Author Archives: Meggan

Outlander and the research process

voyager

I finished reading Outlander 3 recently. (Formally titled Voyager, but I’m not great a remembering titles in series, and especially not when I read them on Kindle, which is how I read this 1000 page monster.) In the back there’s quite a bit of supplementary material, including an interview with the author, Diana Gabaldon, reproduced almost entirely here, where she talks about her research process.

Her process is extremely non-linear, and in fact her writing process is no more linear that the research process. Typically, she writes scenes non-sequentially until she has about a book’s worth, and then she starts to move them around until things fall into place. I assume there’s a significant editing process where she smoothes out the logic, plot, and prose, but the point is, her process is a true inquiry into character, historic setting, and plot possibility with a hefty dose of tapping into the creative place where ideas come from (or, possibly where ideas come to you, if you follow Elizabeth Gilbert). It is not a “research process” (or, frankly, “writing process”) that we in the research+writing world would necessarily advocate for but it works marvelously well for her. She says:

Hearing about this process does, btw, infuriate people who write linearly. I once had a woman sitting on a panel on writing processes with me inform me that I couldn’t possibly do this, because “you have to have a logical foundation! You can’t put the roof on your building unless you’ve built solid walls to hold it up, can you?”

“Of course I can,” I replied. “There’s no gravity in the mind, after all. I can make the roof and just leave it hanging there until I have time to build walls under it. You don’t have to write a book from beginning to end, just because that’s how people will read it.” She Wasn’t Pleased, but the point here is that people’s minds are wired up differently, and a good deal of writing successfully lies in figuring out how your own mind works best, and using it that way. There is no “right” way to write a book. Anything that lets you get words on the page is the right thing to do.

I love the idea of DOING until you need to figure something out, FIGURING IT OUT, and then keeping on DOING until the process repeats. Most of the time when I’ve taught myself something it has followed this pattern. I also like how she relates that people don’t really like to hear this. I’m assuming that’s because she doesn’t follow a typically taught process.

It got me thinking about what we teach, its strengths (linearity, repeatability, confidence) and shortcomings (linearity, rigidity, time-bound). I’m not sure how education can replicate a more organic process at scale, and at the same time I’d much rather work with students who come to me and say, “I’ve been DOING and now I’ve got to FIGURE THIS OUT. Can you help me?” than students who are married to a prescribed process.

I don’t have answers. I’m still thinking. What would it look like, research-wise, to make a roof and leave it hanging until you can build the walls?

REFRAMING: Citation

impact effort

It occurred to me recently that we don’t give students enough credit when it comes to citation. If you ask faculty and librarians about student citation practices, they will bemoan students’ inability to cite correctly in the format of the faculty’s discipline. The faculty and librarian feelings surrounding this perceived inadequacy range from frustration (it’s a simple formula!) to condescension (if you can’t follow a simple formula, I really can’t help you) to superiority (if only you knew how important citation is, you’d do it properly) to punative (you can kiss those “easy points” goodbye). One possibility for students perceived inability to cite properly we haven’t considered in all of these really unattractive feelings is the role of basic incentives.

Consider your typical rubric. How many points out of the total are assigned to citation? Five out of 100? Given that small incentive to spend extra time after completing the more point-valuable requirements, is it possible that students aren’t incapable, but are simply making a calculated decision on where their time is best spent? Could it be, that rather than spending 30% of their time on 5% of the points, students are instead applying a rather effective impact/effort matrix to their assignments?

Faculty and librarians are often blinded by their own learning styles and motivations when it comes to interacting with students. While it would be unthinkable for many faculty and librarians not to actively attempt to exceed the instructor’s expectations, most students aren’t aiming to get 110% on an assignment. They’re just looking to get through. For many students, the possibility of achieving a max of 95% on the assignment is still a really great outcome. In that context, is it the fault of the students for not attempting 110%, or the fault of the faculty for not adjusting their rubrics to place higher value citation in context of the other requirements?

There is something to be said for properly valuing information and individual’s contribution to scholarship, the role of citation in a scholarly conversation, and other performative aspects of scholarship, but at the same time we as academics must unpack our own motivations behind citation. We cite because journals require us to cite. We cite because we are afraid of our scholarly communities calling us out for not citing. Both of these fundamental motivations are a much stronger incentive for us to cite than for a student to cite. Keeping our jobs is a pretty strong motivator. We expect that students will cite based on our own incentives, but we forget that their incentives are radically different than ours, especially when take on the whole of a life.

Maybe instead of condescending to students about their perceived inability to cite properly, we could instead acknowledge that if our incentives were theirs, they’d likely step up to the plate, too. And if their incentive were ours, on the whole we would be spending less time worried about correct citation too, professional ethics be damned.

(Don’t even get me started on the various citation formats, which, from a student perspective, are simply arbitrary and exist to make things complicated. I make it a point to never “teach citation” any longer, but when I do talk about citation in classes I point out how various citation styles highlight what’s important to a particular discipline, like I did in this long ago class. Providing an explanation isn’t going to change the incentive equation but it can demystify, which I believe is valuable in itself.)

Digital/physical

bookscomic

InULA Notes recently published a brief write up of some research I’ve been working on with my colleague, Meg Meiman, regarding student learning and engagement using digitized and physical primary source materials. The research presented there is preliminary, brief, and somewhat informal, but interesting nonetheless. We are working on analyzing data from three more classes this fall and hope to be able to publish more formally in the coming year.

This research is an outgrowth of the work I did early on in my time with IU with the Primary Sources Immersion Program participants. One of the cool things about the Primary Sources Literacy Guidelines developed by RBMS/SAA and recently ratified by ALA is that they map well to the Framework. So, although the research uses the PSLG as a starting point for developing the learning rubric, the results can easily be extrapolated to information literacy learning.

One of my side projects during research leave is to do some thinking about where to go next with this line of inquiry. I’ve found very little scientific information (but lots of opinions and feelings) about how and whether students learn or engage differently with digitized versus physical sources of information. In working on the literature review, I’ve explored the fields of archives, digital libraries, education (from a teaching perspective), and, of course, libraries. I feel like there must be someone out there doing this research, but so far I’ve not found it. My next thought is to delve into art (or even, possibly, music?), which are fields that work with facsimile regularly and sometimes even almost exclusively. I’d appreciate any insight you all might have into fields that might be exploring the question of learning in digital versus physical formats from a scientific perspective. What have you heard?

A brief list of things I’ve declined while on research leave (and a list of things I’ve said yes to)

Colored notes paper on a cork board

I’m on research leave. Hooray! I have the 4 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to work on my book. At Indiana University, all pre-tenure librarians have up to 5 months of research leave available before tenure. Admittedly, the end-of-semester and holiday season isn’t the most ideal time to do this, but I’m working with what my work schedule and book schedule allows. In order to take research leave, I had to apply to the Grants and Leaves Committee and be approved all up and down the administrative chain.

Many people who apply for leave end up postponing it, not taking it at all, or find that work commitments creep in and eat up the valuable time. I worked very hard to protect my time. As I said previously, the time is a gift but it is my responsibility to protect the time. I’ve spent much of the fall semester working towards these 4 weeks, wrapping up projects, getting a head start on things, putting others on hold, trading reference desk shifts, and making plans for leave and the brief time immediately after leave but before the semester starts. In addition to all the self-organization, I’ve been setting expectations with others about what I will and (mostly) won’t be doing during leave. Here’s a short list of things I’ve declined:

  1. Most committee meetings (with two exceptions in which I can participate remotely and in which my presence is critical to ongoing agenda items.)
  2. All requests for my in-person attendance/input/presentation, including (especially) those that asked for “5 minutes” of my time. Even when those requests have come from friends or for causes I would typically support. You and I both know that 5 minutes doesn’t include travel time or “oh hey, I haven’t seen you in a while” catch-up time.
  3. All work-related holiday parties. So many holiday parties.
  4. Being readily available by email or chat. I’m loud and proud on that out-of-office reply.
  5. Any work-related request or project that doesn’t directly advance my scholarship. I have a few other scholarly irons in the fire aside from my book. These qualify for some time (but with less urgency than the book) during my leave. Anything else can wait.

