the true reality

I don’t know if the world needs me to say this, but I think I do.  Because this has been bothering me all day.  Yesterday, I saw this on Facebook.


Do you see it?  Do you see the problem?


I’m not going to link to the article itself, because my problem is not with the article or its author. In my quick read it felt like an authentic and honest story, and I think it being in the world will probably mean a lot to many, and this person telling her story is not what I’ve been thinking about all day. But this is a topic that cuts deep for many people and others might have real and meaningful problems with the article. On another day, I likely will too. But on this day, I  want to keep the focus somewhere else.

No, my problem is with HuffPo and the framing. This is not the true reality behind adopting a child. It may be true, it may capture and share and communicate truths shared by many, but it is not the true reality. It is one of many true realities — one of many stories.

It’s not my reality. It’s not my story.

But that’s fine. That’s not the point. What is the point? The point is that we don’t need the true reality. We need lots of realities. Lots of stories. More stories.

You’re adopting?  What country is she from?*

Full disclosure – this makes me mad on a personal level. I think my anger goes beyond that, but this caught my eye and stuck in my brain because it’s personal to me.  I am an adoptive parent, and when I met my daughter she was 11 years old and in foster care. Since that day, I’ve become increasingly aware that a lot of people have personal experiences with this kind of adoption — and hardly any of them ever tell those stories in public.

A big part of that (I think) is that these stories are not just ours. My story also belongs to my daughter, to the people in her other families, and to all of the people who connected with her and loved her and invested themselves in her future. And while all of those people have a right to their stories, when it comes to my daughter and hers, it’s different. The stakes are high. Children in foster care quickly learn that their stories are only partly their own, that they don’t get to decide when those stories are told and when they’re not. They don’t get to protect their stories, to define them or choose which pieces to share the same way that they would if they were not in the system. In many cases, their stories are tied to getting protections and resources and safety, making the choices even less their own.

So making sure our daughter knows that her experiences are not mine to share is paramount. If this weren’t something we’ve talked about again and again, and if I needed to share any part of her story that is not already part of her public identity to say this — I wouldn’t be saying it now. Even if she told me I could. And I think many people in my situation feel the same way.**

Which is necessary and important, but means that these adoption stories are rarely told. And they’re rarely told while other stories — about infant adoption, private adoption, open adoption, family adoption and international adoption — are.

It’s not like there is no narrative about my experience out there. We all know the stereotypes about older child or foster care adoption. When we shared that we were planning to take this path, the same fears came up over and over and over and over. Some were grounded in some kind of experience (my cousin’s first husband had an adopted daughter and I think it was really hard).  Others were worse, and grounded in nothing specific. It got to the point where we didn’t share very widely because it was just too difficult to respond to negative and intrusive assumptions from acquaintances or friends of friends.

If there were more stories, sharing more experiences and more truths, this would start to change. I do believe that. This — the importance of stories and reflections on experience — is also something I think about a lot (and have especially been thinking about a lot lately). These aren’t new or unique thoughts. And they’ve been brought to the forefront and expressed better than I ever could — #weneeddiversebooks and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name just a few.

We tend to on one level focus on the importance of narrative and simultaneously undercut it on another. On the first level, we accept that we use story to organize and make sense of the world. We get that we use story to communicate and to collaborate.  We talk about the importance of stories in developing empathy and connections with the world. I mean, we even talk about the importance of story in instrumental ways — like in assessment and “sharing our value.”

But at the same time, on that other level, we don’t trust that our stories have value for what they are. We hold up generalizability as the gold standard of inquiry. News outlets entice clicks with exposés that deliver “the real story.” We focus our highest praise on fiction that captures universal truth. And that is what bothers me so much about seeing this on my Facebook all day.

Providing a platform for people to share their experiences honestly and reflectively is a good thing. But it’s not a good thing because it’s a way to get a scoop. Qualitative research isn’t valuable because it’s sampled and significant and generalizable, and HuffPo didn’t find the answer to this question so no one else has to ask it.  We don’t need to find the universal experience, the real story, the true reality. What we need is more.

More stories.


