Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Future Ready

There has been a lot of talk about whether libraries and information professionals can adapt to the increasingly digital future--and if so, how. This video, from a seminar at Library 2.011 called "Future Ready," offers a humorous metaphor for how information professionals can adapt to the "jungle" of this brave new world:

This excerpt from Switch offers a mindset for adapting to rapid change: don't look for the roots of problems; look for "bright spots," see what's different about them, and replicate what they're doing as much as possible.

I admit, the future intimidates me sometimes. So do people who jokingly (I think?) welcome our robot overlords. I often feel like they're mindlessly repeating Barney Stinson's four-word mantra from How I Met Your Mother: "New is always better." Not true, in fact. But neither is the reverse.

November Library Conferences

I am so excited about the two library conferences I am going to this November! There's the CLA/CLSA conference, which I've gone to for the past two years and always enjoyed tremendously, and a brand new conference, Library 2.011, which focuses on the future of libraries in the digital age. The latter is free and entirely online, so that will be an interesting experience, I'm sure. Definitely not the traditional conference experience. Then again, it may give me warm nostalgic feelings (or something) for my days of online education.

More to come! :D

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Math People"

Over the years, I have done a lot of tutoring in various subjects. Of course, I get a lot of math students--either students who need help with a math class or who are reviewing math in preparation for a standardized test. So a lot of people have trouble with math. This is understandable, as it can be a difficult subject. But what I find baffling is how often I get comments like, "I just don't get math" or "I'm not a math person." It's this odd fatalism you don't usually find in other academic subjects. I don't hear people say, "Well, I'm not really a history person" or "I don't get English." They might say they don't like it or they find it boring or they have trouble with part of it (usually grammar), but they assume that if they cared enough to put in the effort, they could understand it.

Why don't they assume the same for math? The premise is actually arguably more true for math than for other subjects because of how systematic math is. Maybe the problem is that it is easier to get behind in math--if you miss one conceptual building block, you're more or less stalled until you can get past it and work your way back up. Maybe it has something to do with cultural assumptions about math and the people who love it.

Look: you can learn math. I promise. And it can be very useful. A better understanding of percentages and interest could have decreased the number of people who accepted bad mortgages. An understanding of statistics can help you decide whether a poll or scientific study is actually valid. And geometry has applications in physics, art, architecture, engineering, and animation, among other things.

There are no "math people." There are people who choose to learn math, and people who choose not to.

Choose math.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Learning from Mistakes

I've learned there's the greatest difference in the world between feeling guilty and taking responsibility. Feeling guilty mires you in the past: it's about beating yourself up for mistakes and asking, "How could I have been so stupid?" Taking responsibility advances you into the future: it's about learning from your mistakes and asking, "What could I do differently next time?"

Friday, August 19, 2011

Further thoughts on collaboration

This summer, I interned at the Pasadena Library, working specifically with the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration (PDHC). The PDHC consists of (currently) four organizations that are digitizing their historical Pasadena materials and putting them online in a shared database to allow for easier research by the general public. My main task was creating an online policy manual to describe their mission, goals, policies, procedures, and standards. Since they were getting to the point where they were large enough to start seeking grants and adding new partners, they wanted everything described very clearly. They also wanted to narrow their focus so they would not scatter their limited energy and resources on activities that would not help them further their long-term goals.

This meant a lot of collaboration, communication, and compromise. I was working closely with about eight different people from three different institutions, and all of them were doing work for the PDHC on top of their full-time or part-time jobs. The biggest difficulty was just waiting to hear back from people. This taught me very quickly to only send out e-mails concerning questions I really needed answers to and give deadlines (usually of about a week, given the complexities of scheduling), but also indicate whether those deadlines were flexible or not. Most of the time, they were, but sometimes I needed a particular piece of information in order to be prepared for a meeting or before it was my last day at the internship. I felt more confident and assertive (and got better responses) after the first meeting, where I got to meet everyone and make a short presentation on my progress.

All of this work came together in the final meeting I facilitated in August. It was exhausting, but a really rewarding experience.

On the whole, I learned that collaboration can work very well, but it's messy, and everyone has to have the same overall goals. It helps when the goals are a larger extension of what they are doing anyway, and they have special skills and interests they can explore within the project.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gentle Reader

There is an old New Yorker cartoon with a man approaching the desk at a library or bookstore and asking, "Are there still books being written for Gentle Reader?" It addresses the concern of readers who fear books are becoming too harsh and violent, that there is no longer a place for the old-fashioned "gentle" reader who just loves a good story.

