what I’ve been doing instead of blogging

I have no idea why I am feeling compelled to put this up here, except that it is what I have been writing instead of blogging.  Not that I’ve been spending the actual minutes writing it, because I limited the writing time carefully, but it is where the mental energy that would usually produce a blog post has been going for the last couple of weeks.  The hours when I’d usually be thinking about something I have read and getting worked up enough to write about it have gone to thinking about how to finish this teaching philosophy statement.

It starts here –

Learning can be hard, it can be exhilarating, it can be scary, and it can be transformative changing the way the learner understands the world.  The most meaningful experiences I have had in my education, as both a teacher and a student, have happened when a new thought, a new idea or a new understanding has that transformative effect.

…human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which
children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.
(Lev Vygotsky, Mind and Society)

Teaching college-level research inherently means teaching students that research and learning are social processes.  Scholars do their research and communicate their findings according to practices and conventions defined by disciplinary communities and practice networks.  Teaching information literacy works best when the learning students do is grounded in these larger conversations.  This means the most effective teaching happens when I am working closely with faculty, to connect the research activities students do to the broader learning going on in the class.  For example, in Oregon State University’s beginning composition classes students engage in information literacy activities throughout the term, that connect information literacy skills to every stage of the writing process.

I believe that the best learning is a personal act of meaning-making where new information is integrated with existing mental models to create new knowledge.  Within this context, information literacy is not an end in itself.  Instead, it is the thing that gives students the cognitive capacity make that meaning for themselves.  As such, I believe that the best way I can teach students about information literacy is to introduce them to the necessary concepts, skills and ideas in an environment and context where they can immediately apply them within a larger process of learning and meaning-making.

While the meaning we make out of new ideas and information is deeply personal, the learning that supports that meaning-making is still social and collaborative.  My own ideas about teaching and learning have been strongly influenced by constructivist philosopher Lev Vygotsky, who frequently focuses on this connection. Vygotsky’s work emphasizes the interplay between teacher and student.  His description of learning as that which we can do with help, reflects the teacher’s expertise and body of experience without devaluing the knowledge, understanding and body of experiences the student brings to the process.  This is an especially useful and important way to think about learning for me, as an academic librarian.  My teaching is most effective when my knowledge and expertise about the research process combines with the student’s own expertise and experience with their topic area.

Liberating education consists in acts of cognition, not transferals of information.
(Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

When that connection happens, between teacher and student, we are both engaged in the learning process.  I believe that one of my most important responsibilities as a teacher is creating an environment where that kind of learning can happen.

As a teaching librarian, I think one of the most important things I can do is to model an appreciative, curious, recursive research process.  Scholars do not know all of the answers in advance when they do their research; the research projects that result in deep learning are frequently those where no easy answer exists to find.  It is in the process of constructing an answer out of the information that is out there, a process that is often messy and chaotic, that that deep learning happens.  I have come to believe that avoiding that messiness and chaos when I am teaching does my students a disservice.  Instead, using my time with the students to show them how to navigate the research process, to troubleshoot when problems arise, and to keep their minds open enough to recognize opportunities when they find them is a more effective, though stressful, way for me to teach.

This includes strategies as simple as using new, untested topics to demonstrate research strategies, trying keywords without knowing what they will find.  It includes developing activities that focus on broad exploration, and teaching students how to browse a topic before searching for specific sources.  For example, in OSU’s advanced composition class the students and I spend half of our class session browsing obviously biased online news and commentary sites before switching our focus to published sources.

This also includes an emphasis in the classroom on active learning activities that allow students to connect new skills and concepts introduced in class to their own topics of inquiry.   It is when the idea or skill I have just demonstrated works to further their knowledge of their topic that they learn it best.  Building in time for them to make and reflect on those connections is crucial.

One of the biggest challenges I face as a teaching librarian is that most of the direct contact I have with students happens in the context of a single-shot, guest lecture appearance in someone else’s class.  It can be very difficult to push beyond the idea of teaching as an act of transferal in that context, because students frequently make the crucial connections between your teaching and their learning after they leave that guest-lecture session.  After several years in this environment, I still feel that I have not mastered this type of teaching.

The big deal is, that it’s part of my job to make sure that you don’t grow up stupid
…it’s bad for the world.
(Tami Taylor, Friday Night Lights)

I will continue to work on becoming effective within that one-shot context, and developing new ways to teach beyond that context because I believe that what I teach, what we teach as academic librarians, is important.  It’s good for the world.   Information literate learners can take control of their own learning, and continue learning throughout their lives.

Students who understand what evidence is, and how other people use it to further particular agendas are powerful.  Students who can find, understand, evaluate and use evidence themselves are even more powerful.  When people graduate from college without those skills and without mastering those concepts, it’s bad for the world.  As a teaching librarian I get to focus my time and energy on helping students develop their power, and making the world a better place.

and ends here.

So there it is.  For all I like reflecting on stuff, I find this kind of writing excruciatingly mentally difficult, and have to strictly limit how much time I give it.

In the end, the only way I could was to focus on a few of the things that have really sparked me to think about teaching in ways that have stuck with me – even the quotation  from Mrs. Coach on Friday Night Lights (which I agonized about because the word “stupid” seemed too unlike me to put in a teaching philosophy statement because I would never say that. But Tami Taylor would so I couldn’t change it either, and there’s no room in said statement to explain the context where it is not about that, but actually is exactly about what I wanted it to be about.

And of course it’s not finished.  That’s why this kind of writing is so difficult for me.  I never feel happy with it, and it never feels done.  I suspect that is the main reason I feel compelled to post it – because sharing it takes it out of my head.

3 thoughts on “what I’ve been doing instead of blogging

  1. Well, I’m happy with it. Does that count? I think you did a wonderful job of explaining why this all matters. I’ll save it for those days when I think nothing I’m doing with students is working.

  2. Not only are you teaching in a single shot, mostly, but also you are designing something that you are not the sole teacher of.

    ‘But now with ENG 200 you will have ongoing contact – so I am interested to hear how you find that different and what works differently in that case.

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