Exeunt, Riding on a Lion

One of my favorite recent additions to the Library of Congress Flickr Stream is this charming image from around 1915 of Antipodean operatic soprano Frances Alda:

Alda (LOC)

The lion (according to some clever research in the comments on the photo at Flickr) may or may not be in Central Park in New York City. Wherever it is, Alda rides it like a woman who has clearly dealt with lions before and knows what they are about. She was, after all, married to Metropolitan Opera general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza for a while, and often sang at the Met with Enrico Caruso.

Alda was, like many of her fellow singers of the time, a very colorful character, both as a private person and as a figure on the public stage. As she said of herself in her 1937 autobiography, “I refuse to know bores. My world is active and amusing; sometimes exciting; never dull.”

To get a sense of her voice, have a listen to her singing with Caruso in 1909:

Caruso himself was one of the great popularizers of opera music and popular song on the phonograph, at a time when other important singers were apparently wary of the sound (and he made a LOT of money doing it, which was one of the things that eventually drew some of his more reluctant peers into the world of recording). Alda, of course, was not at all reluctant to hear her voice on the ol’ gramophone — she, like Caruso, recorded steadily for Victor from 1909-1928, and was a fairly reliable seller.

As we saddle up our lions for a fine Sunday morning ride, let’s have Alda sing us out with one of her recordings of “The Last Rose of Summer”:

 

 

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Posted in aesthetics, Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, music, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Another Summer, Another Summer Job

Once upon a time, I had a summer job (extending a bit beyond summer) tending bar at a local establishment that remains near and dear to my heart. It was a fascinating gig, and I’m grateful that I was able to have the experience of doing it (even if, on the whole, I was probably not an especially good bartender).

 

I did not learn to do most of this (which is probably for the best), and there was no flare in my bar game (an excellent thing, for safety purposes). Mostly, I just tried desperately to remember how much to charge for a given bit of boozery and what the regulars wanted to drink when they came in. I served a lot of beer. I secretly loathed people who wanted random complicated cocktails that they didn’t even know how to describe. I became moderately skilled at pouring Guinness properly. I got to meet and talk to a lot of delightful people, got hit on by the occasional drunk, and otherwise had a lovely time. I cleaned a lot. It was fun!

This summer, I’ve been fortunate enough to take on a very different kind of task — I am a (Part-Time, Temporary) Archivist in the library at the institution that employs me to do program admin (with a side of adjunct teaching) during the regular school year. It’s a really great opportunity — my non-Philosophy education is in Library and Information Science, but not in archives or archival records management, so moving into archives work is an adventure in a world just next door (so to speak) to the one I’m mainly trained for. It’s a bit like the way I felt when I picked up the viola, after a lifetime on the violin.

It is SO cool.

SOOOOO COOOOL.

Seriously, I could do this FOREVER. Park me in a windowless, climate-controlled room with things that need to be understood in order to be organized and described properly, and I am THERE for it.

Records in the University Archives

[Obviously I’m not working at UIUC, but I love this picture!]

The job in this case involves processing, describing, and organizing the contents of a set of filing cabinets belonging to (and donated by) a previous President of the institution whose tenure in the position was formative for what the place has become. There are letters, reports, newspaper clippings, photos, published and unpublished papers — a whole range of objects and documents that, taken all together, tell a story (indeed, several stories) about both the person who owned them and the institution he served.

I’m still in an early part of the process — the material in the cabinets has been through an initial round of processing (performed by others last year), so most of what I’m doing right now is round two of the processing-and-describing business. I’ve spent the last few weeks just figuring out exactly what I have to work with and thinking about what ought to be done with it. It’s been the most delicious treasure hunt of a job, as I read and identify and connect and name…so many little details and little stories! It’s a bit like picking up a rich, complicated historical novel (or just a really well-written history) — I can’t wait to go back to work on Monday and dig back in to the chapter I was “reading” when I left on Friday.

It’s not just the content that I adore, though. It’s all of the things I have to think about in order to interact with that content. I am (like many people who do library work, I suspect) a great lover of organizing things.* As I study the various papers and objects in the cabinets, I’m busily identifying and describing and tagging them (in my own notes, obviously — not marking the materials themselves), trying to determine some rational scheme for selecting the series in which they will ultimately be placed. Who will the users of this archival collection be? What set of series will best facilitate ease of use for them? There are ethical concerns about privacy and the law (Is this something we can share appropriately, or not? What about copyright?). There are value judgments to be made (Is this something we ought to keep or not? Why?). So many things to think about!

