often want to browse in the library. Many students, especially those new to the college, stop by the reference desk and ask “Where’s the psychology section?” or “I need to look at the architecture books.” It’s easy to forget how opaque an academic library, even a small one, can seem to undergraduates. Last semester a student said to me, in an awed whisper, “the library is so big.”

All of this leads me to wonder about the future of collections at my library. If faculty don’t browse much anymore, how would they feel if we were to propose moving some of the lesser-used materials to off-campus storage? Though common at many college and university libraries, faculty may not agree with this strategy, as we saw late last year with the faculty protest at Syracuse University.

On the other hand, if students are still browsing, how can we make it easier for them? We have those nifty bookmarks from ALA with the Library of Congress call number ranges printed on them, and I like to pass those out to students who ask about broad subject areas. Would it be helpful to students if we added signage that displayed the subject names next to the call number range signs on our shelves?

Whatever happens, I’m sure that the next decade will bring lots of change for our collections, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for the future.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Winter Break

Finals end today at the college where I work, and the semester is coming to a close. I really value the stretch of slower days in the library during the intersession; it’s a great time to take stock of what we’re doing and where we’re headed. This semester was incredibly busy, with a big increase in enrollment and much more instruction than last fall, so I’m even more grateful for the temporary slowdown. This winter break I’ve got three big projects to I’m hoping to tackle:

1. Planning for Next Semester
The core of our library instruction program is a mandatory one-shot for all English Composition classes, and our instruction librarians met last week for a debrief and planning session. For next semester our focus is on increasing both student and faculty participation in these sessions. We brainstormed a number of strategies at our meeting and will start to implement them over the next few weeks. I’m looking forward to teaching the revised sessions next semester — it’ll be interesting to see how these changes impact student engagement.

2. Long-term Program Ideas
In addition to prepping for our Spring instruction sessions, I’m hoping to take some time this intersession to think more about the future of our information literacy and library instruction program. I’m especially interested in learning more about programs that feature intensive, one-on-one collaboration between librarians and faculty in other departments. I’m excited to dig into research on faculty development programs like the Undergraduate Information Competency Initiative at Cornell University, the information literacy workshops at James Madison University, and the Information Literacy Quality Enhancement Plan at Trinity University.

3. Research and Scholarly Work
I’ll have a few research leave days in January, so I’m planning to catch up on some research and writing. I’m working on a research project with a colleague this year and we’ve got a pile of data from interviews with faculty and students to start to analyze; I’m also beginning a study with another colleague. And, despite my best efforts at keeping up, I still have a stack of articles that I haven’t found time to get through this semester. If I can shrink that tower of paper by the end of the winter break, it will definitely feel like an accomplishment!

Digital Natives, Scholarly Immigrants?

While browsing through my table of contents alerts recently I came across an interesting article in the current issue of the Journal of Higher Education: “University Students’ Perceptions of Plagiarism,” by Lori G. Power (unfortunately behind the paywall at Project Muse). It’s a happy coincidence to come across this article now, as plagiarism has been much on my mind lately for a couple of reasons. A colleague is teaching our first student workshop on avoiding plagiarism this week. We’re also planning to offer a plagiarism workshop geared for faculty next semester, in collaboration with our college’s Writing Across the Curriculum program.

Power interviewed freshmen and sophomores at a small university in Maine both individually and in focus groups to try and unpack their knowledge about plagiarism. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), they don’t know as much about plagiarism as we may think (or hope). Power acknowledges that this aligns well with the results of previous studies, but her work reveals students’ perceptions of plagiarism in their own words, with fascinating results.

Power found that student responses to her questions about plagiarism fell into two main categories: agency and externalization. Most students expressed only partial understanding about what exactly constitutes plagiarism, especially regarding paraphrasing. Yet they were dissatisfied that many of their professors warned them away from plagiarism by emphasizing the potentially harsh penalties rather than explaining the nuances of academic writing. Students also noticed that faculty responded in different ways to plagiarism, which further increased students’ confusion. Ultimately, many students that Power interviewed expressed frustration at being required to play by the rules of the scholarly communication game without having had these rules fully explained:

It seems apparent at the college level at least, students see plagiarism as a bit of a power trip. Professors and college administrators seem to often tell students not to plagiarize, and warn them of the consequences, but these students don’t believe they do as well at helping students understand why not to plagiarize, or how not to plagiarize.

The other major theme identified by Power in her student interviews was externalization. Power suggests that because undergraduates–novices in the academic world–are unfamiliar with intellectual property, they view the prohibition against plagiarism as somewhat arbitrary. They often don’t identify a moral component to plagiarism, and don’t believe that there are consequences for plagiarism in the real world. And when asked why they shouldn’t plagiarize, many students in Power’s study replied that their professors needed to know that students had learned the course material rather than copying it from someone else.

Power concludes with suggestions for addressing plagiarism with our students:

We can’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach will work in preventing plagiarism. We must open wide the dialogue about power, judgment, and student agency. We need to improve our strategies for helping our students to discover the importance of intellectual property and the sharing and ownership of ideas.

Our students may be digital natives, but most are scholarly immigrants (at least as first- and second-year students). And as academic librarians, we have much to contribute to student learning about scholarly communication, intellectual property, and plagiarism.

Encouraging Engagement

Right now we’re in the midst of our busiest time in the semester for instruction at my library. I coordinate our information literacy program so instruction is always a big part of my job, but it looms even larger for me at this time of year. If I’m not teaching a class, I’m probably thinking about the classes I teach.

Like many other colleges, most of our library instruction program consists of the single required library class for all English Composition I students. Much has been written about the challenges of the humble one-shot, and I think we do a good job with these sessions given their constraints. Still, over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun to target on a few things that frustrate me. The more I’ve thought on this, the more I realize that a critical factor is engagement.

Student Engagement
It’s no secret that students often find their library sessions to be less than inspiring, and are often more engaged with the computers and each other. Some of these are classroom management issues, though we do require that professors attend sessions with their students, which usually encourages students to pay attention. But relevance is a factor, too: do students see the material covered by librarians as relevant to their coursework? There’s lots of evidence that students are more engaged when their library session is scheduled at the point of need, just as they are starting research on a paper or project. (Anecdotal evidence from the sessions I’ve taught supports this, too.)

One solution is to schedule our English Comp sessions just as students receive their assignments and are beginning their research. We’ve tried a couple of different scheduling strategies, including spreading the sessions evenly over the semester, and concentrating the classes in the few weeks just after midterms. But speaking with students and faculty and our student evaluations reveal that sometimes the sessions are too early, sometimes too late.

Next semester we may try contacting all English Comp faculty just before the semester begins to ask when they’d like to schedule the library session. We’ll need to be sure to emphasize that the best time for students to visit the library with their class is concurrent with their research assignments. Ultimately this scheduling method may not be possible because of sheer numbers: we’re a small library, and this semester there are 126 sections of English Comp. But given the real increase in student engagement that I’ve observed in my classes that do have a research assignment, it’s probably worth a try.

Faculty Engagement
I’ll admit that when I first started teaching library sessions I vastly preferred the classes in which the instructor sat quietly in the back of the classroom while I made my presentation at the front. I was nervous about my own teaching skills, especially covering all of the material in the session, and it seemed easier to go straight through it all without diversion.

Now that I’ve been at this for awhile I really value my library sessions with involved, engaged faculty. I can appreciate many of the reasons that faculty may sit quietly through the class. Many faculty appreciate that librarians have specialized training in research skills and information literacy, and are happy to give us space to teach in our discipline. But when an instructor engages with the librarian and the class — offering additional examples of relevant topics, search strategies, and keywords; reinforcing the need to critically evaluate sources; etc. — these sessions seem to be the most valuable for the students (and also more enjoyable for me).

Encouraging faculty engagement seems like it might be a bit more difficult than with students. A colleague suggested that we maintain the same pairings between librarians and instructors across multiple semesters. This would allow us to develop a closer relationship with faculty teaching English Comp, and help us tailor the library session more closely to the assignment in each class. Again, we may hit a snag because of the large number of sections, though with the increase in enrollment this semester we’ve got a new crop of adjunct English Comp faculty, so this may be a good time to try.

I’m sure there are lots of other strategies for encouraging student and faculty engagement in library instruction sessions. What methods have you used successfully? Which haven’t worked so well?