Dear Faculty, I Get It Now

Dear Faculty,

I never understood. What’s one class period? You’ve always said you want your students to produce the best research papers possible. When your students submit papers with only an assortment of open web sources, you shrugged your shoulders, deducted points, and said, “Well, they should have known better.” But how could they include appropriate, scholarly sources when they know neither what they are nor where to find them?

But I get it now. I’ve spent time in the trenches. My one credit class that meets only 50 minutes a week overflows with content. I struggled to fit in the time. But I did. Granted, I had the advantage of being able to disperse the content throughout the course and not in a one-shot session, but I did it. You can too! Even in your three credit course that meets 2 and half hours a week.

Break the mold of the one-shot session. Embed a librarian into your CMS. Invite the librarian for 15-20 minute segments throughout the semester. Partner with a librarian in way that is meaningful for your class. Don’t just say, “I don’t have enough time.”

But I have now walked a small portion of your journey, and I can promise you this: The next time I hear that you don’t have enough time for librarians to teach information literacy skills, my eyes won’t roll quite as much.

Sincerely,

Your Friendly Instructional Services Librarian

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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.

Do We Need to Teach This?

As Reference and Instructional Services Librarian, a significant percentage of my work focuses on assessment. One of my favorite classes to teach as the social science liaison is Communication Studies 152: Civic Engagement through Public Communication. Throughout the semester students produce a series of informative, persuasive, and group speeches. Instructors encourage students to speak about topics that not only interest them, but that also engage with the current civic discourse.

Because topics generally focus on current issues, sources run the gamut from open web sources to scholarly articles. Most speeches utilize an array of government statistical sources, local newspaper articles, and scholarly, peer-reviewed material. On top of this breadth lies the fact that a majority of COM 152 students are freshmen, many of whom have never been exposed to college-level research or library databases. This leaves 50 minutes to teach students the information cycle, the difference between scholarly and popular, how to effectively use databases (and a wide variety of them, since topics can fall under any discipline), and how to critically evaluate the information they find. A daunting task, but one that instruction librarians regularly face.

Working with course instructors, information literacy librarians make tough decisions about what to teach and what not to teach on a daily basis. Creating clear, relevant, and measurable learning outcomes helps us prioritize and focus our learning objectives. Assessing these outcomes illustrates if students learn what we teach. We then close the assessment loop by using the results to inform our future teaching. But what do we do if the results continue to show students aren’t grasping a particular concept? We can incorporate different teaching techniques. We can ensure we’re teaching to various learning styles. We can develop different active learning exercises. In sum, we go back to the drawing board. We don’t give up. But how often do we take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is this a skill a students (still) need? Do we need to move on and focus our attention elsewhere?” After all, time is precious and we may be letting one piece distract us from the greater puzzle.

This spring I piloted a pre- and post-test assessment piece in four of the sections of COM 152. I learned a lot about the effectiveness of my teaching and how students conceptualize some of the material. The tests also revealed that students repeatedly failed to grasp the difference between keywords and subjects. A handful of conclusions can be drawn from the results, but I began to wonder if this was an essential skill for students in this course to master. A large portion of students’ sources (for better or worse) come from open web sources and newspapers, both of which typically do not use controlled vocabulary and often allow for full text searching. Recognizing the difference between subjects and keywords might prove useful when searching for scholarly articles or using the catalog, but since sources need to be within the past 5 years, students often ignore the catalog and their scholarly sources trend toward broad pieces on general issues.

Through working with students one-on-one in research consultations, I think students often discover controlled vocabulary serendipitously. They’ll search a database and begin to look through the records. They notice that within each record are hyperlinked terms that often reflect their initial keyword search. Since Millennials are so accustomed to URLs, they’ll click on the subject term and realize that the database has now returned more relevant records. Some students will ask why it happened, while other students don’t care why it happened but realize that they’ve “done something right.” They begin to notice the database limiters. Serendipity.

Is it possible to quantify which learning method is more valuable – learning within the classroom or learning by doing? Are the two separate? I can create active learning exercises that incorporate this same process, but the activity is divorced from the students’ point of need. Or is this all irrelevant? Knowing the difference between controlled vocabulary and keywords is a lower order skill. Should my efforts focus on higher order information literacy skills? Is this possible without knowing the difference between keyword searching and controlled vocabulary?

I believe it is possible. Teaching the difference between keywords and subjects may be a traditional learning objective, but its time may have run out. In an increasingly digital educational landscape where information overload is almost inevitable, this is one piece that I’m growing increasingly comfortable removing from the puzzle.