In addition to setting up strong boundaries to protect my valuable research leave time, I’ve also worked hard to set reasonable and achievable goals for myself. I don’t want to get to the end of leave and find that I didn’t get very far on what I hoped to do. These goals all shift and change as the projects develop but having a short, reasonable list is critical to my process. Being on research leave, however, has certain perks, and I also don’t want to be such a taskmaster that I can’t appreciate the flexibility research leave provides. Here are some things I’m saying yes to:

  1. A detailed daily schedule and goals list.
  2. The final two Faculty Writing Group meetings of the semester.
  3. A $50 unlimited pass to a local yoga studio.
  4. Working:
    1. in coffee shops (and trying a few new-to-me places)
    2. in the public library
    3. on my couch with the fireplace on
  5. Co-working with others on research leave
  6. Grocery shopping on a non-weekend day
  7. Way too many snacks from the way too convenient pantry

I’ve had no resistance to the boundaries I’ve set at work. I love my co-workers and will be excited to see them in January. I love them even more that they have all been as respectful and careful of my research leave as I’d hoped.

Do you have access to research leave? How does scholarship support work at your institution?

The genesis of a book

writing

This book began as a money making scheme. I’ll pause here for laughter.

Ok, let’s continue.

But seriously, sometime in 2015 I read the book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. There are a lot of really interesting, outside-the-box ideas in that book, and while most of the more practical tips didn’t apply to my circumstances, some ideas stuck. The whole genesis behind the click-baity wording of the 4-hour workweek is the idea of passive income. At the time, my husband was working adjunct at multiple institutions and scrambling for summer employment, my workplace was becoming increasingly unstable, and we were looking for an alternate revenue stream to supplement the highly unstable environments in which we were working. I began to consider what kinds of passive income we might be able to create and the specific expertise I could offer to niche interests. Downloadables are a well-known and low-overhead way to enter the passive income market. I landed on the idea of writing an ebook directed towards new librarians entering the academic library job market and selling it at an affordable price point through this here website.

My interest in academic library hiring started with my own graduate school experience. Job hunting for the new librarian is a fraught and stressful prospect, made more so because the process of interviewing and hiring in higher education is a completely novel experience for most of us. As I considered my own job hunt process and watched others become embittered by a lack of progress, I realized that there was significant knowledge and support missing for many people.

Then, in the first week at my first job, I was placed on a search committee for another librarian. I saw the process from a completely different angle, as a member of the committee with different motivations and concerns. This was enlightening, and I began to sort out the things I was hearing from frustrated job-seekers with the things I was seeing from the committee perspective. I participated in many hiring committees in my 5 years at Paul Smith’s College, from hourly staff to faculty and librarians to the Provost of the college. My interest in hiring and working in higher education grew.

So, I had this idea to write an ebook on the academic library hiring process, and there it sat for a while. It seemed such a monumental thing to contemplate. Not just the writing, but designing it, setting up ecommerce, publicizing on my own, etc. Underlying all the hesitation was the “what would they think of me” question. They, of course, being the academy as a whole and librarianship in particular.

I knew that by considering publishing in this way, I was bucking the trend. I knew that topic was one that academic publishing would likely be interested in, and conventional wisdom would have recommended going the usual route and building my CV commensurately. Going traditional would have built my CV but it would not have given me what I really needed at the time, which was alternate income. I didn’t care about building my CV in this way at the time because my previous institution did not have tenure, and I was more than meeting expectations for promotion. In other words, at the time, an extra $100 a month was more motivation than a line on my CV.

As far as I knew, no one in libraries had pursued self-publishing in this way, so there was also the question of whether or not it was possible, whether it had been tried and failed, whether I would be ostracized for going that direction. The people I talked to about this concept thought it could work, but didn’t know that anyone had ever tried.

In early winter of 2016, I found myself happily pregnant and in a declining professional situation with no increased stability in sight for either me or my husband. By summer, I had decided to fend off existential panic by simply starting to write the book. There was a tremendous amount of uncertainty that summer, including uncertainty about what I was going to do with this project in the end, but I anchored that uncertainty with a regular practice of putting words on paper for this project. I completed the first draft of the first iteration of the book with a goal of 750 words a day on that days that I was at work over the course of two months of summer.

On the first day of the fall semester, I gave birth to a baby boy. By new year, I had applied for the job I currently hold, in February I interviewed in person, in March I accepted an offer, and in July my family moved across the country for new opportunities. The book languished.

