Good Library Assignments, part 2

So if bad assignments are not better than nothing – what makes them good? Not what are the rules of good assignments, because tired of rules, but yes, there are some principles, or maxims or truisms that come to mind.

I bet these aren’t all of them either, but they are the ones I’ve synthesized from my thinking:

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Right now, I’m thinking about the first four. In fact, I would say the things on this list are a little bit apples and oranges. The first two are obviously coming from those assignments that throw in a “use the library” requirement, or a “use peer reviewed sources” requirement, or a “you must use print journal articles” requirements or even a “you must use ERIC” requirement.

(Though that print articles thing is getting a little long in the tooth. I know, I know, it still happens but not like it used to)

The next two are getting at some reasons why I think that faculty add those requirements.

So let’s dig in a little more and think about how these themes mesh with what we know about how students use information, go about research, and approach assignments.

Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.

The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.

As I said, these are mostly about requirements within assignments, and I think the more interesting place to examine them is in the reasons why. But I also think that these cover those — “I just want them to go to the library and touch the books” assignments. And here’s the thing – those assignments don’t work either.

A couple of years ago, I spent a lot of time reading about library anxiety, which is a topic that I find resonates well with faculty audiences. At least a little of this is because of the Library Anxiety Scale – because that scale has been tested and validated and used in many circumstances it means when I say “we know” it gives me a familiar type of expertise — we know, because in my field, we have done this research.

The two features of library anxiety that I tend to emphasize are these:

  1. It’s situational – like white coat hypertension – it only kicks in in certain situations. And those situations? When students actually need to use the library to complete a task or solve a problem. On my campus, everyone studies in the library (no, not really, but we’re packed most of the time). But the way library anxiety works means that a student could come to the library every single night, could have “their” own chair, or carrel or study room and still, as soon as they actually had to use the library to write a research paper, destructive anxiety could kick in.
  2. It’s characterized by a sense of “I should know this” – accompanied by a sense of “everyone else does know this.”

Given these realities, it’s pretty easy to see why an assignment that is designed to get students into the library to touch the resources isn’t going to help. And if it’s an ill-designed assignment, where they’re not going to find the thing they need to touch – then it’s going to do damage.

And even if we have the stuff, if the assignment is written in such a way that it assumes students have had experiences with information that they have not had (reading paper newspapers), or that they know things they don’t know (research is published in things called journals) — it will make things worse.

When students already think “everyone else knows this but me” then an unfamiliar term like “peer review” or “LC” will send them over the edge. Barbara Fister’s recent post on Inside Higher Ed gets at this point in a much more practical and detailed way.

Feelings matter. In particular, how we feel about our ability to solve problems — our confidence — matters.

The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.

I was working on a book chapter earlier this year – a textbook chapter for composition students. And one of the things that the editor and I had a lot of back and forth about was just this. She was bringing me information from the composition faculty who had reviewed the book about how they wanted this to be simpler, or that to be simpler.

And I would say back, yes I know that they would like X, where X = whatever shortcut we were talking about here: evaluation checklists, peer-reviewed journals ticky boxes, callout boxes explaining why library databases were better — I get these requests too.

I get why people want shortcuts. I really do. Especially in composition where the topics come from across several disciplines and you’re dealing with a whole bunch of discourses that you have no particular experience with — teaching how to find, recognize, use and choose information sources is really hard. I get why they don’t want to fall down the rabbit holes I fall down into when I try to teach “what is peer review and why should you care” quickly and efficiently. But still, at the end of the day, suggesting that there are shortcuts around thinking, evaluating and choosing don’t do students any favors.

I have a couple of short slideshows I use when I want to “show” people how difficult it is to navigate our information landscape as a student.

  • One shows the first page of four different articles. I lead off this one with the question: “which articles were peer-reviewed.”
  • One shows five screenshots of newspaper websites. For this one, the question is “what type of source is this.”

Both of those exercises are designed to illustrate how much we (faculty) already know about information and publishing and how we use that knowledge to make these calls — we’re bringing tacit knowledge to the table that many of our students don’t have.

The last one is a little different. It pulls out a set of sources easily found in library databases — it includes a partisan blog, a news aggregator, a newsletter, a small newspaper and some others. This one is designed to illustrate the no-shortcuts piece.

When I hear faculty complain that “my students just went to Google” I actually wonder how often their students ACTUALLY went straight to the library databases they were told to use? Given that they can easily find Google-like sources using Summon (and Lexis-Nexis, and Academic Search Premier, and so on) it has to be that some of these maligned students actually did use the library. The issue isn’t that they went to Google instead of the library – the issue is that they didn’t know what to do with what they found – and that’s an issue in both contexts.

Requiring something isn’t the same as teaching it

It would be great if we could just require what we wanted and know that students would be able go out and figure out what we meant, what we wanted, how to deliver it — and find the whole process enriching and interesting enough to carry into the future. We all know that’s not realistic.

When it comes to research, though what needs to be taught, and how much time and effort it takes to teach it can come as a surprise. I’ve linked this old post from Dr. Crazy’s excellent blog here more than once – but I think it does such a great job of communicating just how deep the rabbit holes go when you start teaching students about research and information. There are so many unwritten rules that define good practice in academic communication, and so many things we can easily assume are common knowledge — once you start unpacking those things for students, though, you can quickly find yourself lost in a web of “but to understand that, you need to know this — a full day just to teach MLA style? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Library anxiety is one reason why there’s a problem when we don’t unpack the requirements in our assignments, but it’s not the only one. This one looms especially large in those “bad assignments” that are categorized by mis-matches — between the requirements and the students’ ability levels or between the requirements and the point of the assignments themselves.

I’ve talked about student development before, at length, and I won’t do so here but tl:dr – students don’t come to college thinking about knowledge and knowledge creation the same way their teachers do. They’re not supposed to – they’re supposed to develop that way while they’re here. So when we require sources that have one set of epistemological assumptions embedded within them (like peer-reviewed articles) and we don’t unpack those assumptions, then students will try and fit the new sources into their current way(s) of knowing. When the sources don’t fit (as they inherently won’t) then they think the sources are just a series of hoops they have to navigate to make teachers happy.

If you, like me, think there’s value in the work scholars do, this should be worrying.

The thing is, unpacking those assumptions is a huge job — let’s look at the “you must use a peer reviewed article” requirement. This rabbit hole will take you almost all the way to China. To really understand and use these articles you need to know:

  • Scholars do research. Not “research paper” research but other types of original research.
  • Scholars frequently write articles about individual studies, which examine specific things – not every dimension of a topic.
  • Research is usually (but not always) reported in things called journals.
  • Scholars argue, but in a particular way. They aren’t necessarily trying to win (and end) a conversation when they argue — there’s always another question and that’s not a flaw.
  • The same scholars who write the articles in journals also review other people’s articles for quality.
  • When scholars review for quality they don’t repeat the experiment to see if it’s true.
  • Scholars continue examining and evaluating the quality of an article after its published.
  • Scholars belong to professional communities called disciplines.
  • Disciplines develop rules or best practices about conducting and reporting on research.They’re not all the same.

That’s a huge amount to unpack and you can’t really expect students to “get it” if you just mention it it once (even if you do so at length). And it doesn’t even get at the fact that most students don’t have the domain knowledge to read these articles critically.

So a huge part of “good library assignments” if figuring out what you, as the teacher, actually have the capacity to support. Can you devote a full day to teaching MLA citations? Can you spend a week on scholarly knowledge creation?

And there’s still another level to “teaching it” that’s equally important, and just as labor-intensive: feedback. Students need feedback on the choices they make when it comes to information sources and their research process. And they need the opportunity to apply that feedback and try again. Some colleagues and I did a small research-process study last summer (soon to be published in portal, if you’re interested) and our students reported that they rarely get feedback on the sources they choose. And this finding wasn’t a surprise.

Students know how to do school. It’s not hard for them to figure out what really matters — when teachers don’t invest time on the front end explaining a requirement, and don’t give meaningful feedback on the result – they’re quickly going to realize that they don’t need to put any real effort into meeting that requirement. That’s why we hear “as long as you put the web sources fourth or fifth in the bibliography, and the EBSCO sources on top you’ll be fine.”

It’s almost like teachers and students have silently agreed that library databases are going to be shorthand for quality. As long as students go through the motions of using them, then we’ll consider that requirement checked off and focus on other things.

But it doesn’t help them when they actually need information to solve problems or make decisions, and it doesn’t do us any good if they ultimately decide the work that scholars do and that librarians preserve, repackage and make useful is useless.

I was talking to a faculty member who teaches a class for first-years called science myth busters – and told me about an approach he uses that I think has a lot of potential across a lot of disciplines. He spends a full day teaching about the concepts of correlation and causation before he has students read research articles (and news reports about research). Then, when they read the articles, they analyze them — just on that concept. They consider how the news reporters understand it, and how the scholars talk about it.

What I love about this is that it gives the students a structure they can use to start to approach these sources like someone engaged in knowledge creation would — it gives them language they can use, and a concrete task to complete. It’s manageable for the instructor, and it’s meaningful for the student. And many fields or areas of study have key concepts that could be used in a similar way.

See, Project Information Literacy (and about a million other studies) tell us that students tend to stick with what they know. Once they have a research-process hammer, then they’ll try and turn every research problem into a nail. They’ll stick with the same type of sources, with the same research tool, with the same processes and methods. They port them from high school and will only adapt them as they need to.

I think a huge part of what we’re (the big we – the higher ed we) are about is getting them to expand beyond what they’ve done before- to consider different types of evidence, more complex processes and to build a bigger toolbox. But trying something new is scary. Feelings matter – and we have to create an environment that makes them feel they can do it. Skills matter – we have to give them the tools to do it. And practicalities matter – it has to be worth their while to do it too.

There will be one more part – hopefully tomorrow — but I’m heading out for some Oregon Shakespeare Festival in a few hours so it might be Monday.

Good library assignments, part 1

I’m putting together a workshop tomorrow for teaching librarians about good research assignments — so I went looking to see what else has been written on the topic. I found lots of good stuff (I’ll talk about that later) but mostly what I found were rules — do’s and don’ts — embedded into pages about “when to ask for library instruction.”

(I bet you can predict what the rules are).

But here’s the thing – I break the rules all the time. In the last five years I have:

  • Taught classes without the faculty member present!
  • Said. “okay, sure!” when I was asked for a scavenger hunt activity.
  • Scheduled workshops for classes that don’t have research assignments, and which aren’t going to have research assignments.
  • And in one memorable case – integrated a scavenger hunt into a workshop for a class that was in the library without their instructor, that was a third again too big for every student to have an hands-on computer AND that didn’t have any kind of research assignment.

I mean, I don’t break rules for the thrill of breaking rules. And it’s not like we have anything so structured as “rules” here anyway. But I know them, just like we all know them, which means that even though I had good reasons for doing all of those things, I felt I had to figure those reasons out and justify those choices.

But I realized this morning that … I’m tired of rules. Or, maybe it’s more that rules make me tired. The effort to control and regulate a bunch of external conditions to make the one-shot — which has a bunch of moving parts that are uncontrollable — work is really tiring.

(And the rules have a nasty little unstated flip side — the one that says if all of the rules are followed, then the only reason why the one-shot isn’t awesome is librarian failure. That exhausts me even more.)

So in thinking about “good library assignments” the last thing I feel like doing is coming up with more rules. That’s right, not even “no scavenger hunts.”

I’m trying to pull together 3 pieces of interconnected thinking here. I don’t think I’ll talk about them all today – but I am hoping they’ll cohere if I talk about them. Here they are:

War stories: Thinking over “bad library assignments” I have seen – what are the broader categories?

  1. Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing that my library does not have.
  2. Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.
  3. Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.
  4. Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
  5. Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

Truisms: What are some things that are usually true (from my experience) about research assignments and teaching research?

  1. Saying “use the library” doesn’t make the library useful.
  2. The best way to encourage students to use a research tool or collection is to design a task that is legitimately easier when one uses that tool.
  3. The library is not a shortcut. People who use the library can’t end-run thinking or evaluating.
  4. Requiring something is not the same as teaching it.
  5. Students won’t automatically understand the connections between research assignments and course outcomes.
  6. Research freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Expertise: What do we know about how students interact with research assignments that many others on campus do not?

  1. Library anxiety is real, has cognitive consequences, and can’t be fixed by requiring students to enter the building or touch the books.
  2. There are a lot of terrible sources available in library databases and on library shelves.
  3. Students will stick with what they know.
  4. Topic selection is difficult and stressful, and can be a barrier to student success on research assignments.
  5. Sometimes, it’s trying to do the right thing that leads students to do the wrong thing.
  6. Teachers and librarians have had experiences with (and built up a body of knowledge about) research and information that their students have not.

I’m going to dig into this more tomorrow, I think but for now – what do these things have to do with the rules above?

The faculty member present thing – probably nothing.  I agree that an active, involved faculty member makes my sessions better.  But I also have a lot of faculty at this point I’ve been working with for a long time — if someone I’ve assignment-designed with, taught with and published with needs to go to a conference the same week that her students need the library, I’m going to say yes.

But the rest – the rest do relate.  Because basically, I don’t think that a thrown-together research assignment, a mediocre research assignment, or a research assignment that’s separate from the class and will never be talked about again is going to make my session better.

And when we’re thinking beyond my individual session — then, a bad research assignment is going to make things worse.  So at that point, I have a couple of options – do the session without one (which I’ve done) or say, “no thanks, not this term” (which I’ve also done).

Why do I think they make things worse?  Because there are implicit messages buried in each of those “bad assignment” characteristics — let’s revisit?

Assignments that require students to use, locate or manipulate a thing to be successful — and my library does not have that thing (or enough of that thing).

Subtext:  Libraries don’t have what you need.  And perhaps even worse – librarians don’t know what you need and cannot help you.

Assignments that require students to do a thing in an outdated or inefficient way.

Subtext: People who use libraries do so because they don’t know the best way to do things.

Or, as a colleague and I used to say “let’s teach them – whatever you do, DON’T use library resources!”  This actually came from an assignment that never happened.  We wanted students to get an overview of the topic before going to scholarly sources (as you do) and we thought we might be able to embed a discussion about the differences between traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia in the unit (yeah, yeah, it was 2005.  It was how we thought then).

We opened up our online Encyclopedia Brittanica, took a stack of student research logs, and started plugging in the words and phrases that they’d used in their initial searches.  And OMG were the results ever terrible.  We compared twenty-five student searches (because rigor) but we knew after five that we were never going to send people to the Brittanica because we’d be sending the implicit message – “whatever you do, DON’T use library resources.”

Assignments with no immediate payoff – that serve only an unknown future need.


Mis-matches — between assignment requirements and students’ cognitive development.
Mis-matches — between the assignment requirements and the audience/ rhetorical purpose of the assignment.

These are two different things, but the subtext I’m worried about is the same:  You have to use these sources, processes, and tools here in school, but once you graduate you’ll never use them again.

So what did I miss?  Plus, more to come.

If you don’t use peer-reviewed sources you’ll be SO grounded!

I have more writing to do right now than I have time, so it has of course become vitally important to write this blog post that has been buzzing at the back of my brain RIGHT NOW.

My life as a parent isn’t a big topic of conversation on this blog, but a little background is needed here.  One of the reasons I don’t talk much about my family in this space is because one of the complexities of adoption is learning how to talk about your experiences while respecting the fact that your child has her own story and her own experiences and only she gets to decide when and where and how to share that story.  Part of this journey is her story alone, part of it is ours.  And some of it is mine and Shaun’s – and this post is coming from that part.

So one of the things that happens when you navigate the adoption process is that you take way more classes and trainings about parenting than you probably otherwise would.  Some of these are to really learn things and some are to show how interested and committed you are to being a good parent.

This wasn’t an awful thing – if you’re like me (and like Shaun) you can find something to chew on in almost any class and these classes were full of enough brain development data and learning theory and interesting personalities that even when the classes didn’t totally work, the after-class conversations were pretty awesome.

Still, two almost identical Love and Logic classes was a lot, even for us.  Like many self-help-y or how-to-y type things that develop huge and devoted followings – L&L is based on some fairly simple ideas which are then applied in many ways.  In parenting-class world that means many, many sessions reinforcing the same basic concepts.  In taking-the-same-class-twice parenting class world, well…. this is a long intro to explain why my brain has had many hours to connect those simple concepts to many things.

milk spilled on a wood laminate countertopSo the basic premise of love and logic is grounded in the idea of natural consequences (and empathy, but this post is really more about the natural consequences part).

In other words, the idea is that kids learn best when they have to face the authentic, real, organic consequences of their choices.  Artificial consequences that aren’t connected to the choice the kid made (most routine punishments fit in this category — taking away TV privileges for breaking a window = consequences that are probably unrelated to the bad choice) just seem arbitrary and capricious and the kid ends up blaming you (or whoever imposed the consequence) instead of their own bad choices — which does nothing to teach them not to make bad choices in the first place.

Here’s the basic L&L mantra:

  1. Give your child a task you know they can handle.
  2. Hope they mess up.*
  3. Let empathy + natural consequences do the teaching.
  4. When the opportunity arises let them try again.

*Note:  the debater in me never came to terms with the “hope they mess up” part.  There were parents in my classes who really hated this line and who also hadn’t quite grasped the “learning comes from mistakes” piece.  I did grasp that part – that’s the part of this I like — but that doesn’t mean you have to actively hope they mess up.  I mean, take it to its logical conclusion.  If my kid never, ever, ever messes up — there’s no bad outcome.  Yes, they may not have learned from mistakes, but those mistakes also never happened so she either learned some other way or didn’t need that learning.  So I debate-proved to myself that I don’t have to actively hope she makes mistakes, I just have to be sure I see the value when she does.**

**Second Note: Seriously, we spent NINETY minutes on this concept in one class session.  It is not my fault I thought about it this much.

Like many of the simple ideas that turn into Something Big, this is a fairly compelling argument.  This was one of the pieces of Love and Logic that worked for me pretty well, which isn’t to say it all did – I have some real problems with some of the other concepts connected to this that I can go on about at length, but won’t here.

And while natural consequences is a L&L cornerstone, it’s by no means limited to that set of books and workshops — this is a concept with legs, that comes up over and over, generally as part of a larger idea that lecturing doesn’t work.

And I’ve been thinking about it in terms of library instruction.  And not just because we have an knee-jerk anti-lecture response at this point too.

I’ve been thinking about it because I think it highlights that we spend a LOT of our time “lecturing” – even if we do it with clickers.  Because lecturing in this context doesn’t mean just “talking,” “broadcasting” or other words that essentially mean “one-way communication” — which is generally what we mean by “lecturing” in the classroom context.

No, in this context, “lecturing” means explaining the consequences of bad choices instead of demonstrating them.  And I think we do that a lot.

Not in the steps — we do a good job of letting our students discover the consequences of choosing the wrong database, or choosing the wrong search terms — within the parameters we set up and the assumptions we’re making about what they need to know we have developed lots of ways to help them discover and learn for themselves.

No, I’m talking about in the big picture — in the WHY should they do these things at all part — that’s where we’re lecturing.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone raise this type of question on ILI-L —

“how can I convince my students that they really need to be using these sources?”


“how can I convince my students that there will be consequences if they don’t cite properly?”

And what’s the subtext here?  It’s — how can I convince my students not to make mistakes?

Because here’s the thing — our teaching in libraries is more similar to the type of teaching parents do than I ever thought it was.  Yes, parents can impose plenty of consequences themselves on the day to day level —  “no tv until you finish your homework” but the ultimate goal for most parents goes beyond finishing the homework tonight – they’re looking to raise up kids who can learn stuff, and who are organized to get stuff done and who can go off to college or out into the world and meet deadlines and achieve goals, and am I right?

And library instructors can impose some consequences when the students are actually in the library class – that’s basic classroom management stuff.  Yes, some are better at it than others and we never have the power that the grade book or the parental relationship gives – but we are in a position of some power in that context.  But that in-class power, that’s not the real goal.  We’re looking to teach skills and concepts that students can take with them out in to the “real world” and use to be successful and get stuff done — just like parents.

And this is also a reason why it’s not like regular classroom teaching.  The regular classroom has a more immediate set of primary goals than lifelong learning.  Yes, I suspect that many, many teachers have life long learning as a goal — I certainly did when I taught history.  But the fact that that was a primary goal for me was also a big reason why I stopped teaching history and went into libraries.

I expect that most teachers would prefer that their students cite sources properly in all of their classes. They have a commitment to producing good students in the major, and good graduates of the institution, but that doesn’t have to be their primary goal in a classroom interaction.  In my own class, I can say “two points off your grade for every MLA formatting mistake” and then I can MAKE THAT BE TRUE.*  I might hope that the impact of that is that they use MLA perfectly in their next class, but mainly, I don’t want to struggle through improperly formatted citations in the papers I have to grade.

*Note:  I do not ever do this.

So what are we doing when we say “how can I convince my students…. “?  We’re talking about consequences that we have no control over — we’re talking about those life consequences.  We’re talking about all of those things that we know because we have more life experience (and more college experience) and if they would just LISTEN to us they could avoid those mistakes. But here’s the thing – I think maybe we should be letting those happen.

And I think this not just because I think it would be good for the learning — I also think this because of what it would mean for us.

Take First Year Student X – coming into OSU with a gaudy 4.0 GPA from a decent high school, has never had any trouble at all getting A’s on her research papers using her favorite library sources — books and the online Encyclopedia Britannica.  She’s never read an academic journal and she thinks of “peer review” as trading papers with a classmate and making comments.

How much energy do I have to spend to “convince” her that she needs to use peer-reviewed sources in her college research papers?

Alternatively, what happens if this highly motivated, intelligent student turns in a paper sourced from the encyclopedia, her textbook, and some 15 year old monographs from the library’s stacks?  Probably two options — she gets negative feedback on her sources by her instructor or she doesn’t.

if she does?  She’s going to learn from her mistakes. And I can help her get where she needs to be much more effectively. If she doesn’t – then no amount of energy spent by a librarian to convince her that she REALLY needs to use different sources will make a difference.

Now see my first extra note above and don’t get me wrong – I don’t actually want my students to make mistakes. I would prefer they make the choices I would prefer they make. I think using a variety of interesting sources, including those that represent more than opinion or anecdote, is important and I want students to do that. I’m all for giving those students who are ready to learn to do things in a new way the information they need to do so.  What I am saying is that I think we’re spending a lot of energy in library instruction trying to ensure that all of our students won’t make mistakes when they do research — and that that’s counterproductive.

See, the thing that is the same about parenting is this – it makes a lot of sense to choose those places where your energy is best spent – and it’s just rarely best spent trying to convince your kid that consequences exist when he has never experienced them for himself.  To do this, you have to do a lot of thinking for him and spend a lot of time imposing rules and consequences he’s going to think are arbitrary.  And if you’re going to do that, shouldn’t you wait for a real life-or-death health and safety issue?  Especially when it is so much easier and so much more authentic to convince him that consequences exist after he has experienced them.

And the thing that is different than parenting is this – with the slight exception of natural adult-related authority and good classroom management skills, for us the whole ballgame is what our students do with our teaching after they leave us – whether we’re talking about transcendent information literacy teaching that leads to powerful reflective thinkers and lifelong learners — or just about skills that they can apply to do well on that paper that’s due next week — success or failure for us is hardly ever about what happens when they are in a room with us.  Some of the teaching parents do really is about making life at home, life in the family, better – in library instruction it’s always about making something, somewhere else better.

So I think we need to re-think our relationship to that somewhere else – connect our focus as teachers to what they’re learning, naturally and authentically out there — and not try and teach in advance in the classroom those things that life will teach them better.  And if they’re not learning what they need to from natural consequences, from authentic feedback and meaningful responses to their work — then we need to be working on that level, with their teachers and employers and mentors.

teaching, comics and autobiography

Last week, Kate and I spent some time at the OLA conference problematizing the “teacher” label, as it works in the context of library instruction.  So it was a little surprising that after coming home from Bend and then busting up to Portland, the main thing I wanted to buy at the Stumptown Comics Fest was all about teaching:

To Teach: The Journey, In Comics
William Ayers & Ryan Alexander Tanner
Teachers College Press

Stumptown was really excellent this year.  We brought the kiddo and introduced one of her friends to the experience — I kind of wanted to spend my whole time spying on them to see what they bought, but I restrained myself.  I haven’t been to many comics festivals, but I’ve heard that Stumptown is kind of unique.  Portland is a major creative center for comics, and a lot of the people showing are both local and national, if that makes sense.  It’s also very artist-writer-creator focused.  It’s not that there aren’t local comics publishers – there totally are and they’re present, but they don’t overwhelm the event as a celebration of all of the individual creativity that produces these works.

So, To Teach.  Written by William Ayers with art by Ryan Alexander-Tanner (but the process as depicted in the book itself was more collaborative than that implies).

We have a rule that we look at everything before buying and Stumptown is still small enough to make that possible.

(Shaun totally broke the rule this year, though.  Just so you know)

The artist was off doing a “Teaching with Comics” panel when I went back to buy this book (I didn’t break the rule) so I don’t have a cool signature in my copy.  But if he had been there, this is what he would have looked like:

Creative Commons licensed by Ocean Yamaha at flickr.

But he has my money, which is the important thing. The book is a comics version of William Ayers’ memoir To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher. It’s deeply autobiographical, very opinionated and pretty inspiring.

For us in libraries, yes, much of it talks about the kind of deep knowledge of our students that we can’t get in the one-shot.  But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing here for us, even in that context.  Not just for credit course teachers, this book.

First, right up front there’s a big section on myths, and how myths about teaching can be destructive — this connects back to those posts from last year about hegemonic assumptions and many of the other insights in one of my other favorite teaching books — Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher.

These are the myths that must be slain:

  1. Kids today are worse than ever before
  2. Teachers always know what’s going on in the classroom
  3. The teacher’s work is to “save” the children
  4. Good teachers are good performers
  5. All children are above average (this one is about the idea that there is an average)
  6. Good teachers always know the material

Want to see how this all plays out in comics?  Here’s a little sample of the art.

(There’s more at the TCP link above)

Chapters include ideas about how to really “see” students, building learning environments, assessment, what curricula is good for (and what it isn’t), and teaching/learning as a constant cycle.  Woven throughout is the idea that autobiography is a crucial lens for the teacher.

Two more pieces really jumped out at me thinking about the library context — one piece directly from the interviews Kate and I have been thinking about — the role of self-criticism in improvement.  Ayers says that if we’re never self-critical then we can’t improve.  That makes sense.  He also says that if we’re too self-critical then we become “powerless and timid.”

That also makes a lot of sense.  One of the things that Kate and I talked about at the Information Literacy Summit a couple of years ago was how much responsibility we take on to ourselves as library teachers.  We asked for stories in that long-ago project and one of our prompts was “tell us about a situation that haunts you.”  We got so many stories about situations way beyond that which any individual could control, but threading through much of it was the sense that those situations are always salvageable, if only we’re flexible, or prepared, or quick-witted enough.

So yes, self-criticism good – in moderation.

The other piece that struck me as especially useful to think about was about the broader environment — the school.  This was presented in a series of panels about “good schools”

  • Good schools are geared toward continuous improvement
  • Good schools are powered by core values that are explicit, apparent, and embodied in daily life.
  • Good schools have high expectations for all learners.  Students feel nourished and challenged in the same gesture.
  • Good schools are always unique: Each is the creation of particular people working to bring their vision to life in classrooms.
  • Good schools are places where lots of good teachers have been gathered together and allowed to teach.

These ideas are important, I think, because it can be easy to feel disconnected in library instruction — we have volumes of literature and mountains of conversation about this in terms of the library’s relationship to the college or the university.  But I also think this is worth talking about in terms of the library.  Libraries aren’t schools, but they do provide a context that shapes the teaching experience.  I know there are academic libraries that have explicit, apparent, embodied in daily life core values that inform and nourish library teaching — but I don’t know that I think all of them do.  I’m not sure what that means, but I do think it’s worth thinking about.

So, I’m still poking at the “teacher” label in my mind and in conversations with others – which is I think entirely consistent with this book, and the others like it that push us to question the assumptions underlying those labels, and to do what we do when “teaching” intentionally and critically.

What I am doing TOMORROW

Today I’m just going to a board meeting and a party.  One will probably be more fun than the other, but neither makes a good topic for a post.

Tomorrow, though, Kate and I are presenting about teaching and identity and stress and training and coaching.  We’re hoping for an interesting conversation.

Here’s the Storify of supplementary materials, as it exists now.  It may get longer yet after we talk through it again (but it won’t get shorter).

[View the story “Can we really do it all? OLA Conference 2012” on Storify]

Peer-Reviewed Friday: Either/or edition
AS in “hard skills” or “soft skills”

Or, to dig down a little deeper to another question — “teaching” or “training”

So, I have been working with a friend on a presentation building on some interviews we did with instruction librarians a couple of years ago.  Some of you might have participated.

(If you did – hi!)

We’re not talking about everything that was in those interviews, just a piece of them, and that piece wasn’t the main focus.  But talking to many instruction librarians got us thinking about the many ways that we frequently feel like we come up short in what we do — whether that’s because we’re not connected enough to the curriculum, or haven’t developed the relationships we feel we need with faculty, or because of the one-shot environment, or … you get the idea.

One thought that came up while we were doing the initial interviews, and that came rushing back as we reviewed them all over the last few months, was the concept of teaching itself and how it differs from other things — training, coaching, tutoring, and so on.  I’ve wondered off and on over the years why our discourse in instruction librarianship is so focused on teaching, with all of the associated metaphors and assumptions and baggage that come with that? And I wonder if part of why I do hear a lot of stress and anxiety (and joy and passion too) from instruction librarians can be traced back to situations where we are “teaching” but what we are doing doesn’t match on an identity level (when we self-identify as “teachers”).

So I’ve been looking at other literatures and today I want to talk about a 2011 article from Human Resource Development Quarterly.  It’s totally locked up behind a paywall, which is neither surprising nor awesome, but I want to figure out how it fits with my other thoughts – and I do that best through my fingers.  So I’m going to use it anyway:

Laker, D., & Powell, J. (2011). The differences between hard and soft skills and their relative impact on training transfer Human Resource Development Quarterly, 22 (1), 111-122 DOI: 10.1002/hrdq.20063

That’s some title, right?  Really sucks you in.

The article’s premise is that transfer of skills (from the training environment to the work environment) is the end goal of training  — and that one reason it works sometimes and doesn’t work other times is the content, or type of skill, being taught.

Let’s start with the first part of that premise – the idea that transfer is the goal.

…training transfer is defined as the extent to which what is learned in training is applied on the job and enhances job-related performance.

So, do we agree that that is really the goal of most library instruction?  I mean, obviously we need to substitute for “on the job” and “job-related performance” but at its heart, don’t we hope that what we teach in the library classroom can and will be applied in other environments — in the classroom, in the library, in the residence halls, etc.?

And when I said this, I am primarily thinking about those settings that aren’t the traditional credit class.   I’m picturing the one-shot, the desk encounter, or the workshop.

Taking that as an initial starting point, it seems like it is useful to look at what we know about why that doesn’t happen — in the training environment.

The research method in this article is a little squishy — it’s kind of like a review article, but not really systematic or formal in its method.  The authors mainly synthesize other research being done and their conclusions are drawn from that synthesis.  I’m okay with this because 1. it’s an approach designed to create a good article for a newbie to read and 2. because the claims being made are similarly soft — they aren’t claiming to draw any overwhelming conclusions, but instead hoping that to….

…serve in generating a discussion that the content of training, specifically the differences between soft- and hard-skills training, can have a significant impact on training transfer.

(n.b. I am not at all an expert in this literature so I really can’t evaluate the claim that this isn’t currently part of the discussion.)

The authors then summarize how these different skill types are defined in the literature:

  • Hard skills – “technical skills that involve working with equipment, data, software, etc.”
  • Soft skills – “intrapersonal skills such as one’s ability to manage oneself as well as interpersonal skills such as how one handles one’s interactions with others.”

(Remember, this is coming out of the field of human resource management)

So here’s where it gets interesting – well, to me.  Anyway, I went into this assuming that the typical one-shot, or Zotero workshop, or database walkthrough at the reference desk would fit into the “hard skills” category and that that is where I would find the utility in the article.

But that’s not what happened.

The basic argument of the paper is this – that training efforts designed to teach soft skills are much less likely to result in transfer than training focused on hard skills AND that one of the reasons for this are the differences between these types of skills.

(It seems obvious, but they also argue that these two parts of the training discourse are largely separate – that those who teach soft skills never teach hard skills and vice versa.  That makes all kinds of sense, so maybe this gap really is as wide as they suggest)

Anyway, they go through a long discussion of the differences between hard and soft skills and this is where I really saw the conenctions to library instruction — not in the discussion(s) of hard skills, but in the way they talked about soft skils.  Most of the reasons they suggested for why soft-skill-training doesn’t result in transfer match up clearly to reasons why instruction librarians are frustrated with the one-shot.

So let’s look at some of those reasons –

Prior learning and experience

Basically, this is the argument that when people come in to learn hard skills, it’s usually because they don’t know how to do something.  When they come into learn soft skills, they already have some ways of doing the thing being trained (talking to people from different cultures, keeping their temper… doing research?).  They’re supposed to be learning how to do it more instead of how to do it at all.  This means the trainer has to deal with baggage – with people who don’t think they need the training, or who have already-developed strategies that actually bad – that need to be re-learned.

Trainee Resistance

Obviously, the first factor is also a contributor to this one.  But the piece of this one that really jumped out at me was this —

…with technical training, learning typically decreases the anxiety and uncertainty involved in the performance of the task.

Seriously, right?  When we focus on finding sources, are we remotely dealing with the part of the “task” that is actually giving them the most anxiety?  Hmmmm….

Organizational Resistance to Transfer

Oh boy, this is a good one.  The argument here is that with soft skills (and remember, in this context these are mostly people skills) the organizational culture is actually at least partly responsible for why people have the skills they do now.  So training them to change is almost inherently going to bump up against those institutional realities.  So this might be talking about people skills but I think it also really describes a reality of library instruction – the research habits and assumptions they bring into the classroom are being shaped by the classes they’ve already taken, are taking, and may also clash with classes they are yet to take.

Managerial Support and Resistance

This one is actually my favorite.  Not because I think faculty who bring their classes to the library are usually disposed to resist, but its the way they described this that jumped out at me:

With soft skills, it is very likely that the trainee will look to the manager as a role model, as a coach, or for subsequent reinforcement.

I think this is totally going on with library instruction.  So many of our interview subjects talked about library sessions where they have a real, deep, partnership with the course instructor as their ideal for a “good day as a teacher.”  I think our students DO want mentorship and modeling from their faculty members — and I think they’re not getting it.  Not because the faculty member doesn’t want to provide support — they’re bringing the students to the library – that’s supportive!  No, because many of the faculty don’t see what they’re asking the students to do as being the same thing they do.  And it’s not.  And maybe that’s a problem.

Identification of Training Needs and Objectives

For many of our interviewees, the term “one-shot” connotes “trying to teach everything.”  That connects to this factor really closely – it’s basically the idea that it’s way harder to figure out what people don’t know when it comes to soft skills.  The next few items build this idea out more, but this quotation might also resonate:

With hard skills, the trainee is taught on a need-to-know basis, whereas with soft-skill training the trainee is usually taught on a good-to-know basis.

The Immediacy and Salience of Feedback and Consequences

The thing with hard skills is this – there’s usually just one way to do it, and if you don’t do step 1 right, you can’t do step 2.  So the feedback you get is immediate and very salient.  But neither of those things are true about soft skills.  So its really hard for people to get the kind of feedback they need to know if they’ve mastered them.

Degree of Similarity Between Training, Work and Work Environments

This is another really good one.  If you’re training someone to use a machine, it’s usually easy to really accurately mirror the work environment in the training environment.  If you’re training someone to do something that can happen in all kinds of places, sparked by all kinds of events, and follow all kinds of paths — how do you build an authentic training environment?  This quotation really jumped out at me:

Soft-skill trainers usually respond to this dilemma with one of two extremes.  Either they oversimplify the situation and thus lose realism, or they maintain the situation’s potential richness and in the process overwhelm the trainee.

Yikes. I can tell you for sure – we worry about this.  A lot.

So there are a few more factors, but these are the ones that felt really relevant to me and, let’s face it, this post is already epic.

But I think it’s important to think about this fact — the initial premise of this paper is that these are reasons why soft-skill training usually doesn’t work.  And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a training-like environment is how we in libraries are trying to teach things similarly complex a lot of the time.

Tutorials redux: the journey from blog post to article

An article that I wrote with my colleague Hannah Gascho Rempel just appeared in the new Communications in Information Literacy. It outlines some of our ideas about tutorial creation.  For those who like continuity in academic writing, the pre-cursors to this article appeared in this space here and here.

And these ideas formed the backbone of this presentation (in our institutional repository).


Share and Share Alike: Barriers and Solutions to Tutorial Creation and Management