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Category: In My Classroom

Preparing for Fall Term during Pandemic Times

Like everyone, I’m deep in the weeds of pandemic-era librarianship. Unlike lots of folks, my institution’s classes haven’t started yet. But because I’ll be teaching 100% remotely this Fall (even though some classes will have on-campus components) I’m basically doing a whole ton of my Fall instruction right now, at my dining table, while trying to keep my cat and my bird off camera and off mic.

I’ve been teaching for 15 years — longer if you count the years I spent as a dance teacher. There are parts of this gig that I can do in my sleep. There are moves I’ve learned to make in the classroom as naturally as breathing. Sure, I’m always learning and tweaking and generally feel like I’m not actually teaching as well as I’d like to be, but I’ve developed a style, a pace, a repertoire.

And right now it feels like everything I know how to do in the classroom is varying degrees of useless. I’m back to square 1. Or maybe square 2.

Here’s some of what I’m learning and thinking about right now.

  • Accessibility is hard
    The vast majority of my video production time goes to captioning, and for other online things I’m working really hard to make them fully accessible. In the face-to-face classroom these issues exist too, of course, but up till now most of my time was spent learning how to make accessible face-to-face encounters work out well for everyone. Now that’s all out the window and I’m spending hours upon hours editing and syncing up captions and click-through tables of contents and alt-text. Super important work, but extremely time-consuming.
  • Panopto (my campus’ main lecture capture tool) is both easy and hard
    I like that I can relatively quickly capture video of me talking while demonstrating or using a slide deck. I also really like that it produces videos in an interface that our students are becoming pretty used to, so I can more easily assume that they’ll know what to do when they land on a Panopto video page. And I like that as the faculty and I are all re-learning our jobs, it produces analytics that can help me figure out which approaches worked in which situations. (And yes, I always set it up for anonymous access – I don’t want or need individual student information.) So I’m planning to have all of my course-integrated videos served up via Panopto into Moodle. But I don’t like that I can’t do some of the video-clip combing that I want to do for a few modules, and editing the captions is an absolute bear (not only does it take forever for each change to save, but if your caption is timed to start within about a second of a cut the caption won’t show on the public side! Ack!! So much fiddly editing even beyond fixing “in utero” back to “in Zotero”). I also don’t like that I can’t figure out how to do good revisions in Panopto — if I have to change a small thing I have to re-record the video. And of course, then there’s the ominous name “Panopto”…
  • So then there’s more video production to learn
    Today I’ve been learning iMovie. And how to record my screen on my iPad in a way that allows me to draw things and then import those videos of me drawing things into my screencast. And how to record new snippets of audio to replace audio that I messed up in the original recording. And how to write timed closed caption files to upload to Panopto and YouTube whenever I upload a video.
  • Plus I now have a YouTube channel
    I was thinking about how to live in a world where help-seeking will look really different compared to the extremely in-person-based methods we generally use at my institution. I can’t rely on people happening to see me when they come to print their papers. I can’t rely on people wanting to email me rather than talking to me on the sidewalk. So in the spirit of “be where they are” I’m trying to be more in their Google results… hence my brand new YouTube channel. I’m planning to put all the videos I make (that aren’t super specific to a particular assignment or class) up on YouTube so that if students Google something research related they’re more likely to find me and then be reminded of the things I taught them in our library session. Right now, it’s home to a playlist I made for a French course on getting started with Zotero. (If you watch it, please look past my stumbles…)
  • Moodle Integration
    I worked with our Moodle person on campus to get the LibGuides LTI working, so now we can get appropriate guides sucked right into Moodle. I still wish that there was something easier than custom metadata that would allow this kind of interaction, but right now the fiddly custom metadata route is the price we’re paying for more seamless integration into what has become students’ primary classroom. Such is life.
  • More chat reference widgets
    I made a chat widget to integrate into several of our core database platforms, and our eResources person is working on getting those loaded.
  • Custom vs Generic
    One big thing I’m wrestling with right now is when to do highly customized instruction (which is our norm) and when to provide generic videos paired with assignments, guides, and/or Q&A sessions. Students here really respond to the personalized, custom, course-integrated work we generally do, and this funnels them into our liaison appointments quite nicely. But I simply can’t do that in the current environment 100% of the time. 6 short Zotero videos took me most of a week’s work… So which things need to be exactly how customized? For example, I have an upper level course in one department where I know students get very few opportunities for library instruction before their senior thesis, so even though they need a pretty generic thing from me, I decided it was important to have that thing delivered all in my own voice rather than in equally good (or better) videos made by my colleague. I want them to know that I’m their librarian. But then for a first year seminar I kind of want to find videos from my colleagues as much as possible so that they come away having learned that there’s a whole team of librarians at this library, all of whom are awesome and available to help students throughout their college careers.

