Navigating uncharted territory: Short Edition at Penn State

So, you might have heard of a machine that disenspers short stories. You’ll find these dispensers at airports, hospitals, gig cities, malls, and community spaces. With a press of a button, you can print off 1, 3, or 5 minute short stories or poetry. These dispensers are made by Short Edition, a company based in France whose mission is to “propel literature” and share short stories and poetry with as many people as possible. Their machines have been featured stories at Mental Floss, LitHub, The New Yorker, and The New York Times.

There definitely is something novel about the machines; I’m actually writing this post while sitting near one in our library. Penn State got several dispensers in spring 2017 and PLA just finished up their Courage writing contest, and I can only assume some more libraries will be getting their own dispensers in the next several years. I love watching students approach the dispenser, some not quite sure what they are all about. They press the button and the machine whirls a bit, gearing up to print the story. It spits the story out, the five minute stories always my favorite to watch because it’s always longer than you’d expect. They smile when they pull it out of the dispenser, folding it carefully while they walk away. My favorite comment to hear is, “Can you actually read that story in one minute?”

Short Edition started in 2011 and the company created their dispensers in 2015. Libraries have gravitated towards these dispensers and the mission behind the company, we seem like a natural fit. When Penn State first got our dispensers, they were fun machines we had in our library and in spaces across campus. But we wanted to do more than just have students print out stories; we wanted to build a program that could showcase student, faculty, and staff writing. I became part of the group tasked with building this program in fall 2017. In the past year, I have learned a lot — about Short Edition, the creative writing scene at University Park and the campuses, and how to take a fuzzy vision for a program and turn it into something a bit more defined.

I got involved because our administration had felt strongly there should be students involved with the editorial process and naturally, the Student Engagement Librarian knows some students. Other than some loose guidelines from the Editorial Board at Short Edition, we really had the chance to create what we wanted. While the machines themselves are “easy” (just plug them in and let them print), there is much more beneath the surface, and at the complimentary website, where the magic really happens in converting community content into something you can print off on the dispensers. There was definitely a learning curve and when we’ve got a contest running, I email my contacts at Short Edition at least once a week. We’re currently running our second writing contest, around the theme of Lost & Found. Running these contests seem like the best way to get content onto our website and our dispensers — having a broad, general theme (and prize money) seems to attract more writers than a rolling submission process. Sometimes, I have gone up to the group of students printing off stories and ask, “Did you know you can submit your own stories to this dispenser?” The students often chuckle and shake their heads, “I just like reading the stories, I don’t write” they respond. We’ve got a little hurdle right now — finding folks who not only enjoy the machines, but also want their stories and poems to be the ones getting printed out.

The other aspect about this project is now that we have some consistency around contests, our Editorial Board and guidelines, we are adding other elements to the program. Community members in Centre county can now add their content to our website and dispensers, we are adding dispensers to some of our campuses across the state of Pennsylvania, and working locally with the high school to see what their program could look like. It’s a lot of juggling and deciding what is urgent, what decisions will be strategic, and what elements we can hold off on until we are more ready. In that way, this program is elastic, willing to bend in what direction we think is best, at the time.

In all of this, when you chart uncharted territory, people look to you for advice or ways forward. Since our Penn State Short Edition project has taken off, I’ve received emails from a whole host of librarians, all interested in what we’re up to. I send along documentation, neatly packaged in a Box folder, explaining some of the unique elements of our program. In these email exchanges, I receive my favorite compliment, “Wow, this is thorough.” I’m curious to see how many other academic libraries invest in Short Edition in the next few years. Maybe, in the future, we can find a way to connect them, in a contest or through our Editorial Boards.

The biggest thing I’ve learned since taking on this project is that you sometimes just have to do the thing, even if you’re not 100% sure it will work. I’m someone who craves feedback and seeks a lot of permission first; spearheading the Short Edition project has definitely challenged that side of me. I’ve gotten a little better at just doing the thing and being confident in whatever decision I’ve decided to make. There’s so much room to grow, experiment, and take this project to another level so onward we go, charting new territory and propelling literature forward.


