My sabbatical is only about a month away and my plans for it are starting to come more into focus. Of course, when I submitted my proposal a year ago, I had no way of knowing how much the world was going to change between then and now. So even as my overall plan has stayed the same, my vision of what my sabbatical will look like has had to change quite a bit and my feelings about it are a little more mixed than they might have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened or if the United States had gotten it under better control by now.
The truth is, this sabbatical was always going to bring with it things to be excited about and things that would be challenging. But there are a couple of items in each category that have been on my mind as the start date approaches.(1)
In writing recently about how to define research, I had a weird thought. For the purposes of my work, I like to describe research as a formal or informal process conducted in order to fill a gap in knowledge, build on existing knowledge, or create new knowledge.
The thought I had was about that “gap in knowledge” part. I actually thought this came from the ACRL Standards but it turns out that was a misconception of my part. The Standards skip over identifying the need for information altogether and instead locate the start of the research process as determining the extent of information needed. Which I guess makes sense since the Standards were mostly concerned with academic research, where an information need almost always comes in the form of a research assignment.
Wherever I originally got it from, I noticed recently that “knowledge gap” is something that comes up a lot in the scholarly literature on curiosity. Basically, curiosity is when you feel compelled to fill a gap in your knowledge with information. The question among curiosity researchers seems to be how big the gap needs to be or how great the desire for knowledge needs to be before someone will actually go to the trouble of seeking information to fill it.
What’s interesting about this is curiosity researchers are pretty clear that “knowledge gap” refers to your own personal knowledge. There’s something you don’t know that you want to know, so you seek information about it. This is also what I was thinking of when I inserted the language about filling a gap in knowledge in my definition of research and it’s a big part of what makes me think that curiosity plays an important role in the research process that we don’t often talk about in information literacy.
But in information literacy, we do talk about gaps in knowledge. What I’ve started wondering lately is what gaps in knowledge we’re talking about: gaps in personal knowledge or gaps in fields of knowledge?
I always thought it was the first one but that might be another misconception on my part. Maybe this whole time we’ve been talking about gaps in a field of knowledge. Rather, gaps in the literature in a field of knowledge.
So my first job out of library school wasn’t actually a library job. It was a job working as an online writing tutor for a graduate program at a public institution in another state.(1) As my library career progressed, I held onto the writing tutor job as a side hustle for eight years, finally giving it up when I got tenure.
Thinking back on this job recently, I realized that because writing and research are so often intertwined, my work as a writing tutor actually informed my information literacy instruction in a number of interesting ways.
A few years ago, I somehow stumbled on Terrible Minds, a blog by bestselling author Chuck Wendig in which he shared writing-related wisdom and featured guest posts for other authors to share their reflections. These days, Wendig has shifted his focus to more personal and sometimes political topics, which are still very much worth following.(1) But there are some writing-related posts of his that I still go back to from time to time. I thought I would share them here. Obviously, this advice is most applicable to creative writing and fiction writing but some of his thoughts and ideas have also resonated for me with my scholarly and professional writing as well.
Between working from home and an upcoming sabbatical in the fall, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.
Recently, I spent some time reading 10 years’ worth of author interviews from Writer’s Digest in search of some insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. After discovering how seldom the topic of research comes up in popular creative writing books, I wasn’t expecting to find much so I was surprised by how often research was mentioned, either because the interviewer specifically asked about it or because the author brought it up on their own.
With a few exceptions, the discussions about research in these interviews tended to be somewhat surface-level if only because there’s a lot of ground to cover in a relatively small space. Because of that, the interviews helped to establish that research is, in fact, part of the creative process and even gave a sense of what that research might look like in some cases but in reading them I felt that for the most part they weren’t really giving me what I was looking for.
So as I’m starting to develop an interview protocol that I’m hoping to use with living, breathing fiction writers, it becomes necessary to consider: what is it, exactly, that I’m looking for?
In the lead-up to a fall semester that will look very different from past fall semesters, I’ve seen a lot of librarians wondering how to translate the active and engaging instruction they’ve designed for one-shot sessions to a platform like Zoom. If we have to teach it this way, how do we make it more than just a boring lecture/demo combination?
Now, I’m generally in favor of using active learning to engage students in the classroom. In my own one-shot sessions, I like to use simple improv games to keep things lively and fun. Some of my colleagues use much more elaborate escape room-type activities to help students learn about research and the library. It’s fun to spice things up and it makes the experience a little less boring for both ourselves and the students.
But when it comes to finding creative ways to engage students over Zoom, I can’t help but feel like what’s needed is a simpler, more straightforward approach rather than trying to find a way to translate the fancier more fun approaches that we might use in person.
I think this feeling comes from my past experiences with teaching online.
So I’ve been spending some time lately reading through the last ten years’ worth of author interviews from Writer’s Digest magazine. This is a sort of follow-up to a project I did last year where I read 10 popular writing books in search for some insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. What I found as a result of that project was interesting but a few colleagues who read an early draft of the resulting article felt that more was needed.
My first idea for what “more” would look like was to identify and examine writing books that were more “academic” in nature. Unfortunately, that stalled when my access to my library’s print collection was disrupted by the pandemic.
I turned instead to Writer’s Digest for a couple of reasons. First, the Writer’s Digest brand is pretty explicitly aimed at helping aspiring writers learn the “how-to” of writing. Second, I had digital access to back issues through my library.
In all, I read almost 70 author interviews in search of information about research. I was surprised by what I found.
A few weeks ago, I published a post about a time when I got overloaded with committee work, intended as a cautionary tale. As part of that post, I mentioned that the experience necessitated a conversation with my department head about how to prioritize my time. With everything that I was working on, there was no way for me to do it all without burning myself out. As a pre-tenure librarian, I needed to know what to focus on in order to get me to that next step.
I’m lucky enough to work for someone who is receptive to conversations like this and that the people above her are also reasonably understanding when it comes to issues about workload. But I was still scared to do it even as I recognized how important it was to do so.
So I thought I’d share a few details about why I decided to have that conversation and how I approached it for anyone who might be thinking about doing the same. We live in weird times but I feel like a lot of this is still applicable if you find yourself feeling overloaded with work, especially as the pressure to do more (or even the same amount) with fewer people builds with hiring freezes and other job cuts.
Every year by June 30, faculty on my campus have to submit something called a Faculty Activity Report which recounts their various activities throughout the year, from classes taught to special projects worked on to committees served and articles published. The exact purpose of this report, which is a long form rather than a narrative as in my past library job, is a little…vague. But it’s a good chance to reflect on the year’s accomplishments and set goals for the coming academic year.
This year, as you might expect, has been a little different. With the shift to working from home, my teaching stopped. Many of my work-related projects stopped. My committees kept going but learning how to do committee work virtually was a learning process, to say the least. My focus shifted instead to my writing and research projects.
While it’s always good to have writing and research projects to list on a FAR, I was afraid that the sudden halt to other activities would make my report look emptier than usual. It wasn’t until I started looking through my weekly notes on things I’ve been working on that I remembered just how busy last summer and fall were for me. It was as if the craziness of the last few months had given me some kind of amnesia for everything that came before. I couldn’t believe how thoroughly I’d forgotten the bigger projects I was working on less than a year ago.
Here’s some of the stuff I accomplished this year: