Posts Tagged 'teaching'

Libraries and the public good

just got back from a fantastic visit with the Penn State Libraries, where I had the chance to give a revised version of my Beyond measure: Valuing libraries talk. If you want to watch the Penn State version, I’m told the video will be up for a little while (I suggest fast-forwarding past me talking so you can get to the part where the Penn State folks have some great comments and questions).

In this version of the talk, I expanded a bit on the ALA Core Values I talked about by adding some stuff about Democracy and the Public Good. Here’s the new intro:

I want to start out by being very clear about where I’m coming from and who I am – this talk is motivated by a deep and abiding belief in the transformative power of higher education, both for individuals and for societies, and an equally firm conviction that in a healthy democracy, education exists outside of and separate from market forces. While I’m sure some, maybe most colleges and universities, and their libraries, could be run more efficiently, I categorically reject the argument that they should be run like a business. Businesses are run with the intent of producing profit – a private good, while education is intended to produce an educated society – a public good. The original goal of education as a social institution in this country was to produce an informed citizenry who could participate in their own governance through the democratic process. I still believe in the importance of that goal, and I likewise believe that Libraries contribute to that public good, and should be run and judged accordingly. In terms of library values, democracy is about an informed citizenry and about the rights of citizens to both free expression and to access to the free expressions of others. Dictionary.com tells me that public good refers to “a good or service that is provided without profit for society collectively.”

So again, as we face pressure to run our libraries more like a business, it is critical that we remember the difference between public goods and private ones, and between societal motives and profit motives. If we truly believed in libraries as Public Good, I suspect we would more quickly reject the “run libraries like a business” rhetoric.

I tried to weave the themes of democracy and the public good throughout the talk, and used some Penn State examples this time, but otherwise the talk is pretty similar to the earlier version, so I’m not going to bother posting the text here. I also talked about less formal acknowledgements, using a great example from Kelly Miller at UCLA. Kelly had recently shared on Facebook a quote from a hand-written thank you note she got from a graduating senior: “You were the first person to show an interest in my research. You made me feel like my work mattered.”  That kind of note is a way better testament to the value (and values) of librarians than reference stats could ever be.

I started thinking about the public good aspect of libraries and higher education after watching Tressie McMillan Cottom talking about for profit colleges on Dan Rather and on MOOCs and For Profit Universities at UC Irvine. If you care about the future of education, you should be paying attention to what Cottom is saying.

For me, thinking about libraries and the resources and services we provide as a public good, contributing to an informed citizenry, has been very powerful. That night I sent a note to our awesome government documents librarian James Jacobs and asked him to put together a blog post that might help readers make some sense of the conflicting accounts and opinions on the NSA data gathering story. I think the resulting post on history and context to the NSA leaks provides a great example of a way libraries and librarians can actually enact those values of democracy and the public good. I think our internship program for first generation college kids is another example. Hosting a reading for the new independent journal As/Us, which highlights the work of women of color, indigenous women and other underrepresented writers, was a way of enacting our commitment to diversity.

The truth is, preparing for and giving these talks has made me much more conscious about trying to find ways to act on the values that drew me to a career in higher education and libraries in the first place. Maybe the rest of y’all do that kind of stuff all the time, but I’m finding that I need a little reminder and a little inspiration. So consider this fair warning that I’m probably going to keep on being corny and talking and thinking about values for a little while longer. I definitely need to continue to wrestle with the idea of libraries and higher education as a public good. The PSU crowd asked some very good challenging questions that have really got me thinking.

This was not Plan B: My #altac story

There are eight million stories in the Naked City, and probably just as many in the academy. There are stories warning you not to go to graduate school, and stories warning you not to pay attention to stories that warn you not to go to graduate school (I like the latter stories better). And there are great stories about people who went to graduate school and chose an alternate career path (dubbed altac).

This is my story.

First things first: This altac career path of mine was not Plan B. Taking a job as a social science librarian as I finished up my dissertation, then staying on for more than 10 years now in various library jobs, was not a fall-back* decision because I didn’t think I could cut it on the tenure-track market. I applied for my original library job because it sounded like interesting work that I might be good at. I have accepted subsequent jobs and promotions within the Stanford Libraries, and am committed to a career in academic libraries, for the same reasons — I think the work is important, interesting, and challenging; and I think I have something to offer.

