Things have been pretty stressful lately. There’s been a lot of upheaval at my institution and the road ahead looks pretty rocky, at least for those of us here in the library. I’ve drafted some posts about how some of this has been affecting me, especially given my new leadership role as the head of my department. But honestly that stuff gets pretty depressing. I still might share some of it but I wanted to focus instead this week on something I’m looking forward to: summer projects.
There’s nothing better than the “fresh start” feeling that comes with the end of the school year and the start of summer. The campus is starting to get quiet again. Soon, us twelve-month employees will have the place more or less to ourselves. Things with slow down, at least theoretically. Best of all, there’s vacation time within sight on the schedule.
Of course, some of this is a mirage. Everyone knows that summer is “slower” so that’s often when you suddenly get piled with committee projects and trainings and other odds and ends that you’re supposed to suddenly have time to do. Plus there are the projects that can only really happen during the summer, like updating tutorials and websites while the potential for disruption is relatively low, so sometimes it’s a mad dash to get all of that done too.
So it’s easy to start out with some goals in mind and easy to let those goals fall by the wayside. By stating some of my goals and projects here, in a public if not particularly high traffic area, I’m hoping that will give me some accountability.
Here are what I’m hoping my priorities for the summer might be:
In the time since I got tenure myself in 2019, I’ve been asked to do a small handful of external reviews for promotion and tenure cases at other institutions, about 1-2 a year. For some reason, the prospect of writing external reviews for outside cases wasn’t something I thought much about as a possibility until I was being asked to do it. As with every other new professional endeavor, conducting these has definitely been a learning experience.
In designing the information literacy course I’m teaching this semester, I made the decision to end the course with a list of takeaways: ideas I wanted students to carry with them after the course was over. The last activity of the course is for students to add their own takeaways to this list, to tell me what made the most impact on them and what they expect to do with what they’ve learned in the future. The course just started, so I haven’t gotten a chance to see what students’ responses to this might be just yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with and what it might tell me about how successful the course was overall.
Among the takeaways I listed for them, one went in a direction that I wasn’t entirely expecting. The takeaway is basically that research is a lifetime activity.
In information literacy circles (and library circles in general) there’s a lot of talk about lifelong learning. So including a takeaway that tells students that research doesn’t stop when they graduate—that it’s something they will be doing in one form or another in various contexts throughout their lives—isn’t particularly surprising or new.
Also not particularly surprising is the fact that a lot of our talk about lifelong learning is forward-looking. By doing this, we’re positioning our instruction as “the start” of something: the start of what students know about research. What we’ve given them is a foundation on which to build future knowledge.
In writing this takeaway for my course, what was unexpected for me was how much time I spent talking not about the future, but the past.
This past summer, I was very privileged to be asked to become a co-editor-in-chief of Communications in Information Literacy, the same journal where I published one of my first peer reviewed articles back in the day and where I’ve been serving as a peer reviewer for the past five years or so. One of the first things I’ve had to learn in my new role is how to think like an editor rather than, say, a peer reviewer or an interested reader. This has been a challenge, but luckily I have a lot of great support from my fellow editors as I get my feet under me.
Learning to think like an editor is important because, at least at CIL, all of the research articles submitted to the journal are reviewed by us editors-in-chief before being sent for the next step of the process. And what I mean by “reviewed” is that we all read the article submitted and weigh in on whether we think the article is within the scope of our journal and whether the quality and originality of the writing and research is high enough to be considered for publication. If it is, we send the article on for peer review. Hurray!
A lot of times, though, the article is not sent for peer review. There are a lot of reasons this can happen, seemingly. Sometimes it’s because an article is simply not within the journal’s scope. Other times, the article may be within scope and generally well-written but there’s something about it that’s just…lacking somehow.
This the area where I’ve really had to practice thinking like an editor. In doing so, I’ve learned that for me, at least, the missing piece in many of this “almost-but-not-quite” articles is a sense of why the research the author did is important or what it adds to the larger conversation around information literacy and any subtopics it might cover. In other words, what problem is the author’s research trying to solve?
I’m off for the holidays and won’t be posting any new content until January but I thought I’d pin a thing here highlighting some favorite posts from the second half of the year, in case you missed them. (Favorite posts from the first half of the year can be found here.)
