Thoughts on the OWL/Chegg partnership

On the ILI-L (Information Literacy Instruction) listserv, there’s been a discussion of the relatively new partnership between the Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) and Chegg, the for-profit textbook rental company (also the creator of the Citation Machine service). The folks on the listserv caught me up on the implications of this partnership and Chegg’s reputation.

Until this story, I didn’t know that Chegg offered more than textbook rentals. They own Citation Machine, but they’ve also acquired BibMe, EasyBib, and Cite This For Me. Looking at these websites and seeing “a Chegg service” at the top of each page unnerved me. The top 4 Google results for “citation generator” all come from the same for-profit website. How had I never known this before? I was about to learn even more about how students use Chegg.

Educator and blogger John Royce’s post, “Not such a wise OWL” captures my reaction to this partnership. “Chegg makes me feel uneasy. It advertises “24/7 homework help,” online tutors and other study help and solutions manuals (solutions to problems posed in textbooks).” These tutors and study tools are behind a paywall, so I don’t have personal experience with them, but this makes me feel uneasy, too.

Another librarian shared this presentation about Chegg, which explores Chegg’s reputation for helping students cheat. The researcher links to college student tweets about Chegg’s homework help; “while Chegg claims to help students do their homework, students on Twitter are very clear that they use the site to do their homework for them.”

I wondered what this partnership would actually mean for the reliability of the OWL. Visiting the OWL’s MLA formatting and style guide, there’s now a widget at the top of each page that offers to cite your source automatically with MLA, disclosing underneath the box that it’s powered by Citation Machine. I noticed the OWL does link to a page about using citation machines responsibly, but I doubt many students would click or read that warning.

At my community college library, source documentation is a major instruction focus. Our institution uses NoodleBib and our own handouts, so I wouldn’t recommend Chegg’s Citation Machine either way. But I’ve used the Purdue OWL for answering particular or unfamiliar questions about citation styles; it’s a quick search and has plentiful examples for students to model their citations after. When you’re pressed for time, an online tool is easier than thumbing through a citation manual.

This integration of Chegg services into OWL guides reminds me of native advertising. I imagine many students wouldn’t notice that disclosure under the automatic citation box. They have come to trust the OWL for those late-night writing questions. Librarians (like myself!) have also relied on and trusted the OWL for precise citation information. This is my opinion, but I see Purdue incorporating this for-profit tool as a betrayal of that trust.

Anytime I teach information literacy, I encourage students to ask, “Who published this and why?” We talk about how advertising and sponcon have a clear self-interest that should make a user think twice about the impartiality of that information. So what to do with the OWL? The ILI-L listserv suggested a few OWL-like alternatives, like this one from Excelsior College and this Massey University resource. Other folks say they still link to the Purdue OWL on their research guides, but with a word of caution for the citation generator. I’m very curious about other library workers’ thoughts on this. Is citation education a part of your library’s responsibilities or priorities? What do you think of Chegg and/or this effort to monetize the OWL?

What Student Employees Have Taught Me

As a new librarian, and as someone who is new to working at a university, there’s a lot to learn. I’ve learned about some of the university’s history and how it affects day-to-day operations, the degree programs and course offerings, different colleges on campus, how each college has their own rules regarding faculty promotion and tenure, and the ebb and flow of different semester schedules. Then, there’s the current environment and culture of the campus. Much of what I’ve learned comes from faculty and staff who have been on campus for decades, and for that I’m grateful. They have the best insight into the political and structural nature of campus and faculty life; however, it’s the students and more specifically, student employees, in the library that provide the most holistic view of campus life and culture.

Before January, I worked 9-hour shifts on Saturdays with the same staff. It was always me, a supervisor at circulation, and a mix of student employees. Saturdays, especially over the summer, were slow. My main duty on Saturdays was to staff the research help desk in case we had any drop-in questions. There would sometimes be long stretches where no one would come by with a question, and if I had nothing else going on, I frequently found myself chatting with the student employees.

I do not supervise any students, so I don’t have any insights about what that’s like (others have though, and talk about supervising and mentorship). I do, however, think that our student employees are great, which is why below, in no particular order, I’m listing out what I’ve learned from student employees along the way.

Campus life and history

Did you know that Main Hall is haunted by past Jesuits? And that, if you ask very nicely, campus safety will take you on a tour of the building’s basement on Halloween so that you can experience the ghosts firsthand? This tidbit came up in a larger conversation about ghosts, and suddenly, I knew about every haunted building on campus. This is the interesting type of myth that students know. Campus history is passed down from one class of students to another, and I’m not privy to it unless a student is willing to share. Any fun fact I know about the university most likely came from a student employee.