Note: If you’re interested in seeing some of our documentation for Short Edition or learning more, feel free to send me an email at hmf14@psu.edu.

 

 

One of Today’s Lucky Ten Thousand

If you aren’t familiar with the webcomic XKCD, go take a look now. I have been a huge fan for years, and find his comics relevant to many areas of life. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about this one:

XKCD, “Ten Thousand,” https://xkcd.com/1053/

As a reference librarian, I get a lot of the same questions day in and day out. (I know that a lot of you can relate.) How do I find a book on my topic? How does the printing system work? Can you help me connect my laptop to the Wi-Fi here? Where is the bathroom? How does citation work? It happens in the classroom, too. How do I narrow these results down to scholarly journals only? What do I do if it says “no full text available”? Can I put a book on hold from off campus?

I’m going to take a moment to clarify that today, I’m not talking about the questions like, “I wasn’t paying attention; can you show us how you got to that page again?” I’m also not talking about the same person showing up every single day to ask for help logging into their online homework system but they don’t remember their own username and password, or where they wrote that information down when you helped them yesterday. I’m only talking about the questions that we answer over and over for different people every day, week, semester, and year.

Sometimes, I used to get frustrated or annoyed by having to answer, “Where is the classroom?” twenty times in a row for each individual student attending library instruction that hour, or showing different students how to find books over and over on the same three argument paper topics all week. And I see the same thing happen to my colleagues, especially during this time of semester, when midterms are gearing up and every other student we see is working on one of a handful of similar assignments.

But then I remembered this XKCD comic, and it reminded me of a few things.

One: We are here to teach people the things they don’t already know. If students already knew how to find resources or write citations or even where the classroom is, what would they need me for at the reference desk?

Two: Everyone has to learn a thing before they know it. That sounds really obvious, doesn’t it? To dismissively think, “You’re in college, you should know this!” is to do your students a disservice.* It reminds me of all the times I’ve said I haven’t seen a particular movie, and someone reacts with an overly dramatic gasp and, “But you’re in your thirties! How have you never seen The Godfather?” It makes me feel guilty, like I’ve avoided that movie on purpose, instead of just not being shown the movie or being prompted to go find it and sit down and watch it. I know it exists (like a student knows the library exists), and I’m aware of several of the more famous scenes (like a student knows that libraries can help students with research); I just haven’t watched it myself (like a student who hasn’t used library resources or asked a question at the reference desk). A better reaction, in my opinion, is, “You haven’t seen The Godfather? I highly recommend it. Here, borrow my copy, or let’s watch it together this weekend.” Or, in our case, “You haven’t used the databases? They’re really great, and I think they make it easier to find what you’re looking for than using Google Scholar. Here, let me show you where to find them and how they work.”

And that’s the attitude I try to conjure up in myself three times per semester: week one, midterms, and finals. Because the student standing in front of me needs to find a journal article and does not yet know about the wonders of EBSCOhost, and they are one of today’s lucky ten thousand.

*Side note: At some point, yes, you have to be able to say, “Didn’t you ever have to write a paper before this point in your education?” But if they haven’t, it’s not exactly their fault. I do not present this as an excuse for learned helplessness or not doing the work. We just need to remember that we don’t necessarily know a student’s background or experience when they first approach the reference desk. My college has a lot of non-traditional returning students who may not have done this kind of work in a long time (and during the intervening years, the majority of the process has changed), a lot of students from underprivileged schools (who may have been focused on different priorities from citation and evaluating sources), and a lot of students who are not high academic achievers, and just want to fulfill degree requirements so they can learn a trade, so their English paper is not the high priority it is to some other students, who may want to transfer to a four-year university and major in literature. This “one of today’s lucky ten thousand” concept does rely heavily on giving each student the benefit of the doubt, and not being discouraged by the ones who do ask the “I didn’t listen to what you just said; can you repeat it verbatim?” questions.

Reflections on the past year

It’s been almost one year since I moved to Washington DC and began my residency position at American University. Last year, for my very first ACRLog post, I wrote a little about my job description as a Resident Librarian. Next month will mark my one year anniversary at American University.