So last month I spent some time working on a program proposal for the upcoming ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. The proposal I came up with was centered on the same topic as my soon-to-be-published book, Using Context in Information Literacy Instruction, which makes an argument for incorporating conversations about context into research and IL instruction and includes some practical suggestions for how to do so in various teaching situations (#shamelessplug). Though the book is being published by ALA Editions, I don’t know how good of a chance it has at being accepted as a program but it seemed worth a try and something on the proposal application got me thinking about how teaching students about the importance of context to the research process might benefit those who have perhaps lacked access to some of the same resources as their more privileged peers prior to coming to college.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about any connections between my topic and ideas about diversity, equity, and inclusion before. As a privileged white person, I admittedly tend to be a bit blind to these issues until someone nudges me to think about them. I know that sucks. It’s something I need to change.
In this case, the nudge I needed came from the rubric used to evaluate program proposals. As I worked on mine, I did my best to make sure the proposal hit as many of the criteria the evaluators would be looking for as possible. One of those criteria had to do with the program’s connection to DEI.
After a couple of semesters without teaching any one-shot instruction sessions, first due to my sabbatical and then because of the pandemic, I taught a handful of them this fall. “A handful” is about the usual number for me, given that I have no subject liaison responsibilities and so mostly end up teaching a few sessions for freshman seminar courses and stepping in to teach one for a first year composition course here and there.
Over time, I’ve grown to like teaching the freshman seminar classes, more or less. In these sessions, students are rarely working on an actual research assignment, so the purpose of the class is to introduce them to the library. I don’t necessarily think this is the best use of my expertise, but I have managed to create a standard spiel that helps students learn not so much about the library but about college research in general (and the library’s role in it) and how it might be different from other types of research they’ve done. If nothing else, this lesson allows me to talk to students about some ideas related to the contextual nature of research and I’m pretty happy with that.
The first year composition classes are more difficult because with those I’m usually working with professors who are used to working with a different librarian (our first year comp liaison, who is wonderful!) and they want me to use that librarian’s lesson plan and materials. Because my colleague is so good at what she does, this is not exactly a hardship but everyone approaches things differently, so when I teach these comp classes, I’m doing so in a way that reflects someone else’s thinking and teaching rather than my own, which can be hard to do. That said, I’m happy to defer to her authority on this—after all, this is her professional turf and she’s done a lot of great work to build her program and create relationships with these professors.
I still kind of hate teaching one-shot sessions, though.
This semester was my third time teaching my 8-week credit-bearing course through the “contextual nature of research” lens. As anyone who’s spent any time teaching knows, every group of students is different, not just in personality and levels of engagement, but also in the sticking points they encounter in their learning. There are always new wrinkles and the group of students I worked with this time encountered one that I hadn’t seen before. I thought it might be worth spending some time thinking through it.
First, let me say that I’m still really enjoying teaching information literacy through a contextual lens. My students this semester were overall maybe a bit less engaged than in the last two classes I taught but even still they seemed to have a lot of interest and enthusiasm for learning about the importance of context to the research process. Finding out that their searches for information on topics like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and starting their own business counted as research as much as the papers they were writing for their classes seemed to really inspire them. Or at least make them feel less bored than they would have otherwise, as one student admitted to me in some feedback I asked for as part of a course quiz/survey.
Some of the confusion students experienced about research contexts was similar to what I’ve seen before in at least one of my classes: once they knew that there were different research contexts (academic, creative, personal, professional, scholarly, and scientific), they wanted to know what the specific rules were for each one. They were particularly frustrated that sometimes the different contexts can overlap. I did add some information to the course readings and activities that were aimed at helping students get more comfortable with the idea that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to research—only conventions. But I think students have been too well-trained by an educational system that teaches them to believe in “right answers” to be satisfied with this idea. It’s going to take time for them to develop in their thinking enough to understand that not every situation comes with rules or a right answer. And frankly, my course doesn’t have enough time to get them over that particular threshold of understanding, though I wish it did.
So students’ confusion over and frustration with the lack of set rules wasn’t surprising because I’ve seen that before. But what did surprise me was a particular misunderstanding that I saw from several students in the course where when I asked them to name the context of their research, they seemed to believe that the context was determined by the topic they were researching or the types of sources they were using rather than the purpose of the research.