Beyond myths and campus lore, students have very strong opinions about their classes, professors, and perceptions of leadership. I’ve learned about what classes were difficult and why in different departments. One student ranted very openly and honestly about being treated as a dollar sign by campus administration instead of as a student who was learning and making mistakes in classes. Student employees will give you an idea of the general mood and morale on campus, especially during exams.

Basically, if I want to know how students feel about new construction plans, the history of a particular spot on campus, or the perception of an assignment, I just have to ask.

Reminder of what being in college is like

An employee had recently moved to off-campus apartments and was talking about how difficult grocery shopping was. They had never gone grocery shopping on their own before, and talked about trying to get the right amount of food on a college budget. They had to start from scratch with spices and staples, and it felt overwhelming. Conversations about life and firsts are a good reminder that, yes, college students are adults, but many that we label as traditional, undergraduate students are learning how to be independent for the first time. Students are taking classes, but also figuring out how to manage their bills, divide their time and energy, and take care of their health. Many of our student workers are undergrads, so I get the new college student perspective most often; however, I’m often reminded that graduate students or undergraduates that do not fit under the traditional student mold face a set of challenges all their own. It can be easy to fall into a trap of getting frustrated with the student in the back of the class that isn’t paying attention to my well thought-out and incredibly important assignment, but conversations about daily life and struggles remind me that student lives and experiences are rich, complex, and diverse. I’m grateful any time a student employee is willing to share their experience with me.

Great sounding board for ideas

I sometimes have what I think is a great idea for library instruction, or I want to try something new for outreach. I’ve taken these ideas to student employees who have been generous with their time to provide feedback. Now that they know me better, student employees are very honest about their opinions and provide some of their own ideas that have been helpful. I appreciate student input in things I’m designing for students. We’ve also had student employees play test the escape rooms we’ve created for finals week, give feedback about our surveys, and in general, be the student voice in the activities and materials we create for the library. Of course, student employees aren’t necessarily representative of the entire student population, so we don’t rely on them for everything; however, employees are a great start for engaging with students in general.

Assistance with our projects

Most of our student employees have defined job roles, but they are sometimes excited to try new projects or learn about different aspects of the library. For instance, I was working with our digital content librarian to weed DVDs in my subject area. A student employee I know very well was in the area, and I knew that she was heavily involved with the literature and poetry community. She ended up looking through content relevant to her major so that we could seek her input into the collection as well. Another student employee recommended popular biology titles that we didn’t have for our collection that she thought other students would be interested in checking out. If I haven’t made this point clear yet, then I’d like to emphasize that student voices are valuable to library operations. We can guess what materials are most relevant to students, or we can ask for their input. Student employee involvement in collection development has taught me more about what’s popular in certain subject areas or what students might be interested to see in a collection. Having student employees involved in library projects brings me to my final point.

Potential future librarians

If you ask your colleagues about their first library job, many of them will talk about being employed in the library as a student. I’m not sure what percentage of librarians started as student workers, but I think it’s significant. Some of our student employees today might be librarians in the future. The way that we engage with student employees, the projects that we give them, and the perception that we share of the library may shape future librarians.

Student employees are valuable to libraries. They provide honest feedback, give insight to campus life and culture, and have interesting perspectives. Getting to know the student employees has been one of my favorite parts of being a new librarian. If you haven’t already, take the time to find out more about the student employees in your library. I think we all have something we can learn from them.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: What to Do with Conference Notes & Handouts?

It’s conference season! So, I have a question you should consider before you leave for your next conference, workshop, professional development day, or seminar: What do you do with the notes and handouts you bring back?

Obviously, you’re going to a conference or other professional development event because you intend to learn something from it. Some people have the superpower to retain a lot of information without writing it down. Alas, I am of the forget-it-immediately-if-I-don’t-write-it-down school of conference attendance (and life in general). So, what can I do with my copious notes and the handouts that I cling to like a lifeline to information, once the conference is over and I’m back in my office?

Here’s my current method:T At the conference, take notes in a relevant space of the agenda or program. (Example: Notes about the keynote on the page where the speaker’s bio is.) This puts my notes in better context for later reading, and cuts down on extra pages.

Reduce:At the conference, take notes in a relevant space of the agenda or program. (Example: Notes about the keynote on the page where the speaker’s bio is.) This puts my notes in better context for later reading, and cuts down on extra pages.

Reuse: A few days after returning, I actually read the notes. I’ll also probably make a list of action items (reach out to a new contact, outline that idea for a new research project, add that book title to my TBR pile), and share any information I thought other colleagues might be interested in.

Recycle: Once I leave the conference, I won’t need maps, dine-around invitations, or pages thanking vendors (unless I used them for overflow notes). Into the recycle bin they go.

File them. Ideally, I would scan the useful notes/handouts and file them neatly in my Google Drive (and then recycle the originals), but I’m still a paper hoarder, so for now I still have an extra step: they go into neatly labelled paper folders so I can find them again if necessary.

But what works for me might not work for you! Here are some other ideas (some I’ve tried, some I haven’t):

  • Keep a dedicated notebook for conference notes. This one doesn’t work for me, because I never look at it again, much like the collection of takeout menus in my kitchen. For someone more diligent about revisiting the notebook, this might be a good choice.
  • Scan them immediately. You could skip straight to scanning the notes and saving them to Google Drive (or Box, Evernote, etc.) For some people, this would make it easier to read/edit your notes, and it would also make it easier to search them. It has the same danger of being ignored/forgotten as the physical notebook, though, and perhaps moreso, since there isn’t a physical object to catch your eye and remind you to open it from time to time.
  • Add to a professional reflective journal, bullet journal, work diary, etc. This would be my preferred method of conference note maintenance if I used a different type of notebook for my work journal. You can either take your original notes at the conference in your notebook, or summarize your notes in the notebook after you return, putting them in the context of the rest of your work at that time.
  • Add them to your professional reading TBR pile. For now, I can stay on top of my To Be Read pile of professional reading, both digitally and in print. You could slip your notes into the stack of reading so you revisit the notes and increase retention a few days or weeks after your return. Then you can pass them on or discard them (whatever you do with your in-print publications).
  • Papier-mache? I’m kidding, of course, but if you don’t do something useful with your notes and handouts, you might as well craft with them, for all the good they’re doing you.

Another consideration is whether your habits change for a paperless/green conference. If you get all your handouts and agendas on a flash drive or by email, do you still print them out and take notes on paper, or do you bring a laptop and type them? If your post-conference notes maintenance method is paper-based, do you print out your typed notes afterward, or save them differently from the rest of your notes? If you do the latter, they might be forgotten because they’re not consistent with everything else. Maybe, as you start to attend more paperless conferences, your methods will switch to a paperless filing system, and soon you’ll be taking all your conference notes on your laptop, even if you were originally a paperphile like myself.

What do you do with your notes and handouts? And, perhaps just as importantly, does your method work for you? I would love to hear your suggestions!

Study Hacks and Student Survival

I know it’s not true, but I feel like one of the only academic librarians who didn’t make the trip to Ohio last weekend! I’m looking forward to my fellow ACRLog bloggers recapping what inspired them, and I thought in the meantime I’d share something I learned from a past ACRL paper that has changed the way I introduce students to scholarly articles.

Margy MacMillan and Stephanie Rosenblatt’s 2015 paper is called “They’ve Found It. Can They Read It? Adding Academic Reading Strategies to Your IL Toolkit,” and it brought my attention to something I’d never noticed before, or perhaps had just gotten used to: scholarly literature is difficult for the new researcher, and yet most research papers require the use of scholarly articles, sometimes as the only permitted source.

I’ve also seen faculty forbid the use of reference books, at least as a source they can formally cite in their papers. This is unfortunate, since a subject encyclopedia is often the perfect source for a research paper in a general education course; the language is not so technical that it alienates the student, and the overview format ensures that the student understands the context of a topic. Turned away from subject encyclopedias and discouraged from using Wikipedia, students will develop their own research survival skills.

This brings me to the concept of study hacks. Buzzfeed, YouTube, and Instagram are popular sources for college survival tips and tricks, especially targeted to Generation Z readers. It’s interesting to read articles like this one from Buzzfeed or this reporting on Instagram how-to threads from the Atlantic. By reading the solutions this young-scholar community shares, I begin to understand what problems they experience and that gets me thinking about how I could help.

For example, I see college students on Twitter sharing this “hack”: If you want an article that is behind a paywall, just email the author and ask for a personal PDF copy. And as this tweet suggests, this strategy does seem supported by Twitter academics. But I can’t help but think, “What about interlibrary loan?” Personally reaching out to an author seems like so much more work to me than filling out an ILL form, but if students don’t see the usefulness or ease of our services, they will find their own means. I’m not going to warn students away from study hacks, because that’s like telling them not to use Google for research. It’s not realistic, and I can see the usefulness of their habits. Instead I will endeavor to pitch library services as their own kind of study hack, especially emphasizing how they can save a student’s time and sanity.

In fact, our friendly neighborhood blog coordinator Maura Smale addressed this in her ACRL paper this year: “Their strategies for understanding included searching for summaries online or using study guide websites like SparkNotes because “they break it down in a simple way.” Other students reported searching on YouTube, Google, and Google Scholar, as well as online (and offline) dictionaries for help with challenging reading.” These web tools might not seem as vetted as peer-reviewed research, but isn’t it better than a student having no idea what they’re quoting? Instead of telling them how they “should” conduct their research (pristinely, using only library resources, taking diligent notes, and using Zotero for every project), we should meet them where they are, and share healthy study behaviors in the name of “saving the time of the reader,” as Maura says.

MacMillan and Rosenblatt make a strong case for teaching students reading strategies, not only because the average student is not reading at the college level, but also because we are uniquely positioned to guide and encourage students in this area:

Not only is incorporating instruction on reading scholarly material our responsibility, but librarians, in many ways, are the people best equipped to do this. More than most faculty, our work requires us to read materials in other disciplines, whether it is to understand a new liaison area, develop a class, or assess materials for a collection. We are practiced in reading in fields that are new to us and likely more comfortable and accepting of it than others. This experience has given us strategies that we can pass on to students— novices in their own disciplines—to help them understand new jargon and unfamiliar information structures. We may also feel freer to criticize discourse in a discipline and to advocate for students against the incomprehensibility of densely-written articles.

At the very least, thinking about all this has made me compassionate for the students I encounter. Sometimes in the classroom I’ll ask something like, “How has reading scholarly research been for you so far?” and get shy silence until I add, “A little intimidating? Kind of dense?” The tension in the room immediately relaxes; we’re on the same side. From there I emphasize two things: 1) that academic research is not written for students in mind (we’re basically eavesdropping on a conversation at this stage), but 2) this gets easier with practice. You will learn the language of your major, and in the meantime, I’m here to give you strategies to get through this semester.

If you’re wondering, here are the strategies I now recommend:

  1. Read the abstract and conclusion first (your chance to make a “spoiler alert” joke that will only make the instructor laugh).
  2. Take notes as you read, even if that just means underlining parts you might want to use later.
  3. And finally, try to ask yourself what you specifically want out of a source. Looking for pieces of evidence rather filling a “2-5 reliable sources” quota makes it easier to read strategically.

Should I recommend these methods as “study hacks,” or will I sound like Steve Buscemi in a backwards hat saying “How do you do, fellow kids”? I don’t know, but finding new ways to explain intimidating academic concepts will always keep my brain busy at the desk.

Student “Ownership” of the Library

You’ve met them: the students who feel more comfortable in the library than most. They walk in confidently, they know where to find amenities and the section that houses their favorite topic or author, and they have no qualms about approaching a service desk to ask for information or assistance. We love these students! Many of us were these students. What I want to discuss is how we might be able to get more of these students.

I think that these confident, comfortable students feel like they own a little piece of the library in one way or another. They know someone behind the desk, or they contributed in some way to how the library looks or functions, and they truly feel that it is their library. If more students had these opportunities for “ownership,” they would also feel good about using and being in the library.

Some examples of what I mean by “ownership” include but are in no way limited to: interactive displays that ask for input (via Post-It notes, whiteboards, or more digital means like hashtags); being invited to curate and manage displays themselves; comment boxes (in-person or online); student and faculty art galleries or murals; dynamic spaces where students can rearrange the furniture without fear of scolding; or having their input solicited (via social media, in-person ballot box, etc.) on library matters, like naming everything from the repository to the fish. Events, contests, and programming also make students feel more connected to the library; if they attend a casual, fun program in the library space, they will likely feel more comfortable using that space later when they need help with research or a place to study.

An interactive display at Tidewater Community College, soliciting students’ answers about sports. The display also includes a variety of circulating materials about various sports-related topics. Some students answer seriously; others inject a little humor into their responses. Other themes on this display in the past have been books you would recommend to others, favorite foods, and where you’d like to travel.

There is also an opportunity to give students ownership whenever they feel comfortable enough to reach out and make a specific request. If it is heeded, that is demonstrable proof that a student can have direct impact on the library. (For example, right now, I am working on fulfilling a request from a class representative to install hand sanitizer dispensers in our library. It’s a simple request, but it’s important to these students. When they see the dispensers installed, they will know that they had a direct hand in improving the library for everyone in some way.) Even if a request cannot be fulfilled, assuring the student that their request is being seriously considered and you appreciate their input can make them feel respected, heard, and more comfortable with the library in general.

Some of these examples are reactive, where the library waits for students to say that they want something and then gives it to them (or doesn’t), and some are proactive, seeking students’ input or participation. Both are valid and useful, and a combination of the two would be an ideal approach.

There is, of course, a downside to students feeling too much ownership of the library. For example, they might get territorial about a favorite study carrel or study room, vandalize furniture or other library property, feel too much “at home” and act inappropriately or leave a mess, or get too loud and interfere with others’ use of the space. It is important to maintain a balance where students feel like they belong in the library, but not like they are the only ones who belong there.

How do your students take ownership of your library? Do you actively encourage it? If so, how?