LOEX of the West

Last week, I went to Burbank, CA to attend the LOEX of the West conference — the best conference I’ve been to so far. It was also my first time presenting at a professional conference!

On Wednesday, I went to a preconference on conducting ethnographic research in libraries. Given my background in cultural anthropology, it should be no surprise that I’d be interested! The presenters had taken a workshop on ethnographic methods, done a study using a few different methods, and were working on their analysis of their results. While I probably had more training specifically in ethnographic methods in my anthropological studies, I was thinking about those methods in terms of learning a whole new culture — so getting practical tips on applying those methods in the library was useful.

The methods they used included observations of people in the library space, student-drawn ideal library designs, student-drawn comic strips about their research process, focused interviews with students & faculty, and poster & display board surveys. During the workshop, they brought in some of the students that had participated in the drawing portions of the study so that we could practice interviewing them about their drawings. It’s easy to accidentally ask a leading question when trying to ask an open ended question — which was part of the point of that exercise.

For the poster & display board survey, they just put signs (posterboard or large format post-it notes) around the library asking simple questions — “why did you come to the library today?”, “what do you like about the library?” and “do you have any suggestions for the library?” That’s an easy way to get quick feedback! We have some new whiteboards on wheels (so that students can take them wherever they need ’em) — I wonder how it would work to write some questions & put them in random spots in the library. Would people erase other peoples’ answers in favor of their own? Write over them? Respond to them?

On Thursday, we had a keynote address from Esther Grassian, “Occupy their minds! The politics of information literacy”.

After that, I went to a session on keeping students engaged in a three credit hour IL course. I was both happy and a bit disappointed that a lot of the active learning exercises they used were things we’ve at least talked about using — happy that I’ve learned a lot of great stuff from my colleagues, disappointed that I didn’t hear about any brilliant new ideas. They have a libguide posted for the class, with a lot of their course materials posted — might be worth checking out if you teach a credit bearing course and want some ideas!

After lunch, it was our turn to present! Six of us — nearly the entire Instructional Services department at UWG — co-presented about the interview tactics they used when hiring me and another new librarian last summer. Instead of the standard prepared-in-advance presentation with superficial interview meetings all day, they reduced the time spent meeting with people and answering interview questions in favor of some brainstorming sessions. Instead of the prepared presentation, they had us do two separate (and not back-to-back) hour-long brainstorming sessions, then gave us an hour to prepare a presentation about what we came up with in those sessions. Long story short, it was a much better way for them to get to know us and evaluate how we would interact with the social dynamics of the department, and I walked away with a much better sense of how I would like working here than a lot of candidates get in standard interviews.

On Friday, I went to “Building and sustaining a culture of assessment in your instruction program” by Meredith Farkas. Honestly, I probably should have gone instead to the one on designing an online library orientation game, but I read Meredith’s blog so was excited to see her presentation. The main thing it drove home for me was just how lucky I am. We don’t have all of the suggested components (more money would be nice!) at all levels, but we have a lot of support in my department and within the library for building a culture of assessment.

During the second session of the day, it was our turn to present again! This time, it was just Jean, Jessica, and me, presenting on building complementary exercises for freshman IL instruction. Before Jessica and I started, the librarians were tired of using the kitchen sink method in every freshman orientation, freshman composition, and public speaking course. So they started to try to be strategic and design smaller chunks of instruction; after we started, Jessica and I jumped in to help work on that. We went back to basics to figure out the bare minimum students need to know for each course and design exercises around a single learning outcome. Then we decided on just one or two learning outcomes for library instruction sessions for each course and built standard exercises. Because of the way the exercises and lessons are structured, we can now draw on other librarians and staff members to help teach these lower-level high-demand sessions.

After lunch, I went to a session titled “Rubber chickens and wild west shootouts.” Really, how can you go wrong with that? We played games, and I got several good ideas to use in class. It was a fun session. They did end about 20 minutes early, but my reaction when it ended was “it’s over already? bummer!”

For the final session, I went to one on outreach ideas. They had a button maker, and instead of making a bunch of buttons, they print out sheets and let students color their own designs. They also set up a “photo booth”, where they provide goofy props and/or cut-outs of famous characters and/or whiteboard signs and take photos to post on flickr. Also, custom printed temporary tattoos are apparently pretty popular!

And, finally, after dinner, they hosted a battledecks competition, where my boss kicked ass — seriously, like 60ish% of the vote.

Teaching adventures

This poor little blog has been all but abandoned for a few months now. So much has happened that it’s almost overwhelming to try to update. And, though my previous posts mostly focused on outreach activities, most of my attention has gone to instruction this year.

I taught our 2-credit hour information literacy course, LIBR1101, for the first time in the spring semester. My goal going in was really simple – just don’t completely flop. In planning the syllabus, I relied pretty heavily on what some of my colleagues had done last fall. That was wonderful in that it provided a framework to plan within, instead of having to completely develop the whole thing. The down side was that it sometimes felt like I was wearing someone else’s shoes – some of the ideas worked great for them but didn’t go over so well when I tried it.

Three of us taught it for the first time last spring. We did get together and talk some about how to structure the course, discussing some issues of why X should be done in this week while Y should be covered in that week… But, I still sometimes felt like I was just following a script without really knowing the underlying pedagogical reason for the choices we made (and that I made in writing my syllabus based on that collaborative framework).

Despite that, the class went fine. I did have an unfortunate tendency to come up with one plan, then throw that out and come up with something different, then hem and haw about whether I should throw that one out too up till the point that it was time to leave for class. Some of the lessons flopped. Some of the 23 students in my class seemed pretty mentally checked-out during a lot of classes. But some of my students were actively engaged and seemed to have learned some valuable skills.

One of my non-traditional students that came to class regularly, emailed when he was going to miss class, and actually came to office hours told me at the end of the semester that I was an “awesome professor.” That was pretty cool!

Also very cool, particularly in the context of feeling pedagogically lost when designing a course, is the fact that I was accepted to attend ACRL Immersion (Teacher Track) this summer in Burlington, VT. Part of me wishes for one more semester of teaching before going – I already have lots of ideas for re-working what I did this semester – but then I’d rather work on getting a solid pedagogical foundation under my teaching instead of running along on trial and error for too long. So I’m looking forward to that in the end of July!

The spring semester wrapped up at the end of April, and May brought many intense days of working with my whole department (7 instruction librarians) to redesign our course for a specific section. Our university is starting a summer bridge program this summer. Since one of our librarians has done research and presented it to some university officials showing that taking our info lit course has a positive correlation with increased retention & progression to graduation rates, as well as with better grades in future courses,* they strongly wanted us to offer sections of our course in this program. Of course, the cynical view is that they don’t have to pay extra for us to teach in the summer, since we are 12 month faculty while most other appropriate courses would be taught by faculty with 9 month contracts, so require additional summer contracts & pay. But, you know, we can try to be idealistic here!

Cramming a full semester worth of material into 4 weeks – specifically 12 class meetings of 120 min. each (plus one 60 min. intro session) – brings up all kinds of issues. We try to do active learning exercises regularly, but keeping these kids engaged for 120 minutes instead of just 50 minutes at a time will be tough. We cover a LOT of ground – one of the most common complaints about the course is that it’s too much work for a 2 credit hour course, so we’re actually trying to get it moved to 3 credit hours. How do we make sure that borderline students will be able to handle the material and actually learn the skills needed without dumbing it down? And, how do we manage this without leaving our library faculty completely burned out?

We decided to divide the actual teaching duties up into 4 1-week sessions. We’re doing two sections, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So for each week, one librarian will teach both morning and afternoon, but each librarian will only do one week. But, to make that work, we needed to plan out the sequence, assignments, etc. in advance. And, of course, the three of us that are not teaching did not get off the hook! We all worked together to outline every stinking day of the course.

That was incredibly intense. We had several all day sessions, and a lot more 3-4 hour meetings to hammer it out. With seven of us – all with different levels of teaching experience, different academic backgrounds, different personalities, different teaching habits, etc. – we wound up going back and forth for hours about some relatively miniscule details. It wouldn’t have worked if we didn’t like one another and enjoy working together.

But we came up with some great ideas. That process of hashing out every miniscule detail made us really think through many possible ways of doing things and picking the best ones – or combining the best parts of two or three best ways! I plan to use several of the ideas when I teach this fall. Of course, planning and implementation are two separate things, so things that sound like brilliant ideas may flop in practice, but they’re pretty exciting now!

So this post has gotten pretty long. I’m writing while aboard a flight from Atlanta to Phoenix, on my way to Burbank, CA for the LOEX of the West conference. I’ll be co-presenting two presentations – my first real professional conference presentations! One of those presentations will address the tactics that my department used when interviewing candidates for my job. They designed the interview process specifically to evaluate our fit with the library and the Instructional Services department – so that we CAN build a strong collaborative team and do things like our redesign of the LIBR1101 curriculum for the summer bridge program! Wish us luck in our presentations!

* Before you ask, no she has not yet published this research. We’re harassing her to get it done asap, and I’ll post a citation as soon as it’s up!