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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Teaching the contextual nature of research: lessons learned

Last week, I reflected on some of the successes I experienced while teaching my first information literacy course focused on the contextual nature of research. In this course, I based units on different types of research (academic/scholarly, personal, professional, creative, scientific) and asked students to produce both examples of academic/scholarly work and another type of research of their choice. Overall, the course really did go well but there were definitely some difficulties too, both expected and not.

First, I was surprised and pleased that the students in this class had an easier time grasping what creative research is than students in past courses where I’ve brought up this idea. In the past, when I talk to students about creative research, they express confusion. They want to know: isn’t all research creative? And when I tell them that, yes, all types of research can be creative but not all research is creative research, it doesn’t always quite sink in. To be fair, the course is short and back then I wasn’t spending quite as much time explaining the different types of research to students—only telling them that there were, in fact, different types.

The students in this course really seemed to get creative research and for their second project a few of them even submitted examples of creative research products (including drawings they’d made, photos they’d taken, and poems they’d written) with some great reflections on the role research played in these projects. I was very happy!

But there was still one type of research that students didn’t seem to get: professional research. This surprised me. A lot.

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Teaching the contextual nature of research: What went well

Image by Ralf Kunze from Pixabay

So this semester, I got my first opportunity to really put my money where my mouth is with all this talk about the importance of teaching research as a context-based activity with a new (to me) course where I planned units around the different types of research I’ve written about elsewhere: academic, creative, personal, professional, scholarly, and scientific. These are ideas I’ve incorporated into my teaching in different ways before but this was my first time teaching a full course that was really focused on approaching information literacy through this lens. I was a bit nervous about how it would work out, especially since I just published a book where I talk about how great my teaching ideas are without having been able to use a lot of them myself.

So how did it go?

Mostly, it went surprisingly great. For the most part students really seemed to respond to and enjoy learning about the different research contexts that they have participated in or will participate in over the course of their lives and where college-level academic research fits into all of that. That said, there were also some definite challenges, both expected and not.

For this post, I’ll be focusing on what went well. Next time, I’ll share some of the lessons learned and reflect on some changes I might want to make before teaching the course again in the fall.

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Isn’t all research creative?

Image by Joshua Woroniecki from Pixabay

I’ve spent a couple of semesters now teaching students about different research contexts, including academic, scholarly, creative, personal, professional and scientific. For the most part, they do really well with understanding the idea that research works differently in different situations and what some of the differences between each context might be. They seem to especially like learning about personal research because they like hearing that all of the Googling they’ve been doing all their life to fulfill their personality counts as research, at least by the standards of our particular course.

There’s one type of research they have more difficulty with than others, though, and that’s creative research.

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Research is a lifetime activity

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

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.

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A(nother) conundrum for teaching research context

Image by Daniel Roberts from Pixabay

This semester I’m using the opportunity of teaching a new (to me) course to teach information literacy through the lens of research context. This is something I’ve been doing to some extent for a while now but now research context is a much bigger focus of the course than it used to be.

Because of that, I’ve now introduced a second project to the course. The first project is the usual annotated bibliography, tweaked slightly from past iterations. This time, students complete the annotated bibliography in order to show that they understand the conventions of academic and scholarly research and, along with the annotated bibliography, they submit a reflection explaining how their research-related choices fit those conventions. Not too different from what I’ve been doing the last few semesters, but different enough that I’m curious to see how it goes.

The second, newer project comes at the end of the course. For this project, students will be creating a research product representative of one of the non-academic, non-scholarly contexts we’ll discuss in the course (personal, professional, or creative). This can be anything: a work-related PowerPoint, a social media post, a painting. As long as research was involved in the making of the work, it counts as a research product. The student then has to write a reflection explaining the research that went into the work and how that research is representative of their chosen research genre.

In theory, I like this project a lot. I’ll be very curious to see what research products students submit and what they say about the research that went into those works. I’ll also be curious what stumbling blocks they run into when it comes to completing the project since it requires them to submit non-academic work for an academic course.

Which brings up an interesting question: in an academic environment, is there such a thing as non-academic work? Can there be?

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