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PGCHE Week 3: Teaching large groups

This week on my PGCHE, we covered teaching large groups. This is one of the sessions I was most looking forward to, as pretty much all of my library teaching is to large groups, mostly in lecture theatres. In fact the usual definition of “large groups” for teaching is anything over 30, so given that most of my library lectures are to anything from 100-250 students at a time, that does mean a significant shift in teaching strategy!

I’ll be honest: I do not like lectures. I didn’t enjoy them as a student, and I don’t enjoy delivering them as a teacher. Particularly as a teacher-librarian, I find having to come in to do one guest lecture, in which I am expected to impart high-level skills in information literacy and critical thinking, a nearly impossible task. So I was hoping to get some strategies from this class that could help me cope with this.

We started off by discussing what the advantages and disadvantages of lectures were, from the point of view of the teacher, student, and the university. I found this a useful place to start as I’m very used to considering the negatives of the lecture format, so it was good to have a nudge to think about what the actual benefits would be! After all, lectures wouldn’t have endured as the dominant form of teaching in HE for so long if there were literally no benefits…

The main benefit, of course, is from the University’s point of view: they are cheaper. Economies of scale are at work: it is cheaper and easier to have a teacher deliver one lecture to 200 students, than to have them teach ten classes of 20 students. For that reason alone, lectures will never go away, so we do need to find ways to do them well.

Other advantages for teachers included less prep work (planning one lecture rather than lots of classes), and consistency of delivery (you can assume all students have been given the same information, allowing you to build on this). Advantages for learners included that same consistency, plus an opportunity for less confident students to “hide” – not everyone likes being made to participate in an active class! Although of course this is as much a disadvantage as an advantage.

I feel like I hardly need to list the disadvantages, but for the sake of completeness: lack of opportunity for engagement and active learning, lack of application of knowledge to develop higher order skills, challenging and disruptive behaviour from bored students. Plus of course, potentially lower pass rates and NSS scores from underachieving and disengaged students – leading to all kinds of negative impacts on the university as a whole!

Essentially, the traditional lecture is a passive way of learning. My problem with this is neatly illustrated by this well-known quote (usually mis-attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but apparently derived from the writings of the Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi):

“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand” – from Zaneology on Flickr, shared under CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/uSTGXC

Our instructor, Wayne, was keen to stress throughout that he is not anti-lecture per se. He is, rather, anti-didactic lectures, where the teacher simply stands at the front and talks at the students, flinging knowledge towards them which it is their responsibility to catch. So, we spent the rest of the session discussing ways to incorporate active learning into large group lectures.

A lot of the techniques we discussed were things I already do in my own practice: which was reassuring in some ways, but also a little frustrating. I think that, although I know there isn’t a simple answer to this, deep down I’m still hoping there’s just a trick I haven’t learned yet that will unlock it all for me!

Some of the techniques were things that wouldn’t work for me at all, as they were about developing a relationship with the group over time. For example, the first time Wayne sees a new group, he spends the first 15-20 minutes of the lecture getting them to come up with a list of their rights as learners, and then getting them to come up with a corresponding responsibility. He then makes a laminated copy of this list, and refers to it throughout the year wherever there is disruptive or disrespectful behaviour from the group.

I love that idea, but I only see each group once a year (and sometimes not even that!) so I don’t have that opportunity. I talked to Wayne about this, and asked if he thought there was a way to do this in a one-off session. He suggested I might be able to do a really short version of this, to set expectations at the start. For example, when he does guest lectures, he states at the start what his expectations are of the group, and what he will deliver in return. I would like to try doing this, so I’m going to have a look for examples of the kinds of wording I could use to set learner rights and responsibilities in a one-off session.

My conversation with Wayne was probably one of the most useful things from this session actually, if only for acknowledging that I’ve got a really hard job to do and there are no easy answers to it! He actually said straight off that doing only one-off lectures, where you’re “parachuted in” to an established cohort, is the hardest way to lecture. He also said that in his experience, Engineers and Computer Scientists (the School I support…) are the hardest groups to engage in this way, which was again both reassuring and disheartening! Reassuring because at least it’s an acknowledgement that it isn’t my fault, it is just that difficult… Disheartening because it suggests that however hard I work, it’s not going to get much easier!

A couple of bits of advice he gave me were to make use of the course lecturers when it came to managing behaviour in my lectures. He said that if he’d invited in a guest speaker to a lecture and the class weren’t engaging with it, he would be addressing that with them, so I should be able to expect that of any class I am going in to. I pointed out that the lecturers almost never stay in the classes I’m teaching, so he said that I really should be insisting that they do, or asking why not.

I guess I’ve never really had the confidence to do that before, but it does make a massive difference to my lectures when their usual lecturer is in the room. When it’s just me alone, the students will act out in ways I’m certain they wouldn’t if their usual lecturer was there. So, I guess I’m going to have to bite the bullet and start asking a bit more of the lecturers I work with!

Other than the general validation of knowing that others agree that the one-off lecture format is bloody difficult, I also picked up some useful tips and techniques from this class that I am going to try in my lectures. One was about structuring a lecture: I’ve always tried to break up my lectures, either with activities or videos, so I’m not just talking solidly for 50 minutes, but I hadn’t really thought about how to structure the lecture around that. I just try to introduce an activity whenever there’s a natural break in the topics I am talking about.

