Higher Education

Serendipitous Syllabus Overload, and Having Students Help Build a Course


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 Big Hairy Deal: Research Ethics , Roles of IRBs, and Responsibilities of Chairs/Coauthors in Light of Lacour and Green,

You don’t even have to have your finger on the pulse of academic news to have heard about the Lacour and Green research debacle. It’s been bouncing around in my brain since it’s related to the way we maneuver in a world of information, and it is relevant to my work as a librarian and as a researcher. In a drama-filled nerdly nutshell (with links to further reading for the details), the situation:

Brief Unofficial Timeline of the Study, and Discovery of Possible Misconduct

Whew. So, in an even smaller nutshell, a UCLA grad student and a Columbia U. Famous Faculty Dude coauthored an influential article on gay marriage that turned out to be based on data that it appears the grad student COMPLETELY MADE UP.

Why This is a Big, Hairy, Hulking Deal

First, the “so what?” question. There are many reasons why this is such a big deal, and I’m only going to articulate a few of them:

  • First, this is the sort of political behavior research that changes how people actually approach issues, and how agencies distribute grant funding.
    • Talking to people changes their minds in the long run? Then political organizations will send out canvassers to speak to people instead of spending their money on television ads and paper mailings.
    • Grant organizations start shifting their funding away from projects not using that methodology, since the published research makes them think that Lacour’s way – exposing people to people holding different political views – is more persuasive. This means research projects based on other research, namely that it is perennially difficult to get people to change their minds, and to keep their minds changed, see less funding.
  • It puts a dent in the trust we have in institutions of higher education, and in our peer-reviewed published research.
    • Our whole scientific structure rests on trust. Some scientific journals are more rigorous than others and ask authors to share their data so that statistics can be verified. But who guards the realm against complete fakery?
    • Will UCLA actually grant Lacour the PhD now that the cat is out of the bag that his research design was a lie? If they do, what does this say about our expectations for the highest research credential you can earn?
  • This event has implications for how higher education hires new faculty.
    • Lacour was hired as a new tenure-track professor at Princeton University, a plum gig for someone straight out of graduate school. Will Princeton keep his contract live now that they know about his research ethics failure? Or will they let him come in and see what he does to earn reappointment into a second year?
    • Lacour claimed he had brought in over $700,000 in grant money. If he was working as a tenure-track professor, there is all sorts of documentation that would have been required for him to include that in the portfolio reviewed each year for his reappointment. But because he was just a graduate student, and the grant information was on his CV, no one bothered to double-check his claims against the foundations themselves. What mechanisms do we have in place to catch such shameless CV-padding?
  • Broockman, one of the graduate students who discovered the foul play, was repeatedly advised against publishing or discussing his concerns. There’s a lurking shadow in academia that whistleblowers are not to be trusted, or supported. How does this play out with the purported search for Truth? What does this say about our willingness to critique and do thorough peer-review on our scholars’ work?
  • There are other issues, related to research integrity, data documentation, co-authorship, and academic job-seeking; expect more blog posts.

The Role of IRB, and the Problem of Data

The role of an Institutional Review Board or IRB, is to review proposed research to determine that it will have no ill effects on the people/animals/phenomenon studied. For those not familiar with the process, usually if you are going to do research it has to be approved by an institution’s IRB. This involves lengthy amounts of paperwork, articulation of the research project in great detail, and detailed explanation of how subjects and data will be protected. (You can see my university’s IRB page and paperwork here, if interested, to get some idea. You can also see an example of an IRB application I myself submitted here.) I filled out IRB paperwork for my dissertation research back at UT-Chattanooga, and have filled out IRB paperwork here at CSUCI for new research projects. it’s generally considered a necessary evil, a dotting-of-the-is.

