A note on my recent radio silence: these days I am doing more and writing less. While it is excellent to be this active with different sides of working life, I am consistently nagged by a lengthening list of events/ideas left unexplored in this venue. As unpleasant as allowing my compositional muscles to atrophy might be, the strict surfing and meditation regimen required to maintain (relative) sanity at this breakneck pace means that, for the duration, info-mational will remain infrequent and thoughtful rather than frequent and uninspired. So here goes.
My last project curve post described the teaching and assessment portfolios my coworkers and I are building for first-year instruction programs at the Claremont Colleges Library. This installment explores two recent Claremont collaborations that show the effect that expanding the audience of undergraduate academic work – preferably via publishing in open access forums – can have on learner engagement.
publishing as pedagogy
When dissemination is part of the pedagogical process (as opposed to a non-starter or an afterthought) it can build transformative learner insight into what it means to participate in a community of practice. Writing for a wider audience at the undergraduate level is a springboard for the cultivation of a student’s voice, interests, and expertise, and can expand the meaning of an assignment beyond a graded exercise. At its best, published undergraduate research can provide a substantive contribution to a knowledge area. And the larger and more realistic the audience, the more compelling and potentially significant the experience.
Extending a project’s reach beyond an instructor or small group of peers can not only make a significant impact on the quality and depth of student work; it can augment the effectiveness of research instruction and librarian collaboration. This can be achieved at a range of skill and disciplinary levels via traditional and/or social media. Over the past year I’ve worked closely with student publication in two main contexts, which I’ll explore toward the end of this post:
2) writing for wikipedia. An Intro to Political Science course at Pomona College in which groups of students wrote Wikipedia articles instead of term papers, part of a programmatic effort to transform Wikipedia through student assignments.
getting in on the scholarly conversation
If scholarship thrives on the exchange of ideas in public forums, it is critical to introduce students to the complicated experience of contributing to open discourse and mentor them in the social/academic accountability it entails. In my experience, this dynamic is too often absent from undergraduate pedagogy, or happens on a scale that is less than effective. Involving learners in the process of scholarship (as opposed to requiring them to mimic or witness it) invariably makes for more meaningful research and writing experiences. If a reading public looms, stakes are raised, concepts carry more weight, and the conversation invariably becomes more absorbing.
Publishing for learner engagement has been part of the undergraduate experience for years, long exemplified in the sciences by co-authored student/faculty publications stemming from collaborative laboratory research. More recently it is gaining ground in the social sciences and humanities through ongoing curricular integration of social and participatory media, technology-based disciplinary developments such as digital humanities, student peer review journals, and the establishment of library-supported open access digital repositories. (The highly dignified button at right is a recent outreach strategy designed in part to clarify the purpose of Scholarship @ Claremont, which I have noticed can be somewhat obscure to students.)
From a theoretical perspective, writing for publication falls squarely in the realm of constructivist and critical pedagogy – it is far more empowering to invite learners to participate in the scholarly conversation than it is to compel them to watch it pass with varying degrees of (dis)interest. This encourages a shift in the instructional dynamic toward teaching from a peer-based standpoint, one in which there is the expectation of and mentorship for quality work. (For ideas on how to utilize critical pedagogy in your teaching practice, I highly recommend Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods.)
libraries as community publishers: sxswi 2012
I recently had occasion to explore these ideas while sharing an awesome SXSW Interactive panel with Amy Buckland, Nate Hill, and Michael Porter. Our session considered different angles on libraries as storytelling/publishing platforms: developing a collaborative econtent initiative and infrastructure (Michael), libraries as digital maker spaces (Nate), and collecting and publishing student work via library-supported digital repositories and in open access forums (me). A recurring theme concerned libraries as spaces for knowledge production as well as consumption: a common digital-transitional narrative in libraryland.
My chunk of the presentation described the rationale behind cultivating student contributions to scholarly repositories, creating assignments that contribute to Wikipedia, and even simple act of encouraging students to publish exemplary work as means of active engagement in scholarly communication (session audio, my bit starts at about 40% in). You can see our full SXSWi presentation on Amy’s slideshare space.
I reference several theorists (Dewey, Freire, Mezirow, hooks), all of whom are radical, critical, and/or feminist pedagogues committed to breaking down the “banking” model in (higher) education and (adult) learning. Freire’s banking notion challenges the concept of student as knowledge repository empty and waiting to be filled by a knowledgeable pedagogue, as well as the proliferation of rote assignments disconnected from active engagement. The familiar process that attends student assignments at the undergraduate level involves submitting work to a grading vacuum in which evaluation is conducted but substantive feedback or lasting products rarely escape (admittedly more often based on student to faculty ratio than some failing on the part of an instructor). In other words: assignments disappear, grades appear.
I will happily admit that my own experience of writing in college was more meaningful than most. I attended a fancy liberal arts college at which detailed feedback from faculty was emphasized, yet I still recall feeling a sense of detachment from work that I knew would effectively vanish from the face of the earth after being evaluated by one pair of eyes. Same story with my graduate degrees: paper upon paper into to the grading vortex, and where is that work now?
There was one important exception to this rule. My culminating act as a Reed College student was producing a year-long, intensive senior thesis (the title of which I now find almost incomprehensible), a requirement for graduation of all students and the apex of our experience.
Beyond the camaraderie, commiseration, and ritual burning this entailed, the knowledge that one copy of my project would be bound in the “thesis tower” and another would circulate in the Library’s stacks were wonderful motivators. As a group, seniors wanted to produce interesting work, real scholarship that we could be proud to share with others years down the line. (That said, we also had a tradition of sliding a $10 bill into our tower copies and coming back years later to see if the money remained: someone with few scruples could make a killing up there.)
I loved my thesis and threw my heart into it. The opportunity to undertake the in-depth development of my own ideas in the context of broader scholarship was formative and memorable, and dramatically sharpened my abilities. The project was skillfully written, and (I thought) was well researched and respectfully attributed.
I have since come to realize that there were actually gaping holes in my inquiry and composition process. For example, JSTOR was the only article database I consulted, and my scan-happy, cavalier image (non)attribution style would have sent my better-informed current self running for cover. The confines of the thesis tower meant that these problems could hide in relative safety – I had an audience, but not a persistently critical one that extended beyond of the comfort zone of my academic community. I faced an orals board and deposited my copy on a shelf with thousands of others, but at that point the communicative life of my thesis effectively ended.
1) upload this: environmental analysis theses
The first OA publishing collaboration example I’ll discuss is an intervention for this exact problem. A crucial aspect of the curriculum mapping & visualization work I and my colleagues are engaging in at Claremont involves building research literacy at the capstone level in preparation for published, open access thesis and project uploads.
A senior capstone is a powerful opportunity to invite students to participate in the process of scholarship as a peer and contributor. Long the mainstay of liberal arts education, large research institutions such as UCLA are beginning to recognize the value of senior capstones as a unique and culminating aspect of the undergraduate experience (Kelly Miller, Sharon Farb, and Reed Wilson recently discussed the challenges of Collecting Undergraduate Research at UCLA during an interesting session at ER&L 2012).
The conceptual learning opportunities involved in publishing capstone work are legion – everything from conducting exhaustive research to high-level information evaluation and synthesis to bibliographic style to issues of fair use and information privilege. Had I known that my own thesis would be available for the wider world and that a collaborating librarian provided an active resource for triaging the larger and lesser issues I faced, I am certain that I would have connected more clearly with the responsibilities of rigorous scholarship (I might even have been able to publish my thesis in another venue without a cease and desist letter.) Required/supported inclusion of my thesis in an open institutional repository could have provided both context and impetus for a) understanding and b) paying far more attention to those publicly problematizing aspects of my work.
Science Librarian Sean Stone and I worked closely with Environmental Analysis seniors this Fall to prepare their theses for publication in Scholarship @ Claremont, a fascinating and validating experience. We focused our efforts on the outcomes described above, and led with the message that thesis work can and should make an important contribution to the scholarly conversation. We conducted instruction sessions in two thesis seminars, designing an open access, interdisciplinary, and research “case study”-themed libguide using selected student thesis proposals, and conducting many 1-1 research appointments, a three-part approach which went over very well. In these contexts I was able to support students through many of the struggles I faced (and steer them around the pitfalls).
Assessments of this project have proved quite positive – qualitative and quantitative student feedback demonstrates deeper engagement with resources and a new level of awareness of open access scholarship. Sean I find ourselves cited in student acknowledgements, and EA program Director Char Miller has noted unequivocally that the collaboration resulted in better-quality, more in-depth research. Moreover, students are the proud owners of a dedicated page in Scholarship @ Claremont and find themselves indexed in Google Scholar and other OA repositories, able to track downloads and citations of their projects – all powerful resume fodder, particularly within a growing and applied field such as EA wherein many new graduates will enter the field as practitioners and professionals. Win win win.
2) writing for wikipedia: student-created poli sci articles
The second OA publishing collaboration I’ll outline is best framed as part of an ongoing movement to improve Wikipedia through student editing and writing. Last week I had the distinct pleasure of reading five newly-published Wikipedia articles written this term by groups of Pomona College students in (the awesome) Professor Amanda Hollis-Brusky’s Introduction to American Politics class:
(Read them, rate them, edit them: that’s the point.)
These topics were identified by Prof H-B as either having no existing article or only “stubs” (short explanatory blurbs). Groups of 3-4 students were tasked with creating rigorously researched, unbiased entries that would withstand the scrutiny of Wikipedia uber-editors, not to mention the broader editing public. Over the course of the semester my colleague Sara Lowe and I collaborated with Professor H-B on assignment design, as well as with each group on ways in which concepts such as sourcing, attribution, bias, and authority could support their research and process.
Our goal was to help students produce articles of such unassailable quality that, in addition to not being flagged as problematic based on Wikipedia’s editing criteria, they would provide a useful and comprehensive resource for those who encountered them in the future. We blended a critical analysis of Wikipedia as a ubiquitously used yet perennially derided source of information with more traditional information literacy concepts. Our instruction was course integrated, consisting of a class visit early in the term to discuss Wikipedia as a cultural phenomenon and information platform, a hands-on session on research strategies, a libguide, training in Wikipedia authoring techniques, group appointments to review successive article drafts, and generally supporting the process as it unfolded. We’re in the midst of watching three days of student presentations on the project (see Sara posing as “judicial activism” during one group’s super-creative version of a post-presentation quiz), after which we’ll conduct a more formal assessment of the assignment.
This collaboration was easily one of the most valuable I’ve ever undertaken with a class, and has thoroughly convinced me of Wikipedia’s power as a viable platform for student engagement through writing for an actual, critical audience. The students’ work stands on its own merits – balanced and for the most part painstakingly attributed to a level readily acknowledged by Professor H-B. We had many critical conversations about who creates information in Wikipedia versus more transitional, peer-reviewed sources, how, and why: all gateways into information literacy concepts that held learner attention in significantly more lasting ways. I also heard positive feedback during the process about how much students appreciated the process of creating something that others could actually use, including comments like “I’m going to share the link with my friends and tell them I wrote it” and (not kidding here) “this is the best assignment ever.” Debriefing with Prof. H-B and student assessment will shed light on outcomes and what to tweak, but in all I’d say this is a wonderful model to pursue in other scenarios.
The products of student work in this case is rare for undergrads: textual objects that will continue to grow and develop, providing an ongoing platform for building critical insight into who creates the information we consume, and how, and why. To explore future opportunities to use Wikipedia as an information and research literacy platform, I’ve decided to apply to be a Wikipedia Campus Ambassador for the Claremont Colleges – an interesting program that creates possibilities for productive dialogue and pedagogical creativity, and I encourage teaching librarians to take a look.
advocating for openness
In sum, publication-based assignments emphasize the role and requirements of public discourse and build learner accountability. Librarians have concrete responsibilities and opportunities on this front. We are well positioned to encourage the dissemination of student work in open forums, many of which we are intimately acquainted with and/or maintain. We can identify and pursue these prospects with faculty and students and collaborate to ensure the best possible realization, and in so doing become more critically and holistically involved in the learning experience of our user communities.
Advocating for responsible and rigorous OA scholarship takes a great deal of peer and user education, not to mention marketing and message coordination – Claremont’s tireless Digital Initiatives Librarian Allegra Gonzalez comes to mind, who (literally) never stops providing learning opportunities around open scholarship and our digital repository. When teaching librarians collaborate with repository wranglers, fair, critical, and open information consumption and production can become an integral part of the overall learning experience.
Obligatory caveats: not all student work is publishable, so I’m not advocating that every paper should be pushed into the light of day. To be sure, undergraduates should learn the processes of writing and research in order to produce work that can stand the test of peer review. Also, publishing work at the undergraduate level raises issues of future negative impacts on career, a scenario which often creates heated discussions among students and faculty (also the reason repositories typically have limited IP download or after-the-fact work removal clauses). These issues compel important and challenging conversations around advocacy, responsibility, and the lasting impact of information sharing: topics too often overlooked, so bring on the debates.
My hope is that more educators and librarians begin to develop opportunities for expanding the audience of student work, whether through an institutional repository, Wikipedia, or other digital media. When we introduce students to the uncomfortable/amazing sensation of putting their ideas in the public eye and its related skills and responsibilities, we offer them the chance to experience the products of their labor on a critically meaningful level.
Last but not least: I realized this morning that it’s the anniversary (so to speak) of my arrival at the Claremont College Library – heartfelt thanks, colleagues/students/friends, for an incredible first year.