This summer is shaping up to be SO MUCH FUN, and I am infinitely grateful to my colleagues in the library who very kindly offered me the gig and are teaching me how it ought to be done.

 

 


*That sound you hear is both of my parents laughing VERY loudly, along with anyone who has ever visited either my house or my office. My claim to love organizing things may make more sense if you imagine that I, like the philosopher Berkeley, may be playing a bit fast and loose on occasion with the use of the word “things” relative to the word “ideas”.

Or, you know, it might not. Carry on laughing, then.

 

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Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework: The Best Laid Plans

As we reach the end of my little bloggy mini-series, it’s time to have a look at how my clever plans for teaching within the frame of Scholarship as Conversation sometimes gang agley.

Butterfly Garden

Ah, the sweet nectar of knowledge…

Caveat Lector

Of course, my little assessment summary here will be more anecdotal than rigorous, and my sample size is small and inconsistent at best. I’ve used the whole-course design three times, and I taught it a little differently each time; I’ve been teaching college students long enough to have learned that no perfect plan for the term survives its first encounter with the classroom. To teach is to adjust, to be willing to change when necessary to meet the need before you. I do not always remember this, although I try — I am acutely aware that one of my pedagogical sins is a desire to hang on to my plan and make things work out the way I decided they should, regardless of the evident need to do otherwise. Also worth noting: I have less experience with library instruction than with teaching philosophy courses, so in that realm I am still finding my way.

The Greater Lesson

The advantage of making quite a lot of room for students to contribute to course content in the way I have for a whole-course plan is that it can, when it works, generate actual participation in proper scholarly conversation.

The trouble with making quite a lot of room for students to contribute to course content in the way I have is that it puts the class constantly at risk of being undermined by non-participation, so that the Conversation never really happens. All it takes to derail the process almost completely is a critical mass of students choosing not to do the work, after which keeping the class going forward at all becomes a burden for the instructor to bear alone.

Blind horses. Water. You know the drill.

Every time I taught the PHIL 230 course this way, my numbers were small (never more than 11 students in any given class), but I was lucky enough to have a philosophy and religion major/minor or two and/or some subject majors in each group, some of whom were further along in their studies (juniors, seniors). Having them there meant that the basic research lessons could be reinforced by the students themselves, helping each other to learn and practice. Having the work done in shared environments — the collaborative bibliography, etc. — meant that the better students could be visible models for the students who needed more help. When it worked, it worked pretty well. It was, however, painfully obvious when too many people in the class either hadn’t done the reading at all or hadn’t really grasped it, which meant that there were several days when I had to substitute alternate tasks or lecture for the original discussion plan. As my majors at the time might tell you, I have no problem at all making students do at least some of the reading in class if they haven’t done it before class — and sometimes, I had to do just that in all three PHIL 230 instances, although it was a bigger issue in the Comedy class than in the other two. This is not an ideal situation, although it does afford the instructor an opportunity to help students learn to read the content more effectively (sometimes). The Comedy class also suffered, I think, from an assigned text that I quite liked, but that the students really did not. The result was a disinclination on their part to do the assigned reading early on and a tendency to rely more on published work in psychology (which more of them found familiar and readable) than philosophy when they started doing their own research.

The collaborative annotated bibliography was, perhaps, a touch too clever for real success, and probably would have accomplished more of what I wanted it to do if the work had been simplified. As the assignment was originally designed, it added unnecessary difficulty to already challenging research work — students not only had to find sources, they had to deal with me nitpicking their formatting in a bibliographic style with which they were unfamiliar while trying to do a kind of writing with which they were also unfamiliar. The way was not narrow enough, and the result was that while the best students (mostly the seniors) did quite well, the students who struggled really struggled, and for them this served as a disincentive to do the work. If I were ever going to teach a PHIL 230 course or something like it again, I’d shift the bulk of the research collaboration to a Zotero group and teach the students how to let the system handle the technical basics, so they could concentrate more effectively on source content.