So yeah, nothing earth shattering here, but that’s where my brain’s been for the last while, ricocheting wildly between big things and little things – solvable things and unsolvable things. And now I’m going to go back to story-boarding a couple of videos for core concepts that I teach ALL THE TIME, and that take 5 minutes or less in a classroom, but will probably take me several hours to put into video form… Wish me luck!

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What advanced researchers need to know about using the MLA International Bibliography

I live and breathe the MLA International Bibliography. I’m liaison to literature departments, language departments, and linguistics, so it’s pretty much home base for me. And using it is one of the reasons I’m very very grateful to have taken some cataloging/indexing courses while getting my library degree. I will never have the skills necessary to be a cataloger/indexer (those people are amazing!), but a few years into teaching the MLA-IB I realized that one of those pesky rules that I hadn’t quite grasped was completely ruling my chances of success in that database. This is still very much a librarians’ database, and it’s the only database where I find it important to explain its history to my upper level students so that they can have any chance of mining its treasures.

Three pieces of history matter a lot for this database:

  • indexing rules
  • the long legacy of the print index
  • and the almost complete lack of abstracts in the index.

Remember back in indexing class when people dozed off while the professor said something about “aboutness” and about balancing that with local policies about how many indexing terms to assign to any individual item? And remember how, back in the days of the print index, every item had to be listed under the subject headings it was assigned, resulting in increased use of paper directly proportional to the number of subjects it got? I don’t know the MLA’s internal policies on numbers of subjects, but I do know that indexers have it deeply ingrained that they are to assign the fewest number of terms that most completely describe the piece. Every term assigned should describe the full work (its “aboutness”) rather than just parts of the work, and there really shouldn’t be more than a few terms from the same term hierarchy level on any item. The reasoning being that if you need, say, 5 sub-terms from the hierarchy to describe the work, then really you should just use the next broader term because clearly that term is better at expressing the work’s aboutness. Historically, adding additional terms was a very real, practical matter of the physics and economics of publishing, and even now there’s a limit to how many terms it’s feasible to attach to any given record.

And sure, these things exist for most other indexes that have a long history, but the MLA-IB exacerbates all this by mostly not including abstracts. So people can’t kind of muddle through on keyword searching as much because there are just so many fewer words involved in the first place. Not much of a safety net. Not only that, but high end modern systems (like Google) have background thesauri so that if someone types in “heart attack” it’ll say, “Oh, that’s the same is myocardial infarction, so I’ll return those results, too, and maybe this person is confused about the exact cause of the heart attack, so let’s throw in some information about arterial sclerosis.” (They hire computational linguists for a reason! Also, sometimes I hate this “help” so very much, but that’s a rant for a different day — basically I want it to know when to do it and when not to do it.) So that’s even more safety nets. But back in the MLA-IB, lacking all these safety nets, people really have to pay attention to the indexing in a very literal way.

Here’s how you can see that playing out. Search for “Woolf, Virginia” as a subject in the MLA-IB. You’ll get several thousand results because scholars love to study her work. Now, the first thing to note is that (as we all know) works that simply mention her somewhere in the argument won’t list her as a Subject. She gets listed if the full work’s aboutness depends on her. So that’s already a caveat to note for future search strategies.

