All posts tagged “teaching

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Push Back: Creating a Teachable Moment

Pushing car

Photo by Craig Sunter on Flickr

I finally got around to reading an article that has been in my reading queue since the spring:

Meulemans, Yvonne Nalani, and Allison Carr. 2013. “Not at Your Service: Building Genuine Faculty-librarian Partnerships.” Reference Services Review 41 (1) (February 15): 80–90. doi:10.1108/00907321311300893.

It’s an interesting write-up of a series of workshops CSU-San Marcos librarians hosted for new faculty at their institution. In these sessions, librarians focused on common misconceptions held by faculty about students’ ability to do research, the kinds of instruction librarians can offer, and the types of assignments that give students the opportunity to learn valuable research skills in a meaningful way. The impetus for the workshops were situations that instruction librarians face on a daily basis: Vague (sometimes bordering on insulting) requests from professors to visit a class to “talk about the library” or “do a library thing while I’m away at a conference” or “show my students the journals.” The approach taken by the CSU-San Marcos librarians to remedy this situation was one I think we can all replicate:

“If you do not like what is being said, change the conversation” (Meulemans and Carr 84).

That’s been my mantra for the fall semester, and I’ve tried to implement it as much as possible when I’ve responded to research instruction requests by departmental faculty. Often librarians are afraid to push back at faculty who make vague instructional requests. We’re afraid we’ll miss an opportunity to reach students or we just want to get our foot in the door with a particular department, so we agree to the “teach them about the library” session, likely to mediocre results. We’ve convinced ourselves that somehow we’re a part of this all-or-nothing game where we have to take what departmental faculty will offer us or else suffer by not getting the opportunity to teach students. This is, of course, problematic. When we acquiesce to these kinds of requests we’re not building collaborative partnerships and we’re missing an opportunity to educate our colleagues that 1) we are indeed colleagues and 2) there is a wealth of research-related knowledge we have the ability to share with students. As Meulemans and Carr note in their article, “When a problematic request is fulfilled, it only ensures that librarians will receive more requests like it” (83). We’re setting ourselves up for more generic library tours and song-and-dance sessions every time we say yes to one.

Pushing Back

In the spring I received an instruction request from a colleague who is a fantastic teacher and scholar. It was a very standard come talk to my class kind of request. My reply was a yes, but it was highly qualified yes. Instead of just accepting the request as issue, I specifically asked my colleague if she would like me to cover particular topics. I offered up a menu of sorts. The students were working on a literature review so I offered to talk about any one of the following topics:

  • how to develop a good research question
  • how to turn a research question into search terms and develop a good search strategy
  • what a literature review is (and is not)
  • how to evaluate different sources
  • how to search for books and articles using the library’s resources.

In the end, the professor was most concerned with teaching her students how to evaluate different sources, how to use non-scholarly sources without necessarily citing them in their lit review, and how do determine which sources were the best ones to use in a lit review. It was a fun class, and I got some great feedback from the professor. Months later this faculty member mentioned expressed appreciation for the instructions topics I offered to cover in the class. Without them, this faculty member believed the class would have been very generic and not as helpful to the students as the class I ultimately taught. This professor now wants to encourage colleagues in that department to take advantage of me as an instructor because of this new awareness of the research-related topics I can cover.

Will This Always Work?

I realize that the example I offer is just that: one example. In my defense I will say that I’ve been following this tactic throughout all of my fall instruction planning and it seems to be going well. It’s a nice approach to altering the approach we have to research/information literacy instruction. Rather than departmental faculty making a request and us either approving or denying it, we can turn the interaction into a meaningful conversation where we in part educate our colleagues about the type of instruction we can offer. In the end it will make for a much better session for the students and ourselves.

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Audience Matters


Photo by Matthijs Quaijtaal on Flickr

This semester I’m fortunate to be the liaison to a First Year Seminar taught by the director of our college’s Writing Center. One thing that was quite obvious upon reading the syllabus and assignments for the class is that instructors with Rhetoric and Composition Ph.D.s GET IT. And by IT I mean the supreme importance of audience in writing and research. One of the first writing assignments the students will be developing is an essay taking a position on a “debatable hero” or the arguable issues surrounding the roles and responsibilities of heroes in modern society (see American’s Hero Problem as an example). What I loved about this assignment was that students were given extremely clear audience parameters and were asked to write as though the essay would be published as a long-form feature in a newspaper or magazine. In fact, the audience of the paper was the first parameter set by the instructor.

The students were also asked to use additional research resources to back up factual claims, discuss supporting arguments or highlight counterarguments. Here’s where I think that this concept of audience can continue to be useful to students. I’ve written before about the nuances of teaching source evaluation and selection to students, and plugged some fantastic articles on this topic by Joel Burkeholder and Michelle Simmons, but I’ll reiterate the importance of audience in source selection again here. Every piece of written information was created with a particular audience in mind, and as librarians we can teach students how to tease out and determine the audience of different sources so that they can find the ones that are most useful to making their own argument to their particular audience. I think sometimes we shy away from this kind of discussion, especially with first year students, because it seems too nuanced and complicated. I just have to keep reminding myself that research is complicated, and the sooner we teach students that there is a lot more grey area when it comes to using and evaluating sources, the better. I’d hate to see a senior thesis student chucking out a particularly useful source of information because it doesn’t meet a rigid set of criteria.
I’m super-jazzed to work with this class and can’t wait to talk about research source evaluation later in the semester.

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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.