The iConnected Parent, Chapter 3

One thing that I maybe haven’t made clear is that this book isn’t intended to be an exhaustive treatment of this, or any, phenomenon — it’s a parenting book, designed to give advice to parents with kids heading off to college.

Some of my wishes for what might show up in these pages, therefore, should be read as unreasonable.

So, on to Chapter 3. Can College Kids Grow Up on an Electronic Tether?

This is the chapter that should be getting into where we might see connections between this research and the big body of student development research that exists out there.  The authors point out at start that there has been very little research on this specific phenomenon, but there is certainly a lot that we “know” about how students have developed in the past – and I am sure that research informed the present study.

Research question: What happens to the independence of college students who are in constant contact with their parents?

Method: To get at this question, they designed the surveys to also capture information about:

  • students’ psychological development
  • parental involvement in students’ lives
  • relationships between students and parents

The chapter starts by making with the argument that traditionally, students have been able to control the level of contact with parents, and parents have expected that the amount of contact they have with their offspring will go down. That separation from parents is essential for students to develop a mature relationship with their parents — if they stay too connected, then the dynamics that existed in high school won’t get a chance to change.

Most of this initial part is an exhortation for parents to let their students make their own decisions and their own mistakes. This is important not only for the students – who need to develop their own skills and to solve their own problems — but also for the parents.  It is only when the student develops autonomy that they are capable of seeing their parents as people – with with lives that aren’t entirely defined by their children.

Nothing here is cited, but it seems to be heavily informed by Arthur Chickering’s seven vectors of college student development.  Chickering’s revised third vector is called Moving through Autonomy toward Interdependence, and deals with the same issues of connectedness – and how the relationship between student and parent can improve and mature better when there is some autonomy, or separation.

In fact, Chickering’s initial model focused a great deal more on autonomy as leading to independence — it was in a relatively recent revision that he refined this category to recognize the ways that the relationships that students bring with them to college continue — and the ways that these relationships change.  Hence, interdependence. 

(Which I’ve always liked – I like the idea that one of the things we do in college is become capable of bringing more to our relationships – that we can become a source of support to people who have always supported us.)

So – then we move into a summary of results.  And the one-line summary?

…students who have the most frequent contact with their parents are less autonomous than other students.

Evidence? Those students are less likely to hit their benchmarks, according to the standard psychological tests that were embedded in the surveys.

Subtopics examined include: decision making, relationships, self-regulation and parental regulation

Photograph looking up at a college building against a blue sky with the words college of Business on it

some rights reserved by ucentralarkansas (flickr)

Decision Making — The focus in this section is on majors.  Parents are pushing “practical” majors where they can see an immediate employment benefit. Students are asking about other majors, and hearing they should change. At Michigan, only 2 students reported parents steering them away from econ or business, as opposed to many stories where the reverse was true. Of course, all parents aren’t the same – some were described as “not heavy handed” with their advice, others felt they needed to offer perspectives and warnings, even as they encouraged their children to follow their interests.

Student/Parent Relationships — Relationships are generally strong, but the researchers did find that those students who get called the most are more likely to have relationships with their parents that are “fraught” & marked by conflict.  Students who control the contact — who make the calls – report more positive feelings about their parents.  There are also students who are controlling the contact, but who are maybe calling too much – which the researchers describe as “trading independence for closeness.”

Self-Regulation & Parental Regulation — Students with good self regulation (what we might call “time management” and “study skills” in other contexts) get better grades AND report positive feelings about relationships with parents.  Students who reported high levels of parental regulation (parents taking responsibility for the timeliness and/or quality of the students’ work), on the other hand, reported negative outcomes.  Not surprisingly, those who scored high on the “parental regulation” scale also reported high levels of contact with parents.  They also reported MORE trouble with school.  So parental regulation doesn’t just hurt relationships – but in terms of academic success, it doesn’t work.

Conclusions & Advice for Parents

Not surprisingly – the main conclusion of this chapter is that parents need to back off and let their kids grow up.  This will have positive impacts not only on the students’ academic skills and success in college, but also leads to better parent/student relationships.

My reactions

From the start of the chapter, there’s the suggestion that there are two types of students here — those who want more independence, but find that college doesn’t really change anything in terms of the reminders and suggestions and direction they get on a daily basis from parents

AND those who maintain those lines of contact themselves – who actively resist the separation that the research suggests is necessary.

Probably not surprisingly, because of the “this is a guide for parents” nature of the book, the advice is heavily directed towards the first situation.  Parents, after all, can best control their own behavior and it makes sense that the book would focus on those situations where the parents’ behaviors are more problematic.

I was curious what advice they would have for parents who aren’t initiating the contact, but who have kids who are, as they say, sacrificing independence and development for contact.  How can parents diagnose a situation where their student might be relying on them too much?  What are the warning signs that your student is too dependent upon you? And then what do you do about it?  I hope this is addressed more in later chapters.

And the other thing  I found most striking from this chapter was the discussion of majors.  That’s something that I think we need to worry about – exploration is an important part of college and intellectual exploration is one of the most important kinds of exploration students do.  If that’s getting short-circuited, it needs to be addressed.

the iConnected Parent, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 — The Electronic Tether: Communication between Today’s College Students and Their Parents

Summary

We open with Doonesbury articulating the central tension of the book — not helicopter parenting per se, something more along the lines of “we weren’t like this?”

black and white comic strip featuring a man talking to his wife about his daughter

(Note, there’s about a week and a half of strips on this topic if you click the link)

The first study used online surveys and focus groups and compared what students thought would happen with regard to communication with their parents with what actually did.

  • Most students predicted they’d talk to parents about once a week (and focus groups suggested they were looking forward to more independence)
  • Followup surveys showed they were talking to parents an average of 10.4 times per week.

Hofer (and the older students who worked with her, who were just as surprised by the findings) located the source of this change in the ubiquity of cell phones.

The second study tackled the question – is this just a first-term thing, or does it persist? (Yes). The third study looked at students who had taken a gap year – did they report different patterns (No).

The fourth study expanded the population from Middlebury, looking at Middlebury students and students in a very different environment – the University of Michigan.  It also expanded in scope – examining a cohort of students across four years.

The average number of times that families communicated was 13.4 times per week.  Year in school didn’t matter.  Which school didn’t matter.  Variables like income, ethnicity and distance from home had no effect.  Only gender had an effect and it was small (14.5 connections per week for girls, 11.3 for boys).

And this latest study also showed that neither side of this equation (students or parents) was driving the communication – both sides initiated about the same number of calls.  Students indicated a general level of satisfaction with the amount of contact, but believed their parents would want more.  A parent survey was added to see if that was true.  About 30% said they’d like more contact.  88% of parents predicted that their children would report being satisfied with the amount of contact.

Interestingly, there seems to be a tension in when and why students call – sometimes it is because they feel they need the help (more on this in a minute) but another strong theme running through this data is the idea that these phone calls are “entertainment,” “filler,” or “something to do when I’m bored.”

In terms of help, the content of the calls does change over time.  First-year students report needing more academic help — later, the times when help is needed, or offered, tends to cluster around milestones like picking a major, finding an internship, or choosing a career.

Upper-division students are more likely to report conversations where the primary topic is the parents‘ life or work.

My reactions

So, this chapter was akin to the “results” section in a paper — it doesn’t really get into the “do these findings matter” piece — except in the teaser for the next chapter.

It also doesn’t really get into causality beyond the statements at the beginning where they were trying to figure out why the upper-division students involved in the study seemed more similar to the researchers in their expectations and reactions than like their fellow students.

I ended up with more questions than answers — the focus on number of contacts per week doesn’t allow for a lot of subtlety. A lot of the rest of the chapter pointed to ways to complicate these results, without really digging into them enough to actually complicate them –

