Dear ACRL Framework: the expert researcher is a myth

Back when the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy was introduced, one of the key improvements between it and the Standards that had come before it (at least to my mind) was the way that it distinguished between the behaviors of novice researchers who are still developing their understanding of research practices and expert researchers. Rather than making it seem like there was some hard line between being information literate and not, the Framework shows that information literacy learning develops along a spectrum

I’ve never had a reason to question the Framework’s use of the word “expert” before. It never even occurred to me to do so. After all, if we’re talking about a spectrum of research experience, it makes sense that with “novice” at one end of that spectrum, “expert” would be at the other. But lately I’ve been doing some reading in the writing studies field that got me wondering a little bit.

First, I started to wonder how, exactly, we know how an expert researcher thinks about the research process or what their behaviors are. The Framework does not cite any sources that establish where these traits come from or what they’re based on. They seem to be things we as a profession just “know” about how experts do research.

So then I started wondering: is this really how experts do research? Personally, on the spectrum of “novice” to “expert,” I consider myself much closer to the “expert” end of things than the “novice” end, at least when it comes to the research contexts in which I work most often. I do find my own practices and ways of thinking reflected in some of the Framework’s descriptions. For example, from the Scholarship as Conversation frame: “Experts understand that, while some topics have established answers through this process, a query may not have a single uncontested answer. Experts are therefore inclined to seek out many perspectives, not merely the ones with which they are familiar.” I definitely recognize this from my own recent research projects, especially the one where I’m exploring why creative research often isn’t taught as formal part of creative writing programs in higher education. There’s no easy answer there and I’ve read some 70 sources to learn as much as I can about the different ways of thinking creative writing professors and other writing studies experts have about the role of pedagogy in their field. This isn’t something I would expect my undergraduate students, many of whom are closer to the “novice” end of the spectrum, to take the time to do, even if they had it.

Other “expert” practices the Framework describes are less applicable to my own work. For example, from the Searching as Strategic Exploration frame: “Experts realize that information searching is a contextualized, complex experience that affects, and is affected by, the cognitive, affective, and social dimensions of the searcher. Novice learners may search a limited set of resources, while experts may search more broadly and deeply to determine the most appropriate information within the project scope. Likewise, novice learners tend to use few search strategies, while experts select from various search strategies, depending on the sources, scope, and context of the information need.” As an expert researcher, I understand that there’s value in searching broadly and deeply and trying different search strategies. I believe I’m much more resilient in this respect than a novice researcher would be. But do I search broadly and deeply? Do I select from various strategies? Not really. As someone who’s been doing research in the same or similar areas for a long time, I know what works and I pretty much stick to that. This includes strategies students don’t always think to employ–like using the works cited list in a useful source to identify other possibly useful sources–but I don’t waste a lot of time selecting search strategies to get what I need. Mostly I feel like I don’t need to.

There are other behaviors and ways of thinking that we often teach students about that I frankly don’t do. For example, concept maps. Or coming up with elaborate search strategies. Or gathering all of your sources before you start writing. None of this is mentioned in the Framework but when we teach, we often present them as if doing research in this systematic and organized way is somehow the mark of an expert. Or at all realistic. (Which it isn’t.)

Now, obviously I’m basing all of this on my own experience and practices. But I’m willing to bet that there are many highly experienced researchers out there, especially ones outside the library field, who would look at the Framework’s description of an “expert researcher” and not recognize themselves in it.

This makes me want to know even more what the Framework is basing its ideas about an “expert researcher” on if it doesn’t come from any established model or, I suspect, real world behavior.

Personally, I think the expert researcher is a myth.

I think what the Framework describes isn’t so much an expert researcher as an ideal researcher.

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What I’m looking forward to this fall semester

At the beginning of the summer, I wrote a post about the summer projects I was looking forward to and the goals I was hoping to meet during a time of year that is theoretically more quiet than the fall and spring but tends to fill up with other stuff anyway. Turns out my summer didn’t fill up with a bunch of extra stuff (though there was definitely some of that) so much as time just seemed to slip away. Still, I feel like I was able to make some pretty good progress on the projects I set for myself. I wish I could have done more or done what I did better, but I’m not unhappy with where I’ve ended up.

Now I’m looking toward the fall.Read More »

Do I change things too much, too often?

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

When  it comes to teaching, I can’t seem to stop tinkering.(1)

I’ve written about this before and usually I’m pretty proud of the fact that I’m always making changes to what I teach. Dare I say I’ve even bragged about it a little here and there. I never want to become one of those professors who teaches the exact same thing the exact same way for years on end. My thinking about information literacy is always evolving and I want my teaching to evolve with it. I think that’s a good thing.

But I never seem to be able to settle on a particular way of doing things. This might not be a problem if the changes I was making were just small tweaks here and there but in the last year or so I’ve found myself completely overhauling my course between every semester and as I race to finish creating the new content for this coming fall, I can’t help but wonder why I’m doing this to myself and whether it might be time to pull back, especially now that I have a lot of added responsibilities that should be taking priority as the new head of my department.

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Recent interview with ALA

I’m still catching up after some recent out of office time, so instead of a new post, I thought I’d share this interview I recently did with the American Library Association about my new book. In it, I talk about some of the challenges (and surprising opportunities) related to writing a book during a global pandemic and share some of my thoughts on teaching students about the “trustworthiness” of sources.

Here’s the interview. 

Gone fishing: Summer 2022 edition

I’m on vacation this week so I won’t be posting any new content, but below is a list of some favorite posts from this year so far in case you’d like to check out any you might have missed. Enjoy and see you in a few weeks!

What I learned writing my first book

Research is a lifetime activity

My approach to creative research for fiction writing

Isn’t all research creative? 

Concept mapping and why I don’t like to teach it

Guitar playing as creative research

Researching difficult topics for creative purposes

Why I write this blog

Employee morale and student retention

My favorite books about writing

Advice from writing books that’s getting a little old

Sometimes I call myself a professor, sometimes I call myself a librarian

Sometimes I call myself a professor, sometimes I call myself a librarian

Lately, I’ve noticed in myself a strange habit: more and more, I’ve started referring to myself as a professor or scholar rather than a librarian.

Here are some contexts where I’ve noticed myself doing this:

  • To writers who attend the online writing group I host every Thursday morning, with whom I sometimes talk about my scholarly work
  • To the authors I approach as possible interview subjects for my research on the role of research in creative writing
  • To my friends in the online MCU Rewatch group I host every other week on Meetup
  • To non-library faculty when I’m talking about my teaching and research (rather than, say, the time I spend on the reference desk

Weird, right?

Thinking about it now, it’s clear to me that there are two reasons I do this.

The more benign reason is that it’s convenient shorthand. It’s like if someone tells you “I’m in finance” or “I’m in IT.” Probably their job title is a lot more specific and the work they do a lot more complicated than these generalities, but by using them, they’re conveying what they do without having to get into the types of details that a non-expert wouldn’t understand anyway. Calling myself a professor is just easier than trying to explain that, as an academic librarian, I’m a faculty member at a university who does many of the same things as a professor (plus reference hours and other responsibilities) but who just happens to do them in the library.

No harm there, as far as I’m concerned.

Other times, it’s obviously a status thing.

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Employee morale and student retention

In the last few months, recruitment and retention have become a hot topic on my campus, as I imagine they have been elsewhere as well. This isn’t the first time I’ve run into this. At my former institution, retention was a big enough deal that annual salary increases were tied to achieving certain numbers: if the university didn’t retain a certain percentage of students, no one got raises that year. If they did, we’d get raises but the retention goal would be higher and more difficult to reach the next year.(1)

At that institution, retention was equated with customer service. The better customer service we gave, the more likely students would be to stay, or so it was thought. We were required to read Be Our Guest and to take regular trainings on the topics covered in the book. The only thing I have personally retained from those trainings is that you’re not supposed to say “no problem” when a customer asks you to do something because it implies that what they’re asking you to do might be a perceived as a problem and if you need to point (for example when giving campus tours, which we were encouraged to do), you should always point with two fingers instead of one and never with your left hand.(2) I have no idea if any of this actually contributed to recruitment or retention but the university sure did spend a lot of money on make sure it was taught to us.

My current institution has not gone quite so far in this direction yet but the increased focus on retention is definitely giving me flashbacks and making me a bit apprehensive about the future. It seems to me that the more emphasis institutions place on recruitment and retention, the more it comes at the expense of employees’ well-being because these efforts are always all stick and no carrot. If you can’t show that you’re contributing to recruitment and retention in a way that the administration considers satisfactory, your job and your entire program will be threatened.

The weird thing is that in principle, I fully support finding ways to increase recruitment and retention on campus and not just because I understand that more recruitment/retention means more money. I want students to be successful. More than that, I was a student here myself once upon a time. I had a great experience—so great that I came back to build a career here. I want our current students to feel the pride that I have for being a graduate of this institution. I love my campus.

And I think the current focus on students’ well-being is a good thing. Certainly there is a customer service aspect to these efforts but I like that, at least so far, we’re focusing on supporting students through what has been a very tumultuous couple of years. This is much more meaningful than teaching people to point with two fingers instead of one on a campus tour. (Or making faculty do campus tours in the first place. I will admit to being slightly elitist about this.)

But it’s hard to support students in this way when I don’t feel supported myself.

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Why I write this blog

Lately there’s been some pressure at my institution to stop doing things “just to do them.” In other words, as the focus shifts toward an emphasis on things like student recruitment and retention, you have to make a case for how the things you do contribute to those goals. If they don’t, the implication is that you shouldn’t be spending time on them.

I have a bit of a problem with the assumption implied in the idea of doing things “just to do them.” But I also acknowledge that I’ve had an unusual amount of autonomy in my work up to this point and that that autonomy has allowed me to work on a lot of enjoyable side projects like this one.

I started this blog in March of 2018 and have published at least once or twice a week since then. In that time, my readership (which I measure by the very basic stats provided by WordPress) has gone up from approximately three views a week to closer to 100. Maybe. On a good week.

The thing is, no one writes blogs anymore, unless that blog is attached to a larger publication. It’s quaint. It’s antiquated. Chuck Wendig, whose blog helped inspire this one, recently compared blogging to “putting your podcast on vinyl.”

No one writes blogs anymore. No one reads blogs anymore. Who has the time? And it’s unlikely to blogging like this contributes in any direct way to larger goals like recruitment and retention.

So why do I do it?

A couple of reasons.

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Summer projects and that “fresh start” feeling

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

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:

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What I’m reading: May 2022

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 Normal Gossip (podcast) and Our Flag Means Death (TV series)

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