The Data Problem 

One of lacour’s defenses appears to be that he destroyed the raw data file, and so he cannot provide that to back up his research. I don’t know if all IRBs have this issue, but I’ll note that my own institution’s IRB paperwork contains no option for permanent storage of anonymized data – I had to write it in on one of my IRB applications, and then re-explain it in detail because it didn’t fit within the antiquated practice of destroying all data so many months after the project was complete. We live in the future. Sharing our data with other researchers can add to the amount of information available to study. In fact, this reminds me to ask data guru and librarian Abigail Goben about this, since I want to bring it up – with an elegantly worded solution – to my university’s IRB committee for their forms, since I think we *should* be encouraging researchers to share data.

I should note here that I am describing keeping anonymized data, where all identifying characteristics and variables have been removed. For instance, when I submit my dataset to my institutional repository so others can use it, I will remove columns with names of individuals, email addresses, and their institution, as well as comb through the open-ended responses to remove identifying information that may have ended up there. then each respondent will be given a randomly generated unique number. Nothing identifiable from the respondent remains, but now I can share the data with others interested in the phenomenon, so that they can try to replicate my work, or use the data to answer their own research questions, if the data is what they need.

This practice of anonymizing data is common (and usually required). It is also standard practice. I say this as someone who was an Economics major in undergrad and then did doctoral level study in political science: for someone with a background in statistics and doing doctoral work in political science, I would expect Lacour to know this. That Lacour deleted all his original data files and kept nothing is beyond suspicious, and claiming he had a responsibility to keep certain data points confidential doesn’t excuse him from the responsibility of maintaining the data. This is not just data used to publish in Science, lest we think this a one-off–this is his dissertation data. Which he claims he does not have and cannot share. How, then, to discuss the merits of his dissertation? (Yes, I still do have my dissertation data. Anonymized. Which I am happy to share with any interested parties.)

The IRB & Outside Researcher Problem

One of the big gaffes in this whole Lacour and Green research scandal is that Green, the senior researcher and statistician, claims he did not have access to the raw data, nor did he want that access, since gaining IRB approval from his institution to work on the research project our of UCLA would have been a huge hassle. I won’t recreate this entire argument, since Scatterplot has a great post on this very issue. What I will say is that IRB should have very much been involved, and that faculty efforts to avoid IRB at all costs (due to delays, hindrances, and paperwork) does nobody, including our institutions of higher education, any good. Still, the argument exists that the Lacour and Green issue could have happened even if Green had gotten proper IRB approvals to look at the data–it still would have been Lacour’s fake data in the file he would have shared with Green. Would Green have recognized it as fake, the way broockman, Kalla, and Aronow did when they really dug into the statistics? We’ll never know, but he surely would have been concerned at there being no sourcefiles in Qualtrics.

The Role of the Chair and Co-Author

Very little has been made, to date, of Green’s role in this whole debacle, or of Lacour’s dissertation advisor and what her responsibilities might have been.

The Chair

First, let’s discuss the dissertation chair. Professor Lynn Vavreck at UCLA served as Lacour’s dissertation advisor, and the data for the retracted study is purported to have come from Lacour’s dissertation, which puts Vavreck in the hot seat. My dissertation advisor was all up in my data booch while I was doing my dissertation–he had access to my Qualtrics instance (the software doing the data collection), though I don’t know if he ever used that access to track progress. For instance, I could log in on any day and see how many respondents had answered my survey to date. My chair also had me run and re-run numbers to his satisfaction, and had me address any oddities in the findings. Anything that went against decades of established research would have been something he would have raised an eyebrow at, and picked away at. I don’t know if the chair has much of a defense against straight up data fabrication; the assumption during the dissertation phase is that the student is spending their time doing the collecting and analyzing. Something should have smelled fishy about his crazily positive results, but Vavreck didn’t catch it. Should she have? Should she have checked his data against existing sets and discovered he had co-opted the CCAP data, as Lacour’s detractors did? If a graduate student can figure it out, I’d expect the dissertation chair to have at least as much invested. *Spock eyebrow*

