Abracadabra: The Magic of Eye Contact

One of the simplest and most rewarding things I’ve done recently to improve my teaching, presentation, and even reference work has been to improve my eye contact. Yeah, eye contact. It’s that simple. If you don’t come by this skill naturally, or if you’ve been spending a lot of time with your eyes glued to a screen or in a book, read on.

I came across this idea in magician Steve Cohen’s book, Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship. In a chapter called “How to Command a Room,” Cohen states that eye contact is critical to establishing trust and making a connection with an audience. You can read all the instructional design you want, but if you don’t establish trust chances are you won’t be reaching as many students as you could be.

Cohen points out some simple tricks to help with this essential skill:

Fanning the Room. When you walk into a room, start by staring intently at the person sitting in the far right of the room, walking in that direction. Then stop and smoothly turn your head toward the left until you reach the person sitting in the farthest seat on the left. Then smoothly turn your head back to the right, reconnecting with people on that side. You have just made eye contact with everyone in the room.

Use imaginary strings. Pretend that imaginary strings connect your eyes to the eyes of everyone in the room. If you feel the strings sagging, make contact and tighten up the strings.

Reestablish eye contact. If you see an inattentive person, walk toward them and direct your speech and eyes to them. Direct your gaze toward others after the inattentives are brought back on board.

Hold longer than expected. Hold your gaze on specific people for longer than they would expect. Talk to them personally for 10 to 15 seconds. The attention makes them feel important, as if no one else is in the room.

Locate key people. With larger audiences locate key people who are attentive and responsive in different parts of the audience. Shift your gaze from key person to key person. The people around those key people will also feel your attention. Don’t just aim at clusters of people as many speakers do.

Check the other person’s eye color. In one-on-one situations, make an effort to check the color of the other person’s eyes. This simple trick forces you to make eye contact. If you start drifting, remind your self about eye color and check again.

I’ve put these simple techniques to work in my teaching and at the reference desk. I’ve noticed a big improvement in rapport and find myself making deeper connections with students. If you don’t make eye contact instinctively, or you’ve forgotten your eye contact skills, try these out and watch your teaching, presentations, and reference work improve like magic!

Build It and They Will Build Another One

Heads up, everyone: Scott McLemee has discovered Zotero and is spreading the word. You might get some questions about this at your reference desk, and you might start having some conversations about the library’s role in supporting pricey subscription-based citation management systems that can be tricky to teach – though chances are, you have already.

We are certainly living in interesting times. As we take a stride forward (often paying a lot to do so, and putting in plenty of sweat equity), we sit back to wipe our heated brows, then get busy designing instruction, trying some marketing, dealing with the technical glitches that surface. Then take a break to for a refreshing moment of banging-head-on-wall therapy before returning to the job at hand. Meanwhile, someone says “hey, why don’t we create some way for people to do this?” And before long there’s a solution that doesn’t require the library.

This is not a bad thing – solutions are good, and free is great. But it makes for a somewhat chaotic world, where we raise funds to build a bridge to get somewhere – and then people start inviting others to hop on the free ferry service they just organized. Passengers get excited. The bridge took them too far out of their way, or seemed designed for other people – or maybe they didn’t even know it was there.

This occurred to me yesterday as I looked for an article on the New Sanctuary Movement in the current issue of Sojourner. It’s in our library, but I was at home, on my living room couch. I knew it was in our library because our nifty SFX system told me so, and it also told me the article I wanted wasn’t full text in any of our databases. On a whim I checked to see if the magazine offers free access on the web – and sure enough, they do – though the article that looked interesting was not on the first page of a Google search for “new sanctuary movement;” I only found it because I searched a database. Then had to leave the library’s website to find it online. The route I took to actually read the article reminded me of how confusing this emerging mesh of free and subscription resources is for novice researchers, and how frustrating it can be for us to teach students how to become resourceful and critical about information.

This clever YouTube clip showing the flight of the harried database user makes the same point – humorously – but I have a feeling the old “here’s how” instruction will get harder and harder to provide simply because the map of where it is and how to get there is constantly being redrawn.

So Sue Me

Cambridge University Press was sued for libel in the UK by Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi accused of contributing to terrorism in the book Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World. (Bin Mahfouz has filed suit against four publishers who published books that implicate his family’s bank in financing terrorism.) The press agreed the book was in error, has pulled it from the market and settled with bin Mafouz for an undisclosed sum without the case going to trial. Now, according a story in the Chron, the press will ask libraries to remove the book from their shelves.

Hmm.

I can understand a press deciding to pull the book from its catalog if they believe the book contains a serious factual inaccuracy. But should libraries follow suit? Add another wrinkle to the dilemma: the libel case was filed in the UK, which has laws that are far more sympathetic to a person claiming libel than those of the US. So far as I know, all of bin Mafouz’s suits have been filed in the UK, including one against a US publisher whose book wasn’t even published there. Our laws are simply less amenable to individuals editing the record through libel actions.

