Critical Literacy for Research – Sort of Peer-Reviewed Friday

Unexpectedly it’s Peer Reviewed Friday.  Well sort of.  Harvard Educational Review is a student-run journal, with an editorial board made up of graduate students deciding which articles get published.

I was teaching a class in our small classroom – where I never teach – so I went up early to make sure that I still knew how to work the tech.  It’s on the 5th floor, where the L’s are shelved, so I was flipping through the Fall 2009 issue while I waited for them to show up.  This article caught my eye — well worth reading, both for the content/ideas and because it is very enjoyably written.

Harouni, Houman (Fall 2009). High School Research and Critical Literacy: Social Studies with and Despite Wikipedia. Harvard Educational Review, 79:3. 473-493.

It’s a reflective, case-study type description of the author’s experiences reworking his research assignments in high school social studies classes. There’s a ton here to talk about – the specific exercises he developed and describes, the way the piece works as an example of critical reflective practice — but mainly I want to unpack this bit, which I think is the central theme of the work:

If students do not engage in the process of research inside the classroom, then it is natural for them to view the assignment in a results-oriented manner — the only manifestation of their work being their final paper and presentation.  It is not surprising then, that they are willing to quickly accept the most easily accessible and seemingly accurate information that satisfies the assignment and spares them the anxiety of questioning their data.  And when their final products did not meet my expectations, the students responded not by rethinking the research process itself but by simply attempting to adjust the product in light of what they perceived to be personal preferences. (476-77)

(emphasis mine)

Basically, the narrative he lays out says that his research projects had been unsuccessful for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed his students’ heavy and consistent reliance on Wikipedia as a source that he started digging into why, what that meant, what he really wanted to teach, and what he really wanted students to learn.  And he changed stuff based on those reflections.

Harouni’s thinking about information literacy (which he calls “critical literacy for research”) was initially sparked by students who were not evaluating sources or showing any sign of curiosity as they researched, but it was further sparked when his first attempts at addressing student gaps didn’t work, sparked by students who were trying, and failing, to evaluate texts they weren’t yet ready to evaluate.

Along the way, he talks about the limitations of a checklist, or “algorithmic” approach to evaluation — limitation he discovered when he reflected on what his students actually did when he tried to use that approach in his classroom:

Two observations confirmed the shallowness of the learning experience created through the exercise: first, the students did not apply their learning unless I asked them to do so; second, they remained dependent on the list of rules and questions to guide their inquiry. (480)

In other words, they could do the thing he asked them to do (apply the checklist to information sources) but it didn’t affect their actual practice as researchers, nor did it change how they viewed the information they were getting from Wikipedia.

And also why it is important to help students understand the openness and dynamism of Wikipedia, but that that itself is not enough:  “knowledge of the uncertainties of a source does not automatically translate into an awareness of one’s relationship with the information (477).”

This piece is, I think, essential at getting at what I think is the real value of his insights and experience — many of our students want to find certainty in their research processes.  They want to know that a source is good or bad.  Wikipedia bans feed that.  Checklists feed that too, especially when they are not taught as an initial step in an evaluation process, but as the process itself.  What we really want students to be able to do when they research is to manage uncertainty — to say I know this is uncertain and I can figure out what it means for me as I try to answer my real, important, and complex question.

Harouni’s process his is an excellent reminder of how teachers want clarity too – and how they have to be willing to embrace uncertainty themselves if they are to guide students through a process of authentic inquiry:

In teaching critical literacy for research, I have had to separate research from its dry, academic context and consider it as an everyday practice of becoming informed about issues that have an impact on students’ lives.  I must value not answers but instead questions that represent the continued renewal of the search.  I must value uncertainty and admit complexity in the study of all things. (490)

In this, he knocks on the door of a question that I frequently have as an instruction librarian (one which I think many instruction librarians have — how much can I really accomplish as a teacher on my own).  If the classroom instructor – the person creates, assigns, explains, and evaluates the research assignment isn’t actively engaged with the students’ research process – are there limits to what I can do?  I do think there are.  I don’t think those limits means that I should do nothing, far from it – but I do think those limits affect what I think I should be trying to accomplish on my own and affect the other ways I should be thinking about furthering my goals for students, inquiry and learning.

At the end of the day, one of Harouni’s basic assumptions is that it is part of his job as a social studies teacher to foster inquiry and curiosity in his students, “[f]or two semesters, research projects remained a part of my curriculum — not because they were wonderful learning experiences, but because I could not justify, to myself, a social studies class that did not work to improve the way students navigated the ocean of available information (474-5).”  In other words, he believes that teaching information literacy is an essential part of what he does.   And that is key.  You can’t have that perspective and also value coverage – of content information – above all else.  It’s one or the other.  (is it?  Yeah, I think it is).

Every faculty member isn’t going to have that idea of what their job is.  And every librarian isn’t either – but I think maybe for instruction librarian it should be.  It is true that rules and clarity make coverage easier.  There was a question on ILI-L yesterday from someone (responding to an ongoing discussion about teaching web evaluation)  asking “how do you even have time to talk about web evaluation when you have to cover all this other stuff.”

Rules make it easier to “cover” web evaluation.  Faculty want us to “cover” lots of different tools.  WE want to “cover” lots of different tools.

(N.B. I am not suggesting that everyone who engaged in the “web evaluation” discussion just “covers” it and doesn’t teach it.  Nor am I suggesting that the people who worry about covering what the faculty want them to cover are only interested in coverage.  I do think though that the pressure to “cover” is as true for us as it is for people in the disciplines and these discussions spark reminders of that)

But if we want students to think about research as a process, if we want research to BE a learning process, then we have to engage in teaching the process.  And that’s extra hard for us – we can’t do that in the one-shot by ourselves.  And we can’t do it if we’re worried about coverage — about covering everything the library has to offer.  And I’m not just saying that about “we can’t teach everything about the library in a one-shot” — I think we all know that.  I think I am saying that it can’t be about that at all – that the point has to be about the process, about authenticity, about this –

I now understand that whatever research strategies students use in their day-to-day lives, which no doubt will vary depending on who the learners are, must be investigated and taken into account by their teacher.  Neither this goal nor the goal of improving these strategies can be attained unless students have time to engage in research while they are in the classroom.  And inviting students to the computer lab and remaining attentive to their interaction with online sources is as important as accompanying students to the library. (490)

And maybe this means not worrying about teaching research as a recursive learning process in the one-shot.  Maybe this means rethinking what and where we teach and maybe it’s work with faculty that gets at that overarching goal.  I don’t know.  I do know, though, that I have some great ideas for rethinking my credit class next term.

Classroom activities to promote critical literacy for research:

1. A (relatively innocuous) vandalism example demonstrated in class.  He didn’t change the content of pages, just the accompanying photo to illustrate the process of editing.

2. Students work in pairs to evaluate a Wikipedia article on a topic they know a lot about (for example, one student used the article about her former high school). Through this exercise he was able to teach about:  skepticism & its place in the research process, identifying controversial claims in a text, citations and footnotes, and verifying claims by checking outside sources.

3. Judging a book by its first sentence. He brought in 5 history textbooks, showed the covers and provided the first sentence.  Then he asked students to describe what they could figure out about the book from that first sentence.  With this exercise he was able to teach: authorial bias or point of view; finding the author’s voice.

4. Research beyond the first sentence.  When they tried to apply these critical skills to the texts they found in their research projects, though, they still had trouble because they didn’t know enough about the stuff they were researching.  So he looked for a way through this problem. Enter Wikipedia.  He provided a list of pages identified by Wikipedia editors as biased or lacking a neutral point of view, and asked the students to choose an article on a somewhat familiar topic and write a brief essay, with specific references to the text, with suggestions for improving the piece to meet the Wikipedia’s neutrality standard.

5. Contributing as an author.  Similar to other projects like this, it was one option for his students as a final project.  Interesting in that he collaboratively developed the assignment and rubric with interested students.

Zotero assignment update

So the first mini-deadline on the Zotero assignment has come and gone, and I’m pretty happy with the results so far.  They’re not very impressive to look at, but when you compare what is actually happening with what I thought could happen, I think we are well on our way to getting this done.

For the first section, which has 21 students:

  • 11 successfully added a scholarly source to their Zotero library AND successfully synced to the group library.  Another one got the sync to work, but what got saved isn’t in very good shape yet.  Three more are waiting on ILL to decide which article they want to save to the bibliography.
  • Of those 11, 6 have added an original annotation and tags.

There are a few who added something in another format (and I’m not sure if that is a result of still not knowing how to find a scholarly article for their person, or if it is a matter of the best sources authored by their person not being scholarly articles)  I’ll find out more about that in class this week.

In the second, which has 24 students registered:

  • 13 successfully added a source to their Zotero library AND successfully synced.  Another one did the sync okay, but what got added was wonky.  There is one person who has added two things.  There is also an example article that I added still in there.
  • And there is a weird article from the medical literature that is still mysterious.  The author doesn’t share a last name with one of our target authors, so I am thinking maybe it was left in one of the classroom computers’ Zotero libraries and accidentally got dragged into our group library?
  • Nine have added original annotations.
  • Another handful are waiting on their articles from ILL.

Most of these have wonky notes/ attachments from the databases, and some need some of their metadata cleared up.  Batting 500+, though, was more than I expected at this point.  Why?  A few reasons, actually –

  1. First, these students have never used Zotero before at all.  Most of them have never used any kind of Firefox plugin.  That whole process of downloading and installing Firefox, then the plugin, was conceptually something new.  I expected this to be a hurdle in and of itself, before we even got to the the group library and syncing piece of the puzzle.  And it was, for sure, for some.  But not for most – most got themselves set up with Firefox no problem, and got the plug in working just fine.
  2. I want to be really clear here – it’s not that I thought these students weren’t intelligent enough to do this nor did I think it was really hard – I just thought it was going to be new and made more difficult by the fact that I asked them to do most of this new thing on their own on their own computers.  I did this mostly because I wasn’t at all certain that syncing the classroom computers to the Zotero group library would work with any kind of reliability.  So it comes down to –  I thought that showing them in class and then asking them to do the work at home was not necessarily setting them up for success (for all that that is how homework usually works).
  3. I really didn’t give them much instruction on how to do this at all.  We went over Zotero on the first day of class, and then I asked them to test different features of it along the way.  But here’s the thing – most of them didn’t do that along the way stuff because I wasn’t grading it and it wasn’t on the syllabus.  It was mostly a “please do this for your own good” thing and wasn’t at the top of anybody’s priority list.  So that .500+ batting average comes from students figuring stuff out with the tutorial I provided and what they could find in their notes and on the Zotero website.
  4. Some of the problems that have happened are undoubtedly not about Zotero at all, but are about navigating library systems and databases and the difficulties that come up during the process of finding scholarly articles — those are the primary reason for this class, after all!
  5. The syncing with the classroom computers is working really well – or at least it has for the last two sessions.  I have to tell you that I was worried about this with good reason.  Every time I have attempted to show this in the classroom, the sync has churned and churned and churned without any end (or any sync) in sight.  So when the students were having no trouble syncing the Zotero libraries in the classroom to their group accounts in class two weeks ago and again last week, I was shocked.  But what this means is that this week we can treat the classroom like a lab and troubleshoot most of the remaining problems together.

Onward!

Citations 101

This term our first-year seminar/orientation classes (called U-Engage) have given me the opportunity to do some different things, teaching-wise.  One of the sections asked for resources for a “Citations 101” unit.  This is what I’ve put together so far.

Does this work because it has a workable focus, and because it treats citing like something that has value, instead of something to do to avoid getting in trouble (or because no one respects the ideas of college students, which is a message that I think some students take away from lessons about the rhetorical uses of outside sources).  I do think the rhetorical uses are crucial, but they were beyond the scope here – and I think would have taken the focus beyond “workable.”

ALS 199: Citations 101

(Built with our Library a la Carte tutorials extension.)

cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudel

Another essentially no more than bullet points post — I have a lot of formal writing I have to be doing now, so this will end at some point.  So, cool stuff…

via Dave Munger (twitter) Alyssa Milano pushing peer-reviewed research — see, it is relevant after you leave school!

via A Collage of Citations (blog).  Former OSU grad student/ writing instructor turned Penn State PhD candidate Michael Faris’ First-Year Composition assignment using archival sources to spark inquiry and curiosity.  Note especially the research-as-learning-process focus of the learning goals.

via Erin Ellis (facebook) plus then via a bunch of other people — proof that, in the age of social media, an awesome title can boost your impact factor.  But the content stands on its own as well – I’ve been thinking a lot about different information seeking style, and how different people gravitate naturally towards different approaches.  By Karen Janke and Emily Dill: “New shit has come to light”: Information seeking behavior in The Big Lebowski

via @0rb (twitter) Journalism warning labels

via Cool Tools (blog) Longform to InstapaperLong Form by itself is pretty cool, it aggregates some of the best long-form (mostly magazine) writing on all kinds of topics.  But what makes it really cool is that it integrates seamlessly with Instapaper, meaning that I can find something there, push a button and have it available on my iPad to read offline the next time I am stuck somewhere boring.

Related – Cool Tools’ post on the best magazine articles ever.

via Cliopatria (blog).  Obligatory history-related resource — London Lives: 1690-1800.  Pulling together documents from 8 archives & 15 datasets, this online archive asks “What was it like to live in the world’s first million person city?”

snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes

Because the work I have to do is stressful  — it’s a dogs biting (not really) bees stinging (not really) feeling sad (not really either) type of time

Tom and Lorenzo’s analysis of the costumes on Mad Men (the season premiere of which I finally got to see late last night) —

It became quickly obvious to us that there was no way we could examine the female fashion on Mad Men without looking at ALL the females. Costume Designer Janie Bryant deserves every bit of acclaim and applause that has come her way since she started work on the show. Think of this series of posts as a mini-retrospective. We’ll work our way up to Joan and Betty by looking at each of the other characters first.

Here’s the thing – I love the posts for the big 3 characters – Joan, Betty, and Peggy – but in some ways, I love the posts about the secondary characters more.  In the first group, the conversation is very character-driven, what different costuming choices say about different characters, which is fun and interesting.  In the second group, though, there’s just as much about what the costumes AND characters say about the time and place in which they’re set – which is right in my analytical sweet spot.

This digital history project at StanfordThe Republic of Letters.

Using social networking visualization tools to visualize the letters that scholars wrote to each other way back in the early days of scholarly communication.

Forged in the humanist culture of learning that promoted the ancient ideal of the republic as the place for free and continuous exchange of knowledge, the Republic of Letters was simultaneously an imagined community (a scholar’s utopia where differences, in theory, would not matter), an information network, and a dynamic platform from which a wide variety of intellectual projects – many of them with important ramifications for society, politics, and religion – were proposed, vetted, and executed.

You can check out their case studies, or do a little bit of playing with their tools.

Cryptogram for iPad.

This game is very easy (if you let it tell you when you guess a letter wrong) or less easy (when you don’t), and so, so pretty.

New blog to follow

And last, but only because I can’t believe anyone who reads this blog doesn’t already know this – Barbara Fister is blogging at Inside Higher Ed.

Word of the day: Advertorial

So advertorial – one of those words (like “anecdata”) that has meaning the first time you hear it.  A piece of writing that is made to look like one thing (usually an article) but which is really another thing (an advertisement).

While the most famous example of this for instruction librarians is undoubtedly the advertisements for Big Pharma in the form of scholarly journals flying under Elsevier’s flag of convenience, they are apparently and not surprisingly a well-established tool in the public relations toolkit.  They even give awards for them.  In the last round of Bronze Anvil Awards (given by the Public Relations Society of America to “recognize outstanding public relations tactics”) there were two awards given to advertorials — one to InSinkerator for something called InSinkerator Gets Home Builders to Think Green, and one to the Florida Department of Citrus, for their Florida Grapefruit Makes Headlines.

So why am I thinking about advertorials today?  Because they are wrecking one of my favorite places to go on the Internet — ScienceBlogs.

In short, ScienceBlogs disastrously, inexplicably, weirdly, agreed to allow a new nutrition blog to join ScienceBlogs – which is an invitation-only type networks of blogs about science and scientific research.  The weird, disastrous, etc. thing about this new blog, called Food Frontiers, was that it was produced by PepsiCo, and the decision to fairly radically change the type of content that was part of the ScienceBlogs network was made in an uncommunicative, opaque, closed way.

Summaries of the fallout – which bloggers are staying which are going, where the going bloggers are now – can be best found here, at Carl Zimmer’s blog (associated with Discover magazine) — Oh, Pepsi, What Hast Thou Wrought.

A Note from ScienceBlogs can be found on the former site of the Pepsi blog, explaining the decision to take it down.

So what does this all mean and why do I care?  Lots of people know that I love ScienceBlogs, or that I have loved ScienceBlogs, as a librarian who teaches – my love for it has only grown.  So now what?

Dave Mosher provides a good summary of what this means for content from ScienceBlogs in the future – which is the issue about which I am really concerned.  I don’t

That effort signals a fundamental change to the way their content is structured:

Before: Blogs.
After: Editorial blogs. | Advertorial blogs.

I type “signals” and not “is” because the transformation isn’t complete.

Because part of this is about reputation – and not reputation in that individual kind of way, but reputation in that authority/publishing/information literacy kind of way that means so much to students struggling to find their way through the scholarly landscape —

From Dave Munger (emphasis added) –

The hypocrisy in handing a nutrition podium to a company that is seriously implicated in the global obesity crisis was astonishing, and even worse, the dozens of bloggers who’ve worked for years to build ScienceBlogs’ reputation were taken completely by surprise.

Former ScienceBlogger David Dobbs nails the key irony here (again, emphasis added), arguing that PepsiCo is “buying credibility generated by others even as they damage same.”

As PalMD and others have pointed out, PepsiCo hardly lacks platform. The only value they can gain from writing here is to draw on the credibility created by a bunch of independent voices engaged in earnest,= thoughtful (well, most of the time), and genuine conversation.

What these (and countless other) commentaries point out is that the reputation of the site matters – that the name ScienceBlogs is supposed to mean something and one of the things it is supposed to mean is no corporate agendas — the fact that just anyone couldn’t write for ScienceBlogs, the fact that ScienceBloggers were writing independently, the fact that their creators, Seed Media, proclaims this lofty agenda (from their About page) all adds up to a set of expectations about what the content on the site was supposed to be.

We believe that science literacy is a pre-condition for progress in the 21st century. At a time when public interest in science is high but public understanding of science remains weak, we have set out to create innovative media ventures to improve science literacy and to advance global science culture.

While those expectations were not always reasonable and there were ads on the site, and whatever else might also have been a little muddy or murky before – there was an idea behind the project that was an important part of why this project was useful to me in the classroom and at the reference desk and in my own work.  It is not that this content was all supposed to be good, or right, or true, or even civil – but the reasons for it being written?  They were supposed to relate to improving the public understanding of science and science literacy.  So what does that mean in a world when that content is either editorial or advertorial?  No matter how easy it is to tell which is which on the site (and the RSS feed?  the Twitter stream??) – that changes things.

Bora Zivkovic hones in on this question of a network’s reputation in his post, explaining his reasons for leaving ScienceBlogs…

We have built an enormous reputation, and we need to keep guarding it every single day. Which is why the blurring of lines between us who are hired and paid to write (due to our own qualities and expertise which we earned), and those who are paying to have their material published here is deeply unethical. Scientists and journalists share some common ethical principles: transparency, authenticity and truth-telling. These ethical principles were breached. This ruins our reputation, undermines our work, and makes it more unpalatable for good blogger to consider joining Sb in the future.

Zivkovic goes on to discuss the ways in which the existence and influence of the ScienceBlogs network makes the people who blog there de facto science journalists – whether they are aware of (or willing to embrace) that fact or now. It is not surprising in this context (the context of how important science blogging has become to science journalism) that some of the first reactions to the Pepsi blog controversy came not from quick-on-the-draw bloggers, but from mainstream media outlets and watchdogs.

I don’t blog at ScienceBlogs (not many librarians do) and it’s not a crucial part of my everyday professional knowledge building because most of the content on the site isn’t directly aimed at my professional needs — it’s more the idea of the project that is important to my work than the reality of what is posted there on a day-to-day basis. That’s not true for everyone.  But as a libriarian, particularly a librarian working with first-year students making the transition to academic thinking, reading, and writing, ScienceBlogs was (and probably is) a go-to site for me.

A lot of the reason for this is the authority/credibility/reputation issues discussed above.  Not that my students could or should automatically trust any of the content on that or any site, but because I felt like I could tell them (quickly, in a 50-minute one-shot) why and how that information had been created in a way that could guide their critical and effective use of the site as a tool — an incredibly valuable tool – that would help them navigate expert research and academic writing.

But another part of the reason is good old fashioned findability.  As Zivkovic says in his discussion of the network effect at ScienceBlogs, most people don’t track blogs using RSS readers or other tools – they find the content when they search for it.  And when they search for it and find it on one blog in the network, all of the blogs in the network are made stronger.  I don’t expect my first-year students to really figure out yet what pieces of the dynamic web they want to track for scholarly or professional purposes – most of them, at 18, are still figuring out what those purposes will be. They may want to track stuff for a particular class, or a particular term, but yeah – for most of them the searchability and the browsability of this site was key to its being useful.  ResearchBlogging is good for that too, and there are other collections of resources that I can point indivdiual students to – but nothing else out there does what ScienceBlogs does (did?) as a place to illustrate the importance and utility of science blogging and academic blogging.

Carl Zimmer puts his finger on one of the main issues for me – if the bloggers leave ScienceBlogs that may be (probably will be) good for the quality of the content but bad for the findability of the content, and those things are not totally unrelated.

What I find particularly galling about this whole affair is that bloggers who don’t want to associate themselves with this kind of nonsense have to go through the hassle of leaving Scienceblogs and setting up their blog elsewhere. The technical steps involved may be wonderfully easy now (export files, open account on WordPress, import), but the social steps remain tedious.

Munger picks up the theme –

If they want to continue to have the kind of influence they used to have at ScienceBlogs, I think the bloggers who have left the site need to do something more than just start or restart their old, independent blogs. They need to form a new network — perhaps built around different principles, but a network nonetheless.

I think so too – I think if they lose the network effect, individual blogs and bloggers and small groups of same will be able to connect with one type of reader, and an important type of reader, but they’ll lose the true neophyte who stumbles on to new ways of talking about evidence and knowledge coming in through a Google Search — or because a librarian says “browse here for a while” when they’re stuck looking for topics.

Ira Flatow (NPR’s Science Friday) offers to talk about hosting departing ScienceBlogs bloggers’ blogs on the Science Friday site instead. And again here.  I suspect that even the benign oversight of NPR might seem too much to the gunshy bloggers who left ScienceBlogs, but I hope they do find each other again somewhere, or that they build new somewheres elsewhere.

scholarly reading on the iPad – one month in

Not that this will be the definitive work…

I’ve had an iPad, like many others, for something more than a month now.  I haven’t talked about it much because I just haven’t been interested in justifying the purchase, or answering questions about whether it was worth it.   Like the first post I just linked to says, I’m think the answer to that question is still evolving even as I notice myself doing familiar things in new ways.

But I went to a conference last week, which was not only my first iPad travel experience, but it was one where I decided to see if I could get by with just the iPad, even though the presentation wasn’t done when I got on the plane and I had a bunch of resources I wanted to bring with me.

….Probably someone had investigated the phenomenon; no doubt she could look it up on the wrist.  She tapped out the code for the Journal of Areological Studies, typed in Pavonis: “Evidence of Strombolian Explosive Activity Found in West Tharsis Clasts.”  “Radial Ridges in Caldera and Concentric Graben Outside the Rim Suggest Late Subsidence of the Summit.”  She had just crossed some of those graben.

So, this picture has always sounded pretty good to me.  The ability to carry everything I might need and get at it whenever I have a question – that’s a type of heaven that connects me back to my very first smartphone purchase in 2005 which was justified by my desire to access IMDb from any pub in America.

Though, I have never been able to picture what the displays on the units in the quotation above (from Blue Mars) must look like that they let you read any kind of document, ever, on a unit you wear on your wrist.

Now I didn’t buy the iPad thinking that it would bring me into the world of ubiquitous scholarship – but as I started to prep for this conference I decided to see how close it would get me.  I brought a pretty big folder of articles and other documents along with me and found myself able to use them as much and as easily and I wanted to thoughout my five days on the road.

For articles, I was using this app – Papers.  I don’t have the desktop client installed.  When I first installed it on the iPad, I did so because the description said that the desktop client wasn’t necessary to use it – but that wasn’t true then and given that this app is definitely not free, I wasn’t happy.  A recent upgrade changed things, though and while I think this application would be a lot easier to use if I did have the desktop client, my experiment in using it without was successful.

You can add PDFs to your library in a couple of ways – using iTunes, or by emailing them to yourself.  I tried both and found myself leaning towards the email option:

Here’s the PDF waiting in my email on the iPad.  Click the icon to open it, and within the email client, I get button with the option to open the document in Pages.

Once in Papers, it gets a little clunkier.  If I had the desktop client, it would move everything over with metadata intact.  As I don’t – to add this I need to add the metadata myself — if I care to have it.  I don’t use this program (nor, I suspect, will I) to manage my citations so I haven’t figured out yet if I care about having the metadata beyond a descriptive title.

The journal name is easy to add, especially if you already have articles from the journal.  I can see the utility here, if I wanted to browse articles from a particular journal maybe?

I bought and installed the Keynote application on the iPad right away.  I use Keynote all the time – even when my documents are going to end up as PowerPoint, I create them in Keynote and convert – that’s how much I love it.  Pages, on the other hand, I have never warmed up to.  I hardly ever use it.

But, at the last minute, I decided that I also wanted to bring along several dozen interview transcripts.  I installed the Pages application as an experiment to see how this would work, and opened my email.  I was pretty surprised when the documents (which were Microsoft Word documents) displayed a Pages icon as soon as I had it installed.  Click the icon, open in Pages and I had access to all of my transcripts with practically no effort.

And it’s fun to browse through the documents –

So neither of these are free applications – Pages costs $10 and Papers $15.00.  For that $25, though, I was able to carry about twenty transcripts, a couple of dozen research articles and the full scan of a dissertation that I really didn’t want to carry.  Plus the movies, books, photos and music I need to survive the hours and hours of airplane time it takes to get back to Oregon from the east.  It’s not a research library on my wrist yet, but I can see the way there.

so whatever happened with that fear factor book?

Or, sort of peer-reviewed Monday!  Not quite, but a book review.

I didn’t want to list the name of the book in question before because I hadn’t read it yet, and didn’t want to answer questions from people who might have found the post by googling the book title.  Especially if they were people who really liked the book, because I didn’t know yet if I liked it.   And there are people who really, really, really like it —

Best book ever on how to prepare students for college (Jay Mathews, Washington Post blogs)

I don’t really agree with the title there – the point of this book didn’t seem to me to be about preparing students for college so much as it is about preparing college for students.

Citation:  Cox, Rebecca D. (2009).  The College Fear Factor. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

The book is based on 5 years of data gathered from community college students.  The author herself did two studies examining community college classrooms.  One was a basic writing class and the other looked at 6 sections of an english composition class.  Each lasted a semester, and gathered qualitative data about the classroom conditions that had an impact on a student’s successful completion of the course.  She also participated in a large scale field study of 15 community colleges in 6 states, and another national study of technological education.

The argument in the book comes from research on community college students, but it is still of interest to those of us who work with students managing the transition to college at any institution.  It is perhaps more relevant to those of us at institutions that attract a significant number of first-generation college students.

I am not sure entirely what I think of the book – on the one hand, it was a quick easy read and I enjoyed it as I usually enjoy well-reported stories drawn from qualitative investigation.  On the other hand, it struck me as one of those books that reports on an important conclusion, but one that could have been well-covered in an article-length treatment.  The conclusion is drawn over and over again in this longer work, so sometimes chapters go by without me feeling like I had really encountered anything new.

What is that conclusion?  I said to Caleb earlier that I wasn’t sure where the fear factor part of the title came into the book (becuase at that point I was on about page 17) and I have to say now that the title is good insofar as the real point of this book is on fear, and how that emotional state affects student success.  (Insofar as it evokes a really awful reality show, on the other hand, not so good).

And in this, I think the book is valuable.  We don’t think and talk about the role of affect enough in higher ed – at least not on the academic side – nor about the intersections between affect and cognition and affect and everything else we do, and this book is an important corrective to that.  Basically, Cox argues that students can be scared away from completing college – not because they are not capable of doing college-level work, but because they have not been prepared to do it before they get to college, and they are not helped to do it once they arrive.

The many students who seriously doubted their ability to succeed, however, were anxiously waiting for their shortcomings to be exposed, at which point they would be stopped from pursuing their goals.  Fragile and fearful, these students expressed their concern in several ways: in reference to college professors, particular courses or subject matter, and the entire notion of college itself — whether at the two- or the four-year level.  At the core of different expressions of fear, however, were the same feelings of dread and the apprehension that success in college would prove to be an unrealizable dream.

Cox argues that these fears are exacerbated when one doesn’t come in to college knowing how to DO college.  And that most first-generation, non-traditional and other groups of our students don’t come to college knowing what the culture and mores of academia are.  They have expectations, but those aren’t based on experience (theirs or others’) and when those expectations are challenged, their reaction is to think they can’t do it at all or to convince themselves that it is not worth doing .

Professors too have their own set of expectations about how good students approach their education, and when faced with student behaviors that are different than those expectations would suggest, they make some faulty assumptions about why students are behaving the way they are. A student who attends class every day but never turns anything in  — that’s incomprehensible behavior to the professor who doesn’t understand how that student possibly thinks they are going to pass.  After reading Cox’s book, you consider the possibility that that student doesn’t think they are going to pass, but are just playing out the semester in a depressed

I still feel like I am missing from this book much of a sense of why professors have these expectations  —  besides “that’s the way we’ve always done things.”  In other words, it doesn’t really work for me (nor do I think Cox is really claiming) that there is no value at all to the way that professors were trained, and that that they are hanging on to methods that don’t work simply because they went through it so others should have to.  Yeah, yeah, there are professors like that.  But my sense as a person engaged in higher ed is that a lot of professors think that there is value in the way they look at learning, meaning-making and knowledge creation and the joy they get from teaching comes from working with students who can share that joy.

Cox does a good job arguing that many of the students they have are not ready to do that, but I don’t get the sense from her book that she doesn’t see the value in that view of education.  I have a much clearer vision from this book what the students Cox interviewed value —  mostly the economic benefit they connect to the credential — but because her research didn’t extend to the teachers, I don’t have that same sense from them.

Here’s the thing – universities aren’t just about the teaching. They’re not going to be just about teaching and it’s not a really hard argument to make that they shouldn’t be just about the teaching.  A lot of professors were hired for their research, and the research they do makes the world better, and connecting students to that kind of knowledge creation is cool.  And even when they are about teaching they’re not just about the teaching of first-year undergraduates making the transition into college.  Even those students in a few years, immersed in a major, are going to need something different than they need when they first hit campus.

Just as it is not useful to sit in meetings about teaching and spend all your time discussing the students you should have (and yeah, we’ve all heard those discussions).  I’m sure I’m not the only one to say that at some point you have to put your energy into the students you have.  But when I say that, and when a lot of people say that, they don’t mean – the students we have can’t learn how to participate in academic culture.  We don’t mean that – academic culture has no value to these students.  Which is the really valuable point in this book – unprepared does not equal incapable.   I don’t want to say the book offers no solutions, because it does.  I guess what I do have to say is that I don’t find those solutions convincing in a research university environment.

All of this, of course, goes well beyond the scope of Cox’s book and Cox’s research, which is about particular students in a particular setting where teaching, and the transition to college, is paramount.

It’s a long way of saying that while the book has value to those outside the community college setting, that value only  goes so far.  There is more work to be done figuring answers to the questions she raises in other environments.

Which is why the chapter that was probably the most interesting to me is chapter 5 – which examines the work being done by two composition instructors – instructors who by most accounts are doing everything “right” in their classrooms  — right by the Chickering-type standards of active learning and engagement and right by what we are constantly told these hands-on, tech-savvy experiential-learning-wanting students today need.  In other words, they’re doing the things we think we should be doing in the research university to connect the students to what it is that scholars do – and they’re failing.

The idea that students have to be forced to be free is not a new one, but it is a point that gets lost sometimes in discussions about what is wrong with higher ed.  We hear that lectures are dead, that students can’t learn that way, that they hate lecturing, they tune out, they want to learn for themselves, and … it just doesn’t always reflect my experience. They may hate lectures, but that doesn’t mean that’s not what they think higher education should be.  They have their expectations that they bring with them, and professors that try to turn some control over the classroom and over learning to their students can be shot down for “not doing their job.”  That’s what Cox found, and I’ve certainly seen it happen.  The assumptions that these professors are falling victim to aren’t assumptions that students are going to be unprepared, or ignorant, or unwilling to learn – they’re more the opposite.  They assume that students will be curious, will have a voice they want to get out there, will have learning they want to take responsibility for.

So, I’m glad I didn’t bail – but I’m also glad the book didn’t take more than a couple nights to read.

“how does the study measure up”

Here’s a great example of way that an academic blog post, written for a general audience, can be a crucial supplement or starting point for a student trying to decipher the peer-reviewed literature.  From Momma Data —

Blame Mom for High School Beer Binges: The Power of a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

This post:

  • describes the study
  • identifies the important (and discipline-specific) concepts used by the authors
  • analyzes the study design
  • gives an opinion about the quality of the paper
  • explains the significance of the journal to the discourse

The only thing I’d like to see is a more robust comment stream – maybe some discussion/ refinement of the ideas. But all in all, a great example and on a topic students sometimes write about too!