My Special Project

For my special project I worked on a series of information literacy instruction podcasts. I’ve enjoyed it, even though it’s been frustrating at times (sometimes for fairly trivial reasons). Podcasts are an interesting way of teaching information literacy, because they can be used as just another way of getting the information across to students. I’m not sure they can really replace instruction sessions, but they can be used as a supplement to them (along with tutorials, readings, etc.). At Alabama, we started the Keys to the Capstone podcast series this past summer, with one of our interns recording a series called “from topic to paper,” and I continued on from there.

My work on the podcasts kind of gradually developed as the semester went by. I knew that it would be my special project from the very beginning of the semester, but we were primarily focused on teaching in the first couple of months. During that time I primarily just did some planning – an outline of each episode along with some free writing about each topic. Once our teaching ended the podcasts became my primary focus, and I spent a lot of time in November and the early part of December working on them.

In fact I have a hard time explaining to people the amount of time I’ve spent working on what will end up being just three five minute podcasts. Some of that is my own fault – I’ve become a bit obsessive compulsive about them (I’ll re-record entire segments because I didn’t like how I pronounced the word library, etc.). Some of that is also because of technical issues. I spent some time practicing mixing voices, editing, etc., but it’s still been a bit of a challenge. For example, I had one interview with Andy Johnson, an English instructor here at Alabama, who just has a booming voice (I literally wondered at one point why he wasn’t narrating documentaries for a living). I tried to mix the volume to make his segments sound about the same as my other interviews, but it seemed like he got louder as it went on. So when I recorded my parts of the episode I turned the volume up a bit to make myself louder. Eventually we decided to cut his segments out because I was having a hard time conceptualizing the episode around his quotes (more on that later), but now I’m having to re-record my parts of the episode (that’s pretty much all I have left to do) because they’re almost jarringly loud compared to the other episodes.

The main problem though was in conceptualizing the episodes. The first podcast series was, for the most part, focused on interviewing other librarians, but for this one we decided to interview GTA’s and Instructors from the English department here at Alabama. And it was difficult at times to keep them focused in on information literacy issues. My first interview was with Katie Stafford, and we ended up talking too much about Google, and how it was different than “academic search engines.” The best interview was with Emma Furman (for the Boolean operators episode), and in retrospect it’s not surprising that that one was the best, because she had taken library science classes and knew what Boolean operators were and how they worked. I didn’t want to just script out answers for them (although I kind of did that for the second interview with Katie), but I found it difficult to keep them on topic. For example, during one of Andy’s segments he talked about how important it was for students to keep in contact with their professors during their office hours. I didn’t stop him, or try to prod him in another direction, because the second he started talking about it I knew it wasn’t going in the final cut, so I just let him go.

I think for the most part bringing in some outside perspectives worked well though, and it was worth trying. I enjoyed learning how to use the technology, and I’m pleased to be able to put the podcasts on my resume. In retrospect, I missed an opportunity to put together a blooper reel – it’s amazing how utterly and completely tongue-tied I could get at times.

The Semester in Review

Looking back on my experience with teaching this semester I can definitely see some things I improved on, and some things I still need to work on. Going all the way back to my first practice scout module (which I wasn’t really prepared for) I was a bit surprised by the fact that I was kind of nervous. Partially that was down to the fact that I just hadn’t done much public speaking in a relatively long time, but it did catch me a bit by surprise considering I was just speaking to a small group of people that I already knew.

The practice modules and the observations and the co-teaching definitely helped me prepare for my first solo session, but at the same time nothing really compares to that very first time you teach a class by yourself. I don’t think it’s that surprising that that very first session was by far my worst. I was glued to the podium, a bit tongue tied, went way too fast, forgot some things I was planning on talking about, and ended up finishing about ten minutes too soon. But by the third session or so it didn’t seem like a big deal to teach a solo session. By that time any problems were more about adjusting to new things (teaching a second session for the first time, teaching a hybrid one-shot session for the first time, etc.). I was a bit annoyed that I didn’t feel like my last session was very good. I felt like I was getting better each time, I didn’t have any real nerves beforehand, and it still didn’t go that well. It was mainly just the adjustment to a one-shot session -whenever I’d had an hour and fifteen minute class before that I’d always felt like I didn’t have material, and then during the one-shot session everything felt rushed. The whole thing felt a bit choppy, and I also had a fairly unresponsive class.

