Welcome to fall semester

This past week was the first week of fall semester classes at my university. This is the first time in a while that I’ve taught only one regular section of our 2 credit hour information literacy course. Last semester I only taught one section, but it was an honors section, so I spent a lot of time trying new things that I had been afraid would be too challenging in a regular section. Of course, I’m not just going back to the old stand-by that I used before – this semester I’m experimenting with how much of the stuff that worked well last spring will also work in a regular section.

I’m also doing something I’ve never done: mentor teaching. A member of our circulation staff who has a MLIS degree asked over the summer about getting some teaching experience. So I offered to work with her in sort of a student/mentor teacher kind of arrangement – having her more involved than I ever was as a Teaching Assistant, but not as equal as I picture co-teaching being. So I planned the syllabus and class schedule myself, but then met with her to go over it and talk about why I am planning things this way. I am taking the lead for the first month and a half or so, with her attending classes and helping with class activities. We plan to meet every week to talk about how that week went, the plan for the next week, pedagogical considerations that go into my plan for each lesson, grading, etc… And we’ll be transitioning to having her plan and teach some of the lessons later in the semester. I wouldn’t call that fully co-teaching, since she will still be working within the framework I planned for the course as a whole, but she will have a lot more leeway than it seems a lot of librarians get when relying on the one-shot model. I’ll refer to her as ST, for Student Teacher, here.

I find this exciting as well as terrifying. I’m really excited to be working with her to help her learn something she wants to learn. I’m excited that my department is supportive of having faculty work with staff to help them develop professionally. But I bet anyone who ever experiences impostor syndrome can imagine why this arrangement is terrifying! I know it will be good for my development, too, since it will force me to articulate the pedagogical reasons I do the things I do in my class more clearly… And force me to be better about planning ahead, instead of having a vague idea of my topic for the day and throwing the lesson together an hour before class! (Not that I’d admit to ever having done quite that, but if we’re meeting on Thurs to talk about the plan for next week, it won’t work for me to wait until Sunday afternoon to plan Monday’s lesson!)

So I met with ST during the week before classes started to go over the macro-plan for the semester and talk about my approach to teaching, using feminist & other critical pedagogies, focusing more on concepts than skills – so more in line with the Framework than the Standards. It was a great conversation, and I felt like we were in good shape for the semester.

And then, on the first day, I went over the syllabus, and realized a few logistical things I didn’t even think to discuss the week before! I reused and just updated a syllabus from a previous semester – so I didn’t even think about adding ST to the syllabus. Aside from providing her contact info, would she hold office hours? If so, where? So lesson #1 for me for the semester was to pay more attention to these sorts of logistics, since I felt like a total ass for leaving her off the syllabus! On the bright side, after class we went back to my office suite to talk to my department head and get ST set up with an office to use for office hours.

That glitch aside, day 1 was fine. I have tried in the past to do some sort of interesting activity on the first day, to set the tone for the semester. There are definitely arguments in favor of that, and if my class were half the size it is, I’d have had us go around the room to introduce ourselves at least. But there are also arguments in favor of taking that time to go over the major expectations and projects for the class, so that people know what they are getting in to. So I spent the first 30-40 minutes going over the syllabus and major assignments, then had them do a short writing exercise, responding to some intro questions: Where are you from?, Why did you sign up for this class?, What do expect to cover in this class?, Is there anything you would like me to know about your life outside of class, that might affect your work in class?, & What do you enjoy learning about? (doesn’t have to be related to school).

Day 2 was more fun. I started class by showing a video that asks Why is my curriculum white? After that, I had them do a think-pair-share focused on the question of why I chose to show that video during the first week of a class about information literacy and research. And I was very excited that they pretty much all seemed to be engaged, and several people volunteered answers during the share part… It doesn’t matter how regularly it happens, I still get excited every time! After that, I set them loose on the computers to search to see if they could find demographic information about both the student population and the faculty at our university. After walking around and seeing that several of them had found that data on the same couple of sites, I asked for a volunteer to come up and show what they found on the classroom computer – and someone volunteered right away, which is always awesome! We evaluated those sites a bit, and I showed them where our university publishes up to date data on that stuff, tucked away in a hard to find corner of our website. In case you wondered, as of the 2014-15 academic year, our students are 54.4% white, 35.3% African American, and 4.2% Hispanic, while our faculty are 81.6% white, 7.6% Asian, 7.1% African American, and 2.2% Hispanic. We ran out of time before I could ask them what they think of that disparity in relation to the video we opened class with.

I’ll admit that I was scared going into that lesson. Aside from all of the other reasons I chose to include it, I scheduled it for the second day of class because we were still in the open add/drop period. I was afraid that there would be students who would object to talking about race and critiquing the college curriculum that way. But almost all of them were actively engaged in the class, and none of them have dropped so far! Having only a 50 minute class period, I didn’t get into a heavy discussion about race (beyond the discussion in the video, which offers a pretty substantial critique). But I did overhear one student comment to the person sitting next to them that they were surprised by the stats about the student population, that they thought it was opposite (so would have guessed 55-60% African American, 30-something % white). So hopefully that will combine with the emphasis on critical thinking and questioning of ideologies I have planned for next week to lead that student to question why that was such a surprise. It may not, but I can hope!

LOEX 2015 & the Framework

In the past year, I’ve interacted with the new Framework for Information Literacy, going so far as to assign the frames as required reading in my classes last fall. However, most of my conversations about it have been with other librarians in my department and #critlib participants. At LOEX, I tweeted:

Someone asked what I meant by that, and I realized I couldn’t respond in a tweet.

I’ve been interacting with the Framework as an overarching set of concepts that I want students to master, and developing my own more granular learning outcomes that build up to those concepts. At ACRL Immersion in 2012, we practiced writing progressively larger and smaller learning outcomes. For example, if I want to include a module in which students learn to avoid plagiarism, they need to know what plagiarism is, the rules of when to provide a citation (you’d be amazed at how many students tell me you don’t have to cite a source if you summarize the article in your own words…), how to do a citation… And learning how to do a citation means recognizing which type of source you have, understanding which information goes where (every semester, at least one student tries to put the chapter title where the edited book title goes and vice versa), and learning how to read the formatting rules. And so on. I have applied that practice in teaching my credit bearing information literacy course. We have a set of overarching learning outcomes for the course, but they are too big to be addressed in one lesson or to assess without breaking them down.

In addition, this past year I participated in a Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SoTL) learning group coordinated by our Center for Teaching & Learning. My group has focused on threshold concepts and signature pedagogies. My group included faculty from math, early childhood education, art, business, film studies, and more. So reading texts like Exploring signature pedagogies: Approaches to teaching disciplinary habits of mind in conjunction with the literature on threshold concepts may have influenced the way I read the Framework.

For me, though, the Framework speaks to the content I consider important in my course. At times, that is because I’m thinking in terms of layers of learning outcomes that build upon one another to eventually lead up to getting students across the threshold of those major concepts. At other times, it just does a better job of articulating what I teach than the Standards ever did.

In one of the sessions that directly addressed the Framework, Lane Wilkinson criticized the use of threshold concept theory as the foundation for our guiding document. He argued that threshold concepts are the points at which students have difficulty, not the core concepts of the discipline.

OK, so what core concepts do we teach that do not contribute to students getting closer to crossing the 6 thresholds? I still teach the same core content. I teach students to evaluate their sources, how to differentiate between types of sources (book vs journal vs magazine, etc), how to avoid plagiarism, how to find credible sources, etc. That core content hasn’t changed… Well, it has a bit, but that’s a matter of refining my teaching each semester, not due to the Framework! What has changed is that the Framework helps me tie together my smaller daily learning outcomes into an overarching narrative. I’ve used it to help communicate to students how all of these smaller lessons, which on their own may feel like busywork, actually contribute to a larger goal. Of course, I don’t ask students to read any of the Frames for a one-shot, but even then, it helps me think through how I want to approach the material for that one shot.

In his presentation, Lane also critiqued the Framework as difficult to assess. Again, of course you’ll have difficulty assessing whether students understand that authority is constructed and contextual – you have to break that down to more granular, assessable learning outcomes. Just like I can’t easily assess the approved learning outcomes for my course. One example: “Effectively and efficiently access, evaluate, select and use needed information” – I have to break that down to more granular components that I can assess.

I think it is a feature, not a bug, that the Framework has not been mapped to the Standards. We each teach in very different contexts, so it makes sense for the guiding document for our field to provide flexibility for each of us to determine which learning outcomes will most effectively get our students across these thresholds.

Another significant difference that I noticed was that some were interpreting the Framework much more strictly than I have been. For example, one person said they thought that the “authority is constructed and contextual” frame is too passive, focusing on evaluating information that will be consumed instead of how students are moving into positions of authority themselves. And that many are still upholding the same ideas of authority, while just shifting to talk about how they got that authority without interrogating the deeper structures upholding the hegemony.

That interpretation is very different from the way I’ve taught lessons related to that frame. Yeah, I talk about authority. Yeah, you have to be a researcher and some degree of an expert in that field to be published in a scholarly journal. I then take it further to ask who gets to be a researcher? How many of their profs are white, and how does that ratio compare to the student population? Why is that? Can they afford to just be full time students and do undergraduate research, or do they need to work to support themselves (and often their families)?

After breaking that down, I ask what they are experts in. If authority is constructed & contextual, do you always need that expert research? When? One student in my class in the spring 2015 semester claimed expertise in doing eyebrows. Great! That is definitely a time when a person can be the “authority” without having done scholarly research. How do you become an expert in that?

To further complicate authority, I brought up some issues from the media coverage of Ferguson. In one incident back in August 2014, several tweets critiqued the way the local news was reporting on the protests. On one of the early days, before the national media arrived, twitter claimed that the local news crew was not filming while protesters were calm. They also turned their cameras toward the ground when a car full of white boys drove through the parking lot shouting racial slurs at the crowd. But when the crowd gets angry and starts shouting back, those cameras pop up to film the rowdy angry crowd. So who is the authority there? The broadcast news reporters are generally held to be more credible than some random person on the street. So what if that random person on the street is reporting on problems with the way the local news is reporting on a story? What if that random person has video of this behavior?

I don’t feel like the Standards had room for these sorts of questions. My reading of the Framework does leave plenty of room for these sorts of questions and more. But I got the sense at LOEX that I was reading the Framework much more loosely than many of those I spoke with.

This came up in my discussion with a friend over dinner on Saturday evening, including why I may be reacting differently than others to the Framework. She noted that a lot of people are scared of abandoning the Standards, and may not be comfortable developing their own learning outcomes. Giving up the Standards is not scary to me because I never really worked with them. I started my first real grown up librarian job in Sept 2011, after people had started suggesting renewing or moving away from the Standards. In January 2012, I started teaching my credit bearing class. And then in summer 2012, I attended Immersion, where we talked about developing learning outcomes instead of memorizing the standards. So most of my instruction has been tied to course-level learning outcomes broken down to smaller lesson-sized learning outcomes, without any direct reference to the Standards.

She also noted that a lot of people are scared of giving up the one-shot in favor of scaffolded integration into the curriculum. The frames are too big to fit into one or even three 50-minute sessions, so we need to integrate IL into program curricula. If we’re not teaching one shots, what will we do? That also just seems to me like what we should be doing, in part because of hearing Char Booth talk about curriculum mapping at Immersion in 2012. Why do isolated one shots when we could integrate this throughout the curriculum?

I don’t have a pat conclusion to make here. I’m not sure whether identifying my biases in this helps, and maybe all of this ground has already been covered elsewhere. I really like the Framework and find it useful.

Wrapping up the semester

Once again, it has been a long time since I posted. Since my last post, we’ve been doing the normal LIBR 1101 material – plagiarism, searching in a couple of different databases, filter bubbles, copyright & Creative Commons, social media literacy, etc. While I’m constantly revising how I discuss those topics in class, they don’t seem as novel to me as some of the earlier lessons.

However, I mentioned in my last post that, when they submitted their first proposed research topics, I realized I should have spent more time explaining that they weren’t limited to just researching what happened in August in Ferguson. I thought they didn’t realize at first that I meant they could address any of the related issues, like racial disparities in education or in health care. I now realize that at least some of them didn’t even know what issues were related to this.

On the last day of class before spring break, I had the students do an in class writing exercise responding to the prompt:

Do you have any questions remaining about topics we’ve already covered this semester? What else do you want to cover in the rest of this semester?

One student wrote that they wanted to go over what exactly happened in Ferguson in August. I had been working with the assumption that there was enough media coverage that most of the US knew at least roughly what happened, and that those who picked my section in particular would be those who knew more about it than average. That was a bad assumption!

So last week, with only one week of classes remaining in the semester, we spent a day discussing what happened. I went briefly over the timeline of events, then asked why Mike Brown might have mouthed off to the cop, other than the fact that he was 18. (I’m pretty sure I mouthed off to some authority figures when I was 18 as well!) That led in to discussing some of the roots of the tension between citizens and cops in that area, including the heavy reliance on tickets and court fees to fund city governments, at times leading to jail time for those who cannot pay a minor traffic ticket, and the “substantial evidence of racial bias” found in the DOJ report. I mentioned Darren Wilson’s history – fired along with the rest of the Jennings PD because of racial tensions with residents in Jennings, so he just went a few miles down the road to join the Ferguson PD. I wound up doing a really rough drawing of the St Louis area on the whiteboard to illustrate that, which then provided a convenient way to segue into the crazy way school districts are drawn in that area (another layer of confusing, which don’t match up with municipal boundaries, so some people in Ferguson attend the Ferguson-Florissant district, while others are in the Normandy district), and some of the disparities in the schools.

I don’t remember everywhere else we went in that discussion, but it eventually turned to more recent incidents closer to us – Anthony Hill – and other incidents around the country, including John Crawford, Kajieme Powell, Tamir Rice, and most recently Walter Scott, and other issues related to those shootings.

I can’t tell you how much I wish I had taken a day to do this earlier in the semester! For one thing, not everyone had even heard about all of these issues before. Those who had drew new connections. One student mentioned watching a video about St Louis County in another class, but didn’t realize until I drew that map on the board that Ferguson is IN St Louis County. So, yeah, the issues raised in that video are not just similar to what was happening in Ferguson, they WERE things that were happening to the residents of Ferguson!

My favorite part of that day, though, was the reaction of one particular student. This person hardly ever says anything in class. They are attentive, and always very thoughtful when responding to in class writing prompts, but just rarely actually speak. By the end of class that day, this person was speaking up, mentioning some of the other cases listed above… I think this person said more during class that day than I’ve heard from them during class time for at least the past couple of months combined. That made me really happy! (Side note, I am really wishing English had a gender-neutral singular pronoun right now!)

I don’t know whether I’ll have another opportunity to teach this class in this way. The section I’m scheduled to teach this fall is just a regular section, and I didn’t have our Info Lit Coordinator add any special description to my section in the class bulletin… But if I do try to do anything like this again, I won’t repeat the mistake of assuming students know anything about the special topic of the course!

In my department, one of my colleagues has started up a critical pedagogy book group. Yesterday, while discussing portions of Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks, the conversation somehow came around to my realization that I needed to spend time in class just going over what actually happened in Ferguson and the highlights from that class session. We started to talk about ways to do more topic-focused sections of the class – not necessarily on topics as charged as structural racism, but possibly on privacy issues or other relevant topics. One person raised the idea of starting off the semester by watching Citizenfour in class in order to ensure that everyone was starting with the same base of knowledge, and then structuring the rest of the course around the privacy issues raised there. Being pre-tenure in rural Georgia, I’m a bit scared to spend as much time addressing structural racism in what appears to be a neutral library course without having some mechanism to ensure in advance that those who choose this section do so because they are willing to engage in those discussions. So I’ll have to think about how to focus a regular section around a special topic that may not be as subversive but that will let me slip some discussion of structural racism in there… But whatever I do, I’ll make sure to spend time on some shared readings, a class lecture, or a video about the topic to make sure everyone has some base knowledge of the topic before diving in!

Since the last time I wrote about my class…

We’ve had 5 class meetings since my last post about my class – some more interesting than others.

On Wed, Feb 4, the plan was to work on the beginning stage of developing research questions for them to focus on for the rest of the semester. Unfortunately, attendance was pretty low that day – only 5 students were present. In past semesters, there was no subject focus for the class. I would assign them to groups of 4, ask them to find 2-3 news stories they wanted to know more about, and then gave them time in class to discuss which one to focus on for a group topic. Then each was required to develop a different research question related to the group topic. So, for example, one group chose an article about an artist. The math education major wrote about the ways art is being used to help teach math, while the criminology major wrote something about crime scene photography (considering photography as a type of art), and so on.

This semester, with such a small class, I am skipping the process of assigning them to groups. And with the focus on Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter, I asked them to develop questions related to that. In class on Feb 4, I was prepared to have them work on a “presearch” worksheet to guide them through finding more information to narrow a topic. However, I also gave them the option of spending some time brainstorming a concept map on the whiteboards in the room. We had a really good discussion in class. Their homework that night was to write a blog post discussing three possible research questions.

In reading the research question posts, I realized that I had not been clear enough in explaining what I meant for the scope of the projects. I feel like I wrote it out pretty broadly on the class page about the research projects:

This spring, you will all develop research questions delving into issues related to the Ferguson movement. Examples include researching police brutality, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial disparities in education, continuing effects of residential patterns like redlining, white-flight, and gentrification, examining the intersectionality of privilege, and many other related topics.

But I realized I needed to spend more time in class and in replies to their posts explaining that they can explore topics beyond just what happened in Ferguson in August. The movement that started there has become a huge national discussion about racial disparities in a wide range of contexts. So I suggested that the education major consider a question related to disparities in education, and that the student who plans to work in public health consider a health-related question.

Their other homework that weekend was to read Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression by nina de jesus. I was nervous about assigning that in a 1000-level course, but it was designed to be an honors section, so I took that chance.

So, on Mon, Feb 9, we spent most of the class period discussing the feedback on their research questions (explaining the scope of possible related issues) and the article. As expected, several of them said they had difficulty understanding the article. Most of them said this was the first time they’ve had to read a scholarly article like this. I think the discussion went well. I don’t think I would use this article in a regular section of this course – partly because it seems more appropriate for a higher level of student, and partly because I’m not confident the discussion would have gone so well in a class of 24 students.

Toward the end of that session, we shifted from discussion of the article into talking about types of sources and the information cycle. We brainstormed a list of types of sources (books, journal articles, magazine articles, blogs, social media, websites, etc), and then discussed which type shows up first, right after an event occurs, which shows up within a day, and so on. But a student brought up the important question of picking apart those types – isn’t a blog a type of social media? where does “website” fit, when CNN’s website gets updated many times a day, a blog looks like a website, but then other websites might not get updated for a couple of years. We ran out of time before we exhausted that discussion.

Their homework for the next class period was just to watch a few videos about scholarly vs. popular distinctions, the information cycle, and peer review. No blog post required, for a change!

Of course, with no blog post about the videos required, I started class on Wed, Feb 11, with another in class writing assignment. I asked them to write out all of the distinctions they could remember between scholarly and popular sources. This was also intended to prime them for the exercise they were about to do. I brought in several copies of a set of articles all on the same broad topic and asked them to work in pairs to categorize the articles (each pair had one set to work with). There are 8 or 9 articles in the sets, including a newspaper article, a couple of magazine articles, a couple of scholarly journal articles, a chapter from a scholarly edited volume, and a couple of trade journals. Most of them came up with 3 categories – scholarly, popular, and somewhere in between – which is exactly what I was hoping for. So then we discussed how they categorized them – which ones went in which pile, and why. I feel like that lesson went really well.

I gave them a break on homework last weekend. On Mon, Feb 16, I did a rare thing and prepared a presentation to rehash once again the different types of sources, partially reviewing what we covered last week, but bringing in discussions of the types of information found in those sources (background and history vs report of findings from a recent research study vs introductory overview, etc). I feel like this is something I should have done more effectively in past classes, and that I’m finally getting into a better sequence for teaching this part of the course.

For Wed, Feb 18, we shifted to discussing plagiarism. The homework assigned Monday was to read a couple of articles (here and here), and then post a blog post responding to several questions. The last question on the prompt asked whether they were aware of any news stories about people getting caught plagiarizing. Only 2 of the students said they had heard of any such cases – one about the Mic News Director being fired, and the other about politician Ben Carson.

In class on Wed, I did my usual routine of showing some videos. I started off with Key & Peele’s “High on potenuse” video, mainly because I first saw it recently and thought it was pretty funny. Then I moved in to an example of complaints against Beyonce, and then a news story about Blurred Lines. I like these examples for a few reasons. After showing about half of the first Beyonce video, I ask what they think – if that was plagiarism or not – which opens the question of how much is too much, and how could she have done the exact same thing without being called a plagiarizer (include an explicit reference in the video, giving credit to the source of those moves). But then the short news clip about it mentions that the original choreographer is threatening to sue for plagiarism. I use that to start to disentangle plagiarism from copyright violation – the copyright holder can sue regardless of whether Beyonce included a citation, since the suit is about a copyright violation. On the flip side, getting copyright clearance has no bearing on whether or not you are plagiarizing. And then the end of the clip about Blurred Lines, they mention that the defense is claiming the aspects they are being accused of copying were common in several works from that era… Which opens the discussion of common knowledge, and when something does or doesn’t need to be cited.

Of course, I rather despise the rape anthem Blurred Lines, so need a palate cleanser after hearing it in that news clip! So from there, I move in to Weird Al’s Word Crimes, and ask whether that is plagiarism or copyright violation. That leads in to discussions of parody, as well as the ways non-academic works can reference other materials without including an explicit citation. Of course you’re supposed to get the reference of which song Weird Al is doing a parody of – if you don’t get the reference, it’s nowhere near as entertaining! And, finally, I wrap it up with a gratuitous showing of the video some people from my campus did for Pharrell’s Happy, again asking whether there is any aspect of plagiarism or copyright violation in that video. I mentioned the fact that Pharrell put out the call for people to make videos to that song, which means he gave permission for them to use the song, and they’re just dancing to it, not claiming to have created the song. But, the fact that a lot of other memes pop up using songs without permission doesn’t mean they can’t get in trouble or that it’s legal to use a song without (usually paying for) permission. I then compare that to speeding on the interstate – just because a lot of people get away with it, you know you’re still going to get that ticket if you’re the one that gets pulled over that day.

