Experiments with a 3-credit Research Course

This semester I seized on an opportunity to teach a new, 3-credit course in our Honors Program. It’s called Quest for Answers: Intro to Research, and I joined two other adjunct professors to design the syllabus. Since the status of librarians is always a hot topic, I should say that I’m teaching this class as an adjunct, hired by the Honors Program. Librarians do not have faculty status at Tulane, and the library cannot offer its own credit-bearing courses. However, my department saw the value in my contributing to this new course, and I have their permission and blessing to work on this in addition to my daily responsibilities.

I don’t think my teaching comrades would argue with me that the course content is mostly my doing;  many of the concepts we’ll discuss and work with in class are at the heart of information literacy in higher ed. It’s also worth noting that the course is interdisciplinary, and is meant to serve students from across the liberal arts and sciences.

This blog has been a bit dormant lately, so this seems like a good venue in which to reflect upon the course as it unfolds. I’ve also been asked to share my syllabus, which I’m happy to do, and this seems like an efficient way to disseminate it.

So please find attached my syllabus for COLQ 2010, the honors colloquium course I’m teaching this fall:


Zappos and Library Instruction: Caveat Emptor

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Librarian needs an engaging and effective way to teach a class of undergrads how to use the library’s shiny new discovery tool. Knowing that good pedagogy begins with students’ existing knowledge and experience and builds on those to create new knowledge, she begins her one-shot session by visiting the online shopping site, Zappos.com. Zappos, best known for shoes, uses a facet structure similar to that of most discovery tool interfaces. Students know how to buy shoes, and can apply their online shopping skills to better navigate the database of information sources. Our librarian can even ad lib a few jokes on how much librarians love sensible shoes.

Some version of this lesson plan resurfaces among librarians with some frequency. It came up in a discussion on teaching with discovery tools at LOEX 2013. In October my good friend Daniel posted his thoughts about using Zappos in a one-shot session, eliciting numerous positive responses. And at an ALA 2014 conference session on threshold concepts, the Zappos metaphor showed up again, followed by several tweets of approval. As if to confirm that librarians are head over shoes for Zappos, there was even a tour of Zappos’s headquarters in Las Vegas on the ALA conference schedule.

So why does this bother me? I’m not necessarily opposed to using a commercial website in my teaching, and besides, thought-provoking pieces on libraries and the neoliberal condition already exists here and here. My problem with using Zappos in library instruction is pedagogical, and stems from the flawed assumption on which this teaching strategy is based: Students know how to buy shoes, and can apply their online shopping skills to better navigate the database of information sources. Let’s consider each part of this statement in turn.

1. Students know how to buy shoes.
Let’s dispatch with this first assumption quickly. While the premise appears simple enough, my critical theorist readers have already noted that the librarian has actually imposed a particular version of American middle-class experience on her classroom. She imagines that her students buy shoes at Zappos.com, have sufficient disposable income to spend an average $130 per order [1], and belong to a socioeconomic group for whom shopping online is both ubiquitous and natural. If her students do not share this particular experience, then the pedagogical value of the Zappos demo is much diminished. Maybe her students do shop online, but don’t like Zappos. Will students negative feelings toward Zappos be applied to the library, library-provided databases, or the instruction session itself? Even worse, the librarian could inadvertently alienate students who can’t afford Zappos’s prices, or don’t shop online. The digital divide is still a problem, and is not always a function of socioeconomic status.[2] In sum, it makes pedagogical sense to begin with students’ existing knowledge, but we must take care not to assume students share our own professional or socioeconomic experiences.

2. Students can apply their online shopping skills to better navigate the database of information sources.
Moving past the pitfalls explored above, let’s get to the heart of the matter and explore the utility of comparing the Zappos interface with that of the typical library database. On the surface, the Zappos website and the typical library database have much in common. Both provide a basic search box, and both include some kind of facet structure that allows users to filter results according to preset categories. And that’s where the similarities end.

First, students know what a shoe is. Before the shopping begins, students already have ideas about what kinds of shoes they like, what kinds of shoes they need, what size they wear, what styles are appropriate for social situations they will encounter, and perhaps even which brands have the best reputation for quality or cultural cachet. Most of this knowledge has been acquired and reinforced over time, and is deployed subconsciously, allowing the shopper to focus on finer details to make a final selection. Students often lack this innate understanding when it comes to scholarly communication. Most students are just learning about the style and structure of academic writing, the values associated with peer-review and high-impact factor journals, the nature and appropriate uses of different information sources. Equating the search techniques of shoe shopping and information seeking may give students the false impression that selecting an information source is as simple as checking off criteria from a list of options: Peer-reviewed journal, check. Relevant subject heading, check. Recent date, check. If the article fits, cite it.