The Smaller Lesson

Failure to narrow the way enough has been my biggest problem the relatively few times I’ve done library instruction, and the result is that I haven’t yet been truly good at making effective use of limited time. It’s difficult to know, with students one sees only once or twice rather than for a whole term, what the capacities and skills of a given session group really are. I struggle, I know, with accurately estimating the time it takes other people to do things; I read very quickly, and I have never been as good as I would like to be at figuring out the pace at which other people read or perform reading comprehension tasks. This is especially problematic when getting students to work within the frame of Scholarship as Conversation requires performing a research task of some kind as a part of the instruction session. Keeping it simple — in spite of my stubborn certainty that students ought also to grasp nuance and complex details — is the central struggle for balancing comprehension against time management, and I freely admit that I haven’t mastered it yet to my own satisfaction.

The trick I still need to figure out how to perform: get the students to consistently arrive at the basic ideas themselves, so that when nuance becomes possible, it also becomes natural. One non-conceptual obstacle perpetually looms over my efforts: I’ve got 30-odd minutes to do it, and my body and mind still operate in full-course time from years of ingrained habit. The key to success, I suspect, is getting better at figuring out exactly which limited set of “basics” I want the students to figure out and not overloading tasks or activities in ways that confound the process.

So: When it comes to prepping a short session, think like a carpenter — measure twice, cut once.

Well, that’s it for the series! I obviously still have a lot to learn, but I’m happy to keep working on it. Stay tuned for random nattering about old photographs, some babbling about movies and music, and whatever else comes to mind!

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework: Setting Up The (One) Shot

In last week’s post in this series, I talked about my PHIL 230 (Studies in Philosophy) course model for an intermediate topics class in philosophy, which I built by using the Scholarship as Conversation frame to generate my outcomes and my assignment structures. This week, I’m going to scale down from a whole philosophy course to a library instruction one-shot for a philosophy class at a similar level and with a similar student population, applying the same rules and principles that guided my whole-course approach.

Plant life at Little Storm Lake, Spring 2018

I’m ready for my close-up…

 

Let’s review those rules and principles and put them to work in the one-shot context!

Assumptions and Constraints

Take it as given that my overall instructional goal is to use a small amount of time (anywhere from 15 minutes to 50, single session only) to do what I have been asked to do in a way that helps to make it possible for students to participate in the Conversation. My choices with regard to specific learning outcomes in a one-shot session for someone else’s class are necessarily constrained by the instructor’s needs; I can’t just decide to do whatever I want to get students into the Conversation and skip the instructor’s actual request to teach them how to use a specific set of ProQuest-hosted databases effectively, for example. What I need to do is figure out how to frame the assigned task — e.g. teaching effective database use — as a part of participation in the Conversation. In this context, an element of the Information Literacy Framework becomes a sort of rhetorical setting for the session as well as a session outcome generation aid.

The Rules

Enter by the narrow gate

Following this rule in the context of a one-shot mostly involves (a) sticking as closely as possible to what the instructor actually needs done, (b) minding the time, and most importantly (c) making content and practice decisions about which things need to be given to students and which things they need to acquire for themselves as a part of the learning process in the session. There is where we turn to the tools (as mentioned last time). I take it to be pretty standard good practice nowadays to provide some sort of online research guide (LibGuide if possible, some other form if not) to which students will have continual access and make sure they know how to find it. Don’t give the full tour of the guide unless that’s required or advisable as a part of the instructor’s choice for the session; use a handout card, QR code, whatever else you have to do in order to make sure they have the link in addition to showing them how to get there from either the course in the learning management system or the Library landing page or both.

 Curation is the name of the game; collaboration is how we play

As might already be obvious from my comments about research guides above, the primary curation task for a short session will actually take place outside of the session itself, in the form of decisions about resources to share up-front in the guide. That’s not all, though. Curation in a one-shot session in which students are supposed to pick up a skill is also my shorthand term for the selection of tasks for students to perform, questions for students to answer, and/or problems for students to solve. Keeping time constraints and Rule (1) in mind, a properly narrow (“curated”) task that sets the students up to work on and successfully solve a problem or answer a question that puts them in the Conversation is ideal.

To that end, there are two forms of collaboration at work:

(a) The kind done with the class instructor, for the purpose of making decisions about what to curate in terms of content and questions (accomplished by asking, by discussing, by reading the syllabus and/or the assignment in question, etc.).

(b) The pedagogical sort involving the students themselves, in which it is my goal (within reason, given time constraints) to get the students to figure out some of the process stuff and/or the rationale for the process themselves, as a group working to solve a problem or set of problems (time constraints always loom here).

Keeping the Frame in mind, it’s important always to contextualize the resources and tasks in the session as participation in an ongoing conversation; this is something the students can be made to come up with themselves, through a little of that ol’ Socratic-ish Q&A action, which will make it stick a bit more firmly.

“Yikes!” You might say. “That seems like a lot to pack into a very small amount of time! Why can’t you just walk the class through watching a simple search in the database, do a little quiz, and call it a day?”

Why? Because watching someone else search for something or being told how to search for something isn’t the same as having to make decisions about doing it yourself, and giving someone a context in which to think about how to do a thing — and then helping them to actually do it — is often better for retaining the information. Experiential learning does seem to have some decently-documented benefits in that regard.

Obviously, a 15-minute quickie running through a PhilPapers user interface demo is not going to work the same way as a 30 minute-or-more session in which there’s more room to talk about search methods. The limits imposed by time and instructor priority determine how any of the above rules are applied. The goal of getting the students to do something instead of passively witnessing, however — joining the Conversation rather than watching it — remains the same and dictates my own session priorities as I try to meet instructor requirements.

It’s also worth remembering (if you’re feeling a tiny bit of panic at looking at all of the stuff I seem to think can be done in a one-shot) that what I’ve just described above is not an actual session — it’s mostly what has to happen before the session. Following the rules and working within constraints means that the end product (the session itself) should be relatively simple when it actually happens, if I do it right. It does involve some risk — getting students to figure something out in a way that still works within time constraints is a bit like working the high wire without a net. Deciding how best to limit and frame questions to keep the class on track toward the intended outcome sometimes runs up against problems related to background knowledge deficits. You don’t want to assume they know nothing, but it’s not wise to assume they know much (and yet you don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence…). I have sometimes been surprised by the odd, unstated rules students have made for themselves in order to understand something (rules that ended up interfering with comprehension by accident).

Next week, I’m going to use my final post in this series to think a little bit about assessment. How did it all turn out when I taught this way? In answer, I will explore my own experience of von Moltke’s classic, often mangled-in-the-quoting observation: no plan survives contact with the enemy.

No one said this was going to be easy…

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework: I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

In last week’s installment, I walked through the basic thought process that led to my intermediate/advanced PHIL 230 (Studies in Philosophy) course model. This week, I’m going to take a closer look at an outline of the syllabus for the Information and Computer Ethics version of the class, with particular attention paid to the schedule and the assignments. Ultimately, teaching these classes was a matter of following rules and developing tools, which should become visible once we have a look at the Information and Computer Ethics outline.

Little Storm Lake

Stay on the path…

 

First, check out the syllabus outline for PHIL 230: Information and Computer Ethics. Make special note of the schedule and the assignment descriptions.

The basic idea I had for the course was that it ought to be like a sort of all-term workshop on a relatively narrow topic, so that we could all work together to learn, research, write, present, and revise as a group of scholars engaged in shared study of the same thing. The student presentations at the end of term were run as a sort of mini-conference (complete with a conference program for presentations in which students were able to read each other’s abstracts). Students would have time to revise their work in light of both instructor comments and presentation responses/questions from their peers.

More specifically, the class ran according to two rules I made for myself, using a small set of tools the purpose of getting the ball rolling and keeping it in motion.

Rules

Rule 1: Enter by the narrow gate

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the best conditions for free research and inquiry for my students are those in which certain options are left open and others are firmly closed; reducing variables improves outcomes. GenEd students with minimal prior training in Philosophy are not usually well-equipped to come up with appropriate topics or research questions in response to a comprehensive topic survey. Keeping the course itself to a relatively narrow range of possible discussions therefore became a guiding principle. This way, the students would be well enough acquainted with the same materials to have something worthwhile to say to each other about their work. This would also make it possible to get them started on doing research within the second or third week of class. Following this rule generated a course with less assigned content (reading assignments stopped after week 11 of a 15-week semester) and — I hoped — more meaningful and accomplished student interaction with that content.

