A wrinkle in teaching students about research context

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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

Thoughts on the contextual nature of research and public libraries

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

As an academic librarian, I tend to think about the contextual nature of research mostly through the lens of the academic library environment. Specifically, information literacy, since that’s my specialization.

But before becoming an academic librarian, I spent some time in public libraries: three years as a clerk at a small public library in my hometown and then two years as an intern at a larger public library in the suburbs near where I went to grad school. As an intern, I spent some time at the reference desk and helping out with programming.

Some recent conversations have gotten me thinking about how all this talk about the contextual nature of research might apply not only in the academic library environment but also in public libraries. Thinking back on my own experiences working in public libraries as well as my continuing experience as a public library patron, I actually think public librarians are in many ways better primed to address the importance of context to the research process than academic librarians are.

Read More »

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:

Read More »

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.

Read More »

Title policing in libraries

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

In a couple of places on this blog, I’ve felt the need to include special notes where I’m using the word “librarian” as a catch-all for anyone who works at a library, whether they are a MLS-holding librarian, a library clerk, a page, etc. The reason I do this is because there are a lot of people in the library field who place a lot of importance on drawing the distinction between “actual” librarians and those people who just happen to work in a library because members of the non-librarian public tend not to be aware that there is, in fact, a difference.

Like many librarians, I got my start in the field as a clerk. Meaning I was the person behind the desk who checked books in and out and answered patron questions. Because the library I worked in was small, everyone on the staff was a clerk of one level or another. In addition to staffing the service desk, we also did shelving, book repair, book processing, etc. The only “actual” librarian in the place was the library director, who of course oversaw all of the administrative responsibilities and also collection development.

I spent three years in this position before moving on to grad school where I worked as a student assistant in the campus library and at the local public library as an intern. It wasn’t until 6 years into my library career (about a year after finishing grad school) that I got my first librarian job, one that required me to have the standard Master’s degree in the field. My first opportunity, in other words, to be on the other side of the equation when it comes to those who can call themselves a librarian and those who can’t. Until then, I was always on the “can’t” side of things and some of the people on the “can” side definitely let me know it. One such person told me that letting a patron call me “the librarian” was akin to a receptionist at a doctor’s office letting a patient call them “the doctor.”

Which, okay. Sure.

I am not that person. Even now that I’m in a librarian position and have tenure, I am not someone who goes around correcting people on this particular matter. Personally, I just don’t get fussed about it.

But some people do and while I think those people are kind of snobby, I also understand why they do it, even if I don’t feel a need to. A lot of it has to do with how our work is valued (or not).

Note: I originally wrote most of this post before our current coronavirus reality, but I think some of the issues involved here are even more relevant now that jobs have become more vulnerable and questions about personnel cuts, when they need to be asked, always hinge on whose work is valued most.

Read More »

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.”


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


Newsies is secretly about the value of information

So every now and then when I’m consuming a piece of pop culture, I find myself thinking of the information literacy implications of the story I’m watching. For example, I firmly believe that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, underneath it all, an excellent story about copyright and the ethical use of information (and also just excellent).

Meanwhile, Newsies is an excellent lesson in a number of IL-related themes, including the “Information Has Value” frame.

Since not everyone spent their freshman year of college living down the hall from a group of fans obsessed with Newsies, constantly being blasted by the soundtrack, let me attempt to explain what Newsies is. It started life as a live-action Disney movie starring Christian Bale in 1992.(1) The story involves a group of young “newsies” who are basically the bottom rung of the newspaper business in 1899. They’re the ones who sell the newspapers to readers for the publishers but when those publishers raise the distribution price to increase their own profits and take money away from the newsies, the newsies form a union and go on strike against them. There is much singing and dancing. The story is inspired by true events. But probably not the singing and dancing part.

The movie bombed when it first came out. Roger Ebert’s review from the time (one and a half stars) will tell you a lot about what the reaction was back then. But then it became something of a cult hit on home video, enough so that in 2011, Disney decided to make a stage musical version of it using a combination of old and new songs. It was a big hit.

In 2017, Disney a filmed a live performance of the stage musical version of Newsies starring Jeremy Jordan in the lead role. This was then released in movie theaters as a “one night only” deal that was popular enough that they were still doing in-theater encores of it even after it became available to stream.

I’ve seen both the original movie version and the filmed stage musical version (I’ve never had the chance to see it live). For me, the movie is just okay but the filmed stage version, well. I saw it in the theater three times, including once after I’d already bought a digital version of the thing on Amazon.

I kind of love it is what I’m saying.

How is any of this relevant to information literacy?

Let me tell you.

I don’t remember exactly what happens in the movie version, but in the stage version the newsies’ strike is a big enough deal that it ends up on the front page of a local newspaper before the story gets buried by Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher whose business decisions they’re rebelling against.

First, I feel the need to point out what seems like a hole in the plot: The newsies are extremely excited to be on the front page of the newspaper. So much so that there’s a whole song at the top of the second act called “King of New York” (humorously) detailing what they plan to do with their new fame. But the whole point of the strike is to disrupt the public’s access to newspapers and therefore interfere with Pulitzer’s profit. So they’re excited about being on the front page of a newspaper nobody can actually buy because there are no newsies selling the damn paper to anyone.

If you set that aside, though, the story has interesting things to say about what stories get told and by who. That front page story happens to slip through because the publication it lands in is (presumably) not one owned by Pulitzer.(2) But then Pulitzer threatens to blacklist any reporters who continue to cover the story, so that’s the end of news coverage about the strike.

It’s not that Pulitzer has a problem with unions or strikes. In fact, the play starts with the newsies despairing that the main headline is about a workers’ strike affecting the trolley system for the umpteenth day in a row because such an unsexy repeat headline will be difficult for them to sell.

No, Pulitzer has a problem with covering this specific strike because it makes him look bad and is affecting his bottom line. So he punishes his workers (because the newsies are technically his employees) by making sure the story doesn’t get covered.

The newsies find a way around this obstacle by locating an old, unused printing press (…in Pulitzer’s basement because why not) and using it to print their own independent newspaper that explains who they are and what they’re fighting for, which they distribute themselves. This move gets the attention of Governor Roosevelt. He intervenes and helps the newsies prevail over Pulitzer in the end. Mostly because the prolonged strike is also embarrassing and inconvenient for him.(3)

Is this not an IL theme? Pulitzer is a gatekeeper who’s deciding what information reaches the public. In order for their story to be heard, the newsies have to find a way around the gatekeeper. The “Information Has Value” frame certainly alludes to this by making it clear that the systems through which information is produced and disseminated have the power to marginalize certain voices. In 1899, if a big newspaper made the choice not to publish a particular news story, the voices behind that story were effectively being silenced.

I’m not saying that Newsies should be used as a teaching tool for this particular frame. I mean, it would be a lot of fun if you did but all I’m saying here is that sometimes when you teach something long enough, you start to see the world through the lens of that thing and this is how I, as an IL instructor, see Newsies.


(1) Who was only seventeen years old at the time and was not told that the movie was going to require him to both sing and dance until it was too late to get out of doing it. Needless to say, Christian Bale has not spoken kindly of his experience filming this movie, to put it mildly. (And honestly, given the circumstances, it’s hard to blame him.)

(2) Honestly, even then it takes a large amount of integrity and boldness for this paper to put the newsies on their front page considering they are also likely to be affected by the strike since Pulitzer’s newsies aren’t the only ones causing a stir. It’s like Amazon or Instacart putting information about their recent worker strikes on their respective homepages. It wouldn’t happen.

(3) You’ll be happy to know that the historical strike was also successful in achieving its goals.

The role of excitement in teaching

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

This year was my fourth serving as a mentor for the ACRL Instruction Section Mentoring Program. If you’ve never heard of the program, it’s a great way for newer instruction librarians to make connections with more experienced ones. Monthly prompts help to facilitate the conversation but the most valuable interactions I’ve had through the program have often been when we stray a little off topic.

One such valuable interaction this year came up when my mentee commented that they weren’t sure if they would ever feel excited about teaching. This made me stop to think about my own feelings when it comes to teaching.

The thing is, when it comes to teaching, I love to make plans. I enjoy the process that goes into taking a topic that I think is worth sharing with my students and planning a lesson that introduces them to that topic and then creating an activity where they get to react to and apply this new knowledge. This aspect of teaching really taps into my creative energy and I get excited about whatever approach I’ve dreamed up. This is probably why I change what I teach so often: to keep the party going.

But when it comes to the actual act of teaching, especially standing in front of a classroom full of students, the feeling I get is something other than excitement.

It used to be that I actively dreaded teaching. I would overplan and overpractice every detail and then be unable to sleep the night before because I was still convinced that I wasn’t prepared enough and that something would go wrong. By the time I got to the actual classroom, my stomach would be churning and my hands would be shaking.

The students noticed, too. At the end of one credit-bearing course I taught, one student evaluation read, “Stop being so nervous.”


These days, that feeling of dread is mostly absent and teaching just feels like another, everyday part of the job. I could probably deliver the entire 50-minute spiel I give in a one-shot session in my sleep. And when things go wrong, experience has taught me that I can pretty much handle it, thanks in part to an improv class I took that helped me learn how to think on my feet and use mistakes rather than fear them.

Still. While I don’t actively dread teaching anymore, I can’t say that I feel excited about it or particularly energized by it, even when it’s going reasonably well.

Considering that teaching is a big part of my job, this might seem like a problem.

That’s because there’s a tendency to believe that in order to be a good teacher, you have to love teaching. You have to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society or Sydney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, otherwise you’re inevitably Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the principal from The Breakfast Club.

Incidentally, I do find that I identify with that guy from The Breakfast Club a lot more now that I’m adult than I did when I first saw the movie as a kid. You know, minus the part where he shames a student and locks him the closet. But, really. The guy had to come into work on a Saturday just to deal with the shenanigans of a bunch of detention-bound students. I’m sure he had better things to do with his day, too.


The point is, when I’m teaching, if I feel excitement at all, it’s not so much for the act of teaching itself as it is for what I’m teaching. I can’t muster a lot of excitement about teaching databases because I find it personally boring to do so but if you ask me to teach students about the importance and inevitability of being wrong, the role of curiosity in research, or something else I have a lot of enthusiasm for, then that enthusiasm infuses the lesson and the presentation of the lesson.

And if students are responding well to that enthusiasm, then teaching starts to feel almost like a flow state. Flow states are basically magic. I live for flow states.

But getting to that state is a lot more rare than I’d like it to be. Partly this is because I’m obligated to teach about the boring stuff more often than I have the opportunity to teach about things I’m passionate about. Partly it’s because even when I’m not personally bored, students often are and it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm in the face of such intractable boredom. The balloon deflates pretty quickly. Unless you come to class pretending to be a world-famous magician.

I shared some of this thinking with my mentee. Surprisingly, they did not run away screaming. Hopefully this is because I was able to convey that excitement for teaching is not a requirement of the job and you shouldn’t feel guilty or put pressure on yourself to muster that excitement if you genuinely don’t feel it. Because you can still be a good teacher without it. And even the best teachers who do feel a lot of excitement about what they do probably have days where that excitement is hard to conjure.

Which is to say, if teaching was an absolute miserable slog for me and that dread I felt at first never went away, I might have been smart to take that as a sign that I should find a different specialization for myself. But even when there’s no magic flow state to my teaching, I feel like I do just fine.