Wayne’s suggestion was to have an activity, a pause, or a change in teaching style (he calls these “reset buttons”) at set points throughout the lecture. In a standard 50 minute lecture, he suggests a reset button after 20 minutes, then after another 15 minutes, then at the end as a sum-up. I’ve had a look back at some of my previous lesson plans with this in mind, and that seems to be the rough format I’ve been instinctively following most of the time, but I will try to formalise this more!

We talked about various strategies for “reset buttons” that we could try out, some of which I’d used before, and some which were new to me. One I particularly liked, that I can definitely think of a few upcoming classes it would help with, is a mini reporting back activity. To get students to engage with the notes they’ve been taking, 20 minutes into the lecture, ask them to turn their notes over and spend two minutes noting down two key points from what you’ve told them so far. Then pick 3-6 people (depending on how much time you have) to report back. It’s a very quick activity to do, but effective in making sure people are paying attention, and checking what they’ve understood so far.

All in all, this was a valuable session for me. Although I think it’s raised more questions than answers, it has given me a few ideas of strategies I could try, as well as a bit of reassurance that it isn’t just me being rubbish – it actually is that hard!

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PGCHE Week 2: Learning Theories

The second session in my PGCHE (see my first post on this for context) took place this Friday, and covered an introduction to learning theories. I knew a little about some learning theories going in (e.g. behaviourism, social constructivism and cognitive constructivism), but it was useful to have a refresher on this and discuss some of their practical applications.

We did a group exercise that gave us some practice in applying learning theories. Each person was given a card of a different colour. Red cards had a learning problem on them (e.g. you are dealing with low-level disruption in your classes), yellow had a group of learners (e.g. 18-20 year old Business students), green cards had a particular learning theory, and blue cards had an intervention (e.g. a pop quiz, or other learning activity).

People with the red “problem” cards had to gather a team of “friends” around them, consisting of one yellow card, one green, and at least one blue. As a group, the “friends” then had to come up with a solution for the problem, using the learning theory on the green card, suitable for the learners on the yellow card, and using as many blue intervention cards as they deemed appropriate.  We then had to pitch our solution to the rest of the group, and vote on who came up with the most cohesive and effective pitch.

It was a really fun activity, and worked well for getting us all to consider what learning theories might be suitable for solving particular problems, and how this would actually inform practice. The cards we used are available online if anyone wants to look – we were promised the link would be emailed around to us, so I’ll add a link in here when I get them!

One of the learning theories we touched on, although didn’t go into much detail with, was humanism. This is the approach that looks at the learner in a holistic way, and takes into account the experiences and knowledge they bring with them, and any barriers to their learning. I hadn’t heard of this theory by that name before, but it immediately made me think about critical information literacy. In particular, it brought to mind Char Booth’s keynote at LILAC in 2016.

Char talked about information privilege, the cost of educational materials such as textbooks, and the effect this has on who is able to access education. At one point in her keynote, which has always stuck with me, she talked about asking her students what they would be able to afford if they didn’t have to pay for their course textbooks.

Some of the answers were funny (e.g. “a cat that doesn’t hate me”), some were practical (e.g. rent, parking), and some were just heartbreaking (one surprisingly common answer was “new teeth”. NEW TEETH!!). The screenshot below is a word cloud showing their answers, from Char’s presentation which is available on Slideshare:

Word cloud showing responses such as

Answers to the question “What would you be able to afford if you didn’t have to buy textbooks?”, from “Why Reflect? The Holistic Practice of Stepping Back“, keynote by Char Booth at LILAC 2017, Dublin

I think there is a clear link to the humanist approach to learning. If your students are distracted by dental pain because they can’t afford new teeth, how much attention are they able to pay in class? If they are having to work several part-time jobs to make ends meet, and/or have caring responsibilities, will they have time to do the critical appraisal of information that we insist is essential?

At the close of the session, we did five minutes of “generative writing”. This is an activity that will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a go at NaNoWriMo: to avoid the trap of trying to endlessly polish the same sentence rather than getting on with your writing, you set a timer and just write non-stop without going back to edit. You then go back and tidy it up later, but by then you’ve done the hard work of just getting your thoughts down, even if in a messy way!

Here’s what I wrote, unedited:

I think my teaching is really constrained by the environment in which I teach. My inclination is to take a humanist and socially constructivist approach, but having to teach only large lecture groups, and seeing them only once a year, forces me into a behaviourist approach. I don’t find this a natural fit, so this could be the route of a lot of my current discomfort with teaching.

Where I have seen smaller groups, e.g. the foundation engineers or Alex’s computing groups, I have taken a more socially constructivist approach. I encourage and facilitate collaborative learning, enabling learners to reach their own conclusions rather than prescribing a “right” way to be information literate. I hadn’t come across the humanist theory before, but it instinctively feels right to me. How can you possibly teach information literacy without considering the whole person?

I would like to find out more about humanism, and see if anything has been written about it from an IL perspective. It seems to be a natural fit with critical IL to me, so I’d be surprised if there was no literature on it from this perspective.

Reading list

My plan is to finish each of these weekly blog posts with a round-up of what I am currently reading, or planning to read to follow up the ideas from each work.

I have started using Mendeley to save my reading: partly because it comes highly recommended by a colleague, self-described “Mendeley fangirl” Alison McNab! I also wanted to learn a new referencing tool as another way to better support my students: I know my way reasonably well around EndNote and RefWorks, which are the two subscription products we use at Huddersfield, but I do occasionally get questions about Mendeley which I’ve never felt confident enough to answer. So far I really like Mendeley: it’s more intuitive than EndNote, and seems more consistent than RefWorks!

Currently reading

Alder, R. (2011). 6 Scaffolding Strategies to Use With Your Students | Edutopia. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/scaffolding-lessons-six-strategies-rebecca-alber

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S., & Marshall, S. (2015). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education: enhancing academic practice (4th ed.). Oxford: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315763088

Smith, M. K. (2016). What is teaching? Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/

Smith, M. K. (2016). Key teaching activities. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/key-teaching-activities/

Planning to read

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. London; Routledge.

Rogers, C. R., Kirschenbaum, H., & Henderson, V. L. (1990). The Carl Rogers reader. London: Constable.

Smith, M. K. (2004). Carl Rogers, core conditions and education. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from http://infed.org/mobi/carl-rogers-core-conditions-and-education/

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PGCHE: First impressions

I have just started a new qualification: the Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) at the University of Huddersfield. I’m very fortunate that my employers are paying for this, so I want to make sure I get the most out of it!

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I wanted to do this course as teaching is a significant part of my role as a librarian, and its one I want to improve. I don’t feel like teaching comes naturally to me. I have completed some training in this area already (notably the week-long intensive Level 3 City & Guilds certificate in Teaching & Learning at Northern College I completed in 2016), but most of the teaching I do at Huddersfield is based on things I’ve cobbled together from observing my colleagues, and trial-and-error in my own sessions. I would really like to get a more comprehensive, theoretical underpinning for my teaching practice.

There is also an aspect of reputation building. Working with academics, it’s sometimes difficult to get across that I can actually teach their students useful skills, rather than just standing at the front and demonstrating how to search a database (which is deathly dull for me so I can’t imagine it’s any more interesting for the students watching!). Becoming a qualified teacher, and Fellow of the Higher Education Authority (which comes along with this qualification), will be a way I can put myself on a more equal footing with the lecturers in the departments I work with.

Finally, I’ve also watched with envy as a few of my colleagues have completed this same course over recent years (most recently the awesome Jess Haigh, whose blog on the topic has been a source of inspiration for me over the past year), so now I’ve finally completed my Chartership it seemed like a good time to take my turn at this!

Side note: it’s just occurred to me that I haven’t actually written about achieving Chartership on the blog at all – I do have the start of a blog post about what I learned from the process, and will endeavour to get this finished off, in between my PGCHE work…

The course started a couple of weeks ago. We have a workshop every Friday afternoon, so I have now attended two of these. I’m going to blog my thoughts from the first two sessions – my plan is to do this after each week’s workshop, so I can get down some initial reflections on what I am learning.

The first session started with a morning’s induction, where we were introduced to others on the course and went over the course content and assessment. It was really interesting to see the cohort: there were more of us than I expected, about 20ish. Most were new members of academic staff, mostly from the Business School, School of Applied Sciences and School of Art, Design and Architecture. I had hoped there might be some academics from the School of Computing and Engineering there, as this is the School I support as subject librarian, and I thought this might be a way of doing a bit of stealth library advocacy! There weren’t any academic staff, but there are two new Graduate Teaching Assistants from my School on the course, so I’m looking forward to working with both of them and learning more about their roles and how we can work together.

In the afternoon we had our first “proper” workshop session, where we went over teaching in HE and course planning. It was a useful overview of how and why to plan teaching, and gave us an opportunity to share with each other some of the techniques we had used.

We had a discussion about what makes a successful session (the consensus seemed to be some kind of combination of motivated learners, an inspired/inspiring teacher, and opportunities for active learning), and how we planned and structured sessions. We came up with some ideas for getting a session off to a good start, including starting with a discussion point (e.g. an image, quote or story to provoke thoughts and set the scene), outlining the objectives for the session, and setting expectations.

One of my main takeaways from the session, that I’m still thinking about more than a week later, was about how we as educators model good behaviour. One point was about keeping our subject knowledge current: how does an engineering lecturer, for example, keep up with developments in the field they are teaching? If they’re teaching current engineering industry practice, how do they engage with industry to ensure they are up to date?

It made me think about my own context: as a librarian I am not teaching a particular subject, but rather am teaching behaviours and a way of engaging with information and academic work. How do I keep my own skills in this area current? I actually wondered if doing this course and becoming a student again might be seen as an example of this. I am immersing myself in the student experience – although, of course, my own experience as a mature student doing a course based in my own workplace will be very different to the experience of a new undergraduate coming to academic study for the first time. But will this experience of being a student, doing self-directed study and producing academic assignments enhance the support I am able to provide to the students I teach?

I would like to think so: I have been conscious over the past couple of years at Huddersfield that my last experience of formal education was a long time ago. I finished my Masters in 2009, so I’m a bit disconnected with the experience of being a student. I hope this course gives me a chance to reconnect to that process, and perhaps develop more empathy with the students I teach.

My final takeaway from this session was our closing activity. We were talking about how we finish a session and consolidate learning, and were introduced to a technique that requires zero preparation, and can be done with most sizes/types of group.

