Conference Season 2019

The last two weeks have been a blitz of conferences and workshops for me.  I attended the Northeast OER Summit in Amherst, the Academic Technology Institute (ATI) in Concord, and a Copyright Bootcamp in Boston.  Having all of my professional development activities for the year happen within a month of each other has been amazing for rethinking how I work. 

The subject matter of the OER Summit and ATI were closely related: OER and open pedagogy, which are really about nothing less than reinventing higher ed to be what our students need in the digital age.  But in my mind the copyright session was a close fit with these.  We went in depth on the exceptions to copyright law (like fair use) that prevent (or at least mitigate) copyright from being a barrier to teaching, scholarship, and creativity. 

But of all these experiences, the keynote speakers at ATI gave me the most to think about.  I felt challenged and inspired by Jesse Stommel’s advice to “start by trusting students.”  Trust them to tell us what they need, trust that they are doing the best they can, trust them to evaluate their own process. Some of his suggestions, like encouraging students to engage with metacognitive work (self-evaluation, process letters, readings & discussion about metacognition) struck me as just good practice, nothing outrageous there.  But others that I am just as interested in, seem more likely to ruffle feathers: 

  • leaving gaps in our syllabi, schedules, assignments, and rubrics so that the students are constructing part of the course
  • adding more imaginative outcomes to the syllabus, like “for us to have an epiphany” or “for us to change our minds about something significant”
  • ungrading (see also: Alfie Kohn)

There was a tension in the room between these new ideas and giving the content its due.  There was some good discussion about whether all disciplines can equally afford to devote time to allow students to direct their own learning.  I want my nurses to master A&P of course, but I suspect that both content mastery and student directed learning are possible within the same high-stakes-content course.  I do sympathize with those for whom it’s a scary proposition to sacrifice some time that would otherwise be spent covering content, to get students to engage with the messy process of learning.  (If you are finding this hard to swallow right now, I would urge you not form an opinion based on my ramblings, but to watch the keynotes yourself, I’ll post the video links here when they’re available.)  But even though we could make the learning process “neat” for our students, the value is in the students’ experience of doing some of that work for themselves.  We want our students to understand their own learning and be able to continue to do it after they graduate. 

Part of that time is “sacrificed” (what a terrible word for reallocating time to activities that may ultimately be more valuable for students) may go toward just getting the students to understand, believe, and trust what for them is likely an entirely new approach to learning.  Inviting student contributions to how a course is run is 180 degrees from the passive style of education that has been prevalent in most of our experiences.  But if we want to enact a version of higher ed that meets the needs of people living in the internet age rather than the industrial age, even this use of time is valuable.  (And if someone gave you a copy of The New Education at the first CPLC meeting, you know what I’m talking about.)

Another favorite moment for me was when keynote speaker Martha Burtis reminded us that students are always watching us, always studying us.  All the time, not just when we’re imparting content.  I say reminded, because we were all students once, and this really rang true for me.  I was always watching my instructors, but not (always) for the content they had to impart.  I was, and I think most students are, watching and studying the instructor to figure out what they really do, what are they like, and what they can teach us about how (or in some cases, how not) to be in the world.  Our students are not watching us with bated breath to see what content we have lined up as much as they watch us to see if anything we say or do could be useful to them in navigating their own lives.  It makes sense then to invite them into the construction of the course, to invite them to tell us about their lives so that together we can find ways to make the content more meaningful for them. 

Maybe it’s easier for me like all of the radical suggestions I heard at ATI because I have a very different teaching situation than most.  The odd thing about teaching as a librarian is that, (except for reference time and the odd course here and there,) I only get to do it when I’m invited to by another instructor.  Then I set about the work of making a plan for the session (or two if you’re lucky) that meets both my and the instructor’s expectations.  It almost certainly won’t satisfy them both fully, but it’s also a pretty low risk situation for me.  Given these constraints, I’m not sure how much latitude I’ll have to experiment with these ideas.    

I’m happy to say I do have some new ideas that I’m sure will improve my toolkit course, and I’ve started thinking about what it would be like to propose an information literacy course, maybe something that looks at info lit though one of the four directions lenses and therefore fills a gen ed requirement.  An in between step might be to develop some lesson plans that I would use in such a class, write them up with all of their objectives, inquiry questions, exercises, discussion prompts, etc. and share these with the instructors I work with, sort of like a menu of possibilities, and see if anyone goes for them.

At least I’ve got all summer to work on this puzzle before the fall semester, and it will certainly take at least that long to digest all the ideas, read all the articles, and follow up on all the resources that are now on my radar.

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