Second, students buy shoes, but must create knowledge. In our online shopping scenario, once a desirable pair of shoes has been identified, the consumer completes the purchase, receives the product, tries it on, and either wears it or returns it for another size or style. The equivalent process when writing a research paper might mean finding an article on the right subject, selecting a quote and fitting it into an already written paper. If the professor says the source doesn’t work, the student finds a new one to substitute. Thus, the Zappos metaphor reinforces the notion of information as a static consumer good, to be acquired, used, and exchanged like fashion accessories.

But conducting academic research should be so much more. Students are tasked with gathering information sources, analyzing and critiquing them, generating questions, and combining information sources with their experience and collected data to create new knowledge. The Zappos equivalent of an actual research project would mean gathering shoes, investigating how and why they were made and by whom, worker conditions throughout the manufacturing and supply chain, and then dismantling the shoes to discover their internal structures in order to then build one’s own shoe based on the knowledge gained from studying an array of styles, materials, and cobbling techniques. The analogy is almost comical at this point, but highlights the chasm separating shoe shopping from information literacy that may be obscured by a seemingly innocuous teaching metaphor.

In the end, the similarity between the Zappos website and a library database exists only at the mechanical level, and fails to advance student learning of critical thinking and research skills that we aim for in our information literacy instruction. Furthermore, the potential harm of alienating learners who don’t share the experiences of middle-class online consumers is a high risk to take for relatively low-level learning outcomes, and seems to contradict librarians’ efforts to infuse critical theory and social justice into our pedagogy. Add to that Zappos’s questionable relationship with the privacy of their employees [3], and I don’t see how we can salvage the Zappos metaphor for information literacy instruction.


1Zappos average order value (AOV) was $130 when it was acquired by Amazon. See “Analysis and retailer impact of Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos,” ChannelAdvisor Blog (July 24, 2009). Available online at http://www.amazonstrategies.com/2009/07/thoughts-on-the-amazon-acquisition-of-zappos.html. Accessed July 7, 2014.

2In Louisiana, only 2 out of 3 households have broadband Internet, and in a 2012 survey, Louisiana respondents who lack Internet access imagine using it to communicate with friends or to find information, not for commercial activity.

3Adam Auriemma, “Zappos Zaps Its Job Postings,” Wall Street Journal (May 26, 2014). Available online at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304811904579586300322355082. Accessed July 2, 2014.

In Search of Origins: Primary Sources

It’s been a while since my last post, mostly because we just finished the busiest part of the semester for library sessions.  I’m also trying to work out some thoughts on primary sources, and here’s the first of a series of posts about primary sources in information literacy instruction:

A standard part of my library instruction sessions for history classes is a discussion of primary and secondary sources. Most research paper assignments in history require primary sources, so it’s important to make sure students know what those are. And they do. With some guidance, most classes come up with a satisfactory list of document types that are the bread-and-butter primary sources for historians: newspapers, letters, diaries, photographs, government documents, etc.  However, while they recognize what primary sources are, I often encounter students struggling to find primary source materials for their individual research topics. They ask, “I’m researching ‘topic X’ and need primary sources. What databases do you have?”  The problem here is the students’ immediate leap from choosing a research topic to searching, a jump based on the assumption that a keyword search in the right database will produce the needed primary sources. The creative process is missing, and that leads to problems.

This creative process is akin to what scientists call operationalization, breaking down the research question into variables that can be studied empirically.  In history, this means considering what kinds of documentary evidence could shed light on an historical event or phenomenon, and then, if they exist and are available, try to locate them.  Based on my experiences, I find students have difficulty envisioning relevant primary sources because of their inexperience using them.  If a student doesn’t know how to apply primary sources to an historical argument, they won’t be able to identify their information needs.

This semester I’ve made efforts to reveal the creative process of primary source work to students who come to the library for help with history research. To illustrate these efforts in a classroom setting, I’ll describe a lesson plan for a U.S. history course on the Old South in which students can research and write about any topic relating to Southern history, from European colonization to the Civil War. The library session was only 50 minutes, so I made the strategic choice to abandon the catalog and journal article databases completely.  Most students can muddle through a keyword search in Google or our library’s discovery tool and come up with secondary sources, and I made frequent invitations to help them individually via e-mail or by appointment should anyone need assistance with that part of the process.

