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Category: First Year Students

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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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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Things we know about how information works that our students do not (yet)

Sometimes when I teach first year students how to use a book (the table of contents and index are the “google of the book” telling you what’s inside and where to find what you want) I get shocked looks from profs. In fact, last week one prof argued gently with me that I was surely mistaken that this kind of thing was news to our first year students. Surely they know how books work, how periodicals work, or that encyclopedias are often ordered alphabetically.

Well, thank goodness for Barbara Fister who just started compiling a list of just these kinds of things, where we have a tacit understanding of how information works but our students do not. Everything on her list resonates strongly with me and my experience of first and second year students.

Go read it! Tacit Knowledge and the Student Researcher


Teaching a session after they’ve written the paper

So here’s something I would never have thought of on my own but turns out to have been really great.

A professor that I work with often was teaching one of the 100-level Writing Seminars that get offered with some regularity. He’d set up the class so that students would have practice doing a variety of kinds of writing (observational, persuasive, etc), and they’d be reading a lot of op ed kinds of things (as well as They Say / I Say by Graff and Birkenstein) along the way to seed discussions and to model their writing on. Pretty typical first year writing seminar fare.

He was also working in formal drafts by having papers due and graded, and then having the term’s final paper be a reworking of one of those papers, using it as a glorified draft. And here’s where things got kind of interesting.

They didn’t really need me early on in the course. He wasn’t asking for more than could be found on the open web up until the time of the final paper, so having me come early would have been a waste of everyone’s time as they wondered what they were doing with me, I wondered what I was doing with them, and we all promptly forgot about the whole thing. But then by the time they might need me, they’d already written a pretty good version of their papers.

“That’s fine!” I said, “They need to know that the research process isn’t linear anyway, so let’s really and truly demonstrate going back to the research steps after having thought critically about their papers.” And so we did. Here’s how it went (it was a 2-hour class session):

Class Discussion

They spent the first third of class discussing the days’ reading, Evgeny Morozov’s “The Death of the Cyberflâneur” from the New York Times. As they did so, I noted down the phrases from the work that they were referencing, the related topics that they were connecting this work to, etc. (I also participated in the discussion a bit, because it was fascinating and lively.)

Following Up and Website Evaluation

As the discussion was wrapping up, the professor asked me, “How would we find out more about Morozov? Is he respected? Has he written other things?”

Chalkboard after class

So I, of course, started from his Wikipedia page, which always gives us a chance to talk about the uses and misuses of Wikipedia, which leads into a nice discussion of authority and how we determine it, which always ends with us agreeing that finding out who caused something to be put up online has a lot to do with how much weight we give to whatever it is we’re looking at. As we found things, I also started a little mindmap on the chalk board of the kinds of topics Morozov publishes on as well as the related terms/topics that had come up during their discussion.

(This is actually not the best example of how this mind-map worked because we did a lot of talking and I did less writing, so you can’t really see that we were using it not just to visualize the topic but also to come up with related terms to use for later search. But more on that in a bit)


Research and your final paper

The professor and I both talked a bit about the process of looking critically at your drafts to identify where your reader may need you to give them some evidence before they’ll be willing to follow you along from point A to point B. Evidence is like a bridge that you construct to fill the gap between where your reader is and where you’d like them to be.

Circular research process

Furthermore, this process of having a really good draft in hand, reading it critically, and then finding new evidence to fill gaps you didn’t see before is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s great! The research process is circular, so trying to hammer it out flat will often get you less great results.

See? It looks like this. You are currently re-examining your topic. Again. And ideally you’ll do it often.

At this point we had them pair off, exchange their drafts, and work together to identify places where either hard evidence or other external voices might help them make their papers more effective. Then they reported on their discussions and we all brainstormed together where those kinds of sources might have been published — books? newspapers? scholarly articles? blogs?

They were pretty invested in also talking about readability and tone and stuff, which wasn’t really the point of the exercise, but which I pointed out also has an impact on the kinds of sources you might choose. If you’re going for a very coloquial tone, you might not need an analysis of a massive World Bank data set. Maybe you could just find a journalist reporting summary figures.

Anyway, from here we went into actual searching. We listed off the major kinds of sources that people said they’d need (predictably it was newspapers, census statistics, articles and books). I told them that the strategies were were going to use to find newspaper articles and to find scholarly articles would also help them find books and more web sources (free text vs indexing searching, but I didn’t say that). We worked from their research guide and we used the Cyberflâneur article’s topic (already somewhat mindmapped and already fully discussed in class) as our example.

Taking terms that we’d already seen used in the day’s readings and in Mozorov’s wikipedia article and in our mind map, clumped them into topics, so that we could say “If I’m doing research on social networking, relevant articles may not have used that term but may have talked about the names of specific social networks, like Facebook or Twitter. And if I’m talking about individualism in this context, other terms like privacy or performativity or “personal data” might be useful.” (This part of the class is always highly interactive, with them supplying nearly all of the terms and me putting them on the board or into our search boxes.) Then I do my brief venn diagram of Boolean to show how to teach the computer what we mean by “social networks” and “individualism,” and then we do that on the screen. We talk through the weirdness of the computer not understanding words, just matching letters in a row, so our job is to come up with words that would likely appear in a useful article but would likely not appear in all articles. (If this process of using terms in our readings to help us generate searches, yes, this is the Term Economy and Instrumental Reading at work.) Then we look at our results, map the interesting ones, glean the interesting terms, and make another search.

The class wraps up with them doing this on their own topics, using the Term Diary to track the useful terms they’re finding, and then reporting back to us some of the more useful/interesting terms they found that they wouldn’t have thought to search on in the first place.

And there you have it. My first experiment with teaching for students who had already written their papers. I really have to hand it to the professor for setting things up this way, and for starting us off with a discussion the way he did. He got their participatory juices flowing and I just road that momentum, but it sure made for a fun class session.