  • For example, “fix this problem for me” is a pretty different motivator than “I’m bored and I have a half mile to walk until I get to my next class” — particularly if you’re going to then be drawing connections between these behaviors and what we know about student development.
  • Carrying that a little further, looking back to causality, it seems so intuitive as to be hard to examine that the “I’m bored” calls probably ARE tied to the fact that all of a sudden everyone carries around their phone all of the time, playing Angry Birds while walking is kind of hard, AND we don’t have to worry about minutes and charges when we’re talking to family?  The “fix things for me” behaviors on the other hand – those seem to point to a more complex set of causes.
  • Speaking of, I’m reading this book because it’s based, at least in substantial part, on actual research so I am glad that they chose to foreground the rest of the book WITH that research by putting it in chapter 2.  I was going to say here that the numbers still point to many things – as just mentioned the bullet above, but that the anecdotes and stories pulled out of the qualitative data tend towards the “these kids today” narratives that exist in the popular media.  But I’m actually not sure that’s true.  Certainly, the student whose mom had all of the syllabi for his classes and who would call him to make sure he was meeting deadlines, etc. was extreme and vivid and memorable.  But I think there may have been just as many examples of students telling stories like “I always call when I walk to the gym because I know there’s a built-in exit strategy out of the conversation.”
  • Which leads to the last question – I hope later chapters dig more into the connections between the behaviors (making or accepting calls, sending emails, etc) and how students and parents think the others are perceiving those connections — they may be calling at equal rates, but what do those rates mean if you add in feelings of obligation, external motivators (like peer pressure), or all of those times when you wanted to call and didn’t?
  • Finally, I am still hoping friends are part of this discussion, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to be.

The iConnected Parent (Summer Reading 2012) part 1

Today’s assignment — Chapter 1: iConnected Parenting 101.

You know, I don’t do book clubs.  I don’t know why.  Well, maybe I do know why.  I think for a book club to work for me it would have to be a perfect storm of people I knew exactly the right amount PLUS people who were exactly as interested in talking about the book as I was.  I suspect that if #1 wasn’t there – as in people I knew not well enough – then #2 would default immediately into talking about other things than the book, because.. well… I tend to feel strongly about books.

And if there’s one thing my history graduate degree gave me it was the training to feel strongly about books and also feel really, really comfortable into trying to argue other people into feeling the same way I do.  I don’t think that’s what most people do book groups for.

A photograph of a book with an image of an empty nest on the cover and the title The iConnected Parent by Barbara Hofer

But I’m going to read this book – pretty much in public – and those things won’t matter because you can read along or not, agree or argue or not – and it’ll be fine.

Barbara K. Hofer & Abigail S. Moore. The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up.  New York: Free Press, 2010.

So first off I am not a huge fan of the title.  I wonder if the author actually loves this title?  It reads like an effort to give a fairly academic book more mainstream appeal so I am not going to hold the title against her.

I’m going to read this book because it’s research-based. It grew out of series of research studies that Dr. Hofer (a psychology professor at Middlebury) conducted with and about students at her college.  I am also going to read it because in the stories I read about it, the authors tended to avoid the kind of sensationalistic “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS” anecdotes and spin that characterize a lot of the stories I hear (and I admit it, sometimes retell) about college students and their relationship to their parents.

Full disclosure, I was a kid who talked a lot to my family when I was in college.  I went to school 3,000 miles away from home, in a big city, and as the first one of my siblings to go to college.  This was the age before cell phones, before VOIP and before the Internet, when we had to be aware of things like long-distance charges and when the rates changed. My mom owned her own business, and would take calls from me any time – I didn’t have to worry about the costs – so I talked to her (and sometimes my dad or my sisters) a few times a week.  Several of my friends would have also characterized themselves as close to their families, but even in that context, I was considered pretty weird.

Enough with the preliminaries.  I promise, tomorrow I’ll get to the content quicker.  This is just the introductory chapter, though, so there’s some room for my own introduction too.  In this piece the authors are doing the typical introductory stuff – here’s the argument and here’s how we got involved in the project.

Summary of Chapter 1

So, here’s how they got there:

Dr. Hofer noticed students leaving her classes at Middlebury and immediately calling their parents.  Interested in the phenomenon, she asked some students to help her explore the connection between this frequent (& cell-phone enabled) parent/child communication and the students’ ability to become independent (along a variety of vectors). That study got some popular attention, and in the ensuing rounds of public conversation, she met Abby Moore, a journalist covering the same types of phenomena for the New York Times.  They decided to collaborate on a book length treatment.

And here’s the argument (from page 2):

We use the term iConnected Parenting to refer to a culture of parents deeply involved in their children’s lives, even as they approach adulthood, that uses the technology of instand communication to enhance their connection. Perhaps nowhere is this trend more evident than on campus, where parents and kids once separated. We believe that it has substantially changed parent-child relationships, during the college years especially, and that there are both benefits and drawbacks to this.

