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Dragging a Stick and Other Obsurdities in Research

With Fall Term looming, my colleagues and I have been thinking more and more intentionally about where our students are, where we want them to be, and how to move them closer to that second point. To kick of “Aaah, the students will be here soon” season, my colleagues and I from the 5 liberal arts institutions that make up the Minnesota Oberlin group got together for what we affectionately termed “Mini-Immersion.” It was a fabulous, exhilarating, exhausting day of intensive learning about teaching, and it served as yet another reminder that we have a lot of teaching expertise to draw upon in this group.

I’ve included the major themes from our sessions and discussions below in case you’re interested, as well as my own class-specific take-away, but there was one new pedagogical idea that I hadn’t thought about before and that has me intrigued.

Barbara Fister started off the day with a presentation on Information Literacy and the Liberal Arts in which she said that playfulness is important to learning and a key aspect of the liberal arts. “Research is really kind of a formalized playing around,” she said, and then wondered aloud how she could instill this idea of playfulness in her students.

The idea of Play allows you to explore avenues in your research that may not pan out, sometimes without the idea that you’re even doing something as serious as “exploring.” The idea of Play includes the prerequisite of being easily interested, amused, and inspired. The idea of Play assumes interaction with people or things or both. And probably most important, Play doesn’t assume an outcome.

I think of a child I saw this morning who was dragging a stick along the sidewalk and watching it intently as it dipped into each groove in the pavement. I need to be able to drag a stick through the world of information and watch it bump along whatever is in its path, to watch how it interacts with that world without predicting what I’ll see, and to begin to predict interactions without ruling out the possibility of surprise too quickly. I want to be able to help my students play this way, too, even in their world of impossibly short deadlines.

I don’t remember the last time I saw a stick and felt compelled to pick it up and drag it along behind me, or poke things with it. When did I lose that capacity to be so easily interested in my world, or even to notice these things that used to interest me? How can I relearn this critical skill, and how can I help my students find and pick up sticks of their own?

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End of Post-Proper; Beginning of extra information…

Major Themes from Mini-Immersion Discussions:

  • How do we balance the fun conceptual stuff against the practical skills students need, and all in (hopefully) 50 minutes? I used to default to skills training; now I may have over-compensated. Surely there’s a balance in there somewhere.
  • Engaging an entire class is hard, especially when some students have had you before and others have never set foot in a library. I need to be more open about soliciting student participation in order to account for the research “experts” in my audience.
  • Talking to faculty is important. While this may sound like a “no duh” moment, the most successful classes we heard about all included a lot of collaboration with the professor. I’ve had pretty good luck saying things like “Which two of the things you’ve listed that you’d like me to teach are the most important to the successful completion of your assignment” and sometimes even suggesting that we shift priorities after hearing more about the assignment and the course goals. I need to get over my shyness more often, though.
  • Leave Things Out. Over and over and over we re-learned as a group that we can’t fit an entire LIS degree into a 50–minute session. It’s so hard to leave things out, but prioritizing doesn’t just mean shifting emphasis; it also means deciding what is important enough to stay in the session. I aim for 2–3 learning goals per session, but sometimes one of those is so complex I should have just stuck to that one and provided more scaffolding for it.
  • Teach Authentically. This is, of course, directly related to what several of us learned when we attended Immersion. But it was reinforced in our own discussions about what works well and what doesn’t in our own teaching.

These aren’t new concepts for me, but somehow I have to keep re-learning them.

My own practical take-away:

We were each supposed to bring a piece of an instruction session to share with our small-group for feedback. (“Why did this work so well?” and “Why did this fail?” were both good questions to ask.) I brought piece of a class I’d done for junior American Studies majors last spring, and that I anticipate doing variations on for a couple of junior seminars this year. It had seemed like a great idea, and I still love the idea of it, but somehow the actual execution fell flat. I was met by a whole lot of blank stares and dead air (not the best reaction when I was trying to lead a discussion at the time). My small group helped me see that I was throwing far, far too much at the students all at once. I was forcing them to read differently than they’d ever read before, plus absorb and use higher-order skills (like distilling both concepts and keywords from an author’s prose), plus adopt the habit of being constantly curious about what they were reading (not taking things at face value, and always wondering what they don’t know about what they’re reading), plus do all of this stuff out loud in front of their peers, plus do all of this in the first 15 minutes of class with me. No wonder they’d been a little bit bowled over.

Next time I teach this module, I’ll give them the paragraph to read ahead of time, and then we’ll walk through only a tiny piece of it together, and I’ll model more of what I mean before hand.