The Co-Author

I’ll admit that I have some pretty serious misgivings about Green’s involvement in this whole affair. Green is a professor of political science at Columbia University, and formerly taught at Yale. He’s a known big name in the field. (Having a big, famous name on your article makes it much more likely that the universe – especially the academic universe in one’s discipline – will pay attention and talk about your research.) It appears that Green was approached by Lacour to serve as coauthor of the Science article. Green claims he helped with the writeup, but never looked at the original data. When Green saw the data skewed opposite of other research in the area, he asked Lacour to replicate the experiment, and depended on Lacour’s confirmation that he did. Green applied his statistical expertise and found the same results in the data Lacour did. Green wrote of his disappointment in various statements, he requested the retraction from Science, and reflected in a statement to Retraction Watch:

“Convinced that the results were robust, I helped Michael LaCour write up the findings, especially the parts that had to do with the statistical interpretation of the experimental design. Given that I did not have IRB approval for the study from my home institution, I took care not to analyze any primary data — the datafiles that I analyzed were the same replication datasets that Michael LaCour posted to his website.  Looking back, the failure to verify the original Qualtrics data was a serious mistake.”

I would posit that it’s a serious mistake on a number of levels, and that Green’s statement is a declaration of absentee-co-authorship in that he didn’t expect to have to do much work, just to put his name on the article. The Famous Guy gets an article for his CV, and the Up-And-Comer gets a great article in an important journal plus the halo-effect and credibility boost of coauthoring with Famous Guy. With this sort of relationship, then, Green overtrusted Lacour, and likely figured that lacour was just using Green’s name as leverage. Green may have re-run the statistics to be sure his results were the same as Lacour’s, but the issue isn’t the statistics that were run, it’s the data itself. Had the co-author been more intimately involved in the data collection process, he might have noticed Lacour’s vague explanations. As the LA Times stated,

“if close collaborators aren’t going to catch the problem, it’s no surprise that outside reviewers dragooned into critiquing the research for a journal won’t catch it either. A modern science article rests on a foundation of trust.”

How much do you trust your co-authors? Enough to not have the same access to the data that they do? I’ve actually struggled with this, and let a great research project idea die because a prospective co-author would not share the necessary instrument and data analysis. I’m not famous. I’m not even on the job hunt. But I’d never put my credibility on the line for research that I can’t vouch for from cradle to grave. Is that because I’m a librarian with an overactive imagination? is it because my default mode is transparency? Maybe a little bit of both. And if things get squirmy at that beginning stage of discussion and IRB paperwork, one should be on alert moving forward with that project and co-author.

The Role of Replication

Broockman was repeatedly warned against discussing or publishing his findings that Lacour and Green’s study had serious problems. It appears academic is no kinder to whistleblowers in research than it is to whistleblowers in academic administration. Broockman was warned off because Green is Famous and Lacour was an Up-And-Comer. He was warned off because folks thought he might get a reputation for ‘merely replicating’ instead of developing his own research agenda. I’d like to point out that replication is crucial for research. It might not get you a PhD, but it will definitely bring out nuances in the data, and let you know if findings are a fluke,a product of research design, or an actual phenomenon. Interestingly, I’m involved in replicating my dissertation study in slightly different populations to see if the findings hold. Replication is worthwhile, especially if done conscientiously. It is just that conscientiousness, and how Broockman tried to determine why his study wasn’t bringing back the results found in Lacour’s study, that led to the discovery of fraud in the first place.

What it Means for Academic Job Seekers

The best way to go on the market as a newly-minted PhD is with a published article in hand, and the more of those the better, especially if you want to land at a research institution. Lacour was on his way to Princeton this July, though there’s been no word on whether or not that has changed in light of this scandal. Was the job market a stressor inducing Lacour to cheat his way to astounding, news-making results? Why don’t other new PhDs fake their data? Or DO THEY, and we just don’t know it? Who is getting advantaged in this situation? It seems that Lacour put much time and effort into creating his fictions; in my experience, it might have been less effort to actually do the research properly and avoid this whole clustersuck. I’ll be interested to see how (and whether) this shakes out into any changes in the hiring process or publication in general, such as requiring publication of datasets. Repository librarians, be ye ready! Maybe this is our inroads to discuss data storage and publication with our faculty.

