One of my favorite days of the academic year is Undergraduate Research Day. The Honors College and the Libraries collaborate to showcase undergraduate student research done through various scholarship programs, experiential learning programs, and independent research with faculty mentors. Our main library’s second and third floors are filled with research posters from students in every discipline imaginable, and the students themselves are bouncing with enthusiasm and excitement. They’re eager to tell people about their research and are able to speak about their work with clarity and precision with fellow scholars. They also offer compelling narratives to a more general audience who might not be familiar with the conventions of the research in that discipline.
April 14 marked the 2022 Undergraduate Research Day, and it was so exciting to be back in person after 2 years of a virtual event. As I listened to a student talk about their work researching Spanish language newspapers in the U.S. during the 1918 influenza pandemic, I wondered what it would take to expand this kind of excitement and enthusiasm for research to a wider group of students. There were about 200 presenters this year, at a school that boasts an undergraduate population of over 37,000 students. Yes, there may be some students doing research who weren’t able to present or weren’t far enough along in their research to do so, and yes, there are students engaging in research in their classes, too. But there is something about making research public, having a conversation about what you’ve learned and what you still want to learn, that seems to foster a sense of enthusiasm and pride.
I would love for all of our undergraduate students to be able to proudly share their scholarly or creative output and say, “I did that!” It might not all be groundbreaking or revolutionary, but shouldn’t the work of novice researchers be celebrated, too? At my last place of work there was a day where all students in first-year seminars could share their coursework and/or research, projects, papers, etc. with the entire campus community. It was a way to celebrate the work of first-semester, first-year students, who all displayed a commitment to what they’d learned and excitement in sharing it with others. It was a way of planting the seed of research, investigation, curiosity, and knowledge building in these students, that they could then carry with them all the way to their senior thesis project.
How can we develop opportunities to recreate the kind of enthusiasm and curiosity that was present at that first-year student event and at Undergraduate Research Day? I’m interested in extending those experiences beyond a small, select group of students to a wider university population. I’ve sometimes heard the argument that some students just aren’t “ready” for research. This may or may not be accurate depending on the context, but what are we even doing if we aren’t entering teaching relationships with students assuming that they are intellectually curious? They might not have the scholarly background of an experienced researcher, but they may possess the same inquisitive spirit and excitement to learn. So where is their Undergraduate Research Day? How do we celebrate their work and progress? Are they not researchers as first-year students, writing their first synthesis paper or lab report? Who decides whose research is celebrated? In creating opportunities to do this we might then pave a pathway for those students to continue to research throughout their years in higher education and afterward.
This summer, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about posters. In early June, NPR shared a story of Mike Morrison, a graduate student who has been trying to transform the academic research poster landscape. In Mike’s almost 20 minute video, he explains what’s wrong about current academic posters and proposes a new layout in order to gather knowledge from these posters more easily.
I don’t disagree with Mike; his new poster layout is appealing. As a librarian who has been leading undergraduate research poster workshops for a few years now, Mike’s layout emphasizes our big three: font, color, and size. Viewers are directed to the big ideas (aka the biggest elements on your poster) and have sidebars to more information if needed. This new layout also relies on a QR code, to direct really interested viewers to explore more on the project, on their own time.
However, as I sat in my office and listened to Mike’s video explanation, I thought of the summer science students I just given a poster workshop to. The supervisor of their summer program noted several times throughout my presentation that while I was showing off some best practices, ultimately the students’ faculty mentor/PI had final say on the poster layout. This could mean a poster could end up very text heavy, use a certain color palette, or requires a certain logo or author designation. These preferences often come from faculty who have spent a lot of time in the field and have strong opinions about creating posters. Then I tried to imagine having a conversation with them about Mike’s new layout. Making this sort of jump and abandoning the traditional poster layout will take time and energy. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if the poster tides move towards Mike’s layout, it will be a challenge. Academia is steeped in tradition and this includes a tradition of how research posters are thought about, created, and displayed. Before computers, posters were created by cutting up an article and pasting it on poster board! While we have PowerPoint and InDesign, I can’t say that all of our posters have moved much farther than cutting and pasting in their own digital way.
