The case for keeping Zoom teaching simple

Image by Th G from Pixabay

In the lead-up to a fall semester that will look very different from past fall semesters, I’ve seen a lot of librarians wondering how to translate the active and engaging instruction they’ve designed for one-shot sessions to a platform like Zoom. If we have to teach it this way, how do we make it more than just a boring lecture/demo combination?

Now, I’m generally in favor of using active learning to engage students in the classroom. In my own one-shot sessions, I like to use simple improv games to keep things lively and fun. Some of my colleagues use much more elaborate escape room-type activities to help students learn about research and the library. It’s fun to spice things up and it makes the experience a little less boring for both ourselves and the students.

But when it comes to finding creative ways to engage students over Zoom, I can’t help but feel like what’s needed is a simpler, more straightforward approach rather than trying to find a way to translate the fancier more fun approaches that we might use in person.

I think this feeling comes from my past experiences with teaching online.

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Faculty activity reports and what I did this past academic year

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Every year by June 30, faculty on my campus have to submit something called a Faculty Activity Report which recounts their various activities throughout the year, from classes taught to special projects worked on to committees served and articles published. The exact purpose of this report, which is a long form rather than a narrative as in my past library job, is a little…vague. But it’s a good chance to reflect on the year’s accomplishments and set goals for the coming academic year.

This year, as you might expect, has been a little different. With the shift to working from home, my teaching stopped. Many of my work-related projects stopped. My committees kept going but learning how to do committee work virtually was a learning process, to say the least. My focus shifted instead to my writing and research projects.

While it’s always good to have writing and research projects to list on a FAR, I was afraid that the sudden halt to other activities would make my report look emptier than usual. It wasn’t until I started looking through my weekly notes on things I’ve been working on that I remembered just how busy last summer and fall were for me. It was as if the craziness of the last few months had given me some kind of amnesia for everything that came before. I couldn’t believe how thoroughly I’d forgotten the bigger projects I was working on less than a year ago.

Here’s some of the stuff I accomplished this year:

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What I’m reading: May 2020

Between working from home and an upcoming sabbatical in the fall, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

So here’s what I’m reading for work and for fun and some other little stuff as well.

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Teaching the Framework versus Teaching to the Framework

Image by Narin Seandag from Pixabay

As a way of staying in touch while under stay at home orders, my colleagues in the information literacy department have been conducting weekly Zoom meetings to talk about interesting articles we’re reading and research we’re working on.  For one such meeting, one colleague recommended “First-Year Students and the Framework: Using Topic Modeling to Analyze Student Understanding of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” by Melissa Harden(1). The article is an interesting exploration of how to use topic modeling to assess students’ understanding of information literacy concepts.

What I thought was really interesting about the author’s approach, though, was her use of the Framework as a text. Basically, as part of the assignment she was assessing, she asked students to read the Framework, albeit a modified version which eliminated some of the jargon. I’ve seen similar approaches in other articles and my own colleagues have discussed activities they’ve used that involve having students read the actual Framework.

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How things are going

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

So I’ve been at this work from home thing a little over eight weeks now. At the start, I shared some details about how I was approaching the new reality by carefully structuring my days and keeping productive. I reread that post now and I can see how part of me was still in a bit of shock. The world had changed so quickly and yet I felt like I was in a slow-moving apocalypse.

Part of me still kind of feels like that. For all that my state (New York) seems to be past the worst of the first wave of the outbreak, it still feels very much like Winter is Coming. One by one, the universities in my area have fallen to furloughs and layoffs. The budget situation at my own university is…not pretty. We’re being told they’re doing everything they can to avoid job losses and I believe those who are telling us this but, realistically, it’s hard to imagine how we could possibly get out of this without some real damage being wrought to people’s job situations. We’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, now that we’ve moved from the early stages of this crisis to something that looks more like a middle stage, I thought I’d share some updated thoughts and reflections.

As always, I want to acknowledge that these reflections are coming from a place of privilege for all of the same reasons I’ve cited in past posts.

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Information literacy skills: wherefore art thou?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In the time since I started writing about the contextual nature of research and research as a subject of study, I’ve noticed that I have a habit of using the phrases “information literacy skills” and “research skills” more or less interchangeably. But really IL and research aren’t one and the same. So I’ve started wondering lately where exactly the line is between them and wanted to spend some time thinking through this issue.

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What I’ve learned about information literacy from teaching it

Image by Wilhan José Gomes wjgomes from Pixabay

Recently, someone paraphrased a famous quote to me that the best way to learn about a subject is to try to teach it to someone else. Partly this is due to the inherent challenge of having to learn something well enough to be able to explain it to another person but it also gets at how your understanding of a topic can grow and change through the act of teaching it.

I don’t know who the quote was originally from (my friend didn’t either) but the idea stuck with me. It got me thinking about what I’ve learned about information literacy as a subject in the time that I’ve been teaching it.

What I came up with was this:

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On Naming What We Know by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times before but I wanted to spend a little time talking about Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies, a book by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle which was the main inspiration behind the research I’ve been doing related to research as a subject of study.

The main reason I originally picked up Naming What We Know is because the ACRL Framework had recently introduced the idea of threshold concepts into thinking about information literacy and I was still trying to get my ahead around what threshold concepts even are. I’d read a bunch of stuff by Meyer and Land, the researchers who originated the idea, but a lot of the examples used in those books are from economics, biology, and other fields of study that are outside my expertise. So I was excited to find a book on threshold concepts for writing studies.

As an information literacy librarian, writing studies is considered outside of my professional realm but there are some connections there. For example, at my institution, our writing and critical inquiry program has a close relationship with our information literacy department (or, more accurately, my colleague who is the liaison to that program) because as part of those courses first year students have to write at least one research paper, which means that in addition to this being their first encounter with college-level writing, it’s also their first encounter with college-level research.

