Reflecting on Reflection

I’ve said this all along and believe it even more so now that I’m on the other side of my own attempt at blogging – to blog is a brave thing.

Photo Credit: Eustaquio Santimano via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eustaquio Santimano via Compfight cc

A blog asks that I invite you as the reader into my thought process. Not only am I being asked to reflect on the things that I do and why I do them, I am asked to share those things with the world. Reflection requires that I be vulnerable and honest with myself. Reflection via blog ads an extra layer of vulnerability on top of that.

Dr. Stephen D. Brookfield is well known for his work within the field of critical reflection and reflective teaching. My background in education taught me that as a classroom teacher one of the important things that I needed to do after teaching was to take some time to reflect – how did my lesson go? Did the students learn what I intended for them to learn? What should I change the next time I teach these objectives? What worked really well? What completely flopped? But, as you probably are aware, knowing you should do something and actually doing something are two very different things. Since the concept was taught to me in my educational methods classes, reflection has consistently been the thing that I knew I should do, but if I was going to let one thing slide in my lesson planning and teaching that would be it. Brookfield calls this “teaching innocently.” The word innocent makes it sound nice, but the truth is that it’s actually a pretty naive way to approach teaching and life in general.

In this case, to teach – or to work – innocently means that I assume that I’m always in the know about what is going on. It assumes that the things that we do – the way I explain a database search, the way that we organize information, even the objectives that I try to cover in a given class  – always do what we intend for them to do. It sounds like a laissez faire approach to teaching and to life. The truth is that a lack of reflection can lead to ongoing frustration. When we don’t reflect we don’t have a way of understand the whys of when we do well or when we fail. In a sense, teaching innocently or living without reflection keeps us from knowing how to recreate the good and to change the bad.

Now that I have fourteen blogs under my belt, these are a few of the things I’ve been reminded or reconsidered during my semester of reflection -

  1. This blogging thing is harder than it looks. I admit this fact to my bloggers as we begin each semester, but there is nothing like trying to do it yourself to drive home a point. The process of blogging in academia takes a careful balance of guts and discipline – two of which things that I often find myself in limited supply. Writing here is a delicate dance of – This is what I want to say. Can I say that? Does that make any sense? It’s what time?!
  2. The process is worth more than you think. Yeah, yeah, I’m supposed to reflect. I’m in an environment that stimulates me to question the world around me. I knew that reflection was good for me both personally and professionally. I’ve been surprised to find that reflecting on the blog (and weekly the impending deadline) has caused me to be reflective in other areas of my life. Along the lines of what David Splawn pointed out last week, writing a blog means that you are constantly on the look for things to write about. This semester I’ve found myself thinking about classroom experiences, the science of information, and how my faith influences my service as a librarian more than I can remember doing in the past.
  3. We all bring something unique to the table. Having followed this and other blogs like it for quite some time, I kind of already knew this one. Still, this semester has been an excellent reminder of what we can learn from each other. I’m no fan of vulnerability, but the truth is, the more that we are able to share with each other the more that we are able to understand. We have such a diverse body of knowledge on this campus, but it is so easy (and often tempting) to stay  in our own disciplines. This blog has given glimpses into the world of theatre, english, religion, communication, biology,  leadership, kinesiology, and sociology in ways that I would never be able to experience otherwise. I can’t know everything and while I learn from experience, I’d like to learn from your experiences too. Friends, I am grateful for the sharing.
  4. None of us gets it all right all the time. This is where the vulnerability thing really stands out. Engaging in reflection does point out the things that we do well – those are the things we like to talk about. I need to remember what worked and what didn’t. I need to think about why one thing worked with one class and totally fell flat with another group of students. Reflection reminds me that I’m not perfect – it also reminds me that I’m not terrible either.
  5. Not just a job, it’s a calling. Sometimes in the day in and day out we forget. We forget why and for whom we do the things that we do. I’m so immersed in my discipline of information science that I rarely take the opportunity to step back and look at what this library thing looks like from the outside world and how/if it makes the impact that I think it does. Reflection has helped me think about my every day tasks in light of the bigger picture of what I love (and don’t love)  about my profession.
Photo Credit: Gigi Thibodeau via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Gigi Thibodeau via Compfight cc

One last anecdote I’ll share before I sign off for the semester (I’ve also been reminded that I’m can be a rather long-winded writer):

Earlier in the semester I ranted about hearing someone on the radio talk about the anatomy of a chicken egg and mistakenly claim that there is an umbilical cord in said chicken egg. If you read that blog, you need to know the rest of the story (cue Paul Harvey). Weeks later I received a letter from Grace, the child I’ve sponsored through Compassion International for six years. Gracie draws me pictures of things she sees around her or things that she is learning in school in each letter that I receive. I kid you not, this last letter that I received had a nicely drawn, correctly labeled diagram of… the parts of a chicken egg. I cannot make this up, people. Through Compassion, Grace is learning valuable life skills that help her understand the world around her. Meanwhile, reflection is helping me find connections in the strangest of places and reminding me of all that I still see through the mirror dimly.

EDP

Access & Equality

When I first tell people that I’m a librarian, I’m often asked about what the profession is like in the digital age. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but people sometimes have a difficult time imagining just what it is that I do now that “the books are gone.” For starters, the books aren’t gone and libraries are still and have always been about information. Despite the changes that the library has encountered in the centuries since Alexandria, there is one thing that stands out in my mind when I think about the mission of libraries –

Access.

