Why I start my freshman seminar with a game called “Category Die”

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A few years ago, I took a series of classes at MopCo, a local improv theater company, intended to help educators learn how to use improv as part of their teaching, particularly its focus on thinking on your feet and using mistakes rather than fearing them. I’ve written here and elsewhere about how valuable I found the course and the ways that I’ve applied it in my own classroom, especially in the in-person freshman seminar I teach each fall, which I always begin with an improv game called Category Die.

If you’re not familiar, Category Die is a relatively simple game that’s often used as a warm-up in improv settings. The way it works is this: a line of volunteers (usually 5-7) stands on stage. Someone from the audience suggests a category—for example “things found in a library.” The person running the game then points at random to each of the people on the stage. When he points at you, you name something in that category. If you name something that doesn’t belong in the stated category, the audience shouts “Die!” at you, you take a bow, walk off stage, and then suggest the category for the next round. Same thing if you name something that’s already been named or if you take too long to answer. Or if the audience just feels like shouting “Die!” at you.

Personally, I am TERRIBLE at Category Die. It’s rare for me to survive longer than the first two rounds. This has been just as true when the category was something where I have relatively limited knowledge (like “state capitals”) as it is when the category is something relatively easy (like “letters of the alphabet”). That’s because I have a habit of trying to plan my answer ahead of time rather than being spontaneous so when someone inevitably takes my answer before it’s my turn, I flail and either repeat what they’ve already said or take too long to come up with something new and so must “die.”

The thing is, I don’t mind being bad at Category Die. Being bad at Category Die is almost as fun as being good at it. And I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better. When you “die” as part of this game, you get to take an elaborate, silly bow while everyone laughs with you and applauds. It’s great.

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ACRL 2021

Hey everyone—this is just a quick note to let you know that my presentation for the virtual ACRL Conference is now available on-demand on the conference website. The presentation is on “The Annotated Bibliography as Artifact” and touches on a lot of the same themes I often talk about here on the blog. If you’re registered for the conference, the presentation will be available on-demand for the next 30 days.

If you’re presenting at the conference live or on demand, let me know! I’d love to check out your presentation.


My online teaching persona is a major introvert

Even in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I didn’t anticipate having to do much work to reimagine or restructure my credit-bearing information literacy course this spring. That’s because I’ve been teaching that course in a fully online, asynchronous environment for probably about five years. It seemed like there was nothing to adjust. If anything, I almost looked forward to the fact that students would be more used to taking online courses now,(1) which meant less of a learning curve by the time they got to me.

But then I started seeing conversations about how other instructors were incorporating Zoom and other tools into their online teaching, mostly to facilitate the delivery of lectures or other “live” learning activities. Again, I didn’t see the relevance to my own teaching right away because my course is entirely asynchronous. But by the time I started reviewing the materials in anticipation of the start of my own course, I began to think about how many of these instructors had used Zoom and other tools not only as a way to deliver course content but also to foster a sense of community in class. To make students feel like even though necessity has kept us largely separate during the last year or so, interacting through our screens rather than in person, there are still people here and those people can be more than words on a screen.

My class, I noticed, had no such opportunity for students to feel a sense of community. My lectures are all written. The activities are all writing-based. Though I try to interact directly with students as much as possible by responding to their discussion posts and giving them feedback on their assignments, it is entirely possible to go through my course without interacting with a single other human being.

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Reflecting on being a (former) first generation student

Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

Recently, there’s been a conversation going on at my university about first generation students. Much of this conversation reflects what I’ve seen in articles on sites like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed in the sense that it tends to frame first generation students in a particular way. According to this conversation, first generation have overcome a great deal of adversity, economic and otherwise, to get to where they are but that they are academically less prepared than their non-first gen peers and because of that they need some extra help. So efforts are being put into place to support these students, mostly focused on assisting them academically.

Now, I trust that the people who write about this population are basing their assumptions on research and statistics. And I fully endorse any effort to support students who have struggled or who are struggling, first generation or otherwise.

Yet there’s something about all of this that bothers me.