*My daughter is from the United States. Just like most adopted children in the U.S. are. Public agency and international adoptions account for about half of the adoptions in the U.S. every year. The other half includes lots of things — step-parent adoption, adoption by relatives, private agency adoption, etc. — and most of those also involve children from here. Only about 15% of children in the U.S. are adopted from other countries, and this number has been dropping. Still, this is almost everyone’s assumption when they hear we adopted. This is likely a result of many factors, including our age, education and income bracket, but I think it also illustrates how skewed the public conversation about adoption is. 

**I’m not sure the author of the essay does, which is another reason I didn’t link to it. She has a blog where she talks about these issues too, and I don’t read that so I really don’t know what her attitude or policies are about privacy. That’s what I mean by on another day, I might be focused on something else. Plus, you’re all librarians so if you who want to find it you will. 


The problem with context

“Judging from what you all, say” remarked Aunt Jamesina, “the sum and substance is that you can learn—if you’ve got natural gumption enough—in four years at college what it would take about twenty years of living to teach you. Well, that justifies higher education in my opinion. It’s a matter I was always dubious about before.”

— Anne of the Island (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

Annbook cover with the image of a young man in a brown suit seated on a rock wall, looking at a red-haired woman who is looking away from him, with the title Anne of the Islande of the Island was always my favorite of the Green Gables books, not because (okay, not just because) it’s the one where Anne finally gets it together about Gilbert but also because it’s a college story. And I’ve had romantic fuzzy notions about college for pretty much my whole life. So because I’ve read and reread this book so many times over the years, I’ve been able to pull this quotation out to liven up a lot of reflective writing pieces about the value of education, college, training — you get the picture.

But I’ve been thinking about it lately from the other side. From the perspective of learning that can’t be shortcut, at least not entirely. I was scanning Twitter one day, and saw this tweet from Emily Drabinski, who was live-tweeting a talk about context and information literacy by Andrea Baer.


In my work, I end up talking a lot about evaluation and authentic evaluation. Especially to classroom faculty and teaching librarians. And so much of that is tied up with this idea of context. The tl;dr version is blah blah tools like evaluation checklists suggest that evaluation can be done with a close examination of the thing itself, out of any context, and that’s not how evaluation works. Evaluation is social and tied to how valuable a thing is seen in community, to the rhetorical situation and blah blah ….

Anyway, I’ve been churning on this tweet and my reaction to it for a while. I keep coming back to two relatively recent experiences with authentic evaluation in my own research.

Story 1

My colleague Hannah and I have been talking about curiosity in libraries in some different contexts for quite a while now. We’re trying to write up a piece of that this summer, which is always an interesting experience — to write up a piece of something that is still actively evolving. Both stories come out of this work; this is the more recent. And it’s probably the more typical when you think about why trying to contextualize your thinking in a new field, or why trying to contextualize a piece of information is hard.

So, the more we think about curiosity the more we think about affect. Curiosity and uncertainty can’t be separated — to be curious pretty much inherently means that there are things you don’t know. Not knowing stuff can be fun and exciting! But in terms of research assignments, which are perceived as (and which are for real) fairly high-stakes assignments in a course context, that not knowing can be less exciting than it is scary. So how to encourage students to try new things, use new sources, research unfamiliar topics when they have good reasons to be wary about doing so?

As we spend more time working directly with faculty on these questions, we’ve started to wonder what’s out there about risk taking, emotion and writing pedagogy?  At conferences people have suggested to us that fields like creative writing and creative arts might also be interesting places to look for more. And as I moved through these literatures I came across a creative writer with a huge body of work in writing pedagogy, who engages specifically with the idea of risk: Wendy Bishop.

Now before I started digging into Bishop’s (substantial) body of work, I started doing the additional digging I needed to do to contextualize it. On the one hand, this was a necessary step to understanding it myself. Her work is several years old now, and I don’t have the chronology of the debates in this field at my fingertips. I don’t think you can really understand work like hers without knowing what she was responding to, in her field and in the world. On the other hand, this is also a necessary step to evaluating the work, to put this back into the infolit context raised above.  Because this is a field I am working in, or at least alongside, I need to know how the community understands the work to predict how it will be perceived, questioned, critiqued and accepted before I can decide if and how I want to use it.  And I knew from this article, that the answers to those questions might be complicated.

Rhet/Comp is a field I know a little about, not a lot.  And what knowledge I do have is uneven and idiosyncratically collected, heavily influenced by wonderful people I’ve worked with and know. Still, I didn’t have to start from scratch this time!  So I knew what to ask, I knew some things to look for, and I knew some of the complicating factors.  Long story a little less long — it’s almost 3 weeks later and I’m still working on building this contextual understanding. And this is something I know how to do.

I can use information tools I already know how to use to do it.  I can use reading and thinking and organizing skills I already have to do it well. I am spending most of my time in genres I understand and know how to read. I have a working knowledge of many of the theories in play, and I know how to find out more about those that are less familiar. I can pull books I’ve already read off my shelf. I can call on people who know this scholarship (and who knew this scholar) and just ask my questions.  Okay fine, I also have a full time job and other projects — but that’s pretty much my main barrier. Mostly, making sense of a new context or conversation is something that just takes a lot of work — even after the How and Why learning curve is behind you.

Story 2

Now, this contrasts a lot with this earlier experience with a new body of literature — which in many ways was the thing that sent us in this direction in the first place.  When Hannah and I first started working on curiosity and poking around to see what was there, we did so in a very interdisciplinary, broad-net kind of way.  We found curiosity talked about a little, but not a lot, in many fields. We found lots of definitions of curiosity. We found it talked about in ways both similar and distinct in conversations that didn’t seem to intersect. And most of these mentions, and conversations, studies and definitions neither grew out of nor directly applied to our higher or adult education context.

In this exploring, we came across the work of an educational psychologist named Jordan Litman. It wasn’t hard to place his work in its disciplinary context which, to be honest, wasn’t a context we were super interested in. Litman is interested in curiosity as a personality trait. He and his partners develop and validate instruments to measure different types of curiosity, the data from which can then be analyzed next to data measuring other types of traits, states and behaviors.

There is a huge body of discussion around the very idea of personality traits. And honestly, we didn’t want to get into that. Our interest was sparked by this research because it made us think about curiosity, and how curiosity plays out in research assignments, in new and different ways. It helped us see past our own assumptions and our own experience to consider a way of seeing and knowing the issue that we’d been blind to before. On that level, it didn’t really matter if Litman’s approach was the best, if his work was highly respected or marginalized, or if it was basically ignored within his community.  And even there, trying to navigate between the “marginalized because of quality and marginalized because of a less hip topic” possibilities didn’t seem worth it or necessary. Whether these curiosity types behaved just as the research said they did didn’t really matter.  For our purposes, the idea that curiosity can be sparked in many and varied ways was the important thing — much more important than whether or not curiosity types can be definable or measurable or predictable. And so we decided not to do the weeks of background context-building that it would have taken to really understand this work as it was being used by the researcher.

It’s a liberating feeling to decide not to do this — to decide that “this thing is valuable because it’s useful to me.” Being able to do this, however, also means climbing that How and Why contexualization learning curve. It comes from knowing what questions might be asked, and knowing how to justify our choices in our context. And it comes from a position of privilege and control over our practice, and from knowing our expertise is respected by those who share this work with us.

So what?

These cases look different on the surface, but in both we’re drawing on some similar things.  Both of us bring years of experience to this work, experience developed in different disciplines and different professional communities.  Hundreds of papers, presentations, proposals and posters, directed at different audiences and for different purposes, helped us figure out what we need to know to communicate well. We’ve learned — through trial and error, by applying effort and feedback — what we need to know to understand context.

When I was first starting out as a librarian more than ten years ago, I came across the Harvard Writing Project. One of the conclusions of that study that has stuck with me ever since was that feedback — delivered early and often and from many perspectives — was essential for students to learn to write and think. And of course, because students come to college already knowing how to write and think, we know that what this and other studies are really saying is that opportunities to write and get feedback early and often are essential to learning how to write and think in this new and unfamiliar academic context.  

And in the years since, this has been borne out over and over: students who get the chance to write and create for different audiences, with helpful feedback, do just fine. They develop processes for writing, researching, thinking, and organizing that are useful (and well-used).  They figure it out. They learn what they need to know to get the work done by doing the work.

I was talking to a colleague in Comp recently about some topic coming down from administration  — hybrid classes, or maybe Adaptive Learning —  and he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “you know, we know what works.  Small classes, lots of feedback, and lots of opportunities to write different types of things for different types of audiences.  And it seems like all of these things we’re asked to study and adopt and add to the curriculum are just trying to find ways we can avoid investing in that thing we know works.”

We do know what works, but it’s expensive. And this all makes me worry about information literacy instruction. Ironically, not so much about the tools demos as the beyond-the-tools conceptual pieces that we talk about when we talk about infolit. I worry that when I talk about evaluation in a one-shot, I’m inevitably complicit in suggesting that there are generic, context-free ways to do the kind of thinking that we associate with evaluation or creation.  I worry when I argue for context and for teaching these things authentically I am setting up my colleagues to feel inadequate or less than the kind of learning that only experience, and repeated, meaningful experience can enable.  And most of all, at the end of the day, I worry that we’re supporting the institution in an effort to successfully create a world where they can measure “gains” in learning in research and writing and critical thinking without investing in the infrastructure and faculty needed to give students the repeated and meaningful experiences that help people really learn how to do these these things in context, no matter how that context changes.

Which all seems to point to Aunt Jamesina being wrong – that college or college-like experiences can’t substitute for experience.  But that’s not it at all.  I’m not talking about sink or swim, throwing students in at the deep end to see if they can figure it out when I say they need lots and lots of chances to figure it out.  I still think there is a lot we can do to create structured, supported experiences. A lot we can do to reveal the unwritten expectations of the culture and context that new college students need to understand. A lot we can do to encourage the metathinking needed to make sense of those experiences.

And I think that doing so in a way that reveals academic writing as communicating in a rhetorical situation that is culturally specific and not universal – is helpful to people who will have to navigate many such situations in their lives. But I’ll admit, I can’t wrap my head around where to start with the kind of work it takes to meaningfully contextualize in the one-shot, in the LibGuide, in the tutorial. And my brain shies away from the problem altogether. Which may be something to work on.

I have no title for this

Which probably means I shouldn’t publish it.  But I made a mess of things on Twitter last night, talking to a friend about an issue with a context I didn’t understand in a way that was guaranteed to be misunderstood.

And I totally understand how I was misunderstood – it’s entirely my own fault. She mentioned some conversations she’d heard or read from new graduates talking about burnout and impostor syndrome and my mind went to different conversations I’ve had with new librarians over the years and made connections. But since I was talking about a different situation where new librarians rarely have direct experience, it seemed obvious that I was saying new librarians couldn’t have had real experience with impostor syndrome and burnout. Like, totally, glaringly obvious. Like I have no excuse obvious.

My only excuse for being so wrong is that I honestly can’t imagine believing that burnout and impostor syndrome aren’t experienced in graduate school, professional transitions or new workplaces. They have been a huge part (directly or indirectly) of every graduate program (and undergraduate) program, every job search, every career change I’ve ever been a part of.

My experience was different, however, in the conversations. When I was in grad school in the 90’s and library school in the oughts, these things weren’t talked about. At least not in spaces where people could hear. We didn’t have names for those experiences; we didn’t have a vocabulary to talk about them. And we really didn’t have a vocabulary that overlapped and connected with other conversations going on within the profession. Burnout or impostor syndrome weren’t being discussed by established professionals either.*  And when the issues were discussed, it was in the context of a necessary rite of passage — “we did it, you should too.”

So the fact that it’s being discussed in such a way that new librarians have that vocabulary to talk about it could be a positive – it could mean it’s being tackled in a meaningful, important way by institutions – but that’s where my own experiences make me worried.  About the implicit and explicit messages we send as a profession.

See, my brain went to lots of conversations I’ve had over the years about working with faculty and campus partners. When I was in library school the idea that librarians have to constantly deal with faculty indifference was a frequent narrative.  It was a narrative that I ignored – having been faculty in a prior life I knew that I would not have been indifferent and I assumed that there were people like me still out there. But when I started hearing it from new librarians in job talks, in practice interviews and in capstone projects — I started to get really angry. Not because these librarians were expecting to have these challenges, but because the solutions they’d been given were so incredibly problematic.

They were all individual — the narrative was that faculty are inherently, always indifferent no matter where you go and no matter where you are, and it’s ALL ON YOU to solve the problem. Which of course you can’t do, because the problem isn’t an individual problem. Still, everything was always grounded in individual action, individual connections. They would talk about strategies like taking cookies over to their departments on the first day of every term, or delivering a welcome gift to all new faculty. They’d invite said new faculty out for coffee, join the campus gym to make connections.  There’s nothing wrong with any of those strategies — but they don’t solve a problem that is structural. They basically accept that problem as inevitable, and advise the librarian to figure out a way to survive within that structure.

You scratch the surface of that “faculty indifference” narrative and there are issues of power, issues of culture — things that can’t be solved on an individual level.  And when we put all of the responsibility on the individual when we are in institutions have some control over how we define success, how we advocate collectively, that’s accepting that the problem is inevitable. These things are choices that we make, and those of us who have privilege have an extra responsibility to own those choices. Putting all of that on the shoulders of individuals really, really made me angry. And putting all of that on the shoulders of librarians brand new to the profession, really, really made me sad.

And when I started noticing it in that area, I started noticing it in others. Librarians taking on so much individual responsibility for situations that reflect institutional inequalities, structural factors and cultural practices. When I started working deeply on reflective practice and critical reflection — that was why. I heard so many stories from librarians taking individual responsibility for things that also needed to be fought at another level.

So when I heard Merinda say that new librarians were talking about burnout and impostor syndrome, my brain went back to those librarians who were set up from the start to climb Sisyphus’ mountain with faculty collaborations, not to the specific conversations she was addressing. I said then that I thought that impostor syndrome and burnout were different than the infolit example — and they are – especially in how they are experienced.

My experience or worldview doesn’t say that new librarians can’t have experience with impostor syndrome or burnout. It says that one of the messages they are likely getting (implicitly or directly) from those who have been in the profession is that those things are inevitable — an inherent part of graduate school, of working in the public sector, of being an academic — and that the responsibility for finding strategies to survive those conditions is on them.

I agree with Sarah, whose efforts to reach out to me while I was dealing with the emotions of this were so appreciated, there is a broader professional conversation countering that individualist narrative, and that  Maria Accardi’s blog and burnout project is a shining example of what that can be.

*I do wonder if shared vocabulary sometimes obfuscates too – when someone tells me today that their job hunt was a nightmare, I can be 100% honest and say mine was too. But that doesn’t mean our experiences were the same.

Phase 1 – Autoethnography Learning Community

Hang on to your seats, folks – this is going to be a long one…

The learning community supporting the book I am co-editing (examining autoethnography as a research method in LIS) has been working for about two months now, and we’re heading into the second phase of our work.  Phase One was a learning phase, where we read and discussed things, raised issues and questions, and thought about what was, for most of us, pretty new territory.

Phase Two will still include all of those things, but is also heading into more doing – more data gathering, remembering, sketching, noting, describing, sharing, and … many more things.

We had far more applicants for the learning community than would fit into the the book and when we made those tough choices we committed to sharing our process. Now, I don’t mean sharing our discussions — this is an individual and personal method to learn about and it’s important that our learning environment stay safe for all.  But I do want to share the starting points.

The discussions were broken into three sections, with readings and other resources for each.  The first, What is Autoethnography?, was a bit of a free for all.  Everyone read a different selection of these readings.  The second, Ethics and the third, Getting Started, were more focused — at least in our starting points. We spent two weeks on each.  Here are the 3 sections, with the discussion questions/ readings we considered.  I also compiled a list of all of the resources that people recommended to each other as the discussions progressed.

I. What is Autoethnography?

Discussion Topic: Analytic Autoethnography

Discussion Topic: Evocative Autoethnography

Ellis, C. (1999). “Heartful Autoethnography.” Qualitative Health Research, 9(5), 669–683. (paywalled)

  • Ellis C. & Bochner, A. “Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject.”Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd edition. Eds. Norman K. Denzin & Yvonna S. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2000: 733-768.
  • Carolyn Ellis & Arthur Bochner. Presented at the Fourth Israeli Interdisciplinary Conference of Qualitative Research (YouTube)

Discussion Topic: Writing the Reflexive Self

This is an example of AE using fiction.  It’s in this “What is AE?” section because the author engaged in a published conversation about that topic with other scholars in his field (nursing).

  • Grant, A. “Writing the Reflexive Self: An Autoethnography of Alcoholism and the Impact of Psychotherapy Culture.” Journal of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 17, no. 7 (September 2010): 577–82. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2010.01566.x.
  • The What is Real Autoethnography exchange:
    1. Philip Burnard published this autoethnography in 2007. (Link to PubMed, no full text):  “Seeing the psychiatrist: an autoethnographic account.” Journal Of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 14, no. 8 (December 2007): 808-813. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2007.01186.x
    2. Nigel Short and Alex Grant wrote a response, Written as a conversation. (Link goes to ResearchGate and includes full-text): “Burnard (2007): autoethnography or a realist account?.” Journal Of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 16, no. 2 (March 2009): 196-198. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2008.01348.x
    3. Finally, Burnard responds. (Link to PubMed, no full text):  “A reply to Short and Grants’ paper: ‘Burnard (2007): autoethnography or a realist account?’.” Journal Of Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing 16, no. 7 (September 2009): 670-671. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2850.2009.01430.x.

Discussion Topic: Examples of the Form

  • Stanley, Phiona. “Writing the PhD Journey (s) An Autoethnography of Zine-Writing, Angst, Embodiment, and Backpacker Travels.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 2014, 0891241614528708. (paywalled)
  • Sparkes, A. C. “The Fatal Flaw: A Narrative of the Fragile Body-Self.”Qualitative Inquiry 2, no. 4 (1996): 463-94. DOI: 10.1177/107780049600200405 (paywalled)

Additional Resources Posted by Group Members

II. Ethics

Discussion Topic: Foundational Guidelines for Autoethnographers

We identified this as the starting place for this week – so everyone would have the same basic knowledge to draw upon.

Additional Resources from the discussions

Scenario Discussions

In this unit, we also discussed some relevant scenarios to get at some of the ethical issues from different perspectives.  Here they are:

Scenario 1: 

  • Researcher A is doing a traditional ethnographic study. She is examining the experiences of librarians enrolled in the Immersion program as a participant-observer. Her study has gone through the IRB process, and each of her participants has signed an informed consent form.  In the course of her data gathering, one of her participants shares a very specific story about a toxic work environment, where many of the details are about her (the participant’s) supervisor.
  • Researcher B is doing an autoethnographic study of her effort to build an instruction program at her library.  Part of her story relates to her work environment, which she has come to believe negatively affected her experience. Her experience building the program was affected in many ways by her supervisor.
  • DISCUSS:  What is each researcher’s responsibility to the supervisor being described as toxic?  How are they the same?  How are they different?  Are there other factors that would shape or affect your answer

Scenario 2: 

  • Researcher A wants to do an autoethnographic analysis of his experience as an abuse survivor. He cannot see any way to share his story/lived experience while keeping his abuser’s identity confidential, since identifying his relationship with his abuser would immediately identify them.
  • DISCUSS:  What is his ethical obligation in this situation?  Is he obligated to get informed consent?  Are there additional factors that might affect your thoughts on this scenario?

Scenario 3:

  • Researcher A is doing an autoethnographic study of their lived experience on the job market — an experience that was largely negative.  The job search experience coincided with a struggle with depression and anxiety.  This researcher knows that engaging in autoethnography will require them to relive some of those experiences.If Researcher A did a traditional study and observed that the study was having a negative impact on a participant’s mental health, they would take steps to eliminate that harm.  In this case, the researcher and participant are the same.
  • DISCUSS:  What is Researcher A’s ethical obligation to themselves as a research subject?

III. Getting Started

Discussion Topic: On Writing AE’s

Librarian-Related AE’s

Additional Resources

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.


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.


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):


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.


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).