None of us want inaccurate information on our shelves, but it’s there. We have information that is contradictory, biased, past its shelf life, and controversial. We don’t, as a rule, buy books that are shoddily researched, but this lawsuit wasn’t about the entire book, only the part of it that that recapped newspaper and other sources’ reports about the role of a Saudi bank.

Part of being information literate is learning how to triangulate the truth using multiple sources, knowing that even good sources are likely to contain the occasional inaccuracy, that different sources will shade a story in various ways, that you need to consult more than one source to get the facts. Airbrushing controversial ideas out of the picture doesn’t help, and sometimes it’s critically important to examine texts that we know to be full of lies.

Ironically, Publisher’s Weekly has a report on a different kind of controversy in Germany. Should a scholarly edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf be published before it goes into public domain and will likely become freely available in multiple editions? Though I’m sympathetic to views that nobody should promulgate the kind of hate that’s found in the book, it’s a significant historical document. And since any deluded white supremacist can find it on the Web, it doesn’t seem constructive to prevent the release of a carefully edited version.

Academic libraries are rarely faced with the book challenges that public and school libraries receive routinely. This seems to be one of them. Maybe it’s time to start thinking about how we’re going to celebrate Banned Books Week next month.

Can (Political) Blogs Be Trusted?

Does political scare you?
Political doesn’t scare me. Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.
The Player

At an ALA Annual program sponsored by ACRL’s Law and Political Science Section section titled “Can Blogs Be Trusted,” Jason Zengerle of the New Republic raised questions about the objectivity and reliability of political blogs that went beyond the simple and oft heard objection “anyone can write a blog so they’re not authoritative.”

Zengerle, a senior editor at the New Republic, focused mainly on liberal political blogs such as the Daily Kos and described their ascendancy after the 2000 presidential election. Zengerle gave two examples of how the Daily Kos and other liberal blogs should be treated more like political campaign tools than reliable information tools.

The first involved Zengerle’s investigation of the possibility that Markos Moulitsas (of Daily Kos) was indirectly participating in a kind of pay-to-play scheme in which payment was received from a politician in exchange for favorable coverage on the blog. Zengerle discovered the existence of a listserv called the Townhouse used by liberal bloggers to stay unified and on message. Zengerle gained access to the listserv and posted a message by Moulitsas asking liberal bloggers to not talk about the pay-to-play story. When Zengerle posted something that turned out to be a factual error and a fabrication (which he claims to have admitted and fixed after discovering it) he described how liberal bloggers used this as a cudgel to discredit him and all the reporters at TNR. Furthermore, on the Townhouse list they discussed the strategy to use this information to discredit TNR. This according to Zengerle, led him to believe that liberal bloggers were acting more like a political campaign that had an organized strategy to discredit opponents as a primary motivation rather than as reporters with a responsibility to produce articles with accurate information. Zengerle’s claim appears to be that the bloggers were willing to be silent to defend Moulitsas, even if it was not warranted, and then opportunistically attack him for breaking the silence.

The second example involved a remark Harry Reid made in a conference call to liberal bloggers. Reid said that a general in the field was incompetent. (At this point in the talk someone in the audience shouted that Reid had never said that.) Zengerle went on to explain that a Washington newspaper, the Politico, had reported that Reid said it, and the Daily Kos accused the Politico of simply making it up. Later, when a tape was produced of Reid saying it, the Daily Kos said oh never mind. Zengerle criticized Daily Kos for making the serious allegation that the Politico had simply made it up and implied that the liberal bloggers knew that Reid had said it (since they were on the conference call) but chose to deny it because it hurt their political goals.
(It’s not clear to me if Daily Kos was on the conference call, but Zengerle implied that the major liberal bloggers are all on the same page because of the Townhouse listserv.)

Zengerle concluded that political blogs are not the most reliable resources for objective facts, but they can be useful as a kind of primary source–as an insight into a mindset and a worldview and for detecting breaking trends such as a groundswell of support for a candidate (e.g. Dean, Lamont, Thompson). Zengerle also pointed out that other blogs, such as Talking Points Memo, are doing reporting that is sometimes better than the mainstream media. He also stated that conservatives have been “working the refs” for years and that perhaps now that liberal blogs are performing that function maybe things are more balanced.

Still, the idea that some bloggers may be getting paid by politicians but not revealing it, and that political bloggers are united by a behind-the-scenes listserv in which strategy of what to reveal or who to attack is discussed, while not completely shocking (conservative talk radio supposedly has been operating this way for years), is unsettling and does raise concerns about objectivity.

In the Q & A, Zengerle seemed to backtrack, saying that the biases of most bloggers is obvious and easy to detect. Maybe so, but there’s a difference between having an editorial opinion and having a concerted strategy to advance political objectives even when the facts get in the way. Just because one is writing opinion doesn’t mean that facts can be distorted or used selectively to support an opinion.

Does this put political blogs such as Daily Kos and others a notch below the opinion sections of newspapers and magazines on the trust meter? Or is there not really much difference between a political blog and the opinion section of a newspaper or magazine?