My thoughts:

Starting with the reflective piece.  As I said before, I talked to my family a lot for a Gen X type and I am fairly certain that were IM, cell phones and Skype available to me I would have talked to them even more.  Actually, given how fast my mom and I both type, I suspect that IM and email would have actually been the killer apps for us.

At the same time, I was pretty aggressively independent and my parents did a lot to encourage that.  I made almost all of my academic decisions by myself – starting with high school. I navigated the whole college-choosing process with very little input.  I decided on my own courses, I found my own jobs — I was as independent as anyone I knew.  As a matter of fact, THAT’S actually one reason I think I was weird — because I talked to my family all the time without HAVING to — I wasn’t expected nor required to run things by them, I didn’t have to clear my choices or even how I was spending money with them — I had more independence from my family and still I talked to my mom every other day or so.

So while I find the argument that technology and ease of communication MUST be making things different very intuitive — I’m not sure what I think the impact of that change is.  In other words, I am sure that I would have been a lot more connected to family (and to friends) from “back home” with ubiquitous lines of communication — but I’m not sure what the impact of that would have been on my development, my independence, or my life.

The introduction runs through a variety of “cultural factors” the authors think are contributing to these changes – I assume these will be fleshed out (and documented) more later, because here they are barely more than assertions:

  • Parents having fewer kids and having them later.
  • The belief that the world today is more dangerous than it used to be.
  • Kids living more scheduled lives.
  • A more competitive college admissions process.
And I’m not sure if this is another cause or if it’s the effect — more time spent in a liminal phase between adolescence and adulthood.

So my hopes for the book include –

  • I hope the book really digs into Hofer’s actual research.
  • I hope the book looks at the impact of technology in a complex way.  For example, so much of the communication we’re talking about takes place in text – and everyone doesn’t have an equal level of facility with text — how does that affect or change things?  What is the impact of culture, or class on these questions?
  • I hope this isn’t JUST about parenting.  It is also much, much easier for students today to stay very connected to the circle of friends from high school, and I have to think that those connections are every bit as likely as the connections to family to have an impact on how well a student engages with and connects to their new community in college.
  • I hope the book draws some connections between these observations and existing, research-based theory on college student development.

So, according to TechCrunch in 2010, Bill Gates thinks that by 2015, people won’t have to go away to college anymore because

Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world…. It will be better than any single university.

Fast forward to this year and Harvard and MIT launch edX, designed to bring an interactive course experience to anyone with an Internet connection (so, not just lectures) – building a “global community of learners” and strengthening programs back on campus as well.

Online education and it’s potential to disrupt college as we know it is a talked-about thing, is what I am saying.

But despite that, I have never really thought about this.

(via Walking Paper)

It’s kind of a longish video with a pace that is measured, or slow – so if you didn’t read it basically it seems to be a platform that manages online course offerings – potential teachers can upload their classes, potential students can find and sign up for classes.  There’s some consistency in offerings – they’re all one-day, in-person workshops that cost $20.

Here’s the thing, I can see this working with enough critical mass — but I’m not sure I can see it working on a college campus.  But I think it should work on a college campus – like, I can see it working on a campus that’s not all that different than the ones we have.  Why?  Well, reasons…

  1. We have a lot of really smart students who know how to do stuff.  We also have a lot of really smart faculty and staff who know how to do stuff, but I haven’t figured out yet if it works better in my head to be something bringing the whole community together – building a learning community that encompasses the physical community — or if it’s better as a student-teaching-students thing.
  2. We have students (and faculty and staff) who have a lot of interests – who want to learn how to do stuff.
  3. We talk a lot about high impact educational practices – those practices that increase  student success and engagement.  What’s important about these practices isn’t so much “if students get these experiences then school will be easier for our students” so much as “if students get these experiences then they’ll develop the networks, resources and resilience to get through the tough parts, stay in school and ultimately figure out how to succeed.  Taking on the teaching role doesn’t directly fit any of these practices, but it seems to fit in spirit — basically, if the teaching feels like it’s part of what makes the community the community, then participating would increase attachment to the community.

But on the other hand, other reasons …

When school pressures hit, there’s very little that survives. Which is what I mean when I say I can see this working on a college that is similar but not exactly the same as what I see outside my window.  (or what I would see if I had a window).  Basically, what I mean here is that I find it hard to see our students finding time for this kind of, well, dabbling a lot of the time — they can use working out or even parties as a legit reason not to study — one keeps you healthy and the other keeps you in friends – but taking a class on fixing your bike?  No, that I can’t see being treated as a legit reason not to focus on the classes and learning you’re actually paying for.

And I’m not sure what that means – I can easily see something like this working with my students just after they leave college.  Well, not easily, but realistically, I can imagine this kind of ecosystem taking root.  In college, on the other hand, it’s a lot harder.  I’m not sure what I think about that.

But here’s the thing – this seems like a great thing for libraries to manage.  This is information literacy, browsing, exploration and curiosity.  Exactly the kind of thing we are all about in college – but think about the ecosystem we build to support it.  What’s missing?  This kind of collaborative sharing of expertise — the people networks.

Which brings it back to he discussions of online learning I started with  — see, I’m pulling it back around.  Seriously, I’m as surprised as you are.

One thing that got me (and really, almost everyone else) two years ago when that Bill Gates quote appeared was just what a top-down, boring view of education it suggested — sitting in front of lectures, absorbing the knowledge =/= education.

And I’m a known lecture defender, but seriously – what made college worth it for me was the people.  And not just the faculty, though they were important, but my peers as well.

Which is why I think, on one level, that I couldn’t stop thinking about this community-teaching model after seeing it this morning.  Because it’s using technology to develop the community, but it gets at something that could only work on campus – that reflects part of why I love our campus community (and all of the campuses and communities I’ve been a part of).  It gets at part of the reason why, even though I had to do a distance library degree, I chose a program where I had classmates.

Of course, I learned a lot from my classmates, and of course I learned a lot from my interactions with faculty.  But even more than that – those relationships (especially with peers) are what created the culture of learning that existed in my college experience — the expectations, the standards, the ideas about what was worth your time and what weren’t – -those things were all social, shared values that we gave each other.  Some campuses did it really well, building a culture that really pushed me beyond where I would have been on my own.  Some, well, showed me how great I used to have it.

Even though I think it wouldn’t work – I keep trying to think about why it would.  Because a college that developed the kind of culture where that kind of sharing and learning was possible, was rewarded, was considered important enough to do even alongside the classes you’re paying for — that would be really cool.

Many Thoughts about Wikipedia

Back from LOEX, and it was pretty great.  I was pretty sure I knew what to expect from LOEX, but I had no idea what to expect from Columbus.  What we found was a highly walkable downtown, that didn’t shut down when the working day ended, good things to eat, wrapped up in a fair helping of City Beautiful.

Broad Street was broad, parks and commons were grand, and cultural institutions were majestic -

science and industry museum seen from across a river

And the conference was pretty good too.  One of the highlights was Char Booth’s opening keynote:  Reframing Library Instruction: Advocacy, Insight and the Learner Experience. 

(For the record, my favorite part was the “Advocacy” part)

So my definition of a great keynote is one where I have Many Thoughts throughout, and this one qualified.  Here are some of them.

Near the end, she was discussing an assignment of the type that was frequently discussed as something awesome that could be done, but which hasn’t turned out to be done all that often despite the fact that most people who hear about it think it’s a good idea — the “have the students write an article for Wikipedia instead of a traditional paper” assignment.

Here’s a 2007 article from Inside Higher Ed talking about one professor’s experience with this type of assignment.

And here’s a 2010 article from USA Today talking about the Wikimedia Foundations proactive effort to get professors to assign this type of project.

This was a particularly cool example, because it focused on topics and concepts related to elections.  And I suspect it was a particularly effective one — in part because it wasn’t a gimmick – this was NO “let’s engage the students by using one of their things” thing.  It was designed by people who understand Wikipedia’s culture — not just that is has one, but the ways that culture can make it hard for students trying to put stuff up there.

At first glance, a college term paper and a Wikipedia entry appear to have little in common.

So what do we think – is that quotation (from the IHE article linked above) true?

Here are my thoughts.

Char said, while talking about this assignment that she’d never seen students so excited about research.  Now, on my campus, I’m involved with lots of students engaged in undergraduate research.  Giving students a chance to work closely with faculty on brand-new, important research – in the field and in the lab – is one advantage a big, research university has over our smaller counterparts when it comes to undergraduate learning experiences, and we are working hard to give as many students as possible that kind of experience.  So, my first thought was – well, that’s not true.  I see students super excited about research all the time, and probably more excited than they would be if they got to write a Wikipedia article.

But the thought immediately following that was that Char Booth has obviously seen that too – she went to Reed, which has this annual celebration of undergraduate research every year – the Thesis Parade

So, that led obviously to the next thought – but do they get this excited about what we would call “library research” ?

Okay, probably not.  Even in the context of these theses and capstones, I’m not sure the lit review is what people are excited about.  (And increasingly, I’m coming to believe that the lit review is the piece they’re least ready to handle independently, and that those who get the most out of it don’t handle it independently but in very close concert with their mentors, but that’s another post for another day)

Which brings me to that quotation above – because the next thought was, “of course, Wikipedia writing is probably the closest real-world analogue to the type of writing we ask in many, many, many beginning comp classes.”

Isn’t it?

stick figure cartoon of a figure behind a soapbox holding up a sign that said "citation needed"

I’ve been talking about using Wikipedia to dig into what we mean by synthesis or attribution for a long time.  I was so happy when this cartoon appeared because it just captured that idea – an idea that first-year students frequently have a lot of trouble with – when do I need a citation and when don’t I?  Or, on a bigger scale, “how can these be my ideas if I have to cite everything?”

And Wikipedia is a pretty great example of how one can take a bunch of secondary sources and synthesize them into a coherent, meaningful, narrative that meets a set of externally-defined standards of quality — which is pretty much exactly what we ask people to do in first-year composition (at least part of the time).

Where my thoughts went next pretty much had nothing to do with the specific assignment Char Booth was describing – it was fantastic.  It was all about the idea that there are editors at Wikipedia and they have standards and knowing that audience, and those standards was the key to success in the assignment.

That’s a fantastically useful concept for students to learn, and a foundational set of rhetorical skills for them to master.  And Wikipedia, because it makes its rules and standards so transparent, IS an easier place for them to learn that than scholarly discourse which, let’s just say, does not.

No, what this post has to do with is the fact that I’m having a really hard time coming up with ANOTHER “real-world” place where the kind of synthetic, based on secondary sources, make sure you’re totally neutral, writing exists?  I’m sure it does, and it’ll come to me as soon as I hit “post,” but right now I’m not coming up with it.

Other encyclopedia writing doesn’t count.  Journalism has some things in common, yes, but I’m not sure that’s a great example either.  There are so many kinds of journalistic writing, that’s a hard one.  Anything else?

Because here’s the thing — Wikipedia’s standards and policies — and the fact that it IS an encyclopedia — really do have some negatives for students struggling to make the shift from report writing to academic writing.

It’s bad enough that there are so many unwritten rules to knowledge creation in the different disciplines and that these rules are so obscure and hard for new students to see, much less understand.  It’s hard enough to help students made the jump from “original means no one ever thought of or said this before” to the idea of originality grounded in or based on a body of existing knowledge.

Barbara Fister summed up these problems this way – (emphasis added)

I hate it when students who have hit on a novel and interesting way of looking at an issue tell me they have to change their topic because they can’t find sources that say exactly what they plan to say. I try to persuade them otherwise, but they believe that original ideas are not allowed in “research.” How messed up is that
?

And now I am finally to the main thing.  Original ideas AREN’T allowed in Wikipedia articles.

Wikipedia has a strict “no original research” policy when it comes to their articles — you base it on the published record, not your own (or anyone else’s) original knowledge creation.  And, it’s an encyclopedia, its raison d’être is something different than “originality of thought.”

So to sum up- I buy that students find writing for Wikipedia to be so much more meaningful and real than writing a term paper — it’s a tool they use and value, and it’s public — there’s lots of reasons why I think this is engaging.  I agree that it’s a better option, for those reasons, than the traditional research paper (with the important caveat that the person designing the assignment and guiding the students through the assignment has to really “get” Wikipedia if it’s going to work).

But I’m wondering if the very factors that make Wikipedia “better” as a platform for student research aren’t highlighting some of the problems with the ways we’re currently trying to get students engaged in academic writing, knowledge creation, and meaning-making in our composition and library classrooms?

See?  Many thoughts.  That’s the mark of one great keynote.  Thanks, Char.

it is too much, let me sum up

There was a little flurry of conversation in my social networks about Mark Bauerlein’s recent offering on the Brainstorm blog (at the Chronicle), and i just realized that it was almost all in the rhet/comp corners of those networks – so in case library friends haven’t seen it – it’s worth looking at:

All Summary, No Critical Thinking 

Pull Quote:

From now on, my syllabus will require no research papers, no analytical tasks, no thesis, no argument, no conclusion.  No critical thinking and no higher-order thinking skills.  Instead, the semester will run up 14 two-page summaries (plus the homework exercises).

Students will read the great books and assignments will ask them to summarize designated parts.

A soft description of the conversations I saw would be “skeptical.” There were those who thought this was an April Fool’s joke, until they noticed the byline.  I think it reads like an effort to solve a problem that’s not really about summary, but about reading.  I italicize “think” there, because I don’t really get the summary idea – it seems to me that people who only engage enough with argumentative writing to cherry-pick quotes from source texts will be just as able to create “summaries” that don’t reflect any more than a superficial understanding of those source texts.

Michael Faris pointed out Alex Reid’s excellent response, which does a much better job of problematizing the summary than I could:

The Role of Summary in Composition (digital digs)

I believe we misidentify the challenges of first-year composition when we focus on student lack and specifically on the lack of “skills.” Our challenge is to take students who do not believe they are writers (despite all the writing they do outside school), who do not value writing, who do not believe they have the capacity to succeed as writers, and who simply wish to get done with this course and give them a path to developing a lasting writing practice that will extend beyond the end of the semester.

Isn’t that a great, um, summary of why writing teaching matters?

Can we substitute “researchers” for “writers” here?  I kind of like the resulting statement, but it makes me uncomfortable as well, because – can we do, are we doing that with our current models?

do this, if you get the chance

Or maybe that should say – make the chance happen, if you can!

So far, this “what I am doing today” focus is working for me as a way to jump start writing.  Looking at my calendar for next week, I’m not sure that this will continue.  So I’m going to ride this wave while I can.

Today, in less than an hour, actually, I’m going to head over to the College of Education to hang out with a class for a couple of hours.  This has turned into one of my favorite things I do – and it wasn’t my idea.  Our director of New Student Programs and Family Outreach started inviting me to come to classes in the Adult Education and Higher Education Leadership program four or five years ago now.  The twist is that I’m not to talk about research skills so much as to talk about what I know and see in my work with first year students.

The class I’m going to today is a special topics class called First-Year College Students: Programs and Philosophies, so the connection there is obvious. There’s frequently a technology focus to the discussion I’m invited to, but we don’t always stay there.  Two years ago I remember we ended up talking about scholarly blogs and twitter accounts for most of the hour.

Why is this one my favorite things we do?  Lots of reasons.  One is because getting out and talking to people who are training to work in student affairs and student programs is a great way for me to step back and see what I do from another, really useful perspective.

Another reason is something I talked about in that webcast I did on Friday – it takes a a village to teach information literacy.  This pull quote from an old article by George Kuh gets at what I’m trying to say:

“Students who perceive that their campus emphasizes information literacy gain more in this area, net of other influences.”

In other words, students learn more about what it means to be information literate (and about how to do it) when they are pushed, every day, in real-world as well as classroom situations to think about the sources and evidence they use to make decisions and get stuff done.  When they hear from librarians in isolation – “this matters,” it’s not as impactful or effective as when they hear that from everyone.  And this stuff does matter, so talking about it to the people who are going to be working with our students in their roles as RA’s, classroom assistants, tour guides, peer mentors, writing center consultants, and more — that only makes sense to me.  Plus, they’re excellent people and the conversations are always great.

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.

So.

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.

Information Literacy and the FYE

I’m doing a webcast tomorrow morning about integrating information literacy into the First-Year Experience.  I’ve done some presentations for faculty, and for some graduate classes on campus on this topic, but this is the first time I’ll be talking to (mostly) librarians about it.

Here’s the monster list of “further reading/exploration” links I’ve gathered along the way.

DATA AND STATISTICS

COLLEGE STUDENT DEVELOPMENT THEORY

BOOKS

TOOLS


this is not a New Year’s resolution

The 22 days that have passed since New Year’s day should make that clear, but just in case…

I am going to see if blogging is something I can still sustain.  I still have time for writing; I do a lot of it.  But I don’t have the same kind of time for reading that I used to and without reading, there isn’t as much to write about. I don’t tend to write in a vacuum, I write as a conversation, and without listening there’s not much this introvert has to say.

And since I tend to read in bursts when I have time, and that time is sometimes after the time when everyone else has read the thing, I worry more as much about missing the conversational moment as I do have anything to say.

So I’m pretty sure this hasn’t been widely discussed in libraries – but it made me think – or I should say it sounded familiar.

Tom and Lorenzo (Tom + Lorenzo, Fabulous and Opinionated) talking about Carey Mulligan wearing Roland Mouret at the 32nd Annual London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.

(By the way, the post is not really about Carey Mulligan or about Roland Mouret so much as the YSL pumps she’s wearing – go ahead, look.  They’re blue.)

They start the post, a variation on a specific genre of post often featured on this blog — does this specific red carpet look work or doesn’t it? with a disclaimer.

We’re almost afraid to write this one.

Not because we fear the wrath of Carey Mulligan’s publicist (or Roland Mouret’s, for that matter), nor because we fear that legions of her fans will tear us limb from limb in an orgy of righteous rage because we dared to say something less than flattering about her (although it does give us some pause). No, we’re afraid to write this one because we’re about to complain about something that we’ve been asking for in every red carpet ensemble for almost five years now.

(Color, is what they’ve been asking for. Just some color, which Ms. Mulligan is without a doubt sporting in that photo.)

See, here’s the thing – they’re thought twice about writing the post because while they’re writing subjectively about some of the most subjective content there is – they know they have readers who are looking for hard and fast rules.  They know that those readers think they have a rule figured out and then they’re going to go and contradict themselves and those readers will be confused and think “you don’t even know what you want.”

But there’s a general principle they’re reasoning from here – a way of thinking, as it were.

there’s nothing inherently wrong with, say,  black peeptoe pumps, but when they become ubiquitous and they’re mindlessly paired with every dress on the red carpet, whether they go with it or not, that’s when we get all huffy and dogmatic about it. But the flipside of that is, we then get a rep for hating black peeptoe pumps (or silly putty pumps, or ankle straps), and when we wind up letting a pair go by without comment, or worse, complimenting the choice, kittens get confused. “But…I thought you hated black peeptoe pumps,” they say, their adorable kitten eyes wide and on the brink of shedding tears of disappointment and confusion. “There, there,” we say (in our imaginations), “Sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t. Fashion shouldn’t be rigid. Now dry your eyes, little fashion kitten.”

Darned if this doesn’t sound like me when I read a paper and make comments and then the student takes it away and works on it for two months and in that two months the argument of the paper evolves and changes so that the thing that I said the paper needed in January isn’t even part of the argument any more in March and when I write on the paper that it needs to go they say “but… you SAID…”

I know, I know.  It’s frustrating not to have rules. And it’s frightening.  But I think what Tom and Lorenzo are asking their readers to have is confidence – confidence in their own ability to say what they like and to learn a way of thinking, or a body of reasons they can use to articulate why it is they like what they like.  Which is not the same thing as memorizing a set of rules.

And this is where this sounds familiar – where the information literacy comes in – where the student development theory comes in – the end goal on these things is also, in part, confidence.  But confidence that goes beyond “I like X,” confidence that you can know what you like and contextualize it, understand as something that exists in the world and that is understood by others in a particular way.  Which means learning how to talk about what you like with reasons and evidence – evidence beyond simplistic appeals to expertise  (Tom and Lorenzo like color) that let you participate without really putting yourself into the conversation.

I miss this blog in part because it was a place where I could consistently put myself into the conversation.  I’m not sure that can be re-created at this point. But I’m going to try.