October 31, 2014

Our Common Purpose | Office Hours

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (http://ow.ly/b6Yya) recounts how Kansas State University professor Michael Wesch “rebooted” his tech-heavy teaching approach after “a frustrated colleague approached him after one of his talks: ‘I implemented your idea, and it just didn’t work…. The students thought it was chaos.’ ” Instead, Wesch, an associate professor of cultural anthropology, now stresses, “It doesn’t matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student.” Just adding a certain technology to a course will not improve learning or create community. That bond is more important to class success than new technologies, and it has nothing to do with blogs or mobile phones.

The shift was fairly astonishing, since Wesch is the creator of the video Web 2.0: The Machine Is Us/ing Us, which has over 11 million views on YouTube, and he has actively used Twitter, YouTube, and other interactive technologies in his classes.

Wesch’s advice is just as good for our libraries as for those of us who teach in LIS programs. I emphasize participatory teaching in my classes, a model that shares many commonalities with the library model of participatory service. One aspect of the model is incorporating social media and other emerging technologies into the coursework as a means to “flip” the classroom, so students become active participants and cocollaborators with the professor. But maybe we’ve gone too far.

Facilitate nontech skills

“Get a blog, launch texting, create a Facebook page” has been the rallying cry—from me, too—for some time, but the reasons for doing these things should be clear. They’re an extension of what we have always done, the foundational purpose of libraries. Service. Access. Context.

Many LIS programs include “how-to” technology classes. These are useful for providing the skills new grads need to be marketable. Along with those skill-based courses, however, we must give students opportunities to learn how to engage actively with people, facilitate people’s interests and conversation, and promote the creation of community. These concepts should translate from the real world to online and back again.

Peter Block writes in Community: The Structure of Belonging, “Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness.” This echoes Wesch’s point—building a relationship between the educator and the learner or between the librarian and the user is a step toward establishing the bonds of community. That’s why we can’t just hide behind our reference desks or our virtual lecterns and hope that students or users listen but leave us alone. Active engagement begins here. If we can articulate our purpose well and use it as a basis for building community, we are on the right track.
Sharing ourselves as educators and librarians should be part of the mix. At our recent all-faculty institute at San José State University, CA, professors and adjuncts exchanged tips for developing that sense of relatedness across our virtual program. Posting family photos, communicating within our collaborative IM application, and connecting with students via social media and in-person meet-ups were all among the ­suggestions.

Thinking out loud

Wesch also notes that professors trip up by translating traditional methods to these new spaces, for example, grading blog reflections as though they are finished papers. I recently amended my blogging assignments this semester after reflecting on these ideas and a post by Gardner Campbell, director, professional development and innovative initiatives at Virginia Tech, entitled “Blogs and Baobabs” (http://ow.ly/b6YAZ).

I tell my students to think of their blog as a journal intended to help clarify their thoughts while contributing openly on the web and with the feedback of their classmates, their professor, and possibly the world. My course site says it clearly.

“Important: Let your blogging be a reflection of your own curiosity and ideas about our course. Follow your thoughts where they go. Ponder, for example, how the ideas you are encountering might inform your practice as a librarian or information professional. It is entirely acceptable to ‘think aloud’ via your blog.”

I promise them I will not swoop in and grade down for bad sentence structure or poorly conceived ideas. The blogging space is part of our community of learning each semester and a way to promote connection that also finds its way to Twitter and beyond.

“Only through that sense of connection,” states Wesch, “do you have this sense of community.” Professors and librarians seeking to convene groups of their constituents might give some thought to establishing a strong bond that doesn’t begin and end with the hot technology of the day but something deeper and more meaningful: an understanding of our common purpose.

Michael Stephens About Michael Stephens

Michael Stephens (mstephens7@mac.com) is Assistant Professor at the School of Information, San Jose State University, CA

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