Mike’s layout also got me thinking about another spin off of research posters we’ve been talking about at Penn State: student engagement posters. Recently, I’ve been in a lot of conversations asking about the best way for a student to showcase their experience. A research poster feels too stiff, too formal. An infographic seems like a better match, but also isn’t a perfect fit. Earlier this spring I took our research poster workshop and modified it for an infographic student engagement workshop. Within these student engagement posters, we are trying to see the meta part of the experience. What did the students learn from this experience? What skills did they bring in and what skills did they take away? How did this experience prepare them for another experience? I built in a set of reflection questions and even tried my hand at my own student engagement experience poster.
Today, I met with some Student Engagement Network interns, who had been tasked with making their own student engagement posters. They used both a formal, template (a hybrid of the research poster with some engagement) and were also asked to create some sort of infographic inspired poster. It was great to chat with them and it definitely reminded me of a few things:
Making posters is NOT a skill often taught to undergraduates. Even with platforms like Canva or Piktochart, students still need guidance on how to visually represent an experience.
The students I worked with felt strongly their primary poster audience was undergraduates who might be interested in their engagement experience. The poster needed to not only convey the experience, but also encourage others to explore a similar experience. I don’t think I had fully considered that audience and that definitely influences how the poster is created and what resources should be included.
They appreciated the ability to reflect and hone in on a main message they wanted to get across. Of course, if they discover the reflection questions AFTER they started making the poster, that’s not quite as helpful.
So what’s next? I’m not sure. I have some ideas and will be curious to see the research that Mike and others do around eye tracking and understanding the new poster layout he has proposed. Perhaps academia will see a shift in research posters and perhaps we’ll find a way to get student engagement experiences out there too. It seems like everything is up for grabs and it’s exciting to explore and think about these topics. I’m curious to hear others’ thoughts on the new research poster layout or if your institutions are thinking about more intentionally showcasing the meta part of student engagement experiences.
This is adapted from a talk at the Utah Symposium on Digital Humanities, February 11th 2017 in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Over the last decade, we’ve witnessed a shift in the ways in both everyday folk and academics encounter the world. The promise of web 2.0 and the rise of the network has seen the input of every individual increase in importance. For universities, the consequences of this go well beyond social media presences or heated debates in comment threads, it challenges the very nature of the ivory towers our universities are constructed on top of. Some of the more nostalgic set have opinedabout the “death” of the traditional library and how universities need to “Save the stacks.” Are we losing the traditional library to chase digital trends?
No longer are libraries cenotaphs of long dead books but a growing organism contributed, curated, and built by the members of the university community. A focus on digital pedagogy, allows librarians the flexibility to enter this new age of librarianship with a clearer idea of what we’d like the library to be 10, 15, or 20 years from now.
Rick Anderson tells us it is a commonality amongst new librarians to say that the collection is dead. Rather than death, I think of it as a transition as significant as the one from scroll to codex, or manuscript to print.
I am choosing to illustrate how I see the future of collections shape up in the digital future. Buildings come in different sizes and shapes, staff perform different roles but collections, that is items preserved for use by research are common in most if not all library experiences throughout history. The collection forms the backbone of our pedagogical role.
With this in mind what are the principles of digital pedagogy in modern librarianship?
Student voices matter, as much as established ones, in the conversation.
Access goes beyond the limits of the library and campus
The future of library is based on student needs both pedagogical and inspirational and the collection needs to mirror this.
By focusing in on the creation of scholarship by students into collections we are building upon the library’s core historical strengths while improving the teaching done in classrooms. We also exhibit examples of student work and learning to the world in perpetuity.
Librarians are often assaulted with comments that “all information is on the internet” and while many have struggled against this assumption and beaten it back in deference to our job security it is a fact that the internet has fundamentally changed the way that we receive information. As Lyman Ross and Pongracz Sennyey comment in “The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library” published in the Journal of Academic Librarianship “the Internet has lowered the cost of propagating information to negligible levels. This fact diminishes the value of local collections and services. Libraries are no longer islands of information.”(Ross and Sennyey pg 146)
And as the digital world encroached on the library, as it did on most of our lives and interactions, the edifices faded. First it was the building, allowing access outside of the footprint of the traditional library, then it was the staff who became teachers rather than guardians, what happened to our prized collections?
