Sparking Curiousity

I read the post “Sparking Curiosity-Librarian’s Role in Encouraging Exploration” by Anne-Marie Deitering and Hannah Gascho Rempel on In the Library with a Lead Pipe last week and it’s been open in my browser ever since. There’s a lot truths open here. I especially resonated when they talked about Head and Eisenberg’s research:

“In their qualitative analysis Head and Eisenberg identify a metaphor that sheds some light on how students feel about topic selection: gambling. To students, committing to a research topic is like rolling the dice. When students choose an unfamiliar topic, they don’t know what they will find and they do not know if they can ultimately meet their instructor’s expectations. Even worse, they must invest weeks and weeks of work into a project that may or may not pay out in the form of a good grade (Head and Eisenberg 2010).

In this context, it is not surprising that students prefer topics they have used before, or that they know many other students have successfully used before. These topics represent safe choices. They know these topics will “work,” because they have worked in the past. Students may not know exactly what they are being asked to do in their first “college-level research paper,” but with these topics, they know they are giving themselves a reasonable chance at success.”

Or how about this one:

“When learners are anxious, worried, or concerned that they cannot complete a task, they are less likely to make room for curiosity. The uncertainty inherent in choosing an unfamiliar topic can be too much to bear. In the context of a traditional research assignment, a student’s choice to play it safe, and avoid the gamble of an unfamiliar topic, is eminently sensible. Years of experience with school have taught students that they will not be evaluated on their willingness to take risks, but on their ability to meet predetermined expectations. The risks inherent in taking a curiosity-driven approach to research may seem too great to overcome.”

They go on to say that given the level of trust necessary to overcome these risks, it’s impossible for librarians working in the context of a one-shot session to convince students to take a risk that might jeopardize their ability to meet their professor’s expectations. I feel this keenly in an instruction session. All the niceness and encouragement in the world occurring for only 50 minutes is not enough to launch true curiosity and exploration, particularly in a freshmen English class.

I wish the article had more concrete explanations of how they actively encourage exploration, particularly as it relates to exploring different sources early on. Their suggestions of using language of curiosity, however, were right on the mark as I consider how I will collaborate with faculty in the future. For instance, encouraging “learning about” a topic rather than “finding sources” or writing about a topic they are “passionate” about. What effect might even that simple shift in language have on the outcomes and interactions even within our usual one-shot structure? I’ll try it out and report back.


Collection Development Survey

Part of the restructuring of librarian responsibilities that’s happened around here in the last two years involves liaison work and collection development. Previously, our (now retired) director did all of the collection development work and I did all of the liaising. These days, both of those responsibilities are distributed into a more formal liaison program with boundaries that are still a bit fuzzy. I coordinate the liaison program but not collection development although collection development is a responsibility of liaisons.

I am liaison to two of the most difficult programs on campus in terms of library-faculty relations, Culinary Management and Business and Hospitality. I don’t know how things run for other places, but here it’s like pulling teeth to get any feedback from the faculty on collection development. Asking for lists generally produces less than 20 recommendations per year. Simply opening the door and saying “let me know how I can help” has a predictable result. And I find that simply opening the floor to feedback generally doesn’t produce anything actionable. So what’s a liaison to do?

I had an idea to sort of prime the opinion pump. Rather than asking for a full blast of all the opinions ever on the library’s collection development, I would be like a magician directing the faculty’s attention where I wanted it to go. First I asked myself what I wanted to know and what action I was hoping the resulting data would indicate. Then I designed a short survey that looks something like this:capture

The full survey contains 5 books purchased for that department in the last few months and asks for directed feedback on those books. It also contains three short questions at the bottom, asking faculty how often they use library resources, how often they recommend students to the library, and if there is anything they would like us to do differently in purchasing resources. It’s meant to be deployed in person, on paper, at the beginning of a department meeting, to be collected at the end. Basically, I’m hoping to entice direction from the faculty without asking them to approve book lists.

By carefully selecting the books to cover a range of topics and interest levels, I hope to have more information on what kinds of books the faculty would like us to purchase. Asking about library usage will hopefully provide jumping off points for future conversations. And, of course, providing room for open response will allow for any opinions that might be lurking under the surface. Deploying in person, on paper, during a set time period will hopefully mean that the surveys will be filled out. And, fingers crossed, we will have data that we can use, however minimally, for this spring’s collection development binge.

I can’t promise that the books will get checked out, but it’s a start.


