The role of excitement in teaching

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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.”

Yikes.

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.

Anyway.

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.

 

 

Teaching online: lessons learned

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Now that the coronavirus crisis has forced a lot of faculty members to move their classes online, I’ve been spending some time thinking about my own online teaching. I’ve been teaching asynchronous online information literacy courses in one environment or another since about 2012. In fact, I’ve been teaching my course exclusively online for the last five years.

My earliest experience teaching online was one in which I had to convert a course I’d planned on teaching in-person to an online one somewhat unexpectedly (because I was moving out of state) but I had plenty of time before the course’s start date to make the change. That was stressful enough. I can’t imagine how stressful it must be for professors (and their students) to be converting their classes so abruptly now and in these circumstances. Likely my own reflection will be of limited use to instructors in those situations, but I thought I’d share them now anyway because they’re on my mind and they might come in handy for someone, somewhere.

Simple is better: The first two times I taught online, I adapted a format of instruction that was intended to imitate the Team-Based Learning model created by Larry Michaelsen, which I’d used with some success in my in-person courses. The format I came up with worked well enough that I got my first peer-reviewed article out of it back in the day but from the student point of view, it was a bit of disaster.(1) There were too many moving parts: individual quizzes due on one day, team quizzes due another, individual activities that needed to be completed, and team projects that needed to be coordinated. And everything had to be done in a set order. It was too much to keep track of, for my students and for me.

The structure I have now is one that I came to after many iterations. It is much simpler. Each course module has its own folder, clearly labeled with a beginning and end date for that module. The folder becomes available on the first day of the module and remains available for the rest of the course. In the folder is everything that students will need to complete by the end of the module. The items are listed in the recommended order of completion but everything is due on the same day so the students have the flexibility to decide for themselves which tasks they want to tackle first. There are no group projects but there are discussion activities.

That’s it. That’s all there is. To some, this may sound like an obvious way to organize things but it took me a long time to get here and overall the student response has been positive. They appreciate that this structure respects their time and makes clear where their attention should be in a given week. They also really, really like having a single due date for everything in the module.

Civility can’t go out the window: My second time teaching online, I had a student who would write me long, angry screeds multiple times a day using capital letters, bold fonts, and different font colors telling me everything he hated about the course and why I was a terrible teacher.

As I said, my first few outings with online teaching were less than successful, so he had good reason to be irritated but the speed with which this turned into harassment really caught me off guard. Soon, he had recruited other students in the course to his cause. Many of them were worried that the glitches with Blackboard and the wonky setup I had chosen for the course would negatively affect their grades. Several even used the “my tuition pays your salary so you should give me the grade I want” line of reasoning in outlining their complaints against me.(2)

Good times.

I’m certain that this level of vitriol never would have happened in an in-person course, no matter how poorly designed that course was. Because in an in-person course, the instructor and students are more than just names on a screen to each other: they’re people you have to look in the eye at least once or twice a week. It’s a lot harder to reach this level of outrage when that’s the case, which is a big part of why it took me by such surprise when it happened.

These days, I have a strict policy in my syllabus about online civility. At least once a semester, I respond to a student’s angry e-mail by acknowledging their right to be upset but also informing them that I won’t address their concerns until they revise their original message so that it adheres to this policy. For the most part, this has been a successful strategy for me and is one I would strongly recommend for anyone teaching online.

The importance of boundaries: In an online course, there is a lot of pressure to be available 24/7. Students’ questions can appear in your inbox any time of the day or night and since you won’t be seeing them in person, it feels like you need to answer right away. At least, that’s how I felt when I first started teaching online. As soon as those long, angry screeds I mentioned before appeared in my inbox, I would go to work responding to them. Sometimes it would take me hours and the next one would appear while I was still in the middle of responding to the first one.(3)

I don’t do that anymore. Instead, I state clearly on my syllabus that when students e-mail me a question, they can generally expect a response within one business day. I also tell them that I don’t respond to work e-mails outside of normal work hours, which are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. So if they e-mail me over the weekend, they won’t hear back from me until Monday.

And then I hold myself to that rule.

Which is to say, if I happened to check my e-mail on a Saturday and saw that the students in my course were having trouble accessing that week’s quiz, I wouldn’t wait until Monday to fix it and respond to them. But generally speaking, I’m pretty strict about keeping to those stated boundaries. Let me tell you: it has saved my sanity on more than one occasion.

And for the most part, students are okay with it. In fact, the feedback they’ve given me seems to indicate that they like having such clear information about when and how I’ll communicate with them.

As long as it doesn’t affect their grade, of course. Because there really have been times when students couldn’t access a quiz or other assignment and I don’t know about it until late in the game. Along with my hours of availability, I also state in the syllabus that students’ grades will never be negatively affected by any delay in response from me. So if a quiz can’t be accessed, the quiz gets an extension. If a student needs clarification on the expectations for an assignment in the hours before that assignment is due and I don’t get back to them in time, I give them a little extra time to complete it if they need it. It only seems fair that this is the case.

 

It’s all a learning experience: Anyone who teaches knows that the act of teaching is in and of itself a learning experience. Getting it right takes time, no matter whether you’re teaching in person or online. Professors who have found themselves teaching online so unexpectedly may not experience the level of disaster I did when I first started teaching online. Or they may experience problems I haven’t even thought of. But I know it always helped me to remember that the inevitable mistakes I made were opportunities for growth. Some things will go well. Some things won’t. It will all be useful.

*

(1) I have it on good authority that this is the case because one of the students in that class is now a colleague/friend at the library where I work and it comes up in conversation sometimes. Luckily, his experience in the course was not enough to scare him away from the LIS field altogether.

(2) Lucky for me, I was not on the tenure track at the time, so the evaluations from this course weren’t included as part of my tenure file when the time came.

(3) These days, I’m a little more secure in myself as a teacher and in my professional standing and would never put this much work into responding to this level of incivility, except in the manner I mentioned above: refusing to address the concern until the student rewrote their message so that it adhered to the relevant course policy.

 

Assessment and the contextual nature of research

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So last month when I did a webinar for the GLA Carterette Series on some of my ideas for incorporating the contextual nature of research into information literacy instruction, there were a lot of great questions at the end about assessment. In answering them, I realized that this was something of a hole in my discussion of this topic and I wanted to see if I could address some of it here.

First, it might help to know why assessment is such a blind spot for me. Basically, the culture around assessment in my current institution is a lot different from what I think the norm is for most libraries. I experienced something closer to that norm at my previous institution, where we were asked to constantly assess student learning and some part of the library’s value (not to mention our value as a reference and instruction department within the library) was directly tied to our program-level learning outcomes and how well our students met those outcomes. All of this was, in turn, very closely tied to questions of student retention and the role the library played in the institution’s retention efforts.

Where I am now, there is certainly interest in making sure that what we teach contributes toward student learning and student retention. And there are conversations about finding a way to assess our teaching in order to speak to our value both in the library and on campus. But because instruction responsibilities here are so fragmented, any assessment effort on this level would require buy-in across several departments in the library. As you can imagine, there would be some difficulty there. For now, everyone just kind of does their own thing. That’s been a big part of what’s allowed me to take more creative approaches to my teaching, which is an aspect of my job that I’m very grateful for.

But these more creative approaches aren’t exactly useful if students don’t learn anything as a result. Hence: it’s time to talk about assessment.

I’ve mentioned before that part of the reason the ACRL Standards focused on basic research skills was because those are the things we can assess. It’s much easier to assess whether a student can successfully identify a scholarly source in a library database than it is to assess a change in their way of thinking. How do you measure something like that?

Of course, this is a question we’ve all been struggling with to one degree or another since the advent of the ACRL Framework, which uses threshold concepts instead of learning outcomes. Threshold concepts are literally all about changing someone’s way of thinking.

Teaching about the contextual nature of research is in a large sense about changing the way students think about research. It’s asking them to recognize that the conventions and methods of research are going to be different depending on the context in which research is taking place. Not just disciplinary contexts, but contexts outside of academia as well.

No matter what context of research you’re working with, there are going to be skills involved. So one idea for assessing the contextual nature of research is to determine what the skills associated with the context(s) you’re teaching are and assessing students’ ability to not only perform those skills but recognize the appropriate context for those skills. For example, if a student is searching for or citing a peer-reviewed source when you’ve asked them to perform the type of research associated with a non-scholarly or non-academic context, they’re showing that they have good research skills but that they’re not applying them to the correct context.

This is something that can be captured in a number of ways. You can observe a student’s information behavior to judge whether it’s appropriate to a given task. You can have the student create a research product and judge how well they show awareness of the conventions of a particular type of research. You can create a video that explains the conventions of a particular research context and then quiz students on their understanding of what they watched.

Of course, being able to judge whether students are using skills and following conventions appropriate to a particular context requires establishing what those appropriate skills and conventions even are. Not to mention establishing what the contexts of research might be.

In my own work, I’ve suggested a few very broad categories or “genres” of research, including academic, scholarly, personal, professional, scientific, and creative research. I even outlined some of the characteristics of these genres in my article introducing these ideas. But this outline was meant to illustrate a point rather than act as a guide. Clearly, more work needs to be done here.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t teach the contextual nature of research until that work is done.

In my own classes, I have quizzes that students take after reading or listening to a lecture that I’ve written on a given topic (it’s an online class). These lectures address the contextual nature of research in mostly general terms and I test students’ understanding of this concept by including questions like the following on the associated quiz:

What type of research are scholarly, peer-reviewed articles most appropriate for?

  • Academic/scholarly research
  • Personal research
  • Professional research
  • Creative research
  • All research, no matter the context

 

It’s a simple question that tells me a lot about how much students understand about this concept even without a lot of specifics about the conventions of each type of research. Students who get it right have shown me what they’ve learned. Students who get it wrong—like the surprising number who try to argue that peer-reviewed sources should be considered appropriate for all types of research because their other professors have always told them that they are the “gold standard” of credibility even after I’ve told them all the reasons this isn’t actually the case—show me that there’s still a ways to go before they cross that threshold of understanding.

I also had an experience recently where I participated on a committee whose charge was to create and implement a library research award for undergraduate students. As part of that work, the committee had to come up with a way to evaluate the work we were seeing, which could come from any discipline being studied on campus. We wanted to make sure the award process was open not just to students who had completed standard research papers but also those who had done research in connection to more creative projects and we needed a rubric to reflect that.

We ended up adapting a rubric (with permission) from one that had been used by several other institutions. But where the original rubric mentioned skills appropriate to a particular discipline, we substituted the phrase “appropriate to the context.”  That might seem like a small change, but not all research takes place within an academic discipline. We also wanted to make sure that students who had conducted their research in more creative contexts knew that they were eligible for the award as well. Either way, the wording is a way to capture that an excellent research project is one in which the student applies skills and conventions appropriate to the context of the research.

So there’s not as much concrete information about assessment here as I would like. Like I said, assessment tends to be a little under my radar for a variety of reasons but this is something I’m going to continue to think about and share some thoughts on in the future. If anyone else has thoughts, I’d be interested in hearing those as well.

 

 

 

The Annotated Bibliography as an Establishing Shot: Part 2

So I realize there’s a lot of chaos and confusion going on for a lot of people right now. I’m hoping to write a post later this week about how the coronavirus is affecting things for me and my library but before we get to that, I did promise that I would talk about how things went with the reflection piece of the “establishing shot” annotated bibliography project I wrote about last week went. So this is that.

Like I said before, the purpose of the “establishing shot” annotated bibliography was twofold. First, it helped me understand where the students were at with their research skills before they’d received much or any instruction from me. Second, completing the annotated bibliography at the start meant that it could then be used as a tool for reflection at the end. Students could look back on it and comment on how they had grown as researchers since the beginning of the course.

Just like with the annotated bibliography, I was super apprehensive about the reflection piece, mostly because a big chunk of the students’ grades would be riding on it and I didn’t want to receive the same kinds of rote responses I had so often seen in the past when I asked students to reflect on their work. I really had no idea what I was going to get.

Friends, I was amazed.

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The annotated bibliography as an establishing shot: Part 1

A while back, I wrote a post about the article “Documenting and Discovering Learning: Reimagining the Work of the Literacy Narrative” by Julie Lindquist and Bump Halbritter. In this article, Lindquist and Halbritter discuss their use of the narrative essay as an “establishing shot” at the beginning of their composition course and how this helped them get a sense of students’ writing skills before they’re received much writing instruction. They then used the narrative essay as an artifact for students to reflect on at the end of the course.

This article inspired me to wonder what would happen if I used a similar strategy with the annotated bibliography assignment in my information literacy course. What if I put the annotated bibliography at the beginning of the course instead of at the end?

Well, I tried it out for the first time this quarter in my fully online, asynchronous course. This is the first in a two-part post on how things went. Today, I’m going to focus on the annotated bibliography piece. Next time, I’ll talk about the reflection.

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On NYT’s textbook story and the Our Virginia incident

Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

This week, the New York Times published an article called “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories”  exploring how textbooks in the state of Texas tell the story of United States history versus how textbooks from the state of California do it. If you know anything about the politics in either of those states, there are some predictable differences.

As the article mentions, this isn’t a new thing. In fact, until very recently, I used the controversy surrounding a fourth grade textbook in Virginia as a case study in my information literacy courses. In that case, the textbook in question (which was called Our Virginia) included a number of egregious historical errors, like one about how slaves fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, something that’s not supported by historical evidence. When asked about the errors, the textbook author, who was not a historian, said that she based her writing on information she found on the internet. Information authored by a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

This was 2010, so the main reaction at the time was basically everyone laughing at this author for basing the research for her book on something she found on the internet. No one seemed to consider the possibility that the issue might be more complicated than that.

As an information literacy case study, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this example by asking students who they feel is most to blame for what happened: the textbook author, the publisher, the Board of Education that approved the book, or the Sons of Confederate Veterans for promoting a view of history that’s not supported by evidence. Their answers are revealing. Of course, a lot blame the author herself for not doing proper research. Others blame the publisher for not fact-checking thoroughly enough. Others feel that the Board of Education should have done more to vet the book before allowing it to be taught in classrooms.

Almost none blame the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Actually, that’s not true. One student did.

Here’s the story.

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Off for the holidays

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I’m off for the holidays and won’t be posting any new content but I thought I’d pin a thing here highlighting some favorite past posts in case you missed them.

Thanks for reading and see you in the new year!