This isn't directly what I want to focus on. Books (and any medium or artistic form) will always address the concerns of the time in which they were written, in one way or another. Times always change, both for better and worse. New trends emerge, and old thoughts, habits, and technologies fall by the wayside. We are always losing "the way things were" in a "simpler" time (that wasn't always as simple as we recall). At least the books of the old days still remain. Some things, though, change the fabric of our society in more practical ways.

To put it another way: Are there still jobs available for Gentle Reader?

I had a conversation with my mom recently about Borders closing. She has worked for Barnes & Noble for several years, and I asked her if she thought it would weather the storm. She said she thought it would, since it had a good business model, but reflected that things were definitely changing. The store was likely going to be offering a smaller selection of physical books, in favor of promoting the Nook, e-books, and toys and games, "things people actually buy." She reflected, "There isn't going to be much use for people with my set of skills. It's going to be a lot more technical support and high-pressure sales."

This saddens me. To me, bookstores are supposed to be places people go, and work, because they love books. Not because they love technology or movies or music or games or (ugh) sales. BOOKS. Do these other things have their place? Of course. In fact, they have their places. Bookstores and libraries are the only places for books, and they are both facing tremendous pressure to change and move away from their original purposes.

No doubt some of this is inevitable. And, of course, many positive changes have resulted from more computerized and mobile access to information. But there is something about having a physical place to browse books that engenders a sense of community and serendipity in a way that Amazon will never be able to duplicate.

Is there still a place for Gentle Reader?

One wonders.

Interview with Michelle Turner, Pasadena Museum of History

The latest interview on the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration is from a very different perspective, as it addresses the concerns of someone from the Pasadena Museum of History. Michelle Turner describes the unique concerns in digitizing art and working with librarians.

You can read the interview here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Interview with Martha Camacho, Pasadena Public Library

The next interview in the series is up! As part of my internship, I am interviewing participants in the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration in order to get their perspectives on the collaboration, the digitization process, what things they think went well, and what they wish they had known going in.

This week's interview features my direct supervisor, Martha Camacho. It has been a pleasure working with her, and I look forward to the last three weeks of my internship.

Please enjoy the interview, which can be found here.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Interview with Dan McLaughlin, Pasadena Public Library

This is the first of a series of interviews I'm doing to spice up the blog for the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration. It introduces some of the key participants in the collaboration and allows them to elaborate on their role, the triumphs and frustrations they've faced, and things they wish they had known coming in.

The first interview subject is Dan McLaughlin from the Pasadena Public Library. He's a fun guy (and a fellow NaNoWriMo participant!). You can read the interview here.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Intern! Fetch me the solution to my problems!

So I just started my first internship! It is my last class before graduating with my MLIS (yay!), and it has been very interesting so far. I feel like a grown-up with actual autonomy and responsibilities. By this, I mean "I could talk about the things I do and get taken seriously by people who wear suits." (Teaching, sadly, does not fulfill this requirement for some reason.) Also, I have my own desk with my name on it! :-D

Thus far, I have worked on creating a marketing strategy to publicize a historical photo archive, consolidating policies on digitization, and streamlining the communication process between several cooperating institutions. (This is just within the first two days, mind you.) Mostly this has involved seeing what is there already, thinking about ways to improve it, and doing research on approaches institutions in similar situations have used.

Librarians: doing way more than you think since the beginning of recorded history.

Interns: also pretty awesome.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Can you teach teaching?

Teacher education is an ironic concept. Do teachers have to be taught to do what they do? Is there some kind of systematic set of skills that can be learned and applied, or is it something you either instinctively know how to do or don't? The battle lines are drawn: art vs. science, nature vs. nurture, "teachers are born" vs. "teachers are made."

On some level, these are silly distinctions. Everybody knows that, while some people have more of a knack for teaching than others do, there is still a learning curve and specific skills that need to be gained over time. It's just common sense.

Or is it?

Consider the (odious yet ubiquitous) saying, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." What does this saying imply about the attitude toward teachers? First, it assumes a dichotomy between "doers" and "teachers"--one that heavily privileges people out doing things in the "real world." Second, it insinuates that teachers are second-rate--the people who couldn't hack it in an actual profession. Third, it implies that anything worth knowing or doing can't be taught. Think about it. In this Darwinian worldview, there are simply "those who can" and "those who can't." I doubt anyone subscribing to this particular point of view has much confidence that one of "those who can't" could be given a push forward by a teacher, by definition another member of the "can't" group. And those who "can" certainly have nothing to learn from teachers either, but must simply pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and follow their own brilliance to the inevitable pinnacle of destiny that awaits them.

Obviously, I don't believe a word of this. I don't think anyone is inherently a member of a "can" or "can't" group for anything. Whether someone "can" do something is influenced by disposition, natural skill, ambition, the availability of resources, instruction/mentoring, encouragement, social conditioning, willingness to take risks, practice, and much more. Teachers can provide resources, instruction, encouragement, and opportunities to practice, and they can more easily direct those with natural skill, ambition, and the proper disposition. This applies to teachers of teachers as well. Do some teachers have more natural skill than others? Yes. Does this mean they won't struggle, feel overwhelmed, and cry regularly in their offices? No. Days of despair are common to us all. But regardless of how hard we had to work, it's worth it to sincerely say, "We're pretty awesome at teaching."

Friday, April 29, 2011

With our powers combined...

Group work has a nasty reputation. Perhaps it is one school project too many where you do all the work and a bunch of slackers take the credit (or conversely, where a bossy know-it-all takes over everything and isn't open to alternative thoughts or the suggestion that there's more to life than a presentation about the food pyramid or whatever). Everyone has a horror story or two.

What makes it so difficult?

 With collaboration of any kind, you're forced to examine how you work: your thought processes, how you make decisions, how you define and divide tasks, what your priorities and goals are, and your procedures and timeline for completing the work. These are usually unconscious, but in a group setting, you have to confront them because everyone else's will be different. This is where the conflict comes in: in trying to accommodate different assumptions, methods, goals, and work styles. What makes things even more difficult is that most people give very little explicit instruction in how to negotiate, compromise, work out a plan, and find ways to use the strengths of all group members. Furthermore, even group leaders who want to specifically design plans around the strengths of their group members have difficulty because most people don't know what their strengths are, and if they do, they often have trouble articulating them. So the entire process tends to be fumbling through, on a deadline, working toward an ill- or hastily-defined goal that (all too often) no one really would have chosen in the first place.

That said, I like collaboration. I really do. I have had some fantastic collaborative experiences, both in school and in personal writing projects. During good collaborations, I feel alive with possibilities and more confident that good ideas will rise to the top because two or more people had to approve them, and they had to be explained clearly enough for at least one other person to understand. I focus more on the process than on the product, more on the ideas than on how people will judge me based on the final product. I have to think about why I want to do a particular thing and justify to another person why the end result will be better for it. This has eliminated a lot of self-indulgent, lazy, and just plain silly ideas on my part.

While there is some truth to the waggish quote about meetings, the fact remains that we are stronger together. Go Planeteers team!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Perks and trade-offs in online learning

It's very strange to think that I will be graduating in August with a degree I earned exclusively by taking classes online. When I talk about the program I'm in, I always have to explain that it's a distance education program, because people still tend to assume that graduate-level programs take place in traditional settings. Their first question is usually, "So how does that work?"

Depending on how interested I think they are, I either just say that all the classes are online, or I start to talk about the different tools professors have used to structure the classes ("Some teachers have recorded lectures, sometimes there are discussion boards or blogs, sometimes they just post assigned readings and you do them on your own time..."). After listening for a while, they usually give me one of three reactions:
  1. You must be very disciplined.
  2. It must be nice to set your own schedule.
  3. It must be weird and kind of hard not to ever meet anyone.
I would laugh #1 off, except that I think I actually have gotten more disciplined (go figure). #2 is a mixed bag--yes, it is nice to have the flexibility, but it also means (for the most part) that there's no set schedule telling me when to be in class and when learning is "supposed" to occur. If I want a structure like that, I have to create it. Mostly, though, I've just let my education casually entwine itself in my life. Yes, it can be difficult sometimes to not have a clear differentiation between my school life and my personal life, but it just means I've needed to learn to set my own limits. (Maybe that's where the discipline came in. Sneaky!) I have had to learn to navigate different class setups and schedules and decide when I was going to work on assignments for each class, given a set of due dates. It helped me understand how I work like no other experience has.

So far, so good. Point three is the kicker, though. It is difficult not to meet anyone. It's hard to get to know people in an online environment, even though I am comparatively tech-savvy and have a lot of experience with online communication. I still have to go out of my way to meet other people in any kind of social setting, much less a physical one. I keep in touch with some classmates over Google chat. I go to conferences. Even so, many of the people I meet are not nearby. I envy my roommate (also currently in grad school) who brings her friends from school over to the house. She confided in me that she had considered the SLIS program here, but had decided not to enroll because she needed the structure and social environment of a traditional classroom.

I am very happy with the academic aspect of my education. I just wish I had gotten to know a greater number of people as more than words on a page.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Grade Crusade

Grading was probably my least favorite part of being a teacher because it underscored how much I didn't know what I was doing.* It also highlighted the fact that I had several inchoate and incompatible philosophies of teaching that I hadn't merged into any coherent theory. (I pictured it would be something like a cross between Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets Society.) Basically, I couldn't articulate what I was looking for. So my students didn't really know what I was looking for either. And I would then have to give them a grade based on... what, exactly? How well what they actually did measured up to a nebulous idea in my head? I also had trouble sometimes with giving lower grades, even if the work deserved it, because it seemed a value judgment on the person somehow, and I remembered my own perfectionism as a student. Suffice to say, I tended to procrastinate on grading, the papers piled up, and everyone wound up terribly unhappy.

Looking back, what I really wanted was for them to think, to engage meaningfully with the issues they were reading about and come up with their own ideas. (This means NO PLAGIARISM!!!) And I didn't know how to assess that. So if the students thought about their grades at all, they probably focused on superficial things, because that wound up being what was easiest to grade, there in the trenches. Based on what they said, I think they thought I wanted my own ideas parroted back at me. This was sad, and actually the last thing I wanted. It upsets me that this is what they had gone through school believing was important--just find the answers and fill them out. If I had realized earlier that this was a problem, maybe I could have broken them of this habit of ignoring their own thoughts, of assuming that I would be upset at them for having an original idea that disagreed with mine.

*To clarify exactly how much I didn't know what I was doing, I was hired as basically the 10th grade English teacher one week before classes started. I had no previous training, unless you count half a semester's worth of an education class in college. There was no preexisting curriculum or lesson plans for me to draw from. I had the English standards, a lesson plan template, and a dream of making a difference. That's about it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Majoring in the Universe

Saying you want to teach information literacy is a little bit like saying you want to major in the universe. You're trying to teach people how to find, interpret, understand, and use information (a.k.a., pretty much everything). In my headache-addled brain, the instruction manual looks something like this:

Step 1: Declare your intention to teach information literacy.
Step 2: ?
Step 3: PROFIT! (Paid in the form of smart people instead of money.)

The trick is narrowing the focus to something manageable. I was struck by what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe said in Understanding by Design about the need for creating essential questions. What are the questions that boil down the essence of the field? What are the questions that even experienced practitioners struggle with? Creating a learning design around questions seems to be the best way to avoid an undue number of assumptions.

With that in mind, here are my candidates for key essential questions in the field of information studies:
  • What is information?
  • Where does information come from?
  • Why is information important?
  • Is some information more important? If so, when and why? Who decides what information is most important? Why?
  • How do you know when you need information? How can you figure out what information you need?
  • What are sources of information? Are some sources better than others? If so, when and why? Who decides what sources are best? Why?
  • Who decides what information should be kept? Why?
  • How is information stored and organized?
  • What are useful strategies for interacting with sources of information and information retrieval systems? What should you do if there are barriers to the information or it cannot be located?
  • What makes information correct? What makes information meaningful? Are these always the same? Why or why not?
  • What happens when pieces of information conflict? Why might different sources conflict?
  • Who uses information, and how? How should information be used (or not used)?
  • When and how should information be shared? Is it always right to share information, or are there times it should be contained? Who should decide this? Why?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wikipedia and Information Literacy

What is information literacy? Cite ACRL or AASL standards all you want, but for many teachers and librarians, the definition is secretly, "Teach kids not to use Wikipedia."

Some level of concern is certainly warranted. After all, when dinosaurs in a webcomic point out credibility issues with this particular source, it may be wise to consider broadening one's horizons. But Wikipedia is far from the only source that has ever provided inaccurate information. Actually, it has become far more transparent about how accurate its information is, noting when a section of an article needs additional footnotes or clarification, or when it may not be grammatical or objective. Wikipedia arguably forces people to question where information comes from and think critically about it in a way that traditional encyclopedias do not. So why has it become the shibboleth for declining information literacy skills?

A great deal of the backlash against Wikipedia has to do with assumptions about what information is the most useful, reliable, and important. The academic community in particular still privileges print, the individual, and "the expert." It values being able to trace an idea, expressed in written language in a stable form, back to its source: the individual who worked hard to become an expert in that field. Plagiarism is the greatest sin, a form of identity theft--blurring one's own thoughts and ideas with those of another individual or assuming the individual's intellectual identity outright. The stability of print allows the individual to claim the right to his or her ideas and oust the pretender. Naturally, an environment with these ideals and norms would look with suspicion on a Web-based encyclopedia that is constantly changing and lets anybody--anybody!--contribute to it in a collective fashion. Why, you have no idea who said what, or when, or if they had the proper qualifications... It can't be authoritative if there's no source of authority!

Ironically, this distrust may be the perfect seed for growing critical thinking skills. But for students, the distrust may expand outward to more hallowed institutions. What makes a person who writes a book more of an expert than a person who writes a blog? True, the former may benefit from editorial oversight, but the latter has to face the immediate, public responses to a post, many of which can be critical and force the writer to elaborate on or correct the original post. It is misguided to say that one form is inherently more "authoritative" than the other. But it is perfectly acceptable to ask students to consider where the information comes from, how it was created, who created it, the benefits and limitations of its particular form, and whether it all adds up to something appropriate to use to solve an information need in the current context. Should you cite a Wikipedia article on The Sound and the Fury in a literary research paper? Of course not. Is it a good place to start if you're going on a date with a Faulkner buff in half an hour and you don't want to sound stupid? Well, why not? And who's to say which information need was more important in the long run?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Learning in "The Cornhusker Vortex"

I watched an interesting episode of The Big Bang Theory the other day that neatly encapsulates many of the problems with traditional models of education. In "The Cornhusker Vortex," Leonard, a physicist, wants to learn about football in order to fit in with his girlfriend's friends when they watch the football game. He begins the process by watching recorded games and pausing them for analysis, looking up confusing terms in the index of Football for Dummies. ("Scrimmage... scrimmage...") Eventually, his roommate Sheldon (a theoretical physicist who was unwillingly subjected to football as part of his East Texas upbringing) becomes frustrated with Leonard's slow progress and offers to serve as a gatekeeper into the rarefied world of football.

By game day, Leonard has mastered basic knowledge of the rules of the game, but the viewing experience does not go as planned. First, he mistakes a championship game replay for live footage, and then he makes social blunders like overexplaining concepts with which other viewers would already be familiar and analyzing the plays using unnecessarily sophisticated vocabulary.

To what degree has Leonard "learned" football?

He certainly has a theoretical grasp of the game's rules. He is able to explain it and analyze the plays. He has not learned the skills necessary to play it himself, but arguably, neither have any of the other viewers. Yet the humor in this episode derives from the fact that, despite all his knowledge, Leonard has not actually learned what he needed to fulfill his objective: how to fit in socially while watching a game of football.

Why is this?

Situated learning theory would suggest that Leonard failed in his objective because he tried to divorce the information from the social context that would give it meaning. He approached watching the game through books instead of through experience--and many of the social cues he needed to understand could only be observed, translated, and internalized by watching a game with others in a natural setting. His vocabulary came across as artificial because he learned using an academic model rather than through accumulated years of experience watching football games, as the others had.

Ironically, Leonard already possessed many of the skills he needed. Despite his protests, he does understand the concepts of competition, trash-talking, and empathetic identification with a team, as evidenced by his previous experiences with the Physics Bowl, dueling robots, and kite fighting. Yet he did not see those skills as related or transferable. Ultimately, he was not able to connect his new knowledge to his previous experiences or integrate it meaningfully into his life--and therefore, this attempt at learning was little more than a failed experiment.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Deconstructing anti-teaching

I had an interesting idea the other day. When tutoring, I'll sometimes ask students how they learn best, and I'll get a confused or surprised look. Often they just don't know or have never considered the question. Perhaps it would be easier to ask them what methods aren't helpful. In a larger setting (like a high school classroom), perhaps it would be even more effective to get them to show you.

The scenario would play out thus: Students would be asked to brainstorm things they know a lot about. From this list, they would choose something to explain to the class. The catch: they need to teach it badly, so that no one (except perhaps those equally familiar with the topic) would understand it. I imagine this would elicit a parody of poor or unhelpful teaching techniques, some of which a teacher may not be aware of. After a few presentations, other students could be asked to analyze common themes in the presentations and explain why they had trouble following the ideas. What could have been done to explain the topic more clearly? From there, the teacher will be able to deduce what kinds of techniques will and won't be effective with this particular group of students.

(Note: This isn't my official post for Unit 1, although it is something that got dislodged as I tried to think about the question: "What is learning?" Sometimes you have to think about what it isn't first.)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Keep things in perspective

This comic is sad and wrong on so many levels, but I think anyone who has ever experienced the crippling feelings of inadequacy that come with teaching can identify with it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

It's a brand-new day

Welcome to my blog! I will mostly be using it to post my assignments for my LIBR 250 Instructional Design class, but as time goes on, I may expand it to include thoughts on teaching, learning, library science, information, technological changes, and life in general. I'll try to keep everything tagged so that my classmates can ignore anything that isn't strictly related to class assignments. :-)