Teaching with Micro-Content

Many eons ago, when I was an undergrad studying history, I became a big fan of micro-history which is, according to the fountain of knowledge that is Wikipedia, a history of something small, like a specific place or event. See The Cheese and the Worm by Carlo Ginzburg or The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton, yes that Robert Darnton, for a good example.

For someone who appreciates micro approaches, the Internet is of course a goldmine. And it seems like the more hyper-specific and kooky and parodic the content on Tumblr and Twitter, the better. Mean Mad Men. Arrested Downton. United Airlanes. TNG Season 8. The Texts from Last Night craze. The list goes on and on (to infinity).  Funny as it is, I think that the digestible style of micro-blogging can lend itself to use in a classroom, regardless of how you feel about things like social media and attention spans.

Hyper-specific and relatively small content is something that students can create during an in-class activity, after all and focusing on content in the micro can give students the chance to be creative, focus on a very specific element in theme in a broader area of study, and practice skills, like writing in digital environments.

Two things I love about micro-content, and associated memes for that matter, are the ways in which they often engage in genre mash-ups and the ways in which they can have fun with anachronisms.  The pairing of humorous dialog, typically from the eminently quotable Mean Girls and Arrested Development, with more serious fare, like the aforementioned Mad Men, Downton Abbey (serious might need to be put in quotation marks here), Sherlock (again with the quotes), Game of Thrones, etc. can be an entrée to exploring genres and writing styles and content presentation to students. How can a few tweaks change a tragedy into a comedy and vice versa?

The other thing I enjoy, the anachronisms, can be found in dialog mash-ups – no one in a period piece being mocked would speak like the cast of Mean Girls, for example. But I also enjoy the myriad attempts to explore and re-imagine older media in modern settings, like Modern Seinfeld. As funny as it is, the premise of Modern Seinfeld really does fascinate me. Just how different would Seinfeld have been with modern technology? Half the episodes of the show wouldn’t have happened. That hilarious lost in the parking garage one? Solved immediately with a cell phone. Various dating crises? Fixed with the stalking power of social media.

I was thinking that it would be a really neat assignment to have students either add, or remove, a piece of technology to, or from, a story as a sort remix exercise and a way to think critically about the role technology plays in our daily lives and interactions. This is something that could be done in a book club group, an after school program, as part of an English class, a library session, etc.

There are a lot of examples already where people modernize an old story or add in technology – see all the Facebook accounts for things like Hamlet or the entire show of Sherlock (which is predicated on Sherlock Holmes having access to modern technology). It’s a rich thought experiment that can be applied to a huge number of works (Holden Caulfield with a cell phone, go). But I think the reverse would be fascinating too – how would Gossip Girl work in the pre-internet and cell phone era? What would Abed on Community do without his extensive DVD collection? Or even in a fictional dystopia (which, as I started trying to compile a list, I realized nearly every cool YA book is – but that’s a discussion for another day), what if the Hunger Games were a live theatrical event and not televised?

Can you think of any other works where you could take technology away or add it to facilitate projects on thinking critically about technology? Add your ideas below!

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Adventures in Library Marketing

Over the summer, I presented at a Career Fair a for high school and middle school students at a local museum. The aim of the fair was to encourage kids to get involved with STEM careers and since I work a lot with technology I got picked to participate. I started by highlighting the fact that libraries don’t seem super STEM-related and when I asked my audience to play a word association game with the term “library” they all yelled out “books” and “shhhh.” Seriously. The “shh” made me laugh, but it also got me thinking a good bit about a question I ponder fairly frequently: who librarians are, what it is we do, and how do we, and can we, effectively communicate that to a broad audience.

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Easy to understand jobs from the greatest movie ever made

For some reason I’ve spent my post-college years working at jobs where I have to explain what it is I do, or at least clarify what I do. When I started library school a friend of mine said it was good that I now had a “Fisher Price job,” something that everyone could understand, like a teacher or a surgeon or a firefighter. In reality, and perhaps unfortunately, I ended up having to explain what it is I do to people who are convinced they already know what librarians do.

It’s this issue of having people think they know what you do, when they really don’t, that presents some challenges and difficulties for people who consider themselves librarians. I had to emphasize the technology and teaching aspects of my job to secure my slot on the Career Fair panel, and that conversation is one I have on at least a weekly basis with people I’m trying to work with. While people might think of books and quiet when they think of libraries, my actual day-to-day job is about 90% teaching and other educator related activities (like curriculum and outreach events) and I can go days on end without seeing a single book. And this is true for a lot of librarians out there.

Libraries, and other cultural institutions like museums, have changed a huge amount in recent years, which I think accounts in large part for public misconceptions regarding what they do. And media portrayals and stereotypes don’t help all that much. Case in point: Ghostbusters, The Mummy, The Music Man, and Buffy.

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While I wouldn’t mind dancing at work or going on Mummy or vampire fighting adventures, none of those things are true.

As much as I roll my eyes and laugh at silly media portrayals (a bit redundant as most media portrayals of most professions qualify as silly to some degree) and stereotypes, libraries actually have a huge problem in marketing which impacts how librarians work with others (as a personal anecdote, a lot of faculty at the college where I work are completely clueless about what I do), how librarians get funding and collaborators for projects, and how to attract people to library services. And it doesn’t help that libraries themselves are so incredibly diverse – the strengths and needs of public libraries often differ wildly from those of academic libraries.

In thinking of some ways, for myself at least, to develop and deliver a strong narrative to potential partners and collaborators and users, I thought of master storyteller Peggy Olson. Really.

In the Burger Chef storyline on Mad Men (stay with me), Peggy and co. realize that they can’t get around the reality that Burger Chef is a fast food restaurant, and can’t escape everything that fast food entails. So, Peggy opts to draw people’s focus to something else instead, something that has positive connotations for people.

If people tend to associate libraries with books and shushing, then perhaps there are ways to tweak that narrative and shift their focus elsewhere. It’s something I learned in a writing class in grad school – start with the familiar and guide people to unfamiliar ideas; use the familiar as a building block and a transition.

There are definitely initiatives out there trying to tell a more up-to-date story about libraries, including Every Library, a nonprofit that works on library ballot issues, and SXSW Libraries Archives and Museums, a library advocacy group. And for my own part, I’m using the start of the school year to tweak my own personal narrative and think of new ways to let people know what I do and how I can work with them.

Teaching All the Literacies

I am a huge fan of Parks and Rec and my favorite episode might very well be Indianapolis, where, among other happenings, Ron Swanson is devastated to learn that his favorite restaurant has closed. In despair, he goes to a diner and orders all the eggs and bacon they have. All. Of. Them.

As someone who teaches students about technology and information literacy (more on that term shortly), I often feel like I’m caught in a vortex of all the things. I want to teach my students about all the highly interconnected and complex things (from how the internet works to copyright basics to evaluating sources to using digital media) in an often short period of time. On the flip side, I’m often asked to teach my students all the things by admins, professors, and various outside parties and all of those things don’t always line up with all of mine.

nearly-as-bad-as-soy-baconIt would be as if I thought I was getting all the bacon and eggs and someone else ordered turkey bacon on my behalf.

Aside from having high and sometime (often) divergent expectations as to what is and should be going on in classroom settings, I think a large part of the issue with all the things syndrome stems from how we define (or don’t) information literacy itself. I’ll be talking about managing expectations in the classroom another day; but, for now, I’d like to look at how information literacy turned into all the things and how you can run the risk of not having all the things delivered when you ask for a lot (here’s hoping Ron got all of his bacon and eggs though).

If you’re in the library world, you probably just “know” what information literacy means. But there are a lot of overlapping definitions floating around, from ALA’s official ones, which is currently two paragraphs and six bullet points long, to The Big 6 Information and Technology Skills for Student Success, which are shortened version of ALA’s outcomes in some respects. But are these definitions clear to people outside of library land? Or are they even agreed upon by everyone in library land?

I first read Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices last year back when I was in library school and a chapter that I found of particular interest was “Defining Digital Literacies” by David Buckingham. (Check here for a download of the book – http://librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/two-free-books-on-digital-literacies/)

Buckingham notes that literacy has become an “overburdened” term and I’ve certainly felt the pain of that in my own work – information literacy, digital literacy, computer literacy, technological literacy. These things are all so mutable and overlapping that it becomes difficult to describe what we, as educators, are doing. I see the connections, and I feel like most people in library land simply “know” how all of this fits together and what we mean when we toss out terms like information literacy (which is itself overburdened on top of the already weighed down idea of literacy more generally). But does this make sense to everyone else? Are official definitions of information literacy, like ALA’s, transferable and clear?

The library world, like a lot of other cultural and educational groups, sometimes have problems with marketing. When it comes to overburdened terms like literacy, and information literacy in particular, I think we need to be able to describe it clearly, and with a minimum of synonymous terms, in order to help people understand the value of what we are doing.

An article I read this summer, Bruce’s 7 Faces of Information Literacy rather underscored the overburdened nature of the term information literacy. Bruce outlines seven possible definitions for what information literacy is all about, ranging from the idea that information literacy is about using technology to information literacy is about using information to benefit society. If there are seven (!) possible views you could take on information literacy, no wonder Buckingham describes literacy as overburdened. It’s like a bad word program about how many possible combinations of things you can come up with (the answer is too many).

Maria reacts with horror to the idea of seven children, er, information literacy definitions

Maria reacts with horror to the idea of seven children, er, information literacy definitions

Bruce came to the rescue though with a follow-up article on informed learning (Supporting informed learners in the 21st century, citation below), which, in a nutshell looks at how we use information to learn. The idea here is to have people be aware of the learning process and the role information plays in learning. Here’s some thoughts from Bruce and co.

Information literacy education programs have tended to focus on standards and skills-based instruction, not always extending attention to helping students engage with content through their information use processes. (Bruce et al 523)

In other words, information using skills are building blocks for informed learning, rather than the end purpose (Bruce et al 525)

I like emphasizing information literacy as building block skills, and I think that this perspective can help some with all the things syndrome. I don’t have the time and resources and support needed for my students to learn all about the nuances of copyright and search skills and creating digital content and online security and all the other things I’d like to teach them. I’d have to enroll all of them in an information school or library school program.

But what I can do is focus on building-block skills that let my students learn how to use information; in other words, to help my students become information literate by developing strong critical thinking skills. Emphasizing information literacy as a foundational skill set, highlighting the action-oriented parts of information literacy (the use of information), and tying all of this together with critical thinking can not only help market library instruction programming, but it can also help to get all the things syndrome under control. Instead of cramming everything I, and everyone else, can think of into information literacy instruction, which can result in people learning nothing at all, I can focus on building up ways of thinking about and using information that are both transferable and foundational.

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Resources:

Bruce, Christine. “Seven Faces of Information Literacy in Higher Education”, http://www.christinebruce.com.au/informed-learning/seven-faces-of-information-literacy-in-higher-education/

Bruce, Christine S., Hughes, Hilary E., & Somerville, Mary M. (2012) Supporting informed learners in the 21st century. Library Trends, 60(3).