Photo Credit: mythic_moonlight via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mythic_moonlight via Compfight cc

This past week I attended the Texas Library Association Conference and caught this nugget from author David Baldacci’s speech during the General Session,

“With rising illiteracy rates comes increased inequality.”

It reminded me of the role that libraries play in providing equality within the information landscape. Baldacci highlights the level of inequality that is experienced by those who are unable to read. A person who is not able to read is at a significant disadvantage in our information culture that relies heavily on the written word. But what about those who can read and aren’t able to access the information? They also are find themselves on an unlevel playing field when it comes to making life decisions and engaging with the world around them. I would add to Baldacci’s statement in saying that with limited access to information comes increased inequality.

Libraries attempt to stand in the gap to provide access to information for all regardless of race, gender, or income level.

The American Library Association advocates for information access and makes strong statements about the library’s call to providing “equity of access” to its patrons.

“Equity of access means that all people have the information they need-regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers. It means they are able to obtain information in a variety of formats-electronic, as well as print. It also means they are free to exercise their right to know without fear of censorship or reprisal.”

As a Christian and as a librarian, I consider my role in working to provide this access to information as a high calling on my life. Librarian and author Gregory A. Smith highlights the core values of Christian librarians in light of the biblical commandments to love. In his essay, Smith discusses several different virtues of librarianship that use Jesus’ teachings about love to provide a framework for library service. Smith uses Jesus’ call to us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” as confirmation that God intends for us to continue to grow throughout our lives in each “facet of our personality.” Smith suggests that this command to continue in all aspects of our growth has implications for librarians –

“We are called to provide access to information so as to lead our patrons to well-being in every area of life–physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.”

Photo Credit: lisainglasses via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: lisainglasses via Compfight cc

So when I’m asked about the library “since books” or if I think we will be able to continue our mission into the 21st century, I try to respond by talking about information access. While illiteracy is still certainly a recognized barrier to equality, the evolving information landscape comes with its own hurdles for access.

 

But everything is free now since we’ve got the internet, right?

Wrong.

Since I entered the profession in the late 2000s (and probably years before that) we have been talking about the digital divide. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 16% of American households do not have a computer at home (desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone) and one quarter of Americans do not have any form of internet access at home. Some may say that 16% and 25% aren’t terrible numbers when it comes to digital access to information – that’s unless of course you happen to find yourself within the 16 or 25%. Access continues to be a problem despite and because of the digitization of information.

Access and equality go hand in hand. Libraries still have a place in today’s world and as librarians we have a call to continue to provide our users with access to information be it print, digital, or otherwise.

EDP

In Praise of Scholarly Conversations, Conferences, and Diversity

TLA Sync Up! 2015

TLA Sync Up! 2015

This morning as I packed my bags for another adventure (Texas Library Association Conference 2015), I thought about the variety of librarians that I would encounter this week. Conferences have always been one of my favorite ways to continue my education. When I talk to students about scholarly communication, I explain journals by pointing out that scholars are usually not able to get together in one room to share their research so one of the ways that they “talk” to one another is by publishing their research in academic journals. Of course, each time I use this example to teach the concept of scholarship as conversation I am thinking in the back of my mind that there are exceptions in the form of conferences. One special time a year when my disciplinary “peeps” are gathered together in a convention center and are completely immersed in the world of libraries.

When we talk about scholarship, I can’t help but be enthusiastic when I think about what is about to conspire. The scholarly conversation that is usually given to me a few times a year in print is going to unfold right in front of me. I’ve been invited to listen in on the great things that are happening in Texas libraries and libraries across the United States – perhaps even around the world. Even better, I’m going to spend a few days with a group of people who know exactly where I’m coming from because they are from the same kind of place. We can share ideas for better instruction, find out new ways of providing information services, and talk about ways to engage our college students with the library. What’s not to love?

Stereotypes, We've got 'emThis will be my third TLA to attend and one of the things that always stands out to me is the diversity that can be found within my own profession. I joke to my non-librarian friends that at a library conference I can expect to see a wide range of librarians – from fanny packs to tattoos and everything in between. Despite the persistence of the librarian stereotype,  as I scroll through my conference session offerings I’m once again reminded of the many parts and personalities that make up the modern library as we know it. Being that this week is also National Library Week, I would like to take a cue from my fellow blogger Traci Ledford and highlight just a few of the different types of librarians that I’ll be rubbing shoulders with in Austin this week. TLA has 28 “round tables” to reflect the diverse interests of its members. By highlighting just a sampling of these interest groups, I am hoping that you’ll get just a glimpse of what variety exists within my profession –

