Among its many unpleasant impacts, Brexit has done information literacy a wry service: it demonstrated how well-founded was the fear that people either would not, or would not be able to, question the source and veracity of the information they were supplied. The appallingly misleading ‘Facts’ leaflet is surely going to replace martinlutherking.org as librarians’ new favourite instance of misinformation, while the use of brand names and logos – including that of the NHS – to grab both attention and allegiance was, unfortunately, as effective as it was unscrupulous. I’m not even going to mention the biggest lie of all, the one that was literally the size of a double decker bus.
Yet beyond the lies and the deliberately misleading information, there was on many parts a sheer wilful desire not to hear a message that was unwelcome, information that challenged comforting assumptions, implications that didn’t fit with beliefs and world-views. The phrase that I pray will haunt Michael Gove’s career, “People in this country have had enough of experts,” sums up this resistance to criticality. What Brexit demonstrated is that IL is not only a matter of taking a questioning stance towards information in the outside world: we must also point that same critically questioning focus on our own motives and beliefs, on the way in which we construct and interpret reality and the meanings we impose on it.
We need to look with clearer eyes at the stories we tell ourselves and about ourselves. These oral narratives are information just as much as are the the textual and visual artefacts we more usually analyse, or the formal knowledge structures we work in. The labels we use to present our selves to others – “feminist”, “scientist”, “recovering Catholic” – are also value-laden and socially constructed, and as such they too require to be evaluated, interrogated, unpacked: just as do those labels that we hang, unasked, onto others. It is in those bits of shorthand, those conveniently abridged fictions, that bias is born.
There is a euphoric affirmation in subsuming our individual selves into a collective social identity, whatever its political status – football supporter, Labour party activist, supporter of Richard III’s reputation, anti-war marcher, choral singer. But if it weren’t for the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about others would not bear such an overwhelming capacity for harm. Because it’s when those others become Other – when their labels place them in opposition to us – that we allow ourselves to believe that the people on whom we’ve hung them aren’t people any more. They’re Tories. Or Leavers. Or neoliberal scum. Or, for that matter, tree-hugging bleeding-heart Liberals. It’s not the politics that matter, but the act of homogenising.
Hatred starts with homogeneity: the refusal to allow people to be individuals. Once people are diminished to the level of a despised group characteristic, they are no longer people. The stories we tell about Others are so reductive, so obviously simplistic, that an atom of discernment would surely bring them into incredulity, if it weren’t that the horrifying, betraying Otherness of “those people” (whoever they are this time) overrides all evidence, all intelligence, all integrity and all humanity. And by that stage not only have They become responsible for everything bad that’s ever happened to us, but it seems perfectly fine for us to do something about it.
So let’s remember that critical integrity around information is far from being a matter for the academic classroom, or to be directed only at search results and internet content. It is also, and fundamentally, a matter of our emotions, our values, the narratives through which we construct our identity, and the stories we tell to make sense of our reality. Information literacy is not an academic exercise. It is the human capacity to admit that our categories might be wrong, that our opinions aren’t facts, and that it’s possible we may be mistaken. It is having the strength and humility to “lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”.
I made a quiz! And very good fun it was to make, too. The background: it’s intended as a not-very-serious icebreaker for the first part of a course I’m designing on digital literacies – more about that here.
The quiz is built in Qzzr, which is a free site that lets you create Buzzfeed-style diagnostic timewasters. The questions are from University of Exeter’s iTest, which is licensed for reuse as CC BY-NC-SA. I’d love to have replicated Exeter’s radar diagram outcome, so that you would see your result for each category mapped onto a kind of spiderweb – this gives the quizee a great diagnostic snapshot of their digital presence. However, Qzzr only allows you to make single-outcomes quizzes (although you can choose either a graded test or a personality-based outcome) and I was happy enough with Qzzr’s user-friendliness to want to stick with it.
I also used some of the categories from the iTest, but renamed them. In the original there are six categories: Digital Guru, Online Networker, Digital Dodger, Information Junkie, Media Mogul, and Career Builder. As we’ll be doing a lot of work on employability later in the course, I left out the Career Builder questions altogether for this icebreaker, and chose animals to represent the other categories (click to zoom).
On the idea of using animals, a tip of the hat to Matt Borg and Erica Stretton’s very readable 2009 article My students and other animals. At around the same time I was also using animal metaphors in my referencing class, and was delighted to find that Borg & Stretton had run with the same idea! (For the record, I used to illustrate the feel of different referencing software by saying that EndNote worked best for systematic researchers – the worker ants; Zotero was great for squirrels – grab that reference and stash it safely; and to use Mendeley you really needed to be a meerkat – a researcher who enjoys the social aspect of citation-swapping.)
I really like that although not all animals are of equal cuteness (my apologies, fellow spiders), they can nevertheless help you avoid value judgements. For instance, we could have suggested that not being a prolific user of the digital is a bad thing – a form of Luddism rather than an informed choice. (Mind you, if we’d chosen an ostrich with its head in the sand, that would have carried an implicit value judgement whatever the text said …) However, in a course that’s meant to be encouraging awareness and thoughtful choice around digital issues, that really wouldn’t fit. We don’t want to impose values on our students: we want to give them opportunities to think about what they do online and work out their values for themselves.
So on the advice of Twitter (how else?) I chose the owl because of its reputation for wisdom, which fits nicely with a thoughtful scepticism:
Huge thanks to everyone who’s already tried out the quiz and given me feedback – particularly Jo who tried it out numerous times under the guise of different personas! If you’d like to have a go, it’s here. Enjoy!
I’m currently working on a pretty exciting project – designing an online course to help UEA students develop and reflect on their digital literacies in three overlapping contexts: the personal, the academic, and the workplace. Me being me, of course I have talked a lot from the start about the complex nature of digital practices and identities, and the dangers of viewing DLs through a purely functional lens or of reducing it to a simplistic ‘skills’ discourse. From the outset, however, the project board has been clear that the course shouldn’t be a didactic, ‘death by Blackboard’ experience for participants but a genuinely active one: rather than reading about digital literacies (or watching videos about it – digital but still didactic) they should be involved in creating digital artefacts themselves all the way through, and critically (and contextually) appraising those made by others.
Here’s a piece I wrote for UEA’s Learning Highlights magazine about the course, the principles that informed its design, and the outcomes of a workshop on DLs we carried out with academic staff at UEA’s 2015 Learning and Teaching Day. (Disclaimer: I got a bit carried away in writing the piece and had to cut it down to fit the publication word limit! What follows is the original, full-length version, because it’s my blog and I can ;-) [Downloadable version here.])
What does a ‘digital student’ look like, and does the answer vary according to discipline or context?
UEA’s Information Services Directorate is in the process of designing an online course on Digital Literacies for UEA students in partnership with Careers and with the support of Dean of Students’ Office. Despite being a somewhat elusive concept, the need for digital literacy among students, graduates and citizens generally is gaining recognition in higher education across the UK and beyond. Digital literacy has been identified as a UEA graduate attribute, and is a component in the UEA Skills Award. But what exactly is (or are) digital literacy (or literacies)? How are they different from IT skills? And what do they look like in an academic context?
Despite its persistence, the ‘digital natives/digital immigrants’ theory put forward by Prensky in 2001 has been challenged repeatedly in research literature (see e.g. White & Le Cornu, 2011; Bennett et al, 2008). Although the idea that those born after a certain year (usually given as 1980) possess an innate and sophisticated understanding of digital technologies seems anecdotally appealing, this belief is not borne out by the evidence (see, for instance, Margaryan et al., 2011, and the larger-scale study by Kennedy et al., 2008, both of which suggest that university students use a limited range of mainly established digital technologies).
Most importantly, the essentialist nature of the digital native concept masks the fact that young people’s fluency with technology and digital environments may not extend into critical, ethical or reflective judgements about online information or the behaviours and practices relating to using, creating or interacting with it. This is a dimension of digital literacy that lies beyond functional ICT skills, the capacity to download and use an app, or the ease of adaptation to a new device. “Human judgment, or criticality, is involved in most understandings of digital literacies” (Gillen & Barton, 2010, p.5), and it follows that a means of supporting the development of our students’ digital critical capabilities, as distinct from their ICT skills, is needed. This is not only about helping to make our students employable graduates: it’s also a crucial part of supporting their transition into the academic arena and its idiosyncratic uses of information and evidence; and perhaps most crucially, a vital part of what makes an individual an articulate, empowered and judicious member of society.
The ‘Digital Scholar’ course
ISD is piloting a four-unit online course to help UEA students reflect on and expand their existing digital skills and behaviours. The course will invite them to consider and share how they could deploy these skills in their own academic context as well as in preparing for future employability.
The focus throughout is on promoting participants’ awareness of online issues, practices and choices as well as tools and apps. Running on Blackboard and aligned with the UEA Award, through which we hope the course will be validated, the programme will require participants to create artefacts using a variety of tools and to think about the ethical and practical implications of using, making and sharing material. One unit will focus on digital practices in the academic context, and another on employability issues.
