No training wheels, revised

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Images:

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

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

CFParticipation: Autoethnography learning community

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

Who and What

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

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

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

Why?

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

We are hoping that this book will do two things —

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When?

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

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

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

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

Culture is what people do

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

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

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

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

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

As always, here’s the context … 

Thread #1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thread #2

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

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

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

The result. 

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

Starting with culture is what people do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The frame itself suggests things we can do.

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

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

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

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

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

#FYE15 – recap and resources

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

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

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

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

Group 1’s Daily Show activity.

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

Group 3’s 21 Questions activity.

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

And now — what about Dallas?

For the record, this is good coffee.

This is Downtown’s (Un)parked Library

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

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

The Farmer’s Market was pretty awesome.

This dog park is epic

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

Looking forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

bay with a bridge and land in the distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Again with curiosity (Library Instruction West 2014)

So, not only was this conference in Portland but it was also awesome.  Thanks one more time to Joan Petit, Sara Thompson, and the rest of the conference committee who put on such a great event.

Marijuana Legalization Papers Got You Down?  You Won’t Believe What We Did About It!

Hannah Gascho Rempel & Anne-Marie Deitering (OSU Libraries & Press)

Title slide for a presentation. The word curiosity is displayed across the top. Several images of sparks are below.

Download the slides (PDF)

Download the slides + presenter notes (PDF)

Session handout

Take the Curiosity Self Assessment

Scoring Guide to the Curiosity Self Assessment

 

Practice & the tenure question

I feel odd weighing in here, because I have actively not joined the conversation on twitter.  Between a conference, putting one project to bed and ramping another one up – I knew that I would not be able to keep up there so I consciously stayed away.  And I also knew that I needed some more time to think and process Meredith’s excellent post.

So as I tend to do with her posts, I’m going to write something about what I think about this issue, that doesn’t really engage with her post at all directly.  She’s really good at sparking those pieces of my brain that like to think about things.

multicolored cubes of Jello against a white background

some rights reserved by stevendepolo (flickr)

One of the problems I have with any discussion of librarian tenure is the nailing jello to the wall problem — when everyone is describing a different piece of the elephant it’s really hard to keep your footing in a discussion about a constantly shifting landscape.

Damn. I can’t think of any other metaphors to throw into that awful mix.

But you get my meaning – the conversations are almost inevitably pulled this way and that by the fact that we really in this profession have no consensus about what it means to be a tenured academic librarian.  We’re not inculcated into a tenure-valuing culture in grad school – not in the slightest.

And tenure for librarians is different things all at the same time.  Even within most of our institutions, we don’t know what being a tenured academic librarian looks like.  I’ve done a lot of external reviews where I get copies of standards that I should use for my evaluation.  Some are thoughtful and closely tied to the values and practice of librarianship. More  are not – they read like they’re trying to show librarians are “just the same” as everyone else. Many are neither of these – they’re lightly edited versions of campus standards (or totally not edited versions of campus standards).

Tenure standards do vary from place to place, and the culture around tenure varies from place to place — for all disciplines and fields.  But for us, it’s kind of all about that.  When you don’t have a sense out of grad school of what a tenured person in your field does, or what the value of tenure is, and when these conversations aren’t happening for you and yours in other places — then the tenure experience becomes all about the local institutional culture. I can say that tenure gives me a clear message that my professional activity is valued and you can say tenure hamstrings you and keeps you from engaging in that way.  We’re both right.  I can say tenure’s awesome because it protects professional activities for everyone, you can say tenure’s the worst because it doesn’t.  We’re both wrong.

Many of the conversations about tenure end up being about the state of scholarly publishing in LIS, and I’m not really going to go there. Except kind of. It’s confusing. Maybe I should keep thinking about this some more.

See, I get why conversations about tenure go straight to publishing; the one thing everyone knows about people who get tenure is that they publish stuff. You don’t publish enough or you don’t publish the right stuff, you lose your job.  You do publish enough stuff and the right kind of stuff, and you get rewarded with tenure, which means keeping your job.  But I’d like to see these discussions going beyond issues of rigor and volume — because at heart, those are still holding up other people’s research as the standard by which ours is found wanting. 

Barbara said what I was thinking in the initial discussion –  

 And Maura picked it up — 

As academic librarians we have a view of the scholarly publishing landscape that other faculty may not share, and I hope we can use this position to advocate for tenure requirements that take into account more of the possibilities for contributing to the creation and propagation of knowledge than peer review and impact factor alone.

So many people’s tenure experiences seem to reduce to what “counts” — with the subtext being that the stuff I do with real impact is different than the stuff that “counts” for tenure. And that makes me wonder why doesn’t it count?  Who decides what counts?  

some rights reserved by clarkmaxwell (flickr)

Sometimes yes, there are bad institutional cultures that stipulate a single pathway to tenure and that’s a problem.  And not just for librarians because tenured artists should look different than tenured anthropologists should look different than tenured biochemists and so on, but it might be a bigger problem for librarians for reasons I’ll get into in a minute.  But I honestly don’t think that’s the only thing in play here. 

We worry so much about being taken seriously as academics in general, and tenure-line academics in particular — sometimes the subtext I hear is that we have to make ourselves look like (what we think) “real” tenured faculty look like or they might just notice us and take it all away.  So we have to publish in similar journals and format our articles with methods sections even when we didn’t do any research.  And I can’t help thinking that some of the time those assumptions about what we need to do are just that, assumptions.  

Part of this is perhaps coming from a cynical place – I don’t think we’re doing a great job of looking like people who spend more than a quarter of their time on research anyway so clearly the rest of the faculty on a lot of our campuses aren’t looking all that closely if that’s really what they demand. And seriously, after years of hearing that I had to have ALA committees to get tenure — do I really think my colleagues in the disciplines are moved by the fact that I was the co-chair of the committee on committee nomenclature of the fourth-largest division in ALA?

(Apologies if there really is a Committee on Committee Nomenclature – I don’t mean to denigrate)

But most of it is more optimistic.  Our campus colleagues already know we’re not just like them – they know our profession is different and that we’re approaching our shared mission from a different place. Maybe it’s because I’m at a land-grant institution where we have another substantial important group of tenure line faculty (in Extension) working on the question of “what does this mean in our field?” but I usually get the sense that no one here is expecting us to look just like everyone else.  Which should be giving us the freedom to really articulate what tenure means for us.  The answer to the question, “what should an tenured academic librarian do?” should resonate with our values and with what we think is good for our profession, our campuses, and the world. 

And then, yes, it’s on us to make that case — but that’s part of what being faculty means.  Whether or not you have tenure, but as Barbara said, it’s especially a responsibility for those who do.

For me, one of the important aspects of any answer to that question has to do with the fact that we are not just researchers – we will never be just scholars.  We are also practitioners.

 

That’s why I love it too.  And that’s why I can’t imagine a good answer to the question “what should a tenured academic librarian be” that doesn’t reflect that. 

At OSU, our tenure standards call this out.  Full disclosure — I worked for almost two years on this project with my colleague Janet, who remains the librarian I most want to be when I grow up  — and I’m pretty happy with it:

The impact of the librarian’s scholarly activity will also be measured in multiple ways: by the significance of their contributions to the body of knowledge within the discipline and by how useful their contributions are to the community of practice within their area of librarianship.

“Scholarly activities” are defined broadly and reflect the connection between theory and practice: 

  • Conducting research that relates to archives, library and information science, and contributes to the appropriate scholarly community.
  • Communicating the results of research and engaging in professional dialogue with peers locally, nationally and internationally at scholarly and professional conferences; communicating directly with the national or international community of practice in their profession using appropriate media.
  • Documenting scholarly contributions in refereed journal articles, scholarly books and book chapters and conference proceedings.
  • Archiving and preserving work products in learning object, code or institutional repositories, and on professional websites.

This doesn’t make tenure fun, or painless, to earn.  The year you’re putting your dossier together is still awful.  It is. The process makes you think about everything you didn’t get done and everything you didn’t do as well as you would have liked. There is still a lot of anxiety.  In the balance between scholarly freedom and clarity we probably skew to freedom and that’s really stressful for some of us — and it really favors those with a certain kind of confidence (or arrogance) about the process going in.  

And it has by no means resolved those questions about “what counts.”  They still come up –sometimes in conflict with administration and sometimes because even though we are librarians who value consensus — we do not always agree.  But in the conversations we had while we were adopting these standards it became clear that we do agree that many things should “count” and that we value librarians who who contribute to the profession in many ways, and who write and speak to many audiences.  We value librarians who engage in both research and practice and who have impact in both.  We also agree that we value open access and that we value collaborative work — and both of those values are present in our standards as well.

And here’s the thing – if we were able somehow to fix the rigor problem in the LIS literature.  If we got the training in graduate school and if we had the skills and the disciplinary consensus it would take to establish rigorous methodological standards and required that, and only that, for practicing librarians to earn tenure — I think we’d lose something and I don’t think we’d gain what we wanted in the process.  

Because I know what rigor looks like – in more than one field.  And I believe strongly that we need rigorous research to inform our practice. I do.  I want it.  I really, really, really, really want it. I know that we’d benefit from longitudinal studies of student learning, or large-scale studies of information behavior.  I know that we really need tested, validated instruments that measure what we want them to measure.  

I know this.  I want this.  I don’t have time to do it.  At least, I don’t have time to do it right.  At least, I don’t have time to do it right at Project Information Literacy level.  Or at an 80-20 research/teaching load level.  Maybe once with a sabbatical, but not year after year. I don’t have time to do it at that scale AND contribute the way I want to the day to day practice of my library on my campus.  

I have the skills, experience and time to do smaller, qualitative studies rigorously (albeit slowly) and now that I have tenure I can focus on those. And because my library will recognize and reward it as part of my tenure package, I can also look for outlets that will let me communicate case studies and practice lessons in a way that makes sense and that reaches the right audience.  And sometimes, not always, I am going to skip the IRB on my student learning assessment project because the value of being able to communicate more broadly isn’t going to outweigh the benefit of having actionable data to work with sooner and I don’t need to worry about generalizability (And that’s a perfect world scenario for me – a world where I have the time and capacity to get an assessment project right.)  Sometimes, not always, I’m going to skip that prestigious conference because I have a chance to do a professional development workshop for the faculty on my campus.

And that’s what I think tenure should look like for academic librarians – not in our details, but in the broader strokes.  I think it should reflect that we participate in and communicate to multiple audiences.  That our choices are going to skew towards research this time and practice next time. That we contribute to both our discipline and our profession.  But it shouldn’t look like practicing librarians fixing the research problem in LIS – the people who are paid to prioritize research are going to have to help us out there.

Tenure matters for me.  I’m glad I have it.  I probably don’t need it, but it does matter to me.  It matters to me because when those “what counts” conversations happen, I don’t have to worry about what administration thinks before I say what I think.  It matters to me because I enjoy doing research.  I enjoy preparing conference talks.  I enjoy writing this blog, when I have something to say.  If I didn’t know that my institution rewards those things with tenure it doing them at work would always feel a little bit like cheating.  It matters to me because it makes me feel protected.  When I decide to go through the IRB, or to submit that conference proposal I know my institution will have my back with what I need to follow through on those commitments.  I know this isn’t what it means for everyone, but it’s what it means for me.

 (7/30 – Minor edits for clarity)