I am glad to say that my first year has been fantastic. I have great colleagues and amazing support from the library. I have also had the opportunity to participate in symposiums, attend conferences, contribute to university service, and meet great people from outside the library and around the university.

Beyond my work at American University, I have been blessed to be able to write for ACRLog and obtain other opportunities through ACRL. While it’s been a great year, I have learned a couple of things that will make me a better librarian in the long run. I believe that even if you’ve had positive experiences, there are always new things to learn and ways to improve as a librarian.

Here are some things that I have learned the past year:

-Go outside your comfort zone. I know that for myself, I can be a bit shy. However, I know that I am also a professional and that going outside of your comfort zone and experiencing new things is vital for not only personal growth, but professional growth. For me, going outside my comfort zone means talking and interacting to people outside the library. I am currently working on a project where I have reached out to different departments in the university. Through those email exchanges and meetings, I have learned more about our students and the challenges that lie for incoming freshman.

-Participate when you can! One of the great things about my residency is that I have the opportunity to work with other departments, such as technical services or access services. I also participate in the marketing and social media groups, which has not only librarians, but other staff members from departments within the library. These are great opportunities to meet new people and learn about what others do at the library and what their interests are.

-Prioritize conferences. As a new librarian, I was excited about all the conferences and all the great locations they would be held at. However, these conferences cost money and with airfare, hotel, and food, it can get expensive! I am lucky enough to have professional development funds through my position. I also know that not everyone has funds through their place of employment and so they cannot attend many (if any) conferences that are not in their area. I would suggest looking within your own place of employment and finding workshops or small symposiums taking place. I have found these events very informative, especially since they relate to that specific environment. As I have been fortunate enough to attend a couple of conferences this past year, I have learned the immense talent that the librarianship profession has. One of my  favorite parts of conferences is meeting new people and finding out what everyone is working on.

In terms of prioritizing conferences, it is going to be different for everyone. Personally, I like to go to conferences that have an emphasis in my own interests and my future career plans.

-Rejection is not the end of the world. Like my residency position ACRLog post, I also wrote one about rejection. While it hurts for a little while, you must learn from it and continue. It might have been the first time, but it won’t be the last time. So, how do we move forward? Over the course of a year, I have focused on a couple things. First, working with people on proposals is helpful. It allows you to not only write, but learn from others and different styles. Second, write for yourself. When I do this, I do not write about work. I write about my life, my dreams, and anything that pops into my head. What is important is that you move forward and try again.

-Volunteer. When I arrived in DC, I promised myself that I would take the time to volunteer. Specifically, I wanted to work with English as a Second Language speakers (ESL). However, I wanted to wait until I got settled in DC.  A couple months ago, I started co-teaching ESL classes once a week. It’s very rewarding when a student who struggled at the beginning, begins to improve every week. Although this is separate than my library work, this experience has shaped how I teach. The ESL program that I am part of is very informal. Teachers have the freedom to either use the ESL book that has been provided with lesson plans or use their own content and design it their way.

I have been using a mix of two, but most importantly, I have learned how to better improvise. During the classes, students will begin to ask questions that cause myself and the co-teacher to further explain a topic. For example, we had a lesson about food and it turned out that a lot of students were unfamiliar with breakfast food vocabulary. So, after the break, the other co-teacher and I decided to do an activity to familiarize the students with that vocabulary.

I think that any instruction experience can serve to improve your teaching and having a diverse set of students will only help you improve and better understand different ways of learning and comprehension.

Finally, I always like to remember that my residency position and my colleagues are the reason that I have had great opportunities over the past year. I am also glad to say that I will continue with ACRLog for another year and look forward to writing more about my residency and the projects I am participating in, as well as collaboration within and outside of the library.

Facilitating student learning and engagement with formative assessment

Information literacy instruction is a big part of my job. For a little context, I teach somewhere in the range of 35-45 classes per semester at my small liberal arts college. While a few of the sessions might sometimes be repeats for a course with multiple sections, they’re mostly unique classes running 75 minutes each. I’ve been teaching for some time now and while I’m a better teacher than I was ten or five years ago or even last year, there’s always plenty of room for improvement of course. A few months ago, I wrote a post about reflection on and in my teaching, about integrating “more direct discussion of process and purpose into my classes […] to lay bare for students the practice, reflection, and progression that complicates [information literacy] work, but also connects the gaps, that brings them closer to crossing the threshold.” Each year, I’ve been devoting more attention to trying to do just that: integrate process and purpose into my classes to improve student learning and engagement.