When I began my current position, I thought back to the ebook draft and realized that my priorities had changed. I’d moved institutions, and the tenure expectations were real. While I felt (and feel) good about the amount of presenting I do, I knew that I’d need to beef up my publications, and here I had a significant word count already in the bank. What to do with it?

Along the way of answering this question, I reached a point of completion with the ebook manuscript, pursued ecommerce, and designed the book. I passed it out to the library school graduate students who work for my department. I talked at length with our Scholarly Communications Librarian about possibly making it an OER, but we were unable to find the right fit for platform and for providing statistics I’d want to have as part of my tenure dossier. I dragged my heels in making a decision. Nothing felt right. I heard from many students who’d read it saying was how helpful it was to them. In my new position, I mentored a number a graduate students through quick, successful job hunts. I realized that I had more to say about the job hunt and hiring than I originally thought and the “completed” ebook no longer felt as representative as it once did.

One day, while working the reference desk, I admitted to my colleague, Courtney Greene McDonald, that I was trying to avoid this project because I knew it wanted to be a book, but I didn’t want to write one. Courtney, generous soul that she is, started to systematically break down my barriers. Having written two books herself, she knew exactly what I meant and, as a recently tenured librarian, she also had a helpful perspective for my future. She offered some advice on publishers and also offered to put me in contact with the editor of ACRL Press. Basically, she made it impossible for me to say no any longer. Transcript of part of an actual conversation:

C: You won’t regret writing a book.

M: I will when I’m writing it.

C: I mean, while you’re writing it, yeah. But not when it’s done.

And with that, I stopped running away from this book. I did my market research, I wrote the proposal, I made extensive notes for expanding and refining the existing ebook structure, and I submitted for publication.

It’s perhaps useful to know that the book as proposed is twice the word count of the ebook that I considered more or less finished. It is strongly informed by my work with actual library school graduate students, and it attempts to bring a mentoring relationship to a book format. One of the biggest differences between the ebook and the published version is the emphasis on answering “why?” Why are things this way? What are the academic structures and values that shape the academic job hunt and how do they manifest? Another way this book differs from the ebook is to provide an empowering counterpoint to the prevalent rhetoric surrounding library jobs. The job market, retirements, the number of library school graduates…. blah, blah, blah. This book embodies the belief that no one ever performed better from being told that what they were about to do was very hard. It gives job seekers tools for things they CAN do (not simply lists of things NOT TO DO) to feel in control of the process and their own destinies in spite of a deeply uncertain outcome.

And, it’s worth noting that so far being scared of writing a book has felt a lot worse than actually writing it. As an action oriented individual, it has felt better (but not necessarily easy) to be DOING something about this book. Still, a big part of my motivation to write this book is simply to be finished. Lest you think that what you hear of a book writing process is a full and true picture, by the time this book is published, I will have been working on it in fits and starts but consistently for 4 years. It’s about time, don’t you think?

 

 

 

In progress, a book

if-not-now-when

I don’t know if there’s ever a right time to announce that you’re writing a book. Imposter syndrome comes into play no matter the timing, so here it is: I’m writing a book. The title is Get the Job: Academic Hiring for the New Librarian, and it will be published by ACRL Press, probably in late 2019 or early 2020. I’m the sole author.

Here’s the synopsis from the book proposal:

Get the Job: Academic Library Hiring for the New Librarian is the quintessential primer on the job search for librarians interested in academic libraries. Young librarians often seek information from more experienced professionals in the subject of the academic job search. As a form, the academic job search is a very specific process that has only superficial resemblance to a classic job search. Much of the practical information about the academic job search exists and is communicated in mentoring relationships and informal communication. By replicating the mentoring experience, aspiring professionals will find the consolidated and comprehensive support they need to launch a successful job hunt, thrive in the interview process, and transition to a new job.

Beginning briefly with graduate school, this book provides concrete suggestions for how to direct an education towards full-time employment and get the most out of student experiences. The majority of the book is dedicated to the job hunt itself, covering the various steps of the academic hiring process, breaking down each step into manageable pieces, and providing lots of tips and insight from the perspective of the search committee. Special emphasis is placed on the presentation, one of the most stressful parts of the job search. Lastly, the book covers what happens after a job offer, provides tips on negotiation, and concludes with some practical advice for the first year of a new job with an eye towards what would be particularly useful for a young librarian.

