Spring has sprung!

After an insane (but productive) fall semester where some like-to-do projects (like Infoliterate) had to go on hiatus, I’m rested, healthier, and ready to take on another semester! I only have 3 hours of a “real” class this term, taking Qualitative research II with Dr. B, one of my favorite profs. Though I’m lucky—just about all of my professors thus far have qualified as “favorites”. My other three hours will be devoted to independent study with my advisor Dr. K, where I will be putting together a lit review and methodology for my dissertation pilot study, and submitting it in proposal form to speak at the 2013 ACRL conference. If all goes as planned I’ll be gathering data in the summer and fall, and write up the final paper over the holidays. And worst come to worst, if I don’t get into ACRL I’ve had my eye on some intriguing looking conferences in the UK… ;-) Aside from that, my time’s occupied with work stuff, family life, and miscellaneous new personal projects like knitting: I picked up the needles after a several year hiatus and have become addicted again.

 I’m keeping it short today but I wanted to recommend that everyone take a look at Alison Head’s awesome webinar on the latest Project Information Literacy research: the PIL findings informed a lot of my Qual 1 work, and will be a major touchstone in my independent study this spring. The replay of today’s talk isn’t up as of this writing (4:15 on Tuesday, waiting for class to start), but I imagine it will be by the time this article posts. I live-tweeted my thoughts and a summary of the high points at @oklibrarian, and will hopefully have time to critique the session in-depth in my next post. Which brings me to a final point—during the spring and summer I put a lot of pressure on myself to post here 1-2 times a week, which eventually led to writer’s block and burnout. While I hope to return to a weekly-ish schedule, I’m only going to post articles when I have something worth saying, and my other projects allow. This will make for more irregular volume, but hopefully higher quality of content. Thanks, comment if you feel moved, and I’ll see you again soon!

Best of Both Worlds

 

In addition to the start of the semester and the experiences that brings, it’s been a busy week on a few non-academic fronts. As is my wont when Big Things are happening, I’ve been musing on many issues related to my professional interests and where I want to go, and how they fit into my larger life plan. For instance, I’ve found that I truly enjoy working for a small school in ways that I didn’t really expect when I started here. But at the same time, I find myself driven to think and write about big issues that, according to conventional wisdom, can only be addressed by the Right People with the Right Pedigree on the faculty of the Right School.

For a long time I accepted both assumptions as given, and as contradictory. I don’t want to inject myself into the pressure cooker of an Elite School, either as librarian or as LIS faculty.  I can’t bring myself to take those kinds of political games seriously—it’s the same reason I was an utterly horrible corporate drone. And yet, for some of those same reasons I want to use my skills to reach a greater understanding of how students do research, how those practices help or hinder their learning process in the classroom and beyond, and how libraries can evolve to help students succeed. How can I (or you) resolve this conundrum in ways that are both personally and professionally satisfying?

 I was working the late shift last night, and spent some time catching up on my sorely neglected “Read/Review” folder where all my listservs and RSS feeds go to die. A few screens down the folder, I was delighted to find that Madeline Li had finally written the final (?) article in her series on being denied tenure at an R1. It was as near to a happy ending as is possible in academe, as she settled happily into a teaching-intensive position at a rural college. She even found that the lack of serious publishing pressure actually freed her to be a more prolific and creative researcher than she had ever been while on the publish-or-perish hamster wheel. The comments were particularly good on this article, and one in particular by Richard Tabor Greene (who I promptly googled and found quite interesting) addressed this conundrum:

 We hang our shingle at a local place but we work at conferences, around the world, and on panels and editorial boards.   To keep productive you need the local audience that you can respect and the global audience that can respect you.   It is easy to play in both courts at once.   I have probably never met anyone happy being entirely local… . Everyone in my limited circle and world I have known who is happy is plugged into some local audience they respect and also plugged in to some global audience that they respect and that respects them.   They alternate like yo-yos between these poles.  

 So enjoy being set locally and celebrate it by coming up with globally powerful things [which] local loves help you generate.   The local if deeply enough engaged can amaze the global and vice versa.

 And the Light bulb went off, though in fairness it’s been flickering for a while. It is not only possible but desirable to have a career that is both global and local. By immersing myself into serving a community that’s actually representative of the Typical American University, I can learn lessons that all of us will find useful, and can then share those lessons with others. In that conversation I learn from their experiences, and we all make our own colleges better for the global conversation. While there are two or three other places in the world I could happily live (all of which have never seen 115 degree summers) I don’t HAVE to go charging off to Nationally Prestigious University to make an impact. And that’s true for everyone reading this. Wherever you are, what changes can you promote in your own community? How can you take the lessons learned in your research, teaching, or practice and share them with others in the wider world?

Go Higher! Strategic Planning for Educators

The August Intersession has become my de facto annual review. The main summer library workshops are done, School is still a week or two away, I’m probably about to write or just wrote my yearly wrapup for the library’s annual report,  and so I find it a good time to take a look at my GTD higher altitudes and make plans for the coming year. You don’t need to be a David Allen Fanatic to find this type of thing useful, but I do like his particular altitude metaphor for personal strategic planning. Here’s what he says, with a few twists of my own. Note that while Received Wisdom is that you start at the bottom and work up, I think for long-range planning purposes you can do these in either order, or hop around. I started at 50K this year, but that’s in part because of the Massive Life Change of the past year (read: Starting my Ph.D) and the impact it’s made on my goals and interests.

50,000 foot level: Purpose and Values

Per David Allen, the highest level of planning relates to your life purpose, and the values or ethics you live by in getting there. Stephen Covey argues for defining your mission as well, though unlike Allen he strongly suggests you determine your mission first, not last. However, both seem to argue that you will be able to sit down one afternoon, think deeply, and generate a Profound Life Mission that will essentially remain static for the rest of your life. After being a pretty hardcore time management nut for almost 10 years (First Covey, then GTD), I couldn’t DISAGREE more. While it is important to have a reasonably static purpose in order to serve as a roadmap, mine’s changed a lot over 10 years, especially during my 20s. This is not because of any major personality change, but due to natural growth and the simple fact that as you get older, you understand yourself better.

My core values have remained a lot more static, but wording has changed a lot. The biggest change is that both have gotten substantially shorter. If you can’t express your mission in 10 words or less, you may need to go back to the drawing board. Also, don’t try to capture every least little nuance of your core values—just pick the 3-5 most important tenets of your code of ethics.

40,000 feet: 5-Year Vision

What will your life to look like in 5 years if you are following the above vision? What do you want to be doing, where do you want to live, what kind of social life or personal development do you want? How are your finances? What about your family life? Write answers to these questions and feel free to blue-sky it—there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a stretch goal. I always revisit these annually—some years I write out a “day-in-the life” type of narrative; this year I jotted down about half a dozen long-range goals, each roughly correlating to one or more of my Areas of Responsibility (more on those below).

30,000 feet: Mid-range goals

So, you’ve established (in vague terms at least) what you want to do with your life, and how that will look in 5 years. As we descend in altitude in the model, the questions become more concrete. The 30,000 level of planning asks: what do you need to accomplish in the next 1-2 years to advance along the path to your 5 year vision? Each of the facets of your vision will probably have at least one or two subgoals that can be started now, and revisited quarterly or so (The post-finals lulls in December and May are good times, ditto the August annual review time). These, and the level that follow, will be very helpful in framing your tactical decisions about which projects to take on and which ones to jettison.

20,000 feet: Areas of Responsibility

Everyone wears different hats in life. Mine, listed in rough order of importance, are

  • Self-Care
  • Wife
  • Friend/Family member
  • Librarian/Educator
  • Grad Student
  • Investor
  • Adventurer (Can be travel, but not necessarily)

Whatever other hats you wear, if self-care (what Covey calls “Sharpening the saw”) isn’t at the top of your list, you’ve got a problem. This encompasses the physical, emotional, and spiritual work you do daily to keep yourself sane and healthy. Most of the others are pretty self-explanatory. My Husband Kevin and I are focusing pretty heavily in the next year or two on transitioning into hard-core retirement saving, so I’m wearing the Investor hat often enough for it to qualify as an AOR. I also crave adventure—every year or so I seem to need to go on a big trip, volunteer with a group I’m unfamiliar with, or otherwise get out of my comfort zone. Otherwise, I get twitchy and bored, regardless of how much stuff’s on my plate. In addition, a big part of my mission is to learn and experience as much as humanly possible, so by making that an AOR, I will always have at least one project going that forces me to try something new.

Below 20,000 feet are the tactical levels, projects and tasks, and they merit their own post. The important takeaway is not that you should follow exactly this process in exactly this manner, but to understand this as one of many possible frameworks for your personal strategic planning (assuming of course, you even want to live your life according to a strategic plan!) Each level informs the others as you can imagine, as a change in job responsibilities, marital status, or even your desired goals will have repercussions up and down the model. For me at any rate, understanding where I’d like to go (and why) relieves a lot of stress that I am making the best choices possible for myself, my husband, my friends, my coworkers, and my students. In addition, when things change, it can help a lot to have a starting point and an understanding of your ultimate goals.

Why Theory Matters

 

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak at unCOILed (a local library workshop). I think I’ll share more about my talk in coming posts, but a topic came up that merited its own post. Before the first breakout session, all of the day’s speakers participated in a panel discussion about why information literacy matters and the best ways in which to teach those skills. As the conversation unfolded, several audience members spoke out about the need for information literacy instruction to be immediately relevant and practical to student needs, and that  Library schools needed to focus less on theory and more on teaching those pragmatic skills. As you might imagine if you’ve been reading this blog, I began to squirm.