It didn’t start out as anything momentous, just a little bit all the time. Initially, it was only a small activity here or there to break things up, to give students a chance to apply and test the concept or resource under discussion, and to scaffold to the next concept or resource. I would demo a search strategy or introduce a new database and then ask students to try it out for their own research topic. I would circle the class and consult individually as needed. After a few minutes of individual exploration, we would come back together to address questions or comments and then move on to the next resource, strategy, or concept. This appeared to be working well enough. Students seemed to be on board and making progress. By breaking a class into more discrete chunks and measuring the pace a bit, students had more of a chance to process and develop along the way. Spacing out the hands-on work kept students engaged all class long, too.

For some time, I’ve started classes by reviewing the assignment at hand to define and interpret related information needs, sometimes highlighting possible areas of confusion students might encounter. Students expressed appreciation for this kind of outlining and the shape and structure it gave them. I felt a shift, though, when I started asking students, rather than telling them, about their questions and goals at the outset of a class. Less Here are the kinds of information sources we’ll need to talk about today and more What kinds of information do you think you need to know how to access for this assignment? What do you hope that information will do for you? What have been sticky spots in your past research experiences that you want to clarify? I wanted students to acknowledge their stake in our class goals and this conversation modeled setting a scope for learning and information needs. We then used our collective brainstorm as a guiding plan for our class. More often than not, students offered the same needs, questions, and problems that I had anticipated and used to plan the session, but it felt more dynamic and collaboratively constructed this way. (Of course, I filled in the most glaring gaps when needed.)

So why not, I finally realized one day, extend the reach of this approach into the entire class? While scaffolding instruction with small activities had helped students process, develop, and engage, I was still leading the charge at the pace I set. But what if we turned things around?  What if, essentially, they experimented on their own in order to determine something that worked for them (and why!) and shared their thoughts with the class? What if we constructed the class together? Rather than telling them what to do at the outset of each concept chunk, I could first ask them to investigate. Instead of demonstrating, for example, recommended search strategies and directing students to apply them to their own research, I could ask students to experiment first with multiple search strategies in a recommended database for a common topic in order to share with the class the strategies they found valuable. The same goes for navigating, filtering, and refining search results or for evaluating sources and selecting the most relevant or for any concept or resource for that matter. Why not, I thought, ask students to take a first pass and experiment? We could then share ideas as a class, demonstrating and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of their tactics along the way, collaboratively building a list of best practices strategies. Students could then revisit their work, applying those best practices where needed.

This kind of experiment-first-then-build-together-then-revise approach is simple enough, but its advantages feel rather significant to me. It makes every class exciting, because it’s—in part, at least—unique and responsive to precisely those students’ needs. Of course I have a structure and goals in mind, prepared notes in hand, but it’s a flexible approach. While it’s not appropriate for every class, the low stakes/low prep makeup is readily applicable to different scenarios and content areas. The students and I are actively involved in constructing the work of the class together. Everyone has a chance to contribute and learn from each other. In particular, more experienced students get to share their knowledge while less experienced students learn from their peers. The expectation to contribute helps students pay attention to the work and to each other. Its scaffolded and iterative design helps students digest and apply information. Its reflective nature reveals for students practice and process, too; it models the metacognitive mindset behind how to learn, how to do research. I don’t mean to get too ebullient here. It’s not a panacea. But it has made a difference. It’s probably no surprise that this kind of teaching has required a degree of comfort, a different kind of classroom leadership, and a different kind of instinct that would have been much, much harder to conjure in my earlier teaching.

While I wasn’t aware of it initially and didn’t set out to make it so, I now recognize this as formative assessment. Not only do these small activities increase opportunities for engagement and learning, they serve as authentic assessment of students’ knowledge and abilities in the moment. They provide evidence of student learning and opportunities for action immediately. With that immediate input, I can adjust the nature and depth of instruction appropriately at the point of need. All in a way that’s authentic to and integrated in the work of the class.