Regardless of that, I definitely feel like I improved as the semester went on. The main thing was just feeling more comfortable standing in front of a class. I also felt like I improved on the way I taught some concepts and was pleased that some of the ideas were completely my own. At the end of most classes we’d give the classes time to work on looking for sources on scout, and one thing that I really enjoyed was working with the students individually to help them with their research papers. I definitely got better at that as the semester went on, and it wasn’t so much about becoming more familiar with scout – I already had a pretty good handle on that. It was more about learning how to approach students in different ways. It’s obviously easy when a student specifically asks for help, but I thought I improved at helping the ones that at first didn’t really appear to want help.

There are definitely some things I need to work on. I almost take it too seriously, for one – I kind of forget to enjoy myself at times, if that makes sense, because I’m so focused on getting the material right. I also could definitely improve on ways of getting students involved in discussions. I’ve talked about this in other blog posts, but I sometimes would ask a question, wait a few seconds, and then answer it myself because I assumed the students wouldn’t say anything.

I’m not sure I would say that I really have a firm grasp on what my teaching “style” is at this point – I probably just haven’t given it enough thought. I’m used to lecture, and I’m sure that’s had some impact on my teaching style, but I don’t like just standing up in front of the class for an hour talking non-stop. So I guess I would say I like lecture/discussions (another reason to get better at getting students involved), with some group work/exercises mixed in.

Teaching the second session

I had my first experience with teaching the second session of our library instruction classes last week. Our first sessions are mainly about how to use the library’s resources to find sources, while the second session is more about evaluating sources – how to distinguish between different types of sources, how to determine if a source is credible enough to include in a paper, etc. I taught a fifty-minute session on Monday morning and I thought it went pretty well. The students weren’t extraordinarily enthusiastic, but for a morning class they were relatively involved. I thought I knew the material well, and just having previously taught a few solo sessions helped – the only time I’ve felt that I was legitimately bad was my very first solo session.

I taught back-to-back hour and fifteen-minute sessions on Thursday, and that was a bit more difficult, just in that I had a bit of trouble expanding on the previous fifty-minute session. I finished a bit early both times, although I was able to go over the Opposing Viewpoints database at the end, which went well (those classes are working on papers using popular sources, and each student needs a source that provides a counter to their argument, and Opposing Viewpoints is a really good database for that type of thing). Having a good second session seems to depend a lot on getting the class involved, and I really struggled with that in my first session on Thursday. The second session went a lot better in that sense, and I really didn’t do anything different. I do need to improve in that regard – overall I’ve felt more and more comfortable with each session, and I think I’ve improved in a lot of ways, but I could definitely be better at encouraging student participation. I also just need to add more content for a longer session. That seems fairly obvious, but at this point I don’t have a great sense of how long a session is going to be when I’m preparing for a class. I do a class outline and try to include time limits for each section, but sometimes a certain part will go much quicker than I expected, and vice versa. I also went back and forth on what content I would include for the longer second section. I spent time working on a mind map similar to what Sara uses (I didn’t want to use her Facebook example – it works well but I just felt like I’d be mimicking exactly what she does), and also spent time working on an evaluation worksheet involving group work, but I didn’t feel great about either by Thursday morning so I ditched both. I ended up using Louise’s evaluation quiz/game and then went into the lecture/discussion, and it definitely would have been better if I had had another exercise.