As soon as there was a natural pause in the conversation, I raised my hand, and said the following (approximately):

I’d like to push back a little on this. Practical teaching skills are important to librarians and becoming more so, and I think Library schools can and should make sure that there is space in the curriculum for all students to become grounded in the basics of pedagogy and curriculum design. However, we can’t discount the importance of theory, which I think many library schools teach fairly well. While it’s important to learn how to be an instruction librarian, theory teaches you the reasons WHY information literacy matters to students and my extension to the university. Understanding and communicating those reasons will help us be better educators, and give freshmen more reasons to pay attention to Peer-Reviewed sources at 8:30 AM.

A decent response as far as it goes. But I got to thinking about the Theory Thing, and realized there are at least five detailed reasons why theory matters to practitioners and the students we serve.

Theory explains why something is worth doing

Librarians (and educators/universities in general) are here to help student learn the skills they need to succeed in life, however they personally define that success. Universities, educators, and academic librarians have a shriveling pile of resources with which to accomplish that goal. Understanding theories about student learning can help librarians understand what services and resources should be emphasized to get the biggest return on investment, and what activities can and should be left behind.

Theory can Describe or Suggest

In a recent course on Educational Leadership, our Prof talked about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive theory. I’d never heard the distinction, but it made total sense and helped me grapple with theory more effectively. Briefly, Descriptive theories attempt to describe the impact of one phenomenon on another one—Say a student’s SAILS score versus their CLA score, for schools who can afford those kinds of Blue Chip assessments.  Prescriptive theories actually suggest a course of action: For instance, if you teach source evaluation skills via a constructivist-based pedagogy, then students will score better on SAILS than if you used a post-positivist lecture-based approach. Both types of theories provide possible explanations for how your students learn, but they work very differently.

Theory helps make assumptions explicit, which allows practitioners to critique them

Every profession is grounded in some basic assumptions, which may be captured in concepts like The Five Laws or Kuhlthau’s Sense-making Model, or which may be more informal. Some somewhat informal assumptions that ground much of what the library does could be worded like this:

  1. All knowledge (or at least all scholarly knowledge) is worth preserving.
  2. All knowledge can theoretically be collected.
  3. All knowledge can and should be arranged into a tidy, logical and unbiased form of organization such as subject headings and shelf call numbers to promote ease of access.

This is something that most of us librarians believe in our bones, but a 19-year old postmodernist sophomore could demolish this assumption with one hand tied behind his back. For that matter, Wikipedia’s much easier to navigate than your average library catalog. (Yes, I hear you screaming about Source Authority. I’m not getting into that here. Let’s just say Authority opens its own epistemological can of worms which I will be exploring in coming weeks) In short, by laying out this informal assumption and making it explicit, it becomes a theory which can be refined, critiqued, challenged, tested, and implemented.

Theory explains the significance of what you do to a wider audience

This cohort has provided a fascinating insight into the way that administrators think. Most good administrators want their universities to implement programs to help students learn the skills needed for success. They also want this process to be explainable and provable to other administrators, donors, local businesses who hire graduates, grad schools who recruit them, and the accreditors who allow us to operate. At the end of a presentation about your new information literacy curriculum, after showing charts and tables full of wonderful test results and quotes from students, some wiseacre VP will inevitably ask: So What?

Theory, if worded in plain English, gives you an answer to that question. 

Theory helps you verify whether you’re doing the right thing

FInally, if you’re a good librarian or library director, you are constantly asking yourself whether the things you are doing will help you reach your end goals. The good news is, theorists in student learning and librarianship have been pondering these issues longer than you, and in a more focused manner. By reading theories, evaluating them against your own knowledge and experience, and acting on what seems right, you build your own knowledge as a practitioner, manager, and leader. Theory, when implemented well, can lead to stronger librarians, stronger libraries, and universities better equipped to prepare students for the challenges they face.

Jeans (shorts) Day!

It’s HOT here in Oklahoma already as I write this morning–the high is going to be 103, that’s 40 celsius for my metric readers. Like most CPUs, my brain starts frizzling after a certain point, so I’m glad that all I have to do today is share a few nifty links about this and that.

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Trying to decide what I think about the apparent resolution of the most recent Unshelved storyline. I enjoyed and it was pretty true to life, but something about Colleen falling on her sword seemed a bit anticlimactic. I’m waiting to see if they bring in a new character at some point to shake things up a bit. They couldn’t be an employee for obvious reasons, but…maybe the chair of the library Friends or something?

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Infolit Librarians: Have you readPaulo Freire? Go read Paulo Freire. I only agreed with about 75% of what he said, but there’s a lot there that challenges how we do business. If nothing else, see if you can read his description of “Banking Education” without squirming uncomfortably in memory of your last instruction session.

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After discovering 2 philosophers, 3 books, and a half-dozen articles i want to read this week alone, I am coming to the sad realization that I will never get it all read, even if I was a ‘traditional’ grad student. I frankly don’t know how those in broader fields keep up.

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Earlier this spring I heard of an intriguing looking workshop that the University of Stirling in Scotland is putting on next week. While at the time of application what I knew about Ed. Theory could fit in a teacup while leaving room for Jimmy Hoffa, the Lab for Educational theory puts on a lot of intriguing-looking workshops and such through the year. I’ve just about decided to put in an abstract for their next conference if I can work around other classes. A: I’d like to build a network on that side of the Atlantic, and B: highs in the upper 60s sound VERY good right now.

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Next week at Infoliterate:

Monday: OFF (Happy Independence Day to the American readers, and Happy All the Americans are on Vacation Day to the rest of the planet!)

Wednesday: Copyright, library rights, and the future of scholarly publishing (may post late due to another commitment)

Thanks, and have a great weekend!

Educational Entrepreneurship, Part 2

Not to be completely Captain Obvious, but College is expensive, and becoming more so. This also isn’t a problem limited to the United States. One of my many research interests is how higher education works and is changing in emerging economies. For that reason, I’ve been wanting to blog for a while about the growth of microfinance as an alternative to student loans in developing nations. There are a lot of microlending operations out there that range from dodgy to Nobel prize-winning, but the most notable student microlenders are Lumni, Enzi, Vittana and the current 800-pound microlending gorilla Kiva. I encourage you to take a look at their sites (none of which I’m endorsing nor do I have any financial stake), but aside from the obvious rise in innovative financing options for students, there are some interesting points we can take away for our own use as innovative administrators.

1. Skipping the structures: I worked in the telecom industry in the early 2000s, just as broadband voice and data pipes were reaching South America, Africa, and other areas of the developing world. At the time there was a lot of handwringing over how long it would take to wire these areas locally, with pessimistic projections of decades-long projects being required before there would be any significant demand. The problem was: we were thinking about land lines in a world that was on the verge of going wireless. Instead of digging miles of wires, entrepreneurs and/or state telecom companies simply set up wireless towers and started selling cell phones (and in time, smartphones). In a way, microlending for students could work the same way. The concept developed because the no-collateral, low-interest student loans that can be found easily in the US are practically impossible to find outside the First World. As the education opportunities and the middle class started growing in developing nations, so did the need for financing. Traditional banks didn’t move fast enough, and microlending is filling in the gap.

2. Doing well by doing good: The microlending phenomenon is actually a win-win on both sides of the transaction. Investors know that there money is going to a particular cause (and often a particular student), and have a good chance of a decent return financially as well as socially. On the other side of the transaction, a student receives the seed money needed to make the jump into a more financially stable life that will enable them to serve their community more effectively, and he or she can pay the loan off at a rate that makes sense for that situation.  

3. If there is a need, then there is a market: Higher Ed has a lot of problems right now, and it’s even more obvious in a field like librarianship, where technology, funding, and theory are forcing us to ask some very deep existential questions about our theoretical foundation and the types of work we do. Instead of wringing our hands or mourning what is past, there can be opportunity in taking a step back, looking carefully, and seeing what our students need NOW in order to succeed. While they may or may not need a given collection or service, they DO need access to high quality information, and the tools to find that information and evaluate it critically. All three are essential, and all three are things librarians have done since the days of Dewey, if not longer.

So what does all of this tell us about the world of education entrepreneurship? Simply put, all of us are entrepreneurs, in the sense that we build our own careers and have a responsibility to seek innovative solutions to the problems we face. Some of our solutions will work, and some will go down in flames. However, most of us are blessed with either tenure or government employment, which often works out to the same thing. If those terms mean anything, then we have both the ability to take risks in our own careers and the obligation to create an environment where others can do the same.

Unexpected Semicolons

The project I assumed I would finish yesterday evening is still being annoying and blocky, and I will not be able to do a post till wednesday at least. One of my go-to geek bloggers, Mark Evanier, posts a can of cream of mushroom soup when his life gets too crazy to blog: I think I’ll opt for the 2010 ALA Book Cart Drill Team Champions. Have fun, and I’ll see you later this week.

(the title is some obscure software joke related to an equally obscure language my husband learned during college. It was still having its kinks worked out, and every time the code errored out, it always returned the first error message in the list, which was, naturally, “unexpected semicolon”. This became a running gag for when things went wonky for some odd reason.)