Uncovering Expectations and Opportunities, Opening Doors 

It’s hard to believe, but we’re already wrapping up week two of the fall semester at my campus. This means that my information literacy instruction responsibilities are starting to ramp up. Teaching has been a big part of every library job I’ve had since grad school. So it naturally follows that teaching dominates a lot of my time and thinking, not to mention my posts here–from reflections on experimenting with specific activities or strategies in the classroom to the evolution of my teaching practice over the years and attempting to uncover the research process. It’s that last bit in particular that I want to pick up on here, with fresh eyes. 

For many years now, transparency has been a guiding principle of my approach to teaching and all information literacy-related work, in and out of the classroom. I aim to expose embedded–and often invisible–information literacy concepts, skills, strategies, and expectations in order to make the mysteries and complexities of the research process more accessible to students and engage them in it. 

A few weeks ago, I attended the faculty development series my campus offers just before the start of each semester. My colleague led a session about strategies that instructors can use to support neurodivergent students. Her recommendations included providing explicit and intentional directions about academic and behavioral expectations and providing options for student participation to give students some control. Her suggestions made sense to me–I could imagine how such clarity, as well as choice, might support neurodivergent students’ engagement, and neurotypical students’ engagement, too. 

I’ve tried incorporating some of her recommendations in the few classes I’ve worked with so far this semester. More specifically, I’ve tried to make clear at the beginning of each class how students might choose to engage in the session. I provided, for example, a list of what engaging might look like including participating in the in-class activities, asking questions, and contributing comments, as well as avoiding distractions in order to focus, actively taking notes, reflecting on how the day’s content relates or applies to their own experience, etc. I also articulated how students might accomplish these things: vocally in class, in the online platforms as part of our day’s activities (e.g., Padlet, Jamboard), or after class by emailing me or stopping by my office. I provided these expectations in writing on a slide and described them during class. I have always articulated how I hope students will participate in class, suggesting that they ask questions or share their thoughts. This new level of intentionality and detail at the outset, though, brought a more focused spotlight than I have been in the habit of offering. To be honest, it felt a bit awkward to me. I was concerned that it might feel forced or be perceived as juvenile or even didactic. So I’ve attempted to frame these introductory remarks as an invitation to students rather than a patronizing prescription, explaining that I understand students might be uncertain about how to participate given that I’m an unfamiliar guest instructor and I want to be clear that I hope they’ll actively engage in the class. To me, that framing feels more comfortable and authentic.

I’ve only tried this in three classes so far this semester. It’s a limited sample, but I have to say that I’ve been struck by how engaged many of the students in these three classes have been. Of course, that could have nothing to do with this tweak! But maybe…

What strikes me now is how this new, small change is, in fact, so closely aligned with the transparency I’ve been cultivating around information literacy. This intentionality in being explicit about class engagement options is just another kind of unveiling, another way to increase clarity, accessibility, and inclusion.

It makes me wonder what else I could be working to uncover and clarify for students in and out of the classroom. Where else might I be making assumptions? What other paths and processes– established and expected to me but invisible to students–could be unveiled? How and where do you practice transparency in your teaching? 

Informational Holism: Humanities librarianship, liberal arts, and the limitations of quantitative metrics

Benjamin Dueck is a General Librarian in the Arts & Humanities Division at The University of Manitoba Libraries. They are the liaison librarian for Religion, English, Catholic Studies, Theatre & Drama, and Peace & Conflict Studies. Their role includes collection development, teaching information literacy, and providing reference services for faculty, students, and staff.