The informality of this approach is part of what makes it flexible, low prep, and engaging. It’s such a rich site for documentation and evaluation of student learning, though. I want to capture the richness of this knowledge, demonstrate the impact of instruction, document students’ learning. But I’m struggling with this. I haven’t yet figured out how to do this effectively and systematically. Some formative assessments result in student work artifacts that can illustrate learning or continuing areas of difficulty, but the shape my implementation has so far taken results in less tangible products. At the ACRL 2015 conference a few weeks ago, I attended a great session led by Mary Snyder Broussard, Carrie Donovan, Michelle Dunaway, and Teague Orblych: “Learning Diagnostics: Using Formative Assessment to Sustainably Improve Teaching & Learning.” When I posed this question in the session, Mary suggested using a “teacher journal” to record my qualitative reflections and takeaways after each class and to notice trends over time. I’m interested in experimenting with this idea, but I’m still searching for something that might better capture student learning, rather than only my perception of it. I’m curious to read Mary’s book Snapshots of Reality: A Practical Guide to Formative Assessment in Library Instruction, as well as Michelle and Teague’s article “Formative Assessment: Transforming Information Literacy Instruction” to see if I might be able to grab onto or adapt any other documentation practices.

Do you use formative assessment in your teaching? How do you document this kind of informal evidence of student learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Musings on Outreach as Instruction

Last week, librarians from many branches of our university gathered for a Teaching Librarians Retreat. The retreat was organized and hosted by a few wonderful colleagues, who I cannot thank enough for their efforts and a fantastic event. The goal for the retreat was to promote a community of sharing, peer support, and ongoing learning among UI librarians who teach, and was a chance to reflect on the year and find colleagues with similar interests and concerns about teaching. Making dedicated time for sharing and reflection is especially important in an institution as large and with as many librarians as ours.

We broke out into discussion groups for part of the retreat, and my group gathered to talk about “outreach as instruction.” What struck me first as we each shared our thoughts is that “outreach” can mean so many different things. We had people contributing to the conversation from perspectives of social media, events and programming, marketing, digital badges, special collections, working with student organizations, and outreach to faculty vs. students vs. the community.

My take on “outreach as instruction” and why it matters has to do with the limitations of one-shot sessions and ways we can expand the impact of instruction beyond traditional methods. One-shot sessions are valuable as point-of-need instruction for academic coursework, but relying solely on them is limiting: only a fraction of students receive library instruction, and a number of them may not be particularly interested in the General Education required course that brought them into the library. This is where I think outreach can be powerful – in the many possibilities to connect with students outside of a classroom setting, while still teaching something. Here are a few ideas on how to go about doing that:

  1. Connect over something interest-based, rather than academics-based. For example, I’ve heard of academic libraries having knitting sessions (which is also closely tied with stress-relief activities during finals week), but it could be something else. The draw to participate is something of general interest that can also be connected to research and resources available at the library.
  2. Communicate with student organizations, and let the student leaders know how the library can support their group and members. This can lead to tailored teaching opportunities for students who are involved and invested in a group that may not get this attention and instruction otherwise.
  3. Use the collection creatively. We’ve found ways to do this by using images from the Iowa Digital Library on buttons, postcards, and Valentine cards. Those are all short and simple activities that can naturally lead to learning something new about a variety of resources. (You can see the Valentine’s activities here.)

Those are just a few ideas, which clearly come from my perspective as an Undergraduate Services Librarian (and barely crack the surface of our group discussion at the Teaching Librarians Retreat). For you, “outreach as instruction” could mean building on relationships with faculty, an emphasis on social media, or something else. Outreach itself is a broad concept with multiple definitions, but that also means there are so many variations and opportunities for librarians to engage with their users and community.

When I hear “outreach as instruction,” I think of how we can connect with undergraduates in ways other than in the classroom for a one-shot session, and incorporate what I like to call “nuggets of information literacy.” What does it mean for you and your library?