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?

Falling Off, Getting Back On

I can’t be the only person in academia who heads into summer thinking of new year’s resolutions. I’d guess that the lure of making resolutions at multiple points in the calendar year is kind of an occupational hazard for resolution-inclined folks who work in higher education. Our workload and responsibilities can shift fairly dramatically between the regular semesters and the summer (or other intersessions), and in that transition from one to the other it’s tempting to pause and take stock of how things are going and what we might want to change.

I have once again fallen off my almost-daily-writing-practice wagon, and it is time for me to get back on.

I do have a (mostly) consistent habit of taking about 45 minutes each morning as research time at home before I head into work. That length and timeslot aligns well with my family’s schedule for now — my brain works best on research-related tasks in the morning — though that might change in the fall when school starts up again. While 45 minutes is not an enormous amount of time, applied (week)daily it does move my projects forward. I try my best to protect this time for myself, though during particularly busy times in the semester it’s easy to let other work tasks expand to fill this space, easy to let myself be convinced that it’s more important to use this time to catch up on other work than to focus on my research.

The current state of my research and writing projects typically determines how I use that morning time, so even when I’m consistently spending 45 minutes it’s often not 45 minutes of writing. I might be analyzing data for a research project, reading and taking notes on sources, managing citations, or thinking through an IRB application or research questions. That time is still useful, but it’s not the same as time used specifically for writing. Writing is different. Writing is hard. And the more I write, the slightly-more-easily writing comes to me (though full disclosure: it’s still challenging).

Falling off and getting back on the almost-daily-writing wagon is something I’ve done so many times in the decade plus since I’ve been an academic librarian, and in a way it gets easier every time. It’s true that during busy times it’s easy to fall off — when my day is more meetings than not and ends with a to-do list that’s longer than when the day began, taking any time at all for writing can feel like an insurmountable goal. But it’s also true that it’s getting easier to dust myself off without judging myself too harshly for the fall, and to climb on back up. It’s 100% completely normal to fall off the writing wagon, and that wagon will always stop to let me jump back on and begin again.

Scrolling through Twitter this week I noticed a few fellow academics committing to writing for 15 minutes each day, and that feels like an achievable, worthwhile goal to me as I settle back into my seat on this wagon. There are plenty of seats — consider climbing up with me if you’re so inclined.

Puzzles: A Problem-Solving Approach

I attended The Innovative Library Classroom (TILC) at William & Mary last week. It is my favorite conference, and I wanted to give it a shout-out just because it’s great (big enough to meet new people and get lots of new ideas, small enough that you can see everything you want to, the organizers are awesome, always great keynote speakers and presentations) but also because one of the lightning talks at the end of the day gave me an idea I wanted to explore some more.

The lightning talk was called “Reshuffling the Deck: Enlisting Students to Re-Envision an Active Learning Classroom.” (The presenters were Alyssa Archer, Charley Cosmato, and Susan Van Patten from Radford University, and Liz Bellamy from William & Mary.) They discussed getting a grant from Steelcase, creating an active learning centered classroom space, and how the librarians wound up finding a general-use layout of the furniture and kind of… leaving it that way. So they created little cutouts of the furniture available in the room and asked students to reconfigure it with different uses in mind. (It’s a really interesting process and if you get the chance to ask any of them about it, I recommend asking them for more detail than I’m reporting here.)

When I got back from the conference, I returned to my current project: redefining the reference schedule.To solve the math problem of fitting the number of librarians into the number of shifts, I’m considering lots of possible options, including reducing the number of hours covered during the day, changing the duration of each shift, making a two-week rotating schedule instead of the same schedule every week, and more creative (see: confusing; complicated) options.

At some point, I took a break to skim my conference notes (trying to take my own advice from several weeks ago) and I was thinking about this puzzle-like approach these librarians took with their space configuration question. Inspired, I cut up the schedule into different pieces and tried putting it back together. In doing so, I found a new way to break up the schedule that I’m going to put forth as our best choice.

I’ve actually explained my love of schedule-making by telling people “it’s like a puzzle made of time and people!” (which sounds fun to me, but earns me some weird looks, so maybe that isn’t a universal opinion) but I had always been envisioning more of a Sudoku puzzle (numbers to plug into boxes) than a jigsaw puzzle (physical pieces that can be reconfigured).

Now I’m finding other problems I can solve with this approach of “cut it up and put it back together.” I want to rearrange my desk to make it more reference-consultation-friendly, so I need to think about how I want to configure the things I use on my desk. (Come to think of it, my living room could probably benefit from this approach, too.) I’ve heard of doing a website analysis by cutting up a screenshot of the homepage, handing the pieces to potential users, and asking them how they would put them together in a logical way, much like the presenters at TILC did with their classroom. I’ve been trying to piece together a research agenda plan for a few months… maybe I’ll try treating that like a puzzle, too!

What problem do you have that needs a new problem-solving approach… and could treating it like a puzzle help?

Making the space: Researching beyond IRDL

I’ve spent the last week at the Institute of Research Design in Librarianship (IRDL). Most of the workshop has happened in the beautiful William H. Hannon Library on Loyola Marymount’s campus. Last month on the blog I talked about my preparation for this week-long research workshop. The week has been a whirlwind and it’s hard to believe we’re finishing up today (Saturday). I have learned a lot — about the research process, the projects my cohort members are working on, and about librarianship at a variety of institutions. I feel energized and excited about conducting strong LIS research. My research project has changed and evolved and I’m headed back to Penn State with a stronger version of what I submitted back in January.