Making space for the next great thing


This week was supposed to be the 4th annual Student Speaker Series. The Student Speaker Series is an event that allows students to share their expertise with the larger community. With the support and mentoring of the library, students gain experience in public speaking and have a platform for synthesizing the skills they learn in a classroom setting with the ideas they find especially intriguing regardless of their major. This is a program I started in my first year at PSC, and one that I consider a personal passion project. I’m passionate about giving students opportunity to become great speakers and articulators, and I believe that my background in performance puts me in a unique position to make a difference. The first year, the Student Speaker Series made the front page of the local newspaper entirely by accident and attracted crowds of around 100. Those of you who live in small towns know that this is a Big Deal.

This year, there is no Student Speaker Series. The surface explanation for why is lack of student interest. The number of applications (one) certainly supports that theory.  The deeper explanation is more complicated.

The environment changed. When I started, there were very few opportunities for students to publicly share ideas in an academically supported way outside of Capstone. In the last few years, more and more student-run organizations are providing space for public discourse, including one using the title “The Wildlife Society’s Student Speaker Series.” I did have a chat with this particular organization about naming and branding and the availability of a very similar platform through the library, but the fact remains that other venues are now available.

The Student Speaker Series has been a positive touchstone for the library with the faculty and administration. They LOVE the idea of it, but nevertheless when faculty rally about the “lack of opportunity for public presentation on campus,” they are startled when I mention the Student Speaker Series as such an opportunity. It isn’t what comes to mind for them, and without faculty support it is quite difficult to convince students to stand in front of a group of peers and talk for 40 minutes.

It is impossible to know if I could have made a stronger pitch to faculty and students about the Student Speaker Series. It is hard to get past the feeling that I could have done something better or more. But then I look at the list of places and ways I reached out and ask myself what more I could possibly have done.

  • Multiple, escalating emails to students and faculty
  • Posters large and small all over campus including dorms
  • Digital signage
  • Table tents
  • Restroom newsletter spots
  • Wrote a short blurb for The Apollos
  • Posted to The Apollos Facebook page
  • Posted to the Library Facebook page
  • Announcements in large and small faculty meetings
  • Announcements in classrooms
  • Individual outreach to a few key professors asking for support in actionable ways
  • Incentives offered to students

Sometimes the time has passed for an idea. Sometimes the right time hasn’t happened yet. It could be a great idea, but so much about the success of an initiative has to do with external circumstances and timing. The Student Speaker Series no longer has the right circumstances to succeed and it is time to consider what is right for right now.

We talk a lot about maximizing our resources and doing more with less, but the fact is in many instances that the more important and more difficult question is “what can we stop doing?” What is holding us back from serving the needs of now? What has become burdensome and more work than reward? What needs to be shelved for a year or so to be reconsidered when the right time comes? What is central to our core and what is simply pretty? Even without the threat of budget cuts and “downsizing,” we need to make space for the next great thing.

I am sad to see it go. It was mine. It had so much potential. It failed. In this time of incredible change and transition at our institution, however, it is probably just as well to let this baby go in service of other babies in progress. My days have been filled with the kind of revisioning that generally happens with large scale administrative turn-over – strategic planning (college and library), reorganizing of structures and jobs, policy and procedure. There has also been a lot of the dirty, day-to-day that is technically my job but would fall under “other duties as assigned” on my job description – hiring, contract issues, and budgets. There hasn’t been as much as I would like of the kind of work that has a direct impact on students, and I am sad to miss the thrill from seeing students rise to a challenge and exceed their own expectations this year. This is not the time and the Student Speaker Series is no longer where my effort is most needed.

Nor can I forget about this other baby that I’m growing, the one with a due date in mid-September, right at the beginning of the busiest time for library instruction. The baby that means this fall I expect to be spending a lot more time on the couch lovingly immobilized by an 8 pound weight than in the classroom challenging students to ask better questions. The baby for whom I am planning to complete my promotion portfolio  6 months early so that I won’t be doing it while on leave or while making the transition back to work. The baby for whom my effort is most definitely needed.

(And with that, a plea to other librarians and academic parents for support and advice on how one does this baby-raising thing, particularly as it relates to leave and daycare and, egads, the million other huge and tiny ways that academic life and rural living makes things both easier and harder.)

What needs to shift to make room for the next great thing? I debated for a long time about what or whether to write in this space. None of us would prefer to dwell on the initiatives and projects that haven’t gone according to plan. I suspect it would be in my best professional interest to wait for the next great thing to come along before writing and to completely omit the seismic change my personal life is about to undergo with the introduction of a child, but this space for me has always been about my personal learning, reflection, and growth. I do not write for my professional interest, but for my own.

