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.
The last few semesters, I’ve been using a new version the traditional annotated bibliography in my course where students complete the annotated bibliography in the first few weeks and then, after learning more about information literacy, write a reflection on the work they did at the beginning. I ask them to think about the formats of information they used and why, how they evaluated the information they found, and the choices they made about giving credit to their sources. As a project, it seems to work pretty well and the conclusions students come to about the quality of their work are often close to the same ones I would have in my own evaluation. Except, I think, those conclusions are more meaningful to students when they have the opportunity to come to them themselves rather than have me shaking a finger at them about poor citation, questionable sources, and an obvious emphasis on convenience over quality.
The first on the list of questions I ask students to reflect on, though, is this: How does this annotated bibliography reflect who you were as a researcher at the time you completed it?
Honestly, students have a lot of trouble with this question, possibly due to the way I’ve phrased it. What I’m looking for is for them to comment on the level of research experience they had when they completed the assignment and how the choices they made in completing it were informed by their experience up to that point. Mostly they just talk about their reaction to the assignment when they first saw it, especially the fact that I was allowing them complete freedom over their choice of topic and sources. Not a bad answer, but not hugely relevant.
Anyway. I started thinking about the research assignments I completed as both an undergraduate and a graduate student and how that reflected who I was as a researcher at the time.
At my institution, there’s a one-credit information literacy course taught through the library called UNL 205. Most everyone in my department has taught this course at one time or another but as the information literacy requirement here on campus moved into the majors, there has been less and less demand for it. I’m wrapping up a section of the course now, the only one being offered this semester, and this will likely be the last time I’ll be teaching UNL 205.
That’s not to say that I won’t be teaching a credit-bearing IL course at all or that UNL 205 won’t be taught anymore. Due to some shuffling of department responsibilities, I’ll be teaching a different information literacy course geared toward students in the humanities and particularly philosophy majors. UNL 205 may still get taught every now when then, but most likely it won’t be by me.
On a recent weekend, I was feeling relatively slothful and ended up binge-watching the first season of Making the Cut on Amazon Prime. My understanding is that Making the Cut is basically a show where Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn decided to take their toys and go home (or at least to another platform) after leaving Project Runway. I haven’t seen Project Runway since college, so my memories of that show are vague but I think the main differences here is that this show has more of an international focus because it’s seeking fashion designers/entrepreneurs who will become the Next Big Global Brand. Or something.
And obviously, it also has a lot of Amazon-related tie-ins. Product placement in a show is always a bit sketchy but here I’m really not sure if it does the designers any favors to have the more accessible looks they create made available on Amazon. Buying clothes on Amazon is a notoriously huge gamble. Some people I know have been able to find nice stuff on there. Meanwhile, every piece of clothing I’ve ever bought on that site has been crap. I’m sure the intended effect of having these designers’ clothes available on Amazon (other than to give the designers more exposure) is to elevate Amazon’s reputation as a seller of clothing. Instead, I feel like the designers kind of suffer by the association, at least in my mind.
Anyway, that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because I want to talk about Making the Cut as an example of creative research.
So a few weeks ago, I wrote a post on my feelings about returning to the office after nearly a year and half of working from home. At the time, I felt pretty good about it. Obviously, it was going to be a big change but I was tired of feeling so isolated. I wanted to be among people again and this felt like a good opportunity for a fresh start. Plus, I was grateful that, unlike many of my colleagues who have been working in-person this whole time, I got to wait to go back until things felt more safe again.
Which I kind of expected. I knew there were going to be variants and that things could get bad again, but like most people, I had no idea how bad they were going to get or how quickly. Now we’re at the start of a new semester and honestly I’m a lot more anxious and scared about what’s going to happen than I expected to be.