It’s called an instant questionnaire, and involves going round the room, inviting each learner to share something they learned from the session, something they will take forward, or something that made them think. They each only have to say one thing, and it can be anything, but they must say something. I really liked this idea: I could definitely use it with some of my smaller groups, and I’ve been thinking about how I could adapt it for a larger group in a lecture theatre setting.

This is getting long, so I’m going to write about week two of the course in a separate post. Coming up shortly…

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Teaching – trying something new: USTLG meeting May 2017

This week I attended the most recent meeting of USTLG, the University Science and Technology Librarians Group. This networking group holds their meetings twice a year, and members are invited to give presentations sharing best practice on a theme. I’ve been going to these meetings ever since I took on Engineering and Computing as my subject areas, and I’d highly recommend them!

The theme this time was on “Teaching: trying something new”. There were some great presentations showing a variety of creative teaching techniques. A Storify of live tweets from the day is available if you want to see what was discussed, and all presentations are available on the USTLG website.

Here’s a few techniques that caught my imagination, and that I’d like to try out myself…

Using Top Trumps to evaluate sources

Emily Stock from Sheffield University demonstrated some Top Trumps cards (Wikipedia link there for anyone not familiar with the game – apparently some people didn’t spend their childhood fighting with their siblings over this game!) that she’d designed to introduce students to different sources of information. I LOVE this idea: I struggle sometimes to get across the difference between things like journal articles and conference papers to students who aren’t used to differentiating between different types of physical sources, and tend to treat anything online as equivalent.

The idea was to have the students play Top Trumps in small groups for about 10 minutes, and then introduce some scenarios of different information needs and get them to call out which types of sources they would use. I’ve done similar things to this but never with a game to introduce the concepts, so I’m definitely going to give this a go with my students.

Visual learning strategies

Liz Martin and Carol Keddie from De Montfort University gave an interactive workshop showcasing the visual learning techniques they use with their students. There were some great activities demonstrated, including the “dress-up doll of formality” (using an outline of a person and “dressing them up” in the vocabulary of your chosen topic), and visual mapping of the research process. I particularly liked the final exercise: we all got to pick a pretty postcard from a set provided, and had to write ourselves a message about our research. These were then collected and will be posted to us in a month. That seemed a good way to keep momentum going after a training session – plus you get something nice in the post!

Lego for referencing

The final talk of the day was Michelle Bond’s much anticipated presentation on using Lego to teach referencing. As one of my colleagues is a Lego Serious Play facilitator I have had a go at using Lego this way before, but hadn’t thought of using it to teach referencing, so was interested to see what Michelle had come up with.

We started by making models that illustrated how we felt about referencing, or what it meant to us. We had three piles of Lego on each table, and were instructed to make a model using at least one piece from all three piles. Quite a few people made models indicating how nightmarish they found it, which would be a good conversation starter with students!

Michelle explained some of the concepts of using Lego for conceptual thinking in this way, and outlined what she would do for the rest of the session. The bit I really liked, and am definitely going to steal, came at the end. After going through the information about referencing, Michelle went around the class asking people to say which pile they’d taken a specific piece in their model from. If they couldn’t (being librarians, we all could, but Michelle noted that with students this is generally not the case!), the piece gets taken out of the model – usually breaking the model in the process, as Michelle always picks an integral piece to quiz people on!

This was used as a way to emphasise the importance of recording and being able to trace your sources. I loved this idea, and could see it being really effective at grabbing students’ attention.

The above are just my highlights of the day – there were some great ideas outlined in all presentations! I loved Sarah George’s opening talk about enquiry-based learning for forensics students: she had a lively and entertaining presentation style which was perfect for kicking off the day, and I’m very jealous of the amount of teaching and assessment she gets to do!

I also thought Oliver Bridle’s presentation on using video tutorials to teach library databases was great: I’ve been doing some similar things myself, and am a big fan of replacing “now click here” demonstrations with videos. I really liked the way he used videos combined with quizzes and activities to keep a session going, and will have to think about how I could do something similar in my own lecture-based teaching.

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Equality: Everyone’s job, no one’s responsibility

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a day-long seminar at the University of Huddersfield (where I work), on gender equality in Higher Education. The conference was organised by the University’s Athena SWAN committee: Athena SWAN is a charter of the Equality Challenge Unit, initially aimed at advancing the careers of women in STEM research and higher education, and now broadened to include women working in art and humanities subjects, as well as support staff.

There is a Storify of tweets from the day available, and this write-up on the University of Huddersfield’s news pages gives a decent summary of the topics discussed. Below are my own personal impressions of the day.

I was interested to attend this event because, as subject librarian for Computing and Engineering, I am keenly aware of the gender disparity in these subjects in particular. I am interested in how we as a University can better support women in these subjects, from undergraduate students right through to Professor level. I also have a personal interest in gender (in)equality in professional fields, and how structural and cultural factors contribute to this.

Note: although the title of the event is about equality, the day focused specifically on gender equality. There were a few mentions of the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in academia but this wasn’t really explored beyond sharing a few depressing statistics. There also wasn’t anything mentioned beyond the gender binary: no mention of the experiences of trans students or academics, for example. I appreciate that there was limited time available at an event like this, but I hope future events might consider broadening their definition of “equality” a little to consider intersections of oppression.