Since I’m teaching a course on information in the fall, I’m intrigued by all levels in this case and hope to use parts of it for my students’ reading. I wish I were teaching a methodology course, we would have so much fun with this. As a librarian and researcher, it just makes me angry and sad. Why the lie? Why the continued defense of the lie? And how on earth did it pass before so many sets of eyes and only come out because Broockman couldn’t let it slide, even if it meant his professional reputation?

Some Thoughts on Academic Disciplines: A Meditation on Methodology, My Entry Into the Humanities, and Experiencing a “Pedagogy of Discomfort”

Those of you who know me know that I’m a perpetual student, addicted to lifelong learning (and the pieces of paper that certify I accomplished something). In September 2014, I started work on the Ph.D. in Mythological Studies, with an emphasis in depth psychology. As I finish the readings for the first session of my third semester in my latest academic endeavor, I find myself thinking about the different ways of knowing in academic disciplines.

I’ve had a lot of experience as a student. (I remarked to a class the other day that I’ve been doing homework for 30 of my 35 years. And then I nearly cried. They looked a mixture of horrified and awed.) At the undergraduate level, I overloaded my schedule each term (requiring the Dean of Students’ signature) and did significant work in international relations and political science, economics, Spanish, and foreign language study (Spanish, Italian, French, German, Ancient Greek, and Japanese). At the Master’s level, I’ve studied library and information science, education (instructional technology), writing, and English. At the doctoral level, I’ve done years of work in political science and education.

I’ve been around the academic block a few hundred times, and I live and breathe to the rhythms of the academic calendar. I love the ebb and flow of energy within the time capsule of a semester: the energy of students arriving to start their studies, the frantic scramble for books and classrooms, the calm before the storm of midterms, the frantic careening of research papers and deadlines and finals, the satisfaction of a graduation ceremony. And then a break, a breathing space before it all starts again and we welcome veteran and new students alike back into the mix. The environment itself, one that encourages learning, where many of our students are learning to function as independent adults for the first time, where faculty argue vociferously over changes to the curriculum and how exactly those changes serve our students, and where students wrestle with new information and new perspectives, is one that brings me joy.

Most of my academic training has been set squarely inside the social science disciplines. In the social sciences, my experience has been tasting a distinct overtone of measurement in the bouquet of subjects. In the Ph.D. program in Political Science at Emory, I was introduced for the first time to the quantitative versus qualitative research methodology wars, and though some students and faculty did excellent qualitative work, the department focus was quite heavily on the quantitative side, both in course offerings and in in philosophy. (Part of the reason may have been not only the research preferences of the faculty, but the openly acknowledged time difference involved in quant and qual work. My advisor at the time told me quite clearly that quantitative was the way to go for a dissertation, because when it comes to dissertations, “Good is not good. Done is good.”) While my many years studying education offered a more balanced view of quantitative and qualitative work (and some excellent doctoral level courses in mixed-method research methodology), measurement and evaluation was still of utmost importance, and framed many of the discussions of important issues. I understand this: to want to explore something and learn about it, learning to measure a thing (as well as the hows and whys of that measurement) is an important foundation for knowledge.

In these social science settings, it is easy for me to understand the hows and whys, the idea of dependent and independent variables, effect and affect. Though I avoided as much math as possible in my undergraduate days, I did take Econometrics I and II, and left with a firm grasp of codifying variables, linear regression and other forms of data analysis, and the idea that measurement is key to understanding. After years and years of graduate courses in quantitative research methodology (and one summer spent at ICPSR data nerd camp), I understand this language. It is familiar; the literature review and methodology sections of research papers are my brain’s version of comfort food. My first impulse upon identifying a phenomenon I want to study is to ask a question, and identify what measurements would allow me to answer that question.