I know a lot of people don’t get in to discussions of copyright issues when discussing plagiarism, but I think it’s a really important distinction to make.

The homework this weekend is to work through a plagiarism tutorial, including taking the test at the end, and then writing a blog post about it. I really like this tutorial in particular because the test is just 10 examples of a source material and some text using that source – students have to apply their understanding by identifying whether it is an example of word for word plagiarism, paraphrasing plagiarism, or not plagiarism. In the past, I’ve just required that they get the certificate and turn that in. However, I always have a few students who just aren’t able to get the 9/10 correct needed to earn the certificate. So, this time, they will all write a blog post summarizing the most important points from the tutorial and discussing their experience with the test – what was the most difficult part? if you didn’t pass the first time, what helped? Those who get the certificate will embed it in their posts, while those who don’t will print it out, write their answers to the questions on the flow chart provided by the tutorial for identifying plagiarism for each question, and turn it in on Monday. So we’ll see how that goes!

Discussing ideologies and hegemony in a 1000 level class….

In my last post, I wrote about the first couple of weeks of the class I’m teaching this semester. I’m trying to post more regularly this semester to write and reflect on how this class is going. So the rest of this post makes more sense if you’ve already read the first post about this class!

When I last wrote, we had discussed the Framework for Information Literacy. They had a new homework assignment, which would be due on our next meeting day – one week later, since Monday classes were cancelled in observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

For Wed, Jan 21, the students were required to find two encyclopedia definitions of ideology and then watch a provided video. They then had to post to their class blogs, summarizing the explanations and answering a few questions. In class, they started with another short writing exercise to get the topic fresh in their minds (a couple of sentences about what an ideology is and how ideologies relate to discussions about Ferguson), and then we discussed what they had found. It’s a challenging topic, so we spent a lot of time talking about examples. I wish I had written right afterward, when the discussion was fresher in my mind. My concern about the discussion is that I might have confused them by complicating the concept too much. For challenging concepts like this, it’s difficult to know what the right balance is between an overly simplistic overview and getting in too deep. I had this problem when I taught anthropology, too – how do you condense this idea that you’ve spent so much time studying into just one or two 50-minute lectures? (Now I go for discussions, but the anthropology class I taught was a lecture course with 225 students one semester and 180 the next!) I hope I’m just being insecure and that they weren’t as confused as I fear!

For the next class period, Mon, Jan 26, they had a similar assignment – find an engaging and useful source that explains cultural hegemony, and then write a blog post responding to a few questions and including a link to the source they found. Some clearly were still struggling with the concepts, based on what they posted, but some really impressed me! I think this was my favorite video a student found:

So guess what we discussed in class on Monday last week? Again, it’s a challenging concept, and I’m not confident they all left class totally understanding it. After class, I went back through their blog posts to comment, and wound up deciding to write a wrap-up post, pulling together some of the examples from various students’ blogs. I hope that, between the class discussion, comments on their blogs, and the wrap-up post, they’re getting it.

After discussing hegemony, we segued into discussing how they determined which sources would be good to use – what made you think the information was credible? We wound up running out of time… Which tends to happen in there. Some of the students show up as much as an hour early – which I know because I try to go over about that time to make sure the tables are arranged in a rectangle, so we can all sit in a “circle” to talk… And they’ll ask questions and talk about class stuff (questions about an assignment, comments about a discussion or homework, etc), instead of just sitting there wanting to quietly work on other stuff while waiting. It is really awesome to have such engaged students!

For Wed, they read the logical fallacies listed at Thou shalt not commit logical fallacies and the list of rhetological fallacies from Information is Beautiful. Their assigned blog post was to compare and contrast the lists – what is similar, which are different, which are the same fallacy by different names, etc.

In class on Wed, we wrapped up talking about evaluation criteria, framed as things to pay attention to when deciding whether a source is credible, not as a strict checklist. And then we shifted into an exercise I’ve used in class in past semesters to practice identifying logical fallacies. I gave them a worksheet that had a cheat-sheet listing of some fallacies on one side and then showed a clip of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit (the GMO food discussion from the Eat This episode). It’s pretty profanity-laden, so wouldn’t be appropriate in a K-12 classroom, but this is college – so I told them to pay attention to when and how they cuss. So we watched maybe 10 minutes of that and then spent the rest of the class period talking about the ridiculous number of examples we could identify from that short amount of time.

Their homework for today was to find an article or news video on something related to the discussions raised by the Ferguson protests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement – so pretty much anything related to racial disparities in the US. I encouraged them to find something that they want to know more about, so that it can help them gain some information toward developing a research question. But, it needed to present an argument so that there would be at least one logical-fallacy-as-rhetorical-device they could identify in the article/video. For their blog post, they had to explain the fallacy they found and how it was used in that source, evaluate the impact of that fallacy, and then also try to identify an ideological perspective that the source supports. I skimmed them before class, but need to take some time tomorrow to comment on those.

In class today, I opened with mentioning that we’re now in Black History Month and we talked about that a little bit. And then shifted into talking about “what is research”, and how college level research differs from the expectations for a high school research paper. And then asked whether relying too heavily on published research supports hegemonic perspectives. We talked about some of the inequalities in the education system in general, focusing on the ways those inequalities add up to affect who is more likely to have a prestigious educational pedigree, and then how that can affect their ability to get published. Blind peer review can help some, by not letting the reviewer know if the author is from Harvard or MIT or backwater-university-I’ve-never-heard-of, but it doesn’t wipe out the discrepancies in terms of intersectional privileges that affect chances of a person being in a position to publish. So how does that affect the content of what gets published? And what does all of that mean for our ability to do research if we want to break out of the dominant narratives?

And that’s where we are now. On Wed, I’m planning to talk a bit about developing research questions and then give them time to brainstorm ideas in pairs or groups of 3. They will each be working toward a final project:

This spring, you will all develop research questions delving into issues related to the Ferguson movement. Examples include researching police brutality, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial disparities in education, continuing effects of residential patterns like redlining, white-flight, and gentrification, examining the intersectionality of privilege, and many other related topics. We will spend time during the semester developing your research questions. I encourage you to make sure to find an issue that you care about and want to know more about for your own gain, not just to meet a requirement in this course. You will search for sources to help answer your research question, and use those to complete the 4 inter-related components below.

The components are an annotated bibliography, a research proposal, a social media presentation, and a final in class presentation. So 4 different ways of presenting pretty much the same research.

Before I wrap this up, some credits are due. I borrowed the ideology and cultural hegemony assignments from a class co-taught by a couple of my colleagues, Jessica Critten and Craig Schroer, in the spring 2014 semester. And Jessica and Craig also deserve credit for the exercise using Penn & Teller to practice picking out logical fallacies in an argument. They came up with that one a bit longer ago, so I’ve used that one a few times already! It feels odd that most of the assignments discussed in this post are pretty much straight up copied from colleagues… But it’s also really great to have that sort of collaborative relationship with colleagues, so we share assignments and ideas pretty regularly!

Spring 2015 class

I’ve written some here before about the class I teach. This semester, though, I get to do something a little bit different. It’s still a 2 credit hour class that meets twice a week in 52 minute chunks, but I get to focus on information literacy through the lens of Ferguson with a small group of engaged students.

