When Did Efficiency Become the End-Goal?

Earlier this week I read the latest Library Trends article by Karen P. Nicholson, Nicole Pagowsky, and Maura Seale, Just-in-Time or Just-in-Case? Time, Learning Analytics, and the Academic Library (also available via the University of Arizona Repository. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this blog post and head on over to that article because it is well worth your time.

It’s an exploration of time, in fact, and examines the relationship between academic libraries’ adoption of learning analytics as a crisis response to the “future of academic libraries” discourse that has been around as long as libraries. One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was in response to this constant state of crisis and dire warnings of the future. Nicholson, Pagowsky, and Seale describe this existential fear as the “timescape of a present-future, whose primary value lies in staving off the risk of a library-less future” (2019, p.4). By existing in this “present-future” we seem to be responding to a known-future, one that we must make changes to adapt to fit, rather than a future of our own making that we have the power to shape through organizing, taking actions based on values, and a concerted effort to create change as a profession.

I so appreciate the authors linking the notion of time to power, because time is being used in such a way that renders us powerless. We’re somehow always working against a constantly ticking clock, trying to be more productive and more effective and more efficient. But when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives. Learning is messy. Teaching have can impacts that are small but significant. If we are constantly living in a present-future of what our libraries will or will not be then we are unable to exist in the moment in our libraries, classrooms, and interactions with those around us.

The irony of the popularity of future-casting in libraries AND mindfulness is not lost on me. One is constantly urging us to look forward, mitigate risk, and plan against predictions. The other asks us to be present in our current state, maintain awareness of ourselves and those around us, and work to cultivate a sense of balance with the world. Is the push towards mindfulness a response to our ever-anxious existence as libraries looking toward the future? Is it the answer? Or do we need something more?

I suspect that mindfulness / awareness of the present is a start, but that it should then lead toward present action. What can I do in this moment to make things meaningful for myself, my colleagues, my library? The push towards making work, particularly instruction work, more sustainable tends to edge towards standardization, or, as Nicholson writes, the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries, again because we are looking towards a future rife with cost efficiency concerns, doing more with less, and proving value. It may appear to be programmatically sustainable, but ultimately sustainability relies on people, and people burn out. People get tired of teaching the same lesson plan over and over again. People get fed up with the distance between themselves and the students at the other end of that online lesson. For our work to be truly sustainable it needs to also be sustaining to our needs as people who entered the work of librarianship, specifically teaching librarianship, to help others.

So what can a present-aware, meaningful practice of librarianship look like in the current academic library?

Assessment as Care

water from watering can falling on small plants - Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I’m in a weird head space at the moment. I attended the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium (CLAPS) last month and am about to attend the Library Assessment Conference (LAC) later this week. Based on what I experienced at CLAPS and what I’ve read about LAC, the two conferences couldn’t feel more different.  I am very curious about how we continue to conceptualize and shape the idea of assessment in libraries.

At CLAPS, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop led by Anne Cong-Huyen, Digital Scholarship Strategist, and Kush Patel, Digital Pedagogy Librarian, at the University of Michigan. Their exploration of critical digital pedagogy in librarianship was a wonderful mix of writing, reflection, and discussion on the ways in which we can build critical and queer feminist communities in our classes. As part of the session, Anne and Kush asked participants to read five different excerpts of selected texts on care, praxis, technologies, design, and assessment, and then write our reflections on these excerpts as they apply to our own teaching and the learning we want to facilitate in our classes. (You can read the excerpts on the slides they’ve graciously shared online). The excerpt that resonated with me the most was from Critical Generosity by Jill Dolan, which illustrates a generous and caring approach to the criticism of dramatic performances and artists. It was presented as a model for assessment in teaching and learning, one that recast–in my mind, anyway–assessment as care and sustenance.

The current narrative of assessment in libraries is that of justification. We prove our value, show our impact, and demonstrate our connection to student learning and student success. I know we are working and teaching at a time when higher education funding and academic jobs are precarious and departments and faculty are constantly being asked to prove their worth. I am sympathetic to our attempts to demonstrate, through assessment, that our work in libraries is important. I’ve done and published this kind of assessment myself! But because our assessment is done with the intent to appease an external audience, we are constantly in a position to validate our own existence, rather than support the learning realities of our students and teaching librarians. Our assessment is an act of survival, in our minds, rather than something that enriches and feeds ourselves and our students. I’ve shared my professional angst about librarianship not having a seat at the academic table and the ways that influences interactions between librarians and faculty. Our library assessment culture reflects this reality, but it also continues the narrative that we need to prove ourselves worthy of trust and acceptance.