But let’s say you really want works that are really ABOUT Virginia Woolf, and you would like to explore the scope of what people have written about gender and her work. That’s pretty typical, right? She’s a cornerstone of feminist/queer literary criticism for a reason. But if you search for the Subject “Woolf, Virginia” and then AND in the keyword “gender” you get 250 results. So I tell students to use their critical thinking skills and think about this result list. Is it really likely that less than 4% of literary criticism addresses Virginia Woolf’s depictions of gender? No, it is not very likely. Not likely at all. So this is where those indexing rules kick in.

If the indexer decided that the work was about gender – nothing more specific than that – then the indexer would assign that subject heading. But scholars are usually much more specific than that. They narrow their topics. They write about Virginia Woolf’s depiction of women, men, boys, girls, masculinity, femininity, sex, sexuality, gender, misogyny, ….. So only if a work of scholarship dealt significantly with several of those narrower terms would the indexer move up the hierarchy to “gender.” Relatively rare, right? So the way to get around this is to search for narrower terms ORed together (I sometimes call this “teaching the computer what I mean by gender”). And remember to OR in some narrower terms that are the opposite of the main topic, too. So if I’m interested in the depiction of femininity, articles on masculinity can be almost equally useful, or they can point me to useful literature through their bibliographies.

One more thing to note: this applies to authors and their works as well. If you’re searching for a particular poem, you can OR together the poem and the name of the collection it was originally published with (if applicable) and the name of the poet if the previous two don’t pull in enough results, or OR together specific shakespeare tragedy play names if you’re interested in Shakespearean tragedy, or specific European country names plus “Europe.” You get the idea. The MLA-IB is not a database that functions in a post-boolean, single search box world.

Which brings us to taking notes about terms associated with your topic. This is just utterly and completely necessary if you’re going to spend time in the MLA-IB. As you’re reading and searching, keep adding to your list of words associated with your topic and play around with those in your searches. And watch bibliographies for useful new vocabulary, because unlike search (which is just matching letters-in-a-row in a very, very literal way), bibliographies are compiled by humans who know the field and can tell if a work is related by more than just pure letter-matching.

For really advanced students starting long-term research, this is where I teach them how to save searches and do advanced searches that link previous searches. So say you spent a really long time developing an extensive ORed together “definition” of what you mean by “gender.” Save that search. Then you can go into your search history and AND it together with other topics (searches for Mrs. Dalloway, maybe, or To the Lighthouse). That way you can pretty efficiently explore how your broad topic looks when applied to various literary works or genres or themes or whatever.

Three final mini-tips, especially for foreign language literature:

  1. The MLA-IB doesn’t parse accent marks well (they were entered in various encodings over the years, if entered at all), so you pretty much always get better results if you leave them out.
  2. Translated works are indexed under their translated name and their original name. Find that original name and do your subsequent searches using that original name as a subject. If things seem inconsistent, try ORing together both names.
  3. Don’t want just things that are ABOUT Virginia Woolf, but also anything that mentions her? That’s when you skip out of the MLA-IB into a full text search system like JSTOR or Project Muse. No one tool can do it all.

So there. That’s pretty much my one area of “expertise” as a librarian for literature. So now you know all my secrets.


Result lists as a genre of writing

Idea – by me

I’ve been having a bit of an up-and-down teaching term this Fall — some classes going really well and some falling flat — but one thing that I’ve really enjoyed is that so many of the classes I’m working with are in new subject areas for me, or are taking different approaches than I’ve taken before. It’s felt like everything is new, an experiment, and if I look at it in that light I feel just a little better about the term as a whole.

One recent experiment consisted of actually speaking words in a lower level class that I’ve been mulling over off and on for years but have only ever uttered once in an advanced seminar several years ago. And I think it was ok. I think it was worth the few minutes of time it took, and I’ll think about where I can work it into other teaching I do.

The words? “Result lists are a genre like any other genre of reading. They may look different from tool to tool, but they all conform to certain conventions, and you can read a result list like a type of document, applying genre-specific reading strategies just like you’d approach an article differently than a mystery novel.”

