Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

Faculty Blog Round Up: Teaching with Technology

Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago we put out a call for someone to be our new faculty blog correspondent. With this post I’d like to introduce Laura Wimberley, the librarian we’ve selected to keep us up-to-date on what’s happening in the faculty blogosphere. Laura works at the Medical Center Library at the University of California San Diego. In addition to her MLIS – which she just completed – she also has an MA and PhD in Political Science. Her research interests include information policy, scholarly communication, and collection development. In addition to her posts here, you can read her at Libri & Libertas. We look forward to Laura’s future posts.

Much of what’s going on with faculty is very similar to what’s going on with librarians: Conferences are great, highly specialized, but exhausting! Or: Why, oh why, do students not cite sources after we work so hard with them? These experiences, we know.

What we don’t usually observe is the teaching, and this is one of the parts we need to stay in tune with. Here I’ve highlighted three posts with really innovative technology teaching techniques – ideas that you might not have thought about how to support from the library. Or maybe you’re dying to include blogging, Wikipedia, and gaming, and you didn’t know how to find faculty who are doing it, too. Either way, here’s a sample.

Acephalous is the blog of Scott Eric Kaufman, who teaches English at the University of California Irvine; he also contributes to the faculty group blogs The Valve (mostly literature) and Edge of the American West (mostly history).

SEK is blogging with his students in his undergraduate writing course the Rhetoric of Heroism. Because the course relies so heavily on detailed analysis of film and other visual iconography, a blog with embedded images seems like a wonderful way to communicate the material. I expect they’re watching and discussing the films together in class, but images are usually not the kind of thing students are accustomed to taking notes on (especially in the dark).

Jeremy Boggs, who blogs at ClioWeb, is a graduate student in American history at George Mason University. He’s also creative lead at the Center for History and New Media, so it’s not too surprising that he’s willing to take on the bete noire – Wikipedia. In his undergraduate American History Survey course, he assigns students to not just use, but create, Wikipedia articles, including citating sources, monitoring for follow-up collaboration, and writing a reflective essay. One of his students wrote the article that developed into the entry for Living Newspapers.

Another history professor, Rob MacDougall of the University of Western Ontario, blogs at Old is the New New (with a charming original steampunk blog theme). Rob uses the game Civilization to frame the course Science, Technology, and Global History. He asks his students to write an essay that reconceptualizes technology not as a serial, linear progress of development – as the game depicts it – but in some other way. How could we play a game that thinks of history as more contingent or branching or cyclic?

In this assignment, the game is laying bare a lot of social assumptions we carry around without realizing, and making them something students can analyze. If you ever need to justify a games collection in your library, this kind of work is a stellar example of such a collection could do.

Lawyers, Librarians, Clergy, and Coaches

No, this is not the answer to the “Top 5 Professions You Would Like to Pursue” quiz that is likely appearing on Facebook even now; it is a partial listing of the “other professional staff” positions found on American campuses cited as part of a Chronicle article on the increasing number of “support staff” in higher education. The Insider Higher Ed version of the article is here.

Both IHE and the Chronicle point to a new report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity on “Trends in the Higher Education Workforce” that notes that the number of “support staff” positions have increased far more rapidly over the past 20 years than has the number of instructional positions. This, it is suggested, “reflects unproductive spending by academe.”

The Chronicle does a good job making clear the (very) gray areas around any conclusion that increased spending on “other professional staff” reflects “unproductive spending,” but the lumping together of librarians with other professional staff presumed not to be directly contributing to instruction is worth noting. I have seen several surveys over the years that have followed the “other professional staff” model, including those of first-year-experience programs and public engagement initiatives – librarians are administrators, managers, and, perhaps, research support staff, but they are not instructors.

And, perhaps we are not (although I have argued the opposite on many occasions), but I see echoes in this report of the 2006 debate in school library circles over the “65% solution”, i.e., the question of whether school librarians should be “counted” as instructional staff in budget allocations and reporting required by educational reform programs. Should the argument advanced by the CCAP report gain traction, and should there be any question of whether professional academic librarians contribute directly to student learning in ways that all might recognize as being “productive,” we might be wise to consider these questions advanced as part of the school library debate (Harada, 2006):

  • How does your library media center support student learning?
  • What compelling evidence do you have that students have achieved the learning targets?

How ready are you to provide the answers?

When Students Teach Faculty About Instructional Technology

Some faculty can find fault with just about any instructional technology. Why, they ask, should I bother to learn how to use this new technology and how can it possibly help me to improve student learning? For example, this faculty member thinks clickers are a waste of her time and students’ money. It’s entirely reasonable for faculty to raise these questions. I’d prefer for them to hold off on making judgments until they learn more about new instructional technologies, and take time to see how they might use it to improve student learning. Time. That’s the operative word. It takes time to learn how to use new technology and time to change class practices in order to integrate new teaching tools. It is critical for faculty to clearly see the WIIFM factor if we expect them to explore any new technology, whether it’s a clicker, a personal bibliographic software product or a new library database.

