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

Some Things We Don’t Get to Know

One of the first sentences that I learned to string together was apparently, “I can’t know that,” when I didn’t know something. I can know that I said that because many family members and people who knew me then like to remind me of this fact. It may have been cute toddler babble then, but I can’t don’t know… I’m starting to think that I was on to something. While “can’t” might not be completely accurate, I’m convinced that there are some things that we just don’t get to know.

Early in my career as a teacher I realized that while I worked hard to assess what my students were learning, there were some things that I would not be able to witness them achieve beyond the context of my classroom. Anyone who has taught for more than a year knows that once the students leave your classroom, you often never know where they are going to end up or even what, if any, impact you have made on their lives.

Some things we just don’t get to know.

"George Washington Carver c1910" by not listed - Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington Carver c1910” by not listed – Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This past weekend I spent some time thumbing through my third and fourth grade yearbooks. I was on the hunt for the first name of my third grade teacher, Ms. Hoskins. Unfortunately, the yearbook editors only listed the adults in the yearbook by Mr., Mrs., or Miss so-and-so. The information hunt continues.

I was searching for Ms. Hoskins’ first name because I was preparing for the reading that I will present at the upcoming annual African American Read-In event later this month. I’ve selected a few poems from a collection by Marilyn Nelson titled Carver: a life in poems. The Ms. Hoskins connection comes in because she is the first person that I remember telling me about the contributions of African American scientist Dr. George Washington Carver. I can remember being fascinated by Carver’s story and amazed at how his innovations had shaped the world I lived in. Ms. Hoskins was the first person to teach me about her alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute, and told stories of the incredible accomplishments of its graduates. She made an impact on my life in that third grade classroom. Here I am over two decades later recalling the things that she taught me about the world. And I wonder… does she have any idea that I remember what she taught me?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Fast forward to early in my career as a librarian. I was working the reference desk one afternoon when the phone rang. We were well into the Google era and so we didn’t really get a lot of genuine reference questions via the phone. One that day, though, someone needed the assistance of a reference librarian. The exchange went something like this:

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

“Reference desk. This is Elizabeth, how may I help you?”

“I need to know what the gestation period is for an elephant.”

“Okay. Just a moment and I’ll look up that information for you.” (meanwhile, I’m… Googling the gestation period of an elephant. Yes, sometimes we use Google too.)

“The gestation period of an elephant generally lasts 20-22 months depending on the species.” (I also would have told her the source that I used)

“That’s what I needed to know. Thank you.” (Click)

What just happened here? Did I just help in determining the due date for an elephant? The caller gave me no information about why she needed the information. Was she using this information for a purpose other than satisfying her curiosity? What made her think to contact the local librarian for this information in the age of the internet?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Today I often experience this phenomenon of not knowing when I help a student with a research project or speak to an entire class. Many of my interactions with students are boiled down to somewhere between a 3-minute online chats and a 50-minute one-shot instruction session. Knowing the nature of the job does make me more intentional about forming relationships with students when I am able. Still, there will always be the fact that I don’t see the end results in much of my work. I get them started on their research, but rarely see the final paper. I teach them about the ethical use of information, but I don’t get to see how that plays out for them in practice. As teachers (and teacher librarians) we usually don’t get to see the rest of the story. We plant seeds that we may never have the opportunity to see harvested.

Some things we just don’t get to know…

…And yet, the older I get the more I find that I’m okay with some of the not knowing. 

Admitting that I’m comfortable not knowing something in this world where we pride ourselves in knowing things seems a little risky. After all, I’m a librarian. I’m supposed to be excited about knowing things. And I am… most of the time. I used to think that the uncomfortable thing was not knowing the answer; that was until I got to things that I just flat can’t figure out – things I can’t know.

The Apostle Paul wraps up his well-known writings on love to the Corinthians with a discussion on things that we don’t get to know… yet.

“We don’t know everything, and our prophecies are not complete. But what is perfect will someday appear, and what isn’t perfect will then disappear. When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don’t know  everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us.” 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 CEV

There are still so many things that I don’t get to know. Does Ms. Hoskins know that what she taught to a poofy-haired, snaggletoothed third grader has influenced what I will share with the ETBU community later this month? Highly unlikely. What in the world was that elephant phone call about? Beyond satisfying idol curiosity, I have no idea. What stuck in the mind of the student who sat on the third row of the class that I taught two weeks ago? I haven’t reviewed my assessment data, and so at this point I can only hope.

Let’s take it up a notch. Why do bad things happen? For that matter, why do good things happen? Does what I do help his kingdom come? What is God like? Well, as Paul says, I do have a fuzzy picture. I guess the comforting thing is that while I don’t get to know some things now, God knows them, and hopefully there’s a big YET at the end of some of things I just don’t get to know.

EDP

On Information Literacy

In my first blog this semester I mentioned that one of the things I’m still discovering is how the library and more specifically, information literacy, fits into the idea of faith & learning. As an institution we focus many of our discussions around how to integrate faith and learning in a way that engages students and equips them to make the connections between our disciplines, the world they live in, and their Christian faith. That discussion often brings me to the question – where do faith and information literacy intersect? Or, why in the world do I think it is so important to teach this stuff to our students?

First, I should probably define information literacy for those of you who aren’t immersed in the topic like I am on a daily basis. What is information literacy? The term “information literacy” was actually coined in 1974 by the then president of the Information Industry Association, Paul G. Zurkowski. He began by defining information this way:

“Information is not knowledge; it is concepts or ideas which enter a person’s field of perception, are evaluated and assimilated reinforcing or changing the individual’s concept of reality and/or ability to act. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so information is in the mind of the user.”

From there, Zurkowski puts forth the idea that an information literate is a person who is “trained in the application of information resource to their work.” His assertion was that while most Americans were literate by 1974 (meaning they could read and write), fewer than one-sixth of the population could be considered information literate – able to understand the value of information and use it to meet their needs. We’ve come a long way with the concept of information literacy since then, but for the most part, this still seems to get at the heart of the issue.

Photo Credit: verbeeldingskr8 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: verbeeldingskr8 via Compfight cc

I think most of us would agree with the notion that a person wouldn’t be fully educated unless they could be considered information literate. When a student graduates from the university, he or she needs to have the ability to continue learning on their own outside of a classroom setting. If they don’t know how to locate information, interact with it, evaluate it, and use it to inform their own thinking, how will they ever learn anything beyond what they learned at the ripe old age of 23?

We have not educated the whole student unless we have taught them how to interact with information.

But where does our faith fit in? Is the way we interact with information important to our faith somehow?

Of course it is.

Bill Badke – one of my librarian heroes who also happens to be one of the people who talk about information literacy in light of faith -  explains the intersection of faith and information literacy like this:

“In the world of Christian Higher Education our passion for information literacy – teaching students how to do research well – arises from the fact that we are a faith of the Word. The very concept of the Word, of Jesus Christ the Word, as well the Word of God tells us that we have bedrock on which we can base the growth of knowledge… The very means by which our minds are created to explore and to want to move forward provides us with the opportunity to really make our world a better place. Whatever research [we’re doing] is to advance our understanding of God’s world, of God’s truth, [and] to discover things that we didn’t know were there before. Because of that, student research becomes a significant factor in their education. How are they going to advance their world if they don’t know how to seek and find the truth?

And so that’s where I’ve ended up so far in my quest for discovering where information literacy begins to intersect with who we are as Christians. I have explained it to students like this: If we are called to be people of the truth, then shouldn’t we make sure that what we are reading, saying, and contributing to the conversation is actually truth? Scripture frequently warns us against bearing false witness. It seems that the ethical use of information should be a factor in the conversations we have, the research we conduct, and the stories we tell.

What does information literacy look like in 2015?

For starters, it is crucial that we recognize our need for information – honestly, sometimes that is the biggest hurdle. So much of the time we have already made up our mind about something before we’ve even really stopped to ask a question. From there, we need to know how to find that information – how is it created? where is it kept? how do I get to it? Then when we find it we need to be able to think critically about it. We need to evaluate the information that we encounter to determine its reliability and relevancy to our question. Finally, we need to be able to use the information that we’ve gathered to inform our ideas and influence our decisions.

"The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction — how to teach himself."

Paraphrase of Alvin Toffer’s citation of psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy in Toffer’s 1970 book titled “Future Shock”

If learning is about exploring God’s creation, about discovering new truths, about making the world a better place; then information literacy and faith don’t just occasionally cross paths — they are interwoven. When I teach students about information, I try to make it about more than just how to work database xyz or a demo of the library catalog. The concept that I’m actually trying to teach them is the deep structure of how information works so that they can use it for themselves in the future. As an instruction librarian, my part in the kingdom work includes helping students develop information literacy competencies so that they can continue to advance our understanding of the world. Hopefully, the way that we use information plays a role in the larger story of redemption. I think Gordon T. Smith summed it up nicely when he said,

“Few things are as redemptive as an honest exploration of truth.”

EDP

Reference on Aisle 3

I was asked an actual reference question in the frozen food aisle of Wal-Mart last Friday night. True story.

Photo Credit: spirobolos via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: spirobolos via Compfight cc

In my previous post I rambled on about our need to ask questions and how that all plays out in the world of reference librarians. One of the things I focused on was that a lot of times students find it difficult to approach the librarian at a reference desk. There are all kinds of hypotheses that have been studied as to why this happens. Summary – it happens. Library anxiety is a real thing. Asking questions about things that you don’t know about can be difficult.

Knowing all of that makes having a student ask you a question in the frozen food aisle very exciting. File this one under #smallvictories.

Working and teaching at a small, faith-based institution has been an eye-opening experience for me. The idea of faculty members interacting with students beyond disseminating information and assessing students had not really been a part of my college experience at two state universities. Honestly, it never occurred to me that my professors might actually want to talk to me or be concerned about me beyond what happened during 50 minutes of classroom lecture. If that didn’t occur to me back then, it certainly never occurred to me that there was a librarian on a college campus who would be researching ways that he or she could help me search for information. As my dad says, “Who would’ve thought it?”

All that to say – I get it.

In some ways I can double as my own research subject. It makes sense to me that students don’t realize that librarians are ready, willing, and capable of helping them with their research. After all, when I was them I didn’t know about me either.

So why in the world would a student feel like he could ask me a question about finding research on teacher turnover in the middle of the frozen food aisle on a Friday night? Simple. He had already met me in one of his classes earlier that week.

In all of our research about the information seeking behaviors of students, we have found something that seems to help – face-to-face library instruction.  A 2003 study showed that classroom library instruction increased the “demand for reference services.” The correlation seems fairly obvious to me – meeting the librarian in your classroom helps to establish a librarian/student rapport. In his research  into student perceptions of their professors caring about them, Steven A. Meyers concluded that “caring is a powerful teaching tool.” And while that’s probably not earth shattering news to you today, I must admit that making sure the students know that I care about them isn’t always the first thing on my mind when I start planning my one-shot library instruction. It’s not that I don’t ever think about it – it’s just that I usually have a limited amount of time with them and it is easy for me to get caught up in all that I want to teach them in the next 45 minutes.

Photo Credit: Austin Kleon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Austin Kleon via Compfight cc

So how do I work to build that rapport with students? One study found that 51% of students knew they could meet with a librarian because their professor suggested it. Thirty-seven percent knew it because a librarian had talked to them in class about it. The key to librarians establishing rapport with students seems to be partnerships with faculty and classroom library instruction. I’m so grateful for the relationships that I have with our faculty on this campus and their willingness to allow me to teach their students about the information in their disciplines (and hey, if we haven’t worked together before, let this be your gentle nudge). The spring semester is usually jam-packed with library instruction sessions and I love every minute of it.

I’ve jokingly told faculty that even if the only thing that a student gets out of my library instruction is that I have a name and I’m here to help them with their research that I consider myself successful. Of course that’s not all I hope they get – I’ll talk more later about how information literacy is crucial to educating the whole student and creating life-long learners. The truth is that I hope they get much more than just my name – but even if they don’t, it does seem to be a step in the right direction.

What about you? How do you build a rapport with students?

EDP

Asking Questions

Last week my colleague Will Walker sent me a link to a photo essay blog discussing some of the more interesting questions that were asked at the New York Public Library during pre-Google times. NYPL is posting photos on Instagram each Monday from their reference archives of questions they have received over the years. I don’t know about you, but knowing that makes my Mondays a little better.

I did enjoy looking through the questions that they have received along the way and chuckled at some of the questions that reminded me of my own experiences working public and academic reference desks. My personal favorite from the NYPL collection was the card that showed a variety of questions that were asked in a single phone call. This was not unlike my experiences with an elderly gentleman who made a habit of calling the public library reference desk asking me questions about how much I thought a painting might be worth or where he could find a manual for an antique small appliance whilst he rummaged around in his attic. Answering questions or helping others find the answers they seek is a large part of my job. Truth be told, it’s actually one of my favorite parts.

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(Image Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

All of that has me thinking about our ETBU students and how they ask questions and interact with me at the reference desk. How do students go about finding answers to the their questions? In my world, we call this “information seeking behavior” and we study how users engage in the search for information. One thing we have learned about information seeking behavior among college students is that they don’t often think to approach the reference librarian for help.

Librarian Barbara Fister discussed why students don’t ask questions at the reference desk in her appropriately titled Fear of Reference article. She found that students were embarrassed to admit that they didn’t know something that they thought that they should already know. To them, it can appear that their fellow students already have this library thing down pat and here they are just trying to figure out how to find a journal article (when truth be told, many of them couldn’t tell you the difference between a journal and an article).

The reference desk isn’t the only place that this happens. There is something vulnerable about asking a question and admitting that there is a gap in your knowledge. There is some element of trust involved with letting another person know that they know something you don’t know. After all, most of us can recall that annoying, “I know something you don’t know” sing-song taunt that our grade school peers used to tease us on the playground… or was that just me?

In life, we need to be able to ask questions. It starts with curiosity and the humility of admitting that there is something you don’t know. We see examples of people asking questions all throughout scripture. We know that the Bereans searched the scriptures each day after Paul and Silas taught to make sure that they were telling the truth – one assumes they were asking questions to guide them in their research. Proverbs 2 encourages readers to “cry out for insight and ask for understanding.” Jesus was even known for responding to a question by asking another question. Clearly, questions are part of the process of learning and seeking the truth.

We know we should be asking questions, but that still doesn’t change the fact that sometimes asking a question can be down right scary. So how do we help our students become more comfortable voicing their questions? I believe we start by making them feel safe to ask questions.

The first two weeks of the semester generally sound the same at the reference desk. Since we are still a good ways from research due dates, I can usually rely on the questions that I answer to be fairly basic – How do I login? Where’s printer 2? Do you guys have textbooks here? – you get the idea. And while some in my profession would see those types of questions misuse of their expertise – I say bring it on.

Why?

I welcome their questions because I know that if a student can feel comfortable asking me a tech support question during the first week that he or she might be a little less anxious about asking me for research help when the time comes. I hope that maybe if asking the first question isn’t too painful that we can break down that library anxiety barrier (yes, that’s a real thing we’ll talk about more later) that separates us that we can make some real progress in finding the information that they seek.

Last academic year 78% of the 733 user interactions we had in information services occurred in person at the reference desk. The experience those students had when they got up the nerve to ask a question is important to me. Whether I have a student who needs help finding an article involving a certain statistical method, or someone who just needs to know which printer to use, I’ll take that question. After all, I know what it might have taken for you to decide to ask it.

Why the library?

Library CardTo this day I have in my possession (and still in good working order, I might add) the first barcoded library card that was issued to me by Ms. Wendell Ogidi at the Palestine Public Library. Based on my foggy memory and my early rendition of a cursive signature, I’d guess I was entering fifth or sixth grade. Before that I can remember visiting public libraries as a younger child with my parents in Garland, Texas. I still have memories from the Abbett Elementary library where I was taught about the Dewey Decimal System via an overhead projector and transparency sheets. Last semester Will Walker mentioned that ETBU Library Director, Cynthia Peterson, talked about playing “library” as a child. She’s not the only one. I think my sister might still owe me a fine…

I was a proud member of the Bluebonnet Club both at Story Elementary and at Washington Sixth Grade Center (thank you, Ms. Rozman) where we read and discussed the books nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet Award. I can remember researching Y2K (warning: for some this will make me seem terribly young and for others you might need a definition of Y2K) on dial-up internet connection (perhaps even a CD database) from my public library computer on an orange and black screen. And between libraries and Baptist life, I have developed an affectionate appreciation for the usefulness of a golf pencil…

Me and libraries? We go way back.

So in Spring 2011, when Dr. Dub Oliver asked me during my interview why I chose to be a librarian, I should have been able to produce an answer. Right? Well, sort of.

Before coming to ETBU, I had recently completed my Masters of Library Science degree from the University of North Texas. I also was leaving the first library job I had ever had with the library that grew me in my hometown. Prior to that I had spent time trying to help middle school students learn to love reading as a public school teacher in two great districts.

And so why did I choose the library?

At the time I would have told you that I had always sort of kept librarianship in the back of my mind as a career path. [Note to readers: I’ve lost count the number of people who tell me that they always thought about being a librarian if (fill in the blank with first career choice) hadn’t worked out.] A series of life circumstances and situations made it possible for me to step out of my classroom role and work full-time in Adult Services at my hometown library while I worked on my MLS. At the time I could give you the standard “Why are you a librarian?” answer – I loved reading and being around people who loved reading. Even more than that, I loved learning and now I was surrounded by information. Every day I had the chance to feel like I was sharing something with my community and the work that I was doing made it easier for people to get to the information that they needed to make their lives better. Also, I got to help select the books for the collection – who wouldn’t love that? It sounded like a good enough reason to pick a career to me.

Back to Dr. Dub’s interview question. My initial response was something quippy about there not ever having been a librarian track at church camp. Beyond that, I think I did manage to say something about believing that people should have access to information and that being able to use that information to take charge of your own learning can make all of the difference in a person’s life. That statement remains to be one of the true reasons why I love being a librarian.

Since then, though, I’ve thought more and more about where my Christian faith intersects with my career of librarianship and what it means to be a Christian librarian. In hearing the teaching faculty talk about faith and learning in their disciplines, I’ve begun to ask myself where librarians and the role of the library fits into the larger picture.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one who asks these kinds of questions. For me, questions about my calling to the library go something like this:

  • Where does the library and its mission fit into what I believe about my faith?
  • How does what I do on a daily basis serve God or those around me?
  • Why should a Christian, or anyone for that matter, care about information and its use?
  • Just what exactly am I supposed to be doing here, anyway?…

These are some of the very questions I hope to address in this semester’s blog. I hope you’ll join me as we look together at how the world of information intersects with our faith, how reading impacts empathy, why I believe Christians are called to be information literate… and many more reflections from a librarian’s point of view.

Why the library? I think the answer to that question is something I get to continue discovering. As the library and my role within it continues to evolve, I am constantly finding a new reason to enjoy this calling to educate, steward, and serve. I hope you are able to do the same in whatever work that God has called you to join him in doing.

Curious about something? I know the feeling. It’s a job hazard for me. Leave a comment below and I’ll try to get to it in a future post. Happy reading and thanks for following.

EDP

Spring 2015 @ The Intersection

It’s hard to believe, but we are entering our fourth semester of The Intersection blog at East Texas Baptist University. For any newcomers, you should know that The Intersection was created in Fall 2013 by the Center for Excellence in Christian Scholarship (CECS) to provide an online outlet for ETBU faculty to reflect on what it means to “create and participate in scholarship that embraces a Christian worldview without compromising in the pursuit of scientific truth and intellectual inquiry.” Over the last three semesters, 11 ETBU faculty members have reflected on their teaching experiences, explored how faith intersects with their academic disciplines, and asked us to consider questions and ideas from their unique perspectives.

This semester the CECS is once again excited to announce the three ETBU faculty members who have agreed to take us on another 15 week journey into what it means for them to study, learn, and teach from a Christian worldview. The following faculty members will begin sharing with us next week – Ms. Traci Ledford, Department Chair and Associate Professor of Theatre Arts; Dr. David Splawn, Assistant Professor of English; and myself, Ms. Elizabeth Ponder, Librarian and Manager of Instruction & Information Services for Jarrett Library who also serves as the Program Coordinator for the CECS.

Traci Ledford, David Splawn, & Elizabeth Ponder

Traci Ledford, David Splawn, & Elizabeth Ponder

You will have a chance to get to know these bloggers more in their first posts next week. In keeping with our format, each writer will post once weekly on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. This semester our bloggers will take on topics such as on finding God in the details of art, bringing a Christ-like approach to writing instruction, and exploring how information and faith collide – just to name a few. We hope you’ll stop by three times each week to see what they have to say or subscribe via email by signing up on the right side of the page. Engage with our bloggers by leaving comments and asking questions throughout the semester.

Have an idea that you’d like our bloggers to explore this semester? Leave us a comment below or email cecs@etbu.edu.

We’ll see you at The Intersection!

Fall 2014 Intersection Bloggers

The Center for Excellence in Christian Scholarship at East Texas Baptist University is excited to announce our three bloggers for the Fall 2014 semester. Dr. Elijah Brown, Dr. Allyn Lueders, and Dr. Will Walker will be sharing their weekly insights the ways that their teaching, disciplines, and faith intersect. This semester will be The Intersection’s third cohort of ETBU faculty bloggers. The Intersection blog originally began as a part of the CECS Intersection of Faith & Reflection Project in which five ETBU faculty members where invited to use the newly created blog to experience reflective practice during Fall 2013. The project was completed in December 2013 and now the blog continues each semester with three ETBU faculty members chosen each session.

Dr. Elijah Brown, Dr. Allyn Lueders, & Dr. Will Walker (

Dr. Elijah Brown, Dr. Allyn Lueders, & Dr. Will Walker

Meet Our Bloggers…

Dr. Elijah Brown will be posting on Mondays throughout the Fall 2014 semester beginning on August 25th. Dr. Brown is an Associate Professor of Religion in the School of Christian Studies, and also serves as the Director Freedom Center at ETBU, a newly formed center is working to advance international religious freedom and transformative peace. Brown joined the ETBU faculty in 2009, and is an active member of the ETBU community. In addition to his classroom engagement with students, Dr. Brown and his family have lived on campus as Faculty in Residence since 2011. He has an earned Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, New College. His dissertation focused on the development of north-south Sudanese peace, highlighting issues related to the maturation of indigenous Christianity, missions, church growth, conflict resolution and reconciliation, and religion and politics. Dr. Brown is also an active participant in the Baptist World Alliance.

Dr. Allyn Lueders will be sharing her reflections on Wednesdays beginning August 27th. Dr. Lueders is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies in ETBU’s School of Humanities, and just recently joined the ETBU faculty in 2012. Dr. Lueders has an earned Ph.D. from the University of Kansas. Her dissertation focused on an analysis of an online support community for anorexia patients. Her courses taught here at ETBU range from Fundamentals of Speech Communication to Research Methods in Communication Studies. In addition to her new blogging responsibilities this fall, Dr. Lueders and her husband have recently moved on to campus as part of the ETBU Faculty in Residence program.

Dr. Will Walker will be blogging his thoughts on Fridays beginning August 29th. Dr. Walker is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology in the School of Education. Originally from East Texas, Dr. Walker first attended and graduated from ETBU with his B.S.E. in Secondary History and Physical Education before joining the ETBU faculty in 2007. He has an earned Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville with a dissertation exploring physical self-efficacy in college weight training students. Dr. Walker also serves as the Faculty Athletic Representative. Teaching in one of the institution’s larger majors and his involvement with ETBU Athletics gives Dr. Walker the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with ETBU students with varying backgrounds, experiences, and aspirations.

From Christian Missions, to God’s people as a medium for communication, to the connection between the health of the body and soul, this semester’s bloggers are sure to shed new light on the topics of faith, learning, and disciplines on The Intersection. Subscribe via email or check back online regularly to follow their stories. Engage with our bloggers by commenting on posts that grab your attention, cause you to ask questions, or impact your faith.

Join us as we spend another semester looking for the intersections of our faith & life.