We began with the standard review of what are primary sources, listed a few examples, and then I distributed a worksheet dominated by this image:

Primary and secondary sources Venn diagram

Primary & Secondary Sources Venn Diagram

I explained how the organization of primary sources (the archive) is different than that of secondary sources (the library), and this difference is important to understand while on the hunt. Primary sources are received and organized in accordance with their origins, not by topic or academic discipline, and a single collection of primary sources could be used for a variety of research questions. To illustrate my point, I navigated to the finding aids of Tulane’s Louisiana Research Collection (LaRC), a treasure trove of materials related to New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the U.S. South.  I declined to keyword search the collections, but rather pulled up an alphabetical list of finding aids and selected the first one that included records from the class’s time period: Abraham Bell and Company records, 1790s-1880s.  After explaining what information is on a finding aid and the types of documents in the collection, I brainstormed possible research topics that these materials might shed light upon.  In other words, I modeled for them the historian’s creative process by talking through my thought process of transforming the business records of a New York-based shipping company heavily involved in the Arkansas cotton industry into research questions about North-South relations, the life of merchants, Irish immigration, and almost assuredly something about slavery even though there is no mention of slaves in the finding aid itself.

Next I selected another finding aid from the alphabetical list, explained what we were looking at, and challenged the students to come up with possible research questions.  This time we were looking at the Charles E. Alter papers, 1826-1904, and students suggested plantation administration, the fall of plantations after the Civil War (bankruptcy papers are dated 1866 on the finding aid), business culture in New Orleans, and other great ideas.  The goal was for students to recognize how archival collections are organized, and start to see that primary sources can speak to a much larger set of topics than is immediately apparent to what they are “about.”

Slave ads from the New Orleans Daily Picayune, 9 April 1856.

Slave ads from the New Orleans Daily Picayune, 9 April 1856.

Next I gave students the opportunity to examine actual primary sources by turning to an old stand-by: digitized newspapers. I helped the class navigate to the digital version of the Daily Picayune, predecessor to today’s New Orleans Times-Picayune, and instructed them to access page 6 of the April 9, 1856 issue. This page is full of classified ads, and the right-hand column includes 9 ads for slaves, 7 of which offer rewards for the return of runaway slaves.  I asked students to work in groups and propose research questions that could be explored based in part on these ads. The remainder of the class session was spent discussing their ideas.

I didn’t have any formal assessment planned for the session, and instead relied on informal means of evaluating student learning.  Overall students seemed engaged in the discussion of the runaway slave ads. The exercise inspired the professor to join in with probing questions and references to their previous course readings and lectures, and with his guidance, students began to recognize important features of the ads and make hypotheses on slave life, slave economies, and social relations in antebellum New Orleans.  One student asked the winning question: how long does it take historians to analyze a set of primary sources such as these ads?  The professor had to admit that it couldn’t be done by their assignment deadline, so he adjusted the due date on their papers. They still wouldn’t have time to do a full scale primary source-based project, but perhaps the professor learned something about what students don’t know about the historian’s process, and may be able to address that in his own teaching next term.

Another potential solution to this problem of teaching novice historians to work with primary sources is the History Department’s new methods lab, which was piloted this semester and will continue to roll out in the spring.  In my next post I’ll review how I fit the library into this new methods course, and what the professor and I learned from that experience.

Doing Content Analysis in a Building Full of Content

Two weeks ago I presented at the 2013 Forum of the NOLA Information Literacy Collective, our local gathering of academic instruction librarians in the Greater New Orleans area. I shared my experience developing an active learning session at the library to drive home a sociology professor’s lesson on content analysis methodology. The slides from my presentation are available online, and this post describes the lesson plan which readers can adopt and adapt in their own instruction.

For a little background, students in the sociology major are required to take a sequence of 3 courses early in their major career: a foundations course, a research design course, and a research analysis (a.k.a. statistics) course. Collaborating with faculty members, I’ve integrated information literacy instruction into this 3-course progression.1 In the foundations class, students learn to read an academic article and conduct basic searches in the database Sociological Abstracts in service of an annotated bibliography assignment. In research design, there are two library sessions: the first focuses on building a literature review, and the second had been an introduction to using and evaluating U.S. Census data. In the last course, the library session is about locating quantitative data sets. The lesson plan I’m about to describe replaced the second session in the research design class.

