A Look Back at a Year in Advising

As the semester draws to a close, I’ve begun to reflect seriously on my first year as a freshman advisor through Creighton’s Ratio Studiorum Program. What were may successes? Where were my missteps? What can I improve as I prepare for a new group of freshmen in the 2014-2015 academic year? I could probably write a novella about the experiences, but instead I’ll leave you with some bullet points.

Missteps:

  • Share, but don’t over share – This is really difficult. As an advisor, you want to help students avoid some major pitfalls. Learning to do this without sharing too much personal information or college stories I found very, very difficult. A fellow librarian pointed out early on in the fall semester that by over sharing I may be unintentionally blurring the line between instructor and friend. Because I’m not their friend; I’m their instructor and advisor. I need to work on this for the new year.
  • My students are not me – The problems and challenges I faced as a student are not the same as the ones my students face. The same can be said for what came easily to me. This may seem obvious to some, but as I grew comfortable with my students, it was difficult to draw this distinction. Over time, I improved at this. When students asked about Greek life, studying abroad, or classes at Wisconsin, I began to give the response, “You can’t compare my experiences at Wisconsin to yours at Creighton. They are two completely different schools in almost every way imaginable.” They seemed to accept this. As they grew accustomed to Creighton, they understood this more.
  • Effective assignment design – So I’m instructor now… I guess I need to create graded assignments? I had a nonchalant attitude about this at the start of the semester and by the time I recognized this, it was too late. I will be applying what I learned at Immersion and various campus professional development workshops to my next class.

Successes:

  • Building community with students – An essential goal of the course is building community to retain students at Creighton. I believe I accomplished this. From day one I tried to build a comfortable, safe classroom environment for my students. Our candid discussions about roommates, mental health, alcohol, diversity, and becoming an independent adult reflect this. I see it when I pass a student on the mall and they’re with another classmate.
  • Building community with faculty – Librarians at Creighton do not have faculty status. One of my goals in becoming a Preceptor was to build stronger relationships with faculty and academic staff across the College of Arts and Sciences. Since I’m nearing the conclusion of my second year at the University, relationship building remains an essential part of my job. Teaching RSP allowed me to meet faculty in and out of my liaison areas and strengthened existing relationships, evidence of which can be seen in the Library’s instructional programming.
  • “Can you help my friend?” – Being as an advisor made me a little nervous. I had to learn the curriculum and campus resources quickly. There were definitely some rough spots, but I knew I had done my job well when my students began bringing in friends with their advising questions. I’d be sitting at my desk, when one of my students would walk in with a friend who had an advising question. They brought them to me because they valued my advise. An advisor’s goal is the success of their students, which aligns perfectly with the Library’s mission. It was a perfect marriage between my goals as a librarian and instructor/advisor.

It has been an incredibly rewarding experience both professionally and personally. My love for teaching and working with students increased exponentially. I’ll continue to work at it, learning as I go. Modeling lifelong learning for my students as their instructor, their advisor, and their reference librarian.

Low Instruction Numbers Call for More Aggressive Outreach

As the semester draws to its end, I find myself compiling instruction statistics. While the College of Arts and Science is undergoing a core curriculum revision, which will integrate an information literacy learning outcome into a required course, the current core curriculum lacks such a requirement. There have been two courses which represent our instructional program’s bread and butter – Ratio Studiorum Program (RSP) and Civic Engagement through Public Communication (COM 152).

COM 152 is a speech course that the majority of students take to fulfill a core requirement. This fall, I taught 11 of the 12 sections (92%) of COM 152. This percentage is higher than last fall, which was only 58%. Anecdotally, I attribute the rise to two factors. The first is that I began working at Creighton two days before the start of the Fall 2012 semester; I imagine some instructors hesitated to contact me because of this. The second is that word of mouth of my instruction spread. I know this is true for two instructors who I taught for in the Spring 2013 and Fall 2013 semesters. They told me an information literacy session was recommended by another faculty member. All in all, I’m pleased with the improvement in the raw numbers for this course.

