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.

some thoughts on school libraries

Or, at least, that’s where this started.

Sometime last spring – not sure when, but it was definitely sunny here in western Oregon – a colleague and I drove to an OLA board meeting in Forest Grove — quite a haul from our part of the Willamette Valley. I love being a part of the Oregon Library Association because it’s one of the few things I do that isn’t academic/instruction librarian focused. That extra perspective that comes from hanging out with children’s librarians (and lots of other kinds of librarians) is really important to me.

Driving back home we both had the same thought – that part of this meeting had been VERY relevant to us in our academic/instruction life — the State Librarian had released some numbers about school librarianship in Oregon. School librarians numbers here have shrunk dramatically in the last 30 years:

Graph showing the numbers of school librarians in Oregon declining more than 50% from 1980 to the present

School Librarian #'s

And it’s not like the numbers of students has held steady:

graph showing the number of students per librarian increasing

And these numbers are only set to get worse.  In the last year the two largest school districts that still had librarians in every school: Beaverton and Salem-Keizer both had to put those librarians on the chopping block because of budget constraints.  The Beaverton district may have saved their librarians.  Salem-Keizer, on the other hand, is cutting all positions except for the two librarians in the high schools.

This situation is certainly not unique to Oregon.  This story about librarians in Los Angeles forced to defend their jobs in a hostile environment made the rounds last spring.  And the American Library Association uses the word “crisis” in this School Libraries Funding Press Kit.

So, why am I focused on school libraries?  Because it’s time to gear up for the new term – to teach classes for students enrolled in bridge programs designed to give them a taste of what they need to be successful in college.  And to think about the first-year experience with it’s focus on how the resources available to you at a research institution are different than those you may have had access to before.

And I generally focus on “things you might not expect to find in your library” when I get students who are new to college, don’t have a research assignment and do have a meeting with me.  But this has me thinking a lot more specifically about – what about students who don’t know what to expect from A library, much their “their” library.  If “library” to them means “unstaffed room with perhaps outdated books” in it, don’t we have a bigger hill to climb than the complexities of how to use our specific libraries — where do students who have no school librarians get their sense of the type of help they can expect from any library?  I’m not sure.

So lately when I talk to faculty about things I talk less about the stuff we have to offer students and more about this – I don’t think most of them know about these numbers.  I don’t think they always know the extent to which students have been on their own when it comes to research and evidence.  I think this all makes the soon-to-be-published research I saw teased on my Twitter last week a little more important.  What do you think?  Does a lack of school librarians mean starting with what a library IS?

And I also wonder because I have been hearing more and more from instruction librarians at conferences and meetings that they want to focus their dwindling resources on the advanced majors “who can really take advantage of our resources and services” — that we should automate the basic instruction that can be done with a tutorial or online module and leave the real teaching (since there are fewer of us in academic libraries and our numbers aren’t getting any bigger ) for the classes with the real need.  And I get that there are fewer of us and the numbers won’t be getting any bigger, but I have to wonder — if we ignore them in K-12 and then ignore them in their first two years while they’re learning what college is, what college research is and what a research library (or a library full stop) is — what will their motivation BE to seek us out when the time is right?   I have no answers here, only questions, but I can’t imagine that that will be an easy sell, and I think there must be a better answer, even if I don’t know what it is yet.