Anyone who follows me on twitter knows that, since August, I’ve been spending a big chunk of my free time following the protests in Ferguson and around the country (and retweeting updates, articles, etc). So when my boss asked if anyone would like to plan an honors section focusing on a specific issue for this spring, I jumped at the opportunity. I wound up with too few students for it to run as an honors section, but was able to change the restriction to “instructor approval required”. Both the honors distinction (requires honor student status OR a 3.2 gpa AND advisor override) and the instructor approval restrictions place barriers to students who may want to enroll. Initially, the reason for planning this as an honors section was to set this section apart as focusing on a specific topic and to indicate a higher level of inquiry than is found in some other sections. I tried to bring in some discussion of issues related to Ferguson (bias in media representation, the role of twitter as an information source, etc.) last semester, but worried each time I did about getting complaints from people who feel that they didn’t sign up for such discussions. Having some restriction on the course and the special topic in the class bulletin was a way to make sure people are signing up for that discussion. Once I removed the honors designation, I wanted a way to make sure that those who enroll for my section were signing up due to an interest in the topic, not just because it was the only section left with open seats. I don’t know if it was right or wrong to play gatekeeper like that, but it resulted in a class of only 10 students who are actively engaging in the class (so far at least!).

Classes started last week, Mon Jan 5. Yeah, super early! On Monday, I spent a big chunk of the class period going over the syllabus. There are arguments for and against this. Last semester, I left it to the students to read the syllabus on their own, and instead showed a short video, and then talked about what that has to do with the class. The reasoning behind that was to make the first day more engaging than just having the prof read the syllabus at them. This time, however, I wanted to call more attention to parts of the syllabus to make sure everyone there really was on board with what they had signed up for. I didn’t read the whole thing, but talked about the parts that I wanted to be sure they pay attention to.

After the review of the syllabus, though, the class was small enough to go around the room introducing ourselves. A grand total of 8 students were present that day – not everyone is in the class now, and some of those in the class now were not yet in the class last Monday. But I feel like that was even better for setting a good tone for the semester than what I did last fall.

The second day of class, Wed Jan 7, was less exciting. They’ll be required to maintain a blog, and will post their regular homework assignments there. So, we gave up a class period to setting up their blogs and making sure everyone knows how to add a new post. One of the lessons I’ve learned in teaching this class is just how ridiculous the “digital native” trope is – most of our students can surf the web, but get flustered when asked to create a blog on wordpress or create and share a google document for their first time. So if I want to use a new tool, I need to devote class time to making sure everyone knows how to use that tool, instead of assuming that “digital native” students can just figure it out.

The third day of class, Mon Jan 12, was when it started to get really cool. I assigned the introduction to Teaching to Transgress as a required reading for discussion on Monday. In class, I started the class period by having them write just a 1-2 sentence summary of the chapter and then speculate on why I asked them to read that chapter for class. We then spent 10 minutes or so discussing that. The key point I tried to highlight was the different approaches to education – the banking system of education that left hooks apathetic versus an approach that encourages them to get excited and acknowledges them as whole people instead of just names and id numbers.

I used that to segue into an exercise that I learned at the International Society for Exploring Teaching and Learning (ISETL) conference last October. I modified the exercise slightly, but it just asks for one’s name, citizenship, nationality, race, culture, and gender (Stephen Braye’s version had religion where I substituted race, but the rest is copied directly from him).

First, I gave them a couple of minutes to write their answers. During this time, one student asked what I meant by “culture”, and I told her that was part of the question there. Once almost everyone was done writing, I asked them to break up into pairs to discuss which was the easiest and which was the hardest to answer (again, copying the way it was done in the conference presentation). After about half of the groups looked like they had run out of things to say, I opened the discussion to a whole class discussion.

Predictably, they all seemed to agree that “name” was the easiest to answer. I thought about calling on one student who goes by a name other than what is on their official record or the student who just had a name change in the system, but didn’t want to put anyone on the spot… So instead, I brought up the fact that name isn’t so straightforward for me in this setting. Among peers, I’m Angela. When I participated in this activity at a professional conference, that seemed like a really easy one to answer. But as professor? Philosophically, I prefer to be Angela, even with my students. Pragmatically, in past classes, encouraging that level of informality seemed to correlate with students not taking the class seriously. So should I maintain that distance and make them call me “Professor Pashia” or should I have them call me Angela? The only response I got were some nods and some looks like “huh, I hadn’t thought about that”, so I just left the question hanging out there.

Everyone who spoke up agreed that “culture” was the most difficult to answer. One student mentioned listing “Southern US” because of where we’re located and because of not knowing what else to put. So we spent a good chunk of time talking about what factors go in to culture. Given that my academic background is in cultural anthropology, I had fun complicating that discussion! While some volunteered their responses as part of the discussion, we mostly just talked about what factors go into that category – region, nationality, parents’ ethnicity, region, socioeconomic class, etc. My goal was to make it comfortable for them to discuss their backgrounds if they want without forcing anyone to share more than they want to.

With just a few minutes left, I asked what they put for “race”. After one student explained their reasoning for preferring African American over black, and another agreed with that reasoning for listing themself as Caucasian, I asked if anyone has a different perspective on the terms. When no one did, I explained that I was curious because I’ve been reading stuff on twitter about the politics of the different labels, with some activists preferring to be labeled Black. Reading about those different perspective on twitter were what made me realize the need to ask what my students prefer.

That was an amazing class session.

For today, they read the definition of information literacy and the Authority is constructed & contextual and Information creation as a process frames (the descriptions, knowledge practices, and dispositions) from the latest draft of the Framework for Information Literacy. We discussed those in class and how they relate to the rest of what we’re doing in class. So today was not as amazing as Monday, but I still enjoyed being able to discuss it with such a small group of students who actually participate in class discussion.

Before getting in to the discussion today, I had them do a short writing exercise – write just a couple of sentences summarizing the reading. One student asked if they should also speculate on why I had them read this, like last time, and I said yes if you have time, but don’t stress if you’re still working on the summary. I set a timer for 4 minutes (started after everyone had paper and pen out), to make sure we had plenty of time for discussion. After they finished, before we got into the discussion, I asked them to speculate why I was having them do this writing. I was pleasantly surprised that the first response was something about getting this fresh in their minds. I said yeah, pretty much! While it serves as a check to make sure they did the reading, it also gives them time to get it fresh in their minds, and give people who need more time to think before speaking time to think about what they want to say, while those who don’t need that time can just write as much as they want in the time allowed!

I’m going to try to write more regularly here about how the class is going. I’ve said before that I was going to try to start posting once a week, and then fizzled out after just a couple of weeks, so we’ll see. But I’m really excited about this class and want to keep a journal of how it goes here.

ISETL 2014

I just returned home last night from the annual conference of the International Society for the Exploration of Teaching & Learning. This was my first time attending ISETL. It’s targeted to everyone in higher education who wants to learn and share practices to enhance student learning. I really enjoyed Library Instruction West because all of the people I talked with shared that focus on improving learning… But most people there are struggling with the challenge of improving information literacy learning via one-shots. I’m thankful to also get to go beyond library conferences, to get a chance to discuss these issues with people who don’t share my subject matter but do share the semester-long course format.

I tried to take notes during sessions, but fell short on that in many sessions because they were so engaging and interactive. The presenters really walked the walk with active learning, whether that meant activities or just large discussions… Though, when I say large, I mean including everyone in the rather small rooms! Most of the rooms only had seating for 24 people, and I’d guess the largest room still didn’t seat more than 40 people. I’ll admit to often being a “bad student” – if you’re just up there reading your powerpoint slide at me, I’ll be busy on facebook or google chat while half listening to see when you get to something directly relevant to me. So it’s really high praise for me to say that there were only one or two sessions at this conference during which I even checked email!