  • Acquisitions and Collection Development – Having once been a part of this fine group, I can tell you that this is a fun job that also requires a tremendous amount of what seems like constant analysis. These people are responsible for acquiring and maintaining the collections within libraries. They devote their time to studying patron needs and interests to make sure that the information that you need/want is available to you. They also work diligently to ensure that you have access to the most quality information available. They study gaps in the collection, weed items that are no longer correct/relevant/usable, and carefully evaluate their ever-shrinking budget to make the best decisions in terms of spending.
  • Archives, Genealogy, and Local History – If you want to have a fascinating conversation about history, these are your go to people in my world. This group is taxed with the task of preserving and providing access to history – can you fathom how big of a job that must be? The specialized training that they must continue to undergo within this field is extensive and they have my utmost respect. If you have ever watched one of those genealogy shows (PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow or NBC/TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?) and wondered how they just “happened” to find that obscure document detailing the whereabouts of someone’s second cousin twice removed, I can guarantee you that someone from this branch of the discipline was involved.
  • Automation and Technology - Often referred to as “systems librarians” this talented group of people is devoted to “the art and science of combining the principles of librarianship with the abilities of computing technology.” If you haven’t already noticed, today’s libraries aren’t about books. One could make the argument that they never really were – they are about information and access. Books were just the way that it happened up until the age of computers. Today’s library relies heavily on technology and to make all of that happen, we need a specialized professional who knows the theories of librarianship and can speak the language of computer science. From hardware to website design to intricate software, this group is vital to making information accessible in the 21st century.
  • Cataloging and Metadata – When I describe these professionals to my students, I generally stick with “these people make my job much easier and make my information skills look much more impressive.” The cataloging librarians of the world create reliable search experiences for library users by categorizing information, setting and maintaining standards, and providing subject analysis of the library collection. You as a library user should know of the extraordinary attention to detail that goes into every single catalog record that enables you to almost instantly find the book on the keyword/subject/author/title you are interested in accessing. As my metadata (the data about the data) professor once said, without a cataloging system basically what you’ve got is a big pile of books. You want Harry Potter? Good luck. See ya next Thursday.
  • Reference and Information Services – The TLA description says, “encourages the advancement of information, bibliographic, and research services in all types of libraries.” This is the area of librarianship that I hope to always call home. Providing reference assistance to patrons who are in need of information gets to the core of why I love being a librarian. These are the question answerers — the constant thought on our brain is “now where would that particular piece of information live?” Reference librarians are those who eagerly await your inquiry and aspire to being able to connect you with that perfect information source.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! This year’s theme for National Library Week is “Unlimited Possibilities @ your library.” While it is meant to draw attention to the fact that libraries are more than just warehouses of books, the theme makes me reflect on the career paths within my own discipline. As Traci highlighted earlier, these people I am called to work with paint us a picture of community – one body, many parts. Whether they come with cardigans and buns or hipster glasses and tattoos, I’m glad to be numbered among this diverse group of professionals.

EDP

You teach???

Ah, the two word question that I have found myself answering for the last four or five years… “You teach?”

I think I first encountered a version of this question as I talked to my sister about my new job here at ETBU in 2011. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’ll be the Manager of Instruction & Information Services for ETBU.”

Sister: “What do you actually do in that job?”

Me: “Well, a large part of it involves teaching students about information and the library.”

Sister: “Oh no, you’re going to be like that boring library lady that used to come to our college classes.”

That exchange has become a part of my narrative when I venture out to classrooms and introduce myself to students for the first time. I always let them know that one of my goals in any instruction session is to not live up to the “boring library lady” stereotype. I think sometimes I succeed… other times, it may be a toss up!

All that to say, that yes, librarians (especially instruction librarians) teach.

I’ve mentioned before the I tend to acquire random things in my travels. One such trinket is a small, brown paperweight that occupies a space on my desk.

This paperweight has high expectations.

This paperweight has high expectations.

Full disclosure, I purchased this as a reminder for myself when I was still teaching language arts in the middle school classroom. That’s right… you can’t scare me. I taught middle school and I liked it. At the time, I think I probably used this as an encouragement that what I was doing mattered and was somehow to contribution to the world. But today? Some would say that this belongs with my boxes of classroom teacher stuff now that I’m a librarian. While my role has shifted and the “teaching” often happens in a different context, I keep this out to remind myself to reflect on what it is that I’m doing and how it makes an impact on the world around me.

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

To answer the “you teach” question, let me first acknowledge that some of the impetus behind that question stems from a general misunderstanding of the librarian’s role in the 21st century. Back in the day we were the gatekeepers – we had the stuff and you had to come through us to get it. We amassed literal towers of information in areas that were referred to as closed stacks – just in case you didn’t get the picture. Now the gate has been flung wide open and there are even places where the fence is down. Perhaps it is because I’ve only been a librarian in the time that is sometimes called the Information Age, but I am excited about this shift (although, I’ll admit that having the title Official Keeper of Information would be pretty great).

While some seem to think that the Information Age has made librarians obsolete (HA!), the truth of the matter is that if anything, having a librarian there to help you navigate the tidal wave of information is that much more important. The extensive changes in the ways we access information should be giving librarians a more active and vital role within the context of learning and the research process. For today’s student, the research process has gone rogue and is full of moving parts that can simultaneously make it the most accessible and daunting time in our information history.

We librarians used to be the keepers of the information… now we are more like the guides in the information jungle.