Throughout the week, I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been intentional about creating space for this learning and research. When I was preparing for IRDL, my research mentor mentioned in an email that I should set aside my work for the week in LA. I took their words to heart; I put on my out-of-office message, alerted my co-workers that I wouldn’t be responding, and haven’t replied to anything. I put my work in Pennsylvania on hold and that allowed me to concentrate on the material being covered. I had the chance to develop my project, connect with my peers, and apply what I was learning.

And everything was okay.

My colleagues respected my time to be away and I had the opportunity to immerse myself in this work. This time pushed me to spin my wheels, read more of the student engagement and involvement literature, and craft a journey map template for student engagement opportunities. During our workshop days, I got to spend time with my peers and work through the research process together. We spent an hour crafting 10 survey questions and an afternoon deciding on a set of questions for a focus group. What I learned was that in order to get the data you need, you have to be willing to devote uninterrupted time to finding ways to ask good questions. A good survey just doesn’t happen; it requires thoughtful decisions, defined variables, and a pilot test. This stuff cannot be rushed.  

So yes, it was great that I had this time to think, process, and experiment. This time was exactly what I needed. But I know that once I’m back in Pennsylvania, all those other priorities will return. IRDL has been good for lots of things, including forcing me to consider how I should spend my time when I come home.

The question I keep returning to is: how do you create this meaningful space for research work? How can I replicate the work environment of this week? Can I find ways to be just as intentional about setting aside work for this work when I’m back in Pennsylvania? I have never been good about blocking time and asking for that time to stay uninterrupted. In order for me to do this project, and to do it well, I’ll need to start defining those boundaries more clearly. It’s a habit to be developed.

But it’s not something that I have to do on my own. Community is always an important piece of my librarianship and with research, community support is important. We built LibParlor to create community and now, after a week in Los Angeles, I have a new community to lean on. We tell the students we teach that research isn’t a solo process and that’s a good reminder for us too. Throughout IRDL, I have seen the strength of collaborating with others for surveys, interview questions, and inferential statistics. It’s better to tackle that stuff with someone else and I’m thankful my research network community continues to grow. And I know they will help hold me accountable for the time I need for this project.

While I’m still figuring this out, I’m sure others have some ideas. So, how have you created this space? How have you found balance between the day-to-day of your job with the time to research? How do you depend on and support your research community?


Featured image of the William H. Hannon Library, taken by the author of this post.

Assumptions & Expectations

May 31st was my son’s last day of first grade. His class had a pizza party, complete with cupcakes and cookies to round out the celebration. He had a fantastic year at this new school after a terrible one at his old school. He received two “awards” from his teacher, who handed out different award certificates to all the kids: the “Always Happy” award and the Mathematics award. This kid LOVES numbers and does math problems for fun.

My son is on the autism spectrum. He is in the regular classroom with supports. For those of you who speak the parent language of special education in U.S. public schools, he has an IEP and he is mainstreamed. He’s a lot like any quirky kid you’d meet at the park, but there are things about him that are unique. He doesn’t like loud noises (fire alarms are the worst) or persistent quiet ones (clicking ceiling fans). He may take a while to answer a question; so long, sometimes, that you wonder if he forgot what you asked him (he didn’t). Sometimes he doesn’t seem like he’s paying attention to what’s going on, but then he’ll ask a question, or say something, or point out a detail that indicate that he is fully present, aware, and alert. Sometimes he asks odd questions out of (what we think is) nowhere. His pattern of speech may sometimes sound a little different. He loves the outdoors, hugs, Legos, his bike, and oddball humor.

He’s also a constant reminder to me as I move through my day-to-day work, in and out of the library classroom, to check my expectations and assumptions of students. I’ve taught classes where the same student blurts out answers before anyone else can, or asks an odd question at what seems like an “off” time to be asking it. There have been other classes where students don’t make eye contact, appear to be somewhere else, or give blank stares. Sometimes students look confused. Sometimes they don’t answer questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions where the answers are things I’ve just said.

Those actions may be about me. Maybe my pacing is off or my explanation is confusing. I could be really really really ridiculously boring at that point in class. I could also seem like the kind of person who wants people to ask questions whenever they have them, no matter if it seems odd to others.

But those actions are also about them. Maybe a student doesn’t make eye contact and blurts out comments/questions because they too are on the autism spectrum. Maybe they look confused and sort of blank because they have issues with auditory processing, and I’ve given too much information or too many instructions all at once. They could have low vision, difficulty hearing, or could be in real pain that day (and everyday if it is chronic). They could be listening and processing everything I saw but not be able to externalize that interest and learning in the way I am used to seeing it.

There is so much we don’t know about the students we see once or twice a semester. Sometimes we have opportunities to really get to know them and sometimes we never see them again. In whatever time we have with them, we can drop our assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We can set expectations high for ourselves and for them, and do everything we can to support them in their learning so that they meet those expectations. (Check out Zoe’s last post on Universal Design in the classroom for some excellent ideas.) We can check any judgements we might be inclined to make about a student’s actions, facial expressions, or speech. It might feel a bit unusual at first, but if we practice it a little every day, we stop having to practice and we just start doing it.

It’s easier for me now that it was in years past, but I have practice at work and I have practice at home. Checking assumptions is hard work, but it’s a responsibility we have to the learners in our community. Beyond that, it also opens us up to a world of interesting people who can befriend, laugh with, and learn from that we might have otherwise missed. In setting aside our assumptions we leave room to get to know people. In expanding our ideas of what constitutes learning behavior and how we can support different kinds of learners in the classroom, we set the stage for all kinds of interesting education to happen.

photo of award certificate that reads "the always happy"