Dumber Students Or Out Of Touch Academics

Are students getting dumber or are the academics working with them just getting more out of touch with those they teach? That debate has been hanging around for a while and now the noise level is increasing by more than a few decibles. I first wrote about this back in January 2006 when I discussed Mark Bauerlein’s observations about intellectually disengaged students. Even further back than that I published an essay in the Chronicle (2/4/04) called “The Infodiet” in which I pointed to the failings of the library profession’s desire to “googleize” search and retrieval systems, and questioned if our role as library educators wasn’t instead to help students learn effective research methods and critical thinking – and refusing to fall for the “good enough” mentality when it comes to research.

Bauerlein went on to write The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). This book and others were profiled in an article titled “On Stupidity about several recent books that question the thinking ability of today’s students. The article’s author, Thomas Benton, shares his own observations that point to an increase in ignorance among his students. Just recently Benton published a follow-up essay in which he focuses on strategies that educators can use to help students become more savvy learners and critical thinkers. I was interested to see that among his greatest concerns for this generation of students is their:

difficulty following or making extended analytical arguments. In particular, they tend to use easily obtained, superficial, and unreliable online sources as a way of satisfying minimal requirements for citations rather than seeking more authoritative sources in the library and online. Without much evidence at their disposal, they tend to fall back on their feelings, which are personal and, they think, beyond questioning.

On the other hand, Benton thinks Bauerlein and those who see a generation of stupider students are not exactly correct, and questions if it isn’t the teacher who needs to change. He writes:

I am still suspicious of studies that proclaim the inferiority of the rising generation. We’ve all been the young whippersnappers at some point, frightening our elders, and many of us are, no doubt, destined to become grumpy old nostalgics in turn. As a teacher, I would prefer to think my students are the ones with the most promise; they are attuned to what is happening in the culture, even if they still have much to learn.

In this follow up Benton’s goal is to share ideas on how the current generation of faculty can do a better job of connecting with and teaching the millennial generation. While Benton agrees to an extent with those who say faculty do need to be more in tune with the way their students learn and how it is defined by their digital upbringing, he says that the bottom line is students still have to learn.

I do appreciate that he believes using the library, reading books and doing thoughtful research can help students to be more knowledgeable. He advocates that faculty should be “Getting students into the library and getting real books into their hands” and “Teaching them how to evaluate the credibility of sources: why Wikipedia, though useful, is less reliable than, say, the Dictionary of American Biography.” It would be even better if Benton had urged faculty to collaborate with their librarian colleagues to help students learn these skills, but I’m hopeful that just having faculty read this advice will encourage them to seek out librarians who can help them to help their students become better researchers, readers and writers.

If you are interested in this issue and would like an opportunity to engage in a conversation about it with your colleagues you may want to join in a free webcast event I’ll be co-hosting with my colleague John Shank at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community on Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:00 pm EST. I’m pleased that Mark Herring, Dean of Library Services at Winthrop University, will be our guest to lead the discussion. He has written some excellent essays and a book related to the topic. Here is a description of the webcast “Dumbest Younger Generation or Clueless Older Educators: What Librarians Can Do To Promote Student Excellence” :

A wave of books and articles, including Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, are calling attention to the declining analytical skills of college students. They read far less. They seem incapable of critical thought and debate. They take the research path of least resistance. And perhaps worst of all, they seem above constructive criticism. Is digital technology at the root of the dumber generation or is technology simply a convenient scapegoat? Some technology advocates, such as Marc Prensky, suggest that the students are fine, and that the educators are the ones who need to change their ways. Join your colleagues for a discussion of these issues at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community on Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 3:00 pm eastern time. We will be joined by Mark Herring who will frame the issues and share his thoughts about why librarians should be concerned about them – and what we can do to make a difference.

If you are already a member of the community go here to register. If not, go here to join – and then register. I hope you will join in the conversation.

What To Tell Students About Distractions

At this time of the year many academic librarians are gearing up for their fall instruction sessions. While much of the planning focuses on developing active learning techniques, integrating new resources or introducing new instructional technology like clickers, I wonder how many librarians are thinking about how they’ll deal with electronic distractions. Not only can students tune out a library instructor with their personal communication gadgets or a laptop, but in a hands-on computer lab setting putting a student in front of a computer is akin to saying, “Please go ahead and surf the web or IM your friends while I try to teach you something”. Sure, you might have a computer control system in your classroom, but that can be a bit of a hassle for a short-term session and who really wants to use it just to bring the hammer down on wayward students.

So if you’ve that found distracted students represent a challenge in your short-term sessions, you can well imagine that this can be an incredible problem for faculty with a multi-class teaching load. This past year has seen a number of faculty and institutions declaring outright bans on any type of electronic device in the classroom. Some critics of that action say that giving students access to the web can enhance their learning. For example, students can quickly search for additional information that can contribute to a topic discussion. An instructor can direct students to a website that contains images or primary documents that can deepen a student’s knowledge of the subject matter. But without a tight control on student access, texting, IMing and surfing can quickly make a mockery of learning.

