From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom

I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter the other day when a tweet caught my eye. I wish I could find it again to do it justice, but it was essentially a critique of the author’s missteps in the classroom early in their career by way of a funny apology to students. It immediately transported me back to some of the most disappointing and embarrassing teaching experiences in my own early career days. My whole body still cringes when I remember those moments: the one-shots where, for example, I droned on about database navigation and put students, and myself, to sleep; the ones where I stuffed every minute of class, often with insignificant minutiae, thereby camouflaging what really mattered. I didn’t know how to prioritize or pace instruction, much less how to engage students. 

I’m grateful to say that almost everything about my teaching has changed since then, and for the better. Now, more than a decade later, my teaching is much more grounded in constructivist pedagogy and organized around cultivating students’ awareness and understanding of their research processes. My approach then could perhaps be described as tool-driven and largely based in demonstration. It was common for me to develop some kind of resource guide for the course–essentially a long list of links to recommended databases, books, websites, etc.–and then to spend our time in class focused on modeling and practicing effective use of those tools. Of course, there are still plenty of occasions when it makes sense to orient students to effectively using library databases. But now uncovering, conceptualizing, and shaping the process of research–the methods, stages, and purpose–is my organizational blueprint. Today–guided by constructivist and metacognitive principles, active learning pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques–my teaching is much less about tools and much more about strategies, much less about clicks and much more about concepts. 

While the impact of this long transformation has reaped many rewards in student engagement and learning, as well as my personal interest and satisfaction, I know there are many ways I could further improve what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. I hope to keep iterating and advancing. Specifically, I’m thinking about a technique that I’ve long recognized as a weak spot in my teaching and that could support this road from clicks to concepts: storytelling. 

I’m using the word storytelling quite broadly for my purposes. Perhaps examples is more accurate (and less lofty and self-aggrandizing)? Yet examples feels just a bit narrow. I’m not referring only to developing instructive sample searches to demonstrate how to keep keywords simple yet precise or selecting the ideal sample article to model how to effectively organize a literature review. Of course, those are important kinds of examples and, when done well, very impactful ones. But when I say I want to use storytelling or examples, I’m thinking more about allegories, anecdotes, and analogies, case studies and real-world problems to wrap around the research strategies and concepts at the core of each class. I’m imagining that such storytelling techniques could extend or enhance information literacy teaching and learning by making abstract or technical concepts more accessible and concrete, facilitating recall, demonstrating relevance and impact, prompting reflection and meaning-making, not to mention simply providing inspiration or general interest. I’ve so far been thinking of these as discrete stories to insert at key moments in class to illustrate a point, hook a students’ interest, or propel us all toward moments of understanding.

The small amount of reading on this topic that I’ve done thus far seems to affirm the effectiveness of storytelling and precise, compelling examples in teaching (not to mention other domains like management and leadership). And the tips I’ve stumbled on so far suggest that, like many things in teaching, it’s best to start small by focusing on a single area or concept that students regularly struggle with in order to integrate storytelling where it’s most needed. Otherwise, I’m still a bit at sea here on how to do this best. It’s one thing to be able to identify where a story would be most helpful; it’s another to compose a compelling story that helps students reach a meaningful takeaway and recognize why that takeaway matters. I certainly need to do more research and thinking, but I’m curious about your experience. Have you incorporated storytelling and examples in your teaching? What kinds of stories? And to what effect? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Narrative as Evidence

This past week I attended the MLGSCA & NCNMLG Joint Meeting in Scottsdale, AZ. What do all these letters mean, you ask? They stand for the Medical Library Group of Southern California and Arizona and Northern California and Nevada Medical Library Group. So basically it was a western regional meeting of medical librarians. I attended sessions covering topics including survey design, information literacy assessment, National Library of Medicine updates, using Python to navigate e-mail reference, systematic reviews, and so many engaging posters! Of course, it was also an excellent opportunity to network with others and learn what different institutions are doing.

The survey design course was especially informative. As we know, surveys are a critical tool used by librarians. I learned how certain question types (ranking, for example) can be misleading, how to avoid asking double-barreled questions, and how to not ask a leading question (i.e. Do you really really love the library?!?) Of course, these survey design practices reduce bias and attempt to represent the most accurate results. The instructor, Deborah Charbonneau, reiterated that you can only do the best you can with surveys. And while this seems obvious, I feel that librarians can be a little perfectionistic. But let’s be real. It’s hard to know exactly what everyone thinks and wants through a survey. So yes, you can only do the best you can.

The posters and presentations about systematic reviews covered evidence-based medicine. As I discussed in my previous post, the evidence-based pyramid prioritizes research that reduces bias. Sackett, Rosenberg, Gray, Haynes, and Richardson (1996) helped to conceptualize the three-legged stool of evidence based practice. Essentially, evidence-based clinical decisions should consider the best of (1) the best research evidence, (2) clinical expertise, and (3) patient values and preferences. As medical librarians we generally focus on delivering strategies for the best research evidence. Simple enough, right? Overall, the conference was informative, social, and not overwhelming – three things I enjoy.