This book is a must-read for aspiring librarians as they contemplate the overwhelming task of breaking in to the academic library job market and launching their careers as a professional librarian. Packed with practical advice, reassurance, questions to consider, and, ultimately, empowerment, it will be an invaluable resource for job seekers.

I’d like to talk another time about how this book came to be and to provide some transparency in the publishing process, but for today I want to share about the nuts and bolts of how I’m getting the work done. As a rule, I fiercely protect my non-work time. I’m a librarian. I’m also a mom with a toddler and a person with significant interests outside of libraries. I’m not a librarian who works nights and weekends, and yet I’m writing a book on top of my usual work load. How is this possible, you may well ask. I’ll tell you how I’m making it work.

I don’t pretend that my situation is exactly comparable to others, or that my methods will work for you. They are simply what’s working for me right now for this project at this point in time. Needs change and I imagine that my methods will too. I do think that there are some larger ideas here that you may be able to apply to you work.

Support

First and foremost, I have personal and institutional support. Because writing a book is significant progress towards my employer’s expectations of me, I can use work hours to do it, so I do. Much of that support comes in the form of time. The time is offered, but protecting that time is up to me. See below: Ruthlessness.

The time comes in two forms: a faculty writing group and research leave. Indiana University runs a number of Faculty Writing Groups through Faculty and Academic Affairs which are by application only. Participation in the group requires regular attendance at a group which meets for three hours blocks every week. In these groups, you work alongside a small group of academics to advance your writing, broadly defined. These are accountability groups, not review groups, so I work alongside a group with varied scholarly interests. My writing group has been invaluable in this process. Setting aside a defined block of time, working in a location that isn’t my office, and working alongside other motivated individuals, coupled with some best practices, has been a strong propellant in the book writing process.

The second protected block of time is research leave. IU librarians have up to 5 months of research leave to take pre-tenure. I’ll be taking a month in December. This isn’t, strictly speaking, sabbatical, but it will resemble a mini-sabbatical in practice.

Ruthlessness

Writing this book is possible because of ruthless prioritization by myself and my supervisor. Because I’m doing this, there are other things I’m not doing right now. I’ve spent significant time moving meetings, swapping reference desk shifts, clarifying due dates for projects, and setting expectations for myself and others. I’m not trying to fit more work in less time. I’m choosing the work I’m doing and I’m invoking this choice when saying no or asking to move dates and swap shifts.  I’m also setting up ruthless but achievable expectations for myself and boundaries (“rules,” if you like) about what is and isn’t allowed.

Organization

In order to make the best use of my writing time, I’ve set up a strong structure for myself using best practices that have worked for me in the past. First of all, I walk into every writing group meeting with a clear plan of action for that day. I decide this plan in advance, usually at the end of the previous week’s writing. At my current point in the writing process, I have the general goal of adding 1,000 words to the manuscript at each writing group meeting. Also at the end of each writing session, I note what things I need to accomplish between meetings so that I can actually write during writing time. For this project, the in-between work is things like coordinating feedback, interviewing people, and conducting some supporting research. Right now, writing group is strictly about getting words on paper, and I frequently have to pull myself back from dissecting every word choice and approach to remind myself that my goal for right now is word count. The rest will get sorted out in editing. The group itself does allow me to do many of these things (except interviewing) during our meeting, I find that I can do this during regular work hours but I don’t write as effectively at other times, so I’ve prioritized the production of words during this time.

At the beginning of each writing group meeting, after the check-in and brief group discussion on topics related to writing, I set up my app blocker and turn my phone to do not disturb. I choose some music for writing, which varies by day, and put in my headphones. I write down my starting word count, rewrite my goals, and sometimes outline the proposed writing for the day so I can make sure I’m hitting all my intended points. Then I write. Though the time period is long, I consider this a writing sprint, since the main goal is simply to add words – get stuff out of my head and onto the screen – as quickly as I can. Most of my writing is accomplished in the first hour or hour and half. When I’ve come to a stopping point for the day, I write down my new word count and do some self-congratulatory math on how far I’ve come and where I need to go. I spend the rest of the time making plans and thinking through problems – anything I need to get sorted in order to enable a writing sprint next week.