As librarians and educators, we often recommend that students distinguish fact from opinion, usually without much more guidance than just stating it. This guidance is usually given in the context of the student needing information to write an argumentative paper, perhaps for a first year writing course. When we advise students this way, are we saying that all opinion writing should be distrusted? Or treated with less trust and more skepticism than so-called factual writing? Does this advice help for teaching students how to cultivate a useful attitude for dealing with opinion writing for the rest of their adult lives?

Regardless of the merits of Zengerle’s case against Kos, it does state two specific ways that opinion writing can be corrupted:

1. presence of unknown money contributions,
2. political motivations that override concerns for truth.

How would a lay person recognize these signs without being able to do the investigative journalism that could uncover a money trail or gain access to a private listserv? Zengerle was asked as much, but didn’t provide a direct answer. Are political blogs in fact more susceptible to this kind of undue influence and therefore are a notch below the opinion in newspapers and magazines? (Note I’m not saying newspapers and magazines are free of these and other nefarious kinds of influence, just perhaps less susceptible.) If so this would be interesting to point out to students.

On the other hand, liberal political bloggers in general were less taken in by the U.S. government’s case for the Iraq War, perhaps precisely because they weren’t being fed the so-called authoritative information from the government, as well as being more skeptical of the government to begin with.

There’s also the problem that readers of political blogs an opinion may be reading them for other reasons, to have their own opinions confirmed for example, and are therefore less likely to be open to information at odds with their own point of view. Or they may also just be nakedly politically motivated and perhaps they agree with attacking someone who disagrees with the group, regardless of the facts.

Needless to say these motivations are at odds with the critical thinking most of us hope to inspire in our students. This is one reason why libraries are urged to follow the Library Bill of Rights and “provide materials and information presenting all points of view.”

Librarians need to continue to aware of the difficulties of disentangling fact from opinion, especially with the new media. We can explain, uncover and give examples of the mechanisms by which truth can be and has been obscured in opinion writing. We should convey the subtlety of an information medium such as the blog that can both challenge vested interests and conceal vested interests at the same time.

One would hope that if opinion writing is not based on facts then ultimately those sources would lose credibility. Yet there seem to be an increasing number of people (often disparaged as wingnuts) who seem not willing or able to let any conflicting information get in the way of their own worldview.

As educated members of an information abundant society, we need to learn not only how to disentangle fact from opinion, but also how to put a check on our own ability to customize the information we receive by actively seeking out opinions that differ from our own, so that we aren’t increasingly caught in our own echo chambers.

Celebrating Research and Creativity on Campus

How can something so energizing leave me so exhausted?

We just wrapped up a week-long workshop on The Student as Scholar for a group of Gustavus faculty. (I’ve been co-coordinator of faculty development programs at Gustavus for the past two years, though I have to credit my colleague Laura Behling with most of the heavy lifting on this workshop. Literally. Every morning I’d get to the site of the workshop and she’d moved all the furniture after coming up with some brilliant group activity.) Almost all departments were represented and the interdisciplinary conversations were amazing. It left me feeling a little dazed by the creativity and dedication of our faculty – and encouraged by the realization that stuff I care about isn’t just a weird library obsession, it’s valued by faculty across the entire curriculum and is woven into courses and labs, mentoring and modeling everywhere.

This workshop theme was inspired by a campus planning process out of which emerged a focus that bridged academic affairs, student affairs, and all other units of the campus: student engagement. It’s nothing original; there’s plenty of research that indicates practices that engage students in their own learning lead to better learning. At my campus many of the right ingredients have been in place for years. But just having them in place doesn’t always mean students will take advantage of them. According to Ernie Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini the real difference is in what students do.

Other things being equal, the more students are psychologically engaged in activities such as use of the library, reading unassigned books, individual study, writing papers, and course assignments, the greater their knowledge acquisition and general intellectual growth. If the literature of the 1990s says anything, it is that, although colleges can fashion an undergraduate academic experience characterized by a plethora of learning opportunities, it is the extent to which students become engaged in and fully exploit these opportunities that largely determines the personal benefits they derive. (How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research, 2005, p. 613)

During this workshop we looked at developing programmatic support for student research with Jill Singer of Buffalo State University (and past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research) and then delved into activities that are part of courses (such as senior theses and labs) and those that are outside of the context of courses (summer research with faculty, performances, internships, and the like). Each day a group of faculty had lunch with our new VP for College Relations and our media relations guy so they could hear the cool stuff faculty are doing. On the final day we talked to administrators and the director of web communications. As we looked at his new template for department pages we held an impromptu vote to feature more student and faculty research on our website. It was unanimous.

One thing I came out of this with (and hope others did) was a better understanding of what student scholarly and creative activity means in different disciplines and a deep respect for and excitement about what’s going on across campus. Today – having had a weekend to recover – a group of us is getting together to start planning an annual celebration of creative inquiry on our campus. We want to make sure everyone gets to see the exciting work our students are doing with the guidance and encouragement of faculty.