David Lewis in Reimagining the Academic Library comments that “Until quite recently what constituted the scholarly record seemed clear, or at least we understood that portion that was the library’s responsibility.” (Lewis 32) But that now we have entered a new stage of ambiguity caused by digital objects. Information Literacy exists against this backdrop of unclear scholarly records.
This has led some researchers, David Lewis included, to argue that the maintenance of non-unique print collections should no longer be a focus of academic institutions. Instead, digital collections, costing significantly less to maintain and often times infinitely more usable and accessible than singular print copies. While a shift away from the collection of books and toward the teaching and the impacting of students is necessary, I argue it is not an end to the collections based approaches that define the library.
While I do not completely agree that our print collections are no longer necessary, our communities are pushing our hands when it comes to demanding access to more digital materials, outside of the building, and off of campus.
The loss of the stacks is mourned by many nervous colleagues. Some of this nervous energy has prompted change in library circles. When the Association of College and Research Libraries introduced a new framework for information literacy, it was met, as all change does, with both praise and scorn.
Part of this framework was a large redefinition of the task of research, which increasingly takes the focus of librarianship away from books and dust and places it into the classroom.
One movement in particular that I believe is of note here is the idea that of “Scholarship as Conversation”
The framework states that “Communities of scholars, researchers, or professionals engage in sustained discourse with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of varied perspectives and interpretations”
Part of this is the necessary focus on citations as a communicative tool between the researcher and the past, but buried in here is the way in which we can use the tools of the digital to promote our student’s incorporation into this community.
“New forms of scholarly and research conversations,” the framework continues, “provide more avenues in which a wide variety of individuals may have a voice in the conversation.”
It is through digital pedagogy that we have the chance to offer our students keys to this conversation, either through publishing, the creation of exhibits, or the production of knowledge itself. Libraries then need to be at the forefront of this transition, from static collections based and traditional “gatekeeper” mentalities to the research driven and student driven collection creation.
While librarians have been quick to reject the gatekeeper mentality, faculty in fields across campus have been hesitant to give up the reins of the academic conversation. Some institutions have had long histories of undergraduate research prior to the age of the internet, it is the openness in the digital world that prompted a revolution in student publishing.
Char Booth explains in “Open Access as Pedagogy” that digital publishing “grants privilege and power to student authors, gives them space to assert their intellectual agency, allows them to enter the academic conversation and…maybe alter some professional paradigms.”
Entering this academic conversation encourages students to reject the monolithic scholarly record that dominates our ideas of the University, and telling students their voice matters allows a reconfiguring of the idea of research. The best way to understand research is to conduct it yourself. There are more tangible reasons this is innovative.
Char Booth continues “With that newfound power comes responsibility; with Open Access comes exposure…leads these already ambitious students to dig deeper into primary and secondary sources, to think harder about their meaning and value to their scholarship and to argue more effectively and write more forcefully.” (Booth 6)
Feeling that student work is often too “un-polished” or “not up to par” with the rigorous examinations that come after years of graduate school. Some are worried that student work will impact their own standing as professional academics. Bad student work with a faculty name on it reflects poorly on mentorship.
In giving the keys of scholarship to our students we promote not only their work but the University as a whole; much like open access creates exposure for us on the Tenure Track, our students become examples. By opening up the collection to reworking by students we not only improve their education but we break down the barriers that hold new ideas back.
It rejects the model of the library as a singular direction where the collection is controlled by the librarian and lent to the student or researcher. Instead it breaks down those barriers to encourage the exchange of information and ideas across all levels.
Nowhere on campus is better for this kind of interdisciplinary engagement, and nowhere is better suited for the task of preserving collections, albeit digital ones, then the organization trusted with this preservation since Alexandria. This is not a death for the library, or of the collection, but a new beginning.