I am writing this article in the midst of a major life transition. Earlier this month, I began working as a full-time Humanities Liaison Librarian at the University of Manitoba. This is both my first academic job and the only time in recent memory that I haven’t been a student. I am feeling proud and excited to be embarking on this new journey! Still, despite the stability that this position provides, I remain plagued with feelings of uncertainty. As someone who falls somewhere in between the proverbial “millennial” and “zoomer” generations, I’ve become accustomed to a certain sense of precariousness. As a child who grew up on the internet, I struggle to remember a time where there wasn’t a global crisis happening around me—be it the 2008 economic crash, the COVID-19 pandemic, or the omnipresent threat of climate change. Be that as it may, I remain resolutely optimistic about the role that academic librarians have to play in the future of teaching and learning. More specifically, I believe that the qualitative research methods supported by humanities librarians like myself will become vitally important in decades to come.

Historically, the capacities I am referring to have been transmitted to learners through the artes liberales (or liberal arts), a Greco-Roman ideal based on the assumption that a flourishing and cooperative society requires a population that is systematically trained in critical, interdisciplinary thinking. In this blog post, I want to reflect on my experiences as a humanities librarian and explore how the philosophies that inform my work contradict many of the demands being placed on universities by neoliberal governments. I hope that those working in similar positions will be able to relate to the ideas explored here and come away from this article feeling empowered and reinvigorated.

Informational holism

As a subject librarian serving the English and Religion programs on my campus, my day-to-day work involves thinking about domains of experience that elude empirical measurement: ethics, theology, and the great wisdom traditions of the world. In order to support the information needs in my subject areas, I take an integral approach to my reference work and in-class instruction. I strive to teach my community to master a form of inquiry that I call informational holism, the ability to intuit across disciplinary boundaries, think in gestalts, and cognize around clusters of datapoints (figure 1). Informational holism can be contrasted with linear-procedural thinking which emphasizes step-by-step instruction and a hierarchical connection between concepts (figure 2). It is also different from decentralized or “non-hierarchical” network thinking which maps the connections between concepts but lacks the dimensionality needed to render relationships of transcendence (figure 3). While the latter two styles do a good job of modeling workflows and making them more efficient, they tend to flatten out the qualitative depth of the objects they represent. If this all seems overtly abstract, worry not! In the sections that follow, I will ground these concepts with some more concrete examples.

Figure 1: Informational holism. Figure 2: Linear-procedural thinking. Figure 3: Network thinking.

Quantification & the neoliberal university

One of the things I love most about working as an academic librarian is the open-ended nature of my job. Aside from daily duties of reference service, teaching, collection development, and committee work, I have the privilege to choose the kinds of projects that I work on. While I remain grateful to have this liberty, the freedom to choose arrives bundled with the gift and the curse of unstructured time. Lindsay O’Neil gives some much needed strategies for managing this freedom in her articles on time management and academic culture shock.  Still, I frequently feel torn between two competing inner voices—a wise and encouraging voice that advises me to slow down and reflect and the voice of a factory foreman chastising me for not using this time to the best of my ability.

I’ve come to realize that this pressure to maximize my work output is only one ripple in a broader current. I am employed after all in the Canadian province of Manitoba, a place where a neoliberal conservative government is making moves to restructure public education as part of a larger effort to stimulate private sector growth. In this landscape, publicly funded universities like mine are being pressured to align themselves with the economic goals of the state by demonstrating their value and accountability. One of the ways that this manifests in the lives of academic workers like myself is through the use of quantitative metrics designed to save time and money. Generally speaking, these metrics leverage networked technology as a means of meeting the goals delineated by linear-procedural strategic plans. In my own institution, I have seen them implemented in various ways: key performance indicators (KPIs) that track the form and frequency of library reference appointments, usage statistics used to determine the value of library subscriptions, and alumni employment surveys that inform how funding is to be allocated to specific academic programs. Quantitative metrics have their place and are undoubtedly useful from an organizational perspective. In my library, the teams that are implementing these metrics are doing so in good faith, working as best they can within a strategic plan that has been set by the university. Nevertheless, if these measures are used at the institutional level to support a program of economic austerity, they can become harmful to the academic community as a whole.