Although the course will be chiefly online we plan to offer a scheduled run (which will also be our pilot test) in November 2015, enabling us to give the programme a MOOC-like feel which we hope will encourage participants to develop a peer support network through the activities and discussion forums.
Learning and Teaching Day parallel workshop
At the 2015 Learning and Teaching Day Jane Helgesen and Emma Coonan presented an overview of the proposed Digital Scholar course, and also attempted to gain some insights into academic views and practices of ‘digitalness’. We were especially interested in how digital aspects have permeated academic practices, and in turn how these are reflected to students in course and assessment design and in the discipline-specific behaviours enacted by academics. To this end, our audience kindly participated in a workshop where they shared their perceptions and expectations of ‘digitalness’ in the academic arena.
The responses from workshop participants highlighted a variety of important aspects ranging from awareness of one’s online presence, through the need to filter and evaluate information critically, to understanding the ethical and contextual nature of using it.
- Online behaviour and digital professionalism
“What’s online is there forever”
“Be aware of who can see what you put online – things can go viral very quickly”
There were some interesting responses around appropriate online behaviour, including the need to “Develop a sense of responsibility” and for students to be “accountable for their actions”. One group noted that health professionals in particular “need to be aware of what they put on the internet”, highlighting the impact of the digital footprint in a professional as well as a personal context.
It was noted that “We all make digital things – blogs, Word, tweets, PPT, photos, email”, highlighting that ‘the digital’ is not an arena only inhabited by students. Indeed one response asked for “Academic staff access – can staff do this [to] develop our own skills”. (The answer is yes, you would be welcome!)
- Discernment and evaluation
Many responses emphasised the need for critical discernment, especially in evaluating online information sources:
“Evaluation of sources – peer reviewed?”
“Accessing relevant info – rigour”
“Be aware [of] the source of where you get your information online – challenge (i.e. the Sun says …)”
Although dealing with the digital, these responses are very closely aligned with the academic emphasis on evidence-based, rigorous inquiry, for example the desire for students to “Challenge assumptions” and to “Think independently”. One group also pointed out that “Shortcuts/quick answers = surface learning” – a very relevant point in an era that resounds with internet-friendly soundbites.
- Contextual appropriacy
“Understanding of appropriateness of using material or not and that it varies according to context”
“Able to find and filter relevant information and move from ‘spoon-fed’ approach to analytical approach which is reliable and gain discernment”
The issue of critical discernment in turn overlaps with an understanding of the contextual nature of how information is used in different environments. There is a strong ethical dimension within the workshop responses – copyright, legal responsibilities, citation and plagiarism were all mentioned. Alongside this was a desire for students to gain flexibility in their navigation of online environments – to recognise when they need to build their own skills, “understanding which area they need to develop”; to have “Confidence to experiment once acquired basic skills”, and the “Ability to use technology as a tool, not as an end in itself”.
Finally, one response really sums up what we would like the Digital Scholar programme to empower students to do:
“Make informed choices about what they could do, how they could do it, and the relative merits of this choice in a particular digital context”.
Jane and Emma are keen to gain more insight into how digital behaviours intersect with academic practices, and would be delighted to meet any staff member willing to talk about this intersection from the point of view of their own subject area. Our session at the Learning and Teaching Day elicited some ‘critical friends’ for the programme, but we would be very happy to gain more.
We would be delighted to offer a closer look at the Digital Scholar programme content for anyone interested in exploring it further, either to assess how the course might support their students’ academic development or indeed to enhance their own digital literacies!
Many thanks to all those who attended our parallel session and contributed valuable insights. Please do get in touch to tell us how the programme could support your students or have a look at our webpages: https://portal.uea.ac.uk/library/uea-digital-literacies.
Bennett, S., Maton, K. & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775–786. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x.
Gillen, J., & Barton, D. (2010). Digital literacies: a research briefing by the Technology Enhanced Learning phase of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. London. http://www.tlrp.org/docs/DigitalLiteracies.pdf
Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Dalgarno, B. & Waycott, J. (2010). Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 332–343. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00371.x
Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Vojt, G. (2011). Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies. Computers and Education, 56(2), 429–440. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2010.09.004.
Prenksy, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816
White, D. S., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and residents: a new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9). http://firstmonday.org/article/view/3171/3049
I’m a little sleep-deprived at the moment as this week I paid a brief visit to Aberdeen for the iDocQ student conference – up on Sunday night on the sleeper train, left for home again at 3pm Monday afternoon, finally got home at half past midnight on Tuesday … But I had a brilliant time at the conference, especially listening to the ‘One Minute Madness’ presentations where students talked about their doctoral research, and I really enjoyed giving this presentation on publishing.
The first part of this talk is inherited from previous JIL editor (and ANCIL co-conspirator) Jane Secker. It’s designed to be a demystifying glimpse inside the ‘black box’ of publishing – because nobody really knows what happens when you submit an article to a journal! This gives a step-by-step overview of how we work with articles submitted to the Journal of Information Literacy, from the peer review process through the copyediting stage right through to final publication.
The second section invited the listeners to think about their own research and what could be published from it. As this conference was specifically for PhD students, I talked about how theses and articles differ in scope and characteristics, and why it might not work to simply try to condense your thesis. We finished up with some of my favourite tips for managing the mess and uncertainty of the writing process. These include a gem from Jane – think about writing as like eating an elephant: break it down into bite-sized chunks!
Image from Pixabay (CC0)
Yesterday I confronted a childhood terror: I took part in a debate and – to my great relief and even greater surprise – emerged unscathed. I’ve always been anxious about confrontational situations and fearful of verbal dexterity, so when I was invited to take part in a debate organised by CILIP it took me a whole week to get up enough courage to agree.
Far from being some kind of Perry Mason-style ripping-the-witness-to-bleeding-shreds affair, however, it was actually great fun and very friendly! For a start, the topic was ‘This house believes that the role of the librarian should be that of teacher‘, and I was speaking for the motion. Since I spend my time running round saying basically exactly this to everyone I meet professionally (to what is probably a monotonous degree), coming up with a passionate argument in favour of the motion wasn’t going to be a problem : ) I also knew that my partner in advocacy, Geoff Walton, would be able to provide convincing evidence to back up my airy-fairy theoretical wibbling.
— Eleanor Johnston (@elstopbanana) February 10, 2015
Our co-debators, speaking against the motion, were Darren Smart and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, who were both a joy to listen to: thoughtful, enlightened, and insightful. Alka’s background is in school teaching and her research is in the philosophy of education, so her perceptions of how libraries and information collections fit the educational and academic spheres were very interesting. Darren’s passionate belief in public libraries, and his understanding of issues facing them, was totally convincing – as well as deeply poignant given that we were in the stunning, and threatened, Library of Birmingham.
Here’s my bit of talking – partly for the record, and partly because I think it’s interesting to read something that’s been designed to be spoken. I’m accustomed to building my arguments in the measured, circuitous, densely-evidenced manner of academic writing, and it was quite a challenge to work more polemically: I had to really cut down my sentence and clause length and relentlessly rip out all the hedging that’s so dear to the academic mind. I also ended up doing very odd things to the punctuation so that it would give me signals for spoken emphasis (more pregnant pauses than a Pinter play). So when I read this it feels hideously full of unsupported assertions and lousy grammar, although declaiming it to an audience felt fine! Just for fun, too, I’ve left in all my last-minute annotations and the timings from my practice runs.
Another short piece written for the UKSG Newsletter back in September. Thanks to editor Andrew Barker for letting me reproduce it here (and in a downloadable form over here), and for being brave enough to indulge my long-cherished desire to write about ‘the F-word’ : )
Autumn! Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, of Welcome Week and freshers’ flu, of hoarseness and voice loss from back-to-back induction sessions. The opportunity to welcome a new group of learners into the academic community and let them loose on knowledge ought to be joyful and exciting – but somehow the joy gets lost in the pressure to condense Everything You Need to Know About The Library into a single front-loaded session, usually in a lecture theatre, and sometimes into a five-minute ‘introductory’ slot that may be the only timetabled contact you have with a new cohort of students.
Every new academic year I struggle with the ever-present temptation to just focus on the basics, which in a five-minute ‘library slot’ means how to find your stuff. My struggles centre around the verb: as a passionate proponent of what Cottrell and Cohen call “real deal information literacy” (2012), I have issues with the fact that ‘find’ often comes across as the primary verb for what you do with information in an academic context.
It’s fairly frequently noted that in our disintermediated information world finding things is easy: it’s exercising critical evaluation of such a volume of material from such a range of sources that’s hard. In this regard it’s interesting that while classic models of information literacy such as SCONUL, ANZIIL and the original ACRL standards all include the concept of ‘find’ (sometimes as ‘access’ or ‘gather’) as a key action, it’s a verb that scarcely appears in the eight pages of the ANCIL curriculum. Instead, ANCIL uses verbs like ‘distinguish’, ‘critique’, ‘identify’, and ‘reflect’ to model the learner’s relationship with information – all of which involve doing something to, or with, the information found.
