The problem with context

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

— Anne of the Island (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

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

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


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

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

Story 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story 2

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again with curiosity (Library Instruction West 2014)

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

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

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

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

Download the slides (PDF)

Download the slides + presenter notes (PDF)

Session handout

Take the Curiosity Self Assessment

Scoring Guide to the Curiosity Self Assessment


Guest Post! Speed friending in the Library

This is a guest post from my awesome colleague Laurie Bridges.  She’s been working hard over the last couple of years to expand and improve our outreach, instruction and programming for our very quickly growing international student population.

Laurie said that she had written up a lengthy description of her most recent innovation – a speed-friending event in the library that brings international students together with students from the U.S., so I asked her if she’d be willing to post it here.  She was, so here it is.


Librarian Laurie Bridges looking straight into the camera and smiling

Laurie Bridges, OSU Libraries & Press

Speed Friending!
Co-sponsored by the Valley Library & INTO OSU
Laurie Bridges (OSUL&P) and Mary Hughes (INTO OSU)

By Laurie Bridges, Instruction & Emerging Technologies Librarian

What we did

Approximately one year ago, I was passing through our University’s Memorial Union when I saw a poster advertising “Speed Friending.” The title, but none of the details, got lodged in my brain. Months later, while working with international students and listening to their stories, an idea popped into my head, “International students are in our library…maybe speed-friending would help them connect with domestic students.” I floated the idea by a few people, including Anne-Marie. Everyone I spoke with was supportive of the idea

(Note: it probably helped that our library’s strategic plan includes working toward “building community” within the library.)

To gather more information, and hopefully a plan, I contacted the Memorial Union to find out who had sponsored the speed-friending event the previous year. The staff looked through their calendar, and found no record of it. I then went online and googled “speed-friending” where I found a few mentions of the idea, some advertisements, but no information about how to organize and run such an event. Despite this setback, I mentioned the idea to a program manager at INTO OSU (our international English language program), Mary Hughes, and she was incredibly enthusiastic about the idea. We collaborated on the first event winter term, and held a second event spring term.

We plan to continue with one speed-friending event each term. In addition, the College of Business and the College of Engineering are meeting with Mary and I this summer, and may possibly host speed-friending events for their domestic and international students in the fall.

The most difficult part of the event is getting American students to register and then finding the “hook” to get them there; this is in large part why we offer free pizza and host the event in the evening around dinner time.

Why it matters

Libraries are often viewed as “safe” spaces on college and university campuses; they are spaces where students of all backgrounds come together to study and socialize. Libraries can and should have a role in helping students create an inclusive campus environment. We should all take steps to help prevent misunderstanding and create cultural bridges in our libraries.

After the jump

The rest of this post is my “brain dump” about the events, organizing, planning, and assessing. Hopefully this will help more campuses and librarians organize their own speed-friending events and improve on the format and structure we have created.

(And please, send any ideas you have for improvement: Laurie.Bridges @

students sitting on either side of a long, rectangular table laughing and talking

Photo courtesy of INTO OSU (Facebook)

Continue reading

Shiny! Our new outreach cart

Our new outreach cart

Our new outreach cart

You know how to brighten up the Friday of Dead Week?  Getting your new outreach cart delivered to your office!  Even better? Getting it hand-delivered by the senior Engineering students who designed and built it from scratch with their own hands!

We were inspired in part by the Mobile Library cart at Claremont colleges. The initial inspiration came from the small group we have exploring makerspaces and maker culture.  That group is headed up by my colleague Margaret, who really deserves most of the credit fort this project.  She developed the initial plan and proposal here, and talked to people all over the library to figure out all of our requirements.  We found out that the OSU Press unit had an interest in it as an outreach tool, a number of our teaching librarians would use it to participate in outreach events around campus as well as the the Maker group, which has plans to do popup maker spaces.

Display area in front, storage in back

Students in the School of  Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at OSU complete a Senior Capstone design project. They choose from a pool of projects that have been submitted, and then work in groups with the clients who submitted the projects to bring the final product to life.  Margaret created the proposal for this cart and submitted it to the school for consideration.  We were lucky enough to have one of the groups choose our project.  Margaret met with them throughout the process, answering questions as they came up and managing the sometimes complicated financial end of things (we paid for the project out of the research and project fund attached to my professorship).

Battery + power

You can see the display area across the front for Press books, 3-D printed objects, or whatever.  It’s lockable, if needed.

There’s a battery in there too.  It has power enough to run a laptop, and to support the maker activities.  Although, we were told that its ability to run a hair dryer for long “depends on the hair dryer.”

It’s waterproof.  We are in western Oregon after all.  The students tested it by pouring water on it for several minutes – to simulate a steady and significant rain.

Along the back side, there’s a storage drawer and a pretty significant storage cupboard for maker materials, extra books, a laptop, the 3-D printer – whatever is needed.

I’m so excited – they did such a great job. And it’s pretty cool to have something to support learning that was itself the product of a significant learning experience.  But, at the end of the day, the best part of the whole thing is always getting to meet the students.  Because they’re awesome.  And this is a public thank-you to Margaret for making it happen and for including me in that part of it.

What? So What? Now What?

So I was at the First-Year Experience conference in San Diego a couple of weeks ago.  There were many highlights — starting with a conference that is actually in my time zone, to my excellent walking commute —

View of the Little Italy sign in San Diego, California

Walking commute from Little Italy to the conference hotel

— to the views from the conference hotel.

View towards the harbor from the Manchester Grant Hyatt in San Diego

trust me, this wasn’t even one of the best ones

Another highlight came in a late session by Catherine Sale Green and Kevin Clarke from the University 101 program at the University of South Carolina.  I wasn’t the only OSU person at this conference (far from it).  After I got back to campus, I was helping Ruth, who coordinates our FYE, with an info session for faculty thinking of applying to teach FYS next year and she started to say “what? so what….” and I finished with “now what” – because while it was a content-rich session, that short phrase was probably the most memorable part of it.


It’s a guide to help students with reflective writing. Three simple questions to answer.

So what?

It probably won’t shock anyone to know that I find reflective writing pretty easy. It’s a reason this blog exists, and definitely a reason for the tagline. While the actual writing of some reflective documents (teaching philosophies, anyone?) kills me as dead as anyone, the how and the why of reflective writing has never been difficult for me.

Honestly, when I realized that it doesn’t come easily for every one (or even for most people) I started to feel more than a little narcissistic.  I realized that pretty quickly once I started teaching — I’d assign the kinds of reflective writing prompts I used to see in classes, and I’d get back papers where the students really struggled with trying to figure out the right answers, or what I wanted to hear, but that lacked any real reflection of their own thinking.  The problem is, when you’ve never had to (ahem) reflect on how to do something or why to do it — it’s super hard to figure out how to help people who are struggling.

What I like about these three questions is how they start with something relatively simple — description is usually straightforward — what happened, what did you do, what did you notice, what did you learn, and so forth.  But they don’t let students end there.  They push to more complex analysis — why does that thing matter?  And then they push beyond that to something equally challenging (what does it mean for you) that, if students do it successfully, will also demonstrate the value of reflection or metathinking itself.

Now what?

(Wikimedia Commons)

Well, here’s the thing – I will undoubtedly teach credit courses again and when I do I will undoubtedly assign reflective writing.  So this is going to help me there, in its intended context I have no doubt

But I also think this is a fantastic way to think about the process of analyzing and evaluating information.  We all know I don’t like checklists when it comes to teaching evaluating.  Truthfully, I’ll argue against any tool that tries to make a complex thing like evaluation simple (seriously – it’s at the top of some versions of Bloom’s! The top!)

And I’ll argue against any tool or trick that suggests you can evaluate all types of information the same way without context and without… yes… reflection, on your own needs, your own message, and your own rhetorical situation.  That’s my problem with checklists.  At best, they are useful tools to help you describe a thing.

An example — the checklist asks, “who’s the author?”  The student answers – William Ripple.  That’s descriptive, nothing more.  But think about it with all three questions.

Some rights reserved by Gouldy99 (flickr)

What?  The author of this article is William Ripple.

So what? Pushed to answer this question – the student will have to do some additional research.  They will find that William Ripple is on the faculty of OSU’s College of Forestry, and the director of the Trophic Cascades program.  He has conducted original research and authored or co-authored dozens of articles examining the role of large predators in ecological communities.

Now what? This question pushes the student to consider their own needs — what they’re trying to say, who they’re trying to convince and what type of evidence that audience will find convincing.

Now, move away from that fairly obvious checklist item and let’s consider a more complicated one, bias.

I’ve linked here before to this old but still excellent post explaining why identifying bias is not evaluation.  And yet, we all know that this is still where a lot of students are in their analysis — they want facts, bias is a reason to reject a source. But bias is no different than author – identifying it, being able to describe it, that’s not evaluation.

What?  I actually think this one could be a step forward in itself — instead of just saying a source is biased, a good answer will specify what that bias is, and what the evidence for it is.

So what? This could push a student to consider how that bias affects the message/argument/ validity of the piece.

Now what? And this is the real benefit — what does this mean for me? How does this bias affect my use of the source, how will my audience read it, how might it help me/ hinder me as I communicate my message?

Now, of course, a student could answer the questions “this source is biased, that matters because I need facts, so I will throw it out and look for something that says what I already believe.”  That could still happen.  And probably will sometimes.  But I like the idea of teaching evaluation as a reflective process, grounded in a rigorous description and examination of a source.

FYE Conference – notes and links

ETA – Presentation slides (they’re image heavy, and only moderately helpful, but here they are)

Information Literacy

Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once they Enter College. Alison Head/ Project Information Literacy. December 2013. (PDF)

The Citation Project Pilot study. Howard, Rebecca Moore, Tanya K. Rodrigue, and Tricia C. Serviss. “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences.” Writing and Pedagogy 2.2 (Fall 2010): 177-192.

Rempel, H. G., Buck, S., & Deitering, A. M. (2013). Examining Student Research Choices and Processes in a Disintermediated Searching Environment. portal: Libraries and the Academy. 13(4), 363-384.

Kim, K. S., & Sin, S. C. J. (2007). Perception and selection of information sources by undergraduate students: effects of avoidant style, confidence, and personal control in problem-solving.The Journal of Academic Librarianship. 33(6), 655-665. (Elsevier paywall)


Curiosity Self-Assessment  – try it yourself!

Scoring Guide

Based on:
by Jordan A. Litman & Mark V. Pezzo (2007). In Personality and Individual Differences 43 (6): 1448–1459.
by Jordan A. Litman & Charles D. Spielberger (2003) in Journal of Personality Assessment 80 (1) (February): 75–86.
by Robert P. Collins, Jordan A. Litman & Charles D. Speilberger (2004) in Personality and Individual Differences 36 (5): 1127-1141


What we used in FYC:

WR 121 LibGuide

Science Daily


Twitter (for example: @HarvardResearch, @ResearchBlogs, @ResearchOSU)

Creating an embeddable twitter timeline (we are using the List Timeline option)

Mapping OSU Research – Google map

7 Ways to Make a Google Map Using Google Spreadsheets.  Note: ours is made by hand right now – but there might be interest in these options.

Other possibilities:

Newsmap — treemap style visualization of Google News.

Tiki-Toki — timeline generator

TimelineJS (integrated with Google Spreadsheets)

Good Library Assignments – The Outcome

So remember when I said that the 3-part Good Library Assignments brain dump was in preparation of a workshop? That was true.

And I’ve done the workshop a few times now and I’ve completed the accompanying materials.  Both of these are (obviously) intended for a faculty-librarian audience and both are entirely shareable.

There’s a LibGuide.  This was created as the “further reading” site for the workshop. It includes that information, as well as the slides and a transcript from the actual presentation.

Effective Research Assignments – LibGuide

There’s also a WordPress site where you can find sample assignments. Many of these are from Catherine Pellegrino and the awesome people at Saint Mary’s College.

Sample Assignments

Shameless begging – if you know of/ have used an activity or assignment that reflects these principles, would you share it?  I’ll totally be your best friend.