First Solo Teaching Session

At first I was a bit worried about the fact that I had to do two long back-to-back sessions, but I figured that however my first session went, that experience would help me in my second session. And that was basically how it went. I wasn’t that pleased with my first session. I went too quickly, forgot some key points, and couldn’t seem to get them involved in any sort of discussion. That’s on me to some extent; I think I kind of expect them to be non-responsive, so I ask a question, wait for a few seconds, and then answer the question myself. Sara’s pretty good at persuading them to be involved – I’m not, at this point. There was also a computer issue at the end of my lecture that didn’t really help things.

Time was an issue for me in the first session (it was a one hour and fifteen minute session and I wanted to go for at least fifty minutes but only went around forty minutes), and I had similar problems with the second session (it went almost fifty minutes, better but not exactly what I was looking for). Beyond that, I think the second session went a lot better. I would still do some things differently if I had the chance, but it definitely was better. I feel like I started the second session off much better than I did the first. I was moving around, wasn’t stuck to the podium, asking more questions (even getting a few responses), and even though the first session didn’t go that well, just the fact that I had done it made the second one easier.

I was a bit bothered by how quick I was moving through each part of the session. Like I said, the start of the second class seemed much better to me; I was more relaxed, there was more of a conversation, and yet when I went back to the podium I noticed that we had only talked for like five minutes, when it had seemed much longer. Just looking at the clock at that point threw me off a bit for a few minutes as I moved into the keyword section of the lecture. Keywords and mind-mapping to me was the most problematic of both of my classes. I don’t feel like I explain that well, except for the part where I show how “asking a question” works on Google but doesn’t work on scout. Also, the keyword game didn’t work either time, and that’s probably on me to some extent as I probably didn’t make it competitive enough; it definitely worked for Louise.

I did think my Boolean part worked, especially the second time. I didn’t use a game, but just showed them how to use it in Google (which they’re more familiar with), and I think it worked reasonably well the first time and really well the second time (there was even a little discussion about it). Scout training was about the same both times. It was ok, I went over it, hit the high points, and asked if they understood, and while they were fairly unresponsive, my impression (especially when I helped them in their individual searches) was that they did. The only thing I think I really forgot the first time was to show them how to limit a search to newspapers and magazine articles, but I didn’t forget that the second time.

Then we went to the part where they search on their own, and even though I wasn’t very good the first session, and they weren’t very responsive, the help time with the first session was actually better than the second session. They seemed more motivated to find their sources and really seemed to want my help. When I co-taught with Nancy and Sara I’d just wander around and ask people if they needed help and ended up not helping many of them. This time instead of asking them if they needed help, I asked them what their questions were (it was helpful that the professor had them come in with a topic) and went on to help them. The first session I had conversations with pretty much everyone about what their topic was and how to search for it. The second session wasn’t bad in that sense; I was able to help almost everyone, but there were a few students who just weren’t interested.

Reflection on “What First-Year Students Know About Information Research”

Kate Manuel, “What do First-Year Students Know About Information Research? And What Can we Teach Them?”

This article challenged some of the assumptions about what freshmen students know about information literacy and how successful information literacy instruction can be. The basic assumptions about freshmen and information literacy is that they generally don’t know a great deal; they use unsophisticated searching techniques, follow the “principle of least effort,” and are likely to do research on the web and accept their findings uncritically. This study of a freshmen information literacy instruction class found that students know a bit more about searching than they are generally given credit for, but also argued that information literacy instruction was not as successful (at least in this case) as one might hope.

This article led me to thinking about what exactly our students seem to “know” going into their first sessions. Obviously this isn’t a complete picture as I’ve only observed and co-taught some sessions, but it seems like whenever students are asked why we use quotation marks someone always seems to know the answer. How many of them actually know why is a different story – some might have known but didn’t speak up, or maybe the only student who understood was the one who answered (only between 2.7 and 3.8% of the students in this study initially stated that using quotation marks was a way of narrowing a search). It seems like Boolean operators are a bit more of a foreign concept to students though, which isn’t really surprising as quotation marks are often used on basic Google searches. It would be interesting if we could find out (through some kind of questionnaire) what a certain class knows about information literacy beforehand, but that may not be really feasible.