And on that note here is a short list of great things I am looking forward to:

  • Immersion, oh yes.
  • LOEX
  • Continuing to develop our faculty liaison plan and organization
  • Benchmarking IL skills in our Natural Sciences department
  • Working to assess library student learning outcomes, possibly in ENG101

Presentation Season

A quick and dirty short list of the places you’ll find me over the next 6 months.

  • Graphic Design of Maximum Engagement. Webinar for Minitex (statewide system based at University of Minnesota). March 24th.
  • Everything in its Right Place: Effective, Strategic, Differentiated Outreach. Interactive workshop with Amy Pajewski at LOEX. May 6 or 7.
  • ACRL Immersion Program Track. Champlain College. July 24-29.

I’m so thrilled to be presenting an interactive workshop at LOEX. As Amy and I were brainstorming ideas for a presentation, it became very clear that neither of us was excited about presenting on outreach in a traditional format. We certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity, but the proposal was a real chore. Once we started thinking about our presentation as a workshop, everything snapped into focus and came together easily. We went from feeling obliged to put in a proposal to truly excited at the possibility of bringing this content to you. Here’s the short description:

Effective outreach is built on the principle that not everyone cares about everything. Simply distributing posters or blasting social media ignores one of the central tenets of marketing: Differentiation. This workshop will begin by introducing participants to the use of personas in the initial outreach process. Groups of participants will use guided inquiry to define the real-world struggles of target audiences and identify real solutions to those problems that can be adapted for any institution. Participants will create a framework for developing outreach initiatives and growing partnerships that can be taken back to their institution and enacted immediately.

And Immersion. Oh, how excited I am for Immersion. Something about this year and that program was just so obviously saying “Meggan needs this.” Thankfully they agreed. Many, many things are shifting and changing on campus, and what I learn from this program will form the cornerstone for how our library operates and integrates from now on. I can’t wait.

“Let me know how I can help”

LittlemisshelpfulbookI’ve been thinking a lot about liaison work, what that looks like for other institutions and what that might look like for us. I’m developing a plan and trying out some ideas. Some of the ideas won’t work at all, some will need to be tweaked, and hopefully a few will actually produce results. The frustrating thing about building something is that it takes time to see results, and when the thing you’re building is relationships it takes even longer.

I clicked this link off of Facebook, a habit I engage in way more often than I’d like to admit, but it turned out to be a game-changer for me. The article suggests that by ending a communication with “let me know how I can help,” we think that we are giving the other person the space to identify their own needs when really we’re just dumping responsibility on the other person’s lap.

Inevitably conversations with new clients would reach a point where we needed to discuss solutions, and I thought by letting the client dictate what they wanted from me, I was allowing them to get exactly what they were looking for.

But the reality was this was a steaming pile of crap. By ending my emails like this, I was dropping a wheelbarrow full of work on my client’s desk and saying “Here. You deal with it.”

It reeked of incompetence.

I do this. I did this. I’m a librarian, a profession which prides itself on helpfulness. It’s basically written in our librarian genome to be as helpful as possible and to be open to what others want from us. Offering to be amorphously helpful, however, isn’t helpful at all. It makes us feel good, and from the outside it looks, you know, fine. Nice. But actually, we are undermining our own authority and creating work for others by not offering concrete methods.

Consider this example: You are not feeling well. Your nose is stuffy, it feels like a large mammal is sitting on your chest, and your brain has all the connectivity of a cotton ball. You mention your burgeoning cold to a friend who commiserates with you and says, “Go home. Sleep. Feel better. Let me know if I can help.” You go home, park yourself on the couch with some tortillas and peanut butter within reach (that’s all that’s left in your fridge, actually), and get lost in a haze of naps and some kind of BBC miniseries. Around 7pm you think to youself, Man, some curry with a Sudafed chaser would really feel good right now, but you don’t have any of that stuff in your house so you fall back into your sniffly, hacking, BBC miniseries nap haze. You do not let your friend know how she can help even though curry and Sudafed is a pretty small thing and she offered. Now, if your friend had simply told you that she would show up at 7pm with curry and Sudafed, you would have been stunning grateful. But you’re not going to ask for it because you think you’re putting her out, or maybe she didn’t mean it, and anyway it’s not that bad. Plus your phone is way over there. You’ll live.

Think what could happen in our libraries and in our liaison programs if we simply offered concrete next steps in our communications. This is what happened for the article’s author:

Just by suggesting a next step at the end of my email, I was able to double the amount of people who responded to me.

This next step was different for every email, but it always followed the same 2-step structure. I would include:

  • My suggested next step
  • What we could do in the event they don’t want to do that

Sometimes every line in my email would lead up to this 2-step solution. Sometimes the solution was the entire email.

If someone wanted a meeting, I’d suggest a time and instead of saying, “Let me know if this works for you.” I’d switch that out for, “If not, than [sic] X time/day also works or I’m free at X time/day.”

As practice, in the next email communication with a faculty member discussing a developing syllabus and project in conjunction with library instruction, I changed the ending of my email from “Let me know when you have the specifics of the assignment worked out” to “When you have worked out the specifics of your assignment, send me a copy. If I don’t hear from you by X day, I’ll follow up with you.” The faculty member got back to me immediately to set up a meeting to talk about integrating library instruction into the assignment from the start. I’d consider that a pretty immediate result.

Here is my New Year’s Resolution as a librarian: I will no longer end emails with any form of “let me know.” Instead I will end all emails with next steps so that the person on the other end knows what to expect from me. I’ll know I’m on the right track if, as suggested in the article, the person on the other end can reply “sounds good!”

Read anything life-changing lately?


(h/t Kelly Davenport for the Facebook link!)

What you get when you ask

In my last post, I suggested that one of the great things about teaching FYS is a captive freshmen audience. The thing is, when you ask questions of students, very often the answer is different than you thought. Their answers sometimes confirm what you suspect from observation but their reasoning may not align with your assumptions. Understanding why something is happening that way, not just that it is happening, is crucial to accurately meet a need. Here are three ways we’ve asked questions of our library community, with answers that both confirm our observations and open new avenues for services and effective learning.

EXHIBIT A: Extra hours poll. For various reasons, extended hours at the end of the semester have always been a bit fraught in our library. With Capstones due at varying times, Capstone presentations happening the weekend before finals, and “finals” themselves being less formal than the name suggests, answering the question “when would extended hours be most helpful?” has never been clear for us. We tried a number of approaches, but never felt that participation met our expectations. Last spring after midterm, I conducted a quick and dirty poll (slips of paper in a box at the front desk) to see if students had a preference for when extended hours would take place. They had three options: Week before Capstones, weekend before finals, week of finals. Results: Students would prefer that the library be open all the time, always. With a near three-way tie, the results weren’t as helpful as we wanted, but we did modify our usual extended hours to include extended weekend hours for the first time and were able to use the semi-magic words “in response to your feedback, we are now offering more extended hours than ever before” in our marketing. Outcome: Students felt heard, we confirmed that there was no objectively “best” time for extended hours, and student participation in extended hours increased.

noise level 1


noise level 2

EXHIBIT B: Where is it noisy? Our library is a beautiful space. Though small by most academic library standards, it is wonderfully useful, with different types of working spaces to accommodate all kinds of student learning from individual to group study. It is also one of the only spaces on campus where students can do work outside of their dorms. While the library is rarely noisy by our standards, noise can be difficult to contain due to the open design and lofted second floor. In addition, our efforts to reserve space within the library as “silent study” during midterms and finals had been ineffective for years owing to ongoing misunderstanding and miscommunication between the library, Conference Services, and parties interested in reserving library space. We received a few complaints about noise in the library this fall that lead us to believe that the students’ definition of “noisy” was different from our own. Our wonderful new Student Outreach Librarian, Amy Pajewski, created this brilliant pinboard to allow students to indicate their perceived noise levels throughout the library. Results: Indeed, student perception of noise is different from the library staff’s perception. In fact, students themselves differ in noise perception. (It cracks me up that they rated the noise levels in the bathrooms, and that the men’s room is perceived to be much louder than the women’s room.) Outcome: We’re working with Conference Services and our Provost to regain access to silent study space in the library (the Adirondack Room on the map) for midterms and finals. Amy is working developing a plan for communicating the results to students so they can more effectively choose spaces that match their noise preferences.

EXHIBIT C: Why didn’t you reference sources in your presentation? As I mentioned in my last post, my FYS students engaged in a problem-based learning unit with embedded library instruction. The idea was that they would find sources to support their problems or solutions. When it came to their presentations, however, the sources were largely absent from the work, present only on a works cited slide and mentioned nowhere else. I was curious to know why this was, since the rubric required the use of sources in the presentation, which we had gone over together in class. In the class following the presentations, I asked the students to do a minute paper addressing the following questions: 1. Why didn’t you make use of your sources in your presentation? and 2. What can I do to help you do this better next time? Results (summarized):

  • Why didn’t you make use of your sources in your presentation?
    • We thought the project was about our opinions and therefore didn’t understand the need for citations.
    • We didn’t know how to use the sources in our presentations.
    • The sources were too broad or didn’t provide any new information.
    • We thought that including the sources on a works cited slide was enough.
    • We asked peers for their opinions. They were our sources.
  • What can I do to help you do this better next time?
    • Give us more time to prepare.
    • Maybe we could practice in front of you for feedback before the presentation.
    • Be clearer.
    • Show us how.
    • Require citations on each slide.
    • (Plus many responses of “I don’t know.”)

There are many instructional opportunities here, mostly indicated in their response to the first question, and none of which point to the informal rhetoric “kids these days,” “they just don’t want to, that’s why,” and “plagiarism.” Outcome: In order to overcome student tendency to believe that their opinions are formulated in a vacuum, prior to the final presentation for class related to a different assignment we talked about the nature of ideas, standing on the shoulders of giants, showing your work, and otherwise acknowledging the ideation process. I also told them that I hadn’t created their final project assignment in a vacuum either, and publicly noted the faculty member whose work I had used as a springboard as an example of both practicing what I preach and showing them how someone might incorporate “citations” into speech. In their final presentation, citation and verbal recognition were much more present than in their previous presentation, if still clunky in execution. Had I not run out of time, two more lessons could have been constructed around finding useful information and citing informal conversations.

Asking for information is not without its pitfalls. Here are some important pieces to understand and think through before asking for information at all:

  • Be sure you want to know the outcome, because they will be honest, often brutally. Separate your own feelings about your work and your library from survey results. I have never administered a survey without feeling at least one sting. You have two choices in these circumstances: 1. Feel hurt and respond ad hominem 2. Feel hurt and find a more constructive way to voice the same response in order to understand the underlying issue. You’re human. Feel hurt. Acknowledge the hurt, then get to work.
  • Be prepared to make actual changes in response, because otherwise there is no point in asking in the first place. If you aren’t prepared to do anything with the information, or the information gathering isn’t structured in such a way as to point to an actionable solution, save your time and theirs for something else. For instance, rather than asking students how they felt about noise levels in the library in general, Amy asked students to populate a map, because one of the desired products of this information gathering is to construct a “noise map” of the library. Information that states “50% of students feel the library is too loud” would not have had an actionable outcome.
  • Understand the role of student expectations versus your library’s priorities and ability/desire to meet those expectations. We are not able to have the library open all the time, always. We are also not able to control noise levels with an iron fist to meet everyone’s needs all the time, always. We can, however, take steps to give the students information and more of what they want within our own constraints in such a way that they understand their own role in making the best decisions for themselves.
  • And finally, always acknowledge that opinions have been heard. We can increase credibility with our community by communicating the outcomes of the information they provided us. Feeling heard is often more important than being right. When we respond to our community’s needs, our community is more likely to communicate those needs to us.

What are some ways that you take your community’s opinions into account? Have you fallen into any information gathering pitfalls?


5 reasons you should teach FYS

first-year-seminar-310I have exactly two FYS classes left in the semester. It’s bittersweet to see the semester end. I have enjoyed this class so much this fall. They have been such a fun group of personalities and I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished and the community they have built. On the other hand, can the semester be over already? I’ve struggled to find a groove. 2015 has been a banner year for me, but it has been incredibly challenging, and I won’t be sad to see the turning of the calendar.

I have grown hugely as a teacher with the help of FYS, and I’ve grown as a librarian serving a community, too. My FYS experiences have been a valuable education, second only to grad school in understanding how to best do my job. I would recommend this experience to anyone who works in instruction or public services in academia. Here are 5 ways that teaching FYS can change how you do your job:

  1. Develop relationships with the students. As a teacher, their teacher, you have a different relationship with students than as a workshop coordinator. Asking students to do difficult things requires trust, and trust takes time. This is part of why we struggle in one-shots to reach teach “threshold concepts.” Presenting difficult, wiggly, profound instructional moments requires that students trust you enough to follow you. As you begin to know students, their daily concerns and difficulties, you begin to understand how to best be of use to them in the library. This is what we mean when we say “point of need.” Identifying needs is the first step, and getting to the heart of the need requires trust.
  2. Relate to faculty in a different way. The faculty respect you more when you’ve been in the trenches and are more willing meet you halfway when you have experience in classrooms like theirs. Teaching in the classroom changes your perspective on what’s hard from both a student and faculty perspective. This is the basis of building those ever-important liaison relationships. FYS at my institution, and at many others I’m guessing, is a bit of a scapegoat for “things the students should know.” When students have difficulty with everything from Excel to how to register for classes to (yes) research FYS is usually identified as the place this thing should exist. When you know and understand the role of FYS in the curriculum, you are better positioned to provide workable solutions to pedagogical problems.
  3. Try new pedagogies. Unless you’re in a team-teaching situation, there are certain pedagogies that just don’t fit into traditional library instruction. Problem-based learning, service learning, and inquiry take time. In a classroom of your own devising, you can try and test these pedagogies and consider how they might complement or enhance library instruction. With that experience, you can consider how you might support or suggest changes to assignments or how you might approach library instruction differently in the future.
  4. Ask the questions you always wanted answers to. You have a captive audience. When students don’t seem to be meeting your expectations you have two options: 1. Get frustrated and blame yourself or others. 2. Ask them about it. For example, my students completed a 6-week problem based learning unit. I embedded library instruction into the unit with the intention that they would find some resources to support either their problem statement or their solutions. In practice, the students listed the articles on a works cited page but did not use them in their presentations. I wanted to know why this was, so I asked them to do a minute paper to answer the following two questions: Why didn’t you make use of your sources in your presentations and what can I do to help you do this better next time? I got some very interesting responses, which I will talk about more specifically another time.
  5. Understand the space between libraries and classrooms. If you’ve never had to find space in your syllabus for library instruction, you will never know how difficult it is to do it right. As a librarian, even I had trouble inserting library instruction meaningfully into my FYS class given the learning objectives of the class. Attending conference presentations on library instruction, the underlying message seems to be that if teaching is happening, we should have some hand in it – helping design assignments, providing resources, educating faculty, inserting ourselves irrevocably into the fabric of teaching. There is a space between libraries and classrooms. We should not fool ourselves that it does not exist or that we will ever completely eliminate the gap. The gap isn’t bad. It’s a feature of the landscape. When we see the landscape for what it is, we can appreciate it’s unique features and start devising plans for building bridges and structures to complement it.

I certainly can’t say that my FYS class is perfect, but I believe I’ve learned 80% of what I set out to learn from FYS and I have new perspectives from which to approach my job as librarian. Would you teach FYS? What’s holding you back?

Design: The Apollos

Early this fall, I was asked to design a logo for The Apollos, a news outlet for campus. We no longer have a campus newspaper, which is not so surprising when you consider we do not have a journalism degree or even humanities degrees. Last winter, a sort of community newsletter was developed to fill this void and to give voice to student opinions and experiences. The Apollos is named for Paul Smith, whose given name was Apollos Austin Smith and went by “Pol” in his family. Pol became Paul when business took off.

Anyway, The Apollos, being new, had been really bootstrapped together in the beginning, but its popularity meant that it underwent changes pretty much immediately. When I was brought on the project, they had already had two different logos, and as you can see they were, well, not so much to my taste. The one below is the older version, while the newer version featured curly script and a background the color of dried blood.


In collaboration with the Chief Marketing Officer, we agreed on a more modern design aesthetic, still featuring an image of Paul, but with a cleaner look. I liked the idea of playing with Apollo, the Greek god, in the imagery as well, and the CMO thought that keeping it “natural” but not too “Adirondacky” was appropriate. These are the first two designs I submitted to test the waters.

header 1

header 2

I liked the idea of using laurel to reference the Greek god. Originally I was thinking to use pine or something more Adirondack but it ended up looking like a guy with his head in a Christmas wreath. For the second, I played with the idea of Apollo as the god of the sun. I liked the second one better than the first, but didn’t love the way that Apollos’s shoulder was cut off, a side effect of the original image I was altering.

header 3


header 4

After some feedback, we agreed that we liked the second likeness of Paul better than the first, but the sun felt like a halo. Could I make it more Adirondacky? I tried versions with pine needles and birch branches. I preferred the birch branches, but we agreed that it felt too busy for a logo.

header 6

That’s better, but still not loving the chunky shoulders. Clever placement of other design elements obscured this in other versions. Ultimately, the Apollos staff decided to go with the cleanest, least involved design with the chunkiest shoulders:


header 5

Paul has the feel of a visionary, or at least the bust of as visionary, and the font is much cleaner and easier to read while containing more information about the purpose of The Apollos. You can see the logo in action on the webpage.

How did I do it? In my presentation on graphic design this spring, I talked specifically about how designing beautiful things is much more about vision than it is about software. People make designs, not software. As usual, I hacked this together in a perfectly filthy manner, but it worked because I had a vision that I was working to accomplish. Here’s the original photo I started with, courtesy of the archives:

AA (4)

Using Photoshop’s magic extractor tool, I separated Paul from his background and strategically cropped out the caption at the bottom. I have access to Photoshop Elements at work, and I used their “artistic effects” to play around with the resulting image. I think I settled on “posterize,” and then I played with the sliders on the setting until I got a contrast I liked. There were a few chunks missing from edges of the image here and there where the contrast was too great, so I used the paint color picker and the paint bucket to fill them in.

I imported the file into an appropriately sized Photoshop file, sourced a font, painstakingly aligned everything, and bam! Done. Ok, in reality, it was much longer process because I went through so many versions and sourced so many images (not all of which made the cut into a design version) which needed to be edited and altered. Sourcing the images was by far the most involved part of this project.

I used one design program, built-in effects, and a specially selected font (super easy to install) in order to achieve the end result. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Could a pro do better? Absolutely for sure. But the difference between what I did and what a pro could do is not necessarily software but a vision. Well, a vision and money. I fully expect that The Apollos will have a new logo in the next year or two, and I’m fine with that. I learned a lot as a result of this collaboration. Firstly, design by committee in the mix with a deadline and a full time job is a fairly stressful combination. Although I’m proud of the work I did, this is one of those things I probably should have declined for my mental health. Second, creating a logo with a person at its center, especially of a previously living person and not a character, is actually pretty hard. Evocative imagery is really tricky to get right. When it goes wrong, it looks a lot like a dude with his head in a Christmas wreath.


An Ode to Post-its

Please allow me the space to discuss my favorite instructional tools: index cards, post-its, and whiteboards. What would we do without these endlessly versatile receptacles for written thought? More public than social media, more shareable than a listicle, more mobile than Padlet, their only downside is one that our sustainability students don’t hesitate to point out. They’re disposable. (Ok, the index cards and post-its are technically recyclable and the whiteboard is reusable. Let’s not let perfect be the enemy of the good in this circumstance, agreed?) Here’s what you can do with them:


Index cards

  • Super quick in-class assessments. An index card has two sides, so have the students write the answers to two questions, one on each side. Examples: What are your expectations of this class/What are your concerns? What’s one thing that’s going well in this class/What’s one thing that isn’t going well? What one technique you learned in class today do you plan to use again/What are you still confused about?
  • “Trading Card” warm-up activity. Have each student make a little trading card about themselves as they come into the class and before class is underway. It should include a caricature/doodle, and the answer to at least one funny question.
  • Post-It note substitute. I’ve found that post-its don’t always stick well to whiteboard surfaces. Some tape and index cards works, too, and some students prefer to lay cards on the ground or table for sorting purposes rather than putting them on a wall.


  • Affinity Wall! I did this again in my FYS class and it worked well. Veronica has also tried out an adaptation of this in an instruction session.
  • A few favorite games from Gamestorming use them. The 4-C’s is one I tried in orientation workshops with moderate success. I also did Brainwriting with my students as they worked on solutions to problem statements in their problem based learning unit.
  • Whiteboard Substitute. Giant post-its can stand in for whiteboards if you don’t have enough whiteboard space. I developed a thesis peer-review activity for English 101 using giant post-its that was very well received. Significant inspiration for the activity came from Anne Barnhart’s presentation at LibTech. (Thanks, Anne!)


  • Like a giant post-it! (Kidding. Kind of.)
  • Post-it note repository. Important secondary component to the affinity wall exercise and generally a great place to stick post-its, organize them, and write things about them.
  • PowerPoint substitute. We totally revamped our FYS library instruction on evaluating information to ditch the PowerPoint. Instead, we deliver the same material by accessing what students already do when making decisions about information, asking uncomfortable questions, and giving them framing principles for what they’re already doing. This requires lots of writing down what they say.

IMG_0013And on the technological side of things, I’m loving my new iPad for instruction. My tendency towards Evernote really makes sense when I can access my teaching notes right then and there. I’d love to know more about your favorite instructional tools. What am I missing out on?

FYS at Midterm

This year’s First Year Seminar is a substantially different ball game in the best possible way. It really is easier the second time around. It’s the power of editing rather than creating from scratch. Filling a blank page is way more difficult than editing something that’s already there, even if what’s there is total crap. I’m much more comfortable as a teacher in this class, and I’m more willing to take some calculated risks. I like to think that I have something to do with how well the class seems to be going so far, but I know that there’s only one of me and 19 of them. They have as much to do with the success of the class as I do. Still, I did a few things at the beginning that I think made a difference.

Early on, I committed to “debunking” my students expectations and fears. I handed out 3×5 cards and asked them to write their expectations of class on one side and their concerns about class on the other. I addressed every comment in class. Two things came up that I thought were especially important to address and then I was very up front about them. Firstly, one student mentioned that he expected class to be very hands-on. There is a constant tension in our FYS classes between the students, who expect class to be about going canoeing and hiking, and their professors, who know that there are learning objectives we’re meant to address. I was clear that class would be very hands-on, but that hands-on doesn’t always look like playing in the woods. Sometimes hands-on means discussion and other times it means group work and still other times it does mean playing in the woods. Second, one student admitted that he feared this class would be a waste of his time. I looked my collective class in the face and told them that if they came in to class thinking that it was a waste of time and there was nothing of value, they undoubtedly would learn nothing and find class to be a waste of their time. If, however, they chose to come to class and to participate and find something of value, well, it might never be their favorite class but it definitely wouldn’t be a waste of their time. I really think this primed them early on to approach class with an open mind. I have had no attendance issues and every student is passing the class. (So far, anyway.)

You can see that I have committed to being very honest and open with my students in challenging them to take charge of their own educational experiences. While we ask our students to do deep reflection in class, it can be very uncomfortable to dig deep in the presence of someone you feel you don’t know very well, so I committed to being personally open with my students, too. On the first day of class, I let them ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I did, of course, keep some appropriate boundaries, but I tried to be a good interviewee and answer the question they asked as well as including any relevant surrounding information. I have also used our out of class experiences such as hikes to have real conversations with students so we get to know each other a bit better. It’s been very personally rewarding, and I think it’s made a difference in class.

I have read a few books in the last year that really helped me to grow into FYS. First up is Discussion as a Way of Teaching by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. Last year in the final evaluation of the class, my students thought that the discussions were really great. I didn’t agree. I resorted to a lot of think-pair-share with handouts so I could evaluate their contributions for participation and preparedness later and it was basically the same all the time and I was bored with it. This book gives a lot of different suggestions for ways to facilitate real discussions. The book is geared more towards classes which are mostly discussion, which my FYS is not, but there are tons of tips that are applicable to any course with discussion as a component. As a class we created a discussion charter early on to establish norms. While I still use some form of paper record for evaluation, I often change up what happens on the paper. Sometimes small groups are the only discussion. Sometimes I have the small groups come up with discussion questions for the whole class (sometimes on themes pre-determined by me and sometimes not.) Sometimes we just talk as a group. I’ve used their method of having a big framing question on the board for class, as a sort of answer to “why are we doing this?” I’ve also adapted their method of gaining feedback on the previous day’s discussion, called a CIQ  or Critical Incident Questionnaire, for gaining feedback in general.

discussion as a way

I also love and use Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown and James Macanufo. In particular, their approach to affinity walls is something that I love to use for my FYS. I have also used Brainwriting, an approach to brainstorming that is a sort of mash-up between an affinity wall and one-sentence stories, Trading Cards, for getting-to-know-you, and Memory Wall, for wrapping up the semester. The games are divided into categories like Games for Opening, Games for Exploring, and Games for Closing, which is helpful if you’re looking for an activity to fill a niche. The term “game” is kind of a misnomer, though. Really, these are just active learning activities that require that the participants put in at least as much work as the facilitator. In other words, exactly my kind of teaching.


While I haven’t actually read Facilitating Seven Ways of Learning by James Davis and Bridget Arend, I saw Bridget Arend’s keynote at LOEX and promptly put the book on my Amazon wishlist. We all intuitively know that different modes of instruction have different strengths and weaknesses, but rarely do many of us think strategically and critically about the modes we fall into. Lecture is good! For certain things! Service learning is also good! But not for the same things as lecture! I credit her keynote for breaking open a piece of FYS that I knew wasn’t working. I revised by starting with a mode – Problem Based Learning. Add in a community based problem for connecting to the campus community, assign groups for a bit of diversity, slot library instruction neatly in the gaps, and, you guys, I hesitate to say this too loudly but it’s working!

seven ways of learning

I don’t want to celebrate too ecstatically without proverbially knocking on wood, but I’m really happy with my decision to teach FYS again this year. It’s not something I thought I would ever do, but I’ve learned a ton, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity. Would you teach FYS at your college?