A few weeks back, I wrote a post reflecting on the course I taught this spring, including how a few of the newer activities and strategies I tried ended up working out. Overall, I was pretty pleased and the experience was enough to convince me that treating the annotated bibliography as an artifact/establishing shot and teaching information literacy through a contextual lens are good choices, though there are definitely still some kinks to be worked out.
The truth is, my course this semester did go pretty well but for some reason at the end of it I was feeling pretty bummed. This isn’t unusual. Toward the end of the course, students tend to burn out a bit and are noticeably less engaged. Frankly, I can’t blame them since I start to feel a bit burned out as well. And there also some of the usual annoyances that tend to leave a sour taste in my mouth: students treating the final project like an afterthought, students repeating back to me what they think I want to hear instead of showing me what they’ve actually learned, students writing to me pleading to change their grade from an A- to an A in order to preserve their perfect GPA, etc. I also had a student who had seemed reasonably engaged and enthusiastic at the beginning of the course share in an evaluation(1) that even though they enjoyed my teaching they had found nothing interesting or useful in the course itself, which hurt more than it probably should have.
But I think my bummed-out feeling also came from a deeper place that has more to do with the nature of teaching than it does with this specific class or these specific students. I wonder if this is something all teachers might have in common, at least those who, like me, are lucky enough to teach about something they’re passionate about.
So this was my first semester teaching my information literacy course through the lens of the contextual nature of research. In the past, I’ve managed to work some of these themes into existing original-flavor information literacy lessons but after spending some time writing a book on the topic, I wanted to do a bigger shift, within the constraints of my instructional context. So I taught a lot of the usual IL lessons on finding and evaluating information, I just did it explicitly through the lens of teaching students about the importance of context to the research process.
It went surprisingly well. I thought students expecting a more library-oriented course would feel ripped off by one that talked about research more generally but since many of my students were graduating seniors, they seemed to appreciate learning about information literacy and research in ways that were going to be useful to them beyond the academic environment. They also liked learning that many of the more “casual” information searches they do in their everyday lives count as research, at least by the definition we were using in class.
There were a couple of sticking points, of course. I expected there to be, since this was my first time testing these ideas in an instructional situation. One of the sticking points had to do with different research contexts that we talked about: academic, creative, personal, professional, scholarly, and scientific.
In my ideal universe, a course on the contextual nature of research would take the time to look at each context in-depth and give students space to really explore the ins-and-outs of each type of research. In the real world, I have only eight weeks to teach students this stuff as part of a one-credit course that can’t stray too far from traditional information literacy themes, so when discussing the different research contexts, I could only give students a broad overview. They wanted more than that. They wanted to know what the exact characteristics were of each type of research, what the exact borders were between them, and what the “rules” were for each one.
So the information literacy course I teach is an eight-week course which means that, since there’s only one section per semester, I usually have a choice between teaching in the first half of the semester or teaching in the second half of the semester. I generally choose the first half for a couple of reasons. First, it’s easier for students to remember that they signed up for an eight-week course if it starts at the same time as all of their other courses. Second, students who take the course in the first half of the semester tend to be more engaged than those who take it in the second half. This is particularly true when it comes to the second half of the spring semester when students are basically burned out on the whole school year and just want to get to summer and/or graduation. Students are usually so checked out in the second half of spring that I tend to avoid teaching at that time at all costs.
This year, I didn’t have a choice. I was still on sabbatical for the first half of the spring so I had to teach the second half. I wasn’t looking forward to it, especially with everything I was hearing about the extra difficulties students were (understandably) experiencing related to the pandemic and remote instruction. I was open to being pleasantly surprised but I was not expecting great things.
So I’m pleased to report that this was probably one of the better classes of students I’ve had. They definitely did lose steam toward the end (honestly, same) but overall the students in this class were much more engaged than I was expecting. I think this can be attributed to a couple of factors: the first is that students are now more used to taking online courses than they were before and so I didn’t have to do as much work to get them to treat the course as “real” course even though it didn’t meet in person and second I think the new material I created based on my ideas about the contextual nature of research helped to spark some of the students’ curiosity.
A while back, I mentioned in a post reflecting on my research sabbatical that in addition to celebrating the things I was able to accomplish during that time, I was also going to talk about some of the challenges and how I dealt with them.
The very first challenge I encountered had to do with being realistic about what I could accomplish in the time that I had.
I’ve been spending some time lately taking a closer look at the AWP’s various guidelines for undergraduate and MFA creative writing programs. You’d think that this would have been a step I would have taken much earlier in my research into creative writing pedagogy. And it was, sort of. But now that I know a little bit more about what I’m looking for in these documents, it seemed worth taking the time to take another look.
As mentioned in a previous post, the undergraduate guidelines don’t have much to say about research or even writing. They make it pretty clear that an undergraduate creative writing program is more about learning to appreciate literature from a writer’s perspective than it is about being a writer. Which, as a former undergraduate creative writing major, kind of makes me want to gnash my teeth but whatever.
The MFA guidelines (which are called “Hallmarks,” I guess) are a little more interesting, though. Because they do mention research. Sort of. In a section on the value of cross-genre study, they specifically say: “fiction writers often benefit from learning the research techniques of nonfiction writers.” And later, they mention the value of the campus library…as a place to study works of great literature. Which, as a current librarian, kind of makes me want to gnash my teeth a little but, again. Whatever.
That quote about nonfiction research techniques fascinates me, though. On the one hand, it’s awesome that this document acknowledges the fact that fiction writers do, in fact, sometimes do research as part of their creative work. On the other, it drives me kind of insane that they’re treating research as something that belongs strictly in the realm of nonfiction. That fiction writers (and, I assume, poets) who do research are just borrowing a technique or creative practice from another genre that is somehow the rightful owner of that technique or practice.
A few years ago, I took a series of classes at MopCo, a local improv theater company, intended to help educators learn how to use improv as part of their teaching, particularly its focus on thinking on your feet and using mistakes rather than fearing them. I’ve written here and elsewhere about how valuable I found the course and the ways that I’ve applied it in my own classroom, especially in the in-person freshman seminar I teach each fall, which I always begin with an improv game called Category Die.
If you’re not familiar, Category Die is a relatively simple game that’s often used as a warm-up in improv settings. The way it works is this: a line of volunteers (usually 5-7) stands on stage. Someone from the audience suggests a category—for example “things found in a library.” The person running the game then points at random to each of the people on the stage. When he points at you, you name something in that category. If you name something that doesn’t belong in the stated category, the audience shouts “Die!” at you, you take a bow, walk off stage, and then suggest the category for the next round. Same thing if you name something that’s already been named or if you take too long to answer. Or if the audience just feels like shouting “Die!” at you.
Personally, I am TERRIBLE at Category Die. It’s rare for me to survive longer than the first two rounds. This has been just as true when the category was something where I have relatively limited knowledge (like “state capitals”) as it is when the category is something relatively easy (like “letters of the alphabet”). That’s because I have a habit of trying to plan my answer ahead of time rather than being spontaneous so when someone inevitably takes my answer before it’s my turn, I flail and either repeat what they’ve already said or take too long to come up with something new and so must “die.”
The thing is, I don’t mind being bad at Category Die. Being bad at Category Die is almost as fun as being good at it. And I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better. When you “die” as part of this game, you get to take an elaborate, silly bow while everyone laughs with you and applauds. It’s great.
So my long-awaited research sabbatical finally came to an end last month. This was my first time going on sabbatical and it was…well, it was a lot different from what I envisioned when I first applied for leave in fall 2019. You know, back when the phrase “global pandemic” had yet to enter my lexicon. That’s not to say it was a bad experience and of course it’s an enormous privilege to be able to do something like this at any time, much less during a devastating economic and public health crisis. But the pandemic-related restrictions on travel and social interaction that have been in place to one degree or another since March 2020 meant that any goals I had for using my more flexible schedule to become more active in these areas had to be set aside. On the one hand, this meant I had no choice but to focus on my projects and be as productive as possible, which is not a bad thing. On the other, it made the experience of being on sabbatical much more isolating and burnout-inducing than it might have been otherwise.
I might do a future post on some of the challenges I faced and how I dealt with them but for now I wanted to focus on some of what I was able to accomplish during this time.
Hey everyone—this is just a quick note to let you know that my presentation for the virtual ACRL Conference is now available on-demand on the conference website. The presentation is on “The Annotated Bibliography as Artifact” and touches on a lot of the same themes I often talk about here on the blog. If you’re registered for the conference, the presentation will be available on-demand for the next 30 days.
If you’re presenting at the conference live or on demand, let me know! I’d love to check out your presentation.