Some of the sessions that stuck with me the most were those that addressed ways to get discussions about inclusivity and diversity started. In one session – Establishing Identity, Challenging Identity: Pushing First Year Students to Explore the Meaning of Identity and its Impact on Learning – the presenter gave us hand-outs to fill out. It asked for each person’s name, citizenship, nationality, culture, religion, and gender. After taking a couple of minutes to fill it out, you discuss with a partner or small group which was the easiest and hardest question for you to answer. And, then the presenter led the whole group in a discussion. There wasn’t a question for race, but that came up in the discussion of nationality – who answers African-American versus who answers just American? Which terms do people prefer, and why? For example, there was one woman in the audience who identified as American Indian, preferring that term over Native American, so we all learned a bit about the politics of that label. The presenter usually does this exercise in class early in the semester, both to get these conversations happening and get students thinking about these varied classification schema and to demonstrate his interest in who the students are, beyond their student numbers or official names. Though I joked about “name” being the easiest field to fill out, it was a complex issue for one woman who talked about choosing a name to change to after a divorce, but then changing her name again after a new marriage, and how that intersected with her sense of identity.

In another session, Teaching diversity and inclusion? Actively engage students emotionally to enhance learning, the presenter did a brief intro and then had us participate in a “stereotype party”: he had a bunch of “types”, which he stuck on our backs with scotch tape; each of us would then look at a person’s back to see what type of person they are, and then talk to them using very exaggerated stereotypes about that category of person. I got “hearing-impaired”, so people spoke really loudly at me and exaggerated their mouth movements to help me read their lips. Another person got “multi-millionaire”. Of course, there were also the categories you’d expect to see in something like this – homosexual, African American, Asian, etc. After a discussion about some of the experiences (how weird it was), the presenter talked about how this exercise has gone over in his classes – full of mostly white dudes in their junior or senior year at the Air Force Academy. In class, he shows a video about the Race Card Project to introduce the exercise, and then has them fill out a response worksheet and write their own “race card” (just on the worksheet, no requirement for them to actually submit it online). Honestly, I would be afraid to do this in my classes, but it might be interesting to do as part of a larger workshop on inclusivity and diversity for faculty members.

Though it wasn’t the focus of his talk, this presenter mentioned an activity that isn’t quite as scary to think about using in an undergraduate class. To spin things around from negative stereotypes to privilege, the presenter has students construct necklaces in class, using one bead from each type of privilege listed. He didn’t specify how many he normally lays out or list all of them, but, for example, you get a bead if you’ve never been followed around a department store, another if you’ve never been pulled over for being in the wrong neighborhood, another if you can legally marry the person you love, etc. Next semester, I’ll be teaching an honors section of my course, focusing on privilege and bias in the news. I’m still working on exactly how to focus it – the idea came out of watching the way twitter versus mainstream media discussed Ferguson, but do I want to keep such a narrow focus? Anyway, this privilege necklace idea might be useful to do when talking about some of the ways mainstream news outlets reinforce hegemonic ideologies about race, gender, etc.

I also attended a session about African American English – Code-Switching for College Success: African American English in the Urban Classroom. I’m familiar with a lot of the background info the presenter had on his slides from my anthropology days, but the specific examples he had time to talk about were interesting… But then an African American woman interrupted his talk to argue against allowing this in the classroom, because it doesn’t matter what linguists think of AAE, potential employers and other authority figures still expect them to speak the prestige dialect. There were two other African Americans in the room (out of 8-12 attendees, it was a small conference!), who chimed in on the discussion. Observing the debate was more interesting than anything the presenter could have planned! He was there to present research demonstrating that it is far more effective to teach formal English in a way that respects AAE as a grammatically complex dialect, using many techniques drawn from teaching English as a second language, as opposed to methods that dismiss AAE as lazy and wrong. Which, of course, shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who understands the affective aspect of learning and a bit of linguistics!

Another session examined the Common Core standards coming to a K-12 institution near you – The Common Core is here, but are K-16 educators ready for implementation? Though, the title is a bit misleading, since Common Core is not “here” in the sense of being in practice yet. This session was useful in that I have heard a lot of the buzz (complaints) about the Common Core, but haven’t taken the time to get more info. The presentation was not as dynamic as some of the other sessions, so I wasn’t the best student through the whole session, but what I did catch was good to know. At least according to this presenter, the Common Core is designed to bring schools back around to emphasizing deeper learning of fewer learning outcomes. Hooray! The engineer in the room was frustrated with the shift from algebra→geometry→trig→calculus to math 1→math 2→math 3… But the details the presenter pointed out from the English language arts standards seemed reasonable to me. If I understood correctly, the new Common Core will be implemented next year for K-3rd grade… I didn’t think to ask whether it will be a rolling implementation with that cohort of kids and younger, or if they will do anything to get students who will be in 4th grade or higher next year up to the new CC standards. So it looks like we still have a few more years of NCLB students to get through college before we even begin to see any impact of the Common Core in our college and university courses.

I could go on and on, but overall, this was a great conference and I hope to return again next year. My
worst complaint is that there were so many good sessions packed in that I had to skip a few that I would have liked to attend, just because my brain was at capacity and I needed a break! Another great thing about this conference – though I did not meet any other librarians at this conference, every single person I talked to about information literacy already knew what that meant! That was really exciting! I’m used to introducing myself as a librarian who teaches a class on how to do academic research, including how to evaluate a wide range of sources to determine which is credible AND which is appropriate for their information need, and blah blah blah… Because I just kind of assume “information literacy” is one of those terms that only librarians use, so if I want people to understand what I do, I need to describe it instead of just using a label. But I found myself shifting my strategy, so that by the last day, when anyone asked what I teach, I just told them I teach information literacy, just like the other professors say they teach psychology or marketing or whatever. It was really refreshing!

Explicitly teaching “format as a process”

In my last post, I wrote about using parts of the latest draft of the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education as reading assignments in my information literacy course. This past week, my students read the section describing “format as a process”:

Format is the way tangible knowledge is disseminated. The essential characteristic of format is the underlying process of information creation, production, and dissemination, rather than how the content is delivered or experienced.

A print source is characterized by its physical structure (e.g., binding, size, number of pages) as well as its intellectual structure (e.g., table of contents, index, references). A digital source is characterized by its presentation, intellectual structure and physical structure (e.g., file format). In many cases, the way that information is presented online obscures not just the format, but also the processes of creation and production that need to be understood in order to evaluate the source fully. Understanding what distinguishes one format from another and why it matters requires a thorough knowledge of the information and research cycles, scholarly communication, and common publishing practices, especially for those who have never experienced the print version of formats.

The expert understands that the quality and usefulness of a given piece of information is determined by the processes that went into making it. The processes of researching, writing, editing, and publishing information–whether print or digital–can be highly divergent, and information quality reflects these differences. From tweets to magazines to scholarly articles, the unique capabilities and constraints of each format determines how information can and should be used. The expert learns that the instant publishing found in social media often comes at the cost of accuracy, while the thorough editorial process of a book often comes at the cost of currency. Whatever form information takes, the expert looks to the underlying processes of creation as well as the final product in order to critically evaluate that information for use as evidence.