The main thing I took from this article is that freshmen may not be the stereotypically lazy, uninformed searchers that they are portrayed as. The only real problem I had with this article is that I didn’t really know what they had taught the students during the instruction sessions. The students only showed a slightly better understanding of advanced searches based on the pre and post-tests, but we don’t really know how much time the instructors spent discussing advanced searches (we don’t really go into that for the most part). I also thought some of the gains shown in the post-test were a bit more significant than the authors apparently did (the use of quotation marks is one example).

Reflection on “Applying Active Learning Methods”

Katherine Strober Dabbour, “Applying Active Learning Methods to the Design of Library Instruction for a Freshman Seminar.”

We’ve obviously talked a good bit about active learning exercises and how they can be used in an information literacy instruction session, and this article went a bit more in-depth about how students respond to them. The author of this article conducted a survey of students attending information literacy sessions for “freshmen seminar” classes (which is different from what we are doing in that these students had no papers or assignments related to the sessions) that were predominantly based on active learning exercises. The survey found that students generally responded favorably to active learning (as opposed to textbook readings or, to some extent, classroom discussions).

Nothing about the article necessarily surprised me. I did think there were some issues with the methodology – specifically that there was no pre-test (although the author acknowledges that), and the fact that I think you always have to be kind of wary about student surveys, in that there’s always the chance that they’ll say what they think you want to hear (although the fact that they didn’t respond that favorably to the textbook readings helps the author’s case). But I do think students for the most part prefer active learning as opposed to passive learning, i.e. purely lecture-based learning, so it wasn’t surprising that the survey showed that they were most enthusiastic about those parts of the session. As for our classes, I think there has to be a mix of some lecture along with active learning exercises in order to get across as much information as possible, although even lecture parts of the sessions don’t have to be completely passive as we can try to get students involved in the discussion, even if they’re initially reluctant to answer questions.

Reflection on “Becoming Critically Reflective”

Reflection on “Becoming Critically Reflective.”

Stephen D. Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995.

This chapter discussed how to become more critically reflective and how being more critically reflective can change someone as a teacher. The author looked at four ways of becoming more critically reflective: reflecting on our “autobiographies” as teachers and learners; gathering input from students; discussions with colleagues; and reading theoretical literature on teaching and higher education. What struck me about this aspect of the reading were the limitations of each option. For example, it’s always difficult to examine your own practices because of your own assumptions and biases, students might be afraid to really say what they feel (and I would add that on teacher examinations students will often mail it in by choosing the median answer on each question, for example the teacher was “pretty good” or “good” on each topic), and when discussing teaching with other colleagues the author points out that we’ll often seek out like-minded colleagues. I think the author’s point to some extent is that because of these limitations it’s best to use a variety of methods in order to become more reflective.

The author also points out some of the consequences and advantages of being more critically reflective, some of which resonated more with me than others. For example, the author points out that more critically reflective teachers will be more likely to try to build a more “democratic” classroom experience, but I didn’t always see the connection. I think many teachers would like to build a more democratic classroom experience (we definitely don’t want to just be talking to a group of bored, unresponsive freshman English comp students), but I thought the author could have gone into the relationship between the two a bit more. What resonated the most to me was that more critically reflective teachers will be more likely to not see themselves as the finished product, so to speak. If you are constantly trying to examine yourself, your methods, assumptions, etc., then you will probably be more likely to evolve and grow as a teacher.

Reflection on “Grand Narratives”

Reflection on “Grand Narratives and the Information Cycle in the Library Instruction Classroom.”

Sara Franks, “Grand Narratives and the Information Cycle in the Library Instruction Classroom,” in Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, edited by Maria T. Accardi, Emily Drabinski, and Alana Kumbier, 43-54. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2010.