The class I was teaching was of a type that I generally really enjoy: teaching students how to read instrumentally in order to do better research. And we talk about different kinds of reading: skimming, deep reading, and reading instrumentally. In lower level classes this generally involves me passing out a short reading (usually a newspaper or magazine article) and having students work together to generate lists of topics, key terms, and names associated with those topics by reading the article carefully. Sometimes I have them do this with the aid of a worksheet and sometimes I just do it with them on the chalk board.

And this time I added reading result lists as a type of reading that has its own specific place in a research strategy. Result lists come in many forms, but they will all help reveal the range of questions authors seek to answer that involve the search terms you use, patterns in authors or publications that revolve around the terms you used, and clues about the vocabulary of your topic which you can then take note of and use to revise your searches. They are highly condensed, jargonized reference “entries” that teach you a lot about patterns of publication, about vocabulary, and about where you can go next with your searching.

In this particular class I didn’t elaborate on speech genres in general, or explain that they’re “relatively stable types of utterances” that operate within a particular context and reflect “specific conditions and goals” (Bahktin 60). I didn’t even indulge in a geeky digression into the ways that “secondary” speech genres “arise in more complex and comparatively highly developed and organized cultural communication” (Bahktin 61-62). Does this remind you of scholarly communication pathways and norms? Disciplinary discourse conventions? Yeah, me too. But in a 45 minute class with first year, first term students I thought maybe Bahktin was a bridge too far.

Even so, understanding result lists in this way has really helped me, over the years, to get away from the frustration of “failed searches” and become far more comfortable with the idea that spending time opening results here and there and quickly gathering vocabulary and a sense of publishing patterns is one of the quickest ways to arrive at useful results, even if it at first feels like taking detours through a swamp full of weeds. I hope it will help those students, too.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1987. “The Problem of Speech Genres.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Edited by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Slavic Series. Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 60-102.

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Tangible information literacy

Books HD
Photo by Abhi Sharma

One of the professors I work with a lot on campus has me join her American Studies Methods course a couple of times each term she teaches the course. The first time centers around three main questions:

  1. Where does your research question sit within the theory of the field?
  2. Where does the information you’ll need to explore your question sit within the archive of the field? (“Archive” here means the universe of sources useful within the field.)
  3. And how much of the archive of the field is necessary for your purposes?

Last year we had them mind-map their research questions onto the blackboard in among the major topics of American Studies research that they’ve been studying. Then we used these mindmaps as the basis for search strategies for primary and secondary sources.

This year for various reasons we didn’t do a full class on the information literacy of American Studies. Instead, I visited their class for the full class period and participated in their conversations about the two readings assigned for that day, pitching my participation to help draw out the patterns of information use in each of the readings.

What can we tell about the theoretical foundations of the author’s claim based on the bibliography? Who are the major voices the author claims as theoretical kin? What kinds of primary sources appear and how does the author use them? Why these sources and not others?

To help us grapple with the archive of these readings, I spent the morning hunting down every single primary and secondary source that Amy Kaplan used in her article “Manifest Domesticity” (American Literature 70.3 (1998): 581–606) and piled them up on the classroom tables. We had print copies of many of the early 19th century monographs and periodicals that Kaplan marshaled in her readings of the overlap between the rhetoric of empire building and of domesticity. What we didn’t have in print we had in digitized primary source collections, so I could print off a few pages of each. And of the secondary sources we had ready access to all but 2 of the books, one of which could have come over from St. Olaf if I’d planned ahead a little more.

So there we sat, exploring Kaplans scholarship while her archive lay there in front of us for direct exploration, manipulation, and interrogation.

I’m not sure what the students got out of the exercise. I hope they sensed the possibilities for their own research – that writing from 190 years ago is not exotic and out of reach and that the major voices in their field are represented here in our library’s collection. I hope they enjoyed holding paper and ink from the 1830s in their own hands. I especially hope that they sensed the vital research practice of mining other scholars’ bibliographies.

For me, I experienced wonder at just how much is accessible these days even in a curricular collection on a small liberal arts college campus. And I admit that it was a thrill to open those pages and see what other scholars saw, exactly as they saw it.

It certainly wasn’t a traditional library session, but I hope it was as useful. It was certainly fun.

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