The professor wanted students in her class to be exposed to archival materials. In semesters past, her students had fixated on surveys as the preferred sociological methodology, and she wanted to promote qualitative analysis of existing materials. In order to assist in this goal, I first needed to familiarize myself with what archival materials meant in sociological research, so I consulted the sociology literature and read up on studies using content analysis methods. The professor and I corresponded and brainstormed on our goals and expectations for the session, and I came up with the following:

Before the session, students had homework: use Sociological Abstracts to find an article wherein the author uses content analysis methodology, read and evaluate it, and bring it to the library session. Students were given the hint to include “content analysis” in the Abstract field. This served both as a refresher on how to use the database, and modeled the use of content analysis by experts in the field.

To start the library session, I asked students to share two aspects of their located article: what was the content used by the author, and what sociological question did the author seek to answer? I listed on the board the types of content students identified, and the common themes among authors’ research questions. This helped students by showing them the realm of possibilities in content to be analyzed, and what sociological questions are appropriate and possible with this methodological approach. The professor also had the opportunity to ask follow up questions about students’ articles.

Then came the big reveal! I had a cart stacked with potential content: namely, print materials I had selected from the stacks. These included Caldecott award-winning children’s books, U.S. history textbooks from the 1980s and 1990s, published song lyrics from three disparate artists2, bound Life magazines from the 1950s, and recent issues of the photography magazine American Photo. I divided the students into 5 groups, assigned each group a content from the cart, and challenged them to work together to come up with a research proposal using content analysis on their assigned materials. Now they had the chance to practice the method they had only read about to this point, and by providing a content set to practice with, I removed the added challenge of conceptualizing and locating their own data set before they had a strong grasp of how to use it. (Watch for a future post on the relationship between finding and using information in student research assignments.)

After 10 to 12 minutes of group work, during which the professor and I circulated to offer encouragement and assistance as needed, I asked for a representative from each group to describe their content to the class and share the research proposal they came up with, emphasizing how they would apply content analysis methodology and the sociological question they intended to address. The exercise was a great success! Students were able to articulate the use of content analysis methods and generated interesting sociological research questions. The professor asked follow up questions that related back to their initial class lecture and readings on the method, and she later reported back to me that students seemed to “get it” both in subsequent class meetings and later on the exam. Thus we were able to assess students’ learning both in their reporting back to the class in the library session, and in the formalized space of their exam responses.

The sequence of assignments and activities here was designed to provide some scaffolding for the students as they learned to do content analysis. Scaffolding—a pedagogical metaphor often attributed to Jerome Bruner—is a method of breaking down the distance between novices and experts by creating stages through which students can work, taking into account what they can do on their own, what they can do with assistance, and what might still lie beyond the learning horizon.3 In this lesson plan, we first modeled for them what content analysis is and looks like in the discipline through their class readings and lecture, and then in finding their own example of a sociologist using the methodology. Then we worked as a class to list types of content and research questions typical of the methodology. Then working in small groups students could rely on each other during the hands-on challenge, giving students who already grasped the concept to help along those who weren’t quite there. Finally, with hands-on practice under their belts, students could demonstrate their conceptual grasp of the method and its application individually on the exam.

This lesson plan based on content analysis methodology in sociology could be applied in any disciplinary context using primary source materials. It’s also a means of showcasing interesting collections in the library while avoiding a dry show-and-tell presentation. Students will become aware of library sources by using them in service of a real learning goal, and not just for the sake of the materials themselves. This approach also demonstrates to faculty members that library instruction is more than just learning how to search, but can be a space for active engagement with library materials in support of their disciplinary content and learning goals. I encourage readers to adopt and adapt the content analysis library session, and come back to share how it went.

1. For more on this sequenced information literacy program, see my article “Beyond the One-Shot: Advantages of a Programmatic Approach to Information Literacy Instruction,” ANSS Currents 27 no. 2 (Fall 2012): 23-26 (http://anssacrl.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/anss-currents-fall-2012-1.pdf).
2. The song lyrics were three published collections: Hank Williams, Paul Simon, and John Denver.
3. See for example, David Wood, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,”
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17, no. 2 (1976): 89-100.

“Library Orientation” for Graduate Students

It’s one week into the new semester, and I’ve already hosted 3 groups of graduate students for “library orientations.”  Since this often happens at the start of the academic year, it seems an appropriate first post about instruction. I prefer for information literacy instruction to coincide with a research assignment, scheduled close enough to the due date for students to be ready to research. The beginning of the year is not that time. I can usually fend off requests for undergraduate instruction until later by making the case that most of them write their papers 1-2 days before the due date.1 That’s a harder sell when it comes to graduate students. And while it may be true that the grad students aren’t as afflicted with procrastination as the undergrads (although I have my doubts), I’m fairly certain they aren’t thinking about library research the same week they moved into their new apartment, met new people, went over a few syllabi and then proceeded to question their life choices.

So how to handle an orientation divorced from real research activity? Tour the building? No. No one cares where the microforms room is unless they need to look at a particular reel of microfilm. (Don’t fret microform aficionados; I’ll defend the format pedagogically in a future post.) Demonstrations of databases I think they’ll need eventually? I pity the student who has to sit through that. Decline all requests for library orientations? Tempting, but that’s not very politic. And I concede, there are a few things graduate students should probably know from the start of their academic journey.

I first consider what do I know about these graduate students? They bring with them some set of research experiences. They demonstrated sufficient academic skills and potential to be accepted into grad school. Presumably not everyone in the group went to the same undergrad institution, so they’ve had a diverse educational background in research skills and subject matter, and are not on the same page. They are passionate about some academic topic, which is why they came to graduate school, but everyone’s passion will be different. And most, if not all, will be new to my institution.

Second, what do graduate students need to know about the library and graduate-level research to succeed? Some things are time sensitive, like signing up for one of the limited graduate carrels available. They are about to be bombarded with an amount of reading to which they are not accustomed. And they may not know it, but they just entered the unique and unpredictable political arena of their academic department, with personal and administrative idiosyncrasies that developed long before they got to this place.

And that’s how I lesson plan an orientation. I’ve thought about what they know, what they need to know in the first few weeks, and that’s what I want to cover. I don’t try to prepare them for the entirety of their graduate careers in one session. Not possible given the short time, the diversity of the crowd, and I don’t have all the answers anyway.

I start with services. While demonstrating where this information is on the library website, I tell them to sign up for a research carrel, I tell them how many books they can check out and other special borrowing privileges, and emphasize that InterLibrary Loan (ILL) is their friend. I also talk about me; I will buy the books they want, help them track down obscure citations, and be available when they need to sit down and work through their research hurdles one-on-one. And I throw in where the Music & Media Center is for when they need to take a break with DVD episodes of Treme or some of the latest from “Trombone” Shorty. (Look him up, he’s great.)

I can’t let them leave without talking about the catalog and databases, but they’re not actually researching. So I couch it in something else. If I have enough time, I make it a session on citation management software. Zotero is my favorite, and graduate students are pretty receptive to this kind of tool early on. So while they see the wonders of citation management, they’re also seeing the important article database in their discipline (no, it’s not JSTOR), and the catalog. That means they see how to get full text with our link resolvers, and how the stacks are organized without the accusations they didn’t already know this, or embarrassment at having to ask this late in their schooling lives.

If there’s not much time allotted, I skip Zotero but at least show them where I put the LibGuide for their discipline, and the helpful links it contains. I do give them pointers on keeping current and keeping up with the scholarship they need to be a part of. I talk about reading book reviews, setting up e-mail notifications to new issues of their important journals, and knowing what their professors have published and reviewed. Not that they should cite their advisor in every paper they write, but they certainly don’t want to miss that citation when it’s warranted. And that will make scholarly conversations in the hallway that much easier.

And that’s it. I can’t always hit all these notes in one session, and if I have covered all this then they’ve probably absorbed everything they can. I keep it loose and informal, not as structured as a lesson plan for undergrads. I account for their previous experiences and knowledge by engaging with them as colleagues, not students, and I try to address their immediate needs. I know what they’re going through, having been there myself, and I’m here to help.

Coming soon: My presentation at the NOLA Information Literacy Collective Forum 2013 about content analysis in sociology, primary sources, and hands-on learning with print resources at the library.  There will be lagniappe!

1Head, Alison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Student Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age,” Project Information Literacy Progress Report (Information School, University of Washington, 2009): 7.