No training wheels, revised

Lately I’ve been struggling to come up with a short, easy way to introduce a complicated idea that comes up a lot when I talk about research assignment design and library instruction.  In a Q&A somewhere, I used the phrase “no training wheels” and that’s kind of stuck with me — but I’ve never really felt comfortable with it.

Basically, what I’m railing against here is the idea that instead of figuring out interesting, authentic and developmentally appropriate research assignments for new college students we assign the same types of activitiesA child riding away from the camera on a pink bicycle with training wheels and a white wicker basket we assign to all students, no matter what their level, and then try and make them easier or simpler with shortcuts like peer review ticky boxes or evaluation checklists.

A research paper isn’t a thesis, no, but at the end of the day it requires students to do many of the same things that the lit review portion of a thesis requires.

To do a good job, a student must find, choose, read and use information from sources — add in the “three peer-reviewed articles” requirement, and we’re talking about sources that are produced in a context, for a reason, to contribute to a specific discourse.  And most first-year students have neither the domain knowledge nor the understanding of that disciplinary discourse that experts have.  Which matters, because the experts rely heavily on both of those things to do all of that finding, choosing, reading and using well.

To make this doable, we introduce the training wheels I mentioned above, but if you’ve been around here for any time at all you know that I think those things don’t work very well.

So increasingly, I’ve become convinced that the answer isn’t better training wheels — it’s better assignments. But the metaphor has always seemed problematic to me.  “No training wheels” implies no help.  It implies starting off on the two-wheeler without any kind of safety net, crashing and falling and crashing again and hoping that the essential learning will come before the crashing destroys any desire you have to ride the bike in the first place.

A boy with blond hair is wearing a red hoodie and a red and black bike helmet while riding a green balance bike on an asphalt roadTalking with Lori Townsend and Krasimir Spasov at the recent AMICAL conference in Bulgaria, we figured out the solution — balance bikes.

See, the other problem with the “no training wheels” metaphor is that it’s increasingly dated. Just a couple of weeks ago a friend was telling me that removing training wheels is no longer the developmental milestone it once was. Balance bikes have rendered it moot.

Best of all, the balance bike metaphor extends beautifully, because it’s not just about recognizing that beginners need extra help. It’s specific about the type of help that actually helps. Balance bikes work because they allow children to learn and practice an authentic and essential skill in a safe way.

To learn to bike, you must solve two problems: the pedaling problem and the balance problem. Training wheels only solve the pedaling problem—that is, the easy one. Learning to balance on a bike is much more difficult, and a “training” tool that eliminates the need to balance is worse than beside the point. Training wheels only train you to ride a bike with training wheels. 

— Down with Training Wheels (Nicholas Day, Slate).

In other words, on balance bikes they don’t learn balancing for beginners, they learn actual balance — a skill they can transfer when they move on to fully-featured bicycles.

And that’s what we need when it comes to research assignments — we don’t need tricks and shortcuts that try and do the hard cognitive work of research for students — we need to break those assignments down and design new activities that let students practice essential skills and then transfer them to more complex tasks and contexts.


Images:

150124-girl-bicycle-training-wheels.jpg. Some rights reserved by r. nial bradshaw (flickr)

Balance Bike! Some rights reserved by Movement Six (flickr)

CFParticipation: Autoethnography learning community

This is a project that has been simmering along under the surface of some of the more public things I have been doing this year and I’m really excited about it. As we head into summer, it’s time to bring it forward and find out if there are people out there who would like to join us!

Who and What

I’m going to be co-editing a book for ACRL Publications that will dig into autoethnography as a research method in LIS. We are creating a learning community of authors to explore the method and our final product will be a collection of the narratives that result.

We are looking for a diverse community of practicing librarians who are willing to dig into their own perspectives and experiences to explore the question of what it means to be an academic librarian today. No experience with autoethnography is required; learning together is part of the process.

My partners in this endeavor are Rick Stoddart from the University of Idaho, who is currenlty working on a dissertation examining reflective knowledge-creation methods in librarianship, and Bob Schroeder from Portland State University, who recently wrote this wonderful piece at In the Library Wiuth the Lead Pipe – Exploring Critical and Indigenous Research Methods with a Research Community.

Why?

Autoethnography is a research method associated with anthropology, but may be more commonly seen in sociology (and it occasionally pops up in most social science disciplines). The method requires the researcher to do two things: engage in a deep, reflective and rigorous examination of their own experience; and systematically analyze that reflection, drawing connections to society and culture as they do. These analyses can take very different forms (narrative, scholarly prose, poetry, dialogue, etc.).

We are hoping that this book will do two things —

First, we want to join with efforts to push the conversation about research in LIS to explore how different research methods and ways of knowing can inform our practice. We think this is important for a couple of reasons –

  • Practical — we should actively seek out and explore methods that busy practitioners can do rigorously and regularly, and
  • Philosophical – methods like autoethnography can allow voices to be heard that are drowned out in larger aggregations of data. And, quite simply, like all research methods, there are things they do better than the alternatives. No method answers all questions, and we should not limit ourselves.

Secondly, one of the things that autoethnography does well is let us dig deeply into questions of practice, experience and identity – so we think that a collection of autoethnographic narratives about librarianship, collected in one place, will be powerful and compelling.

If you want to explore a little more about autoethnography – here are a few starting points (one paywalled):

How?

If you are interested in joining our learning community, and creating a narrative, please send an email to me (anne-marie dot deitering at oregonstate  dot edu)  that answers the following questions. For full consideration, we need to receive your reply by Friday, June 5th.

  • How long have you been a librarian (and how are you defining that)
  • Where do you work and what kind of work do you do there?
  • What intrigues you about this project?
  • What are some questions that you have about autoethnography?
  • Do you have some writing samples (or links to samples) that you can share?
  • Is there anything else you would like us to know?

What are we looking for? Well, first off, we are not trying to evaluate your ability to produce a narrative – we don’t think we can do that and it’s not in the spirit of the learning community.

But we do have two goals that will shape what we look for:

  1. We want to bring together as diverse a group of voices as we can, across many dimensions: time in the profession, type of library work, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, path to librarianship, type of library, geographical location, and more.

We’re walking a line here. While we know that a method that results in personal narratives has inherent diversity — everyone’s story is different — we also think that it is really important that we make sure that we don’t start by only including people who look like us, who do similar work, who live near us, who came into the profession at the same time, and so on.  While we won’t be able to include all the stories we will want to – we are also hoping that this project will make it easier for those stories to appear in the LIS literature moving forward.

  1. We also want people who are working in academic libraries (or would like to be) who are excited to try the method and dig further into it — both as individuals and as members of the community throughout this process.

When?

Our timelines are not set in stone, but we do have some targets. 

We will come together as a learning community this summer and start off with some collective reading/ discussing so that we can start to figure out – what we think this method is, how to practice it ethically, and how to support each other through the process. We are trying to walk a line between providing enough structure for people to get started while still respecting the fact that we will not all do things the same way. So as we move from these initial group conversations to figuring out how to get started on our own projects, and how to revise and improve our narratives as we go, we expect that we will be shaping the agenda together, as members of the community.

We are planning a slightly longer development period than may be typical for a book like this, since we expect almost everyone will be starting from scratch with the method. So we are hoping to have completed manuscripts by early-to-mid summer, 2016.

(Updated at 12:00 on 5/22 to add a link and a clarifying statement to #2 on our goals).

LOEX 2015

Reflections on Reflection. Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Meta

Slides

PDF version of the slidedeck

Bibliography

Zotero folder (books, articles, videos)

Script 

Note 1: I used this to create the talk, and to practice and refine it.  I didn’t bring it up with me to the podium.  I spoke from a cryptic set of speaker notes attached to the slides.  So while I think this is an honest reflection of what I said in the talk, there will be places where it doesn’t match exactly how I said it.

Note 2: Most of the slides link directly to an image page on flickr.  The rest link to larger versions here.

Note 3: Big thanks to Rachel Bridgewater and Catherine Pellegrino who helped me turn this from 2 hours’ worth of   thoughts connected in my head  into a talk understandable by other people. Any remaining confusion is my fault alone.

loex2015_2.001

Thank you for that introduction and thank you to the committee for inviting me.  I have to admit I’m a little intimidated to be up here.  LOEX was the very first national conference I ever attended. That was 2005 and right now, 10 years doesn’t seem like very long ago.  So many of the people in this room have had such a major influence on me and on my thinking — I just think the bar at LOEX is set really, really high.

loex2015_2.002

When I was invited to give this talk I was deep down a rabbit hole thinking about reflective practice, emotion and learning.  So when the committee suggested that as a topic, I jumped at it.

When I resurfaced from that and I had to actually settle on a title and abstract I started to worry a little bit.  I mean, this is a topic that can get pretty autobiographical.  It’s personal and idiosyncratic – what’s mindset shifting to me is probably totally obvious to lots of you. But most of all, let’s face it – reflecting on reflection can turn into a mountain of meta that doesn’t really seem like the most productive place to be.

So I worried, and that worry made it into the subtitle.  And I wouldn’t say that I have stopped worrying and learned to embrace the meta — but I am working on embracing the discomfort that comes with it.  And that’s actually what I am going to talk about here today.

But before I start into this story — let’s talk for a minute about reflective practice.

  • How many of you build time for reflection or metathinking (thinking about thinking) into your instruction sessions?
  • How many of you would say that you do the same in your practice — build in time for reflection, or thinking about your thinking?
  • How many of you would if you had more time?

There’s a lot of research showing that taking the time to reflect on how you think is important to learning.  I’m not going to get into that here; I think that metathinking is pretty entrenched in the way we teach in libraries.  But if you want a really clear overview, Char Booth’s Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning is a great starting point.

signposts for this talk going from practice to assumptions to emotion to discomfort  

So I’m focusing here on that specific category of reflective thinking that informs our practice as teachers.  I’ll take you to where I started on the topic a number of years ago, go through the event that sent me down that rabbit hole over the last year and where that took me.

And I’ll ground all of that in the literature that informed me. There’s a Zotero folder linked from my blog (info-fetishist.org) where you’ll find all of those references.

loex2015_2.004

I started thinking specifically about the role of reflection in teaching practice a little more than 5 years ago in a research project that I did with my colleague Kate Gronemyer.

This project was strongly influenced by the book The Reflective Practitioner, by Donald Schön.  Schön is really interested in that “practice” part of the phrase — he wanted to understand how practitioners (as opposed to researchers or experts) make decisions and solve problems both in the moment (which he calls Reflection In Practice) and after the fact (Reflection On Practice).

He assumes that professionals don’t just implement strategies or follow theories developed by experts, but that they also draw on a big body of knowledge built through experience.  And he wanted to figure out what good practice knowledge does and how professionals to capture and share it.

A list of prompts used to generate stories for a research study about reflective practice in libraries. Prompts include: a situation that haunts you; a time you solved a tricky problem; a time when your expectations were off; one of the best/worst learning experiences; the best/worst instruction librarian you know; a horror story; a time you went beyond the call of duty; a time when you considered leaving the professor; a situation that reaffirmed your choice to do instruction

We gathered and analyzed a collection of stories that teaching librarians told about their practice. These were the story prompts. (Well, the actual prompts were longer, we’re good academics, but these are the salient bits) We each coded the stories and then identified themes together. We also took note of the practice environment where the story happened (when we could).  All told, we identified about 8 themes and I’m going to dig into two right now.

A bar graph indicating which prompts generated the most utterances with the power code. The two highlighted prompts are Horror Story and Situation that Haunts You

First up is power.

I should mention here that all of the codes could skew positively or negatively — I could talk about being totally empowered in a situation or about being totally disenfranchised and so long as I specifically invoked the concept of power in the story — that code would apply.  When you see that most of these codes came from these story prompts — tell us a horror story, or tell us about a situation that haunts you, you can probably guess that most of these were negative.

A quotation from an instruction librarian that says the students were filing into the classroom and the faculty member turns to me and says I changed the assignment

And when I tell you that almost all of these were about the one-shot, I’m guessing you can guess what kind of things were coded this way. Some, focused on specific moments.

A quotation from an instruction librarian indicating that she feels she lacks power in a professional relationship with a faculty member

And others were about a specific event, but mentioned the power relationships in play — like this one, that focuses on faculty.  Or there might be a librarian who says, “I’m the instruction coordinator, but I can’t actually compel any of my colleagues to teach.”

A bar chart indicating the prompts that generated the most utterances coded with the theme flexibility. The most common are Horror Story and a Time When Your Expectations Were Off.  The second tier are best/worst categories.

The second theme is flexibility, which actually gets at another aspect of the same dynamic. There’s something out of my control, so I have to be flexible. So horror story is still up there, but the second most common prompt was, tell me about a time when your expectations were off.  But this one is interesting because the code also showed up a lot in stories where people were talking about extremes or ideals — the best teaching librarian you know, or the worst learning experience ever.

Quotations from instruction librarians. One says that the best instruction librarians can spin on a time and the second is from an instruction librarian who blames herself for an unsuccessful session

Taken as a whole, the stories connected to this theme gave the strong impression that for instruction librarians there is a lot of basic stuff out of our control. I mean, the teaching environment is uncertain for everyone — there are people in it — but for instruction librarians there are just basic pieces we have to adapt to.  I’m guessing that’s not a controversial statement.

Taken together with power, however, we couldn’t help coming away with the idea that despite this, we instruction  librarians we take an awful lot of responsibility on ourselves.  In fact, the story that included this second quotation was actually pretty extreme — we’re not talking about “dude got behind and his students don’t have the assignment yet.”  There was a changed assignment, technology problems controlled by another department and the faculty colleague was really more of an active saboteur.  But to this librarian the main takeaway was her failure, in the moment.  And that kind of thing came up came up again and again.

So it seemed clear to us that we have some simple, shared, narratives out there about what good library instruction is — and that a lot of us are using our reflective practice to compare ourselves to these smoothed out, idealized models.

And you can see why, right?  Because there’s safety in these narratives.  If I succeed, I’m comforted by the fact that I knew what to do to succeed.  And even if I fail, if I can find the place where I didn’t match up to the narrative — I didn’t use enough active learning, I wasn’t flexible enough — then that promises safety in the future if I just match up.

But at the same time — horror story, situation that haunts you — it was clear that these narratives also generate a lot of stress, anxiety and angst.

A signpost slide that indicates the next section will be about Stephen Brookfield's Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher

So, we needed a different model of reflective practice — which brings us to critical reflection. Here we were informed strongly by Stephen Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

For Brookfield, the goal of reflective thinking is to identify and question the assumptions that lie under the surface of our practice.  These assumptions can be causal — about what causes what — so, sitting in a circle makes people feel equal.  Or prescriptive — about what good teaching is — for us, one of those would be active learning is best.  Or they can be paradigmatic — big, world-view type assumptions – I’ll be talking about those throughout the rest of this talk.

And over all of these, he especially warns us to watch for hegemonic assumptions — assumptions that seem fine, but can cause us to be complicit in our own oppression.

And what does that mean? Well, I would consider “a good librarian will fix any problem related to her students’ learning in the moment” — to be hegemonic.  That narrative lets me focus all of my work to fix the problem on me and my own teaching, on developing a big enough bag of tricks to respond to any situation. And I don’t deal with the underlying issues with the course instructor — about the power relationships between us or about the things they are doing that sabotage their students’ learning.

Now, of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and give students a good learning experience — of course I’m not saying that — but in our reflection on practice our analysis should be much, much more complicated than “I failed because I wasn’t flexible enough.”

And he gives us the lenses across the top there — our own experience, information from students, information from peers and information from theory — as tools to ferret out and analyze those assumptions.

A signposting side indicating the next section will be about Brookfield and James - Engaging Imagination

So, Brookfield’s approach really really works for me.  Identifying problems, and then intellectualizing them — gathering and analyzing data and trying to understand them in a new way — that’s right smack dab in my comfort zone.

Which means that earlier this year I was reading a book called Engaging Imagination – mostly because it was by Brookfield and another education scholar – Alison James. They make the argument for building play, imagination, metaphor and movement into reflective classroom activities.

Now, I read a lot of this kind of stuff, I even seek it out.  But I don’t really do any of those things in my own reflection — I stay in my head, in my verbal, analytical place where I intellectualize my problems.

So when I seek these things out, I’m doing it for my students — I’m doing it because  I think metathinking is a really important part of the learning process and I know that reflective assignments make a lot of people uncomfortable. So by offering as many modalities as possible, I’m trying to ensure that everyone gets a chance to be comfortable in reflection, at least some of the time.

a large pile of red bricks, some with dried mortar still attached

But early on in this book, Brookfield and James said something that hit me like a ton of bricks.  They said that’s not why we do this.  The reason to build a lot of reflective methods into your class isn’t to make everyone comfortable — the reason is to make everyone uncomfortable, at least some of the time.

Now, when I read this — this discomfort piece — it just grabbed hold of my brain.  And I think that was because it made me realize how uncomfortable, even upset, I get when I am asked to veer away from reflective analysis and writing.  If you ask me to do it in a workshop — I’ll do it, I might even enjoy it once I start, but when I first hear that we have to create clay models or something my first reaction is to be upset, flustered, defensive, maybe a little angry and internally yelling oh no no no no no no no.

A cup of pens and pencils. Only the top lip of the cup and the tops of the writing implements are visible.

And here’s the thing — I totally should have known better. I should have known this all along. Because as much as I love reflection and do it all the time, I don’t do it for real when I’m told to do it. Workshops, courses, annual self-appraisals – seriously, my memory isn’t perfect — but I can’t remember a time when I’ve done real, meaningful reflection as an assignment.

14 year old Anne-Marie, sitting in her parents’ living room with fourteen pens and a spiral notebook – writing a whole term’s worth of reading journal entries in one night.  That’s how I did every journaling assignment I ever did – high school, college, library school — the night before they were due.

See, I’m not saying this worked for me (and it did, I got A plus pluses on reflective writing)  because I am so super good at reflection. That is absolutely not what I am saying. It worked for me because I’m super good at reflective writing assignments.  It’s not about my writing, or reflecting, it’s that I always know exactly what my teachers want to see.  I know the kind of learning they want to see, the process they want to see, how they want it communicated and I deliver it.  I’m not reflecting to learn, I’m performing.

And I didn’t even feel bad about it.  I still don’t – not really. I mean, I don’t shy away from reflection in my real life. That larger life skill learning happened.  I value reflective practice, and I work actively to do it better.  But after reading Engaging Imagination there was no way I could avoid realizing that if I’d been pushed out of that verbal, analytical comfort zone more I may have seen things or understood things that I missed.

And that could have been the end of it, but it wasn’t.  Seriously, this bugged me for days.  I just kept churning on it.

Because there are unwritten narratives in play here too.  Embedded in these “show us what you learned” assignments are assumptions about what kind of learning, analysis or process is valued and valid.  And those narratives are usually unwritten, and unspoken — that’s one reason why these assignments cause so much angst with so many people.  They favor some students more than others, and I was one of those favored few.

Wooden sign, hung from a wooden bracket with silver chains. The word Welcome is burned into the sign.

It made me see that a lot —  maybe even most — of my own reflective thinking has been spent on trying to help my students join me in my comfort zone, without questioning the narratives and assumptions underneath.

And this made me deeply, profoundly, uncomfortable — because it’s a really incomplete way of looking at learning.

Black and white photo of a young adult looking into a security camera. The photo is distorted.

And it’s a superficial version of reflective practice.  I’m taking my students’ experience and filtering it through my lens — which is obviously going to distort it.  It inherently makes me focus on gaps, places where they don’t match up.  And on figuring out ways to make them match my assumptions about learning.  This puts all of the burden of significant change on my students.  After all, I’m reflecting on their experience. I’m not really reflecting on my own.

Which brought me back to my initial, emotional and defensive reaction to those assignments — and I dove head first into the rabbit hole that is emotion and learning.  As you do.

A signposting slide indicating the next section will highlight work on neuroscience by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang

One of the deeply, deeply entrenched narratives in western culture is the mind/body (or thinking/feeling) binary, or the idea that logic, reason and higher order thinking are separate from — and even disrupted by — emotion, passion or feeling.  Knowledge construction in our culture is a sober, analytical process based on evidence and data — not feeling or experience.

Last spring, I was at the American Educational Research Association’s conference in Philadelphia and at that conference AERA presented their Early Career Award to an “affective neuroscientist and human development psychologist” named  Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.  And her work — which connects social emotion, cognition and culture — totally captured my imagination. So when I started exploring this topic in earnest, I came back across her work and entered this kind of fugue state where I read everything she’s ever written.

So basically, into the eighties the research about the brain and learning reflected the binary I just mentioned. The idea was fairly entrenched that reason, logic and thinking and emotion were separate, controlled by different parts of the brain.  But there were anomalies.  And they disrupted this prevailing narrative, as anomalies often do.

a beige wall with a white sign posted somewhat askew. The sign says

These anomalies were patients whose cognitive functions seemed to be intact, but who showed gaps in their decision making.  They weren’t able to consider the consequences of their actions. They were insensitive to the impact of their choices on others. Basically, they weren’t able to learn from their mistakes, so they would make the same terrible choices over and over.

But here’s the weird thing — they could TALK about that stuff just fine. They could explain the risks involved in their business decisions. They could describe social norms.  Cognitively, they seemed to have what they needed to make good choices, but then they didn’t.  So it seemed likely that the affective domain was in play.

A venn diagram with Processes Related to the Body on one side and High Reason on the other.  The overlapping area is large and labeled Emotional Thought

So when researchers studied what was going on in these brains they concluded that when we experience things, we “tag” them with information about how those choices or decisions worked out for us. And this information is stored with our emotional knowledge.  Without the ability to access the parts of the brain that manage that emotional information — how we felt about those choices — we can’t use it to make good decisions moving forward.  So emotion doesn’t get in the way of thinking – emotion is an essential part of higher-level thinking.

a metal handle with the word rudder etched in and clearly visible

In fact, one of the most interesting hypotheses Immordino-Yang suggests for higher education is that it is this emotional rudder (her metaphor) — or the ability to draw on the emotional knowledge associated with our past experiences — that helps us transfer knowledge from one experience to another. Particularly relevant to instruction librarians — we need our students to be able to transfer what they learn from us moving forward.

A young woman covering her face with both hands

These new lines of inquiry mean re-thinking what we mean by survival.  One of the narratives in the thinking/feeling binary is that strong emotion kicks in when we’re under threat and need to feel safe.  But that narrative mostly focuses on physical harm – the idea that when we see the car heading for is it triggers a basic, emotional response (Immordino-Yang says “in the alligator brain”) that protects us.

But as our world got more complex, so did our understanding of survival.  Survival now goes beyond our physical safety as an individual and includes other people and our social relationships.  Those emotional tags we put on our experiences aren’t about us in a vacuum, they’re all about how our choices affected other people and how that bounced back on us.

So protecting ourselves against threats to our status and identity is every bit as important as protecting ourselves from physical harm.  Emotion is still basic decision making — I want, I feel — but more advanced cognition doesn’t replace it.  Instead, higher level reasoning lets us pick and choose and customize our responses in more sophisticated ways.

A signposting slide listing takeaways from this section which are repeated in the text.

So, what are my takeaways from this?

  • That strong emotional reaction I have to certain kinds of learning experiences should be telling me something — emotion is part of why we create simple, smoothed over narratives in the first place and why we don’t poke at them — we’re protecting our core, our identity, our place in the world
  • Emotion is necessary to thinking and in particular, it’s an autobiographical emotion.  Connecting to our experiences and our feelings around them is necessary to evaluation, analysis – those higher level processes.
  • That autobiographical emotion isn’t fully internal — it’s shaped by our interactions with other people and with culture.  We can’t really critique our assumptions and narratives without understanding those influences.

A light grey wolf staring directly into the camera

Now, there are many people — some informed by feminist theory, queer theory, critical race theory and others working from more traditional perspectives —  who have challenged the thinking/ feeling binary — making the case for bringing the whole student, not just the cognitive student, into the learning process.  And this is a body of work that had been building for  decades.  So some of this feels a bit like science is catching up to theory and experience.

And where I am going now with this is pretty strongly influenced by a group of scholars like Megan Boler, Laura Rendón and Kevin Kumashiro, who are grappling with the question of how to create safe and meaningful classroom experiences when you are specifically asking students to question and dismantle deeply held beliefs.  These scholars have a commitment to anti-oppressive practice, in many cases because they’re teaching courses on topics –  about race, gender, sexuality –  that inherently ask students to examine some of their core ideas about identity and self.

Now, it might seem like instruction librarians are doing something different — asking students to “find and cite 3 peer reviewed sources on reintroducing wolves into Yellowstone” seems pretty different from asking them to dissect their privilege.  But a lot of this work resonates strongly with me as an instruction librarian.  In many ways, I think asking students to question and dismantle deeply held beliefs — or at least be willing to do so — is exactly what we do.

We’re asking them to engage in open-minded inquiry.  And at the very least, this means they have to consider the possibility that they might change their minds about something that they care about.  And if they care about it because it says something about where they’re from, or their family history, or what they want to do, or things they believe in — that’s threatening.  And this applies too to the basic things we do — we might be asking them to rely on sources and discourses they’ve been taught since birth to be skeptical about.  Or sometimes we ask them to put aside sources and texts they’ve always believed are valuable sources of wisdom about the world.

And even  if we don’t do so overtly, what we’re asking them to do might also require them to dismiss habits of learning and research that have probably served them very well in the past, through many years of experience, and to internalize new ways of thinking about knowledge, evidence and information.

All of these things reach right down into the identities we construct for ourselves — what we believe is right, what we believe is wrong, where we find wisdom, what we value as thinkers and learners — these are all essential parts of who we know ourselves to be.

I think it’s fair to say that to be information literate is to be okay with the idea that what we know in our core to be true could change tomorrow — and that’s terrifying.  And so I believe that it’s only fair that we hold ourselves to this same standard.  Starting with — or at least for the purposes of this talk focusing on — our reflective practice.

A yellow post-it note with the words Put Your Feelings on Hold handwritten

Historically, we’ve treated feelings in education (and honestly, in other arenas too) as something to control or suppress – push them down so that thinking can happen.  And we’ve also used this as a way to control or suppress people who have historically been considered more emotional or less rational.

And I think that there’s an element of this controlling, suppressing and managing narrative in our thinking about reflective practice as well.  As much as I love Brookfield, I can’t deny that the thinking/feeling binary undergirds much of the argument in this book.  There’s a strong through-line that essentially frames the process of critical reflection as a process of intellectualizing the emotional and cognitive challenges of teaching.  I mean, he comes right out and says it —  if we don’t critically reflect “we are powerless to control the ebbs and flows of our emotions.”

shower controls with red and blue representing hot and cold water. The area in the middle is labeled comfort zone

And I’ll admit that this is also my comfort zone.  This is how my brain works.  In fact, I’m sure this is what I was serving up in all of those reflective writing assignments — watch me intellectualize my emotions and learn and grow.  And here’s the thing — it’s not like this isn’t super useful in teaching.  And it’s a big part of what makes up effective reflective practice.

This is where things get tricky for me.  There is a lot I like and want to preserve about my comfort zone, about reflective practice and more broadly. I think there is value the type of inquiry embedded in “college level research.”  I think there’s fun, creativity and enjoyment to be had in these intellectual exercises and practices.  I like stretching those muscles and I think they’re muscles that need to be worked and skills that need to be practiced.  I think when people can do this they’re more powerful and able to make things happen.

But when we’ve tried to divide thinking and feeling, that doesn’t just mean pushing emotions aside — it also means elevating lots of things that are traditionally associated with rational thought or inquiry.  We reject the importance of experience, lived experience, in favor of science and “rigorous evidence.”  It’s an either/or thing.

And if this isn’t how thinking works — if this isn’t how humans evaluate and consider and decide and choose — we need to be able to connect the pieces of this binary together and find new spaces somewhere in the middle.

A signposting slide indicating the next section draws from Megan Boler's Feeling Power

Megan Boler wrote a wide-ranging and provocative book called Feeling Power — about the power of emotion and also about the ways that feelings have been used to control and dominate within education. She closes by outlining ideas for a pedagogy of discomfort.  I’m not going to do this book justice here — and I’m doing even less justice to the huge body of scholarship that inspired her — because I’m going to zoom in on just one of her points — the need to resist simple binaries, the things we construct to make sense of a complex world.

A lot of these binaries are in play in our classrooms, not just thinking/feeling: novice/expert — scholarly/popular — individual/collective — theory/practice — objective/subjective — I’m sure you all are thinking of more.  When you start to scratch at some of the idealized narratives underneath our practice you’ll find them.  We create and hang on to these binaries to make sense of a complicated world. But when we internalize these simple structures, it gets harder to deal with the implications of our critical reflection.

Here’s an example.  A big binary that frames a lot of our thinking is about people — good/bad – deserving/undeserving – guilty/innocent.  We’ve all probably internalized it to some level, even if we fight it.

One of the most powerful things we want is learning that reaffirms our self-image.  If  we’ve internalized that binary good/bad/innocent/guilty — then when we think we might be contributing to something that hurts our students, we feel guilty. We feel all of the feelings related to that.  And our self-image can’t handle the idea that we’re guilty so we resist.  We will ourselves not to see the issue — Boler calls this inscribed habits of emotional inattention —  or we use our reflective practice to rationalize the original critique away.

Because here’s the thing — metathinking, reflective thinking, even critical reflection — these methods or practices can be used to justify and entrench just as easily as they can be used to illuminate and dismantle.  And honestly, I think the more adept you are at the motions of reflection the easier it is to use it to justify whatever you want it to – especially if you’re not aware that you are doing it.

A desert landscape with a large boulder in the background and a field of quicksand in the foreground

Committing to finding spaces between these  binaries lets us deal with this complexity — we’re not good or bad — we’re in the middle, it’s not all about us and which side we’re on, and we can deal with all of the complex factors that go into the situation.

But this isn’t easy.  It requires us to accept a scary level of uncertainty.  This is a shifting landscape – we’re between the binaries here today and we keep thinking and working — we’re somewhere else tomorrow.  And really, it shows that some of the identities we construct are actually pretty fragile themselves.

a street lamp with two lamps extending to either side of a metal pole. To the left a sign that reads No Parking on Either Side.

And maybe librarians are the best people to navigate this uncertainty with our students. Because we already straddle  binaries — between theory and practice, scholar and practitioner, specialist and generalist, novice and expert — you can probably think of more.  We’re unique on our campuses; we’re already in the grey areas.

I have a colleague in Oregon, Sara Seely from Portland Community College, who tells her classes — I know about all of your assignments and what all of your teachers want and I’m not grading you — I’m totally on your side.

I just love that.  I love it because we so frequently frame this as a barrier — we don’t have access to the carrots and sticks built into the system — but it can be liberating.

Most of us do not have majors, minors or degree programs to manage.  Most of us can’t compel attendance or attention. It’s true. But if we’re not benefiting from those systems, then we’re not bound by them either.

We teach, and we want students to do well in our classes but the end game for us isn’t their performance on the end of session quiz.   Traditional metrics like grades don’t even capture much of the teaching work we do.

We teach, and we want students to learn, but we really want them to take what they learn and use it later — so we can focus on what they need to integrate and transfer that knowledge.

We teach, but we don’t have to weed out students or protect the rigor of our programs.  We can make the unwritten rules, values and rewards transparent to all of our students, even if they don’t come in with that knowledge.

We teach, but we’re not going to be judged at the end by how well our students master a body of content – we can afford to complicate the picture for them and follow where they explore.

And the thing that’s powerful about sitting between binaries comes from rejecting the idea that we need to make either/ or choices – or align ourselves with one set of entrenched values.  From our position, we can help students learn a new culture and make its norms and assumptions visible and  transparent while also doing what we can to dismantle structures that exclude, hurt and discriminate.

But that can be scary. And uncomfortable. There’s a timidity sometimes that pops up in our profession that says — “if I draw too much attention by challenging the norms they’ll take away what I DO have in the academy.”  I’d like to see us fight this more actively – to say we are different and this is what we do and we’re the only ones who do it and that’s the value we bring to campus — and commit to building that case.

Because we can’t do all of this if we align ourselves with simple narratives — whether we define them for ourselves or maybe especially if they’re defined for us.  No matter how safe they make us feel.

And so, in the end, we need to embrace the discomfort because if we focus on choosing the side that will make us feel safe I don’t think we really are.  A slide asking for questions

So.  as it turns out, ending a talk when you feel like you’re still in the middle of the topic is harder than you’d think.  I’m going to be exploring the gray areas on this one for a while.  I hope we all can keep talking about it.

Questions?

Image Credits

Culture is what people do

As I mentioned before, I’m in the middle of a busy, busy period of travel and talking — not as busy as many of you are all the time, but much busier than I usually am.  I just finished up one of the events I was most looking forward to – a week of talking to FYE faculty and librarians at the University of San Francisco.  It was a whirlwind — 3 undergraduate classes, 2 workshops and a 90 minute talk and I am definitely still processing.

In the middle of all of the preparations for this curiosity/inquiry/FYE extravaganza — some thoughts clicked together in my head and re-framed a thing. And this is a thing I’ve been talking about, struggling with, soapboxing about for a long time — the peer-reviewed sources requirement for first-year students.  Long-time readers will know that I’ve been going on about this for years now — here’s the TL:DR version:

to find, identify, read, evaluate and use peer-reviewed sources effectively requires an epistemological framework most first-year students do not yet have and which cannot be “taught” by simply requiring the source type. And because it’s not taught any other way, many students leave us not knowing how to use research or science to help them solve problems, make decisions, or understand the world.

I’ve been talking about this a long time, to librarians and to faculty. And my thinking has changed and evolved, and the conversations have been good and gotten better.  But I still come out of them feeling like I failed at same level. The more I think about these topics, the more radically I think how these concepts are taught needs to change, and I regularly come away feeling like I failed to really convince faculty to radically rethink how they approach peer review, or I feel like I failed to give any truly helpful ideas for doing so.

But as I said, some things came together and helped me reframe my approach and I honestly think it made a difference. I feel like this was the best and most fruitful “how do we teach peer review” conversation I’ve ever had.  Now, part of this might be that the USF faculty and librarians are awesome, but since I frequently get to talk to awesome people, I’m thinking the reframing might have had a bit to do with it.  So I thought I’d share in case this frame is useful to others.

As always, here’s the context … 

Thread #1:

A book cover depicting two children standing side by side. It is not clear if the children are boys or girls,. Both are wearing dresses. The image is overlaid with the words Butler and Gender Trouble.My daughter came with me on this trip — she loves San Francisco & the USF campus and knows some of the people I work with here — and because my schedule was so jam-packed, she went off and sat in on some things that interested her more.  One was a course on the rhetorics of gender and sexuality taught by the excellent Sarah Burgess. Sarah sent the readings in advance just in case Anna wanted to prepare; as it turned out, this was going to be the Judith Butler week.

(Don’t worry – there’s no Butler quiz at the end of this story.  Gender Trouble is important in this story for context only)

Now, we didn’t want Anna to go in totally blind here because Butler is challenging, but time got away from us & we left a day early because of a last-minute emergency itinerary change (and the dog ate our homework and our grandmother is sick and we had to drive our roommate to the emergency room) so we didn’t do the reading. So my last night at home I was listening to my husband giving Anna a Butler primer while we ate a quick pre-airport-shuttle dinner.

Shaun is a cultural geographer and has worked long and hard for about a decade on the Intro to Cultural Geography survey. One of the things he’s struggled with (and largely conquered) is helping his students to understand and define culture in a new way.  Most students come in thinking of culture as something we use to describe groups or to distinguish groups from each other (Italians eat pasta; Dutch people ride bicycles) — it’s an understanding of culture that’s baked into books like this:

Book Cover with an image of a Chinese lion dancer with the text Culture Wise China at the topNow, obviously What is Culture? is a course (or book, or series of books) in itself, but to hit some highlights of the many, many, conversations we’ve had about this at our house — this is a view of culture that obviously simplifies a complex picture.  Just trying to think of examples to clarify “describe groups or distinguish groups from each other” — how many examples that come immediately to mind do you also dismiss immediately as the worst kind of stereotype?

So one of the things that Shaun does at the start of the class is introduce a definition that better accommodates the diversity of cultures we all navigate every day — the diversity that exists within groups and within times and places — culture is what people do.  And honestly, it’s amazing how many times this phrase now comes up in daily life at our house. Obviously, culture is what people do was going to be the starting point Shaun and Anna used to start discussing Butler.

Thread #2

Increasingly, I’ve been mentally modeling what I do as cultural — my students are entering a new cultural space and infolit instruction in the first year is so much about helping them to navigate this space, or making the constructions, assumptions and values of this new cultural space (the academy, or higher ed) visible.  That’s why I get uncomfortable when people argue that we should be entirely focused on the after-college infolit picture.  Yes, I think that it’s important that students go out with the skills, dispositions and understandings I want them to have, but I also think that’s important that they understand how to navigate the culture they’re going to be spending the next 4-6 years immersed in successfully.

And more importantly, I think that framing it in this way — as a type of cultural literacy — helps them learn how to integrate what they need from this culture as they navigate others. While they may not need to access original studies every day after college (most people don’t) they still need to understand how research and theory is used to understand the world, solve problems, and justify decisions if they are going to critically understand the world around them.  Problems come up when we treat the cultural assumptions of academia as absolute, static values, but being literate in that culture is useful.

But for some reason, I never combined this thought with culture is what people do until I was on the plane to San Francisco.

The result. 

I already had a substantial piece planned on the “3 peer-reviewed articles” requirement so it didn’t take more than tweaking to reframe the conversation in terms of culture, but it made a big difference.

Starting with culture is what people do

It is the material things, the social  ideas, the performative practices, and the emotional responses that we participate in, produce, resist, celebrate, deny or  ignore.  Culture is therefore the constituted amalgam of human activity — culture is what humans do

This definition comes from Understanding Cultural Geography by Jon Anderson, and I find it really useful thinking about libraries and infolit. Especially the top part — the material things, social ideas, performative practices and emotional responses about research, information and knowledge creation — that pretty much captures what I do, right?

And I had already generated a list of things that I thought students needed to know to understand peer review — I went through and reframed this around what people do:

1. Experts do original research. 2. They write articles reporting the results of individual studies. 3. Their studies examine specific things, not all aspects of a topic. 4. These reports are usually published in things called journals. 5. They make a particular type of argument. They’re not trying to win or end a conversation when they argue. 6. When these articles spark further investigation it’s a feature not a bug. 7. Their articles are written for other scholars. Language unclear to general audiences isn’t always a flaw. 8. They belong to professional communities called disciplines 9. They also review research perfumed by others in their discipline for quality. 10. They develop best practices or standards for conducting and reporting on research. These standards aren’t all the same. 12. When they review for quality they use these standards. 13. When they review for quality they don’t repeat the research to see if its true. 14. They continue examining and evaluating the quality of research after it’s published.

So going back to the 3 peer reviewed articles requirement.  I asked the faculty and librarians in this audience to brainstorm around this question:

What do first-year students need to know about what people do in this cultural space (the academy) in order to effectively find, read, evaluate, understand and use these sources?

And it took a minute, but the group ran with it.  They said students would need to know that people do research, they report it in journals, they review other research, they use a shared understanding of how knowledge is created to do these things, and so on.  And after 10 minutes or so of discussion, they’d at least touched on almost everything on my list.

I still went through every item on this list because I really do feel like all of these things are necessary if students are really going to find peer-reviewed sources (and know what to expect in them when they do find them) read and understand what they’re trying to communicate, use them meaningfully, and evaluate them against the standards they were trying to meet.

And there were pieces that the faculty didn’t come up with exactly — I think the struggles students have with what peer reviewed studies are good for might be more visible to librarians who get the “I want a peer reviewed article that describes the pros and cons of school uniforms” questions all the time. I also spent some time on the pieces in the middle, about how students need to understand that a piece of scholarship or theory that pushes an academic conversation to a new place is important and valuable even if subsequent research or theorizing shows some limitations or flaws in the original piece.

These are all issues I have talked about before with faculty and with librarians and I have had some great, inspiring conversation with both of those audiences.  This one felt different though and different better, and I think the shared framework of what people do was really important to that.

Off the top of my head, here’s what I liked about it —

It let us talk about what students don’t know in a way that didn’t frame everything as student deficits or gaps.

I’ve tried a lot of different ways to demonstrate “no, really, you have to actually teach this.”  A lot of these are drawn from my experience — things I’ve noticed and reflected upon and used to shape my own pedagogy.  But in many cases, I’ve really struggled with the “should I use this” question because a lot of these come from the questions students have, or the misunderstandings those questions reveal.

For example, I had a student who thought that breast cancer was “too narrow” to do her FYC argument paper on. When I realized that she thought that not because she didn’t understand the scope of the literature, but because she thought that science was about facts, not argument — that was really, really important to me.  It helped me start to see how many of these gaps were not about information literacy, but about epistemology.  And that example can be powerful when I share it too.  But the first impulse most audiences have when they hear that “breast cancer  = too narrow” equation is to laugh.  And I’m not sure that any subsequent explanation that I do after that can really shift us away from a focus on students as deficient.

With this frame we were entirely focused on what we do, not what they do, and I liked that better.

This frame let us talk about what faculty do as something that is important and valuable, but not universal.

I think in past conversations there’s been a subtle “what students really need to know isn’t what you do” message that would bug me too if I were someone engaged in research I was excited about.  But, at the same time, it is true that lots of students we teach aren’t going to be in a position where they need to access the primary research on a daily basis (nor will they have the same tools to do so).  So this balanced across that well – I was able to frame it in a way that says students need to understand academic culture not just to succeed as students (though that’s important) and they need to learn about research not just to become critically informed citizens (though that’s important).  I’ve tried to frame it in that way before, lots of times, but this time it felt more like that message was heard.

The frame itself suggests things we can do.

As I said, I frequently came away from conversations in the past feeling that even if I was successful in convincing people that the peer reviewed sources requirement needs to change — I was leaving them without any good ideas for how to make that change.  I always gave examples and suggestions of things that I have seen others do that I like.

(Many of these are captured here on the Effective Research Assignments blog).

But they just feel like disconnected specifics.  I think that it’s hard for people to see how they might adapt them if their situation differs in any significant way.  This time, however, I was able to point to a “thing that people do” that each one illuminates.  For example, the research map we use at OSU that I’ve linked to so many times here that I won’t do it again clearly connects to “People do research, original research.”  But I was delighted to find that almost every thing I have suggested in the past about teaching peer review connected to at least one of these easily.  And I think this made it easier for people to translate those examples to their own practice in their own fields or communities.

So obviously, this is early days with this thinking, but I’m interested to see where it takes me and if it resonates with anyone else.

4/12 – minor, minor edits to fix some annoying typos

#FYE15 – recap and resources

So earlier this month I attended the 34th Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience in Dallas, Texas.  This was my first trip to Dallas, at least where I left DFW, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

As the ACRL liaison to the National Resource Center on the First Year Experience, I thought I should take the chance to talk to this group about the Framework and what it might mean.  I wasn’t sure about what audience I would get, so I decided to focus on teaching — because that is of interest to faculty, teaching librarians and program administrators alike.

As it turns out, my audience was pretty mixed between those 3 groups — I probably should/could have given more background and justification given that there was a substantial non-library presence, but honestly, there probably wasn’t time.  Anyway, after a quick overview, we brainstormed learning activities. It was a facilitated discussion, and only 50 minutes long, so there was only so much the group could do, but I was really impressed with the activities they came up with and the depth of the conversation.

Here’s the handout summarizing the Framework (PDF on Google Drive)

Group 1’s Daily Show activity.

Group 2’s first-year seminar focused syllabus investigation activity.

Group 3’s 21 Questions activity.

The rest of the groups spent more time talking about specifics — possible metaphors for different parts of the research process, techniques like concept mapping and the like — and didn’t come up with step-by-step activities.  But they were all great.

And now — what about Dallas?

For the record, this is good coffee.

This is Downtown’s (Un)parked Library

The real public library was just a few blocks from the conference hotel.

So was the Pioneer Cemetery.  This is the Fowler plot, highlighting Juliette Abbey Peak Fowler — one of the few women so highlighted.

The Farmer’s Market was pretty awesome.

This dog park is epic

And finally, on my first night, this was the sound when I left the hotel.  It was everywhere.  It drowned out traffic noise.  As it turned out, it was only an evening thing — but it was memorable.

Looking forward

So I came in today with a vague sense that I should blog more. I think, in part, it was seeing that “August 1” by my last post. Which itself was only a conference session recap post.

It’s odd – I used to get into periods where I wasn’t blogging and feel stressed and guilty for reasons that don’t really apply anymore. I don’t have to worry so much about dropping out of people’s regular reading rotation; nowadays, I can post every three months and thanks to the magic of twitter or Facebook or tumblr still be pretty sure people will see it.

But I’ve never really liked it when every post becomes a Thing. It puts a lot of pressure on each post to be a Thing, for one, and that’s not really something I can live up to. But most of all, I’ve always felt that when I am not writing here, it means I’m not reading enough or, more to the point, not thinking enough, and there’s a real danger of that this term.

My Instapaper is already at ridiculous levels, and looking forward I’m heading into that kind of period where I’m so busy getting things done that I don’t take the time to think about them. And I don’t know about you, but that never works out too well for me. So somehow I have to figure out a way to balance the thinking and the reading and the creating all together — and I have a vague feeling that that all works better when I use this platform to share.

So here’s what I’ll be thinking about for the next several months:

January – I’m chairing a search committee because a deeply cherished colleague has retired. We’ll be doing interviews this month. I’m also serving as an internal reviewer for a program review as a representative of the university’s curriculum committee. It’s my first time doing that, and I think it will be interesting, but time consuming.

bay with a bridge and land in the distance

from the 33rd Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience

February — At the start of February I’ll be at the 34th Annual Conference on the First Year Experience in Dallas. I really enjoy this conference — the content and the other participants. This is my third, and final, trip to this conference as the ACRL liaison to the NRCFYE.

I’m facilitating a discussion on threshold concepts and the new IL framework.  This has me a little stressed out, because I haven’t been very active in the larger discussions on that topic to date. This post comes closest, and it’s pretty tangental. I don’t work in an environment where external learning goals or standards get a lot of university-wide traction. The old Standards didn’t shape my work here very directly, and I don’t expect that the new Framework will either.  I know this is very different at other institutions — and within many, many FYE programs.  So I fully expect an interesting discussion, but I’m not at all sure where it will go.

This conference also presents a prep-dilemma because while many librarians attend and present, and while it offers the potential for a truly diverse audience made up of faculty, librarians, administrators and more — that potential isn’t always realized. Lots of librarian-presented sessions end up with librarian-heavy audiences. And faculty- or administrator-led sessions that could easily be tied to information literacy, which really are about information literacy, rarely make that connection. So because my session specifically invokes infolit and the Framework AND is scheduled for 8 am on the last day of the conference — I have some concerns :)

March — At the end of February and the beginning of March I’m going to England to prep a short-term study abroad course I’d like to teach as part of our FYE program here.  I’ve been on the planning group for the FYE seminars since their inception here at OSU, and it’s really grown into a great program that I love being a part of.  As I’ve been attending FYE conferences for the last three years, I’ve made a point to go to sessions about FY study abroad programs (like this one at DePaul, or this one at The College of Charleston) and I’m excited to pilot something for us here at OSU.  Our International Programs office was just charged with significantly increasing the amount of faculty-led study abroad programs, which connects with some of our instruction program and library strategic goals.  So I’m excited to think about this more.

And then, of course, later in March is ACRL in Portland.  Which isn’t really a “trip” because I live here, but is something to prepare.  I’m doing a panel on evaluation and infolit with Meredith Farkas and Sara Seely, which is a topic I love to think about, but which is still very much in planning mode right now.

Brick and wrought iron gate with an arch with the words Shakespeare GardenApril – In April I’m heading back to the University of San Francisco to do workshops with faculty and students in their FYE program. USF librarians and faculty have created a faculty learning community around information literacy that sounds really amazing.  This is building on a similar trip last year.

One of the really unique things about this trip last year was the fact that they wanted me to teach student workshops as well as faculty workshops — so that was new and uncertain. And really freaked me out in that “they have great librarians at USF – what could I possibly add?” kind of way.  We did sessions on curiosity and exploration that were really awesome and exciting — and which have continued to influence my daily teaching. It was a really wonderful experience.

May — Speaking of freaked out, in early May I’ll be doing a keynote at LOEX. Expect to see many, many thinking sessions on this one worked out here. At this point, I am still skewing hard to the OMG SCARY side about this.

At the end of May, I’ll be going to do a workshop with teaching librarians at the AMICAL conference in Bulgaria.  This is a little far out to be thinking about concretely, but something I’m really looking forward to, and which I think will pull together many of the threads from the previous trips and the rest of the year’s thinking.

June — And then finally, I’ll be co-facilitating a pre-conference workshop with Wendy Holliday at ALA.  This one is about reflective practice, which is a topic I’m never tired of thinking about.  And I couldn’t be more excited to work with Wendy.