Dear AWP: Research is not just for nonfiction

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.

Like, what?

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What I’m reading: April 2021

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and The Circle (all currently available episodes as of 4/27).

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Why I start my freshman seminar with a game called “Category Die”

Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

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.

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Sabbatical report

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.

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ACRL 2021

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.


What I’m reading: March 2021

Some bite-sized thoughts and reflections on the items I’ve been reading, listening to, or watching this month.

Also: Did you read, watch, listen to, or play something this month that you particularly enjoyed? Feel free to share in the comments! I’m always looking for recommendations.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for The Neverending Story (both the book and the movies), the podcast Who the Hell is Hamish?, The 100 (TV series), WandaVision, and The Bridge (the HBO Max reality series).

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My online teaching persona is a major introvert

Even in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t anticipate having to do much work to reimagine or restructure my credit-bearing information literacy course this spring. That’s because I’ve been teaching that course in a fully online, asynchronous environment for probably about five years. It seemed like there was nothing to adjust. If anything, I almost looked forward to the fact that students would be more used to taking online courses now,(1) which meant less of a learning curve by the time they got to me.

But then I started seeing conversations about how other instructors were incorporating Zoom and other tools into their online teaching, mostly to facilitate the delivery of lectures or other “live” learning activities. Again, I didn’t see the relevance to my own teaching right away because my course is entirely asynchronous. But by the time I started reviewing the materials in anticipation of the start of my own course, I began to think about how many of these instructors had used Zoom and other tools not only as a way to deliver course content but also to foster a sense of community in class. To make students feel like even though necessity has kept us largely separate during the last year or so, interacting through our screens rather than in person, there are still people here and those people can be more than words on a screen.

My class, I noticed, had no such opportunity for students to feel a sense of community. My lectures are all written. The activities are all writing-based. Though I try to interact directly with students as much as possible by responding to their discussion posts and giving them feedback on their assignments, it is entirely possible to go through my course without interacting with a single other human being.

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Reflecting on “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study”

As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study,” which was published in College & Research Libraries in 2019.

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Reflecting on being a (former) first generation student

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Recently, there’s been a conversation going on at my university about first generation students. Much of this conversation reflects what I’ve seen in articles on sites like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed in the sense that it tends to frame first generation students in a particular way. According to this conversation, first generation have overcome a great deal of adversity, economic and otherwise, to get to where they are but that they are academically less prepared than their non-first gen peers and because of that they need some extra help. So efforts are being put into place to support these students, mostly focused on assisting them academically.

Now, I trust that the people who write about this population are basing their assumptions on research and statistics. And I fully endorse any effort to support students who have struggled or who are struggling, first generation or otherwise.

Yet there’s something about all of this that bothers me.

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Time is weird

Image by anncapictures from Pixabay

For Christmas 2019, a family member gave me one of those page-a-day calendars as a gift. This one featured a fun piece of new movie trivia every day. As someone who basically lives on IMDB’s trivia pages, this was like a perfect gift for me. I brought it to work in January and started each work day with a new piece of trivia to enjoy.

That calendar is still in my office. It’s permanently stuck on March 16, 2020, the last day I was at work before everything shut down due to the pandemic. In the scramble to get what I needed to work from home before the library was closed, I didn’t think to take the calendar with me. The one time I’ve visited my office since then, I decided to leave it. By then, it was August anyway.

I wasn’t expecting to be gone so long. I remember seeing news reports even at the time that said this was a crisis that was going to last at least a year, maybe two, possibly more depending on how things went. But my mind couldn’t fathom such a long period spent in crisis mode. So at first I took it two weeks at a time, since that was the period covered by each stay-at-home order by our governor. Then I told myself 100 days was all I needed to get through. At the end of 100 days, things would either be better or I would be used to this new reality.

In a way, both ended up being true. Positivity rates started going down in the summer and things started opening up again, even though they probably shouldn’t have. And I felt a little more confident about my ability to navigate this new world we were living in, including wearing masks everywhere and washing my hands more thoroughly and more often than I had before. The new reality wasn’t comfortable, exactly, but it felt like something I could exist in, for a while at least.

Now it’s been 365 days and sometimes I feel like I’m struggling more now than I did at that 100 day mark. I said at the end of 2020 that one thing that the pandemic has given me is a better awareness of my privilege compared to others. The reason March 16, 2020 is frozen on my calendar is because I’ve had the opportunity to work from home this whole time while others haven’t, whether because they’re required to go in to work or because they don’t have jobs at all thanks to the pandemic. Because I’ve been employed, I’ve also had access to mental health care this whole time. So while I do struggle, I’ve been luckier than a lot of other people throughout this last year. I don’t want to pretend otherwise.

If I had to name another lesson the pandemic has taught me, though, I would probably say that it’s one that has to do with the need for connection. I’ve always been an introvert who greatly prefers time alone to time spent being social but I never realized what a privilege it can be to just, like, sit in a room with another person for a little while. Alone time is all well and good but it turns out full-on isolation basically sucks. Luckily, some part of me must have seen this coming because at the start of the pandemic, I started scheduling coffee and chat sessions on Zoom with former and current colleagues/friends as a way to stay in touch and check in on each other. I feel like doing this has strengthened my connection to these groups, an opportunity I never would have had (or would have taken even if I did have it) in more normal times. So I guess that’s something else to be grateful for.

Anyway. All of this to say: I can’t believe it’s been a year. Time is weird. I don’t know what will happen in the coming year or the next 100 days. Hopefully it will be good. Hopefully it will be better for all of us than it is now. I feel like there’s reason to think it will be but I’m sure even better things and a return to “normal” will bring challenges, both expected and not. But given what we’ve been through so far, there’s reason to believe we’ll get through those challenges, too.

Until then, stay safe and well.