Dolan writes about her first encounter with “critical generosity” in David Roman’s book, Acts of Intervention. Roman describes caring for friends who were HIV positive during a showing of the famously long play, Angels in America. Throughout the performance, he conducted frequent interpersonal assessments: Is everyone doing ok? Does someone need to take their medication? Is there enough food and water? Do people need a break/rest? The root and ongoing narrative of this assessment was care, sustenance, and really, love.

I recognize I’m asking for what many may view as a stretch: making a connection between the interpersonal care Roman and Dolan write about and institutional library assessment. But our teaching and learning in higher education and libraries is about the students we teach and the interpersonal connections we make everyday. So many of our attempts at assessment stay away from “messiness.” We want numbers that make good stories, and we want those good stories to make the library look good. But in staying away from messiness we are erasing the people at the center our work–their complications, needs, bodies, etc. In short, we’re staying away from the “gore” of learning. I don’t mean to be graphic, but I do think our proclivity for neatness is in direct conflict with the process of learning. In my own attempts at large-scale, summative, value-focused assessment, the best I’ve been able to show is that learning takes time, and our own work as teaching librarians is never-ending.

Yes, I know we have annual reports to write and numbers to share with our directors, deans, provosts, and presidents. I do too. But we have power within our profession with the papers we write, the kind of assessment we advocate for and practice, and the care that we exhibit within our work. What would it mean to embrace a critical practice of assessment? What could that look like?

 

Going to ACRL Immersion 2017: Reflection and more reflection.

First, I do apologize for the late blog, but I wanted some days to collect my thoughts.

A couple of months ago, I found that I had been accepted to the Teacher Track for ACRL Immersion. This program was to take place in Burlington, Vermont. Last Sunday, I arrived and the program concluded last Friday. I have had some days to think about the last week, what I learned, what I need to do, and how I need to do it. There were so many things about Immersion that I could focus on, but instead, I will list what I learned (or didn’t).

  • The theme of the week was transformation and reflection. I had colleagues who had gone to Immersion many years ago and they told me that I needed to be prepared, because it would be a transformative experience. I agree, but my whole self (body and mind) was not completely transformed. Instead, I found myself thinking back and forth about an idea or concept and then being left with either a clear idea or continuing to be baffled. I would reflect about certain things during and outside of Immersion, which brings me to the next point.
  • I found that like Jon Snow, I know nothing.
  • Wait, maybe I do. A lot about what you thought about your teaching will be challenged. You will definitely doubt yourself, but that’s what the week is for. You’re there to doubt, reflect, hopefully transform your ideas, and reflect again (you’ll find that reflection is a huge thing at Immersion).
  • I learned that everyone has a different assessment technique and activity. I found myself pretty excited to take these ideas to American University Library. For those of you who know me, you know that I was not a huge fan of assessment…but I have clearly changed my ways.
  • The activities, exercises, and discussions that we did throughout the week, are meant to not only challenge the way you teach, but to look at things in a different light. For example, I know myself and a couple of other participants were definitely challenged when it came to active learning. Just because you have your students do some type of movement while in class, does not mean that it’s active learning. I know that might be a “duh” for some people, but definitely not for me. It is something I am still reflecting on.
  • I was comforted to know that some people at Immersion share the same insecurities I do. Whether it’s about teaching or being a librarian.
  • Through informal and casual conversations with other librarians at Immersion, I found us discussing some struggles we share or have. Whether it’s struggles with being a librarian, teaching, or other frustrations, it was clearly topics that we simply cannot share with our colleagues back at our own institutions.
  • No one leaves the program suddenly transformed into the “perfect teacher.” I do not believe that is the point of the program. What is the point, is gaining a new set of understanding, comprehension, reflection, and motivation of the topics taught at Immersion.

On a personal note, knowing I was coming to Immersion was exciting because I lived in Burlington when I was a child. It had been 20 years and Immersion gave me the opportunity to come back. I was in awe over how much the town had changed and kept asking myself, “how could my parents ever leave such a beautiful town.” They had their reasons, but it was a delight to have great Immersion faculty, great Immersion participants, and a great space to share ideas, thoughts, doubts, and breakthroughs.

I was also able to have breakfast with my first grade teacher and so that was the cherry on top of a great week. Until next time, Burlington.

 

 

 

 

 

Following the road of assessment

This Fall semester has been taking off like a rocket. It’s been a little less than a month, but library instruction has been taking up a good chunk of my time. At my institution, American University, we have a program called College Writing. This program requires all incoming freshman to take at least one section of College Writing.

Every faculty member that teaches College Writing is paired with a librarian. At least one library instruction session is required and it’s up to us to shape the lesson so that it’s relevant to the student’s’ current assignment.