Determined to prevent that from happening in his courses this faculty member makes clear in his syllabus how he intends to deal with this problem. To address what he calls the “divided attention” problem, an entire section of the course syllabus is devoted to what is an extended warning about texting, surfing or otherwise using gadgets in class. But first he appeals to the students’ intellect. He writes:

The brain has got to give up on one of the tasks in order to effectively accomplish the other. Hidden behind all the hype about multi-tasking, then, is this sad truth: it makes you slower and dumber. For this reason alone you should seek to avoid the problem of divided attention when you are in class. But there’s another reason, too: technology often causes us to lose our senses when it comes to norms of polite behavior and, as a result, perfectly lovely people become unbelievably rude.

It appears to appeal as a method for reducing student distraction because a number of faculty have requested permission to use his exact wording in their own syllabi. Academic librarians are without the luxury of a syllabus for their instruction sessions nor do they typically hold the power of the grade. But there is probably no reason why a librarian couldn’t begin a session with a statement that cautions students about the dangers of distraction. The real challenge is whether or not a library instructor wants to throw down the gauntlet and actually issue a warning along the lines of “If I catch you texting or IMing I’ll just ask you to leave – and let your professor know you didn’t make it till the end of the session.” A bit heavy handed perhaps? Maybe it’s best to check with the instructor first. See if he or she has a policy on classroom distractions. If so, then a better approach may be to let students know that policy extends to your session as well – along with any related consequences for unacceptable behaviors.

I’ve been out of the library classroom for about a year now – such is the life of an academic library administrator. But I’ll be doing a few instruction sessions this fall to help out with a massive instructional undertaking for our freshman Analytical Reading & Writing course where we’ll be doing close to 200 sessions in multiple sections for this one course alone. I’ll be interested to see what sort of distracted students I encounter – and how I manage those situations.

What An Academic Librarianship Course Should Offer

A few weeks ago I invited ACRLog readers to participate in a survey which asked respondents to rate academic library course topics as essential, important or marginal. Respondents were also able to make suggestions for additional topics. Over a hundred readers responded to the survey. Here is what they had to say.

First, some information about the respondents. Over 50% have been in the academic library profession 6 years or less. We’ve had past indicators that ACRLog, like most library blogs perhaps, is read by the “new(er) to the profession” demographic, and this respondent data appears to support that. There was almost an even split on taking an academic librarianship course; 54% never took one and 46% did. Again, that sounds reasonable to expect. Not everyone who ended up in an academic library was thinking about it when they went to library school, so an academic librarianship course may have seemed less important at the time. Also, there are several LIS schools that have never, and still do not, offer an academic librarianship course.

The survey asked respondents to identify, by choosing from a list of 30 topics, what should be the most essential topics for an academic librarianship course. Respondents also indicted which topics were “important” and “marginal”. The topics most frequently selected as essential are:

higher education industry (current issues)
academic freedom/tenure
academic library standards
public service operations
reference services
information literacy
instruction/teaching
collection management
scholarly communication
student issues
future of academic librarianship

Those items that received the highest percentage of “essential” ranking were information literacy, instruction and higher education industry. I think this list confirms that most of the topics on my course syllabus are the ones that practitioners want LIS students to study. The one activity that made it into the essential category was “a required presentation”. I can certainly understand that because it relates to instruction skill, and the presentation is a crucial part of the job interview. I used to have students do a five-minute presentation on their class project (a study/analysis of a single academic library that the student visits and reports on during the course), but gave it up. The presentations were not well crafted or delivered, and I could see it was really painful for the students to sit through them. So I agree entirely that LIS students need to learn how to present effectively, but there’s just no room for that in most courses. My recommended solution is for the LIS programs to offer a number of short workshops, perhaps a full-day, where skilled practitioners would be tapped to offer a “how to” session to give LIS students these important skills that can contribute to interview and workplace success.

The topics most frequently selected as important were:

visit to an academic library
academic library field study
higher education accreditation
higher education organizational structure
faculty status for librarians
tech service operations
web 2.0 technology
library as place
e-resource management
faculty issues
career advice/keeping up skills
community colleges

Again, all these topics are covered in my academic librarianship course. In addition to what students can learn from the class discussion, recorded lecture content and supplemental reading, guest speakers cover many of these topics in their presentations. My course features both F2F guest lecturers and those who visit via distance learning systems. That visits to and field studies of academic libraries are considered important suggests that out-of-the-classroom learning opportunities are vital to the development of a future academic librarian. I heartily agree. Visiting academic libraries and talking to the academic librarians one meets there is a fundamental learning method, not just for LIS students but even veteran practitioners.