It was an informative and well-planned day. Each of the speakers contributed to building a picture of the problems within the field, and some potential solutions. In the opening talk, Professor Yvonne Galligan from Queen’s University, Belfast outlined the “leaky pipeline” problem facing women in STEM. In the academic sector, women drop out at every level: representation in related GCSE subjects is about equal, but at every step up from there (A level, undergraduate, postgraduate, and continuing through to academic level, senior lecturers and professors), the proportion of women drops. She noted that encouraging gender parity is not only the right thing to do, it also makes for better science: diversity within research teams produces better results.

This thread was picked up by Professor Paul Walton, University of York, who talked about unconscious bias in hiring/promoting practices and ways of tackling this. One of the more concrete suggestions from the day came from this talk: Paul’s recommendation was to have “unconscious bias observers” as part of the interviewing, hiring and promotions process. This needs to be a person from within the senior management team, but who is not otherwise involved in the hiring/promotion decision process. Their job is purely to observe all stages of the process, look for signs of unconscious bias and address these when they arise. I hadn’t come across this idea before, but I thought it was really interesting. It’s apparently something that’s been used with some success at York already.

The keynote was from Baroness Brown of Cambridge, who used her own, distinguished career to illustrate how women could be supported to succeed in STEM. She noted that women tend not to apply for jobs unless they meet all the criteria, whereas men will apply if they only meet one or two, so it is important to be proactive in reaching out to women who could be ideal for the post you are recruiting for, as they may not apply without encouragement.

The final talk was from Professor Caroline Gatrell, University of Liverpool, who talked about her own experience of building up a career as a researcher. She faced barriers early on, such as being told she couldn’t change from a teaching to a research position. She also struggled to gain recognition for her research area, which was mothers and workplace inequality – at one point even being told this wasn’t significant enough to research as it focused on a “minority”! She persevered, building networks via Skype and email when she wasn’t able to travel to conferences and networks, and building up a portfolio of publications – which she wouldn’t allow her institution to claim for their REF until they offered her the research post she’d long been denied. (I felt like cheering when she shared this story, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this!)

The speakers all had practical suggestions to make, alongside highlighting the scale of the problem and the amount of work (and it is work) that is needed to tackle it. I was also heartened that no one wasted time on “debating” whether or not women have the necessarily talent/skills to succeed in STEM: that was taken as a given. There was a question at the end along the lines of “should we be trying to force women into careers they don’t want”, which was addressed decisively, without quite dismissing the question but making it pretty clear the speakers considered this to be a straw man, and a distraction from the work that needs to be done.

However. Without criticising the organisers or speakers (who all did an excellent job), I was left with a couple of reservations about the day. First and foremost: while I believe events like these are worthwhile for putting the topic of equality at the forefront of people’s minds, I do think there’s an element of preaching to the choir. The audience at this event looked to be more than 90% female, and for all the talk of equality needing to be led from the top of the organisation, I couldn’t see many of our senior leadership in attendance.

I strongly believe that the work of gender equality shouldn’t all fall on women to do, so it was disappointing that there weren’t more men (and more senior men) in attendance. The day was introduced by our Vice Chancellor, but he left immediately after reading out his introduction. I appreciate the VC is a busy man so probably couldn’t spare a day to attend the whole event, but it would have been nice to see him in at least one of the talks (maybe the keynote) or even dropping by during the lunch break.

My other main reservation is that, while there was good sense talked on the cultural and organisational barriers to women’s progression in academia (unconscious bias, lack of visible role models and support/mentoring for women, microaggressions, gendered division of labour that sees female lecturers doing pastoral care while male lecturers get the higher prestige jobs. etc.), I didn’t really hear much about the structural barriers in place.

While I agree that the cultural and organisational side is important, and it was good to see some acknowledgement of the discriminatory measures built into the system (e.g. Professor Walton mentioned the inherent bias against women and people of colour in student ratings, which makes these problematic to use in evidence for promotion), I don’t think we’ll actually get very far without recognising that the whole structure of an academic career is built on a model that assumes you either have no family or caring responsibilities, or that someone else (i.e. your wife!) is taking care of these for you.

This was touched on a few times. For example, Professor Walton mentioned parking as a gendered issue: where there was a shortage of parking spaces, people who came in earlier nabbed all the spaces while those who arrived later, usually women who’d been doing the school run, were left with nowhere to park. York addressed this issue by introducing parking spaces that could only be used after 9.30am, to cater for people who were arriving later due to caring responsibilities. I thought this was a good example of tackling a problem that in many places may not have even been recognised as an equalities issue, but I would have liked to see more of this really.

I also think that institutional sexism in the STEM industry needs to be tackled. There is evidence that part of the “leaky pipeline” problem is down to women leaving STEM for careers where they won’t face a hostile working environment, or be constantly questioned on or face belittling assumptions regarding their qualifications and aptitude for the role. This study, focusing on the engineering profession, is a good example of this effect.

I really enjoyed the final talk from Professor Gatrell, talking about the barriers she’d faced in her own research career and how she’d overcome them, but there did seem an element of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” here. Professor Gatrell was very inspirational, and I’m not criticising her for her approach or her advice, which was useful, but I think it’s unfair to expect women and people of colour to put so much effort into just getting their careers going, when their white male colleagues don’t have to put so much effort into just being heard in the first place.

