Catching up before leaving again


Paul Smith’s College, the most beautiful campus in America

Why, hello there. It’s been a full summer so far. Balancing being at work and not being at work is sometimes a challenge. For instance, I meant to talk a bit about ALA, but then I was traveling directly after, and then I was enjoying being at home and not traveling, and by the time I got back to work and sat down to write out some observations here on this blog they seemed flat. Not that ALA was flat. It was, as it always is, hit and miss. In between discussion groups in which no discussion was being had and patronizing primers on how to recognize when your audience is disengaged (while failing to notice that the audience was, in fact, disengaged) there were a number of really great presentations. Two standouts for me were a presentation on threshold concepts for information literacy and “Sticking with STEM,” which had so much incredible info that transcended STEM I wanted to kick myself for not attending more diverse programs.

In the mean time, I’ve been working on FYS and trying to get as organized as possible before the fall starts. FYS is an extra contract for me, and, given how thin the library staff has recently been spread, choosing which balls to deliberately set aside and planning ahead as much as possible is key. My FYS syllabus is basically done (and, yes, I put in the effort to make it pretty) and the course schedule is falling into place. This makes me feel good, considering that I am leaving tomorrow for two weeks of vacation and then it’s a steep climb into the semester. Maybe I’ll share the syllabus when I get back? Would that be interesting?

So. How about some links?

Feature on Librarian Design Share

design share image

Librarian Design Share is one of my favorite practical librarian websites. There are all kinds of good, reusable ideas there. I’ve definitely run with a few of them myself. Today I’m featured with  my approach to the book talk poster – an easy, eye-catching template that works both large-scale and small-scale. Head on over to check it out, and don’t forget to follow Librarian Design Share while you’re there!

New Digital Scholar



If you’re an instructional librarian or teach writing and/or research skills, you’re going to want to get your hands on a copy of The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NextGen Students edited by Randall McClure and James Purdy. Despite the buzzwordy title, this book is full of essays that explore the intersection of writing and research for undergraduate students. With a balance of theoretical and practical ideas to think about, it is an invaluable resource for people who work to engage undergraduates in meaningful fact-and-logic-based writing. I particularly enjoyed Can I Google That? Research Strategies of Undergraduate Students by Mary Lourdes Silva and Re-Envisioning Research: Alternative Approaches to Engaging NextGen Students by Rachel A. Milloy. Both lean towards practicality but show evidence of deep, methodical thinking. This is exactly the kind of work that easily pairs with the foundational writing assessment committee I’ve participated in for the last two years. Highly recommended.

First Year Seminar update


Here’s what my current process for planning my FYS class looks like. Merging two ideas in the comments from Kristin and Ilana, I have created a giant post-it note calendar of the semester. In the process, I learned that our weeks during the semester actually run Wednesday-Wednesday with the last Wednesday being a Monday. My head hurt a bit thinking this through and I scrapped my first plan to number the weeks. Who needs it when we already have a lovely, lovely calendar where Wednesday is always in the middle of the week and never rearranged?

Obviously, this wall-based approach wouldn’t work for planning multiple classes, but it’s working for me now. I have a rough sketch of crucial assignments, outings, and special lectures in place. Now it’s a matter of filling in the blanks with the slightly more mundane, day-to-day class stuff – readings and discussions, building and scaffolding.

I found that library instruction was one of the last pieces to fall into place for me. This class needs intentional structuring for library instruction to be really useful. If I had trouble envisioning where library instruction fits, I’m sure others do too. I’m wondering how I might help FYS instructors create meaningful assignments that address the required library instruction component. We typically do a lecture about evaluating information for FYS, although we change it up on request. Some instructors choose to include a debate for their final project, which is a natural fit for discussions about quality of information. Others do a “Global Journeys” project to help connect students to the world at large. Still others choose to go a completely different path. I will be contacting other FYS professors to see how we might work together to make the library instruction really useful.

The texts I’ve chosen are A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, a classic for FYS here in the ADKs and an excellent text for helping students connect to a very forested place, and An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield, which, besides being just fascinating, will provide some concrete examples of life skills in action. I’m also planning to use some exercises from Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo to help open the class and bring everything together at the end.