I’m the type of writer who does a lot of the writing in my head beforehand. By the time I sit down to write, it’s mostly a matter of transcribing what I’ve already written in my head, so the writing sprint works well for me. I always leave writing group knowing exactly what I’ll be working on next time. This enables me to sit down and just go with limited backtracking. Sometimes this means that I stop writing after I’ve met my word count but before I’m necessarily finished with a thought. Hemmingway used to stop writing for the day in the middle of a sentence so that he had the motivation to come back the next day and finish it.

Motivation

I am highly motivated to finish this book. As I said before, I’ll talk another time in depth about how this book came to be in this particular way, but for right now, just know that this book has been percolating for 2+ years. In that time, I have actively tried to move on with my life, find other, less formal outlets for the material, and generally tried to make this project go away. It refused to leave, and it has also refused to allow room for other ideas. Basically, it’s demanding to get written, it has been vocalizing this request for 2 years, and I’m just trying to get it to shut up so that I can think again.

At a more practical level, I’m motivated by deadlines, either set by myself or by others, so having a deadline is helpful to me. Although there is no penalty for missing my book deadline, I intend to meet it, barring unforeseen circumstances.

I generally have an idea of where I’m headed and how to get there, but I only know the next step or two in front of me at any given time. This seems sufficient for progress but still allows for the book to develop organically. Right now, the words are flowing well and these practices are working. I know there will come a time when different tactics are necessary, and I’ll be sure to share what’s working for me when that time comes.

How do you get your writing done?

 

 

REFRAMING: One-shot instruction

switchback

I want to return for a minute to a chapter in James Lang’s Small Teaching, which I mentioned before felt relevant to library teaching. “Chapter 3: Interleaving” tackles the learning principle of distributed or spaced learning. The idea here is that massed or block practice (aka, cramming) is very effective for short-term retention but spaced learning is the clear winner for long-term and transferrable learning. The science points to memory retrieval being the key. Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, quoted in Small Teaching and the authors of Making it Stick, offer the following explanation.

Embedding new learning in long-term memory requires a process of consolidation, in which memory traces (the brain’s representations of new learning) are strengthened, given meaning, and connected to prior knowledge – a process that unfolds over hours and may take several days. Rapid-fire practice leans on short-term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal… Hence, spaced practice works better. The increased effort to retrieve the learning after a little forgetting has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory.

Lang refers to interleaving as “spiraling.” “The first time you approach the material, you are making a single spiral at the bottom level,” he says. “The next time you return to it you are circling back through the material but at a slightly higher level. Spiraling can feel frustrating to the learner because you are, in a sense, going around in circles. However, you are also moving upward with each spiral, adding new layers of learning every time you push back through the material.” I like to think of this as switchbacks. Anyone who’s ever traveled in mountains is familiar with switchbacks. They’re a way to ascend or descend a steep slope by going in zigzags. Each zig takes less effort, albeit over a longer distance, than trying to go straight. Safer, too.

This idea, explained by Lang, immediately brought me to an “aha!” Library instruction is, at its core interleaving, and that’s actually optimal for what we’re trying to accomplish, which are skills for a lifetime, not momentary retrieval. The greatest gain in this idea isn’t in the suggestions he makes for enacting interleaving in the classroom but the language for taking what library instruction can do and explaining it scientifically rather than didactically. It is true that library instruction is typically in a one-shot format because of circumstance, but we can also reframe this circumstance to see it as a scientifically optimal way for achieving our goals. What would happen in our conversations with instructors and administration if we were able to bring research to bear on the necessity of including librarians frequently and at multiple points in a curriculum? “It’s important,” we say, and they nod, but what if we truly backed up our claims the way that students are required to in their papers?

The downside to this approach from the student perspective, as you have observed and Lang notes, is that students can find it frustrating. Students tell you (or tell their instructor, who then tells you) that they’ve “learned all this before.” They tell faculty that they don’t need you to come back to class, or the faculty themselves decide that the students have received enough instruction, usually at some removed distance from the class in question, and don’t need any more because “it’s been covered already.” Lang admits that “students might not respond with unbridled enthusiasm” to a fully interleaved approach, which is more intense than what is typical of library instruction. I admit that this lack of “unbridled enthusiasm” can create challenges to convincing instructors to include more library instruction, but it can also be the point at which we pull out the literature to back our claims. Consider: “Blocked study or practice deepens our association between a learned skill or concept and the specific context in which we learned it; interleaved learning, by contrast, forces us into frequent transfers of information and skills across contexts, which helps us develop the ability to recognize when a learned skill might apply in a new context.” The whole idea of transferability is the holy grail of education, and a good counterargument for the traditional assumptions regarding students ability to transfer skills between contexts and subject discourses.

The critical component here isn’t simply repeated exposure to the same material, but the incremental leveling up. It’s retrieval of previous information and the expectation of applying that information in a more advanced way each time it is reintroduced. This is what creates meaningful, lasting learning that persists beyond the classroom.

What would change if we reframed for ourselves the limits of one-shot instruction as interleaving, a scientifically optimal mode of learning for the long haul? What would happen if we communicated one-shot instruction this way to our students, faculty, and administration?

 

Recent advice

backtoschool

In this early moment in the semester (Although I did just hear a faculty member in the business school reference midterms happening next week. Is that… a thing?), I want to take a moment to share some advice I’ve recently passed along to members of the Teaching Librarians Community here at Indiana University.

When a professor reaches out for instruction, treat this initial contact as a conversation opener, not a contract or requirement. You don’t have to say yes to the class as a whole or yes to agenda as they’ve proposed it. Instead, you can see this as an opportunity to engage in a conversation in order to arrive at a compromise that satisfies you both. Generally, conversations are much like a reference interview: What the person is asking about is often not what they need.

Additionally, you’re the expert in research. When we are too much in a service mindset, we can forget that we are experts in our own right. We try to do exactly as we are told and believe that this translates to respect from the faculty. It might, but often the service mentality means that our professional skills are lost in subservience. When you engage in a conversation with a professor, you’re asserting your expertise and competence.

As a professional, you do not need to ask permission to teach class the way you want or to add things you think are important. Personally, I do not send my lesson plans to professors for approval. I do confirm with them the generalities of what I plan to cover and I do ask if they observe things in their students that they feel I should be aware of. I ask for feedback after the session and I am open to constructive criticism. But I do not ask for approval before I teach. When I teach a class I feel good about (not the one I’ve been told to teach or received faculty approval for beforehand), I’m automatically a better teacher. This translates to a better classroom environment, better discussions, and more learning for students. Invariably, the class is better, and the professor is happier. I even have data to prove it. At my previous institution, I gathered data among ENG101 faculty over the course of 4 years. They were happy enough when I did what they told me to do, but they were thrilled when I did what I felt was necessary. In other words, they were happier when I didn’t do what they told me to do.

When we talk about the challenges of faculty/librarian relationships, one of the most often cited frustrations of librarians is that faculty don’t “respect” us. While professional excellence is not the whole answer to the respect question, we certainly can’t have respect without excellence. So as we get into the swing of the semester, I challenge you to trust your skills as a professional and assert yourself enough to show them off.

Reading Lately

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This summer I’ve read three books for professional development. I consider it professional development (and even included a list of professional books read on my promotion portfolio for my previous position) because they directly inform the work I do and the thoughts I think about the work I do, as you’ll see below. Here are the three books I’ve read this summer, in reverse chronological order:

Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think about Information Literacy, edited by Troy A. Swanson and Heather Jagman. I’ve been working on this one, off and on, for more than a year, and finally buckled down to finish it. The book is a mix of theory-based essays, philosophical meanderings, and practical how-tos. I found particular resonance with the chapter “Librarianspeak: Metaphors that Reflect (and Shape) the Ethos and Practice of Academic Librarianship” by MaryBeth Meszaros and Alison M. Lewis. This chapter informed my recent essay in C&RL News, “Words Matter.”

Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning by James M. Lang. I picked this one up on recommendation for a non-library blog I follow. The premise of the book is that small changes create big results. The content is based in the science of learning but has a strongly practical bent. Many ideas are most easily implemented in a full-semester course, but others are adaptable to a library context. I used a few suggestions in a professional development workshop I presented to our Teaching Librarians Community recently titled First 10/Last 10. On this blog, you may hear more reflection from me on Chapter 3: Interleaving. This book has the benefit of being written in Plain English (not High Academese) and therefore is a fast, easy read.

Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana. This book breaks down an approach to teaching students how to ask questions, called the Question Formulation Technique. The examples in the book are in the K-12 arena, though the authors have successfully used this technique for adult learners too. Basically, its a way to base a classroom in inquiry. It’s an extremely practical book, and one that could be transformative for many teachers and professors. I’m not sure yet how I would apply this information to a library context; however, I think I may use this technique in the library instruction class I’m teaching this spring for the Library School.

I keep a reading habit going by taking small chunks daily and scheduling it into my day. I definitely make reading goals for down times of the year like January and summer. I keep smaller goals for other times of the year. When work is just too hectic, I back off and feed off the “fat” of slower times. Typically, my goal is to read one chapter (or article, if that’s your jam) per day, approximately 4 per week. Sticking to this schedule, my reading takes an average of 20 minutes a day (~80 minutes per week), and allows me to finish a book in about a month – a pretty good clip achieved in small moments. Personally, I do better with small daily goals, rather than reading for 80 minutes straight.

I also read quite a bit in my personal life in small chunks. This year I started keeping track using my private Instagram account. I don’t know if it’s because of keeping track, listening to the What Should I Read Next podcast, or simple luck, but I’m having an extremely enjoyable reading year. I’ve also been listening to audiobooks, which has been one of the joys of my year. I’m quite picky about narrators, so I only listen on direct recommendation for audio versions particularly. You’ll see those noted below. Here are the top few of my year (so far):

What are you reading? Any recommendations for me?

REFRAMING: The Generic Instruction Request

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Welcome to an occasional series I’m calling REFRAMING. The idea behind the series is to take some common pain points for librarians and turn them around. You might as well call it “The Flip.” What I’m looking to do is take scenarios that are usually considered challenges and flip them into opportunities. This is an outgrowth of the work I currently do in supporting teaching librarians. It is, of course, just my own perspective, but I think there’s a lot of room in the world (especially today’s world?) for reframing. I’m an action oriented individual, and rather than wallowing in difficulty, I strive to look for the chance to do something about it, even if that something is just changing the way I’m thinking. Let’s consider the generic instruction request.

Here’s an accurate description, courtesy of a colleague: “We really need you to come do an instruction session. There’s no research assignment, but they are engaged in working on types of research for various other professors. Oh! And I won’t be there…” We’ve all been here, or some variation of here. These types of requests seem to be the bane of a librarian’s existence judging from conference and coffee break conversation. They feel disrespectful of our time and expertise. Convenient for the professor (the word “babysitter” comes to mind) but ultimately unhelpful for students. We mourn how much better a session could be with deliberate placement in the course, with some collaboration with the faculty member, with a damn assignment. Many librarians feel they can’t say no to this kind of request and resentment builds. In the instance of my colleague, above, she said that she already knew she was going to say yes, but that she struggled with how it felt. What to do? Put together a class while feeling disrespected or resentful?

First, let me say that “not at this time” is a valid response to this kind of request. Your time and expertise are valuable and possibly not best used by fulfilling this request in the spirit in which it was requested; however, there are reasons why you might say yes. I find that there is often a period of time at the beginning of a new job where you say yes to things that you don’t ultimately plan to say yes to in the long term, such as this kind of request. For one thing, these sessions can be really useful for learning about students and making connections with faculty that you later try to shift in a different direction. Ultimately, what we have here is an opportunity disguised as a challenge.

Here’s what I said to my colleague: “This kind of thing can be either a sad occurrence or a huge opportunity for you to do exactly whatever it is that you want to do and feel is most important without feeling like you have to meet faculty expectations. What do you think would be fun/necessary? Have you been itching to try something out? Talk about a concept? Fill in a blank? This is your opportunity. This is a place that the particular Frames you feel are important but underrepresented could find life. You’ve been given a whole class period to do exactly what you want. What do you want to do?

What might happen if we got excited about this kind of request instead of feeling obligated to it?