Teaching and Learning

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In my classroom...

Library instruction for undergraduate thesis writers

A librarian emailed me to ask what I teach when I teach seniors who are starting to write their senior theses. I realized that I haven’t written some of this here, yet, so here’s my answer to that librarian only slightly edited.

The pre-thesis session changes a bit every time because I start it with time to go around the table, have each student tell me and the group their thesis topic, and also tell us at least one thing about the research process that they’re concerned about. (This wouldn’t work for majors in departments with departmental cultures that prevent revealing weaknesses, but it works quite well for my English and American Studies and Language students.) For American Studies students I also ask them what they remember from our session the previous spring, since I get to see them at the end of their Junior year and the beginning of their Senior year. If they look at me blankly, I’ll cover that stuff again only more quickly, and if they remember a lot, I’ll add in some razzle dazzle advanced resource that will be new to them.

Basically, based on that conversation, I prioritize the rest of the hour.

There are always a few things I want to get to, of course, but luckily the students nearly always bring these things up, so the whole session usually feels like their idea even though I can usually predict at least 75% of the content.

So, what are some of these things? Many of them are covered in this old blog post of mine: The Circular Research Process is particularly important for research at this level, as is Instrumental Reading. In addition, I nearly always talk about managing your research riffing off of the “Keeping Track” tab of their subject research guides for each major

I also make sure that they either hear or remember conversations we’ve had about how bibliography is not just an alphabetical list. Instead, it’s a mind map of the scholarly conversation that the author was joining. They should get used to looking for clues about major players and how claims can be built and what counts as evidence in this conversation, etc.

Two things that come up a lot are appropriate topic scope and how to know when you’re done researching. For the first I often use the analogy of a cropped photograph for a good topic: focused in on the important parts and only gesturing toward the rest of the things that you mentally know are part of the original scene but are cut out of the cropped image. We’ll also talk about how to combine related bodies of scholarship into your new, combined topic (students often aren’t very good at thinking about related research as useful to their new claims). And as far as when you know you’re done? Being true to your cropped image and then running continually into bibliographies that list people you’ve already read.

I will always take them through the advanced research features and search strategies of the one or two databases most likely to be core to their disciplinary work. If there’s time, I’ll show them how to do cited reference searching using both Web of Science and Google Scholar. Depending on the group I’ll also do a more in-depth look at either Zotero or Mendeley, whichever the group votes up.

I also give them a “Subversive Handout” which lists questions they can come talk to me about later, and I take them through scheduling an appointment with me and give them some hints about what might be good points in the research process to sit down with me (i.e. when they’re testing topic feasibility, when their just starting to explore, just before their proposals are due, and any time they feel stuck).

Clearly, I don’t to every piece of this! But these are the things that I’m prepared to do and that I choose from during that initial conversation with the group.

Why yes, I am hopping mad. Here’s why. #teamharpy

Ok, I wasn’t going to write more about this. I felt like other people were doing a much better job, and I don’t have much of substance to add. And besides, writing about this kind of thing is apparently risky business and I’m kind of risk averse. But here’s the thing: I’m mad. So here I am again.

I’m mad because I myself am reluctant to put names into the sentence “So-and-so created a hostile environment for me and other women at such-and-such conference” in a public and googleable place. I’m mad because women like Amanda, who experienced blatant and totally illegal sexual harassment at conferences, are afraid to name their harassers. I’m mad because the sentence “But he continues to be famous and I’m just a small fish in libraryland” is such a ridiculously common theme in these conversations, and such a silencing force in our profession (the quote is from Amanda’s post).

The only men who have created hostile environments in gatherings of librarians that I’ve been part of (online and off) have been big name librarians who are on the keynote speaking circuit. I have seen pictures of their naked crotches. I have seen pictures of their daughters in bustiers. I have heard them use their keynote microphones to talk about tea bagging. And I have heard of them doing even more things of this nature that I didn’t witness directly, like using the phrase “you ignorant slut” towards fellow panelists.

And yet they continue to rise through the ranks of librarians and become more and more powerful. These kinds of things are apparently “all in good fun” and hilarious jokes.

Here’s news for you powerful men and the conference organizers who keep you in business: These things are not funny. I no longer attend your sessions for a reason. And no, I am not a super sensitive little girl who just needs to grow up and realize that you’re joking. I have a pretty good sense of humor, actually. Cut it out.

Looking for a way to help out? Consider supporting #teamharpy with words or money or both, and let conference organizers know when this kind of thing happens to you.

[Edited to add: for those of you who don’t know about #teamharpy, conversations about sexual harassment in libraryland were recently sparked off by one prominent male librarian suing two women for 1.25 million dollars. He’s claiming defamation because they spoke out about his harassment. Libraryland is in heated conversation, now, about power dynamics, the silencing affect that lawsuits like this cause, and exactly how much of a problem this is, and how prevalent. Right now the message is clear, speaking out is more dangerous than harassing.]