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Reference desk interactions: Helping “library users” versus helping “information creators”

Image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

I was writing a book chapter on the contextual implications of creating information the other day (shameless plug) when I briefly got stuck. As part of the chapter, I was trying to suggest some practical uses for the ideas that I was suggesting that could be applied not only to classroom teaching situations but also the type of teaching librarians often do through reference and other services as well. How can we teach students about their roles as information creators in the relatively brief interactions we have with them through reference?

I’m still kind of mulling this over but after some mental wandering, I did hit on an idea that I think is relevant, though not necessarily practical. It hit me that teaching students to think of themselves as information creators is less about what we say to them and more about how we approach our interactions with them.

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How COVID is changing my online course this spring

This spring, I’ll be teaching a section of my eight week credit-bearing information literacy course starting in late March. This is the first time I’ll be teaching this course in over a year thanks in part to the chaos of COVID and also my sabbatical this fall, which will soon be coming to an end.

Because I was on sabbatical and focusing on my research during what would normally be the planning period for spring, my plan this year was just to teach the course the exact same way I did last spring. Back then, I’d rearranged the course a little from previous iterations and used a new version of my usual annotated bibliography project that was reasonably successful. So I decided that I would make minimal changes this time around in order to squeeze as much as research and writing time as possible out of my remaining sabbatical.

In some ways, that was easy to do. My course has been fully online for quite a while now so there was nothing I needed to do to convert the materials I already had to the new situation. Teaching the course this year should have been an easy copy and paste job. Easy peasy.

The problem with this is that I’ve never been very good at copying and pasting my course from semester to semester. I’m always making changes. Between fall and spring, these are usually small changes. I generally save bigger changes for the fall semester so that I have the summer to plan them.

But now a whole year has passed since I last taught this course and the world looks very different from the way it did last time I did this. So while a copy and paste from last year to this year would have been possible, it didn’t feel right. I ended up doing yet another overhaul.

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Thoughts on “Creating Learning Outcomes from Threshold Concepts”

As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at an article I wrote called “Creating Learning Outcomes from Threshold Concepts for Information Literacy Instruction,” which was published in College & Undergraduate Libraries in 2017.(1)

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Dear students: Citing your sources incorrectly is not plagiarism

There’s a unit in the course I teach where I present students with a set of what I call(1) “information creation scenarios.” These are hypothetical situations, many adapted from real life incidents that have made the news, in which I ask the student to imagine themselves in the shoes of an information creator for whom something has gone terribly wrong: a social media post that’s gone viral in a bad way/for bad reasons, an original piece of art that they created and shared online that’s become associated with a hate group, etc. For each scenario, they have to explain what they could have done differently to prevent the situation from happening in the first place and what strategies they would use to try to fix the situation after it happened. It can be a fun challenge.

One of the scenarios I give my students relates to plagiarism. It goes like this:

Imagine that you write a research essay for a course in your major in which you are expected to cite a certain number of sources. Though the required citation style is one you are familiar with, you are still learning about the proper format and placement of citations in a research essay. Knowing this, you do your best to follow the rules for citing your sources. You refer to trustworthy websites like Purdue OWL(2) for help and also visit the Writing Center and the library for advice and helpful resources. You use all of this information to create your reference list and you are careful to include all of the sources from which you pulled information. You hand in your paper confident that you have done your best to properly cite your research.

 A few weeks later, your professor hands back your essay and you are devastated to learn you failed the assignment due to plagiarism. Your professor highlights several passages in your paper with quotation marks but no in-text citations to indicate where the quoted information came from. There is another passage with no quotation marks and no citation which the professor feels is too close to the wording from one of your sources to be considered your own original work. This is why you failed the assignment on the basis of plagiarism.

In my experience teaching students about plagiarism, what this scenario describes is, for them, a huge fear. Nobody cares about intentional plagiarism because intentional plagiarism is, by definition, committed only by those who know that they are cheating and are presumably prepared to face the consequences if they’re caught. Getting a failing grade due to unintentional plagiarism even when you’ve tried your hardest to do the right thing—to many students, that’s a much bigger reason to worry.


Is the professor in the scenario right to accuse the student of plagiarism?

Personally, I think not.

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Reflecting on un-research

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at “Teaching Information Literacy Through Un-Research,” which was published in Communications in Information Literacy in 2015.

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