At the start of the day we were shown a familiar image, demonstrating the difference between equality and equity:

Two side-by-side images showing three people of different heights attempting to watch a sports event from behind a fence. The left image, captioned

However, a more accurate graphic has been doing the rounds recently, and conveniently I think it illustrates my point here! (I’ve struggled to find an original source for this image, but various versions along with a useful discussion are in this blog post) The updated image shows not just equitable access, but the effect of removing a systematic barrier:

An updated version of the previous image, with an additional third panel added showing the solid fence (that was blocking the view) replaced with a mesh fence that allows everyone to see through it regardless of height.

I do not believe the “leaky pipeline” issue will ever really be solved until we address the systematic, structural inequalities within academia and within STEM. This is of course much harder work: it’s far easier to give people boxes to stand on than to tear down fences!

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LILAC 2017: Reflections and inspiration

LILAC (the Librarians Information Literacy Annual Conference) was a couple of weeks ago now, so I have failed in my initial plan to get some of my ideas/reflections down in blog form immediately after the conference while they were still fresh in my mind…

However, having a couple of weeks to reflect has helped me organise my thoughts a little bit, beyond the excited, jumbled mess they were straight after the conference finished! If you want to see my immediate, unfiltered impressions, here’s a Storify of my live tweets and retweets.

For a (slightly) more considered overview, here’s my highlights and ideas from LILAC.


My main highlight was of course Alan Carbery’s barnstorming keynote! If you were on Twitter at all on the morning of 12th April, you may have seen the explosion of excitement this caused. There is a recording available: if you haven’t already watched this, I urge you do to so.

Video recording: Authentic Information Literacy in an era of Post-Truth

Alan covered a lot of ground, which I won’t try to summarise here (seriously, watch the recording!), but the main thrust was about how we can teach skills that actually empower our students to become informed, information literate citizens.

We spend a lot of time teaching students how to use library databases (an approach neatly summed up by another speaker as “click there, try another keyword” teaching), which is of limited use as a life skill! Instead of spending time and effort trying to get students to search for information in the “correct” way on proprietary databases, which 99% of them will never use again after their course is over, why not focus on critical thinking and appraisal of information?

Alan does some fantastic things in his teaching, such as starting conversations about gender roles, rape culture and human trafficking, in the context of the information messages students are getting from many sources. He is able to do this in part because he sees his students much more frequently than most of us manage: Alan sees all undergraduate students seven times throughout their studies, which he announced at the start of his talk makes him the “luckiest librarian ever”!

Although most of us aren’t quite that lucky, Alan did have some tips for incorporating some of this type of instruction into one-shot sessions. One suggestion I quite liked was that if you do have to demonstrate databases during your limited time with students, pick your keyword examples well. For example, with engineering students, try demonstrating a search on women in engineering.

Another suggestion was to bring in things like the filter bubble: this should be relevant to any information literacy session, and is a good way to get students thinking about how they find, receive and interpret information. I’ve tried talking about the filter bubble and algorithm bias in my sessions with Computing students before, and it’s always gone down really well: despite this being far from a new phenomenon (the TED talk linked to above is from 2011), my students had never come across this idea before, were shocked by it and immediately grasped the implications.

Alan’s keynote was on the final day of the conference, and it (I think unintentionally) brought together a lot of themes that had been cropping up in other talks. In and amongst all the talks about teaching techniques, evaluation, etc., there was a strong undercurrent of information literacy for social justice. This was often explicit, as in Angela Pashia’s excellent talk on discussing Black Lives Matter in information literacy sessions. In other cases it formed the context of the talk, such as Lauren Smith’s presentation on supporting young people’s educational transitions (which gave me some good, righteous anger!) and Josie Fraser’s keynote (video) on Librarians as Open Practitioners.

Practical stuff

As well as the inspiring critical information literacy and social justice stuff, I also took away plenty of practical ideas too.

One of my favourite sessions early on was Ray Bailey on coping with the stressors of library instruction. Ray had lots of thoughtful ideas on what it is that makes library teaching such a stressful experience for many of us, and advice on how we (both those of us doing the teaching, and our managers) can reduce that stress or at least make it more manageable.

Ray also made a point which I hadn’t considered before, which is that active learning methods, as well as being good pedagogical practice, can also make teaching itself less stressful. Although planning activities for your class takes a lot more prep time, it makes the actual classroom (or lecture hall) experience less stressful, as it takes some of the pressure off you as teacher having to “perform” for the entire hour, allowing your students to take centre stage for a while. I thought that was a really interesting way of looking at it, and I think he’s right: I certainly prefer managing activities than just standing and speaking at the front for the entire session!

I was also very taken with a couple of sessions focusing on different aspects of the student experience. Monica-Carmela Sajeva and May Warren’s session on the international classroom was fantastic: a really good, immersive look at the particular challenges international students face. We did a brilliant exercise, that I totally want to steal and run as a training session for staff in my own library, which involved us taking on the personas of different international students. It was a really useful way of experiencing some of the anxiety and uncertainty that many international students feel when they arrive at university.

Helen Howard’s presentation on the Second Year Success resource developed at the University of Leeds was a useful look at the particular needs of second year undergraduate students, an often-neglected group. Second years often feel a bit adrift (in the US they apparently refer to this as the “sophomore slump”) – they’re working harder than in the first year, there’s a sense that “everything counts” in a way it may not have in their first year.

Second year students often start to underperform, disengage and are at risk of dropping out – yet there is no proactive support for this group. We tend to assume that because we’ve told them all about the support available to them in their first year they’ll know where to go, but they’ve often either forgotten this by second year, or aren’t confident enough to seek out support for themselves.