In practice, this meant that I assigned exactly one book for the course — Floridi’s Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Students started doing research to form a pool of shared readings from journals and other sources in week 2. I began replacing one day a week of textbook-assigned readings with student-shared readings in week 4, and went over entirely to student-shared readings for weeks 9-11. Students were submitting new readings every Thursday night for eight weeks (week 2-week 10), which meant that in addition to doing assigned reading for the class, they were also working on their own to find material (which makes up, in a way, for the apparent lightness of the assignment schedule). They did an intense reading and research burn, basically, until the 11th week, and then were released to focus on writing.

 

Rule 2: Curation is the name of the game; collaboration is the way we play

Students in this class were required to submit readings to both a shared discussion in Canvas and to a shared Google doc (our Collaborative Annotated Bibliography). Ideally, this would give the entire class access to the articles, some guidance as to their content, and some practice writing annotations and constructing bibliographic entries according to the Chicago Manual of Style. In addition to researching and submitting articles, students were expected to keep track of what was already in the bibliography (to avoid duplicates). Students were also expected to seek out and share examples to use as cases for our Friday application discussions (I’ll say more about how we did this in the tools section below). These were usually news items, although students were allowed to pose questions and cases that they invented for themselves; we had some interesting discussions about information privacy in the dorms on campus, for example, and related concerns about using an app to track Humans vs. Zombies player participation.

We didn’t just use student-submitted content willy-nilly, however. A lot of my job for the term was to curate that material, fitting it in relative to the chapters in the Floridi anthology and with some attention paid to common themes in the submissions themselves. My curatorial work was also a control measure for instances in which the pool of available material wasn’t adequate to the task; I was there to deal with those weeks in which student submissions weren’t up to snuff. I occasionally added submissions of my own to cover content shortfalls. Note that my curatorial role here was also shaped by the fact that this was a small group of students (there were only 10 in the class when I taught it at BVU); a larger group might present different challenges.

Once we got to weeks 12 and 13, class time was devoted to discussing student papers in progress — each student had the chance to talk about how the work was going, and we also spent time talking about how to do a presentation, how to shape a really good thesis for this sort of paper, etc. By the time students submitted their rough drafts and abstracts, they had already learned quite a bit about each other’s papers, and they’d already received a lot of feedback on the writing and presentation process. They were given each other’s abstracts before presentations started, and required to share initial questions about abstract content; this gave presenters some idea of what kinds of questions to prepare for and audience members a preview of what they would be hearing. Students in the audience on a given presentation day were required to ask and/or submit in writing at least one question for each presenter.

 

Tools

In order to facilitate all of the research and collaboration work I had in mind, I required my students to get comfortable with a range of different tools, a term I use here to cover both technologies and practices. I wanted them to use an RSS feed reader for collecting application discussion examples, Google Drive/Docs for collaborative editing, and various discussion options in Canvas. I also walked them through a fairly basic form of citation-based Pearl Growing work at the very start of the term, starting from a sample article and the assigned course readings in order to show them how to use those things to find other material. My hope was that using the assigned reading and this sample guidance would facilitate the research process well enough that they could start finding topics within the scope of the discussion that interested them enough to make seeking more information interesting and worthwhile for them. Honestly, while I think the Collaborative Annotated bibliography was a good assignment, a better way to do it (following Rule 1 more effectively) would be to skip the Canvas discussion for sharing and just get the class set up as a group in Zotero. At the time, I was on my high horse about making people learn how to do citations manually, so I managed to make the whole process harder than it needed to be.

To smooth the research road a bit outside of class instruction, I built the class a research guide using a set of Canvas Pages — here’s a very ugly, poorly formatted Google Sites version of it that I created for my MLIS portfolio, if you’re curious (BVU doesn’t use LibGuides, so I cobbled together a solution of my own). Following Rule 1, I used this selection of resources as a way to reduce variables; I gave the students what they needed up front, instead of hoping they’d find what I wanted them to find.

If it occurs to you that this all looks like a lot of work, well — you’re not wrong. Still, I was reasonably pleased with the results I got. There was a lot less topic floundering and a lot more good work on the papers, and student discussions of key concepts and arguments were informed and serious (most of the time, anyway).

“OK, sure,” you might then say, “but this is a whole semester-long course, and it seems to include in the schedule some days in class that are effectively one-shot library instruction sessions. How on earth can you scale this approach down for one-shots in isolation, when you don’t have the whole term to work with?”

Aha! Well, that’s what we’ll talk about next week, when I shift down to the one-shot scale and suggest some ways to use my rules and tools and backward design notions for individual library instruction sessions.

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Labor of Citation

[Reblogged here from my original post on LinkedIn]

One of my current projects for the Buena Vista University Honors program is the assembly of an archive of completed student Honors projects. For a variety of reasons, this simply hadn’t been done before — program directors, mentors, and students held on to the work, but there was no single, coherent repository of completed projects. We’ve finally gathered most of the completed papers from 2011 to 2018, and I expect to have more to work with soon, finally brought together into what will eventually be an indexed, consistently formatted, publicly presentable collection of student work.

One of the benefits of assembling this collection (in addition to simply having evidence of the excellent work our students do) is that it can serve as a source of data for a number of different assessment studies. I’ve just started, for example, studying student use of citations in Honors papers, which cross multiple disciplines and style norms and therefore offer a rich body of samples for anyone interested in assessing citation usage across campus. I’m currently just getting it all in order, and I’ve started marking certain kinds of errors: citation list entries in which errors interfere with finding the source to which they are supposed to point.

Books-2

In the context of beginning my little citation assessment study, I was especially struck today by this bit from Phil Davis’ post at The Scholarly Kitchen about the side effects of redirecting citations to preprint archives rather than to the final, published versions of articles in journals:

A citation is much more than a directional link to the source of a document. It is the basis for a system of rewarding those who make significant contributions to public science. Redirecting citations to preprint servers not only harms journals, which lose public recognition for publishing important work, but to the authors themselves, who may find it difficult to aggregate public acknowledgements to their work.

I am used to talking to my own students about good citation practice as an important part of understanding Scholarship as Conversation. Pointing my readers to my sources isn’t just about giving credit where it’s due or recognizing intellectual property. It’s about inviting those readers to see what I’ve seen in those sources, to consider the evidence themselves and to make their own judgments about the quality of my argument after having done so.

Yet Davis’ point reveals another dimension of the citation business (and I use the word “business” advisedly) — the Conversation among scholars does not occur in some pure space in which minds meet without external effect or constraint. Publication and employment/promotion are inescapably interdependent in the current system. Scholars operate on an incentive model structured around the use of acknowledgement of their work as a metric for assigning value to it.

“Fixing” a citation to the published version of a paper rather than to an earlier version on a preprint server, in that context, makes the work of citation for a student or professional researcher effectively a kind of political or economic act in addition to a move in the Conversation. Teaching students good citation practice, with that in mind, may require taking on the additional burden of teaching them the difference between preprint and publication, not just for the sake of accuracy in citation or good participation in the Conversation, but for the sake of acting ethically(?) in a citation economy.

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business | Tagged , , , , ,

Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework: Designing Backwards, In Heels

Last week here on the ol’ blog, I presented a preface to a series of posts about designing and teaching intermediate and advanced philosophy courses using the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework. In this week’s installment in the series, I’m going to take a little time to walk through the thought process behind my course-building work, in which I used a sort of backward design to grow the pedagogical skeleton for my PHIL 230 (Studies in Philosophy) classes. What I’m most interested in accomplishing with this post is a fairly rudimentary account of how the Framework can be used to generate and support course outcomes.

cropped-6292469410_b45d64a3061.jpg

Time to head into the weeds…

Backward design, as an approach to course construction, begins from outcomes and builds back from them to the assessment metrics and activities that will be used to generate and evaluate student work towards those outcomes. The language here is important. I did not set out make a particular part of the ACRL Framework into an articulated course outcome. I used a part of the Framework — in this case, the set of threshold concepts under the general heading of Scholarship as Conversation — as a context (a frame, as it were…) in which to select the course outcomes I would use.*  Ideally, if all went well, this would mean that when I assessed my stated outcomes, I would also have available to me information that could be used to assess the alignment of my course and my students’ work with the Framework itself.

So: Having decided that I wanted my students to become at least minimally competent participants in proper philosophical conversations, I next had to decide exactly what would count as evidence of that competence. After I thought about it a bit, I chose to design my course around the work needed to research, write, revise, present, and respond to a typical conference-length paper (~10-12 pages, about 20 min. read aloud, straight through). This meant that on the way to getting something of a grip on [course topic du jour], my students would have to work on doing research, on selecting a topic, on drafting a paper, on presenting and revising that paper for final submission, and on responding to other people’s papers in writing and in conversation. I added a proposal/thesis submission phase (including a sort of literature review) and an ongoing, term-long collaborative annotated bibliography assignment in order to flesh out the research and writing process and draw attention to some important tasks in paper development. Instead of assigning an entire semester of reading, I chose a good introductory text or two on [topic du jour] and assigned roughly half of a semester of reading; students would be finding and sharing the rest, subject to curation and assignment by Yours Truly.** My hope was that my students would effectively be making themselves into a little community of people conversant in the course topic by sharing and developing their research and writing with each other, rather than working individually to meet a set of instructor-determined requirements that they all only incidentally had in common by virtue of being students in the same class.

 

7316544430_e1723ae25b

My outcomes for the courses in which I used this design looked something like this:

In this class, students will learn:

a) Some of the central concepts and arguments in [course topic], including discussions about [a short and non-exhaustive list of specific issues, arguments, and questions belonging to the course topic]
b) Research skills – the use of specialist databases to find relevant scholarly materials, the evaluation of the usefulness of those materials, and the construction and use of annotated bibliographies as a part of the research process
c) Writing and speaking skills – the writing process for a conference paper presentation, including topic selection, argument structure, collaborative critique, public presentation and comment

Why choose the conference paper process as a course structure?*** Because of all of the formal venues in which scholarly conversation occurs in philosophy (conferences, departmental colloquia, publications, society meetings), the conference — at which scholars from many different institutions and backgrounds may meet to learn, discuss, and improve each other’s arguments — seemed to me to offer the most room for publicly modeling philosophical work in progress. Journal articles and books may be the tenure and promotion endgame for the conversation among professionals in the discipline, but the living process of honing arguments is easier to see (for me, anyway) in good conference discussions. Requiring the class to do the research needed to write a relatively brief conference paper on a narrow topic afforded me a way to use the research process itself both to develop skills and to introduce content. It also made the final product of student work for the class — the paper and its presentation — an actual instance of participation in the Conversation in addition to providing a set of tools for assessing my students’ ability to do so. I wanted my students to do some philosophy, in short, and I thought that this would be a good way to make it happen.

“But wait,” you might ask, “how are you going to get decent conference papers and discussions from a bunch of non-majors who don’t have enough of a foundation in the material to do even beginner-level work? Aren’t they just going to flounder? Aren’t you just setting them up to fail, and yourself up to do a huge amount of additional work?”

As it happens, all of this did occur to me — in fact, this is why I chose to use the threshold concept(s) embodied in Scholarship as Conversation to generate goals for the course rather than creating more specific topic or skill mastery outcomes. Next week, I’ll share the outline of one of my syllabi and say more about the actual assignments I created, the resources I provided to my students, and how these assignments were meant to work to get the newbies up to speed and into the conversation.

 

 

 


*  This approach is more or less what Megan Oakleaf recommended back when the Framework was shiny and new, although I must confess that I hadn’t read the Oakleaf piece when I first started thinking of my courses this way.

** I may have thrown them off the metaphorical dock to see if they’d swim with this approach, but I didn’t want them to drown — they each had a lifejacket of a sort, in the form of my selective deployment of the results of their research. I needed a control mechanism to cope with the inevitable moment when no one selected anything actually good to read, or when someone included an article that we weren’t ready for yet, but could conceivably find a good use for. Including instructor oversight via curation meant I could throw something in if I had to, instead of relying entirely on the students to get it right every time. I always added any texts I selected to the same annotated bibliography the students were building, so that I was a part of the research process as well as its overseer.

*** Some experienced library instructors who use the Framework may look at this and think I was being a wee bit too literal w/r/t what’s actually in the Scholarship as Conversation frame. That’s a fair cop. In my defense, I think that since the work of academic philosophy is so frequently done in conference contexts, being literal in this particular way is an entirely appropriate choice for trying to get my students to do philosophy. My discipline often just is its conversation, constantly evolving, and I think it’s a good idea to run with that fact right out of the gate.

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , ,