Concept mapping and why I don’t like to teach it

I wouldn’t say that everything I teach students about research is lies, but there is admittedly a lot that I teach them that I don’t necessarily practice myself. In my own course, I’m open with students about that fact. For example, students in my classes know that I, like them, rarely create my own citations from scratch. Not because I don’t understand how to construct a citation, but because a lot of the scholarly articles I write have dozens of citations in them and frankly who has time for that? Instead, I use whatever citation is generated by the database where I found the source and then edit it to match the quirky preferences of the journal I’m hoping to submit to. The rest is the work of diligent copyeditors.

Other supposed sins I commit: I use Wikipedia all the time and generally trust the information I find there. I almost never go past the first page or two of search results on Google. And I rarely do all (or even most) of my research before I start to write something.

Arguably, the difference between me committing these sins and students doing the same thing is that I have the experience and expertise to understand (and hopefully avoid or at least make peace with) the potential pitfalls of what I’m doing. Students are still developing the skills and knowledge necessary to be able to do that.

But really my main message to students is that there’s no one right way to do research. Everyone has their own approach and just because that approach doesn’t match the rigid ideas they learned about from some librarian (like me) or some professor, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

That’s what I do in my own course. When I teach one-shot sessions, things are different in part because I’m constrained by the course instructor’s expectations about what they want students to learn as part of the instruction I’m giving them. Since the instructor is the expert on their students and the assignment they’ll be working on, I tend not to push back too much. Even when I think what they want me to teach is stupid.

Like concept maps. I think concept maps are stupid.

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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.

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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.”


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:


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.



Teaching online: lessons learned

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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.