I really like the idea of creating a resource specifically for second year students, and I think the Leeds example would be a great one to emulate. Helen deservedly won the Information Literacy Award at the conference dinner that evening.

Finally, I was very impressed with Abigail Heath & Samantha Brown’s work at Plymouth University on evaluating competitive team-based activities to enhance learning. They’ve run duplicate sessions with students: some using competition-based activities (such as Andrew Walsh’s Seek! card game, and online quiz tools such as FlipQuiz – which looked great, and I’m quite keen to try out!), and others as a control group, just using traditional teaching and lecturing methods, then gathered feedback from students afterwards.

Although the data they collected this way was limited (only students from the “active” groups actually returned surveys, they didn’t get any back from the “control” groups – although I think this in itself was telling!), I still really like the way they designed this trial. Their plans are to apply for some funding to re-run the trials next year, this time recruiting students to take part in optional sessions rather than doing the tests in actual, timetabled classes. This is partly for ethical reasons, and partly also to improve data collection as the students involved will know it’s a trial, and will be paid for taking part in the whole process, including feedback/surveys at the end. I’m looking forward to seeing any future results from this.

What will I do with all this?

My question following all conferences, and especially ones as full-on as LILAC, is: what will I actually do with all these new ideas? Here’s my list of three things I am going to put into action following LILAC, in order from easiest to hardest:

1.Have a play with FlipQuiz.

I am always looking out for new interactive tools to use in teaching, especially as pretty much all of my classes are lectures (boo…) so anything I can do to liven them up is a bonus

2. Stop demoing databases, start talking about critical information literacy!

Ok, I might not be able to stop entirely, as I think there is still an expectation that “information skills” means “show them how to search the library’s systems”. But I can definitely keep these to a minimum, and spend more time talking about critical thinking and the filter bubble!

3. Find a friendly lecturer who will let me see some student assignments…

I was really keen on this idea from the start of Alan Carbery’s keynote: Alan gets to see some (anonymised) student work, so he can see how they are actually using information. One thing he discovered was that students will make use of academic sources and cite them correctly – IF this is stipulated in the brief and they are graded on it, otherwise they won’t bother! So he has worked with the academics to build in these requirements into assignment briefs and marking.

I would love to do this, so I think the first stage is to persuade one of the academic staff to let me see some samples of student work, and then build from there. Wish me luck!


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Reflection on UK vs US library conferences


The first image that came up when I searched for “British American flags” on Pixabay!

Over the past 6-7 years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend numerous LIS conferences. In the early days this was largely due to my policy of applying for every student/new professional conference award in sight – I would highly recommend this approach!

In addition to various UK-based conferences (such as CILIP, UKSG, BIALL, and more recently, LILAC), I’ve also managed to attend the SLA (Special Libraries Association) conference in the USA on a few occasions.

Attending an international conference is undoubtedly a different experience to a domestic conference. You’re likely to be travelling longer distances for a start, and potentially visiting a place where the language and culture may be very different to what you’re used to. Thinking about the conferences I’ve attended, there are some notable differences between the UK-based and US-based ones.

With the large caveat that the only US conference I’ve attended is SLA (so I don’t know how many of my observations apply to other US conferences such as ALA), I thought it might be interesting to reflect on some of the differences I’ve observed between conferences in the two countries, and what that might tell us about the professions in these countries.

Size and scale

While I still had this post in draft, I asked on Twitter what people who’d attended both thought were the main differences between US and UK conferences. Unsurprisingly, the first few replies I got mentioned the sheer size of US conferences!

This is probably unsurprising given it’s such a huge country, but conferences in the US are on a scale unheard of in the UK. I’d be interested to know how other international conferences around the world, such as IFLA, compare for scale.

The size of the SLA conference means that there are a huge amount of sessions, meetings and social events all going on at the same time. And the venues are enormous, so when planning what sessions to attend you may need to factor in a 20 minute walk between rooms! This all feels very different to a UK conference, where there may only be two or three parallel sessions in adjacent rooms.

Attitude – optimism, networking, celebration

Another big difference I’ve noticed is in attitude and atmosphere. The SLA conferences I’ve attended have been bubbling over with optimism and celebration. The opening session, at which awards and honours are presented, feels like being at the library Oscars! It’s hard to describe this without sounding like I’m criticising UK librarians and conferences, which is very much not my intention. But I think while we do celebrate the profession and our colleagues at UK library conferences, it’s nowhere near the kind of full-throated roar of enthusiasm that you get at SLA – and, so I understand, other US conferences.

I’m certain this isn’t all in my mind: others on Twitter mentioned the “sense of occasion” that SLA has, and I clearly remember exchanging astonished, delighted glances with my fellow ECCAs at the completely unselfconscious glee of the award presenters and recipients, and audience, at my first SLA in 2009. I also remember assuring other ECCAs in later years that yes, it was always like that, and yes, that enthusiasm would be sustained throughout the conference!

I’m probably just exposing my own British repression here, but there is something incredibly refreshing about being at a place where everyone is celebrating their shared goals and achievements, and no one feels the need to apologise for their own enthusiasm. I think we do aim for this at UK conferences, and I’ve certainly come away from some just as inspired as I was at SLA (LILAC springs to mind as being the closest in atmosphere that I’ve found this side of the Atlantic), but I always feel like there’s this undertow of not wanting to get too full of ourselves, not wanting to stand up and say “Yes, I did this and it was BRILLIANT!”.

