It was somewhat of a surprise to find an editorial in a metropolitan paper criticizing higher education institutions for pampering and pandering to what they called the “Catered Generation”. But I found it a pleasant surprise. Anyone dumbfounded by a student whose expectations for personalized service were far beyond the norm will appreciate this editorial. It is sparked by an article in the same paper about the shift in orientation programs from basic college survival skills to, well, survival skills for being on your own (sorry, the article is no longer available online but it appeared in the Boston Globe on July 9, authored by Marcella Bombardieri – I found the full text on ProQuest). Here’s an excerpt:
These warnings for entering college freshmen have popped up at area college orientations during the last couple of years. Officials say that they keep adding new “don’ts” partly because the online world has brought new temptations. But they also say they’ve become more intent on reviewing every conceivable danger because today’s college students, known as the millennial generation because they came of age in the 21st century, have been so coddled by parents that many of them lack basic street smarts.
The editorial encourages higher education institutions to stop babying their students and start treating them like adults. That will require all of us who work in higher education to both raise our level of expectations for students and present them with some academic challenges. While it is important to take notice of changing demographics and user expectations, the editorial suggests that we fail our students when we make things too easy for them for fear that their possible failures may do them irreparable harm. Nor does the argument to stop catering to student whims suggest that good customer relations at all institutional service points should in any way diminish.
I can’t help but feel that this coddling mentality has invaded the academic library’s territory to a certain extent. Is seems our profession has likewise become preoccupied with discovering methods to provide students with the lowest-common denominator research tools and the elimination of anything that might be perceived as too complex for fear that students will – what – complain that libraries are too hard to use. Do we fear that students will abandon our resources for the ones that do coddle them by eliminating the possibility of failure? It’s almost impossible with most search engines, no matter how awful your search is, to get nothing in return. You can’t fail. With a library database if you do a poorly conceived search you will likely retrieve nothing – the equivalent of failure. Heaven forbid we might expect someone to show some resolve and actually think about what they did and try to improve upon it – even if the cause of failure is as minor as a mispelled word. Now if our systems don’t have spellcheck and auto-correction that’s a cause to castigate library resources and those who promote their use.
In defense of this generation of students, this editorial and the orientation programs it remarks upon are likely directed to a segment of our students who do get attention for their juvenile behavior and their parent’s meddling ways. To the contrary we help to educate many self-reliant students who show remarkable potential as researchers and adults. While we should not allow generalizations to influence ourselves to think negatively about our current or incoming students, there is some advice worth comtemplating in the editorial. On the simplicity-complexity spectrum we need to avoid drifting too far towards simplicity in an effort to shelter students from the true complexity of academic research. Encouraging students, with support from our faculty colleagues, to engage with primary research materials or higher-level scholarly works will contribute to the sharpening of their minds and better prepare them for the complexity of their post-college lives. Our responsibility, I think, is to play a part in ensuring our students graduate with street smarts for the information jungle. Allowing our students to always play it safe, satisfy for just good enough, and live in fear of encountering complexity does them no favors.
Just as the virtual library is an enhancement and not a replacement of the physical library, so too the in-person conference is supplemented and not replaced by technology. This is the first ALA Annual Conference I won’t be attending in a while. I’m glad I’ll be able to keep up through blogs and wikis, but I’ll miss the face-to-face interaction with colleagues from all over the country.
How is social software changing conferences? Is social software making it easier for people to make in-person connections? Are audience members participating more in presentations by having access to chat or Google? Or, are conference-goers isolating themselves in their own technological bubbles? If you are at the conference, why are you reading this blog instead of talking to someone face-to-face? Isn’t that why you are at the conference and not at home in front of your computer?
I always found conferences to be the easiest places to walk up and talk to people. You’ve been pulled away from your to-do list and spend a lot of time in limbo, waiting for things, standing in line. And so has everyone else. Instead of pulling out your BlackBerry or cell phone, try these essential 21st century skills: Eye contact. Smile. Hi, what library are you from?
What Should We Call Them?
Every academic librarian has their own personal preference for what to call them. At a library I once worked at one of the other librarians called them “readers.” Well, readers is probably less descriptive of the people who come into our libraries these days – it may have worked well in the fifties but now I’m not so sure. What I do know is that we sometimes struggle to find a good term or phrase to describe the folks who use our libraries. I have tended to call them “users” or “my user community”. According to Don Norman, design expert, I may need to find another word to describe them. In an essay titled “Words Matter” Norman states that we depersonalize the people we serve by calling “user”. In fact, it is derogatory. He doesn’t like custormers or consumers either. I think we agree on that. So what should we call them? Norman says we should just call them people. He says we’re people, we create system for people, and resolve the needs of people – so why not just call them people. Or do we call them library people. I will have to give this some thought. To me, saying my “user community” just sounds a whole lot better than “my people”.
No Technology Replaces Critical Thinking
I recommend you read this brief essay by John Stuckey, an Associate Editor of Ubiquity. It resonated with me because I too worry that we sometimes feel pressured to jump on technology bandwagons for fear of having users desert us if we hesitate. In his essay “Critical Thinking for the Google Generation” Stuckey focuses on a similar issues; faculty fears about being left behind or left out if they don’t incorporate technology into the teaching and learning process. He’s not opposed to teaching technologies. He says used correctly it can enrich and strengthen education. In coming to the conclusion that we do our students more harm than good when we pander to their desires for “digital dessert and candy” in order to keep them pacified he says:
…they still require education in learning how to ask the difficult questions that most likely have no simple answers. That is what critical thinking requires.
We owe it to them to explain the differences among a Google search, a literature search, and research.
Good education is still hard work and not usually glamorous.
So while it is no doubt easier to convince ourselves that we are doing good things for our students when we give them Google-like search boxes on the library’s home page – and tell ourselves that by making it all easy for them there will be no need for user education, I think we are perhaps taking shortcuts to avoid that hard work Stuckey speaks of and as a result we do a disservice to those we are here to help.
Meet An ACRLog Blogger At ALA
I don’t expect that to be the highlight of anyone’s conference experience but just in case you are at the conference and would like to share your thoughts about the blog, make some suggestions, or whatever a good time to reach me is on Saturday afternoon (6/24) in the exhibit hall. More specifically I’ll be at the ACRL booth between 4 and 5 pm. I hope you stop by to say hello.
Be An ACRLog Blogger At ALA
Maybe you’d rather be a blogger than meet a blogger at ALA. Thanks to those who responded to our call for bloggers, but there are plenty of ACRL programs to go around and we could still use some additional bloggers. It’s easy. Just take some notes, write it up, and send it in. It’s not too late to get in touch. Even if you don’t contact us in advance, if you decide to send in some notes after the conference that’s fine with us.
As I was preparing for my class this week I came across some notes from a presentation that I had put in the folder, probably intending to use at some point, but long forgotten. This particular presentation was by James Neal and it was from 1998. Neal, who is now heading up library operations at Columbia University was still at Johns Hopkins’ Sheridan Librarian at that time, and they were involved in some unique entrepreneurial enterprises. As I re-read the notes I thought that much of what Neal discussed or predicted then reflected many contemporary issues that academic librarians are confronting now. For example, he discussed societal and cultural change that we needed to understand. Here are a few items mentioned:
Wireless will change how we compute and work
-mobile computing has had an enormous impact
-new modes of learning and the importance of user participation (sounds a bit like our current discussion of Millennials and Library 2.0)
-self-initiated services are now routinely offered in academic libraries
User Expectation Revolution
-this one was right on target; this is the age of the user experience and it’s defined by users expecting simplicity, ease of use, and “if it’s not online it doesn’t exist” (which are the exact words he used to define what he meant)
I was also intrigued that I had written some notes about new staff in academic libraries. Even then Neal was talking about academic libraries needing new professionals that would not necessarily be librarians, but who would bring to the library systems and learning skills that librarians were lacking. It’s interesting that Neal was thinking about this back then, and is now involving many different kinds of non-librarian professionals at Columbia (see his Library Journal article on feral professionals).
So I thought what Neal had to say way back in 1998 has held up pretty well – and he gave some good advice for the future librarian in the digital age. Among those that still make sense:
Understand user behavior
– (little did we know how much Google would impact search behavior)
We’re in the teaching/scholarship/personal (user) development business
– a good philosophy for librarians that wish to avoid being marginalized
It was certainly good to come across this old talk. I found it enlightening and informative back then, and while lots of things have changed since 1998 one thing that hasn’t is the value of what Neal shared with us that day.
What would lead any academic librarian to say something like that? Am I being sarcastic or serious – I’m not quite sure myself. I certainly don’t mean to endorse cheating at any level in higher education. However, it’s apparent that cheating, whether it’s plagiarism or testing, may be spiraling out of control. I think what I do mean is that if students are going to use electronic devices in exam situations to access information perhaps we should at least be working collaboratively with faculty to educate students to access high quality information when they cheat during tests. Let’s take a step back.
First, maybe you should read two articles. One is a piece from the New York Times about the epidemic of cheating and how IHEs are working to keep pace in detecting hi-tech cheaters. The other is an essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed – in response to the NYT article – advocating that instructors should accept students “Googling” for information during tests because that’s what we all do in real life anyway, and that efforts to keep one step ahead of students in preventing hi-tech cheating is doomed to failure. Both the essay and the comments (maybe even better than the article) do tend to agree that at the heart of the matter is a mixture of poor teaching and equally poor tests and testing environments that are conducive to cheating. My own reaction is that in some testing situtations allowing students to access information makes perfectly good sense – open book/note tests are nothing new. These tests are not about rote memorization, they are about analyzing a problem, accessing information needed to develop a solution, and then quickly writing an articulate response. Expecting students to have memorized everything learned in a semester will lead those who cheat to do so – and as the author asks – what’s the educational value of expecting rote memorization.
Where I take issue with this piece is the assumption is that all students need to do in their exams is have access to Google. Has anyone told the author that Google doesn’t index all the information students might need in a testing situation (e.g., deep web resources)? Is it possible that students might need to find a quote from a scholarly article (not found on Google Scholar) to support a point? Might an e-reference tool in the library’s collection be the best resource to consult during a test? So here’s my suggestion. If an instructor wants to make the testing environment more reality based by allowing students to access information on the fly – call it cheating if you will – I say make the resources used a part of the test situation. For the lazy and uninformed students who use only Google – go ahead and deduct a few points. Reward those who diversify their information resources during the test. Does the student cite an article in a library database? Great, add a few points. Does the student use more than one search engine to compile information? Even better – add a few more points. Once students start to realize that becoming more knowledgeable about all of their information options – and recognizing that having the ability to demonstrate their diversified resource knowlege will pay off with better test scores – our information literacy chores may just get a whole lot easier.