The limitations of scholarly metrics

To understand how the biases of linear-procedural logic become materialized through networked technology, I want to talk about scholarly metrics. As an academic librarian, this topic comes up quite often in my reference appointments, particularly with graduate students who are preparing to enter the academic job market. Broadly speaking, scholarly metrics refer to technologies and programs that are used to measure the “impact” of digital objects (journals, papers, researcher profiles etc.). The most common are the citation tracking features available through platforms like Google Scholar, PLoS, BioMed Central and ResearchGate. Within these systems, impact is measured quantitatively. The greater the total citation count of a digital object, the greater the impact and influence it can be said to have. The problem is not that these tools are inaccurate, it is that they do not tell the whole story.

To understand why this is, I pose to you a hypothetical question. Which is more impactful, a research paper that is cited 100 times or a book chapter that while only being cited once, plays a central role in an emerging scholar’s PhD dissertation? If this were my own work being referenced, I’d tend towards the latter. I’d much rather my work be engaged with in a thoughtful and rigorous way than referenced many times in passing. You may have a different opinion and I respect that. Your answer will depend on your own definition of what is valuable and your own tendencies as a thinker. Nevertheless, the question sheds light on the way scholarly metrics are biased towards a particular definition of what constitutes valuable knowledge. More perniciously, when quantitative metrics become central to the budgetary decisions made by universities, academics feel the need to choose research topics that yield the highest possible impact. If left to continue, I can see this trend posing a threat to academic freedom, particularly if research tied to industry is prioritized over work that contributes to human knowledge in the long term.

The future of humanities librarianship

In their book The Evolution of Liberal Arts in the Global Age (2017), editors Peter Marber and Daniel Araya show how the liberal arts model has survived centuries of economic and technological upheaval. This is because it teaches timeless skills that help learners to navigate periods of social and economic change. In order for subject librarians working in the humanities to best serve our communities, we need to become vocal advocates for the artes liberales as both a guide to action and as a philosophical ideal. On a practical level, this means fighting back against metrics that impose a reductive quantitative logic onto our work and proposing sustainable alternatives that leave room for informational holism.

Valuable guidance on this front can be found in Kevin Adams writing about integrating Critical Information Literacy (CIL) into library instructional design. Pedagogies of this kind will be crucial in the coming decades. Still if these initiatives are to have an ongoing structural impact, they must be paired with a commitment to the liberal arts at the institutional level and a broader societal shift away from neoliberal economics. I am aware that I have only diagnosed the most general contours of this phenomenon here. To use a scholarly cliché, a richer engagement with this subject goes beyond the scope of a single blog post! Nevertheless, this is a topic that I plan to expand on in future research projects. I encourage anyone who shares similar interests to get in touch with me or to leave a comment below.

Reflecting on Library Instruction

Palms are sweaty, knees weak but I’m not talking about spaghetti (sorry, Eminem); I’m talking about teaching a credit-bearing library course! This last Fall semester, I not only started my first official librarian position, but I also taught my own credit-bearing library course for the very first time. It’s something I’ve briefly mentioned in previous posts, but it’s actually been a huge part of my experience as a first-year academic librarian.  

Within my library, my position falls under the Teaching and Outreach Department. In addition to outreach services, my department’s responsible for teaching several one-shot library instruction sessions per semester as well as teaching credit-bearing library courses. Most of our one-shots are delivered to first-year undergraduate courses, but we also offer the usual library orientation session and course specific instruction as well. Our credit-bearing classes are often co-requisites of corresponding courses. For example, we teach library research classes that support the following programs: Speech and Audiology, Honors, CHE (a TRiO Program for first-gen students), History, and Criminal Justice. The course I teach, LIB 160: Library Research, supports the Criminal Justice program.  

There are several components that come with teaching a co-requisite course. Myself and my colleague, who has been teaching 160 for some time now, regularly collaborate with the faculty member in charge of the course we’re a co-requisite of, CRJ 380: Research Methods in Criminal Justice. This means we do our best to ensure the work that’s done in 160 is closely aligned with what students are expected to do in 380. The major project students complete in 380 is a research proposal. The final assignment in 160 is a literature review which becomes a part of students’ research proposal for 380. Though we work hard to ensure that 160 provides students with the information literacy skills necessary to be successful in their field, planning for and teaching the course is not without its share of struggles.  

Some of the struggles that came with teaching 160 were fairly standard for teaching a new course. In spite of finishing my MS-LS with a solid understanding of information literacy, learning an entirely new curriculum designed for a subject matter outside of my expertise was my first big challenge. Though my colleague who taught the course before me was open to questions and more than willing to share her materials, I still had several lessons and assignments to familiarize myself with in a relatively short period of time – My position started in July and classes began in August. Thus, a great deal of my orientation process was dedicated to learning the ins and outs of 160. After starting to learn the curriculum, actually being in the classroom itself and teaching the lessons became my next challenge.  

Thanks to my colleagues who introduced me to the idea, reflection has become a part of my teaching process. Last semester, I got into the habit of journaling after every class. I’ll be the first to admit that not every day was my best last semester. To give you an idea, the words and phrases I used to describe my first week of class were: nervous, felt weird, stress, sweaty, talking too fast, and I think they liked my personality. Imposter syndrome loomed large for me. Though I have years of experience teaching high school, the thought of teaching in a university was intimidating for me. I was always a little nervous whenever I taught high school, but this was different. In hindsight, it may have been a combination of different things: new job, new responsibilities, first time teaching a new course. Yet, all of that isn’t to say that there weren’t any successes last semester.  

Seeing my students learn and grow has always been among my greatest successes as an educator. This past semester was no different. At the beginning of 160, my first assignment asked students to illustrate their current research process. At the end of the course, I asked my students to carry out the same assignment but to add any new steps they may have developed in 160. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the majority of my students added several steps to their old processes. Course evaluations were another new but pleasant surprise. 

Needless to say, teaching an in-person course during a pandemic is a challenge. Though my institution has a vaccine and mask requirement, the semester was not without its fair share of quarantines, sicknesses, or students dealing with labor shortages at their jobs. I’ve always felt that, before anything, students are people with lives outside of the classroom – Lives which are often subject to circumstances outside of their control. Because of this, I’ve always strived to be an open and understanding instructor. Even so, it was my surprise to see that several students noted my approach in their course evaluations with comments like, “Professor García truly cares about his students and them succeeding” and “He was very understanding with assignments and helped me when I needed an extension.” Though I often felt like maybe I didn’t know what I was doing, I’m happy to report that I never lost sight of my students’ humanity and my responsibility to them as an instructor.  

Flash forward to the present, my class is entering its third week and I’m happy to report that it’s been great! In spite of the current Omicron surge, students in quarantine, and snow days, I feel so much more comfortable as an instructor this time around. Looking at my reflection journal, the first week was described as comfy, easier, nice balance, and connecting with students well. Though I know improving one’s pedagogy is a continuous process, knowing the semester has gotten off to a great start fills me with great optimism. 

My view of my classroom. 

From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom

I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter the other day when a tweet caught my eye. I wish I could find it again to do it justice, but it was essentially a critique of the author’s missteps in the classroom early in their career by way of a funny apology to students. It immediately transported me back to some of the most disappointing and embarrassing teaching experiences in my own early career days. My whole body still cringes when I remember those moments: the one-shots where, for example, I droned on about database navigation and put students, and myself, to sleep; the ones where I stuffed every minute of class, often with insignificant minutiae, thereby camouflaging what really mattered. I didn’t know how to prioritize or pace instruction, much less how to engage students. 

I’m grateful to say that almost everything about my teaching has changed since then, and for the better. Now, more than a decade later, my teaching is much more grounded in constructivist pedagogy and organized around cultivating students’ awareness and understanding of their research processes. My approach then could perhaps be described as tool-driven and largely based in demonstration. It was common for me to develop some kind of resource guide for the course–essentially a long list of links to recommended databases, books, websites, etc.–and then to spend our time in class focused on modeling and practicing effective use of those tools. Of course, there are still plenty of occasions when it makes sense to orient students to effectively using library databases. But now uncovering, conceptualizing, and shaping the process of research–the methods, stages, and purpose–is my organizational blueprint. Today–guided by constructivist and metacognitive principles, active learning pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques–my teaching is much less about tools and much more about strategies, much less about clicks and much more about concepts. 

While the impact of this long transformation has reaped many rewards in student engagement and learning, as well as my personal interest and satisfaction, I know there are many ways I could further improve what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. I hope to keep iterating and advancing. Specifically, I’m thinking about a technique that I’ve long recognized as a weak spot in my teaching and that could support this road from clicks to concepts: storytelling. 

I’m using the word storytelling quite broadly for my purposes. Perhaps examples is more accurate (and less lofty and self-aggrandizing)? Yet examples feels just a bit narrow. I’m not referring only to developing instructive sample searches to demonstrate how to keep keywords simple yet precise or selecting the ideal sample article to model how to effectively organize a literature review. Of course, those are important kinds of examples and, when done well, very impactful ones. But when I say I want to use storytelling or examples, I’m thinking more about allegories, anecdotes, and analogies, case studies and real-world problems to wrap around the research strategies and concepts at the core of each class. I’m imagining that such storytelling techniques could extend or enhance information literacy teaching and learning by making abstract or technical concepts more accessible and concrete, facilitating recall, demonstrating relevance and impact, prompting reflection and meaning-making, not to mention simply providing inspiration or general interest. I’ve so far been thinking of these as discrete stories to insert at key moments in class to illustrate a point, hook a students’ interest, or propel us all toward moments of understanding.

The small amount of reading on this topic that I’ve done thus far seems to affirm the effectiveness of storytelling and precise, compelling examples in teaching (not to mention other domains like management and leadership). And the tips I’ve stumbled on so far suggest that, like many things in teaching, it’s best to start small by focusing on a single area or concept that students regularly struggle with in order to integrate storytelling where it’s most needed. Otherwise, I’m still a bit at sea here on how to do this best. It’s one thing to be able to identify where a story would be most helpful; it’s another to compose a compelling story that helps students reach a meaningful takeaway and recognize why that takeaway matters. I certainly need to do more research and thinking, but I’m curious about your experience. Have you incorporated storytelling and examples in your teaching? What kinds of stories? And to what effect? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Pulling Back the Curtain on Library Magic

open book and glowing orb sitting on a table
Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Some Context

While we’re making dinner, my husband (also in academia) and I will usually talk about our workday, despite the fact that, at the moment, our offices are separated by only one wall. These conversations usually devolve into what I’ll politely refer to in a public forum as “academia garbage talk,” in which we rage about the great problems of higher education as our onion chopping gets messy and our son tries to drown out our noise with video game YouTube.

Library Magic

Earlier this week our academia garbage talk focused on the idea of smoke and mirrors in academic libraries. As a graduate student in mathematics and then an assistant professor, my husband, we’ll call him C, was always strongly encouraged to use interlibrary loan, reach out to his librarian, request journals and books, and really, ask for anything.

“The way this was sold to me,” C shared, “was that if there was anything I needed, librarians could make it happen. If I needed an article or a book or a journal or a class for my students, librarians could and would make it happen via some kind of library magic.”

C

I remember these days. In the early 2000s our budgets were healthier than they are now and all of our outreach efforts centered on this idea of getting students and faculty to not only use the library but to use us, as librarians. I remember standing in front of a class of undergraduate students and talking about interlibrary loan (ILL) as if it was library magic. It’s a FREE service! The article appears in your email inbox the next day! Did I mention it’s free? Never mind the cost and labor involved in making ILL happen. They didn’t need to concern themselves with that. That’s a topic of conversation for library workers, not students.

Before the days of critical information literacy, I taught students how to search for peer reviewed articles to meet their information needs in library databases using the magic of filters and advanced search. I routinely heard students mutter, “how did you do that?” as they stared in happy amazement at their list of results. I may have talked about peer review as a process but I didn’t dig into the economic realities of scholarly publishing or the money involved in creating library databases and the money made by Google when we used it to search.

I remember, in those days, begging faculty to place book orders to spend down our firm order budget but then having to backtrack when they wanted journals or databases instead. “Didn’t you tell us to ask for what we need?” they’d stare accusingly, as I tried to then explain allocations and subscriptions, my magical facade slipping.

The Death of Magic that Never Was

Problems occur when the magic fades, or rather, the problems become evident to people outside of the library once the illusion disappears. After the recession we found ourselves with shrinking budgets and calls to cut cut cut, a situation made even worse by the current pandemic. Library positions are not being refilled, subscription costs continue to rise, and library workers are exhausted. Faculty and students continue to want to call on our magic but we have to admit it was never really there in the first place.

That article you received via interlibrary loan may have not cost you any money but it certainly did cost the library money and library workers’ time.

Those journals we said we could get you are actually rising in cost far beyond our ability to pay so no, we can’t get that new journal and actually we need to cut a bunch of other ones.

Yeah, so, searching in Google might be free but its actually using your search information in its proprietary algorithm that reinforces racial bias (among other things) and yeah, we know that the library’s discovery layer is not great but we don’t have the personnel to fix it.

All of the services we provide, including access to collections, instruction, and research support are fueled by money and people, not magic.

Value and Values in a Non-Magical World

I don’t want to blame libraries and librarians for trading in magic. We were trying to make libraries relevant and prove our value and the rhetoric we used was meant to show helpful we could be in making academic life easier. We wanted to demonstrate our worth and increase our gate/use/reference/instruction/click counts. I won’t get into the doing-more-with-less discussion because there are much smarter folks who have covered resilience and neoliberalism in much more nuanced ways than I can do here. However I do think it’s worth continuing a conversation about how we talk about library work, how libraries work, and how information is produced, accessed, commodified, and shared.

My current place of work is part of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action (TLCUA) which aims to “think creatively about access to faculty publications and the sustainability of journal subscriptions,” and includes contract negotiations with Elsevier. Part of this work involves a coordinated campaign to educate our faculty about the costs associated with academic publishing and library collections. It’s pulling the curtain back on budget conversations that were previously kept in house, and is something that the University of California system has done quite well over the last few years. Journals and databases don’t magically appear out of nowhere. They cost money, and are costing us more and more money each year.

In parallel to these faculty education efforts, we should also be teaching students about information systems and how information works, a topic Barbara Fister advocates for in her new PIL Provocation Essay. We used to hide much of the inner workings of search algorithms, databases, data collection, metadata, subject headings, and the costs of academic scholarship from our students because that was librarian stuff that students didn’t really care about. They just needed to know how to get their books and articles to complete their assignments and access the information they needed. They didn’t need to know that information got there in the first place.

But we have classrooms of students now who are concerned about the legitimacy of information shared online, struggling to spot bias in writing, and wondering where all the data collected about them by websites and learning analytics systems is going. Some of the most engaging conversations I’ve had about the peer review system, academic publishing, news, and social media have been with undergraduate students. We can’t assume that students don’t want to learn about how information and its systems work. More importantly, we can’t have conversations about information literacy without talking about the sociological, cultural, and economic context of the information they seek.

Library magic may have felt easy and appeared wondrous, but in the end what we need is less magic and more dissection. We need to get into complex explanations and uncomfortable conversations and we need to assume that our students and faculty can handle it. If we’re in the business of education then we need to stop the smoke and mirrors and start (or continue!) to critically inspect and explain the information systems around academia as well as those outside of our context. Academia overlaps with the commercial world, political landscape, and cultural contexts, and we need to have a narrative about library work that doesn’t shy away from those realities.