I came to Stanford to pursue a PhD in Sociology because I didn’t learn everything I wanted to learn in college, or in the 10 years after college. I went to a very good school for my undergraduate education (and paid for it by selling my soul, and many years of my life, to Uncle Sam, but that’s a story for a different blog post), but I was a really crappy student. I needed a B average to keep my scholarship, so I did exactly as much work as I needed to, and not a bit more, to earn that 3.0. Years later I realized that a 3.0 GPA at Duke puts you in the bottom half of your graduating class. Thank god I’m good at standardized tests.

Anyhoo … after doing fairly well at regular Army officer type jobs for 4 years (and helping us win the Cold War), I was fortunate enough to be selected to teach at West Point. The assignment was preceded by an all-expenses paid two-year trip to the University of Maryland for an MA in Sociology. A bit of maturity, a lot of fear, smart and passionate fellow students, and the incredible support and patience of my advisor Mady Segal, combined to ensure that I actually took graduate school seriously. And lo and behold, I liked what I was learning, and I liked the process of learning. It turns out you can learn a whole lot more if you actually go to class and do the reading. Talking to other students and to faculty helps too. I honestly didn’t know that as an undergrad.

Those 2 years at UMd were personally transformative for me. I learned how to think critically, I became a feminist, I started (slooowwwly) questioning my sexuality. And then, just like that, the 2 years were up and off I went to West Point to teach leadership and sociology to future Army officers. Those 3 years at West Point were awesome and awful in approximately equal measure. And when that assignment was done, I knew it was time to get out of the Army and go back to graduate school.

I pursued a PhD in Sociology because I wanted to learn more and grow more and challenge myself intellectually in ways that I had been challenged in my MA program at UMd. I wanted more of that. I had enjoyed the teaching part of the West Point assignment, and thought maybe that’s what I would do when I finished my PhD. Along the way, it became clear that I was actually supposed to want a very serious tenure-track job at a real reasearch university. And while I toyed with that idea from time to time, I never actively pursued it.

Starting in my 2nd year of grad school, I worked part-time in the Stanford Libraries’ Social Science Data and Software (SSDS) group, doing statistical software consulting. I always worked at least 10 hours a week, and when I didn’t have other funding, I worked 20 hours a week, and 40 hours a week during summers. I was a single parent by now, so I was basically working as much as possible, because graduate student stipends are calibrated for very very frugal, single, childless people.

As a grad student in SSDS, my job included individual consulting with students and faculty, teaching workshops, and (as I became more senior), planning and leading our consulting, teaching and outreach services. I had gotten a pretty good taste of leadership as an Army officer, and knew that it was something I liked and was good at. I quickly realized that whatever I did after graduate school, I wanted it to be something that allowed me to leverage my academic training and my leadership skills.

Towards the end of my 4th year of grad school, my dissertation advisor asked me if I wanted her to recommend me for a tenure track job in a top-tier sociology program, at a public university a little south of here.  The fact that I had yet to have a serious conversation with her about my plans for going on the job market was probably a pretty good clue to both of us that I was likely not headed in that direction. But I appreciate that she asked, and I figure she must have thought I would be competitive for such a job.  Around the same time, one of my colleagues at SSDS asked me if I had considered applying for the social science librarian job that was open right here in the Stanford Libraries. As soon as I realized that the only thing making the tenure track faculty job seem at all appealing was what other people would think, while the content of the work and the people I would work with were what made the library job appealing, the decision was easy. The rest, as they say, is history.

That’s my story. It is likely neither particularly unique, nor especially generalizable. But it is true. And I do know that there are plenty of others for whom an altac career path is not plan B. Add my story to the dataset.

* My fall back job is junior high basketball coach. I did it for 1 season as a high school senior and we won the league championship. So I got that going for me.

Why I think faculty status for librarians is (generally) a bad idea

The Joint Committee on College Library Problems, a national committee representing the Association of College and Research Libraries, the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities), and the American Association of University Professors, just released a Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians, reaffirming the recommendation that college and university librarians ought to be granted faculty status.
Let me state right up front that I think academic librarians play a vital role in the research and teaching missions of colleges and universities. And I think libraries at institutions like mine are well served by hiring librarians with very strong scholarly backgrounds — especially for positions with a disciplinary focus. And academic freedom and participation in university governance by librarians is cool and good and righteous. But slapping faculty status on librarians as a way to get those things, without a commitment to holding librarians to comparable standards as other faculty is a bad idea.
Unless we are held to standards for scholarship, teaching, and service that are equivalent to the standards used for hiring, promotion and tenure decisions for the rest of the faculty across our campuses, then we should not expect faculty status. I would be happy to be proven wrong on this, but it is my impression that librarians with faculty status are rarely held to equivalent standards for hiring, promotion, or tenure. A snarky way of saying this would be to note that I am absolutely certain that no scholar would get tenure at MPOW on the basis of teaching workshops, holding office hours, and publishing case studies — but that seems to be a valid and common route to tenure for librarians at peer institutions. For an even snarkier send-up of the state of library “research” see But What about the Academics?.
Less snarky, but same point, is to compare hiring criteria. I know of no academic library that regularly requires a PhD for librarian hires (plenty, including my own, require an advanced subject degree, with PhD preferred). I likewise know of no research university that does NOT require a PhD for faculty positions within academic departments.
The recent joint statement from the AAUP Council and the ACRL states that promotion and tenure “criteria and standards may differ from traditional classroom faculty, but they must be comparable in rigor and content” (emphasis mine). Where standards for librarians are truly comparable, either individually or institutionally, then perhaps faculty status is appropriate. But it seems to me that is rarely the case.

That’s it. That’s my whole problem with faculty status for librarians – that without comparable standards, it is meaningless, silly, and potentially counter-productive to the goal of promoting librarianship as a full-fledged academic discipline.

(Note: It occurs to me that I might someday apply for a job at an institution that grants librarians faculty status. In which case … Just Kidding! And of course, that institution is obviously an exception.)

Speed Dating with Faculty

Amid the troubling news out of Harvard last week, it seems like a good time to share a small success story:

Last week, I was asked to give a 5 minute presentation to the faculty who are part of Stanford’s Faculty College project. The Faculty College project provides “groups of faculty the space, time and resources to create new team-taught courses, to make a major change in a department’s curriculum or to establish new cross-disciplinary teaching endeavors.” The 25 or so faculty involved meet once a quarter this year, and will start their teaching next year. Their meetings are jam-packed with presentations and discussions, so I was actually pretty pleased to finagle 5 minutes on the agenda to talk about the way the Stanford Libraries could support their projects.

After making an off-hand comment to a colleague that the 5 minute limit felt a bit like speed-dating, I decided to go with that metaphor in my actual presentation. I created a handout highlighting relevant subject librarians and other services (PDF), but decided to skip the PowerPoint since just setting up could eat up most of my 5 minutes.
I started out by telling the faculty group that 5 minutes felt like speed dating, but that I was OK with that. After all, my goal was to convince them to “date the libraries”. The two main reasons they should date us are that “We have lots of common interests”, and “We complete you”. I explained both of those briefly, and concluded with “So I hope you’ll call us”.
I finished with 40 seconds to spare, enough time for someone to ask if the librarians listed on the handout knew they might be contacted or if it would be a “blind date”?
I usually think it is way harder to give a short presentation than a long one, but in this case I think it went very well. I gave them a metaphor that will hopefully Stick, and I also made it clear that I/we really respect their time. If anything, I think some of the faculty wish I had taken up more time, which is always better than the opposite. As Walt Disney (or maybe P.T. Barnum) supposedly said, “always leave them wanting more.”

Research is like Cooking video

A couple of years ago I posted about a Powerpoint slidedeck I had been using in Information Literacy classes comparing the research process to cooking. With the help of some awesome colleagues, I updated the slides, did a voice-over, and turned it into a video called Research is Like Cooking.
Sometimes I use it in workshops, for a little break from me talking. This week, I’m sending it out as homework before the library workshop. I’m hoping the kids will spend the 5 minutes watching it before the workshop, so we have a common metaphor to use throughout the workshop.
I slapped a CC-BY license on it, so use it if you like it.

What academic librarians need to know about academia

The world of academia is a strange and complex place, and I have found that understanding certain key aspects of its culture and norms has served me well in my current work and in contributing to conversations about the future of academic libraries.
Here are a few things that I find helpful to know/understand:

  1. A faculty members’ peers are NOT necessarily the other faculty in their own department or their own institution. A scholar’s peers are other scholars who do similar work. This is literally true for activities such as peer review, and tenure & promotion reviews. It is also true in terms of social identity and social networks. Knowing this, I might realize I can helpfully point out similar research happening on a scholar’s own campus; since they may reasonably not know about it. I also need to know this because when scholars talk about doing collaborative work, their collaborators are likely to be located all across the globe — and that has implications for how libraries support that work.
  2. Publications serve many purposes for faculty, but the primary purpose for most is to support tenure and promotion cases. Given that, faculty will publish their research in whatever venue has the highest prestige value in their field and their department. Understanding whether books or journal articles are more highly valued for a given department is helpful. It is also good to further understand which publishers and which journals are most important for a given department. Note that there will be variation within disciplines–what makes a good publication record for a tenure-track Sociologist at one university might not be so impressive at another school.
  3. For tenure-track faculty, virtually everything they do & every choice they make will be based on how it contributes to their chances of getting tenure. For example, if teaching plays an insignificant role in tenure decisions at my school, then I can’t expect tenure-track faculty to devote much time to innovative teaching. If I want to support tenure-track faculty, I need to offer services that help them do things that increase their chances of getting tenure. If I want to offer library support for their classes, I need to be willing to do so in a way that requires little to no extra effort on their part, and perhaps even provides them some free time.
  4. I’m sure there are plenty of other norms from the world of academia that academic librarians ought to understand. What am I leaving out?

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Discussing 3 Books

Stanford’s Three Books Authors’ Panel last night was a terrific experience. The authors were engaging and surprisingly honest and humble in responding to students. The students asked thoughtful questions, and were clearly excited that one of their initial Stanford experiences involved a panel of world-class authors speaking just to them, and answering their questions. I was worried that media darling Malcolm Gladwell would get the lion’s share of attention, but the conversation was pretty evenly split among Gladwell, Abraham Verghese, and Lan Samantha Chan. Verghese and Gladwell did get more direct questions, but Chang often chimed in anyway with her experiences and insight.

I had the privilege of co-facilitating one of the dorm discussions that followed the panel, and had a great time continuing the discussion of the books with the students of Soto, and my wonderful colleague and co-facilitator Kelly Myers from the Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

The students were especially eager to continue discussing the Gladwell book. They were nearly unanimous in their dislike of the book and their frustration with what they saw as Gladwell’s refusal to recognize the role of individual effort and merit in success. I have my own criticisms of Gladwell’s book and of including it in Stanford’s Three Books, but the students convinced me that the Gladwell book may not have been a great choice for an entirely different reason. Basically, the kids noted that they had spent the last 24 hours being told by everyone from the University President on down that they were special and should be very proud of their achievements and their selection for Stanford. Then they hear from Gladwell, whose main thesis is that successful people “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

These kids felt like Gladwell was raining on their parade, and telling them that they didn’t really do much to earn their spot at Stanford– they were just lucky. Even I am willing to admit that Gladwell’s book is more nuanced than that, but I can certainly see why kids would be especially resistant to the ideas in Outliers during their first week at Stanford.

Another interesting observation was that the kids had the least to say about Lan Samantha Chang’s novella & short story collection Hunger, and that many of the kids who did comment on it said it was the hardest to relate to. I was surprised that it was harder for them to relate to than Verghese’s story of treating AIDs patients in Tennessee in the 1980s. Usually, Stanford picks three works of fiction for it’s Three Books program, but this year it was the two non-fiction books that drew the most comments and questions from students.

I was so impressed with the kids in Soto dorm. They were eager to discuss the books, thoughtful and diverse in their comments, and incredibly considerate and respectful of each other throughout the discussion.

Participating in this event has been the highlight of orientation week for me for the last 3 years. It is a great opportunity to not only meet some of the new students, but also to get a sense of how they think about what they read.

Students tell other students “go to the library!”

The final question we asked in our end-of-quarter survey of Stanford freshmen was:

What advice would you give about conducting research to future Stanford freshmen?

The students gave a range of kinds of advice, but the most popular topic was the library, with 32% of students mentioning “library” or “librarians”:

“I would advise them that the library is a great place to find sources and that they should not only limit their research to online sources.”
“ask the librarians! they know everything there is to know.”
“Stanford’s libraries can be very overwhelming and intimidating to search as a freshman and librarians really make things simpler and clearer.”

30% of students mentioned “sources” or “resources” in their advice:

“Try to find varied sources in order to give your research more depth.”
“Look into many different resources, such as books, scientific journals, magazines, etc.”
“Don’t be afraid. All the resources are here for the students to use.”

Starting “early” was the advice that 19% of students had for future freshmen:

“Be specific in your topic, and start doing research early.”
“Do it early and often!!!!”

15% of students gave advice about “books”, and another 15% gave advice about “databases”:

“Look at the books next to the one you’re searching for in Stacks.”
“I would tell them to not be afraid to go deep in the stacks, because the books are very helpful.”
“borrow a lot of books from the library”
“I would advise the student to try different databases so they can get a range of analytical, psychological, societal, etc views on their topic.”

In addition to using these data as heart-warming evidence of the success of Our Information Literacy program, I try to actually pass the advice on to future students in 2 ways:

  1. I weave quotes from the survey into my information literacy sessions (including in my Research is like cooking analogy); and
  2. I periodically post a juicy quote from the survey on our Facebook page.

More results from these surveys at:
Library catalog and databases more useful than Google
What do students learn in Library workshops?

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Library catalog and databases more useful than Google

In our end of quarter surveys of freshmen, we asked them:

How useful were the following tools for finding resources for your research paper assignment?
(0=did not use, 1=Not at all useful, 2=A little useful, 3=Useful, 4=Very useful)

  • Google
  • Wikipedia
  • Socrates (Library Catalog)
  • Library Databases
  • Google Scholar
  • Online Class Research Guide

The Results

Most Used resources:

  • Socrates (Library Catalog) 99%
  • Google 94%
  • Library Databases 92%
  • Wikipedia 71%
  • Online Class Research Guide 71%
  • Google Scholar 49%

Most Useful Resources (1-4 Scale: 4=Very useful, 3=useful, 2=A little useful, 1=Not very useful)

  • Socrates (Library Catalog) 3.37
  • Library Databases 3.36
  • Google 3.10
  • Google Scholar 2.91
  • Online Class Research Guide 2.67
  • Wikipedia 2.37

I am very pleased that 99% of students (335 out of 337) used the library catalog to find resources for their paper, and 92% used a library database. I have no problem with 94% of them using Google, but am happy to see that they rate the library catalog and the databases as more useful than Google.

I am disappointed in the low usefulness rating of the Online Research Guides, but wonder if that is due to the fact that the Research Guides are one step removed from actually getting to content.

I was also pleased to see that nearly 40% of students say they consulted a librarian about their research.

For results of some of our open-ended questions, see What do students learn in Library workshops?

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What do students learn in Library workshops?

We provide a library workshop for every freshmen writing course at Stanford (for more details, see Our Information Literacy Program), and wanted to know what students found most helpful about the workshops. For the last 2 quarters, we have surveyed students at the end of the quarter, after they have turned in their final assignment (a research based paper). One of the questions we asked was:
“What information from the library workshop was most useful to you when researching your topic?”

  • 52% mentioned Databases — either in general, or a specific database:

    “Information on how to use the databases was EXTREMELY helpful. I really had no idea they existed and all the amazing articles that existed and applied to my specific topic.”

    “The academic resources available and the library databases – i never knew about them! and i don’t think most freshmen do.”

    “Learning about Academic Search Premier and Lexis Nexis was most useful to me.”

  • 30% mentioned the library catalog (Socrates/Searchworks) or website:

    “I really understood how to use Socrates more efficiently at the workshop”

    “Then our librarian told us about SearchWorks — which has now become my new best friend.”

    “It was most useful learning about how the library’s website works”

  • 20% mentioned learning their way around the physical library, and/or finding print books:

    “Touring the library and understanding how to physically find the books was very helpful.”

    “Learning how to find materials in the library. Had I not seen that, I probably would have been very lost most of the time.”

  • 17% mentioned learning how to construct good searches as the most important thing they learned. Other things mentioned included learning about their class Research Guide, or about the Information Center page. A few mentioned learning about how to contact a librarian by chat or email.

    In a future post, I’ll describe responses to the question:
    “What advice would you give about conducting research to someone who had yet to take Freshman Writing?”

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