Know when to fold ‘em

Today I am teaching what might be my last session of beginning composition this term.

(Wow, I initially typed that “beginning compassion” – that’s a typo that could spark it’s own blog post right there).

Yes, I just checked, and this is my last one of the term.  I’m teaching today with a regular member of the writing faculty, who has probably done more than any other person currently on the writing faculty to maintain and cultivate the information literacy component of our beginning composition course here.

We revise constantly – both because our personalities push us to do so and because external pressures (like record enrollment for each of the last few years) make it necessary.  Most of the time, we’re tweaking, but in this last year or so we’ve really attacked the problem of what we should be teaching in this course more intentionally and aggressively than we have since probably 2005 or so.  And I wanted to talk about the process because in some ways we’ve moved in a full circle this year – from a deep, intense focus on teaching students about the peer-reviewed article (in an authentic and useful way) to de-emphasizing that part of the discourse and looking for other places where it might be taught more meaningfully.

Now, this isn’t anything that hasn’t come up a million times already this year.  Barbara has talked about it brilliantly many times; Meredith brought it up just a little while ago.  It’s not even new here – Kate and I wrote about this issue just last year in the context of other courses (outside the paywall, get it while its free).

So factors we have to consider in our FYC:

  1. The # of sections per term has gone up from about 25 when I started at OSU, to 40-45 now.
  2. The sections are taught, independently, by GTA’s, adjuncts and a few full-time faculty
  3. There is a common curriculum everyone is required to use, including assignments (portfolios), revision, and texts.
  4. As is the case on many campuses, our FYC course has a service component to it – meaning the idea that the rest of campus is relying on FYC to provide some basic instruction in academic writing.  This includes an expectation that students will learn what peer reviewed articles and library databases are.

So, we started from a question of what could we (where we = librarians) teach most meaningfully in the 50 minutes or so we had with students. Given #1, our ability to continue to teach in all of the sections of FYC can’t be taken for granted anymore.  If we want to continue, and we do, we really have to get a handle on what it is that that contact does that other ways of teaching (and teaching in other courses) can’t do.

Given #2 and #4 above, the question of “what do you need to know about finding, reading, understanding and using peer-reviewed articles” seemed like it might fit the bill.  As a requirement, the peer-reviewed article isn’t going away.  And as librarians, particularly librarians who teach FYC students every term we actually felt like we were in a better position to talk about this discourse than the TA’s, who are 1. often themselves brand new to OSU, 2. unevenly prepared (depending on their own college experiences) to teach about peer review and journals and 3. focused on a part of the scholarly literature, English and humanities, that most students are NOT going to use in their FYC essays.


Here’s the thing – in the databases we see unbundled articles pulled together by our keywords in a list organized by relevance – by our keyword matches.  Everything about that “is this peer-reviewed” question, however, assumes a knowledge of the discourse that produces these articles.  The way those articles are written, formatted, contextualized and, yes, quality-controlled is all about the discourse.

“Is this peer-reviewed” shouldn’t even be the question — and I think it’s a question that  confuses.  It implies “Is this good?” “Is this high-quality?”   “Is this some kind of generic definition of ‘scholarly’?”

To make sense, though, to really reflect how peer review works, the question should be “does this journal use peer review?”  We wanted to talk about peer review as a method of quality control, to focus on the ways that peer review reinforces the expectations of the discipline.  That matched the rhet/comp focus of the course, it allowed the TA’s to talk about authorship, audience and message, concepts they were focusing on throughout the rest of the course.

So we designed a set of activities, including in-class activities, tutorials, follow-up activities and rubrics, focused on getting students to connect the article to the journal, the journal to the idea of peer-review and to understand the kinds of standards that the peer-reviewers use to decide which articles should be published.

We dropped some of the more mechanical “how to find it” pieces from our teaching and moved those to online help.  We moved most of the teaching on finding and using books to the TA’s, who were more comfortable with that discourse than they were with peer-reviewed articles.  We piloted these ideas in a few sections (about seven, selected by TA opt-in).

And it worked well.  The IL curriculum was well integrated with the rest of the course, and the classes felt meaningful.  We had some trouble covering what we wanted to cover in the classes, particularly the 50-minute sections, but there was some general idea that it was better than what we had been doing before.

(It was better)

But the little problems we noticed with the pilot became big problems when we expanded from the hand-picked, opt-in sections to all of the sections.  The TA’s who were teaching in the pilot were really engaged and invested with the curriculum and prepped the students about as well as they could possibly be prepped.  Without that level of investment, the gaps between where the students really are with their needs and their understanding of academic, source-based writing, became so very clear.  I had one class where the instructor had been so very successful communicating the “you MUST use peer-reviewed articles” message that the students were highly, highly motivated to get it right.  We spent almost 15 minutes of a 50 minute class on the “what is a journal” question.  Teaching FYC session became a stressful race against the clock and sometimes I felt like they left more confused than they were coming in, and not in a good way.

Let’s be clear. I’m not saying these students weren’t smart (they were) or that they weren’t trying (they definitely were) or that they’re weren’t serious about what we were doing (they very definitely really were).  I know that there are people out there who read these types of arguments and say “aren’t these students in college?” or “how could you not do this in high school?”

And all I have to say to that is, whatever.  You keep telling yourself that all of your high school students totally get everything about peer review, totally know what they’re going to find in scientific articles that graduate students would have to read twice, and can totally navigate the unwritten rules of scholarly/expert communities.  When I see people making those arguments, I’ll admit, my assumption is that they don’t really understand peer-review either.

Everything about the way that the scholarly literature is organized is based on the journal, the discipline and the scholarly community that connects those two things.  Expecting first-years to get that from the outside is ridiculous.  Expecting first years to get that because they’re taught about it by graduate students who are just becoming conversant with their own discourse community is ridiculous.  And expecting first years to get that because they spend 50 minutes with a librarian is ridiculous.

And I’m not sure I’d be able to say that with such confidence if we hadn’t tried to do it – and to do it as right as we could.  To do it in an authentic, meaningful way that could be built upon in later courses when they start doing real work in a discipline.  To do it in a way where self-directed learning experiences are connected to group activities, reflective activities, hands-on exploration, and feedback.  To do it with teaching librarians who teach this course every term, who participate in professional development activities and who understand the students and the learning goals.

So today, I taught the course as we tweaked it over winter break – to de-emphasize the scholarly source.  It’s still a requirement, but we don’t focus on it any more than we focus on news or book sources.  We talk about it as “a way to find out what the research is” and not more than that.  The session focus has returned to exploration and thinking about the topic — which lets us tie everything to their assignment (which is itself interesting, and something I should probably give its own post):  focused on reflection and analysis and presenting themselves as academic writers.

I’m not particularly happy with it at this point – it was a tweak, not a fix.  We haven’t figured out cool ways to teach this stuff.  But still, the pressure and stress of the session was gone, as was the sense that the students left feeling less like “I can do this.”  What to teach – we’re a lot closer there.

2 thoughts on “Know when to fold ‘em

  1. It’s fun to see you posting again (and this is coming from someone who is pretty much uninterested in any library-related anything at this point.) I keep hoping someone will start a comment conversation. Maybe if the posts start showing up on facebook.

    I don’t have anything particularly substantive to add, but I did want to say that this right here is awesome:
    “And all I have to say to that is, whatever. You keep telling yourself that all of your high school students totally get everything about peer review, totally know what they’re going to find in scientific articles that graduate students would have to read twice, and can totally navigate the unwritten rules of scholarly/expert communities. When I see people making those arguments, I’ll admit, my assumption is that they don’t really understand peer-review either.”

  2. This is all kinds of awesome. I would love to see how this plays out in actual assignments / activities. “We talk about it as “a way to find out what the research is” and not more than that.” <—– yes. Otherwise it's "peer review = truth though of course only in classes like this."

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