How to read if you want to connect the dots

The second essay in Project Information Literacy‘s (PIL) Provocation Series came out last week: “Reading in the Age of Distrust,” by Alison J. Head. I’ve been hearing from professors for years that students “don’t read” — by which they usually mean, don’t read well enough to do the work in a class. Although they might also mean, don’t purchase the egregiously overpriced textbooks, but that’s another topic. I even thought about working on a project to help students become better academic readers a while back, but the leadership I would have had to work with on it felt it wasn’t really the library’s role and also that it would look bad to point out that students struggled with what is considered a fundamental skill.

But to be clear, the issue isn’t often the mechanics of reading (although that can certainly make things even harder for a student). Head starts out by noting that PIL asked students themselves about their reading and found, “In their own words, students struggled with ‘connecting the dots,’ ‘figuring out the hook,’ and ‘discerning what to use’ from course readings and their own selections for writing research papers.” Head notes that recent research shows this doesn’t improve in college, and that these days, reading is made even more complicated by the complex and overwhelming deluge of information and misinformation that people are faced with today. The kind of deeper reading needed to “connect the dots,” and even to discern whether information is worth reading further or is, for example, political or corporate propaganda, is really a form of studying or analyzing, not just reading.

A good bit of the essay then turns to the arguments over who should teach students how to read in the ways necessary to succeed in this world. Professors, she notes, often feel they don’t have time in their syllabi to teach something as basic as reading, and if they talk about reading in their fields, they don’t usually go beyond the kind of reading that is “a performance of a role: How well can you take a seat at this or that disciplinary table and hold a conversation in its language?” Writing and tutoring centers don’t usually teach critical analysis. Librarians often get very little time beyond the information literacy “one shot” visit to a class over the course of a semester is standard on many campuses.

So what can be done? Head has four very concrete and practical suggestions, starting with,”First, educators and instruction librarians must make the invisible activity of reading more visible.” By this she means do what we want students to do, in front of our classes, so they see it in action. Read in class, and comment as you go. For me that would look like saying, “There is a word I want to look up to make sure I get what it means,” or “I wonder why the author isn’t clearer here?” Head also suggests engaging students in asking questions themselves, or even providing questions with assigned reading. Questions that help them examine how well they understand the reading as it fits into what they are reading and learning in class or with their other interests and areas of study. Questions that help them suss out what else they want to know, and what seems unclear or unanswered.

Second, Head suggests situating reading as part of research, a strategy I suggest when I work with students. Reading something a professor provides on your topic, or reading some news or background articles, helps clarify what terms are used to discuss a topic. I also talk with my classes about how background reading can help them relate a topic to the people involved — who is included or left out of what they are reading, and why? Head suggests talking about who are viewed as experts and who are impacted; I’d ask explicitly, are those the same people, and if not, why not? She also recommends research begin with “reading titles and abstracts,” another good way to get a quick overview of how the topic is covered and what is being discussed. I would also add, read works cited lists, not only to trace the claims an author is making, but also to look for authors who write frequently on a topic and read their work.

Head’s third and fourth suggestions are a balm. Third is the notion that less is more: assign less reading, spend more time on it, and create space to really dive into it. She suggests that this pandemic lesson — don’t overwhelm students — should become a new norm, because people in academia have seen that going deeper is just as good, and maybe more engaging, than trying to cover everything.

And fourth, teach empathy as part of reading. Head writes, “Empathy — seeing through the eyes of another — is an outcome of college-level reading, but it usually gets little attention in class discussions.” Wittily and resoundingly shredding an opposing view seems to be our cultural norm, or at least what we’re exposed to across media platforms. Learning to be genuinely curious and open to understanding how and why an opposing view was formed is less valued. But this curiosity, and the effort to look at an issue through someone else’s eyes, can be helpful in determining what’s important.

Head wraps up this thoughtful and provocative essay by concluding that “connecting the dots” requires understanding the information ecosystem as well as the material you are reading. She explains, “In our contentious times, students must learn to critically analyze what topics and voices are amplified and which ones are not. Literacy should not only include analyzing a single assigned reading but a deeper understanding of the technological and social forces shaping the circulation of information in society today.” 

Indeed.

We’re fine without fines

I had an interesting conversation today with a student worker who wanted to know if we charge for replacement ID cards. I said no, and that even if there was a policy in the past, I was not in favor of charging students extra for things, especially since most students have little money. I pointed out that it’s possible a lost ID is at campus safety, so it might be good to ask the student to check there before having a new one made, but otherwise, just make the replacement. The student worker said they hadn’t heard a librarian say anything like that before.

We also don’t charge fines at my library, although if a book is never returned we do bill for replacement. one of our staff has been calling patrons with bills, and she said today that they don’t always believe there will be no charge if they return a long overdue item and some have even said they don’t return it out of fear of a big fine.

When I worked at a public library, “fine free” was becoming popular. In 2017, NY Public Library System president Anthony Marx wrote about some forays into fine amnesty and fine free borrowing for kids and noted that in response to those who worried about what fine free tells people about responsibility, “what is truly the greater moral hazard? Having fines or not having fines? In my view, teaching kids that the library is not an option for the poorest among them is absolutely unacceptable.” Indeed. It has always really frosted me when kids can’t use the library because of fines.

Because it turns out, library fees and fines are regressive. And now the Chicago Public Library has become the largest American library system to go fine free. Library Commissioner Andrea Telli had a similar response to the question of whether eliminating fines erodes accountability: “Libraries don’t necessarily want to be in the morality business, and we don’t want to make the assumption that if a book is late or someone can’t pay for a fine, that they’re delinquent or bad in some way; they may just be in a place in their life where they can’t pay the fine.”

Exactly. It turns out the value of returned items is often higher than that of fines collected, and that fines don’t deter people from returning items late — they just prevent people from feeling the library is for them. Which is not in line with the values of librarianship, or of human decency generally.

If the administrations that provide our funding want fines to be part of our budgets (which is not even necessarily the case — in Chicago, fines never went to the library), we need to help them learn about equity and inclusion, and stand with our colleagues who point out that we’re fine without fines, but excluding our patrons because they can’t pay is not fine.

 

Is textbook adoption immoral?

On Friday a higher ed newsletter headline caught my eye: “Outrage over university’s $999 online textbook.” It wasn’t a typo — the book for a 200 level accounting course at University of Louisiana at Lafayette costs that much.

A couple of weeks ago I attended my community college system’s annual summer symposium. The most compelling presentation I heard was from Robin DeRosa of Plymouth State University. She talked about a subject I’d spent a good bit of time thinking about this summer: OERs, or Open Educational Resources. If you haven’t heard of them, here is UNESCO’s definition: “Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them. OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation.”

Like community colleges around the country, mine is concerned with making education as affordable as possible, and one of our system-wide efforts is to make OERs a priority. I put together a LibGuide for my campus so that faculty can see some choices and learn about how to adopt/adapt/create their own, and I have found some faculty are already doing this. So I was already an OER believer.

Novelist Paul Harding speaks of writing so readers will think “That’s true, and I’ve always known it but I’ve never seen someone put it into words like this before.” That was how I felt, listening to DeRosa. I already knew much of what she said — students often don’t have a plan for textbook costs like they do for tuition, 2/3 of students report either dropping a class because of expensive textbooks or not buying a textbook because of cost, students who can’t afford textbooks do worse in their classes, and textbook costs have risen more than healthcare.

But then she delivered the words I knew but hadn’t heard said that way before: we’re preventing access to knowledge by continuing to require traditional textbooks, and for those of us in “public” education (in NH, the university system where DeRosa works only receives 10% of its funds from state appropriations) this is a moral issue. She wondered aloud, how can educators require our students can’t afford, in good conscience? How can we support a system that is inhibiting the transmission of knowledge?

And then she went on to describe how she worked on an OER early American literature book collaboratively with her students. This work is known as open pedagogy, and really appeals to me as exactly what education should be about: students not as consumers, but agents of their own education, synthesizing what they learn in work that demonstrates not only mastery, but application of their new understanding to a real world problem or question. Our son was fortunate to have a professor, Patricia Siplon, who was ahead of the curve on this at St. Michael’s College and a few years ago, he was in her class on the politics of HIV/AIDS, where the final project was to write a chapter for a textbook she planned to use with future classes. That’s open pedagogy: learning, synthesizing and producing knowledge, collaboratively.

DeRosa’s class’s anthology is now a Rebus project and she predicts that by the time it is finished later this year, it will replace traditional print anthologies sold in college bookstores around the world. Rebus is a place where people come together to work on OERs. I am hopeful that this is the future of textbooks. Librarians’ role in OERs and open pedagogy is simple. We just need to do what we already do best: teach the research skills that help faculty and students seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and then collect, index, and make accessible the knowledge creation happening on our campuses.

 

Recreational reading in college

I am taking on something several people have told me is hopeless at my new library: celebrating, supporting, and encouraging recreational reading at a university. I’ve had numerous people tell me students don’t read anything they don’t have to, and very little of what they do have to. Professors, I’ve been told, like to read in the summer but won’t read a thing for fun during the academic year.

Maybe I’ll find this all out the hard way, but I’m convinced that this isn’t exactly true. Maybe most students aren’t reading War and Peace for fun, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t consume any written words, in print, online, or in audio. Yes, I’m expanding my view of what reading is. I know a lot of voracious readers who also listen to audiobooks and no one questions whether that’s really reading. So aren’t podcasts like audiobooks? I think so. I know several (and am married to one) people who read magazine and newspaper articles, essays and short stories more frequently than books.So then, aren’t blogs like other short form writing? I think so.

Yes, I’m hoping people will read books, too, and I’m working on ways to promote our book collection, too. But even more importantly, I’m hoping to affirm this: whatever you have time for, whether it’s your favorite fashion blog or a true crime podcast or last night’s Red Sox scores, you are reading, and if you don’t have time for a book right now, the library will be here for you later when you do.

Stay tuned. And if you have ideas that have worked at your academic library to promote reading, leave a comment and tell me what worked.