So, here’s where I admit to not having participated at all in the discussion and revision process before now. And, well, it seems I missed my chance to chime in, since the deadline for feedback on the latest draft was back in July. But the word choice here confused the crap out of most of my students. Maybe no one envisioned using the framework as reading assignments for undergraduate students… I know that’s not the key purpose of this text. But if we want to communicate beyond librarianship what information literacy entails, maybe it would help to use terminology that is less confusing. Of course, it’s easy to critique and hard to revise – I can’t think of any good term for what they’re getting at that wouldn’t also introduce some other confusion.

Overall, students were confused by what we meant by “format”. I got the sense that the first two sentences of the second paragraph, describing print vs digital sources, really threw them – because, really, isn’t that what we’re used to thinking of when we talk about format? If that’s not what we mean by format, why are we discussing those distinctions here? Pretty much every time I talk about format outside of the context of explicitly discussing the framework, I’m talking about whether the source is print, pdf, html, mp3, etc. When my library’s catalog allows you to filter by format, the options include book, electronic book, video, microform, audio, physical object, etc. Yeah, a physical object is a different format from a book according to the Framework’s definition, but the only difference between an e-book and a book is the manner of access. And, an audio source may or may not be a different type of source, depending on whether it is a recording of a musical score or an audiobook. I told my classes that even I found the wording kind of confusing, since it requires adding a new definition for a word I use differently in almost every other context.

Some of them also thought this frame was talking about correctly formatting your work. So their interpretation of format had more to do with getting the capitalization correct for MLA vs APA citations and having the correct margin sizes. I guess that makes sense, since they’re still being reminded to use 12 point font and 1 inch margins on their papers, and being told that it will be pretty obvious if they try to manipulate those options to make their papers seem longer than they are…

Despite this, some of them did “get it”, illustrated by this response to the reading “quiz”:

The main point of this article is that the underlying process of how information is made is more important than how the information is presented.

But many of them had difficulty with it:

Can I get a dumbed down definition of ‘format.’ I’m taking it as where information is gotten or what it is from? Not sure if i am interpreting it right.

So, the class discussions opened with that last question – what the hell does “format” mean in this context? I went for kind of extreme examples, comparing the process of spending 3 years researching and writing a book versus the time and research required to compose a tweet.

From there, we moved into a discussion of the different “knowledge practices” and “dispositions” associated with this frame. I included a question on the reading check “quiz” asking which of these bullet point items the student would most like to discuss in class. By far, the knowledge practice “Identify which formats best meet particular information needs” got the most votes in both sections. I think that clarifying what we’re even talking about with “format” here helped with this. But I used the example of thinking about where you’re going to look when you need to decide where to go for dinner tonight, versus where you’re going to look for information to use in a research paper. Of course you don’t want to find a book to help you decide on restaurants, because of how long it takes to write and publish a book combined with the rate at which restaurants close and new ones open! Understanding that helps explain why Yelp or Urban Spoon is a better source for that information need, while a book is better than a review website for most research papers.

At that point, I explained that we’ll be spending the next week or two talking about the processes that go into creating these different types of sources. So maybe the fact that I hadn’t really talked about differences between various types of information sources yet contributed to the confusion about “formats”.

We continued through all of the bullet points that got any votes, but after the first 2-3, it started to get redundant. They all connect together, which is great, but I hope the class didn’t feel like I was starting to beat a dead horse by continuing to acknowledge each point that anyone voted to discuss.

After that, I raised the few questions that were listed on the “quiz”. In both sections, someone asked what the point of knowing this is. One even must have searched for more information, because that student mentioned that it seems like only librarians talk about this. I’m not sure if it was the tone I used or the wording of the question I read in one section, but the class broke out laughing when I said one person asked “what is the point of reading this?” I’m not sure they realize I would have asked that question if no one else had! So that was my opening to talk about the relation of this idea to the learning outcomes of this class, the larger purpose for both, and the transferability of these skills (which goes back to the reason I’m using the framework as a text in the first place!). In the section with the comment about only finding discussions of this idea among librarians, I talked about it in terms of grammar instruction – whether you diagram a sentence on a regular basis or not, you’re expected to be able to use proper grammar. Your professors may not ever explicitly talk about what distinguishes one type of source from another, but they expect you to somehow know which sources will be best to use in your research papers.

Overall, it’s hard to know yet how that discussion on Thursday really went. Many of my students dislike speaking in class, so while I was trying for a discussion, I did most of the talking (more so in one section than the other, though). Maybe next time it could help to have them discuss the reading in their groups for 5 minutes before attempting a full class discussion. But I hope that the ones who were quietly staring at their feet (yes, feet, I didn’t actually notice any cell phones in laps, which kind of surprises me in hindsight, since I don’t really police that!) were doing so because their learning styles lean toward quietly absorbing ideas before applying them.

I’m looking forward to seeing how Tuesday goes with this context already in place. I’ll be using a lesson I copied from a colleague. I’ll bring in sets of 8 articles (news, magazine, and journal articles) and have them work in groups to decide on how they would like to categorize the articles. In the past, I’ve done this without any introduction – some groups construct their own categories and describe the defining traits in ways that are consistent with the distinctions we usually draw between newspaper, magazine, and journal articles, while other groups create very different categories. Will this discussion about what goes into producing a source lead more of them to construct categories based on what went into producing those articles?

Teaching the new Information Literacy Framework

As I’ve mentioned before here, I am lucky enough to get to teach a semester long 2 credit hour course on information literacy. Unlike some librarians who have to figure out how to convey the complexities of evaluating a wide range of potential sources in one-shot instruction sessions in other people’s courses, I get to meet the same group(s) of students 29 times over the course of a single semester (twice a week for 14 weeks, and then a 2.5 hour final exam period). This semester, I am teaching two sections of the course, with 24 students per section. The down side to that is the time spent grading, but I even enjoy that a lot of the time!

In the past, one of my weak points was not doing enough to clearly articulate the purpose of various assignments. They are all designed to address a specific learning outcome, but some students see them as busywork. Part of the problem is that I have not always been good at making the explicit connection between the assignment and the learning outcome. But part of the problem, I think, has also been that students don’t always have the framework needed to see how that learning outcome relates to the learning outcomes for the course as a whole.

This semester, I’m trying to address both of those issues. To help put the more granular learning objectives in each lesson into a larger context, I am assigning readings from the revised draft Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Instead of reading the whole thing in one go, I’m breaking it up to address each threshold concept on its own. I’m trying this because of the way this draft is written, with a paragraph or two describing the concept, followed by lists of practices and dispositions. The old IL Standards were not written in a way that was as easy to turn into assigned readings!

There are a million ways one could organize a course like mine, since many of the concepts relate back to the others. I start out by spending some time on evaluating information, including discussing evaluation criteria and identifying logical fallacies used as rhetorical devices. From there, we move into a discussion of plagiarism (with a dose of how plagiarism is different from copyright violation). Up next, we talk about developing appropriate research questions and they start to develop their own research questions to work on through the rest of the semester. And then, we start to talk about different types of sources and explore options for finding those sources. Those discussions include types of sources (book, journal article, mag article, etc.), what types of information you’re likely to find in those different types (overview & background info, research findings, details about current news, etc.), scholarly vs. popular and the grey area in between, the cycle of information, and so on. Yeah, we spend time talking about how to access and search databases, but always with an emphasis on function over form – EBSCO looks like this now, but ProQuest databases have most of the same functions, they just look different, and what are they all really doing when you click this filter and how can that help you? From there, I move toward more discussion about copyright, open access, and Creative Commons, and then some social media literacy issues.

So, this semester, on the second day of the first week of classes, I assigned a reading that introduced the new IL Framework and then included the “Authority is constructed and contextual” concept. In one section, we spent probably 20 minutes of the next class period discussing the concept before talking about evaluating information and developing a list of evaluation criteria to use. In the other section, when I asked who had done the reading, only 3 (of 24) raised their hands. So I tabled it to discuss later. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I ever got back to discussing it explicitly in that class.