This semester is a bit different. I had a total of 18 sections of College Writing, compared to the nine sections I had last Fall. I was prepared for a busy semester. Oh boy, has it been busy and it’s only been 2 weeks!

I could be as detailed as I want about my routine, but it’s basically a chain of communication. I ask the faculty member about learning outcomes, what they want out of this library instruction day, what skill level their students are at, and are the students quiet? Do they participate? Details like these help me out a lot, since I will only see the students in the classroom once or twice in the semester.

As I scheduled classes, reserved rooms, and worked on my class outlines, I struggled with how I would incorporate assessment into my lessons. Assessment is a topic I have been thinking about for a while. To be honest, this was a subject that I had been avoiding because it was something that made me uneasy. I have always told myself “I’ll do it next semester” or “I’ll find more information about it later.”

However, it’s been a year since I have started my job at American and decided that this semester it was time to incorporate assessment into my library instruction. When I think of assessment, I tend to think of a ton of data, a desk full of papers everywhere, and an endless amount of work (OK, I like to exaggerate). Now, I do have some forms of assessment in my classes, but it’s in the form of the questions I ask the students in order to evaluate their familiarity with not only the library, but the resources that we are using in class.

Assessment comes in many forms, but I specifically had one method in mind. Over the summer, I worked with another colleague in doing library instruction for the Summer Transition Enrichment Program (STEP). This program provides incoming freshman with preparation for academic success. STEP is a 7 week residential program that helps students with the transition from high school to college. They have a class that is very similar to a College Writing class, meaning, they have a research paper due by the end of the program. One of the components of that class is a library instruction day. As my colleague and I started preparing to co-teach one of the classes, she asked what form of assessment I do for my College Writing classes.

Immediately, I felt ashamed. All the time I had put assessment off and this was the moment where I finally had to own up to it. However, I have awesome colleagues who don’t poke (too much) fun at me. She talked about the post class questionnaire that she usually did with her students. Together, we came up with a couple of questions for the students in the STEP class. It was not a long process whatsoever, but I came to see that there is actually nothing scary about it, like I had thought.

There are many different types of assessment, ones more complicated and time consuming than my little questionnaire. However, I wanted to start small and with something I was comfortable with.  My library instruction classes only started last week, but I remember getting back the questionnaires and leaving them on my desk for a couple of hours. I was afraid to look at them. What if the students did not learn anything? What if they hated me? What if I was the worst librarian ever?

After a couple hours, I needed to log my classes into our stats. I counted the questionnaires and look through them. To my surprise, the students did well. Now, this is an assessment to help me analyze what the students had trouble comprehending and also the areas where I need to do better.

And guess what happened? I found one area where I realized I needed to explain better and spend a little more time on. It’s only the beginning of the semester and I have already found ways to improve upon and this is what it’s really about. To me, assessment is an opportunity to learn about your teaching and improve as you go along.

As someone who is new to this, I want to continue to learn about assessment. There are a couple of resources that one can turn to:

-Look at your own institution to see if they offer any workshops on assessment. What resources do they offer to help their staff or faculty?

-Research other institutions to see if they have assessment in place or an assessment toolkit

-Research the literature on instruction and assessment to see how other institutions go about it

Finally, your colleagues will be your most valuable tools. What assessment do they do? Take them out for coffee and ask them!

I still have a couple more College Writing classes, but I am going to make it my goal to incorporate even more assessment for next semester’s classes. In other words, I am going to make myself accountable. For next semester, I will write another post on how I plan to incorporate more assessment into my teaching, but I also want to know from our readers, what assessment do you do for library instruction? Stay tuned!

Dear diary: Using a reflective teaching journal for improvement and assessment?

A few months ago, I posted about how I’ve shifted to using more constructivist activities and formative assessments in classes. I wrote about how I think these pedagogical frameworks have helped me to strengthen student learning and engagement. I said things about how–by developing opportunities for students to experiment in classes with tools, strategies, and concepts in order to construct their understanding, at least in part–they can deepen and expand their learning. And I wrote, too, about how these activities serve as informal assessments of students’ knowledge, such that I can adjust instruction in real time to better meet students where they are. I’m still feeling rather enthusiastic about all of this. I’m sure there are a million ways for me to do this better still, but in every instance so far this has been an invaluable shift in my thinking and teaching, not to mention a welcome revitalization for my frame of mind.

The data I’m informally gathering have helped me learn a lot about my students and my teaching. About where they’re coming from and how they approach and interpret concepts and strategies. About what I assume or where we don’t connect. I worry, though, that I’m not maximizing the data. I want to grab hold of it a little more and put it to more use. The activities, approaches, and assessments I’ve been doing, though, are largely informal and the data sometimes feel fleeting and anecdotal. Without tangible artifacts of student work (such as worksheets, write-ups, polls, quizzes, or papers) to ground my analysis, I’ve been struggling with how to do that. Couldn’t I somehow compile it across classes for broader understanding of student learning? If I could analyze it more rigorously, could I better gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogy? I want to use it more thematically and systematically to inform improvements I can make in the classroom, assess and document students’ learning, and (hopefully!) demonstrate the impact of instruction. So how do I effectively turn this into recordable data for documentation, analysis, and reflection?

At a session at the ACRL conference this past spring, it was suggested to me that I try using a reflective teaching journal. If you’re like me, the skeptical (or even cynical) voice in your head just kicked in. A reflective teaching journal? Maybe it sounds a little hokey. I admit that it did to me. But then I started thinking about the intensively qualitative nature of the data I’m interested in. I started thinking about how productive reflection often is for me. And then I read Elizabeth Tompkins’ article, recommended to me by a colleague, which opened my eyes a bit to what shape(s) a teaching journal might take.

In “A reflective teaching journal: An instructional improvement tool for academic librarians,” Tompkins reviewed relevant literature and described her own experience keeping a journal to document and reflect on instruction. A reflective teaching journal isn’t the same as a diary or a log, Tompkins noted. A journal brings together the “personal reflections” of a diary with the “empirical descriptions” of a log in order to “examine experiences, and to pose questions and solutions for reflection and improvement.” Tompkins reviewed a variety of journaling methods, as described in the literature:

  • Hobson (1996) used a double-entry format to “separate out descriptive writing from reflections. For example, an author would describe an experience on the left side of the journal while placing his or her reflections on the right.”
  • Shepherd (2006) used guiding questions to “make sense of complex situations.” For example:
    • “How do I feel about this?”
    • “What do I think about this?”
    • “What have I learned from this?”
    • “What action will I take as a result of my lessons learned?”
    • “What have I learned from what I’ve done?”
    • “What have I done with what I learned?”
  • Gorman (1998) concentrated on “concrete issues that were problematic in his classroom.” The journal also “served as a record keeper, capturing his students’ progress before and after he instituted new instruction techniques.”
  • Jay and Johnson (2002) classified three levels of reflection: descriptive, comparative, and critical.
    • “Central to the descriptive phase is asking questions about what is taking place. […] It is crucial to find significance in the problem under consideration. It is important to separate out the relevant facts with sufficient detail to avoid jumping to conclusions.”
    • “Comparative reflection involves looking at the area of concern from a variety of viewpoints. […] Examining a situation from the outlook of others may result in uncovering implications that may otherwise have been missed.”
    • “Employ critical reflection to search for the deeper meaning of a situation. […] Contains an element of judgment, allowing the practitioner to look for the most beneficial method of resolving a problem. Ideally, critical reflection will lead the educator to develop a repertoire of best practices. […] Not the ‘last step,’ but rather ‘the constant returning to one’s own understanding of the problem at hand.’”

Still not convinced? If this seems cheesy or prescriptive, I feel you. Or maybe it seems like nothing special. Tompkins cited one critic who “dismisses reflection as a trendy buzzword for merely thinking about what one is doing.” What’s the big deal, right? To me it’s partly about intentionality. As E.M. Forster wrote, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” I want to increase and focus my attention and devote more time and mental space to processing. Time and mental space are always in short supply, it seems, so the structure of a journal feels like it might force my hand. It’s also about data collection. I want to try to move from the instance and the anecdotal to the bigger picture and the systematic. In her article, Tompkins concentrates on using journals for instructional improvements, and therefore the instructor’s perspective. Students are inherent therein, but I hope to spotlight the student perspective and learning more.

So I’m going to give it a shot. I’m not yet committed to any single approach, other than the doing of it. So far, I seem to tend toward models of guiding questions with descriptive, comparative, and critical lenses. I plan to experiment with different structures, though, as described by Tompkins and others–or make it up as I go–and see what works, as long as I can work toward the goals I have in mind:

  • Document what I’m doing and learning so that it’s less transitory
  • Direct and heighten my attention to what I care about in the classroom, what works and doesn’t, what helps students
  • Facilitate my thoughts on how to teach better
  • Capture evidence of student learning in individual classes and across classes
  • Consider how this work demonstrates the value that the library and librarians contribute to student learning
  • Generally try to connect some dots

Your thoughts? How do you grab hold of your daily teaching and learning experiences and make meaning of them? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.