Curriculum

Serendipitous Syllabus Overload, and Having Students Help Build a Course

Teacher-Librarians

In practice here at CSUCI Broome Library, we are all teaching librarians. when I schedule information literacy sessions, all librarians are up for grabs for me–my Head of Public Services and Outreach, Head of Unique Collections and Scholarly Communication, my Collections & Technical Services Coordinator, my Electronic Resources Librarian, my Original Cataloging Librarian, even my dean/AVP. Everybody’s on deck when there’s an instruction need, and with over 120 information literacy sessions scheduled this fall alone, everybody bats, and everybody bats big. In addition to the many information literacy sessions we teach, many of us also teach semester-long classes.

Before I talk about teaching my credit course this semester, some important background. Here at CSUCI, the librarians (who have tenure-track faculty status) regularly teach and co-teach credit courses in disciplines where we’re qualified, in addition to classes actually certified under the LIB (Library as home department) heading. We’re teaching (or co-teaching in some cases) both lower- and upper-division courses in English, University Studies, Political Science, History, Communication, and Freedom & Justice Studies, among others. It’s pretty difficult not to trip over us anywhere in the curriculum. In theory (and sometimes practice), the home departments get us on buyout either through their budget or through a grant, so that the library dean can hire part-time lecturers to fill behind us for things like reference desk time and other duties that are more easily transferred to another person. (Whether librarians are tenure-track, whether they teach, and how that is decided and practiced varies widely, even in my own experience across a handful of state universities.)

Here at Broome Library, we are encouraged to teach within home departments and effectively become embedded information literacy ninjas, integrating information literacy concepts and work into the regular work of the curriculum, especially since information literacy is specifically written into our general education requirements. I’m still new to the politics of the place, but our teaching seems to go over well with all involved. The struggle becomes when the buyout doesn’t quite happen, and resources get strained. We can easily backfill reference desk hours, but other duties are not so easily re-assigned. General wisdom is that teaching one class per semester is do-able, and most librarians teach one class every or every-other semester. Occasionally opportunities related to grants and new initiatives come up and someone teaches two classes, but from what I’ve seen, it’s a grueling pace to have to keep. Just the one class has kept me pretty well on my toes this semester.

Sooprize Collaboration: Including Students in Syllabus-Building

This semester I’ve been teaching FJS 340: Exploring Freedom and Justice, a first-time course for me. It’s been going very well — my initial syllabus scared the students a bit: because we have a 2 hour 50 minute block for class once a week, I treated each block as two classes, and took seriously the idea that for a 3-credit class, at least 9 hours of work was going into it per week. Add to that what *I* figure I can read and digest across 9 hours, and cue panicked undergrads in a gen-ed course faced with what was essentially a graduate-level workload. My initial misstep actually led to a great activity, though, in which I gave my students the opportunity to choose which readings they would focus on each week. From the initial syllabus, we went week by week, and I indicated which two readings were foundational and would be required. After that, I described each of the remaining readings *and why I chose to include them on the syllabus*, and the students, in collaboration with each other, chose two to three more readings from the remaining four to seven that were listed for the week.

It was an eye-opening experience–I approached building my syllabus as seriously and carefully as any architect, building a list of readings from a broad bibliography painstakingly developed, paring it down to what I thought was essential and including some items I hoped students would find uncomfortable, intriguing, or controversial. Since the course is multidisciplinary in nature, I talked with colleagues both in and out of the library for ideas and readings, but I hadn’t considered consulting students in the building of my syllabus. It turns out that students really engaged in the exercise, and because they are the ones who have effectively chosen the readings for each week, they’ve taken real ownership of the material (to the point of calling folks out for being the deciding vote for choosing a particular article, and then being caught out in discussion as the one not reading it).

We also went through the list of assignments and pared those down, though that was mostly removing one large project, rearranging some due dates, and redistributing point values. I discovered that what some may find tedious in terms of syllabus revision, the students found fascinating–the nuts and bolts behind the decision-making of course creation, how point values were determined, why assignments were included and what they were designed to do in terms of asking students to demonstrate mastery. Course-creation became a real conversation and a bit more of a collaboration with students than I’ve experienced in the past.

The accidental and conversational approach to a too-large syllabus worked so well that I’m actually going to build this in as part of the first day’s activities for the next time I teach the course, in Spring 2016. Right now I’m trying to figure out how to structure this in such a way that I might study it and report out, so any ideas welcome.

Engaged Journaling vs. Weekly Critical Reflection Assignments

This exercise, though accidental, synergized nicely with the way assignments were designed. In addition to a large research project scaffolded through the semester (more on that in a moment), in the past I’ve assigned students to complete a weekly critical reflection on the material they read for class. The intent of the assignment is not to get the students to summarize–I tell them I’ve already read the material, I assume they’re going to do the same–but to have the students think critically about where they see the principles for the week manifested in their own worlds, what that means, and how/whether the week’s material changed how they think about something. Inevitably, though, the weekly reflections become summaries. The students begin to detest writing them, I start to detest reading them. I attended a workshop on building community in the classroom with Dr. Jacob Jenkins (Dr. J) of our Communication faculty, and he generously shared with me his work on active/engaged journaling exercises.

Though I did ask students for critical reflections during a few weeks (particularly where I ask them to consider what information is valued in their field, and how it is valued), for most of the other weeks I asked them to engage the material in different ways. During the week where I ask them to consider readings on various “ways of knowing,” students were asked to write a poem or song lyric capturing a ‘way of knowing’ other than academic, with the option of performing their piece in class live or recording it to play to the class via YouTube. During a week where we considered information as a freedom and justice issue within the context of political science and international conflict, students were tasked with selecting an image that felt significant to them after considering that week’s readings, and speaking for 1-2 minutes on why they chose that image and how it resonated with their understanding of concepts within the readings.

So far, the assignments have been a success. The biggest success has been generating conversation between students regarding the choices they made, and what concepts are more difficult to grasp than others. The assignments are low stakes in terms of points, but really help to start off each class session with energy (not a small thing for a 12:00-2:50pm class), and the chance to work with concepts in a more personal, engaging way than just academic narrative appears to (1) inform how well students understand the concepts presented, and (2) make students much more open to discussing difficulties they encountered in the material, both in terms of comprehension and in terms of struggling with questions of social justice within particular contexts. This is no mean feat–before we explore information in different disciplines (such as economics and business, health, political science, and others), students have to master theories of freedom and justice. This means the first few weeks are heavy on political theory, which can be tough for students to get through. Low stakes assignments designed to elicit questions and identify challenges early mean that by the time we make it out into the disciplines we want to explore, students are comfortable with identifying the concepts of freedom and justice at work, as well as identifying those not actively considered by parties to various information conflicts.

The assignments also prime students for discussion–students have been eager to share their work and creativity, and the way I organize class is usually around a number of larger discussion questions instead of lecture. Because students have just engaged with sharing their assignment, moving into discussion about the readings (which were the foundation for their assignments) works well in terms of transition. We move from sharing the assignment, to covering concepts and lingering questions, and then into application across cultures and connection across disciplines.

It’s not all fun and games; my students are required to work on a research paper throughout the term–more on that in the next post. But so far, both the syllabus-decisions and the engaged journaling exercises (hat-tip to Dr. J!) have been huge successes for my course, and I’m looking forward to seeing how students respond to the next iteration when I intentionally include their feedback. I’m going to be doing a search for some literature on faculty who have involved students this way in syllabus-building, so if you know of any good reads on the subject, please share!

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.

References

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. (https://www.westcomm.org/convention/documents/2015WSCAProgram.pdf)