In the library world, where much of our focus is naturally on systems for organising and locating information, we can sometimes be fooled into thinking that the learner’s interaction with information is a kind of quest narrative that centres on seeking and culminates when the desired material is found. This is a seductive construction of academic information practice, placing the library and its search tools at the heart of scholarly creativity and incidentally ensuring that our role as gatekeeper retains its hieratic status. Again, this perception of information enshrines ‘find’ as the primary information activity: as Spiranec & Zorica have commented, “within IL standards information is usually treated as an object to be located and used by the individual” (2012).
But if the only message we have the chance to communicate to our students is that their relationship with information centres on finding information objects, we’re doing them a major disservice. At some point we need to make clear to learners in higher education that what really matters is what you do with the information once you’ve found it. Too much focus on ‘find’ implicitly communicates to students that their encounter with information is simply a matter of tracking down published artefacts, when in fact that encounter is about “Making meaning within unfamiliar discourse” (Wingate, 2006).
What it comes down to is that in library sessions we have a choice in how we present the concept of information. We can describe a book or a journal article as an artefact, a published and describable entity: you look for it, you find it, you’re done. Or we can describe information in terms of its contribution to knowledge, as a point of view expressed and negotiated within the academic discourse: you find it, you read it, you start answering back to it. The academic community’s relationship with information is not to absorb without question – it’s entirely the opposite. The whole purpose of HE is to develop in students a critical mindset: the weighing, sifting, questioning approach that isn’t cowed by expertise or silenced by authority.
Yet given the active, constructive, negotiated nature of this relationship with information, isn’t it interesting that our ‘induction’ weeks in general chiefly consist of telling our students things? Paradoxically, this first week of student life in higher education has very little to do with being introduced to the values and practices of the academic community, with a view to enabling each individual to negotiate and express an identity within that community. In fact, ‘induction’ is possibly the worst label there could be for an introductory experience that chiefly consists of directional wayfinding and basic know-how – finding the lecture theatre, managing to remember your username and password, learning where to get cheap pizza. This preliminary orientation phase isn’t really designed to foreground advanced intellectual content or knowledge construction: it’s about finding and finding out. Thus it deals chiefly with declarative rather than procedural knowledge – knowing what, rather than knowing how (Ambrose et al., 2010, 18).
Now it’s clearer why focusing on ‘find’ is such an overwhelming temptation in Welcome Week: it makes a good fit with the rest of what’s happening. ‘Find’ sits very well within a basic orientation-and-wayfinding phase; after all, there’s not much you can evaluate, construct or negotiate about either where the lecture theatre is or what you do to look up a book on your reading list. Finding information, in fact, bears the same surface and preliminary relationship to the information encounter that finding the lecture theatre does to attending (and attending to) a lecture. Therefore at some point we need to find a way to clearly signal to students that a shift from ‘find’ to ‘use’ will be necessary in order to engage with academic practices and succeed in their studies.
To do this we need to move away from telling, because although all these things that we tell our students are useful and good to know, in the act of telling itself we construct and subtly impose a transmissive model of learning in which we possess expertise that students must acquire. At some point we ourselves need to model a different relationship both with information and with our learners, to recognise that each is taking part in a fluid and negotiated process of knowledge construction. In short, we need to let them know the information experience doesn’t end with ‘find’: that find is where it starts.
As librarians, I believe we can still do more to reframe our thinking away from our search products and from the perception of information as artefact, and more towards alignment with the academic practices of the community we work with and in. Rather than merely demonstrating resources, we need to be able to articulate how use of those resources might support the academic journey as an ongoing process of making sense, constructing meaning, creating conceptual relationships and even negotiating one’s own identity within a community of practice.
The advent of discovery systems has given us a game-changing opportunity to model this realignment in how we talk to students about information. When you can introduce your library’s search tool in under five minutes you have the chance to reclaim interface demonstration time and use it to talk instead about the conventions and values of academic information communication (see e.g. Coonan, 2014). So I’m hoping that even if I spend only one of those five minutes flagging up the shift from finding to using, from transmitting to constructing, from telling to questioning, that I’ll still have managed to help students perceive a different relationship with information and with what it means to ‘be academic.’
Only once the introductions are over does the real practice start; and only when the practice starts does the induction to the community begin. And it’s at this point in the student’s journey that ‘real deal’ information literacy – the making of meaning – replaces ‘find’; and at this point, if we have the chance, that we can stop simply telling our students things and invite them to start constructing meaning for themselves.
ACRL (2000) Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/standards/standards.pdf. (This document is now superseded by a threshold concepts approach: see http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Framework-for-IL-for-HE-Draft-2.pdf)
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, Calif.: Wiley.
Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework [ANZIIL], 2nd ed. (2004). http://archive.caul.edu.au/info-literacy/InfoLiteracyFramework.pdf
Coonan, E., ed. (2014) Teaching, not telling: proceedings of the 2nd Information Literacy and Summon Day. http://www.proquest.com/blog/2014/Teaching-not-Telling.html
Cottrell, Janet & Cohen, Sarah Faye (2012) Real deal information literacy: designing and implementing meaningful instruction and assessment. http://www.slideshare.net/infolit_group/cottrell-cohen
SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: core model for Higher Education (2011) http://www.sconul.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/coremodel.pdf
Secker, J., & Coonan, E. (2011) A new curriculum for information literacy [ANCIL]. http://newcurriculum.wordpress.com/using-ancil/
Špiranec, S. & Banek Zorica, M. (2012) ‘Changing anatomies of information literacy at the postgraduate level: refinements of models and shifts in assessment’. Nordic Journal of Information Literacy in Higher Education 4
Wenger-Trayner, E. (n.d.) ‘Communities of practice: a brief introduction’. http://wenger-trayner.com/theory/
Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with “study skills.” Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469. http://embeddingskills.hud.ac.uk/sites/embeddingskills.hud.ac.uk/files/Wingate.pdf
[All URLs accessed 30 September 2014]
I’m amazed – and frankly dead chuffed – at having made it through #AcWriMo. Yes, I set myself a low target (10-12 train rides; no pomodori for me!) and deliberately kept my aims fuzzy (to quote from my plan: “let’s call it ‘expanding each chapter from skeleton to emaciated flesh'”). I have just about enough wisdom, or experience, by now to ensure I do both those things, otherwise I set myself up for full-blown I AM FAIL mode from the start. But I’m still astonished that I managed 11 train rides and did get some flesh on those zombie bones – even though, er, I decided to completely rejig the structure and rewrite the whole aim of the book along the way *kicks table leg sheepishly*
And I’m even more astonished that with November over, I want to keep going. What the what … ? There I sat on the train yesterday looking back at my completed record for the month, relaxing in the glow of having finished something, and then all of a sudden I was writing a plan for December…
… and then I was sketching a literature map …
… and somehow now it’s not that I have to write because I’ve signed up publicly for #AcWriMo, it’s that I have to write because I’m impelled to, because that’s how I make sense of all the things still going round in my head.
I had no idea that the power of Don Diego could be such a force!
— Julieta (@js_delossantos) November 12, 2014
Thank you again to Julieta and Don Diego, @charlottefrost, and the whole #AcWriMo community. If you want to join the December writing bunch, you can sign up on the spreadsheet and tweet your progress using the hashtag #AcWri.
I’ve got to the stage of #AcWriMo immersion where my ideas are in constant motion: spinning around, forming new configurations and endlessly joining up to make new patterns. It’s like being a kaleidoscope. Colette has a great phrase for this: “mes idées sont en salade dans ma tête” (Claudine a l’école). It’s all very exhilarating as well as fairly exhausting, and it reminds me of J.M. Barrie’s description of a child’s mind, “which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time”:
There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still. (Peter and Wendy)
Underlying all the angst produced merely by writing (as if that weren’t enough) is a kind of infinite recursion caused by the fact that I’m trying to enact the processes that usually I just teach. My area of professional expertise is academic information practices – literature searching, critically selecting, reading, notemaking, bouncing off other researchers’ ideas like a springboard … It’s one thing to explore with students various techniques for approaching and enacting these practices, to discuss how encountering new ideas can stretch and unsettle you or challenge your existing mental model. It’s A. Whole. Other. Thing to go through it (again) yourself *grimace* *twitch*
And you don’t want to think too much about the conceptual slippage caused by trying to write about what you do, and simultaneously trying to do what you write about:
Then his mind’s eye looked up and caught his own image and realized where he was and what he was seeing and — I don’t know what really happened — but now the slippage that Phædrus had felt earlier, the internal parting of his mind, suddenly gathered momentum, as do the rocks at the top of a mountain. Before he could stop it, the sudden accumulated mass of awareness began to grow and grow into in avalanche of thought and awareness out of control; with each additional growth of the downward tearing mass loosening hundreds of times its volume, and then that mass uprooting hundreds of times its volume more, and then hundreds of times that; on and on, wider and broader, until there was nothing left to stand. (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
In all this oscillation between pattern and chaos, however, it’s comforting to find that there’s a tiny part of my kaleidoscope mind that’s constant, that even feels fiercely triumphant. I’ve been arguing for some while now that information literacy – that is, the ‘good’ or appropriate use of information – shouldn’t be seen as a set of standards but in terms of an event: an encounter between a unique individual and a body of knowledge. What I’m experiencing in trying to write this book is precisely that encounter. I’m learning all over again that learning isn’t additive – you don’t just bolt on a new bit of knowledge as an extension to the structure you’ve been building since day one (and when was that anyway? First day of university? of your schooldays? Your first word? Birth?). Learning is transformative, dynamic, constantly in flux. There’s a rippleback effect every time you encounter new knowledge: your whole vision of the field undergoes a tiny shift, and the elements settle into a new pattern.
So amid all the upheaval of my mental furniture there’s a sense that I’m on the right track, that this endless movement and reordering of ideas is actually, paradoxically, a persistent element in knowledge creation.
Who knows, someday there might even be a book about it …
#AcWriMo is genius. Started by the wonderful PhD2Published as an academic variant of #NaNoWriMo, it’s a self-forming, mutually nurturing community of people desperate to write something and not quite getting pen to paper on their own. The key is accountability: you declare your writing goals for the month of November by signing up to a spreadsheet, tweet your progress (or lack thereof), and maybe occasionally blog about how you’re doing.
Others in the same writing boat share tips on getting started and keeping going (my favourite this morning: “Press the bridge of your nose to stay awake” [?!]), pass on useful websites and apps, and tweet encouragement and sympathy as needed. Like this:
— Ellen Spaeth (@ellenspaeth) November 3, 2014
In between the moments of anguish caused by trying to actually write instead of talking to students about how to write, one of the aspects of #AcWriMo that fascinates me is how people declare their goals. Looking at the spreadsheet, there’s a huge amount of Pomodoro going on, along with other variations of time-based measurement. Another popular option is setting a word count. I’ve suggested both of these approaches to students as part of my former class on Academic Reading and Writing, and used to love when students, initially sceptical, would come back with the light of the true convert in their eyes to tell me that one of these strategies worked, just really worked, and was now part of their writing habit. It’s such joy when you witness something crystallising for students like that: you can see their confidence in their ability to actually write this damn thesis take a huge bound forward, along with their word count. Because although both these strategies may sound like productivity gimmicks, what they do – as ThesisWhisperer points out – is give you room to explore who and how you are as a writer without being stifled by the anxiety of perfectionism.
However, obstinate “do it my way” mule that I am, I seem to have decided on a different way to set and measure my writing goals, one that’s neither time- nor length-based. It’s … erm … spatial. Because I have a long train journey every morning, I figured that would be the best time to work: an hour and a half of time already set aside for me by the grace of Greater Anglia, and a surprisingly comfortable workspace (because I start my journey at the terminal station for that route, I’m one of those annoying people who’s already occupying a table seat when you get on further down the line). But when I record what I’ve done, I don’t write the length of time spent. I write the station intervals. Like this:
03 Nov CBG-THF [Cambridge to Thetford]. Slow and sticky.
05 Nov ELY-WMD [Ely to Wymondham – almost the entire journey!]. 4 pages. Not great but something there.
06 Nov ATL-NRW [Attleborough to Norwich]. 2 pp. Unpicking ‘right answers’ [a key theme in my book].
07 Nov ELY-HRD [Ely to Harling Road]. INTRODUCTION!
I didn’t intend to measure my writing in railway stations; it just came out that way. A bit like how I went from ‘slow and sticky’ to ‘INTRODUCTION’ inside the first #AcWriMo week. I didn’t plan it, any of it: it just came out …
And there again is the crystallisation moment: the point when you look back at the pattern formed by your writing record and think: Hello, Muse.
 Thank you to everyone involved in #AcWriMo – and keep writing!
 I’ve used a bit of poetic licence in the title of this post. While I could in theory ‘write from Attleborough to Wymondham’ it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment, since that leg of the journey only takes about seven minutes : ) But it’s the closest I can get to ‘from A to Z’!
Last week I tweeted about my joy at being back in reading mode and, as a consequence, having an excuse to indulge in stationery.
I was entertained that my tweet got favourited, suggesting that I’m not alone in seeing study and stationery as mutually fulfilling partners. I also got a request for a peek at my research diary, which I’m very happy to comply with because it reminded me how much I love seeing how other people lay out their “vehicle for ordered creativity” (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973). What I mean by ‘research diary’ is not the neatly-written lab report designed to be shared and perhaps assessed, but the scruffy, tatty notebook we carry around and scribble in privately. In my kind of research diary we don’t write for anyone else’s eyes. It’s a force of nature, a place where our thoughts rampage unfiltered by academic proprieties. And it’s really not very tidy – because as I may have said a few times before, the process of knowledge creation is by its nature a messy affair.