This article discussed the role of information professionals in developing critical thinking skills and moving away from the trend of emphasizing “grand narratives” in higher education. I don’t think there’s any doubt that librarians should encourage students to take a more active role in their education, to find their own sources of information, and to think critically about them. I’m not sure that as librarians we need to explicitly encourage students to move away from grand narratives (we only have so much time with students anyway) as long as we can help them to find their own sources of information and think critically about them. I do believe, as the article points out, that higher education is already moving away from the concept of grand narratives. Coming from a history background, I never really had a teacher that taught a certain way only (a Marxist view of history, for example). You would be assigned a number of different works with varying themes (some that might stress economic determinism, the importance of “great men” or big ideas, etc.) and you could develop your own critical thinking by deciding which themes you felt were most important.

I do think the author is right in emphasizing the fact that scholarly sources are not infallible by any means. We do need to describe the differences between popular sources and scholarly sources, but at the same time recognize that scholarly sources are full of opinions and biases. Again coming from a history background, when you’re in high school and even 100 level classes you mostly read textbooks, and a lot of times it’s just assumed that they can be taken completely on face value, even if that’s not always correct. But as you start taking higher level classes you realize how specialized and opinionated most history is, because historians have to be opinionated; they have to stake out a position and opinion on a topic, person, or concept because any major event has almost certainly been covered in detail by previous authors. But at the same time, I think that gives students a chance to develop their critical thinking skills. If a student is assigned a research paper and finds a number of sources on some event that have distinct themes, biases, opinions, etc., then he or she can try to compare and contrast these views and develop opinions of their own. The article also cautions library professionals to not portray reference sources as authoritative or complete, and that also seems reasonable. I do think there can be a bit of a fine line here though; we should encourage students to think critically, we should tell students not to always take things on face value, but we also don’t need to scare them off, so to speak, by constantly emphasizing how fallible all their sources are.

Our Second Scout Module

We had our second scout module on Thursday, and overall I thought mine was kind of a mixed bag. A few things worked out well. For one I thought showing how using natural language (in this case just using a question instead of keywords) doesn’t really work well on scout. For the first scout module I had a question in mind that I knew brought back a first result that wasn’t relevant, but for some reason when I used that search during the presentation it didn’t retrieve that exact article (I must have just worded the question slightly different on accident). This time I asked scout a question about cultural life in the antebellum south and the first return was an article about soil science and geology, so I thought that was helpful in showing some of the differences between how you search on scout and how you search on Google. I also thought the keyword searches that I did after that worked fine, and that also showed some of the differences between scout and other search engines. Freshmen presumably understand Google and are comfortable using it, so I think comparing and contrasting the two is one way to help them start to understand scout.

I did think my second presentation was a bit too similar to my first. I don’t know if that really matters since it was just practice, but I intended to do something kind of similar but with an emphasis on just finding books, and I’m not sure that really came off as the point of it. I had the same problems with getting in too much of a hurry and forgetting some parts of the presentation. I’ve tried not to have too much of a script for these things because I thought it would seem too scripted and mechanical, but the next time I do something similar to this I’ll at least have some sort of outline. I think I was better at not spending so much time behind the podium for this module, and I feel like I do better when I’m out in front of the class. At the podium I always feel like I’m slouching down, like it would feel a bit more natural if I was a couple inches shorter. Overall though I thought it went better than the first module.

Reflection on The Courage to Teach

While I was reading this article I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting it to the “How do they Conduct Class” article. While that article didn’t definitively claim that one method of teaching (lectures, group discussions, etc.) was the right way of doing things, it was more specifically concerned with methods and techniques. This article is more about what it means to be a teacher than it is about how to teach; the central premise of it is that “good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”

I took a number of different things from both of these articles. I wouldn’t say that teaching methods and techniques are unimportant, or that working on improving your instruction style is unnecessary (and I don’t think that’s what the author of this article is trying to say). I’ve had some teachers that seemed to love what they were doing and were very enthusiastic about teaching that, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t consider to be especially great instructors. On the other hand, I agreed with the general premise of this article. To be a good teacher it seems like you would have to have a strong sense of identity as an instructor, a willingness to put yourself out there so to speak (the article spends a good bit of time discussing a teacher’s vulnerability in class), and an interest in working with students to help them develop intellectually (instead of simply trying to show them how knowledgeable you are).