Category Archives: in practice

Making space for the next great thing

sssposter2016final

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

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?

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:

IMG_0005

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.

Post-Its

  • 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!)

Whiteboards

  • 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?

Graphic Design for Maximum Engagement

This spring has been a whirlwind of unexpected professional gains. I’ve given a presentation titled “Graphic Design for Maximum Engagement” in a number of different places with slightly different formats and time frames over the last few months. If you were not able to attend SUNYLA Midwinter, LibTech, or LOEX, I was recently asked to give this presentation for NCompass Live through the Nebraska Library Comission. You can find my slides below, or click through to their website for a full recording including Q&A.

Morty the Tiny Paper Skeleton

For the last few Halloweens, I’ve been using Morty the Tiny Paper Skeleton to promote the library Facebook page.

thisismorty

 

Morty was created one early October day in my first year as a librarian. I was feeling a little lost and not sure what I should be doing. I happened on a link to a paper craft skeleton and immediately printed it out and set to work at the front desk assembling it with no particular purpose. I reinforced him with cardstock and tape, named him Morty, and proceeded to take pictures of him all over the library.

ipad

 

Morty has promoted library products, like our iPads with this really amazing tree identification app, but mostly Morty is a trouble maker. For instance, last year he photocopied himself.

copier results

 

And did the backstroke in a bowl full of candy.

candy bowl

 

He has provoked the library mascot and nearly been mauled. In the end, Morty won the skirmish, and the Bobcat had to let Morty take a ride.

bobcat adventure

Morty even has a costume. Here he is as Tom Selleck.

costume

This year Morty is going back in time to the days when Paul Smith’s College was Paul Smith’s Hotel in order to promote our newly digitized photo collection. Here he is with Paul Smith himself:

morty and paul smith

Did you know that Calvin Coolidge actually spent one summer just a mile down the road at White Pine Camp? It was the summer White House in 1926. I’m not saying Morty influenced federal policy, but that is him between President Coolidge and Phelps Smith, the son of Paul Smith who chartered the college after the hotel burned to the ground in 1930.

coolidge phelps and morty

Morty comes out of his graveyard (my bookshelf) for a few days a year, causes mischief, and then disappears again (back to my bookshelf). This year I nearly let Morty slide in the face of understaffing and mounting responsibilities but I’m so glad I didn’t. I forgot how much fun it is to dream up new Morty adventures, and I also enjoyed pulling out my rudimentary Photoshop skills and dusting them off a bit.

Do you do anything fun for Halloween at your library?

P.S. Looking to waste an hour or so? Don’t forget that PicMonkey has holiday themes!

Just do your thing

Hang_Glider_1920s

I’m now in my third year as a librarian, and I feel like I’m in a solid place with my teaching. I’m consistently expanding our reach into required and non-required classes. I’m designing classes that make sense in the curriculum and that scaffold the college’s expectations of information literacy from freshman through senior years. I’m also discovering that things I really thought worked well aren’t working for me any more. It’s not that I think they’re bad classes, they just aren’t jiving with my particular approach to teaching. And speaking of approach, I’ve discovered that I have one, and I believe strongly in it.

In many ways, the day-to-day of planning classes hasn’t changed for me since the beginning. I still use Evernote to plan classes. I still procrastinate a lot. I still spend too much time googling around for ideas before doing the thing my gut said I should do in the first place. The difference is, I now have some idea of what works, both for me and for the classes I’m teaching, and that’s why I’m so surprised at my currently instructional dilemma.

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon this fall: A marked increase in the number of library instruction requests which amount to “oh, just do your library thing, and, no, I don’t care when you come it to do it.” This has been happening in both required and non-required library instructions. No amount of conversation between the professor and me illuminates the need for library instruction or when it could happen most effectively in the course schedule. My working theory goes like this. Everyone knows me now. My outreach efforts have been very successful, and they like me as a person. They know me to be intelligent and passionate and comfortable with public speaking. They feel they should have library instruction so they invite me to class, largely because they like me and not because they believe in the importance of library instruction.

What’s a librarian to do? I piloted one class this week that seemed to go well and could be adapted to different subjects. I had some idea of what the students were working on (a research paper and a debate) but no good idea about when these things were happening, so I divided the students into 6 groups and had them explore 6 different resources (a mix of databases, book catalog, and Google Scholar). I used a handout with specific questions to explore and asked them to evaluate the resources as it related to research on people, historic events, and current events. Each group gave a three minute presentation to summarize what they found and gave recommendations to their classmates for how the resource could best be used for class. It took about 30 minutes, and seemed to go over well. I was able to dispel some myths that came up in the presentations which probably wouldn’t have come up otherwise, such as “Google Scholar is the only place to get research when off campus” and “article databases contain books.”

I also love the idea from Iris Jastram of “subversive handouts” for situations like this. I rediscovered this idea serendipitiously the day after I might have used in the class, but I plan to use it the next time I get a request to “just do your library thing.”

I’m sure we all have our approaches to this kind of request. How do you handle it?

Marketing: Results

From the top of Scarface Mountain on Saturday

From the top of Scarface Mountain on Saturday

You may remember this winter when I was making a real effort to be deliberate about marketing in my library. My first focus was on our Overdrive library, which was underused. Well, it’s time to report results. Good news: Usage increased by 50%! Bad news: It wasn’t enough usage to save the service in our recent round of budget cuts. You win some, you lose some.

Part of the issue with Overdrive was that we knew how much we used the service as a staff, and it accounted for a not-insignificant percentage of the usage. While community usage still increased as a result of marketing, my original hypotheses seem to be born out. We are not a campus of fiction readers in general, and ereader access is very small. (Although we do lend Kindles, through the magic that is DRM, accounts, logins, etc., we were not able allow Overdrive books onto our Kindles.)

This made me and my Kindle Paperwhite sort of sad. Although the library has a small fiction collection, many of the books we purchase are not things that I personally want to read. Not having the personal budget or, frankly, desire to pay mass market prices for ebooks, where could I get my fix of instant gratification reading? The New York Public Library, that’s where. Are you a New York resident? You, too, can have access to the NYPL’s ebook and audiobook collection, no matter where in New York you live. This is a beautiful thing.

Other beautiful things include the view from the top of a mountain in autumn, the smell of woodsmoke in the air, and the apple cider donuts that the Baking and Pastry Club will be selling on Friday morning. Since I took that picture at the top of the post on Saturday from Scarface Mountain, fall has arrived overnight. There are few places that are more iconically “fall” than the Adirondacks at this time of year. Here’s a secret: There are actually two falls. First the maples and aspens turn red and gold against the evergreens. The leaves fall too soon in a cold rainstorm a few weeks later and you think it’s all over. Wait for a bit and you’ll start to notice gold reappearing. It’s the tamaracks, outlining the boggy, wet areas. They are not evergreen as you might suppose, but deciduous, with pleasingly tiny cones and a habit of lingering on the tail end of fall. They are the indicator of the end of fall just as sap running in the sugar maples is a sign of spring. Winter may be coming, but I’m not ready for snow. Here’s hoping the tamaracks stick around for a while.

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?

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.