When do librarians teach? It seems obvious to say that instruction librarians teach when they are called upon to provide information literacy instruction to students. We generally are asked to teach what we call “one-shot” sessions in which we attempt to provide customized information literacy instruction that will enable the student to make key connections with their own research questions, their discipline’s epistemology, and the specific information landscape for their discipline. But what about the other times that a librarian teaches? Librarians teach one-on-one (sometimes saying the same thing many times a day) with students when they meet with us at the reference desk (or on our chat service, or by text, or by email…). One of the things that I love about this job is that on any given day I could have taught someone something about the information in nursing, business, and biology all in the same day. If I could count the number of one-on-one citation formatting sessions I’ve taught… well, let’s just say the APA and MLA manuals and I are good friends (Turabian and I are still on an acquaintance level in our relationship).

Is it the same as being a classroom teacher? As one who has done both, I’m comfortable with admitting that it is not the same… but it is still teaching. Do I refer to myself as a teacher? Not usually. Despite the misunderstanding of the evolving librarian profession, I still find that the title of librarian fits what I do best.

But do I teach like the world depends on it?

That’s the goal. Maybe not the entire world. But my little corner of it? I hope what I do and how I teach makes an impact on the world. I keep this little brown paperweight on my desk to remind me as I build my lesson plans or meet with a student individually that I believe this to be true – the world depends on the information concepts that we librarians teach. And, hopefully keeping this sentiment in mind as I teach helps me steer clear of becoming “that boring library lady.”

What about you?Do you teach like the world depends on it?

EDP

The characters who change us

The conversation usually starts out like this:

“What types of books do you like to read?”
“I only read nonfiction.
Fiction is a waste of time when there is so much to learn from nonfiction.”

or worse –

“What kind of books do you read?”
“…I don’t.”

Quite honestly, the latter seems to be the more common response. Both of these responses worry me, and no, it isn’t just about job security. Recent studies have done work to confirm what we fiction readers have been experiencing for decades – reading fiction changes you.

via Book HavenOne of the more recent studies that found a correlation between fiction and empathy was conducted by psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York. Using a variety of Theory of the Mind techniques, Kidd and Castano (2013) found that reading literary fiction, specifically, enhanced the reader’s ability to recognize and understand other people’s emotions. There is much debate about what constitutes “literary fiction” and the study authors are hesitant to pin down their own definition, but the study seems to suggest that readers learn empathy skills from novels that focus more on the psychology and emotions of the characters themselves. Whereas popular novels tend to be plot-driven with formulaic characters, literary fiction presents us with characters who challenge our stereotypes, interrupt our perceptions, and teach us how to understand those who are different than ourselves.

Reading fiction allows us to experience other worlds from a safe distance. When we are immersed in the lives of characters, we can listen in on their internal dialog. Where else are we invited to eavesdrop on the inner conversation that takes place in someone else’s mind?

The Bearing Rein – Nature vs. Art in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News

Oddly enough, as an animal lover one of the first books I can remember reading that helped me “experience” the life of another was not that of a human, but that of a horse in Anne Sewell’s classic, Black Beauty. Told in the first person voice of a horse, I was around age ten when I read the story for the first time and I’ve never been able to forget Beauty’s description of the use of a bearing rein:

“York came round to our heads and shortened the rein himself — one hole, I think; every little makes a difference, be it for better or worse, and that day we had a steep hill to go up. Then I began to understand what I had heard of. Of course, I wanted to put my head forward and take the carriage up with a will, as we had been used to do; but no, I had to pull with my head up now, and that took all the spirit out of me, and the strain came on my back and legs…Day by day, hole by hole, our bearing reins were shortened, and instead of looking forward with pleasure to having my harness put on, as I used to do, I began to dread it.”

Since then, my reading has branched out to considering the stories of humans. When I read Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us, I was forced to grapple with the desperation of a German single-mother living in Nazi Germany. I felt the pangs of hunger coupled with the intense desire to exert control when I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s telling of a young girl’s excruciating battle with anorexia in Wintergirls. When my children’s lit professor wanted us to know what it felt like to be a student with ADHD we were asked to read Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key. Even now, as I’ve wandered the roads of East Texas in the past month I’ve entered the world of Noa P. Singleton, a women awaiting what she refers to as X-day as she sits on death row, as she tells me her story via audiobook in first time author Elizabeth Silva’s The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. In fact, I’ve noticed in recent years that especially when I listen to audiobooks, I get so involved in the character’s story that I often find myself making the same facial expressions that I imagine the characters would have while telling their story. Again, odd, but what can I say? These fictional characters somehow become a part of me as I read them.

books_23Another study conducted by Mar, Oatley, and Peterson (2009) also explored the connection between reading and empathy. When observing the relationship between narrative transportation (the ability to “lose” ourselves in a novel’s world) and empathy they stated the following: “It seems that a ready capacity to project oneself into a story may assist in projecting oneself into another’s mind in order to infer their mental states.” The authors point out that more research is needed, but for now, it seems that reading fiction has “important consequences.”

Honestly, the list of fictional characters that I’ve learned from or reference when I encounter a life experience different from my own could go on and on. These stories stay with me in a way that influences how I interact and empathize with the people around me. One of my all-time favorite literary characters taught his young daughter about empathy when he asked her to think about what her teacher must have felt like on her first day of school:

“You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

- Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird

d8a2f6aba69c3cab4037e74dd53d6eb9Reading fiction allows us to try on the “skin” of a character and walk around in it. For every time that I rejoice in a student’s new-found appreciation of a scholarly journal article or climb on my soap box about the value of information, there is an equal part of me that gets excited to talk to people about the place that stories should have in our lives. The next time that you find yourself struggling to understand someone different than you, I encourage you to find a work of fiction with a similar character. The people in our world need us to read fiction so that we can feel with them.

I’ve just scratched the surface on the stories that have influenced me. What about you? What stories have you read that have helped you empathize with someone?

EDP

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen…

We’ve all heard the teamwork phrases before -

There’s no “i” in team…
Two heads are better than one…
Teamwork makes the dream work…

- and still yet, as an introverted K-12 student (and probably as a college student), no words inspired more fear and trepidation than the infamous phrase: “Class, today we’ll be working in groups.”

groupworkeverywhere

Learner confession? I hated group work when I was a student. On further reflection, I think that my dislike for group work was in line with the reasons that student still give for not wanting to work in groups. It takes longer, someone always seem to get stuck with the majority of the work, things might not go my way, and on and on. You’ve heard (or said) the same things.

Teacher/Librarian confession? Despite my own experiences, I often ask my students to work in groups because I recognize that the exchange of ideas is vital to the educational process. Thank you, Lev Vygotsky… and Socrates.

I’ve also learned to look forward to opportunities to work with others within my professional career.

This past Friday Cynthia Peterson (Director of Library Services) and I were able to attend the meeting of the North Texas Library Assessment (NTLA) group hosted by SMU libraries. If you are thinking, “What a fun way to spend a Friday,” then you would be correct. What’s fun about library assessment? Besides the obvious, talking about ways that we can improve the methods that we use to highlight the impact that libraries have on our communities. This particular group’s mission is to “provide a venue for communication and collaboration for library professionals interested in assessment.” Basically, NTLA is a group of people who love libraries and are committed to assessing a variety of aspects about them in order to convey their value.

One thing that my discipline is particularly good at? Sharing ideas.

For instance – at this particularly meeting, I learned that UNT libraries are working to implement a grid of heat map sensors in order to find out what areas in the libraries are most heavily used. How cool is that? Tarrant County College Libraries are offering free information literacy classes and are considering using a badge program to encourage participation. I’ve latched on to the thought about a badge program and have plans for it somewhere down the road.

Working with librarians has taught me to love collaboration.

Sharing ideas, working together, listening to each other – it makes all of our libraries better. While every idea isn’t scalable or applicable, just hearing what others are doing and thinking about how it might impact what we are doing in our own library provides an opportunity to think from a different perspective. It’s probably why I’ve signed up for more webinars, podcasts, journal alerts, listservs, and rss feeds than I care to think about.

I’m also a fan of collaboration within the university. Every information literacy session that I’m able to teach comes out of some amount of collaboration with the teaching faculty. We work together to develop assignments, craft learning outcomes, and ultimately help students to engage with information specific to their discipline. As I’ve said before, reference and instruction is at it’s best when I’m able to collaborate with teaching faculty.

Even as I process my growing appreciation for teamwork, I also realize that working together can be tricky. Perhaps collaboration is somewhat difficult because it requires a certain amount of humility. We can’t do it all ourselves. Reaching out for help reminds us that we don’t know everything. It also requires that we are vulnerable with other people. There’s also the feeling that I can get something done faster when I work on my own. Collaboration is certainly not what I’d call an easy sell.

That being said, the more that I am willing to reach out to my friends and colleagues, the more I’m finding these days that we can do things better together.

Dog & Cat Teamwork Meme

Dog & Cat Teamwork Meme

Case in point: Last week the students in Dr. Ray’s Business Research Methods class needed to learn how to conduct a focus group. My friend and colleague, Dr. Emily Prevost was asked to lend her expertise and teach the students the ins and outs of focus groups. If you know anything about focus groups, you know that it helps to have a client or a problem on which to focus. Cue the librarian. Working together with Dr. Ray and Dr. Prevost, I was invited to engage with the students as a “client.” These students met with me and Dr. Prevost last Thursday to develop the questions about the library that they would be asking their participants. Tomorrow these same students will actually conduct a focus group for the library based on the questions that they developed. Students will be given a chance to conduct a focus group and I’m (hopefully) able to glean some qualitative data about the library and student research skills – isn’t that quite the deal?! By working together with Dr. Prevost, Dr. Ray, and the BRM students, we are able to accomplish much more than we would be able to do independently.

As I reflect on collaboration, one particular chapter of scripture continues to ring in my ears:

“…If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!…” 1 Cor 12:17-21 NIV

So whether you are the eye, the ear, the fingernail, or even the elbow, you’ve got an important part to play. We need you — you need us! This week I challenge you to think of ways that you can collaborate with those around you. What skills have you observed in them that would pair nicely with some of your own goals? What insights could they bring to that stale project that you haven’t touched in a few weeks?

What could you create together?

EDP

Try Something New

Spring Breaks are good for the soul. Can I get an amen?

After observing a moment of silence to commemorate the passing of Spring Break 2015, I spent last night unpacking my bag and preparing to reenter life as I know it. This vacation was rather low key. It did involve a few “treasure hunts” at various resale shops, thrift stores, and estate sales. No matter where my scavenging takes me, I always find my way to the used books section to see what needs to become a part of my collection. Spring Break ’15 exploring resulted in the addition of a mint condition, autographed copy of Art Spiegelman’s The Complete Maus.

The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman

The Complete MAUS by Art Spiegelman

Autograph: Art Spiegelman

Autograph: Art Spiegelman

For those unfamiliar, The Complete Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. It has been hailed by the Wall Street Journal  as “the most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust.” And still, I haven’t read it up until now. Why? As you may have noticed, there is a mouse or maus on the cover. This is a Holocaust narrative told in comic book/graphic novel form where the Jewish characters are mice and the Nazis are cats. To say the least, this form will certainly be a departure for me…

…And I think that’s a good thing.

My all-time favorite course that I took while completing my MLS was Reader’s Advisory. This was the course where we were taught about how to help patrons find their next favorite book. Despite some of the incredible algorithms that have been created to advise a reader in what to read next, reading is still best when it is social and people still ask librarians for their recommendations. And, contrary to popular belief, we don’t get to sit around reading books all day so developing readers advisory skills helps when met with this task.

What I liked about this particular class was that it required me to leave my usual literary comfort zone. If I were left to choose, my go-to books tend to be realistic fiction with strong female (and often Southern) characters, some historical fiction from very specific time periods, nonfiction again limited to certain subjects, and young adult dystopian novels. I’m one of the only librarians that I know that truly does not enjoy the mystery genre – why read the whole thing when I can just skip to the end to figure out who-done-it? Romance and western novels follow too much of a formula for me and so I usually pass those by as well. I can handle some fantasy if it is loosely tied to reality, but sci-fi tends to be outside of my normal preferences. In terms of format, I will read either a book in print or an ebook, depending on what is available to me at the time. For the last several years now I’m finding that I “read” more audiobooks than anything else.

We all have our preferences.

The one that I haven’t figured out how to read and enjoy yet? You guessed it. Graphic novels.

A graphic novel is generally considered to be a long story or novel written in comic book format. Among the vast field of works found within the graphic novel designation, Spiegelman’s Maus is often touted as the preeminent example of this literary form. While comic books first made their appearance in US during the 1920s, graphic novels began to emerge in the 1980s and were seen as the “more sophisticated and better produced comic book.” One author describes graphic novels as neither a genre nor a format: “The term “graphic novel” describes neither a discrete literary genre nor a specific publishing format. Rather, it denotes a sensibility: an attitude taken toward comics.” If a sense, the graphic novel asks us to believe one thing – that comics “deserve more respect.” As someone who didn’t grow up reading comic books and is not really what one would call a “visual learner” I’m going to give this graphic novel thing a try. I’m going to try and respect this format/attitude that has an international fan base. I’m going to

So what does my reading a graphic novel have to do with anything?

Today I’m reminding myself (and you) to try something new.

I am a creature of habit. I have a morning routine (put the dog out, shower, makeup while watching CBS This Morning and sipping coffee, hair, dressed, pet care, out the door), a bedtime routine (it almost always involves a super hot soak in the tub), and I’m one of those people who could eat the same meal for days on end without noticing (especially if it was pizza). I know what I like to read and how I like to read it. And still, there are times when it is good for me to try and work something new into the ordinary.

What good could come of this “try something new” I speak of?

  1. It gives me another way to connect with people. As a librarian, I spend a lot of professional and personal time talking about books. What books have I read? What do I recommend? Have I read the new…? I like to be able to engage with people in these conversations. Trying a new type of literature will give me the ability to talk about it with some of my friends and patrons who deeply appreciate this literary form.
  2. It stretches me. I’ve already said that I can be set in my ways. I’m not really a visual learner and so attempting to read a graphic novel seems to slow me down. It asks me to pay attention the things that I would have skimmed by before. It engages another part of my brain that probably needs to be lit up now and then.
  3. I might actually like it. For every person who can tell me what they love to read, there are at least that many if not more who can tell me exactly what they hate to read. It is interesting to find out later on that sometimes they approach reading something new like a kid with a vegetable. Have they tried it? Nope. But they are pretty sure they won’t like it. I’m hoping that by picking a graphic novel that is from a genre that I’m already interested in reading (Holocaust literature), that I may actually enjoy it.

Have you been waiting to try something new? Let this be your invitation. Eat a new food. Take a different route. Listen to a different genre of music. Throw caution to the wind and read a graphic novel.

I would love to hear about it in the comments below!

The cynic and the critical thinker

Earlier in the semester I was asked to teach one of our Learning and Leading courses in the instructor’s absence. The lesson focused on leadership and critical thinking. As the students and I talked about what critical thinking was I was reminded it can be a difficult concept to explain. When I asked students what they thought critical thinking was I was met quite a few puzzled expressions. One brave student ventured a guess… “is it when you think…. critically?” Well, yes… but what does that really mean? Do we automatically doubt everything that we hear? And what’s the difference between our culture’s tendency toward cynicism and critical thinking?

Let’s face it. These days it is hip to be a cynic.

We are bombarded with information day in and day out. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, we are often misinformed and this spurs our disillusionment or distrust for information and the humans who curate it.

Grumpy Cat via Reddit

Grumpy Cat via Reddit

Admittedly, as someone who still makes the argument that sarcasm is a spiritual gift, I am prone to be somewhat of a naysayer. Couple that personality with a job where I frequently talk to students about the types of information they use, how it is created, and often how it can be misleading can lead me even further down the path to cynicism.

But… there is hope for us yet, my fellow recovering cynics.

In their 2007 book titled Unspun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation, authors Jackson & Jamieson put forth one solid rule to evaluating information: “Be skeptical, but not cynical.”

What’s the difference?

Evidence.

From a philosophical standpoint, skepticism holds that the possibility of knowledge is limited. However, today we popularly speak of skepticism in terms that lean toward a looser definition that describes a general questioning attitude. The word skeptic actually comes from the Greek word skeptikos which means to reflect. Developing this questioning attitude is a part of a becoming a critical thinker.

As Jackson & Jamieson  explain, the separating factor between being a skeptic and a cynic when it comes to information is found in the proof. While the cynic automatically assumes that the information he/she has encountered is false, the skeptic simply demands evidence to support the validity of the claims that are made. A cynic – despite their attempts to be perceived as the opposite – is actually in the same boat as the naïve person. Like the gullible person, the cynic has neglected the evidence and falsely assumed they have the answer.

As the great philosopher Stephen Colbert once said in his commencement address at Knox College, “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge.”

The person with a cynical attitude says, “No. I won’t believe it no matter what you say.” A skeptical thinker says, “That’s interesting. Could you show me the evidence for it?”

In teaching our students how to engage with the world, it is imperative that we model practices of skeptical questioning that help us find the truth. In her Psychology Today article, developmental psychologist Dr. Mary Price-Mitchell outlines some of ways that skepticism can be modeled:

  • Challenge claims by asking for evidence.
  • Engage in metacognition. Ask, “What makes you think this way?”
  • Maintain a healthy dose of doubt. Does the argument or claim even seem logical?
  • Play devil’s advocate. For the sake of the argument, try looking at it from the other side.
  • Use both logic and intuition. Don’t rely on just one.
  • Check your bias barometer. Consult multiple sources and ask questions like, “What’s the other side of the story?”
Photo Credit: atomicity via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: atomicity via Compfight cc

When it comes to information literacy, I find the boundary between encouraging students to be skeptics who question information and pushing them over the edge to becoming another member of the cynical masses is sometimes a fine line to walk. Oft quoted Barbara Fister pointed out why information literacy can be a hard sell when it comes to evaluating information: “…we have to make judgments all the time about things that we don’t know first hand and haven’t made our profession. We have to read and we have to winnow and yes, it’s work.” If you’ve ever heard the exasperated huff of a student who has gone from Googling to searching a database for the first time, you know what I’m talking about. She’s right – critical thinking and decision making takes work… but isn’t the truth worth the effort?

What about being a people of faith? Many Christians believe that faith and skepticism or critical thinking are diametrically opposed. I would argue that doubt and questioning are the stones on which we sharpen our faith. When we use our doubts to ask questions–when we are skeptical of the information we encounter–we have an opportunity to find answers that will develop our faith into a richer understanding of God, of the world, and of ourselves. One of my favorite pastoral authors, Tim Keller talks about faith and doubt: “A person’s faith can collapse overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after a long reflection.”

So let’s be positive skeptics. Let’s be thoughtful, inquisitive, reflective critical thinkers who work to reject what is false and embrace what is true. I want to be a person who is able to say “yes.” As we make our way through the information terrain, it seems to me that we could all use a dose of hopeful skepticism.

Chicken Eggs & Umbilical Cords: Info Lit on the Farm

I wish you all could have heard me as I yelled at my radio while pulling into the campus parking lot last week. The sound you would have heard coming from my vehicle would have been something like this: “Chicken eggs don’t have umbilical cords!” Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say.

Photo Credit: wisefly via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: wisefly via Compfight cc

You probably don’t know this about me, but at one time in my undergraduate life I majored in Agricultural Education. It’s true. In addition to the random bits of knowledge I have acquired as a librarian, I currently have in my knowledge bank information about the different cuts of beef, sheep shearing techniques, and how to judge horse conformation. I also have a fair knowledge of poultry science – many thanks to my fabulous high school ag teachers. It is because of my knowledge of poultry science that I felt confident in shouting back at the radio that despite what the person who had called in said, chicken eggs (or any eggs as far as I know of) do not have umbilical cords.

I had been clicking through my presets on my car radio and landed on a syndicated show that was asking listeners to call in with their strange behaviors to ask the DJs to weigh in on whether or not these people were “crazy” for the things that they did. Having my own peculiar habits (my friends know that I prefer that my food doesn’t touch), this caught my attention. This particular caller stated that she never ate eggs that she had not cooked herself because, “the little white umbilical cord in the egg totally grossed her out.” She went on to say that she believed the umbilical cord in the egg connected the baby chicken with the shell. Um… nope. That’s not how it works.

Please know, my initial concern was not this particular person’s lack of knowledge when it came to poultry science. I don’t expect that everyone has an understanding of the inner workings of a chicken or its egg. What troubled me was that with the exception of one, all of the DJs seemed to accept this as fact. Only one was brave enough to say, “Really? There’s an umbilical cord?” Yes. Go with this thought.

Photo Credit: cafemama via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cafemama via Compfight cc

Of course, I immediately looked it up when I reached my office to confirm my suspicion and remind myself of the anatomy of an egg. If you are interested at this point, the white “squiggly” thing that the caller described is actually called a chalaza and it is a protein structure that keeps the yolk (where the baby chick, assuming it is a fertilized egg, would get its nutrients) from smashing up against the wall of the shell when it is moved. Never fear – no umbilical cord in birds. Actually, if you see the chalaza in an egg you should feel good about the egg you’re about to eat as it is probably a little fresher than others where the chalaza isn’t visible — but enough poultry science for today.

What this whole scenario seemed to be lacking was skepticism. Only one DJ expressed a hint of skepticism, but ended up believing what the group had told him. Not only had this person gone her entire life without anyone telling her or even suggesting that the thing she was avoiding wasn’t actually what she thought it was, but the folks on the radio didn’t bother to question it.

How often do we accept the things that we hear or read without ever questioning whether they are built upon the truth?

An op-ed piece from last week’s NYTimes was cited by librarian Barbara Fister in her blog this week. The article Lies Heard Around the World looks at falsehoods told in politics around the world. Apparently, 2014 was a banner year for political fact checkers. As the article asserts, “Misinformation, unchecked, can turn elections, undermine public health efforts and even lead countries into war.”

My chicken egg concern is obviously small when held next to misinformation in politics. At the very worst, listeners who believed the umbilical cord myth may miss out on some very tasty Eggs Benedict in the future. That said, it can be seen as a very minor symptom of a much larger problem.

We have so much information coming at us that we often forget (or don’t have time) to question its validity.

I’m ranting about misinformed egg consumers, but really it is a huge concern when you stop to think about all of the decisions that are made in the world by people who have taken what they’ve heard at face value. There is a pervasive need in our information landscape for us to be skeptical.

Skepticism is defined as a skeptical attitude; doubt as to the truth of something. It is a key part of critical thinking and I would assert that it is foundational to information literacy. The first step in seeking information is always the realization of a need for information.  If we can model for our students and the rest of the world this practice of questioning the ideas that we encounter, then perhaps we can help them “become discerning consumers of ideas rather than passive accepters of other people’s visions of certainty.” As it has been pointed out, skepticism can quickly lead way to cynicism (more on this next week); however, if we are able to coax out and encourage those moments where students say, “Really?” in response to a statement then I think we are on the right track.

Barbara Fister referred to these observations of information literacy outside of the walls of academia as “information literacy in the wild.” Maybe I’ll consider my chicken egg umbilical cord experience as an instance of “information literacy on the farm.” Either way, it certainly brings home the fact that these are lifelong skills we are teaching.

Now… how do you take your eggs?

EDP

Misinformed

Let me begin by saying that I have tried to avoid this topic. Honestly, I haven’t wanted to touch it with a ten foot pole. That said, it is a part of the world we live in, and as a librarian it comes up frequently in my daily conversations.

Information can get you into trouble.

Better said, misinformation can get you into big trouble.

Recent headlines only further testify to the fact that our society still recognizes that value of truth and reacts strongly to a perceived or real violation of trust. For me, the timeline of misinformation leading up to post unfolded like this:

And that’s just what’s happened in the news that I observed within the last two weeks.

Let’s face it. None of us likes to think that we’ve been misinformed… perhaps even lied to.

The sheer quantity and speed that information comes at us makes it difficult to know what or who to believe. We have a constant stream of information flowing at us all day every day if we let it. Gone are the days when you rushed home to catch the 6 o’clock news or stayed up to watch the 10 o’clock broadcast. We have information coming at us from everywhere… all. day. long.

Photo Credit: adstarkel via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: adstarkel via Compfight cc

Despite our best efforts, knowing whether or not we should trust an information source can be tricky. Those of us who have been trained to be skeptical and critically think about information have a better chance of adequately evaluating a source. It’s for this reason that in nearly every class that I’m asked teach information literacy concepts, I make it a point to talk about the Information Cycle. If we can understand the process that occurred for the information to get to us, we should have a better chance at evaluating its level of reliability.

When I talk to students about evaluating sources they can usually tell me something about the types of sources they might encounter. They know different types of news sources and can give you examples of magazines that they think tend to be more trustworthy than others. Students are well aware of the bias that can exist in news sources. In any given class I can expect that someone will throw out the term “bias in the media.” That being said, student contributions tend to slow down when I start asking questions about peer-reviewed journals and the scholarly publishing process. While they may have been asked to find a journal article in the past, most of them don’t have a firm grasp of why these sources are valued above other options. Once they have an understanding of the process for creating different sources, students are better equipped to navigate the information landscape.

Knowing where the information came from and the creation process that it underwent to get to you is a key element in being able to evaluate how trustworthy a source may be. You have to have an understanding of what went into producing the information and what the purpose of that information is to be able to judge its validity.

The brand new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education talks about information reliability in terms of authority:

Frame 1: Authority is Constructed and Contextual:

“Information resources reflect their creators’ expertise and credibility, and are evaluated based on the information need and the context in which the information will be used. Authority is constructed in that various communities may recognize different types of authority. It is contextual in that the information need may help to determine the level of authority required.”

Can I trust this information? Is this from a reputable source? What was the author’s purpose in creating this information? As we encounter new data in this information deluge it is vitally important that we think critically about where it came from in order to determine its reliability. After all, part of our call to the truth involves making sure that what we share, what we retell, and what believe is in fact the truth – so far as we can tell.

EDP