Why I make changes to what I teach

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Once upon a time, I was invited to speak in front of a small group of librarians in my local area about the un-research project as part of their professional development day. As part of the presentation, I described the structure of the project itself, why I created it, and its various outcomes. At the end, there was plenty of time for questions. I had given this presentation before, so I thought I knew what kind of questions to expect. But the one in which my audience seemed most interested was one I had not anticipated.

I mentioned at the very beginning of the presentation that I am always making changes to what I teach, both big and small. I claimed that I had never taught the same thing the exact same way more than once or twice.

Apparently this was quite a shocking claim.

I think it was shocking for a couple of reasons. The first was a question of time. Like, how much time do you have to have on your hands to constantly be tinkering with what you teach? Interestingly, some recent research I conducted with a group of former colleagues on why academic librarians leave their jobs suggests that librarians tend to be overwhelmed by the number of job duties they are given. Often, whether our job descriptions reflect it or not, we’re asked to do the work of ten people. No wonder spending time on a revision process for a standard information literacy course seems like such a luxury.

To be honest, I have no idea how the demands of my own job compare to that of others, but it might help to know that I usually save the bigger, more sweeping changes I want to make for the summer, when I have a longer period between classes and (theoretically) more time to plan.

The second reason it might have been so shocking is because there’s a lot of risk in change. Not only does it potentially take a lot of time to plan, but there’s no guarantee it will even work. And that could really screw up things like course evaluations (for a credit-bearing course) and assessment data. Plus, once you find something that’s comfortable and that works, why mess with it?

These are legitimate anxieties and certainly I have tried things that didn’t work. But making changes is still worth it to me.

Here are some thoughts on why

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It’s significant that popular books on creative writing don’t talk about research

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

So after the 10 books project was over, I mentioned that I would be writing up my findings from that project in a scholarly article I was hoping to publish in my field of study, library and information sciences. One article idea actually turned into two, including one that takes a closer look at creative writing pedagogy in addition to how-to books, which I’m hoping to eventually send to a journal in the writing studies field. But I got far enough on the one for the library and information science field that I decided to share it with two mentors who often read my work and give feedback before I submit it to a journal of peer review and (hopefully) publication.

In this case, one of my reviewers felt that the article I’d written was lacking and in particular that I’d been (in her words) screwed by my choice of books to study. She thought maybe looking into more recent books on creative writing might help resolve this issue since I’d named the age of the books under study as one of the limitations but I’d already started reading some newer books and hadn’t found anything different. They rarely, if ever, talked about research and when they did it was only in passing reference.

At first glance, this seems like a big problem for what I’m trying to do. Originally, I set out to try to understand the role that research plays in the creative writing process by reading 10 popular books on writing. I found that almost none of them talk about research, at least in the form I expected to find. So basically I found nothing that helps me meet the stated goal of the research and I can understand why, in my reviewer’s eyes, this seemed like a failure.

Ironically, the reason why this feedback was so important is because I hadn’t realized that this was the case. To my mentor, it looked like I had gone in search of something and found nothing. To me, I thought I’d found something that was actually rather significant and my failure was perhaps at least in part in not communicating the significance of what I found. I think the other failure was communicating why librarians like me should care about the gap I found or what, if anything, they need to do about it.

So I’m going to take a little space here to establish my thinking about these issues. Not because I think my mentor was wrong—like I said, it’s important for me to know that these connections are not clear and I think she was very right to make me aware of this, especially since potential peer reviewers might have the same questions. But because I need to do some thinking out loud about why I think this study is still important even though it might look like I didn’t have much in the way of findings.

Here’s what my thoughts have been so far.

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Selected Resources: A Collaborative, Trilateral Approach”

You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on last year’s lists and write about it here.

Today we’re all about “A Collaborative, Trilateral Approach to Bridging the Information Literacy Gap in Student Writing” by Trenia Napier, Jill Parrott, Erin Presley, and Leslie Valley.

Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list as part of that process.

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On NYT’s textbook story and the Our Virginia incident

Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

This week, the New York Times published an article called “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories”  exploring how textbooks in the state of Texas tell the story of United States history versus how textbooks from the state of California do it. If you know anything about the politics in either of those states, there are some predictable differences.

As the article mentions, this isn’t a new thing. In fact, until very recently, I used the controversy surrounding a fourth grade textbook in Virginia as a case study in my information literacy courses. In that case, the textbook in question (which was called Our Virginia) included a number of egregious historical errors, like one about how slaves fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, something that’s not supported by historical evidence. When asked about the errors, the textbook author, who was not a historian, said that she based her writing on information she found on the internet. Information authored by a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

This was 2010, so the main reaction at the time was basically everyone laughing at this author for basing the research for her book on something she found on the internet. No one seemed to consider the possibility that the issue might be more complicated than that.

As an information literacy case study, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this example by asking students who they feel is most to blame for what happened: the textbook author, the publisher, the Board of Education that approved the book, or the Sons of Confederate Veterans for promoting a view of history that’s not supported by evidence. Their answers are revealing. Of course, a lot blame the author herself for not doing proper research. Others blame the publisher for not fact-checking thoroughly enough. Others feel that the Board of Education should have done more to vet the book before allowing it to be taught in classrooms.

Almost none blame the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Actually, that’s not true. One student did.

Here’s the story.

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Beyond 10 Books: Thoughts on Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Recently I decided to expand my original 10 books project to include more books on creative writing beyond the original list in search of additional insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. Today, I’m taking a look at Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.

I picked Plot & Structure as the next item on my reading list because after revisiting the list of popular creative writing books on Goodreads, I spotted it in the top ten. It hadn’t been there when I started the original 10 books project, but it’s interesting to see the ways in which that list fluctuates over time so I thought it was worth taking a closer look.

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Off for the holidays

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

I’m off for the holidays and won’t be posting any new content but I thought I’d pin a thing here highlighting some favorite past posts in case you missed them.

Thanks for reading and see you in the new year!

Teaching evaluating sources from a research-as-subject perspective

In my last post, I talked about how, like most instruction librarians, when I teach students how to evaluate information, I used to rely heavily on tools like the CRAAP test to help students through the process. In some cases, particularly one-shot sessions where there may not be time to teach students the nuances of this process, I still do. If nothing else, they are a handy way to help students learn that they should be thinking about the quality of the sources they are using. And they fit well on a handout.

The CRAAP test and similar tools were (arguably) a good fit for Standards-based teaching, where the evaluation of information was an explicit learning outcome. But even before we traded the Standards for the Framework, a lot of librarians were dissatisfied with these tools because they oversimplified the evaluation process. The CRAAP test in particular seemed to mostly only apply to internet sources, giving students the false impression that these were the only types of sources that needed to be evaluated. Plus, they didn’t stop students from just choosing whatever came up first in their list of search results, regardless of whether it was clearly biased or too old.

These criticisms are particularly true when you take into account the contextual nature of research, as the Framework does. Currency, for example, is important for some research topics, like those based on technology or science, but less so for others, like history and literature. And that’s just within academic and scholarly research. There are also likely to be differences in how information is evaluated in professional, creative, and scientific contexts as well.

While I don’t have much flexibility with one-shot sessions, I wanted to start thinking about how to adapt my usual lessons on evaluating information to also get students to think about the contextual nature of research. It turns out, it didn’t need much tweaking.

Here’s how the lesson works.

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