In the mean time, I’m also considering tweaks to our current FYS library instruction. What do you do for instruction in first year classes?

Travel tips: Conference and otherwise

I like to think I’ve got a few things figured out, travel-wise. I also like to think I’ve got a few things figured out, conference-wise, which, coincidentally, often involves travel. Maybe we’ve all got our own travel and conference preferences worked out, but here are my top tips:

General travel tips:

  1. I’ve learned this one the hard way on many occasions: Don’t travel hangry. You won’t be able to find food when you need food. Bring enough snacks for one or two times a day for at least a few days. I find it best to choose things that don’t need special care and taste just as good if they get a bit battered around or slightly melted. For me this means apples, nuts, Clif Builder’s Bars, trail mix, and/or homemade energy bites. I function best if there’s a substantial protein component to my snacks. These can be combined for emergency meal replacement (apple/Builder’s Bar/trail mix) or can simply fill in the gap after an inadequate meal or time zone change.
  2. Scarves and/or shawls take up almost no space in your luggage or bag but can be used in a million ways. Keep warm in cold spaces, block sun when you’re trying to sleep or avoid sunburn, cover your head and shoulders if you want privacy or you’re visiting religious spaces where modesty is required, wipe up spills, etc.
  3. Powdered laundry detergent means that you don’t have to pack a separate change of clothes for every day you’ll be gone (and you don’t have to worry about the 3oz. liquids rule). A few basics with some interesting jewelry and the aforementioned scarf will be plenty if you take a few minutes in the evening to wash what’s dirty in the bathroom sink. Word to the wise, cotton dries slowly so plan accordingly.
  4. You need less clothes than you think, especially if you’re traveling carry-on only. I like to look nice and put together every day. Looking nice and put together does not mean that you need a separate outfit for every day. I prefer dresses to separates for summer travel because I feel they take up less room in my suitcase and I just like them. Maxi dresses can be quite nice for travel days as they keep you covered but are as comfortable as pjs and look much better. A few relatively plain dresses (2-3 for 4-7 days of travel) with a couple of sweaters or cardis and some interesting jewelry will allow you plenty of mix-and-match options. And, ok, you might not want to see those two dresses for a few weeks when you get home, but so what?
  5. Honestly, I’m not much of a shoe fiend, and I get by just fine on one pair and a back-up. Both worn for years and broken in very well with a history of long walks and minimal irritation. Usually, I bring two and only wear one. It’s worth it to have the insurance in case of sore feet, since I am very prone to blisters. In the summer, I default to my Birkenstocks.
  6. The air blower on the plane might as well be called The Plague Distributor. Don’t use it unless you’re really desperate, and even then avoid directing it at your face. I tend towards motion sickness that is amplified by being too hot, and I still recommend avoiding the air blower on planes. If you manage to get blasted in the face, or you’re feeling especially vulnerable to illness (super stressed and exhausted, must be at peak performance while traveling, etc) I highly recommend Airborne before and after a flight to help ward off any possible ick. Maybe it’s just personal superstition at this point, but I’ve never gotten sick after traveling when using it, even when I was flying every weekend for super stressful auditions.
  7. You’ve probably seen those horseshoe shaped pillows they sell at the airport. Man, they’re helpful, and I say this as a person who is basically incapable of sleeping sitting up. Here’s a secret: You can get inflatable versions that do the same job and take up basically no room in your bag when not in use. You’re welcome.
  8. If you are not traveling exclusively carry-on, make sure you have anything you can’t live without for a day or two in a carry-on bag. This includes somewhat obvious things like travel documents, prescriptions, toothbrush, and a change of underwear/socks, but also anything that you might need immediately at your destination like presentation materials (or, as I learned the hard way once, reeds and music). Even if it weighs down your carry-on bag, you will be super grateful for this precaution in the event that your luggage is delayed, especially if you’re traveling to an unfamiliar place.

Conference specific (Maybe you’re going to ALA?):

  1. Everything I said above still applies to conference travel, including the shoe and clothes recommendations. Unless you’re presenting at a conference or are looking for a new job, make sure that all clothes and shoes you bring can do double duty for conferences and sightseeing. Interesting jewelry and scarves can liven up plain clothes, and no one will be the wiser that you wore that dress the day before yesterday. Carefully consider shoes, as you will no doubt be walking miles in them. I wear my Birks, but they’re classy ones, I swear! In my experience, these recommendations will put you firmly high-middle-of-the-road for conference dress, but you do you.
  2. I tend to travel tech-light. These days that means smartphone, Kindle, and iPod. I will not be bringing back-up batteries to support a phone, laptop, and iPad to ALA, no matter how many friends it might win me. There are lots of great tips out there if you lean that direction.
  3. For conferences, I infinitely prefer notebooks to other tech for note-taking. I find notebooks much easier to wrangle in conference halls that may or may not have tables, and they encourage organic note-taking for me. Since I’m no longer a student, my notes have changed significantly. I no longer care about recapping a presentation but about the ideas or quotes I can use or engage with in my work. I write down threads to follow later, and I write down lots of questions and insights as they spill from my brain. Capturing the questions and ideas that come up is one of the most valuable parts of the conference experience for me, and I do that best on paper. Example: 
  4. If you’re going to ALA or other similar conference where you might pick up far more freebies than will fit in your bag, you might want to consider taking some packing tape for boxes to ship home. ALA has an on-site pop-up post office, which is super convenient.
  5. A note on tote bags: You don’t really need to bring a special bag to a conference, trust me on this. They’ll be throwing the things at you, and it’s often nearly impossible to say no. If you have special considerations for your bags or you’ll be doing lots of job hunting, you may prefer your own, but I tend to just stick with whatever my Midwest sensibilities won’t allow me to refuse.
  6. Do take the time to do some non-conference related stuff in the area, even if it’s just one museum or tour.
  7. You will reach saturation point. Don’t feel bad if you need to skip out on a session to either go back to your hotel and rest or simply find a quiet corner to decompress.
  8. As soon as you can after the conference, like maybe even in the trip home, write down all the thoughts that are swirling around in your head, insights, confusions, frustrations, possibilities, etc. Capture everything, because you will forget in an astonishingly short period of time. Did you take notes? Go back through and highlight everything that is a thread for you to follow. Even if you found the conference to be largely an echo chamber (it happens), you probably came away with at least one new way of seeing. Don’t lose it.

You can see more travel trips for foreign lands here.


New challenges

Red is dead by Éole, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Ã‰ole 

Big challenges are in the works for me in the fall. After two years of working to build an effective library instruction program (an ongoing process, of course) I’m stepping up and slightly sideways to the next level in teaching activities – a full semester course. I will be teaching a section of First Year Seminar, which is required of all incoming students. FYS is an interdisciplinary, discussion-based course designed to explore questions of meaning, value, and responsibility. It is meant to help incoming students make connections to the campus, the Adirondacks, and each other. I’m thrilled to be teaching alongside a number of more experienced faculty, all of whom have different approaches toward the same goals. Each section has a different theme. I have titled mine “Cultivating Resilience.”

Course description: How do we handle change? How can we overcome setbacks? How do we recognize and cultivate resilience in our lives and the lives of others? In this section of FYS, we will be analyzing and understanding strategies for resilience by examining different environmental and societal responses to challenge and change. Assignments will take place in and outside of the classroom as we question the nature of resilience in the Adirondacks, in ourselves, and in others. Through critical thinking, classroom discussion, reflection, reading, writing, and videos, students will develop strategies for cultivating resilience in their own lives to help them succeed in the college classroom and beyond.

I hope that this theme will allow the class to be flexible enough to meet the inevitable challenges inherent in FYS as well as to follow the interests of the students and directions we might want to explore along the way. I’m nervous about the planning necessary for a full semester course. I plan workshops and large scale curriculum, but I haven’t yet had to fill 2-3 days a week with unique material for 14 weeks. Any tips and tricks out there that you more experienced teachers can share?

And in other news, I’m going to ALA! Anyone interested in meeting up? I’m excited to be exposed to new ideas and catch up with friends I haven’t seen in way too long. Most importantly for me, I’m excited to meet new people and get the chance to talk through ideas and approaches to instruction and assessment. My colleagues are fantastic, but I’m a one woman department, and I crave interaction with others that do the same kind of work. Interested in effective teaching, assessment of instruction and reference, and/or outreach activities? Hit me up at meggan[dot]frost[at]gmail[dot]com or @doubleG2718.

** it’s worth clicking through on the image above **

What does “research” mean?

Research is the ultimate gold standard for what academics do. Yet application of the word “research” had become so broad as to be almost meaningless. Think about it like this. Should we describe the process that scientists use to find vaccines for life-threatening diseases or the process that others use to find a cost-efficient and carbon-neutral bio-fuel with the same word as the process people use when they read Zagat reviews to decide where they’re going for dinner?

– Maid, Barry M. and D’Angleo, Barbara J. (2013). Teaching researching in the digital age: An information literacy perspective on the new digital scholar. In Randall McClure and James P. Purdy (Eds.), The new digital scholar: Exploring and enriching the research and writing practices of nextgen students (295-312). Medford, New Jersey: Information Today, Inc.

I have lots more to say about this excellent book, but as I was reading today this quote leaped off the page at me. It distills the argument I made about what we mean when we say “research.”

Link Tuesday

It’s Tuesday of the second to last week of school. Let’s celebrate with some links. I’m the proverbial duck at the moment, gliding along on top of the water with my feet paddling furiously underneath. When school’s out and I can finally rest my poor ducky feet, I have some exciting news to share. Well, exciting to me, anyway.

Work is work. “You can only do what you love as long as someone else makes sure the toilet isn’t backing up.”

I didn’t love the Veronica Mars movie, but I sure do love the TV series. The depiction of wealth inequality is just one reason.

Finally, science to back up what I’ve been saying all along about the 10,000 hour rule: “In other words, practice is great! But practice alone won’t make you Yo Yo Ma. It could also have to do with personality, the age you started, intelligence, or something else entirely. ” I’m willing to put money down that “something else entirely” is opportunity.

You’ve seen the National Geographic shots, but do you know what’s right outside the frame?

Words have meaning. Are you “interested in” something or are you actually doing the thing? Move what you do closer to you in the sentence and watch the power change. “I’m interested in connecting communities to information” becomes “I connect communities to information.”

A Rough Guide to Spotting Bad Science could be useful for information literacy instruction and for guiding students to question the methods they might use in their own research.

Relatedly, this article give some really good examples on how to lie with data visualization.

Shared by my friend Kim, this article sparked an interesting discussion and thought process for me. I think it glosses over some of the realities of community colleges (for instance, some of the non-completion rates could be partially attributed to students taking partial degrees before finishing at a traditional school, or to students taking summer courses and transferring credits.) but I completely agree that for the right student, this type of counseling could be the difference between success and failure.

The director of the Academic Success Center shared this article on establishing relevance with me. As a student, I want to know where we’re going and why we’re headed there. I also want to know that the professor has a plan and isn’t just winging it.

Department of Random: The History of Jazz Piano in 11 minutes. Somewhat filtered (and between you and me, the stride piano section isn’t nearly as impressive as it could be) but super entertaining.


What we mean when we say “research”

glasses in the forest

I’ve been working intensively with the foundational writing curriculum assessment team for the last two years. This is the kind of work I love to do – work with a team to dissect a problem and find a better/different/more suitable solution. Working with this team has been invaluable to me because, as a librarian, I never get to see the long term results of the instruction sessions I conduct and the impact I may or may not have on a final product. In this team I see these things, and not only that but I get to discuss and provide input on the curriculum at large. Working on this project has directly impacted what I do on a daily basis, and I enjoy all of the discussions that arise out of it.

On this round of assessment, we have reached a critical point in the life of our current English 101 course. What is happening in that class is good work, but may not be the same size and shape as the hole it’s meant to fill in the curriculum. One of the ideas that was tossed around this week was to remove the research paper from the course, which in the past has been the final project of the class. The research paper is then proposed to move to a new class called “Research Methods” that does not currently exist.

Through conversation, I finally came to understand that the writing faculty see a class on research methods to be the “finding stuff in the library for the purpose of writing a research paper” class. A real research methods class is not this at all, but rather a “how to conduct effective original research” kind of class, involving the specifics of data collection, organization, and analysis. Research methods, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is usually first encountered at the graduate level. This was my first clue that we’re not all talking about the same thing when we use the word “research.”

The term “research paper” has come to mean a very specific, very unnatural kind of writing. We are taught to follow a strict process, completely divorced of authentic inquiry. Come up with a topic, neither too broad nor too narrow. Get it approved by the powers that be. Find a specific number of resources about that topic. Stop when you’ve reached that number. Write an annotated bibliography and/or an outline. Get it approved. Write a rough draft, attempting to make the resources you’ve found that contain the words in your topic fit into something that may or may not resemble a coherent thought process. Peer review. Final paper due. This is “research.”

The term “research paper” does not describe anything terribly useful about what this final product looks like. Is it a statement of facts resembling nothing so much as an encyclopedia article? Could be. Is it a comparison paper? Maybe. Is it a platform for pushing a personal agenda with limited consideration of other opinions? Often. Is it a persuasive argument? Might could maybe. All of these papers could be written by following the “research paper” process above. Yes, specific direction from faculty could remove some of the less desirable types of papers from consideration as the “final research paper,” but the fact remains that the “final research paper” is not only a distinction of limited usefulness for the purposes of instruction but also a bit of a misnomer. I doubt anyone teaching foundation level writing is asking their students to conduct original research. Instead, they are asking their students to find information to support the claims that they make in the process of writing a persuasive argument or a comparison paper and calling it a “research paper.” When we use the term “research paper” we aren’t describing the end result so much as we’re invoking a particular set of assumptions about what a “research paper” is.

The faculty are telling me that they just don’t have the amount of time they feel is necessary to devote to teaching students to write a good research paper. Everything just gets so overwhelmed at the end of the semester, and with the demands of revisions and backwards instruction on papers that have already been done, they just don’t have the appropriate amount of time to teach students how to “do research.” While I would never turn down the opportunity to be more involved in the critical thinking processes of freshmen, the view from my angle looks very different.

I’ve seen the freshmen research papers. I’ve read the bibliographies. They could be better. They could be a lot worse. All told, they’re about where I would expect a bibliography of a first semester freshmen to be. A few good sources, a few that could be acceptable if they were used and contextualized properly, and a few that obviously only contain the words of their topic and not the substance. The trouble from where I’m seated isn’t “finding it in the library.” It’s the word “research.”

So let’s stop using it. If we remove the word “research” from our discussions of what a final project in a freshmen writing class looks like, we move suddenly and astoundingly beyond the fear that professors and students have of the word and directly to what we want students to be able to do. We aren’t getting hung up any longer on what “doing research” is or isn’t. We’re talking about appropriate analysis of argument. We’re talking about the ability to support a position. We aren’t talking about “research methods” any more.

Obviously, removing the word “research” from our discussions of freshmen writing does not remove the need for finding information to support an informed argument. We aren’t removing the library. We aren’t removing information need. We aren’t removing the steps necessary to resolve that information need. We’re removing hang ups around word usage. We’re removing knee-jerk assumptions. We’re removing a haze of fear and dread.

Can we talk about the library’s role in student writing without using the word “research?” Can we say “looking for conversations” or “finding stuff out?” Can we use the actual definition of the word and talk about “investigating systematically?” Changing the words we use does not change what needs to happen. It may, however, change the way we approach it.


The Responsive Library

Credit Cut in Imperial Telecommunication by Stéfan, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  Stéfan 

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our library is serving (or possibly not serving) our community. Over the course of the last year and a half, I have learned enough about my library and my community to know that there’s a lot I don’t know. I’m making plans to fill in those gaps. At a college that places emphasis on teaching above research among faculty members, I’m wondering how exactly the library is or is not supporting the faculty’s teaching responsibilities. I’ve come across an article that I just love, partially because it opened a mental door for me, and partially because the tone of the article is just delightful. In response to the overwhelming nature of gathering information at a large institution Linda Rambler (1982) says:

The systematic analysis is left undone. Consequently, library resources are often deployed using a mixture of formulas seasoned with intuition and a dash of political savvy. A responsive library sometimes becomes an added benefit rather than the primary goal.

A responsive library. I love that idea. That’s an idea I can run with.

Rambler, L. K. (1982). Syllabus Study: Key to a Responsive Academic Library. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 8(3), 155.