So what topics did the respondents think were just marginal for an academic librarianship course?

academic library leadership
human resources management
metadata services
special collections / archives
budgeting
higher education history

Of these topics, leadership/management issues comes as the biggest surprise. It seems to be much on the minds of practitioners so I expected it to rank higher as a priority. I do spend some time on higher education history the first night of the course as I think it’s helpful to have that foundational information, but the other topics are better covered in those courses designated to give LIS students a primer on administrative, leadership and management.

I received a lengthy list of “suggested topics” that an academic librarianship should include – those items not among the 30 from which respondents could choose. There are too many to list here, but here are some of those that appeared more than once:

publishing and presenting for tenure
how to survive your first year as an academic librarian
project management
decision making
grantsmanship
advocacy
organizational politics
writing skills
ethics
assessment
reading the Chronicle
instructional technology for teaching
copyright
marketing
green library practices
mission statements
liaison relationships
dealing with deadwood
pedagogy
course design
vendor relationships
involvement in campus activity

A number of these, while not listed on the syllabus as official course topics, do come up as discussion topics at any point throughout the course. Marketing would be a good example because the students explore that as part of the course project and there’s usually some discussion about their findings. Reading the Chronicle is also covered through class assignments. Again, some of these skills are covered elsewhere in the LIS curriculum, but they could certainly be discussed in the context of academic library environments. The mention of writing skills is interesting because I find my students’ writing to be all across the quality spectrum. Fortunately, most are quite proficient. While I certainly want to help those who need improvement it can be incredibly time consuming and beyond the scope of what I can realistically accomplish. Like presentation skills this is something, while quite important, that needs to be dealt with outside the course.

I don’t know about you but I found the responses to the survey most informative. On one hand it affirms that much of what I cover in my academic librarianship course are the topics that practitioners find to be most essential or important. What about others who teach these courses? What do you think? The responses also provide me with some new ideas for additional topics of discussion. Why not spend some time talking about how academic librarians can contribute to the green campus movement? So many thanks to those of you who took a few minutes to respond to this survey. We are all stakeholders in the LIS education of our future academic librarians. Practitioners, it seems, have much to contribute to, and much to gain from, the development of a quality curriculum.

Why Our Colleagues Teach

As an academic librarian, it’s useful for me to be aware of what faculty in my liaison discipline are researching, publishing, and thinking about — that helps me provide them with better support, buy better resources (print & online) to support their work, and just generally be more collegial with them. I volunteered to monitor the faculty blogosphere for ACRLog because reading faculty blogs is another way to be collegial with my faculty, if not directly, at least indirectly because I can increase my awareness of their colleagues’ concerns and successes in the realm of teaching.

The “why I teach” meme went around the faculty blogosphere earlier this year, and both Barbara and I commented on it personally. But what do they think about teaching? Why do our colleagues teach, and do they even like it?

Dr. Crazy started this meme inadvertently, I think, with her Reassigned Time post Why Teach Literature in early January 2008. Her post begins with a bit of literature politics (always fun to observe from the outside) as she contemplated an MLA panel entitled “Why Teach Literature.” Most of the reasons panelists gave were “big picture,” but Dr. Crazy was concerned that “no one mentioned ‘pleasure’ in the discussion of why to teach literature.” Her post, then, talks about some of her personal reasons for teaching, such as “inspire curiosity,” wanting students to “… be more interested and more interesting” and “To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile.” Finally, and this goes to my reason for enjoying literature: “To offer students a break from the other demands on their lives.” There are 28 comments (to date) on this post, and those are interesting to read as well.

Free Exchange on Campus blogged about Dr. Crazy’s post and a meme was born.

New Kid on the Hallway teaches because she “…wanted to be a historian, to spend [her] life researching and writing about history, and teaching is one of the obligations attached to that career.” Of course, she has other reasons, too, like “to help students learn that there’s more than one way to view the world and that they themselves and their experiences are not the measure of all things.” And finally, she teaches and studies “… because I want to know what it was like to live in another time or place.”

Janet Stemwedel, philosopher of science and chemist, writes “I had a thing for teaching long before I had a clue what discipline I would end up pursuing.” On her Adventures in Science and Ethics blog, Stemwedel elaborates on why she teaches Philosophy of Science: “I have an opportunity to help people who think science is scary or boring understand something about how scientists build reliable knowledge” and “I also get to expose people to the idea that thinking like a scientist is fun.”

You can see a nice list of over 60!! posts on the theme over at Free Exchange on Campus. These posts are a fascinating look into why faculty choose or are chosen by their academic discipline, which often (but not always) relates to why they teach. Mostly, they “do” their discipline because they like it. Some say that teaching is a requirement for continuing to do research; often our blogging colleagues enjoy teaching because it enables them to share their passion with their students.