Course Design

The Research Project: Scaffolding & Exploring Information as a Freedom & Justice Issue

The research paper. It’s funny–I have my FJS students read Barbara Fister’s article on “Why the Research Paper isn’t Working,” but they still have to write a paper for me. It’s an upper-level class, after all, and for the first iteration of this course, the research paper is how I’m scaffolding in information literacy as well as keeping students well on track to completing a larger project as they consider concepts throughout the course.

Back on topic: for my FJS 340 course, my students are required to work on a research paper. Essentially, they get to explore any conflict or issue of interest to them that involves questions of freedom and justice, but they must explore their conflict from an information perspective (which is our focus for the class). I leave the subject matter wide open for a reason–the course I teach is an upper-level general education course, multidisciplinary and international in scope. I want students to choose a topic of interest to them, since they’ll be living with it for a few months.

Having worked an academic library reference desk for more than a decade now, I know that undergraduate students with wide-open options for paper topics are wild-haired, confused things, dazed by possibility and overwhelmed with options. (An exaggeration? Perhaps not by much.) This confusion often manifests among freshmen and sophomores, who may not have enough grasp of a subject yet to have particularly well-thought out areas of interest.

This semester, I found the largest part of the struggle for my students wasn’t actually identifying a topic of interest, it was in the attempt to articulate the information issue(s) at hand for their particular conflict. The topics themselves are fascinating, and the students were excited to focus on something of their own divining. Topics of interest included felons’ loss of voting rights, Native American land rights issues vis-a-vis the federal government, the illegal car modification and racing community, black women’s experience of violence by law enforcement officers, prisoner access to information through prison libraries, and women’s voting rights, among others.

Refining the Research Topic: Let the Students Hash It Out

More difficult than identifying the social justice issue students wanted to focus on was identifying the information issue at work within the larger social justice context. This go-round, I had students submit their topics to me as part of their weekly assignment early in the semester. Fielding questions about the assignment, I decided to use a portion of class time to have student discuss and white-board their topics, exploring not just what angle of their larger social justice issue they wanted to tackle, but having them attempt to articulate how information was a crucial component of their topic.

At this point in the semester, we had covered not just freedom and justice theory, but some information theory, and readings on information poverty, ways of knowing, and how information is used and viewed in various disciplines. The discussion at this point revolved around deciding what the information issues at hand might be. Questions I had students consider included:

  • How is information at work here?
  • Are there information haves and have-nots in this situation?
  • What processes are being informed, or not, and by whom?

And from here, the students engaged with each other, pressing each other to expand on their topics and to hearken back to the readings for concepts. Three examples that stand out of students taking underdeveloped topics and really hashing out a better way to think of them as information-centric:

  • The student interested in felons’ loss of voting rights refined her idea to focus on how the denial of voting rights means felons cannot inform the political process through voting, and she wants to explore what information loss is there, what alternative avenues felons can pursue to inform the political process, and whether those avenues have the same impact as informing through voting.
  • The student interested in the conflict between Native Americans and the federal government over land ownership was able to articulate the conflict between a dominant culture dependent on written record of ownership and the non-written record-keeping of a minority or oppressed culture, and how different “ways of knowing” come into conflict.
  • The student interested in car modification and police profiling decided to focus on information communities surrounding taboo subculture practices, the information-signaling people use to identify themselves as belonging to the community, and the information-signaling that law enforcement recognizes and uses to police the community.

All of the students’ topics benefitted from the class exploring each topic, and discussing how the information concepts covered to date in class readings could be made a focal point for each research project. Having students lead the discussion for each topic and probe each other for more information to help build a case for a topic was incredibly effective, and received unanimous approval after the exercise. Yet again, something that happened serendipitously I am now going to build into the class for next semester. I love learning better ways to make things happen from my students! I’m also genuinely excited to read their final papers.

Basic Scaffolding: The Annotated Bibliography

To ensure that students actually consider their topics in depth before the paper is actually due, I tried to scaffold assignments related to the project throughout the semester. Like the active journaling assignments for the course, the smaller assignments were for low-stakes grades, but in totality the pieces of the project add up to the major part of the grade for the course.

