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Month: February 2010

Argh! Serial Review! Literary Journals! Tough Choices!

It’s time for our biennial serial review. This one feels kind of like being kicked when down because we did a big review to sync up Carleton and St. Olaf last winter, and then we did a voluntary cut last spring when the stock market decided to have a bigger say than usual in our collection development projects.

I only have to review the serials that were originally requested by the library (as opposed to those requested by departments, of which there are many), and only those that fall within the areas I serve (so literature, languages, music, American Studies, and linguistics). And this time around we have to make cuts again. And this time around we’ve already cut the low-hanging fruit so pretty much everything we still subscribe to is stuff I’d like to continue to subscribe to. So last time around I came up with some criteria that really helped, and this time I’m having to come up with newer, less definitive criteria.

Today’s project was literary journals. We subscribe to several, six of which fall under my care, none of which I wanted to cut, some of which I have to cut. The two that we’ve had since the Beginning of Time I’m keeping, just on principle (well, and because they’re good). These are Contemporary Review and Granta. For the rest, I’m checking the catalogs of our peer institutions, reading reviews in Ulrich’s, paging through recent issues, reading their web sites, and generally mourning the fact that I even have to decide.

I’m also rankling a little at the current model for journal subscriptions that make paying for bundled packages so much easier than paying for individual subscriptions, but make backing out of bits and pieces of the bundle impossible. If I need to cut, I’m cutting the stuff we actually selected rather than the fluff that’s padding those bundles. What a pain.



This I believe:

  • The classroom is about learning, not teaching.
  • Learning happens best when it is directly and explicitly tied to and relevant to a project at hand.
  • Learning happens best when it builds on existing knowledge. This is why getting some sense of where the students are (such as talking to them before launching into a session as Steve does) is so important.
  • Teaching that sets out to be “everything these students will need to know about the library, just in case we never get to teach them again” isn’t teaching — it’s inoculation. Teaching isn’t a vaccine. Also, remember that teaching isn’t as important as learning, so it doesn’t matter how much you hope to convey — it matters how much you think your students can actually learn in a given amount of time. I didn’t quite believe the people at Immersion that 2-3 learning goals is all you can do in an hour, but it’s one of the things that has really stuck with me and fundamentally changed the way I approach the classroom.
  • One-shot instruction is never “just” one-shot instruction. One of the most important but rarely stated learning goals of every instruction session is that the librarian is helpful and knowledgeable and approachable. If I only have time to teach citation mining (which, by the way, gives me a chance to VERY quickly open up our catalog and our Journals list and give a brief overview of how scholars index their own literature and the difference between book and journal citations) I can leave that mini-class knowing that those students will be more likely to seek out my help with other research-related problems now that they’ve met me (particularly since I leave them with hints embedded in their class-specific subversive handout). Each one-shot is therefore more of a launching point than an ending point.
  • Teaching lower level classes is harder than teaching upper-level courses. There’s just so much context to build, and such a diverse audience.
  • Believing all of this doesn’t make it happen. Some classes fail. Many classes are just so-so. Usually it’s my fault for trying to do too much teaching.

These musings brought to you by a very interesting FriendFeed discussion.

I’m not saying some good tutorials might not be useful for the BI part of IL instruction. I just think that teaching how to find stuff isn’t all that I do, that I can’t do it in an hour anyway, and that teaching to evaluate stuff and to approach research as an intellectual process rather than a mechanically linear set of steps (arguably the most important pieces of what I do) is too context specific to each research topic to work well in tutorial form. Is this being a “special snowflake”? Yes. And to the extent that we’re focused on meeting students where they are and building supportive relationships with them, I think that’s a good thing.

Another idea came up during that discussion that I’ve been planning to implement for a few months now. My experiences with sharing within my department and then our local “mini-Immersion” made me think that a repository of ideas for teaching might be really useful. I know there are some other wikis out there, but I thought that a more focused one, and one attached to a vibrant online community (the Library Society of the World) might possibly be more successful. Maybe it’s time to set that up. Maybe next week? What do you think? Would this be useful?

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The Crazy Thing about Linguistic Research

Just when you think you have something nailed down, turns out you were holding a cherry tomato and the nail just made the whole thing explode.

I’m constantly figuring out how to be a better librarian to the disciplines I serve. I have pretty deep knowledge of the ways of literary research, since that was my own field, but the rest of it I’m still figuring out. And recently, the Linguistics department (finally a department in its own right, here!) has been ramping up the research requirements, and my involvement in those requirements. Which is great! And I have a lot to learn.

Today, for example, I had a student coming to me for help with a paper for his phonology class. He’d come yesterday, too, and we’d found a tiny smattering of research on his topic, but nothing that seemed like viable material for the foundations of a paper. I gave him my speech about sometimes needing to broaden out the search to related topics and apply what he learned from them to his current topic. A speech which went over about a well as it ever does, which is to say, not very. In a compressed term, that kind of research takes more time than most students (or professors) leave room for. We both pledged to do some more digging and scheduled a follow-up meeting for today.

