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!