Besides that, I also have a Bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing, so I have at least some understanding of research in that field. At least more of an understanding than I do in some of the other more technical fields where I’d seen threshold concepts discussed.

Reading through Naming What We Know is what sent me on my current research path. Here are some thoughts.

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Tale of an enormous teaching failure

So here on this blog, when I talk about teaching, I talk a lot about things that I’ve tried that have been successful, to one degree or another. I think that’s in line with most library literature: we talk mostly about our successes because we’re so eager to prove how valuable we are. We hide our failures.

I’ve had a lot of teaching failures. I hinted at this, I guess, in a previous post on why I change what I teach. One of the reasons I listed was to fix mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes are small but there was one semester when an entire course that I was teaching crashed and burned.

Today, I tell the tale of that course.

At my institution, one-credit freshman seminars can be taught my any teaching faculty from any department on an extra service basis. The main attraction to teaching one, besides the extra money, is that you’re allowed to teach whatever you want.

Whatever. You. Want.

You know, as long as you make time for the occasional lesson or activity that helps students learn how to be successful in college. But in the time that I’ve been teaching the course, there’s never been any monitoring of how much of this you actually do or how successful you are at it. The students do get an evaluation at the end where one of the questions asks them whether they feel the course helped them understand college life a little better but, unlike official course evaluations, those evaluations are not used as part of a formal assessment process. They don’t become part of your tenure or promotion packet (unless you want them to) and your supervisor doesn’t see them.

What I’m saying is that instructors are given a lot of room to experiment.

Needless to say, the information literacy department where I work saw a lot of opportunity here. For those who wanted to take on the extra work (and get paid the extra money), this was a good opportunity to bring IL to a wider audience.

But it couldn’t be called that. It was made clear  early on that while we certainly could shape a course around “how to use the library,” the chances that it would be attractive to students was low. Which was fine with me, since I’ve never been a big fan of the “how to use the library” aspects of IL.

So I brainstormed a few ideas and the one that I landed on was this: Millennials in the Media. Basically, as a(n older) member of the millennial generation, I had become annoyed over how millennials were portrayed in pop culture and the media, as if we were all born with smartphones in our hands. I wanted to teach a course in which students would have a chance to critically analyze how these portrayals of young people affected real life perceptions of them. I felt that students would be interested in this topic because they were also members of the millennial generation, albeit at the opposite end of that generation from me.

This topic has, I believe, some relationship to information literacy but it was pretty far outside anything I had taught before. I spent the entire summer leading up to the course reading as much as I could, planning and re-planning the course itself until I thought I had something pretty good.

If you’ve been paying attention up to this point, you know what happened: the course bombed. Pretty much from week one. Week one of fourteen.

You may think this had something to do with the fact that freshmen college students these days aren’t actually millennials. Technically, they are the oldest members of Gen Z. But this was a few years ago now. That label hadn’t really caught on yet and the media was still using “millennial” as a catch-all term for “annoying young people,” especially college students.(1) So I don’t think that was quite the problem.

It’s hard to say what the problem was, exactly. Admittedly, the content of the course was weak and the way it was delivered (mostly lectures, which is unusual for me) wasn’t great either. The students were in the class somewhat by choice in the sense that they had picked this freshman seminars over others they could have taken, so I assume the topic had sparked some interest, at least for some of them. But that interest was completely absent pretty much from the start.

I mean, I thought I knew what bored students looked like from years of teaching information literacy but I had no idea. There were literally days, late in the course, where I rushed through an hour’s worth of content in fifteen minutes just so I could get the hell out of there because it was so demoralizing to stand in front of this particularly unreceptive crowd.

One thing I noticed was that students really had trouble challenging commonly-held ideas about what millennials/young people are like. Maybe they agreed with these ideas. Maybe they disagreed with them but didn’t feel like it was a big enough issue to make a big deal out of it. Maybe they disagreed but they weren’t at a point yet where they felt comfortable challenging sources of information they’d been taught to think of as “authoritative” or “reliable.” Maybe they misunderstood the entire premise of the course, which was to critically examine and in some cases challenge these ideas. Maybe it’s just that the personality of every class is different and this one was particularly tough to crack.

Whatever the reason, whenever I asked them to read an article that described millennials in openly derisive or condescending tones and asked them what they thought, the only response I could seem to get was “Sounds right to me.”

WTF.

I probably could have fixed it. The sense that the course was not working set in early enough that I probably could have changed the path I was on to make the learning experience more meaningful to students. I also could have taken some time afterward to rethink the whole thing and plan a different approach for the next year.

Instead, I let the plane go down and when it came time to plan for next year’s freshman seminar, I submitted an entirely new idea. This one is called “Empowering Yourself as a User and Creator of Information.” It is, as you might imagine, a lot more closely related to information literacy. It also did not go particularly well the first year I taught it but I saw enough promise there that I did tinker with it and had much more success with it the next few years.

This fall, I’ll be on sabbatical so I won’t be doing any teaching. I think I would have taken a break from the freshman seminar anyway to prevent it from feeling too stale. But after that first year I’ve had a lot better luck with the students I’ve encountered since then and I will miss having the opportunity to make some new connections with brand new adults.

Meanwhile, I’m lucky that the culture among freshman seminar instructors on my campus (who, again, are from all different departments and are encouraged to experiment with their topics and formats) is one where failure is an acknowledged part of the teaching process. There’s no shame in it, as much as I might cringe when I look back at my own experience.

*

(1) And look! They still are: https://www.buzzfeed.com/lyapalater/millennials-are-old