Monday, August 6, 2007

Remaining Positive

How do you stay positive during information literacy session? While I have not taught many one-shot sessions yet, I get the impression that students get distracted or bored during the instruction period. It seems logical that that their postures and lack of responses may invite the instructor to become more cynical or pessimistic. As professionals, librarians ought to remain positive as they teach and seek for methods that will capture the attention of students while also enhancing their learning. What will students learn during the session? How will they demonstrate that they have learned what has been taught? What will they do?

A few days ago I talked with an experienced librarian about creating an information-literacy tutorial for students in a regular freshman speech course. The topic of teaching the difference between scholarly and popular articles came up, and I mentioned that students can often discern between them by the grammar in the titles and sometimes by the length of the article. If an article contains a colon, it likely represents a scholarly article, since academics and professionals try to identify their subject somewhat broadly at first and then narrow the subject down to the specific aspect on which they focus their writing. The following seems to be a pertinent example: "UNPICKING FEMALE EXEMPLARITY; OR, THE USEFULNESS OF BODY STORIES: REASSESSING FEMALE COMMUNAL IDENTITY IN TWO EARLY MODERN FRENCH TEXTS." My colleague seemed interested in the idea of colons in titles as evidence of a scholarly article, but she took issue with my statement of length of an article as an indicator of scholarly work. After hearing her comments I agree that length of article does not determine very well if an article is scholarly/peer-reviewed or not. However, upon further reflection, I believe that scholarly titles do tend to have longer titles than articles for popular publications.

In talking about how to describe scholarly articles I also commented that the scholarly ones look more boring. My colleague mentioned that when she talks to classes she likes to use more positive terminology, probably because she feels it is our responsibility to encourage students in conducting quality research. She prefers adjectives such as "depth," "profound," "thorough," "based in fact and sources," etc. when discussing scholarly articles. On a similar note, she has found that students think professors do not express opinions, but she argues that they are often more opinionated than most other people. Therefore, scholarly does not equal boring. I agree.

Yet students often look at erudite texts as boring, often because they can fathom what the person is trying to say. They are unfamiliar with the jargon of that discipline, their reading skills may not yet be on the level of a college student, and their attention spans severely inhibit their abilities to grapple with a scholarly text. Nonetheless, these reasons should further motivate librarians to be positive; I like to think that if we imbue students with a positive attitude they will be more inclined to begin tackling difficult readings and engage in thorough scholarly research. Positive attitudes alone will not resolve all student difficulties with scholarly engagements, but they can certainly help more than a pessimistic viewpoint.

Perhaps librarians should positively ask the "Why?" question. Why do we engage in scholarly research? Why is it important to find good sources of information? Why is it important to evaluate information sources? Why do scholars ask the questions they do? Why does our society value education? In Ken Bain's book What the Best College Teachers Do he says the best teachers ask the BIG questions, not unlike the ones just articulated. Questions with the interrogative Why should not be avoided.

One more thing about being positive with students. In my colleague's explanation for why students should cite their sources, she says students will do good research on their speeches or paper, which will in turn interest the instructor and other students. They will be impressed with the student's ideas and want to learn more about the topic, so having cited the sources will allow them to find them more readily and explore the topic in question.

Why do librarians teach information literacy? We believe it will positively impact the lives of the general public as information literacy seeks out the best, most accurate information

Providing a positive and informative instruction session can motivate students to begin their research more intelligently. From personal experience, once I begin reading and thinking about ideas I become more interested and want to produce a good product in the form of a paper or speech. Hopefully, librarians can help students excel intellectually and scholastically. To the degree we do this students will walk away with a positive feeling about the library and be better citizens of our society--a win-win situation for everyone .