Next, I assigned them to read “Scholarship is a conversation” in time to discuss it on the Thursday before plagiarism week. This time, though, I added a google form they had to fill out, which will count toward class participation scores (15% of their final grades). In addition to asking them to summarize the readings, I asked them to select one bullet pointed item (either a knowledge practice or a disposition) that they want to discuss in class. I tallied those up right before class and we discussed them in order of how many votes each got (most to least popular). That discussion seemed to go really well in both sections, though we didn’t “cover” the same ground in the same depth in both sections, since I was adjusting to what each group wanted to discuss and had questions about.

This week, they will read “Format as process”. Tomorrow will be the kind of boring class period during which they teach each other some tricks for searching the library catalog and then do a citation exercise. On Thursday, we’ll discuss the concepts in “format as process,” and then next week start identifying some different categories of types of sources. Right now, I have “Searching as exploration” on the schedule in a couple of weeks (week 8 of the semester) – after discussing types of sources but before doing too much in databases. The minor complication in that is that I will be presenting at a conference in Denver on the day that discussion is planned. Luckily, my colleague Jessica Critten has offered to sub for me that day. We haven’t discussed it yet, but I suspect that discussion will be right up her alley! A week later, I’ll assign “Research as inquiry”, and then “Information has value” a week after that – timed so that the last one leads us into a discussion about open access and Creative Commons licensing!

At this point, I feel like this is going really well… But, since we’ve only discussed 2 of the 6 threshold concepts so far, we’ve got a ways to go! Unfortunately, discussing the concept doesn’t equal internalizing that concept. I feel like they’re mostly getting it. I’m often the weird one among friends – when I sit down to grade, I’ve been getting excited at how well most of them are doing instead of complaining about grading being a tedious and/or disappointing chore. But we’re not even half way through the semester, so it remains to be seen how well they will apply this stuff in an actual research project.

The library class

Since mid August, a big chunk of my time and energy has been focused on prepping and teaching the class I teach. While many instruction librarians are focused on getting access to other people’s classes through “one-shot” instruction sessions (the “library day” when a librarian gets to teach students how to find the sources they’ll need for their paper), I get to teach my own course. LIBR 1101, officially titled Academic Research & the Library, is a 2 credit hour course that is included in the core curriculum. It’s not required, since we don’t have anywhere near the faculty we would need for that, but it is one of the options available to fill one of the core requirements.

As with any approved course, we have a shared set of learning outcomes for the course. Beyond that, we all have a lot of freedom to craft our own syllabi. We don’t all teach the concepts in the same order, though there is a lot of overlap due to sharing ideas. One colleague spends more time than I do talking about hegemonic ideologies when discussing the evaluation of information. My plagiarism lesson delves further into disarticulating plagiarism from copyright violation, compared to how others address plagiarism. (It’s also a prelude to spending more time on open access and Creative Commons later in the semester!) A portion of the job ad when I applied here included:

These new spaces will provide opportunities for librarians to experiment with emerging pedagogies. The ideal candidate will be open to new ideas, willing to take risks and have the ability and courage to fail gracefully and change course when necessary.

I have been very lucky that they weren’t kidding when they decided to include that. (And I think we’ve kept that part when we got two new faculty lines a bit over a year ago.)

I’ve been experimenting with using blogs in the course for the past several semesters. In summer 2012, four of us team-taught two 4-week sections of the course for a summer bridge program (each taught one week of the session). We first tried implementing blogging in there, though I don’t remember the reasoning at the time. However, our campus course management system sucked – it was a custom version of Blackboard, but using about a 10 year old version of Blackboard that was not compatible with current Java script… So I went all in on using blogs to replace the CMS for everything except posting grades when I taught my own section again that fall. In that team-taught summer course, we also tried including in class writing assignments. The idea was that the process of writing about the concepts in their own words on the spot would improve long term learning.

After incorporating those ideas into my own course in Fall 2012 and Spring 2013, I was questioning whether the in class writing was actually having the impact I hoped for. Students were learning, but was that particular piece of the puzzle contributing enough to make it worth the class time it ate up? Or would it be as effective to have them respond to the same prompts as homework?

In Fall 2013, I designed a study to test that. I taught two sections of the same course. One section would get time in class to write a response to the prompt, while the other had to respond as homework. To balance the workload, those who wrote in class had to comment on at least 2 classmates’ posts, while those who wrote the post as homework did not have to comment. Unfortunately, even if I had gotten conclusive results, I would have had to ask whether it was the setting for writing the original post or the commenting that made the difference. These posts were in addition to regular homework assignments, in which students had to read an article or watch a video, and then write a post responding to several questions about that text. The weekly writing post prompts were designed for them to just reflect on the material we had covered that week in class.

The results were completely inconclusive, though. Two factors contributed to this. First, completely by chance, one section was an anomaly. In aggregate, they had a higher average gpa than most other sections I’ve taught. That section also had a higher average number of credit hours already earned… Which is significant because our retention and progress to graduation rates leave a lot to be desired. We lose a lot of students before they cross the threshold to sophomore status. In fact, the stats I found track retention based on how many years they attend, but not credit hours earned. Only about 70-72% of our students make it to their second year, but a glance at our 4- and 6- year graduation rates suggests that making it to the second year does not equal sophomore status according to number of credit hours earned (30 credit hours). The other section was more like the other sections I’ve taught, with more than half of the students falling into the range of 0-29 credit hours earned.

Qualitatively, that anomalous section was different as well. I would set a minimum word count for posts to give some indication of how long of a response I was looking for. I didn’t like being a bean counter, but I started doing that because, when I first started this, some students would post really brief responses that didn’t fully answer the question or adequately explain their response. In previous sections and the other section that fall, most students would write just about the required number of words. The word count was usually 250, and very few students ever went over 300 words. In the anomalous section, several students would regularly post 400-500 word responses… And that wasn’t a bunch of fluff, they were going into more detail and depth than the minimum requirement! They were actually really getting into examining this stuff! So, to what degree did the weekly writing posts affect their learning, and to what degree was their learning affected by this higher demonstrated level of curiosity?

The second factor that contributed to the inconclusive results was the fact that I was trying to use the SAILS test to measure learning. My department had talked about instituting a pre- and post-test in all sections of the course. I’m not sure who evaluated our options and decided to go with SAILS, but once the momentum was going that way, I requested that we do the individual score reports instead of cohort scores. That way I could use the data for my purposes too, since I wasn’t going to assign two separate pre-tests! Unfortunately, I realized too late that SAILS is really not designed to test learning over the course of a single semester. We get more contact with these students over the course of a semester than many librarians get with any student over the course of a few one-shots sprinkled through their college careers… But our students remain mostly freshmen and sophomores through the entire semester. We’re building a foundation, but the post-test included a question about when you need IRB approval for a research project… That is beyond the scope of this class, since it will be a couple of years before most students are likely to consider doing any research that involves that. That’s our screw up, since SAILS markets itself as a test to give incoming freshmen and graduating seniors – we should have paid more attention to the level of questions they ask. But when the post-test includes several questions I don’t really address, that is not a particularly valid measure of learning.

I am once again teaching two sections of the course. I’ve redesigned the parameters while still comparing in class writing assignments in the two sections. I’m also using pre- and post-test questions written specifically to address the learning outcomes of this course. But I suppose I should stop now, and write about that stuff another day!