The annotated bibliography is a wonderful assignment, for a few reasons. First of all, and most important to me, it means my students have to at least do some basic searching of their topic some weeks before the project is due. I scheduled an information literacy session (just like I ask my fellow faculty to do), and it was taught by Awesome Amy, our Dean of the Library. (I would have loved to teach the session, but I wanted students to be exposed to other librarians as much as possible.) They learned to refine research topics, choose appropriate databases, and work with keywording. Most importantly for my purposes, they also learned the need to synthesize information from multiple sources, and that The Perfect Article does not exist.

The annotated bibliography is also a good opportunity for students to make mistakes. I allow students to use either APA or MLA, since the course is a GenEd and I expect to have majors from across the spectrum. (Since I’ve completed graduate theses in both styles, I’m comfortable correcting both, though most faculty I know require one or the other.) Students can murder the annotation style and I can help them at this point, before the higher-stakes paper.

The annotations were also a good way for me to eyeball which students might have difficulty digesting and writing up academic work, catching it early, and supporting them so that the drafting process is not as painful.

The Project Plan Outline

The next stage is what I called the project plan outline, where students submit an outline of their paper. The writeup indicates not just the outline of the overall paper, but initial thoughts for each section, where their different research sources will be used in the paper, where they indicate they’ll use interviews and other information. It forces students to consider how they will structure their paper, and not to believe that simply finding relevant sources was enough. This is a stage where I can indicate where they might need sources in addition to those they discovered earlier, to support assertions or firm up a section of the paper.

The Rough Draft

The rough draft is the first draft of the full paper. This is a great opportunity for students to have a full draft done (and to have my comments back before Thanksgiving!) and to have their mistakes or weaknesses again sussed out in a low-stakes assignment. I also discovered that watching student papers grow organically through these scaffolding assignments allowed me to treat them as the experts on the subject, and to make that clear to them. Lots of shy smiles when I would tell a student, “You know more about this particular subject than I do! Seriously. You’ve done the research to support the argument you are making. I am just here to help you work on the structure, to help with your writing, and to identify weaknesses for you to address, given your knowledge and research.” The biggest breakthroughs for me were every time I saw a student smile, and truly take ownership of their topic. It also, I think, helped create a mentor/mentee relationship instead of a more adversarial or intimidating relationship. I’m still waiting for the student reviews of teaching, though.

The Final Paper and Presentation

The presentations happened during the last class session. The students had created the assessment and grading rubric for the final presentation as a class session with Dr. Sohui Lee, our Faculty Director of the Writing and Multiliteracy Center. Students each had 10-12 minutes to present their research and field questions. Previous to the sessions, we explored how academic conferences were populated and presented, and how my intent was for them to conduct themselves in similar fashion. The presentations themselves were excellent, and had a celebratory atmosphere–one student had her husband attend her presentation, and my own husband delivered burritos from a local carniceria. The students were not only responsible for developing the rubric for the assignment, they were also responsible for filling out the rubric and assessment for each of their peers. This assignment earned them credit for participating in the assessment, and was also used as 50% of their grade for the final presentation (the other 50% was my own grading of their presentation). The result was that the students offered considered and thoughtful comments along with a grade for their peers’ presentations, and had a stake in addressing all of the points in the rubric they had themselves created.

Moving Forward: Evolving Into Service Learning

For future iterations, I’m considering a bigger service learning component option. I just requested a meeting with our Center for Community Engagement folks, and we’ll be talking in January about how I might be able to make this happen for the Spring 2016 iteration of the class. Since the focus of my version of the topics course is on information as a freedom and justice issue, developing a service-learning component where students help to identify and address a community information need seems to fit nicely with our university mission pillars and (I hope) with the intent of the Freedom & Justice Studies program itself. (More on this as I find out more and consult with the faculty in charge of the program!)

The Teaching Librarian: FJS 340 and Teaching Full-Credit Courses

To my great delight, I’ve been invited to teach in the Freedom and Justice Studies minor in Fall 2015. I’ll be teaching the three-credit upper-division interdisciplinary general education course FJS 340: Exploring Freedom and Justice on Thursday afternoons in fall 2015. The course description as it appears in the catalog is:

Starting from philosophical understandings of identity, community, and democracy the course focuses on themes such as slavery and emancipation; migration, exile, and diaspora; violence and reconciliation. Using an interdisciplinary lens that engages fields as wide-ranging as economics and literature, students will engage in trans-historical, cross-cultural exploration of freedom and justice and the various ways different peoples have attempted to put them into practice. Students will engage tools to analyze the relationship between these concepts and the structure of identity and its material effects.

Effectively the course chooses a wicked problem and explores it in an interdisciplinary way from a foundation of freedom and justice philosophy. Unsurprisingly, as a librarian, the wicked problem that struck me immediately was information. Access to information (the haves and have-nots), privileged authorship and dissemination of information, control (or lack thereof) of information, personal information issues–all critically important, and all related to our understanding and exercise of freedom and justice. As an interdisciplinary creature myself, that part of the course description also appealed to me as a way to integrate my own studies, and engage students in various fields. Happily, Dr. Julia Balén who runs the program agreed that information is an interesting lens for the course, and my Library chair and AVP agreed that not only is it a great topic to teach, but it also matches up with our library’s engagement with information literacy as a general education outcome and as something we would like to see more prominently featured in the curriculum.

Because balance is something I am working hard to achieve, my chair recommended a reduction in my committee work because of the increase on the teaching side. I will be taking on the course as part of my teaching duties. Occasionally (and optimally), departments bringing in folks from outside their department to teach a course offer what we call a “buy-out,” where the department would pay the library for my WTU (weighted teaching unit) time, and the Library could (in the best -case scenario) use those funds to hire a part-time person to replace me on the reference desk, or in some of my other duties. (I’ve worked at other universities where librarians were not expected to engage in teaching, and those teaching duties would fall outside my regular assignment, to be done outside Library time. In that case, a department would hire me as an adjunct and pay me separately from my regular paycheck. So, things may be handled differently depending on your institution. It’s a good question to ask during  the interview if you are interested in teaching semester-long courses, since it does have political, budgetary, and workload repercussions depending on the system.)

I am currently working on designing the course, and am developing a working bibliography crossing  disciplines, cultures, and kinds of information (For those interested, see FJS 340 Bibliography-In-Progress). After a foundation in philosophies of freedom and justice, theories of information, and readings on information poverty and information literacy, the course will be structured weekly by discipline (health, economics, politics, conflict and war, education, etc.). In an attempt to have students think about information broadly, we won’t only be using book chapters and research articles (though right now the bibliography is mostly just that). Students will also be considering art, poetry, fiction, memoir, testimonio, music, video, and other forms of information.

The course is a writing-intensive one, so I am also working on developing the writing assignments . I have used weekly critical reflection papers in previous courses as a way to make students engage with the material, but a weekly paper can become rote and dull. As an ISLAS Faculty Fellow, I recently attended a workshop by Dr. Jacob Jenkins (affectionately known on campus as Dr. J) on building community in the classroom, and he was kind enough to share with me a number of his efforts¹ to engage students in journaling that allowed students to be creative in engaging the material.  Another ISLAS workshop by Dr. Jenny Luna addressed the power of testimonio in capturing the experience of the disenfranchised and incorporating testimonio in the college classroom, which inspired me to make sure that I include readings on this valuable kind of information. I have a vague idea for an assignment that asks students to identify an information issue in their communities, identify stakeholders and the freedom and justice concepts involved, and explore the information issue in depth, both with background research and active engagement through interviews. (I’m currently working with the Center for Community Engagement since I know they will have great ideas for helping me turn this general idea into a dynamite engagement opportunity.) Working on this has been a great way to pick my library and campus colleagues’ brains about their favorite readings in their area of study on the issue of information (hello, undercover outreach!), as well as an exercise for myself in both creativity and restraint. (I know the linked bibliography is already too long and complicated for a single undergrad gen-ed course. I know. But it’s nice to know I have options!)

In reality, designing this course is a dream assignment for a librarian. What do we want students to know about information, and its impact on freedom and justice? How do our conceptions of freedom and justice shape our thoughts about information? My intent is to offer the students a smorgasbord of readings in various disciplines to whet their appetites and engage both their critical thinking and their imaginations. Right now I’m working on this on weekends and evenings, but I imagine it will creep into my summer days as I work on the actual syllabus and day-by-day structure of the course. You can expect more from me on this, I’m sure, and I am also looking forward to reflecting on the course as I teach it. If you have any ideas for readings, assignments, or other information you would recommend for this kind of course, please do share. I will share the final bibliography as well as the syllabus once they’re completed.


¹ Jenkins, Jacob. “Engaged Journaling: Using Experiential Learning Theory to Employ Multiple Learning Styles.” with T. Clarke. Paper delivered at Western States Communication Association Annual Convention. Spokane, WA, Feb 20, 2015. (