One thing that our colleagues in the campus instructional technology services department have in common with us academic librarians is that we both find getting faculty to try our resources and services can be a hard sell. We seek to collaborate with faculty to encourage their use of our e-resources, and to allow us to integrate research skill building into their courses. It’s an uphill battle on many campuses. The instructional technologists are not only working hard to get faculty to adopt their technologies, but to also invest time learning how to use them for improved pedagogy. My response to the faculty member who questions clickers is that they will be a waste of time if they’re used poorly, but with the right application and technique they can enhance student learning and create opportunities for deeper engagement with course material. Like any tool, it’s all in how you use it.

I thought the instructional technology group at my institution came up with a novel idea for helping faculty learn about different technologies and how they can be used to improve student learning. They let the students teach the faculty. I attended this program the other day. Students who work as assistants at the instructional technology center described and demonstrated multiple technologies to faculty – everything from clickers to courseware to powerpoint to lecture capture systems. Some of it came off sounding a bit too much like a sales pitch, but the students also came across as enthusiastic and excited about faculty who use technology in their courses. They were certainly in favor of faculty using clickers. They also advised faculty on what not to do with learning technologies. And I’m sure the students were absolutely sincere when they said they would never skip classes when their faculty member uses the lecture capture system. The only time the train really went off the tracks is when they demonstrated powerpoint. Would students really get excited about sitting through slide after slide of bullet points? Well, one student told of an instructor who integrates video into the slides to keep him awake. Thank you multimedia.

After the students demonstrated Blackboard I asked a pretty simple question. I wanted to know how many of them had taken a course where the instructor integrated library resources into the Blackboard site for quick and easy access to library databases and e-reserves. I quickly heard about instructors who had links to Yahoo Finance, instructors who link to articles in web-based full-text magazines and just about everything but the library resources. One student out of ten mentioned a link in his course to the library e-reserve. This is somewhat disappointing because we have made it much easier for faculty to integrate library resources into their course sites. The librarians do 98% of the work. Yet the reality may be that faculty are enabling students to completely bypass the library by linking to everything but the library resources. Courseware is clearly a dual-edged sword for the academic librarian. But it’s early in the game and I’m sure we’ll be gaining more faculty support.

At the end of the session I asked the students if they used Twitter, and whether they’d want faculty to send Tweets about course material and class activity. Only two of the ten said they use Twitter, but they were highly enthusiastic about having faculty using it in their courses (none did). I was tempted to ask if they’d follow a Twittering librarian who’d shower them with glorious tidbits about how to make great use of the library or to find out what we were up to. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t ask.

Long Lost Motivation

In the current-day liturgy of teaching, it seems that motivating students is key. Once you have students motivated, supposedly, they will easily absorb what may otherwise seem dry or mundane. So a teacher’s plan should not be to transmit the material, but to motivate the students to learn the material for themselves while acting as a guiding frame. For librarians who teach, then, the challenge is to motivate students to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information.

I know it’s possible to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information, because it happened to me. But that was in graduate school, after many years of appreciating libraries and learning. The question I keep returning to is, what’s the formula for librarians to motivate students in a meaningful way during a brief reference transaction, or at best a library instruction session? Particularly in context, where research is only one part of a broader assignment or class?
(And don’t mistake this as a call for credit-bearing IL courses — I agree with Steven Bell’s recent post)

One recent reference desk transaction that I consider particularly successful involved a patron writing an argumentative paper about how x causes y. She wanted to find research supporting her view. So we tracked down some research, looked at some studies, and found that x has not been conclusively shown to cause y, but there are correlations, and many sources have used these correlations to prescribe certain behaviors. This was a wonderful information literacy lesson because it demonstrated how information is generated and then interpreted, and it was directly relevant to the context of her need. It was also representative of most of the reference questions I handle, in that patrons really don’t care about the intricacies of the catalog or databases until they have a specific question. It’s only when learning search tools and finding aids is integrated into answering a question that the search for information becomes interesting. In a class, though, I find this level of customization is not always possible.

I also do want to promote student independence in information-seeking behaviors, but wouldn’t you hate it if you walked up to some computer guru, asked her to show you how to do something, & she said “I’m not going to show you how to do it, but I’ll show you how I figured it out. I read the tutorial and went to a bunch of training classes, and then I played with it a bunch.” Everyone looks for similar shortcuts all the time, but shortcuts are meaningless without context. So context is essential to library instruction — we have to make library tools relevant to a certain class, or assignments, for the lesson to work.

In conclusion (sort of), it is easier but insufficient to simply feed students the shortcuts (i.e. the finding aids) without a context. We have to come up with truly thrilling examples of how information works, but much of the time we are preoccupied with thinking about how the tools work. Obviously it will vary by discipline, but does anyone have any great examples they’d like to share here? Or perhaps there’s a forum for this type of idea-generation that I haven’t found yet?