I am on much less mentally comfortable ground in the humanities, though I value the fields no less than I do the social sciences. As a child, my mother and her parents instilled in me a love of reading that has never faded, and I became addicted to telling stories and writing poetry. Though my undergraduate years were characterized by an I-know-I-need-a-job-and-don’t-have-time-for-glassblowing turn away from the humanities, I was still nourished by the liberal arts education and general education course requirements. In my mid-20s after some personal blows and health issues,  I found myself trapped in my own psyche, and the only solution that satisfied was writing. I entered my M.F.A. in Writing program significantly less educated in BritLit than my peers, and learned much. What I truly learned, though, was not only the value of practicing my creative craft and the fulfillment of creative endeavors, but I re-learned the worth of learning in a field outside my comfort zone, where measurement is somewhat eschewed (a nod to the digital humanities here) in favor of interpretation, and in the value inherent in a multiplicity of interpretations where none is truly authoritative or privileged. Particularly for poetry, there is in infinite number of possible choices and combinations of subjects, words, languages, and combinations of words and space (in space itself and in the art of the line break). The individual, their experience, and his or her interpretations becomes so much more important; the poet need justify his or her methods to no one. Poetry satisfies a piece of myself that the hard and social sciences leave a bit cold, the piece that whispers that there is more to the world than what I can measure.

I’ve joked that I pursued my M.L.S. to get a job, and my M.F.A. as a personal reward. There’s slightly more to it, but that’s not too far off. The one was an intellectual endeavor I enjoyed, but it was certainly tied to my career aspirations. (You largely can’t be an academic librarian without the M.L.S.) I had no real professional plans for my M.F.A. other than to learn how to become a better poet, and becoming much more well-read in poetry and its craft under the tutelage of poets with many more years experience. The M.F.A. was a personal journey whereas my social science studies, while they reflected my personal interests, were more guided by professional interests and the idea of the degree as a vehicle-to-something. The M.L.S. was required for me to enter the ranks of academic librarians. The Ed.D. helped make me a better librarian and researcher, and also equips me with the terminal degree to move into a nine-month teaching faculty position, should I choose to do so; the Ph.D. I’m working on is largely for personal development and satisfaction, though I would also like to leverage it to teach in that area.

Now I find myself nearly a year deep into the Ph.D. program. Again, I joke that my Ed.D. is really related to my work (which it is), and this doctorate is more a personal reward, like the M.F.A. I am learning entirely new ways of approaching academic work. This program is really designed as a journey through materials, and as a critical reflection on not just the readings and how they square with each other, but how personal experience informs the reading of the texts, and how the reading of the texts informs personal experience. I joked with Fabulous Husband that the school is a little woo-woo, and it might turn me into a California hippie. Alongside textbooks in the campus bookstore, you can also find crystals, healing runes, mandala coloring books, and various books on archetypes, gods and goddesses, living your own myth, Campbell, yoga, and Jung. In one class, many of our assignments centered around learning new ways to analyze, work with, or tend our dreams, and enter into conversation with those dream images. Our final papers are generally expected to incorporate both research and personal experience and reflection relevant to the course topic.

This makes me uncomfortable. Initially, I felt like my thinking and feeling experience in the world (as opposed to things-accomplished experience) was not really worth academic credit, and was out of place in academic assignments about mythology. I can write an academic paper on the myth of Demeter and Persephone and how it might correlate to the researched experience of barren women; inserting myself into the paper and making claims of my own experience and understanding of the myth based on my lived experience seems somehow presumptive. What could I possibly have to say that is authoritative, if it is based on my subjective understanding of the world? Why would someone want to know about my story, when it has not yet been measured against other stories to see if my life is wanting compared to theirs? The shield of objectivity (weak as that shield is) is shattered, and suddenly I am not just reading the mythology, I am in the mythology, and is this what is supposed to happen here? It has been a very long time since I have been uncomfortable in a classroom, from either side of the desk.

Reflecting on this, I realized that I have taught mythology to undergraduates, and asked students to write weekly reflections on the stories and what they perceived as meaningful in their contemporary lives, if anything. I wanted my students to engage the material, to reflect on its meaning and determine where or whether that meaning was relevant to the stories of their own lives or that of our society. This is an exercise in the humanities, and it was valid then–why, then, do I feel like doing this at the graduate level, as a student myself, is a form of cheating? In the social sciences, there would be a problem of objectivity and replication – how can someone replicate my interpretation given that they do not have my life experiences, my psyche, my feelings? They cannot. Why is this a problem? Well, it’s not, for the purposes of this study for this degree. It is a catching point, an area of cognitive dissonance for me because I mentally touch back to my social science paradigm, and that is not entirely appropriate here.