In between yesterday and today, I remembered something I’d heard years ago but never really understood: that linguistic descriptions of individual languages are more like ethnographies than studies as far as the position they have in the field goes. They’re done once, and then that’s done. People propose tweaks, examine implications, explain why patterns exist the way they do, but a comprehensive description of Nepali phonology? That probably won’t get redone even once a half century. Like ethnography, the description from the 50s and 60s is probably still the description, no matter its gaps and flaws. Today we found him a whole collection of sources, now that we both knew to look for older things and to look for books.

And that’s where I find Linguistics research interesting, taken as a whole. On the one hand, it’s got a foot in ethnography, where the publication date hardly matters when deciding if the thing in hand is valid for study and citing. On the other hand, it’s got its foot in brain processing research, where publication matters a whole lot. When figuring out how people process and store words, imagine the difference between studies done before and after fMRI was prevalent. And that’s just the technology. What’s known about what, exactly, people see when they look at fMRI images is evolving day by day.

And yet again I remember the little “how to evaluate a source” check lists that I got in library school and how they are so terribly inadequate to describe the full scope of research values. In linguistics, date matters one moment, and not the next.

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Beyond Course-Integrated Instruction: An Example from Linguistics

I just finished teaching this term’s installment of one of my least usual classes. This is a class that takes the idea of course-integrated instruction to an even more integrated level. There are trade-offs, for sure, but it remains one of my favorite sessions to teach.

The General Idea

I show up for one class period of an intro to linguistics course. During the first half of the session, the professor covers an introduction to made-up languages, tells the students about their upcoming assignment (a short presentation on one of several made-up languages), and demonstrates the way a linguist might describe a language in hopes that the students will do something similar in their presentations.

Pretty straight forward stuff. Except that while he’s doing that, I’m also teaching. Here’s how it works. He chose Láadan as his made-up language to describe, so I then show how you might find things like consonant inventories and vocabulary and grammar rules. We start with Wikipedia, and I show them how to use it as a reference work (sifting through for important terms and using it to point them toward authoritative web sites). Meanwhile, the professor swoops in whenever I hit on a particularly linguistically relevant bit of information and uses them as the foundations for mini-lectures on linguistic characteristics.  All in all, I only talk for about 5 or 10 minutes, but, we cover basic search strategies and web evaluation, and we do it in the context of building actual linguistics skills.

For the last half of class, the professor and I launch into a little ad libbed song-and-dance that is ostensibly there to introduce students to one of the kinds of research they’ll have to do for their final paper and a basic gloss on what makes a good research question. But it also serves as a fascinating introduction to the neurological work involved in reading. The professor explains the history of the three writing systems in Japan, and then talks about a paper he found that used an fMRI to determine that Kanji and Kana are processed via different cortical pathways. This, he says, would make a really interesting basis for a research project, but the problem is that the study was published in 2000.

So I show how to use the Web of Science to do a cited reference search, and then how to do a search for (kanji OR kana OR hiragana OR katakana) and then combine that new search with the cited reference search to find the nearly 30 articles which both cite the original paper and have something to do with Japanese writing. All this gives me a chance to talk about how scholars index their own literature (via citations) and about exploding articles. Meanwhile, the professor jumps in whenever I hit on an interesting article. He usually mentions something (some theory, or a part of the brain), that I can Google in the background to find an example or an image, and then I can show how to evaluate the web site or image we find. Again, all in all I talk a for about 10 minutes, but together the professor and I demonstrate how research and evaluation are part of learning to be a linguist rather than a completely separate set of “library skills.”


Clearly, there are strategies and tools that I can’t cover in this format. Many of the students’ topics end up requiring books, for example, and I never show them the catalog. My main goal is to teach two things: I can help you, and there are some pretty powerful tools out there that can help you, too. The upshot of this is that I spend much of the next few weeks in one-on-one consultation with these 20+ students, which takes a lot of time.


The students see me (the single greatest influence on whether they’ll come to work with me in my office later), and the professor claims that the quality of the papers is measurably better now, even though I only teach for a couple of minutes, and even though only half to two-thirds of the students come see me later.

For me the most interesting part of the whole thing, though, is that it’s the only class I teach where I feel fully integrated into the disciplinary work that the students are doing. The skills I teach are part of the lecture, part of the work of learning about linguistic structures and brain activity rather than being separated out into an auxiliary library day.

So while there’s no way this would work if it’s the only kind of class I taught, I still get a kick out of every term when the professor calls me and says, “Ready to go again? Shall we use Láadan as an example this time? Can we still use the Sakurai article?”

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