Above is my newly-started research diary along with the odds and sods that make up my study kit – pens and highlighters of various colours, post-its of various sizes, and a nifty little book of tear-out pages that acts as my mobile To Do list. I find that there’s always a degree of self-consciousness about plunging into a new notebook, a desire to make the inside as neat and pretty as the outside. But only two pages in to this new one, the mess and the overflow have already started! That torn scrap with the orange post-it stuck on it is a bit of thinking from another time and place that needs to sit alongside what I’m doing now. It will float around in this perilous, unanchored state for who knows how long, until I find the right place in the new diary to glue or staple it in (which of course, along with all the other similar thought scraps, will end up contorting and bending the outside so it does, in effect, match the inside – just not in any way that could be called ‘neat’).
Here’s my previous notebook. It’s less of a ‘pure’ research diary and even more of a mongrel planning-thinking-writing tool, as alongside research notes it contains lesson planning for work, bits of writing towards articles and a book, and random thoughts inspired by the Fen landscapes. In fact it’s such a patchwork of various facets of my life that I went back through it and post-it’d it so I could find my way around all the bits that are still ‘live’.
Post-its are also my go-to notemaking strategy when I’m in a flailing-round-trying-to-orientate-myself phase such as starting a research project, or entering a new field (as I am at the moment). Orientating yourself in a new field often demands that you read classic monographs and textbooks rather than articles and papers, which means that you have no hope of buying, printing or copying everything you need – which in turn means you can’t interact with or answer back to the text by annotating it directly. For me this is a real problem. (Please don’t be shocked: of course I write in my books. Books are knowledge tools, not decorative artefacts. As I A Richards said in 1924, “A book is a machine to think with”.)
When you can’t write in books because they’re not yours, but you’re not yet at the stage where you can mash up what a writer is saying with other stuff you’ve read and with your own thoughts – which is what the research diary is for – I find the post-it strategy is perfect. Although it’s not in the same league of bibliographic criminality as marginal annotations, I know some libraries aren’t crazy about people putting (even slightly) sticky things (even temporarily) in their books. However, I’m resigned by now to the fact that I’m a bad librarian … and active reading is fundamentally necessary in order to locate yourself in your field, to find a standpoint, and to join the dialogue. Being able to ‘talk back’ to the literature is the foundation stone of a contribution to knowledge.
Here’s another form of answering back (and another page from my old diary): the ‘double entry notemaking’ idea, where every time you copy or paraphrase something from the original, you also write your reason for grabbing that quote or idea, your response to it, or both. I love the emphasis this places on the reader’s context and reasons for reading. In practical terms it’s a great way of futureproofing the work that goes into reading and notemaking, but it goes further than that: as you capture your response to the text you start developing your own thoughts and making connections between concepts. And when there’s this much stuff chasing chaotically around in your mind, keeping hold of those connections needs all the help it can get!
Lest anyone think I might be pushing the connection between studying and stationery a bit far, it’s worth bearing in mind that according to constructivist thinking, learning takes place through individual sensemaking: through perceiving and building patterns, relationships and hierarchies for yourself rather than assimilating someone else’s conceptual model. John Holt says this beautifully and resonantly:
I doubt very much if it is possible to teach anyone to understand anything, that is to say, to see how various parts of it relate to all the other parts, to have a model of the structure in one’s mind. We can give other people names, and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must build their own. (1982, 145).
(This is one of the quotations on the double-entry notemaking page, above. My response is pretty concise: it says “YES!!” in large letters : ) ) If we accept the constructivist approach to learning, it follows naturally that how we organise our knowledge influences both how we learn and how we apply what we know (Ambrose et al., 2010). I think this is one of the most important principles of both learning and research, and yet we rarely talk about it explicitly or devote much time to reflecting on the practices we use to organise and make sense of knowledge, and how they interact with the practices of our academic discipline as well as our own desire or need to learn. When I do get to talk about how we organise knowledge, usually in my information skills classes, I always come away feeling inspired. Our tools for recording, ordering and juxtaposing knowledge scraps are hugely various and reflect our individual, unique approaches to learning. They can be analogue or digital, can range from the hi-tech to the humble. But perhaps what I find most endearing is that even the unassuming post-it can play a part in making connections and, ultimately, making a contribution to the dialogue.
Researchers (and anyone else) feeling the #stationerylove, please do look at these other lovely posts on creative uses of notebooks and stationery: