Open and Closed Questions

Another way to introduce students to the idea of complexity in the research process is through open and closed questions. In Second-hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority, Patrick Wilson describes closed questions as matters which (for now) have been settled beyond practical doubt and open questions as questions on which doubt remains.

I suggest to my students that one way to focus their research is to pay attention to clues that suggest where the open questions are and to concentrate their efforts there. Wilson points out that previously closed questions can become open when new information comes to light. In class, you can illustrate this and attempt some humor with the line, “when I was your age, Pluto was a planet!” Then proceed to explain how the planetary status of Pluto became an open question with the discovery of the Trans-Neptunian objects Quaor, Sedna, and Eris. Then follow this up with an example of an open question in the subject matter of the class you are teaching.

The term “research” is ambiguous. For some it means consulting some oracle–the Internet, the Library, the encyclopedia–finding out what some authority has said on a topic and then reporting on it. Fine, sometimes that’s what research is. That kind of research can be interesting, but it can also be pretty boring. What makes higher education thrilling is discovering live controversies and trying to make progress on them. Academic libraries are not only storehouses of established wisdom, they also reflect ongoing debates on questions that are unsettled, in dispute, very open, and very much alive.

Why are You a Librarian?

No, that isn’t meant to be said in the voice of a slightly-tipsy relative at a family gathering. You? A librarian? Why on earth . . .

It’s an invitation to a meme started over at Free Exchange on Campus, where I occasionally blog. It was inspired by Dr. Crazy’s wonderful post, “Why I Teach Literature.” And now a number of academic bloggers have weighed in. What they have to say is an excellent way to learn more about faculty perspectives and the passion that drives them into the classroom.

I was asked to join in just as I was mulling over Steven’s post on faculty status, so in part my response to “why I am a librarian” is an extension of my responses to that post and a reflection on the ACRL/AAUP statement on librarians and faculty status. In my post I tagged a handful of librarians – you’re it! – but then felt a bit silly because in those blogs, the answer is pretty obvious, even if it the question isn’t posed that way.

But I hope some librarians will be moved to pick up the meme – here in comments, or on your own blogs. I sometimes think some of our colleagues in the academy respect what we do … they just aren’t exactly sure what it is or why it matters.

You Won’t Discover Much About Academic Librarians In This Discovery Tool

I’m a big fan of EDUCAUSE publications. From the regular magazines such as EDUCAUSE Quarterly and EDUCAUSE Review, to the many white papers, and the Seven Things You Need to Know series, I think EDUCAUSE has radically raised the bar for what an association can accomplish with its publications. I’m sure ACRL pays attention to this, and is seeking to raise its bar as well. So I was somewhat disappointed when I examined the just released ELI Discovery Tool: Net Generation Workshop Guide. Here is the description:

The ELI Discovery Tool: Net Generation Workshop Guide is designed as an action-oriented, modifiable resource for faculty development and other instructional uses. We have focused on the Net Generation because serves as a starting point for many other discussions about active learning, emerging technologies, information fluency, learning space design, and assessment.

Sounds interesting, right. Here’s a resource I can use to design faculty development programs. The guide has 9 different educational units that can be offered individually or as a group. Each module is designed to produce a two-hour workshop. So far it’s all good. But things really fell flat when I examined the module on information literacy (see unit 8). I will give kudos to EDUCAUSE for at least including it in a learning guide geared to help faculty understand the millennial generation. If nothing else it might help to create some awareness among our faculty.

But reading this guide you wouldn’t know that librarians had anything to do with information literacy programming. There isn’t a single mention of the word “librarian” and there is no suggested activity that involves librarians. I know that academic librarians don’t own information literacy, but at a minimum couldn’t the “follow-up” section even suggest something like “talk to your campus librarians about developing an information literacy initiative” or “find out what your campus librarians are doing to help students develop better research skills”. And while I have great respect for Diana Oblinger, to look at the resources listed in the guide you’d think she was the only person who ever authored a publication about information literacy – not even a link to ACRL’s information literacy resource page?

I know that ACRL has a program to organize its effort to reach out to other associations to develop joint efforts to promote the goals of the association. I know our ACRL colleagues can’t be aware of everything that’s happening at its partner associations, but did something fall through the cracks here? I can imagine few things more central to ACRL’s mission than an EDUCAUSE publication designed to educate faculty about information literacy. It seems there were some opportunities for inter-association communication here, but it looks like that just didn’t happen in this case. I hope that the next time EDUCAUSE is developing educational or programmatic materials about information literacy or any issues in which ACRL has a vested interest some cooperative interaction will be a part of the process.

Librarian 101 via English 101

So, my first semester as a professional academic librarian is over and our students will return for part two next week. I’m not sure I have much in the way of either highlights or low points, specifically, but I have gotten some good experience. My weeding project is continuing at a steady pace, I’ve had some good and bad reference interactions, and I’d like to work more closely with Humanities faculty as part of my liaison duties.

I received my best experience this fall by being thrown into instruction, specifically in our busy English 101 season. I had purposefully finished my MLIS program with an Instruction course so that I’d have it fresh in my mind once the fall semester began wherever I found employment. I figured that as an entry-level librarian I’d be doing some kind of basic instruction right away and while I got a little time to observe my colleagues, pretty soon I was up there by myself. I did eight English 101 class sessions this past semester, which is a fair amount at a small school like Norwich, and really enjoyed myself.

What was frustrating was trying to get past the preconceived notions others in the profession had given me about trying to teach research skills to college freshmen. I kept hearing things like “they can’t be taught,” or “just try to keep them awake” from some of the folks around me. I may have been just young and optimistic, but I really began the semester hoping to engage with the students and help them make the transition to college work. I think in many ways my lack of experience was a good thing, as it helped me be more loose and open with both what I was expecting from my students as well as how I structured my session (it also helps that I’m a fast-talking city boy who can cram a lot into 50 minutes). I’m not so naïve as to believe that I can relate to them as peers (I will be 30 this spring), but I hope to at least come off as approachable and knowledgeable while selling them our services as both pathways to success as well as time-savers. A former colleague of mine once told me that her goal in an English 101 one-shot was not to teach them a million things about research but just to appear friendly and open enough that the students would come back and seek her out once they were ready to use what we have to teach. That seems like a better strategy than throwing everything at them, worrying about keeping them awake, or assuming they’re too dense to get it in the first place.

There’s also a lot of educational theory that I learned last Spring that I should return to so that I can improve for this semester, but I’m glad that I got off to a good start and still have some enthusiasm for working with our students. I hope I can retain that enthusiasm through the fall as I’ve now been asked to work with the English faculty responsible for the 101 curriculum and insure that our information literacy component is at least present in every section and increased where it already exists.

Thanks again for your support, and I’ll see you at Midwinter next week!

Ketchup is a Form of Exercise

Catching up on a couple of previous posts . . .

There are two must-read discussions over at if:book on the NEA’s latest threnody for reading. The first looks at Matthew Kirschenbaum’s interesting take, previously published in the Chronicle. The NEA report assumes one sort of reading – solitary, linear, purposeless, and sustained. Yet there is a certain kind of reading that is lateral (and very common in academic libraries) – comparing texts, following footnotes, pursuing leads from one line of thought to another, books spread out for easier access – that has been around long before the digital era. (And, of course, now we even have a primer on how to talk about books we haven’t read.) The NEA assumes there is only one sort of reading that has value. I like a long, sustained read as much as anyone (I was a Russian Lit major, fer cripe’s sake!) but I do plenty of the other, and it’s valuable, too.

The other if:book instant classic is Nancy Kaplan looking at the NCES data that the NEA uses to link declines in “reading” (narrowly defined) and reading test scores. The NEA report skews it – and they’ve been outed. This is an important critique, and a fascinating example that demonstrates critical information literacy. This would actually make for a good classroom exercise – look at press coverage, go to the NEA source, then look at the underlying data. It’s a corker!

Finally – Facebook faced up to the storm of criticism that met their plan to broadcast to members’ friends what members are buying at other sites. (A few Christmas present surprises were spoiled in the process.) They’ve decided to make it opt-in, not opt-out. Let’s hope they learned something in the process.