Further reflection on this point: I took a graduate English course in critical theory, in which literature (and any text, really) was examined through different lenses, of those not privileged, of those voices left out and cut from the stories and histories. I remember being very excited; this made sense to me, and I have always been fascinated by the idea of those voices silenced by more privileged interpretations¹. I am also reminded of the Latina development of testimonio² as a valid research methodology and paradigm–women articulating their personal experience, how that experience relates back to the whole of their history and that of their people, and how their understanding of their experience and history shapes the course of their lives, decisions, and repressions. I’ve read some of this research, and have never considered it anything but a rich addition to the dominant methodologies, which would lose these nuances of actual lived experience.

Last night, after drafting the first version of this post, I was reading Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths³ and found a much more articulate explanation for the sort of cognitive dissonance I’m feeling between the idea of a semi-objectively measured world (semi- because the very act of deciding on a measurement is an act of judgment, and very rarely objective in the purest sense) and the more subjectively understood world of the humanities. The author posits that our current system of objectivity and rationality, of looking at the world as a thing apart and to be measured, is a later historical development, both methodologically and philosophically. In short, because Greek philosophy was rebelling against a mythical understanding of the world, Western philosophy and logic itself is now missing a crucial piece of understanding the world existentially and subjectively – myth addresses the meaning that exists in the world, while the Western philosophy and logic developed as a rebellion against mythic understanding addresses the meaning we assign to the world. The philosophy and logic we inherit re-presents the world, interprets it, abstracts and conceptualizes it; myth is pre-objectivity, and in Hatab’s words, it “does not ‘project’ the sacred, it finds the world infused with the sacred” (p. 26).

The more I read of the first few chapters in the book, the more I found myself nodding. This, I think, is what I am missing, a way of knowing that is not a projection of my understanding onto the world, but an appreciation that the sacred can (must?) exist outside of logic, and that this, too, has a great value. A value that the ways I have been academically trained to look at the world are not equipped to measure or acknowledge. Especially after getting sick, and as I’ve been re-evaluating what is important to me and what i want to spend my time and energy on, I find myself straining to reach more of this mythical understanding and way of interacting with the world.

And so I find myself a true student again, struggling with new concepts and applying them, excited as I learn new ways to look at the world that enrich my experience. I am out of my depth, as I should be–I am a novice again, in a way I cannot remember being since my undergraduate days. One of my colleagues recently mentioned that they employ a “pedagogy of discomfort” to get their students to think critically and not rely on established modes of viewing the world. My initial reaction was “Of course! How will they learn if they can rely on what they already know and are comfortable with?”  And oh, ho, the master has become the student again, and I am reminded that my discomfort is a good thing. I am learning things I didn’t know, I am learning to think in new ways, and finding more meaning, and new meanings, in the world around me.


¹My first book of poetry, God in My Throat: The Lilith Poems (Bellowing Ark, 2009) was an exercise in recovering a lost voice; the collection is a series of persona poems told from Lilith’s perspective and addressing her exile from Eden and Christianity in general. Persona poems are some of my favorite captures of voices of lost, unheard, or ‘minor’ characters from history and myth.

² For some great readings on testimonio as recommended by my colleague Dr. Jennie Luna, see: Bernal, D. D., Burciaga, R., & Carmona, J. F. (2012). Chicana/Latina testimonios: mapping the methodological, pedagogical, and political. Equity & Excellence in Education, 45(3), 363-372; Carmona, J. F. (2014). Cutting out their tongues: Mujeres’ testimonies and the Malintzin researcher. Journal of Latino/Latin American Studies, 6(2), 113-124; Chávez, M. S. (2012). Autoethnography, a Chicana’s methodological research tool: The role of storytelling for those who have no choice but to do critical race theory. Equity & Excellence, 45(2): 334-348; Latina Feminist Group. (2001). Telling to live: Latina feminist testimonios. Durham: Duke University Press.

³Hatab, L. J. (1992). Myth and philosophy: A contest of truths. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Press.

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




What’s In A Name? Academia, Name Changes, and My Experience

Today I read a piece that hit close to home. The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by Andrea N. Geurin-Eagleman on dealing with academia, divorce, and name changes. The article does a good job of relating the concerns of many female academics I’ve talked to–namely, that changing your name may effectively erase all of the name recognition we’ve been building in our fields since we started out into the hallowed halls of higher ed.

Fabulous Husband and I are approaching our second wedding anniversary at the end of this month. Both before and after our actual wedding, we talked long and hard about what we wanted to do with our names. Our conversations covered a lot of territory, and these are some of the facets of the issue that came up:

  • I already had a significant number of publications under my maiden name, and was concerned about the academia/continuity-of-recognition factor;
  • We were both over 30 years old when we married, so each of us had significant years behind our birth names. To change them drastically felt jarring and awkward;
  • We also wanted to represent that we were both *adding* someting important to our lives, not erasing earlier portions of it;
  • I’m not particularly proud of my father’s side of my family, but I worked long and hard to make my birth name correspond to something good, and that was important to me;
  • I didn’t want Fabulous Husband to feel slighted by my struggle over this, and by my lack of assumption that I would automatically take his name (to his credit, he was incredibly understanding of my angst);
  • I didn’t want Fabulous Husband’s family to think I felt like I didn’t want their name;
  • I *did* want to take Fabulous Husband’s name;
  • We very much wanted to legally share the same last name;
  • I had poet-angst about the Naming of Things, and what it meant for identity and self and movement through the world to change one’s name.

After much long discussion, we decided to hyphenate and become the Harris-Keith family.

That’s right. My name is Dr. Colleen S. Harris-Keith, and I am a hyphenator.

We both legally changed our names, so Fabulous Husband had to go before a judge and swear he wasn’t changing his name to escape debt, avoid authorities, or avoid identifying himself as a sex offender. It was a lot of work on Jed’s part–not just the court paperwork and cost, but reassuring Worrywart Wife that he really wanted this and did not feel pressured, and dealing with his father’s side-eye. (To be fair, my mother gave me similar side-eye, and told me to just take Jed’s name and be done with the Harris part of things.)

Every couple has their own decision to make in this area. It’s an incredibly personal decision. I didn’t realize how much of my own personal identity I had attached to my birth name until I was asked if I wanted to change it, so I don’t throw shade on how anyone else decides to handle the issue. The naming of things is a powerful force–I believe this as a human and especially as a poet. The naming of ourselves is a significant power, and one many of us don’t really consider until we are faced with the option of changing it. (Librarian side note: this option always exists, and you can change your name in most places with just some court fees and paperwork–check with your county clerk office–but I know I didn’t truly think of it as an option until I got married.)

I did not, at the time, consider that the DMV, doctor offices, and various other necessaries in life work with software that is particularly unkind to those of us who hyphenate, but they figure it out eventually. I’m called Mrs. Keith, Ms. Harris, and any number of other permutations of the letters in our name, and take it with general good humor (while double-checking that the name on file is actually accurate).

Effectively, I feel like I got to have my cake and eat it too. (After all, what good is cake if you cannot eat the stuff?) In my case, it makes it relatively easy for my CV and other academic work. In my earlier career I appear as Colleen S. Harris, and now it’s Colleen S. Harris-Keith, so I feel like I am still recognizable. My husband and I share the same last name, which makes us happy. We’re both happy with the identity marker that includes our birth and married names, and it’s relatively easy to pronounce (though it makes us sound uber-British, which we’re not).

And when Fabulous Husband finishes *his* doctoral program, name-wise we will be The Doctors Harris-Keith, which, you have to admit, sounds pretty damn cool.