On my flight home, my center shifted from medical librarianship to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The only essay I had previously read in this collection of essays was “On Keeping a Notebook”. I had been assigned this essay for a memoir writing class I took a few years ago. (I promise this is going somewhere.)  In this essay, Didion discusses how she has kept a form of a notebook, not a diary, since she was a child. Within these notebooks were random notes about people or things she saw, heard, and perhaps they included a time/location. These tidbits couldn’t possibly mean anything to anyone else except her. And that was the point. The pieces of information she jotted down over the years gave her reminders of who she was at that time. How she felt.

I took this memoir class in 2015 at Story Studio Chicago, a lofty spot in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. It was trendy and up and coming. At the time, I had just gotten divorced, my dad had died two years prior, and I discovered my passion for writing at the age of 33. So, I was certainly feeling quite up and coming (and hopefully I was also trendy). Her essay was powerful and resonated with me (as it has for so many others). After I started library school, I slowed down with my personal writing and focused on working and getting my degree, allowing me to land a fantastic job at UCLA! Now that I’m mostly settled in to all the newness, I have renewed my commitment to writing and reading memoir/creative non-fiction. I feel up and coming once again after all these new changes in my life.

As my plane ascended, I opened the book and saw that I had left off right at this essay. I found myself quietly verbalizing “Wow” and “Yeah” multiples times during my flight. I was grateful that the hum of the plane drowned out my voice, but I also didn’t care if anyone heard me. Because if they did, I would tell them why. I would say that the memories we have are really defined by who we were at that time. I would add that memory recall is actually not that reliable. Ultimately, our personal narrative is based upon the scatterplot of our lives: our actual past, present, future; our imagined past, present, future; our fantasized past, present, and future. As Didion (2000) states:

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. (p. 124)

What does this have to do with evidence-based medicine? Well, leaving a medical library conference and floating into this essay felt like polar opposites. But were they? While re-reading this essay, I found myself considering how reducing bias (or increasing perspectives) in research evidence and personal narrative can be connected. They may not seem so, but they are really part of a larger scholarly conversation. While medical librarians focus upon the research aspect of this three-legged stool, we cannot forget that clinical expertise (based upon personal experience) and patient perspective (also based upon personal experience) provide the remaining foundation for this stool.

I also wonder about how our experiences are reflected. Are we remembering who we were when we decided to become librarians? What were our goals? Hopes? Dreams? Look back at that essay you wrote when you applied to school. Look back at a picture of yourself from that time. Who were you? What did you want? Who was annoying you? What were you really yearning to purchase at the time? Did Netflix or Amazon Prime even exist?? Keeping on “nodding terms” with these people allows us to not let these former selves “turn up unannounced”. It allows us to ground ourselves and remember where we came from and how we came to be. And it is a good reminder that our narratives are our personal evidence, and they affect how we perceive and deliver “unbiased” information. I believe that the library is never neutral. So I am always wary to claim a lack of bias with research, no matter what. I prefer to be transparent about the strengths of evidence-based research and its pitfalls.

A couple creative ways I have seen this reflected in medicine is through narrative medicine, JAMA Poetry and Medicine, and Expert Opinions, the bottom of the evidence-based pyramid, in journals. Yes, these are biased. But I think it’s critical that we not forget that medicine ultimately heals the human body which is comprised of the human experience. Greenhalgh and Hurwitz (1999) propose:

At its most arid, modern medicine lacks a metric for existential qualities such as the inner hurt, despair, hope, grief, and moral pain that frequently accompany, and often indeed constitute, the illnesses from which people suffer. The relentless substitution during the course of medical training of skills deemed “scientific”—those that are eminently measurable but unavoidably reductionist—for those that are fundamentally linguistic, empathic, and interpretive should be seen as anything but a successful feature of the modern curriculum. (p. 50)

Medical librarians are not doctors. But librarians are purveyors of stories, so I do think we reside in more legs of this evidence-based stool. I would encourage all types of librarians to seek these outside perspectives to ground themselves in the everyday stories of healthcare professionals, patients, and of ourselves.

 

References

  1. Didion, J. (2000). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York: Modern Library.
  2. Greenhalgh, T., & Hurwitz, B. (1999). Why study narrative? BMJ: British Medical Journal, 318(7175), 48–50.
  3. Sackett D.L., Rosenberg W.M., Gray J.A., Haynes R.B., & Richardson W.S. (1996). Evidence based medicine: What it is and what it isn’t. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 312(7023), 71–2. doi: 10.1136/bmj.312.7023.71.