All posts tagged “research

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Contemplating Sabbatical Leave

Tiny house in a windstorm by Tammy Strobel

Tiny house in a windstorm by Tammy Strobel on Flickr, aka the cabin where I dream of reading, writing, and thinking for a year.

I’m submitting my file for tenure and promotion to associate librarian this January, so the level of stress, anxiety, and general ARGH is up to Code Red this semester. I’m trying to stay calm, prep for classes, and work on some writing and general library projects, but one task has all of my attention at the moment: My sabbatical proposal. Applications for sabbatical leave for the 2017-2018 academic year are due to department chairs on September 15, so I have approximately 9 more days to read-revise-reread-rerevise my proposal. I’ve been through a number of edits already, and think it might just be in the right condition to submit, but my nerves and fear are stopping me.

Despite the faculty status librarians at my college have enjoyed for the past decade, and our recent Board-of-Trustees-approved move to fold us into the review process by the College Evaluation Committee, this is the first time someone in my library has applied for sabbatical leave. It’s scary being the first to do something, particularly for someone like me who was always the cautious kid on the playground. Adding to the stress is the fact that my husband is also applying for year-long sabbatical leave (we’re at the same college), in hopes that we’ll be able to spend the time reading, writing, and researching in Texas.

Over the summer I received some wonderfully thoughtful advice about sabbatical proposals, leave, and projects from Maria Accardi; read Donna Witek’s amazing sabbatical proposal; and stared in awe at Barbara Fister’s sabbatical proposal and project. I’m a mess of jumbled feelings and thoughts right now:

  • I realize that the project I propose might not be the project I end up accomplishing at the end of this leave.
  • I fear not being granted this time to read, write, learn and hopefully offer my own thoughts and scholarly contribution.
  • I hope that the stress of spending a year away from home with my 5 year-old son in tow will be worth the time spent away from work.
  • I worry that a year of leave time will just make me resent my 12 month, 40 hour-a-week (on paper anyway) administrative-style faculty position, which leaves me with very little time to work on my own scholarship.
  • I’m excited for the possibility of a break from what has felt like a rocky and overwhelming two years of work.

I’ll end by doing something that scares me: Sharing my work-in-progress (but more or less complete) sabbatical proposal. It’s far from perfect and draws a lot on the work I’ll be doing this year, but writing it has me feeling hopeful for the possibility of a year of leave. I’m doing this in large part because it was extremely difficult to find existing examples of librarian sabbatical applications, and I’m hoping that I can encourage more people to share. As Tracy Clayton, one of my favorite podcasters says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I want more librarians to see other librarians apply for and be granted sabbatical leave.

I’ll write with an update in the spring about whether or not my sabbatical application was approved. You’ll either get a joyous announcement or a supremely disappointed post, but you’ll hear from me regardless.


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Research Therapy for Upper-level Students

Sharing is Caring

Photo by Kristian Niemi on Flickr

This spring semester I tried a new in-class exercise with a group of students in a psychology senior seminar class. Their assignment for the semester is to write an extensive literature review on an area of interest to them. Towards the start of the course I meet with these students to refresh their library knowledge, clear up any questions they may have about access to resources, and help address any issues they might have with the research process.

In previous semesters, the course instructor would ask students to write down at least one question they had for the librarian (me) about doing research in the library. The thinking was that students might be too embarrassed or shy to ask them in class and this way they’d be able to admit they didn’t know what Interlibrary Loan was without feeling bad about it. She would compile and send these questions to me a few days before our session, and I would try to address them during our class time together. I did this a few different ways: sometimes as a straight up show and tell library session, other times I’d divvy the questions up amongst student groups and ask them to find the answers.

It was ok.

There were a lot of mechanics that got addressed in these class sessions: How do I request an article through Interlibrary Loan? How do I get the full-text of an article? How do I use EndNote? They were helpful, but I wanted to try something a little different in the spring.

This time around, I scrapped the pre-session question activity and instead spent the first few minutes of class doing the following:

I asked students, and their professor (and myself) to take out a sheet of paper and write down at least 3 aspects of the research process that were still problematic for them.  These could be mechanical things like not knowing how to get articles from journals we don’t subscribe to or bigger things like finding research related to your area of interest or knowing how to structure your lit review. I also asked students to include any fears associated with research they might have. If some folks were still writing while others were through, I turned it into a think-pair-share activity and asked them to discuss what they’d written with the person sitting next to them.

After students had some time to put their thoughts to paper we came together as a class to share. I found it helpful to lead off with my own research problem areas and ask the professor attending to do the same. I thought that doing so would let them know that even people with more experience doing research still have plenty of stumbling blocks / things we forget / things we never learned.

It helped.

The students had a mix of mechanics and “higher order” information literacy questions and things to discuss. One student even bravely admitted that as a senior she still didn’t really know how to get good, relevant scholarly articles from a database in an efficient and effective way. We had a fantastic, student-led discussion and class, with some students having more expertise in certain areas than their peers. It was almost like a group therapy session: Students all working through similar issues were able to help one another by sharing effective strategies, techniques, and pointers. I was there to help clarify certain issues, step in when no one knew the answer to a question, and provide context for some of the issues they were having.

I’ll be trying this session out again with a few different classes in the fall. I’ll let you know how it goes! In the mean time, what are some of your favorite ways to draw our upper-level students in your library instruction sessions? They can sometimes be a hesitant bunch (either out of stress, boredom, or pride) and I’m always looking for great ways to reach them.


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Just ‘Cause it’s Scholarly Don’t Make it Right

Choices by Flickr user Caleb Roenigk

Choices by Flickr user Caleb Roenigk

Last week at work looked a little something like this: Teaching, EndNote battle round 1, Reference Desk, EndNote battle round 2, Research Consultation with mildly concerned student, Lunch? Lunch! Research Consultation with deer-in-headlights-looking student, Teaching, Reference Desk with messed up printer (repeat).

The highlights of my week? Definitely the research consultations. I always feel most like a librarian when I’m meeting with a student or faculty member puzzling out the best ways to approach their literature review and research. I met with several psychology students working on their senior thesis projects (called St. Mary’s Projects or SMPs for short). Each student was at a different point in his/her research but they were all doing the exact same thing: Searching PsycINFO.

On the surface, the librarian in me should be proud. Students are consulting a library database for scholarly, peer-reviewed material instead of visiting for sources of questionable content (note: not a real site…yet). But the librarian in me is not proud. In fact, the librarian in me is cringing inside. After years of teaching the mechanics and benefits of using PsycINFO to students in psychology research methods classes I have come to realize that PsycINFO is all they know.

One of the SMP students I met with was clearly at the beginning of her research, trying to explore opportunities for research within a broad subject area. She would have GREATLY benefited from consulting a handbook or similar physical volumes that would have given her a better sense of the scope of research being done within her area of interest. Instead she was frantically plugging keywords into PsycINFO, trying to make sense of the very specific and not very helpful articles in her results list.

Another student was conducting a fascinating study about international students’ acculturation processes on our campus, but was again consulting PsycINFO for statistics on international students in the U.S. higher education system and coming up short.

Then there were the students whose research required resources with a different focus (like Pubmed, ERIC, or Business Source Complete). Half of them had never even heard of these databases.

As my week progressed I saw that this method of research was not (surprise!) a psychology isolated incident. Several political science SMP students needed a wide variety of information to start answering some of their research questions: statistics/data, policy papers, topic overviews, government reports, etc. But where were they starting their research? In JSTOR.

So here’s where I take a step back, stare at them in poorly hidden surprise, quickly recover my professional face and show them the magic of the internet and other library resources. All the while I can’t help but think: Librarians and college professors, is this our fault?

Our intentions were good. We wanted our students to know about the world of scholarly publishing. We wanted them to read and analyze peer-reviewed material that had a solid theoretical foundation and excellent research. We wanted them to know that using these kinds of sources in their own papers and presentations added credibility to their arguments and made their own research stronger.

But that’s not what they got from us. What they got from us was this:



It’s simplistic, but I see it in the political science student who really needs to read the NY Times or Washington Post to get a better handle on the world event she’s analyzing, but instead downloads an esoteric article from JSTOR that s/he won’t understand very well and probably won’t read. I see it in the psychology student who doesn’t want to look at an online reference entry on her psychological concept because she can’t cite it in her paper, even though she can’t clearly articulate what this concept means. When I teach students about resources like PsycINFO or JSTOR I know that these are just two tools in a vast information toolkit, but do they?

Are Students Just Lazy?

If we wanted to shift the blame completely to our students–and let’s be honest, we all wish we could do that sometimes–we could view this monomaniacal searching behavior as an expression of laziness. They’ve traded in one easy search practice (plug it into Google) for another (plug it into JSTOR/PsycINFO/etc.). Their professors only want scholarly sources and they can find those sources in a library database, so why look anywhere else? I have heard students say they use only JSTOR because it contains the full-text of articles. They don’t seem to know or mind that the latest 5 years of research is often not included in their search results. They just know that they can access and download a scholarly article to meet whatever requirements their professor has set for a research paper or presentation. It’s an easy fix for a research need.

But What Does That Say About Us?

Even if we assume laziness on the part of our students, we do have to concede that we are, in some ways laying the groundwork for this laziness. Somewhere, at this very minute,  an instruction librarian is teaching a group of students how to distinguish between popular and scholarly sources. This librarian may have brought in a few copies of print journals and magazines to illustrate a few key differences in the material, but really the whole point of the lesson was to set the stage for where students would be going to find such authoritative research: a library database.

Last fall I attended a workshop hosted by the Maryland Information Literacy Exchange (MILEX) which was mostly about practical in-class instruction models (i.e. This is how I teach website evaluation). Only one presentation dipped into the murky waters of WHY we teach research sources to students the way we do. As librarians we often fall prey to the scholarly/not scholarly dichotomy, urging our students to consult sources that are “authoritative” and “credible.” In their MILEX presentation, Joel Burkholder and Laura Wukovitz presented an alternative approach to teaching source evaluation. They used rhetorical analysis to examine any source (websites, articles, books, etc.), focusing on its author, audience, purpose, and the greater context in which it exists. (They have a libguide with assignment examples and activities if you’re interested.)

This approach to teaching students resource evaluation leads to fundamental shift in the way students think about “sources.” According to Burkholder (who’s also written a great article on this topic), there are no “good sources” and “bad sources;” only helpful and unhelpful sources (I paraphrase because I can’t find my notes. Sorry, Joel!).

Let’s think about that again shall we? There are only helpful and unhelpful sources.

By freeing ourselves from the scholarly/popular sources dichotomy (which inevitable sets students up to look for “good” sources and stay away from the “bad”) we open our teaching, and as a result, our students, up to an amazing variety of resources. We don’t just have to focus on the scholarly articles that live in PsycINFO and similar databases. Our students are free to choose sources that best suit their information needs, instead of trying to find a scholarly article–any scholarly article–that tangentially mentions their research topic.

This does of course, mean more work for professors and librarians. I had a colleague admit that sending students to JSTOR was the easiest way to ensure that they were looking at quality research. This is true, but in taking this easy way out we’re not arming students with the skills necessary to find and evaluate the kind of information that lives outside of academic research databases. It is a lot more work to teach students why they would want to use a reference book or a Wikipedia article to get a better handle on their research topic or why it’s ok to include information from a website with a clear bias as long as you acknowledge their agenda in your writing. It’s not easy to teach the messy process of looking for reliable statistical information online or introduce the vast arena of policy institute research that may or may not lean left or right.

This kind of teaching also takes time, specifically time in a classroom, something that librarians often find themselves struggling to obtain from teaching faculty. There is no way to work through the nuances of the vast array of information available to students in a particular discipline in a one-shot class, or even in multiple sessions for one course. This kind of instruction requires a fully integrated information literacy curriculum across the discipline, where students have the opportunity to read and analyze different types of information, not just create the standard plug and chug term paper and call it research.
Check out the always thought-provoking Barbara Fister for her thoughts on the dreaded research paper and alternatives to it.

I have quite a few classes left to teach this semester and although many of the instructors I’m working with have very standard goals for their library sessions (find books in the library, find articles in databases) I’m trying to think of ways in which might be able to work in some of the critical thinking skills that will take students away from thinking that “scholarly” is always best.