RSP is a required one credit course for freshmen. It focuses on advising, acclimating students to collegiate level academics, and introducing students to Jesuit values taught at Creighton. This fall, librarians taught only 20 of the 49 sections (41%) in the College of Arts and Sciences. The reverse occurred in Fall 2012 when 22 of 39 sections (58%) had an encounter with library instruction. This decrease unsettles me.

I analyzed these numbers to see if there are any patterns or conclusions to draw. Here is what I found:

  • More sections of RSP were taught in Fall 2013 to allow for smaller class sizes
  • Over half of the instructors who taught in Fall 2012 and requested library instruction did not teach a section in Fall 2013
  • No faculty members abandoned ship – if a faculty member requested instruction in Fall 2012, they also requested it in Fall 2013
  • There doesn’t seem to be a pattern in faculty members by department who did or did not request instruction. Notably high departments who did not request instruction for Fall 2013 were Modern Languages and Chemistry

I’d like to note that I’m a firm believer that correlation does not equal causation, but I still see the value in examining observations and data to find patterns that may lead to further research.

I expect numbers to fluctuate each year; however, I have designed instruction for COM 152 to scaffold from instruction in RSP. Information literacy instruction in RSP focuses on Bloom’s lower level skills. We teach students the building blocks of research and show them the various resources the library owns. COM 152 focuses almost exclusively on evaluation and analysis of sources. Perhaps this scaffolded approach is not appropriate if information literacy instruction in RSP is reaching only 40-60% of students?

One of the biggest disappointments in the lowered numbers is that as an instructor for a section of RSP this Fall semester I seemed to have failed at recruiting more faculty requests for instruction. Not only was I at all of the instructor meets, networking with faculty, but I also presented multiple times to the faculty. I believed this would encourage more faculty to utilize our instructional program, but this did not happen.

Perhaps our liaisons, myself included, need to encourage faculty to bring their sections to the library more aggressively. Another idea emerged from teaching a section instructed by a Chemistry faculty member. He showed high interest in RefWorks and wanted me to teach his students about it. I typically don’t mention RefWorks during instruction for RSP. Maybe we need to appeal more to the interests of each faculty member’s discipline. For example, the faculty in the sciences may request sessions if we advertise teaching how to use RefWorks and the differences between primary and secondary sources.

With the new core curriculum beginning in Fall 2014, this all may be needless extrapolation. The information literacy outcome imposed on one of the new core courses poses promise for the future of the instructional program. What the Library needs to do going into the future is try to emphasize the partnering of faculty with librarians to achieve this outcome. I know there will be faculty who choose to go at it alone, but it is our job to show that we can be collaborators with them to help their students learn how to become information literate students.

It has occurred to me that I’m putting a lot of emphasis on “usage” numbers. Student outcomes are the most important assessment piece when dealing with information literacy. If students are not learning anything, then the library is failing. But in order to teach students, we need to get them inside the doors, whether physically or virtually.

The Higher Education Labyrinth

In my new role as advisor to about a dozen incoming freshmen at Creighton, I’m witnessing a group of 17 and 18 year old students navigating the labyrinth that is higher education for the first time. I’m walking them through the process of course selection, registration, and the frustration that comes when all the sections of Spanish 101 are filled. I find myself explaining that it’s unrealistic to expect you can have Fridays off your first semester of college. I find myself wondering how the process felt when I was going through it.

I’m trying to re-imagine my time as a freshman, knowing very little about registering for classes, core requirements, and how to build a schedule that wouldn’t drive me insane. At the University of Wisconsin, Summer Orientation, Advising, and Registration (SOAR) was a program offered by the University to help acclimate students to campus life and culture at Madison in the weeks before the start of the semester. As a student coming from Pennsylvania, I decided not to attend SOAR. In exchange, I received a 4 hour power orientation and advising session 2 days before classes began. The actual advising portion lasted about an hour. The first half included an overview of the core curriculum and the second half included a one-on-one meeting with either a “real” advisor or a student advisor. I had the student advisor and the advise I got as an undecided student was to take whatever classes interested me because they were likely to hit a handful of the core requirements. Oh, and don’t take calculus unless it’s required, which puzzled me because even today I cannot imagine anyone wanting to take calculus as an elective.

The whole process reminds me of an important obstacle information literacy and instruction librarians often face – convincing faculty that their students need to be taught how to research. Librarians often argue that one of the reasons for this obstacle is that faculty cannot remember learning how to research. It has become such a habit of mind that the starting point is lost to them and they can no longer see the value that students can gain from a library session.

Navigating higher education

Navigating higher education

I never gave that reasoning too much weight, but I get it now. As I was helping my incoming freshmen, I realized I was becoming frustrated that they didn’t understand the process. But when I took a step back, I thought about how many times I’ve registered for classes – upwards of 12 times throughout my academic career. I know how to navigate the system. I have the map to the labyrinth of higher education, and they don’t even know that such a map exists. Once I realized this, I think I became more helpful and attuned to their needs. Through self-reflection, I became a better advisor and teacher.

Sometimes we all just need a little reminder of where it all began and how far we’ve come.

Librarian, Instructor, Advisor: Decision 1 of Many to Follow

On top of my summer library projects, which include a redesign of Reinert Library’s modular online tutorial, I will be preparing to teach my first credit-bearing course. In an effort to expand the reach of the information literacy program at Creighton University, I volunteered to be a faculty preceptor for the Ratio Studiorum Program (RSP) at Creighton. RSP 101 introduces freshmen to academic life in the College of Arts & Sciences at Creighton. In addition to teaching students about the value of a liberal arts education and the Jesuit mission, I will also be the students’ advisor until they declare their major.

It should come as no surprise that as a reference and instruction librarian I find teaching to be the most rewarding and gratifying aspect of my job. Unfortunately, with the exception of institutions that teach a credit-bearing information literacy course, librarians rarely have the opportunity to teach outside the one-shot format. While RSP 101 is not an information literacy course, there is a good bit of flexibility built into it. In addition to my teaching style and preferred teaching strategies, I can personalize my section through a book or series of articles.

Playing to the age-old stereotype of the bookish librarian, I spent a healthy amount of time attempting to pick the perfect book. Since RSP 101 is a one-credit course, the recommended length is 200 pages, which narrows the pool considerably. I was also advised to choose a book that both engages students and plays to my research interests. The information field offers plenty of interesting options, but I struggled imagining 18 year-old students feeling the same enthusiasm for The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains or The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption as I do. One could argue that given the academic nature of the course, students don’t have to love the book, but I also don’t want students to look at the class as just another boring requirement. So after staring at my bookshelves for what felt like an eternity, I landed on Peter Rock’s My Abandonment

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My Abandonment by Peter Rock

Perhaps an unconventional choice, but let me explain. The goal of critical thinking skills inherent in information fluency is transferability. We want students to use the search skills we teach them across multiple platforms, not just an EBSCO or ProQuest interface. We want to teach them how to critically evaluate all types of information, not just a website or scholarly article. My Abandonment is inspired by the true story of a girl and her father who lived in Forest Park in Portland. Rock has created a beautiful and gripping coming of age tale from the newspaper stories that emerged upon their discovery. I envision using this novel as a gateway for students to think about how we interact with information, both available and missing, in our daily lives to draw inferences and create knowledge in the world around us. Fiction is not a popular option for RSP 101 texts. I chose fiction because just as dystopian literature can help young adults understand difficult social issues, I believe that fiction can generate questions and conversations in more profound ways than nonfiction.

Choosing a text is just one of the many pedagogical decisions I’ll have to make this summer. I look forward to developing the class and the opportunities it will allow for experimentation with different teaching strategies and tools. I am particularly interested in utilizing the flipped classroom model. Developing a class, mastering the College of Arts & Sciences curriculum, and advising approximately 12 students will not only challenge me  as a teacher, but I also envision it as an exciting opportunity to demonstrate one of the many ways in which the library can help serve the students (and faculty) at Creighton.