There’s also less general moaning at SLA: I feel like the American default is optimism, whereas the British default is cynicism, which does lend itself to a lot of slightly world-weary conversations at UK conferences. I don’t actually think this is a bad thing – boundless optimism can be exhausting to be around, and I think it’s good to be realistic about the problems we face. But it’s notable what a difference that change in focus makes to the overall atmosphere at something like a conference.

Distances travelled

America is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is… (with apologies to Douglas Adams!). So although coming from the UK to the US feels like a really long journey, depending on where exactly in that vast country you’re visiting, there may be people there who’ve travelled further than you within the same country to be there.

Because the distances are so vast, an annual conference like SLA is often the only time that many people there, who may have known and worked with each other remotely for years, actually get to see each other and interact face-to-face. This can sometimes give SLA a bit of the feeling of a big family reunion – which is no bad thing!

I assume for similar reasons, SLA’s divisions and chapters usually have their business meetings at the conference, as well as things like awards presentations. Which makes total sense given the difficulty otherwise of getting enough of the Board and membership of each division together, but feels rather strange to an outsider to see that many committee meetings etc. on the conference schedule. It also means that if you’re volunteering with a couple of divisions, you could easily spend most of your conference at meetings and miss a lot of the actual conference programming.

Range of topics covered

Due to the size and scale of SLA, and the diverse experiences and interests of its members, it has a more varied programme than I’ve seen at any UK conference. This may be partly down to the way the conference is organised: session planning is done by each of the individual chapters and divisions, rather than being managed centrally. (Although there was talk about changing this process at the last SLA I attended, in 2015, so I don’t know if this is still the case.)

The size of the conference and variety of programming means there is always something of interest, regardless of what your job entails. It also means that you can be chatting to another delegate over lunch or at a social event, and have had totally different conference experiences.

Conference etiquette

One large difference between UK and US conferences is conference etiquette. At SLA (and, I believe, other conferences), it is completely acceptable to get up and walk out of a session you’re in. I would never in a million years do this at a UK conference, and as a speaker I’d probably be distraught if anyone did this in my session! So it took some getting used to at SLA.

It helped me to understand the reasons behind this: SLA is such a huge conference, with such a large variety of sessions going on simultaneously, that it is impossible to make it to everything you might want to hear. So if you’re in a session that isn’t working for you, it is acceptable, and even encouraged, to go somewhere else where you’ll benefit more. Having adjusted to this, I actually find this attitude really refreshing – why should you waste your time in a session that you’re not getting anything out of?

It’s also useful to remember that walking out of a session isn’t necessarily a negative judgment on the speaker. There are many reasons you might want to leave a session, including but not limited to:

  • The session isn’t quite what you expected (e.g. doesn’t really match the title/description, or is pitched either to basic or too complex for your needs)
  • You’re struggling to hear/see the speaker and/or presentation (poor acoustics, room layout, and crimes against PowerPoint are all sadly still common everywhere!)
  • It’s a session with multiple speakers and you were most interested in hearing one of them
  • It overlaps with another session you’re interested in, so you’re timing your attendance to try to make both
  • You’ve been following another session that looks more relevant to you via Twitter – this is one of the reasons I love live-tweeting conference sessions!

Social side

All conferences are a chance not just to learn, but to network and have fun! I’ve never been to a conference on either side of the Atlantic where the social events weren’t just as much part of the event as the daytime conference sessions.

The main difference is that because UK conferences are smaller, there tends to be just one main conference event (usually something like a gala dinner), or maybe two (one each evening) if it’s a multi-day conference. At SLA, rather than one main social event for the whole conference, there are multiple smaller events run by the different divisions and chapters, and sometimes by sponsors and exhibitors. These include breakfasts, lunches, “open houses” (evening networking events), no-host dinners (informal get-togethers at local restaurants, where everyone pays for their own food), karaoke nights, and of course the infamous IT Division dance party!

This means that there isn’t generally one event where everyone is in attendance, which can feel a little fragmented and make it feel a bit difficult to just turn up if you don’t know many people there.

I have to say that personally, I’ve always found SLA really friendly and welcoming – they have dedicated events for first-timers, and have been running a buddy system for newcomers for the past few years. But I get that with the scale of an event like this, it can feel daunting as a newcomer.


Overall, I think there are more similarities than differences between UK and US LIS conferences. Wherever the conference happens to be, you will find dedicated information professionals, passionate about their work and eager to meet, work with and learn from others in the field. Being aware of some of the structural and cultural differences in attending conferences in different parts of the world will help you know what to expect, and make the most out of being there.

As was pointed out on Twitter, the fall in value of the pound may mean that there are fewer opportunities for UK delegates to attend US conferences. And of course, the actions of the current US administration will undoubtedly have an impact on the number of overseas delegates able or willing to travel to the US for such events.

I started drafting this blog post before the election of the current President, and long before the attempts were made to block people from Muslim-majority nations from travelling to the US. I was therefore in two minds about whether to publish this post: I have decided to do so, but with this note added.

There is a call for international researchers, academics and librarians to boycott conferences held in the US, in solidarity with those who are prevented from attending on the basis of the crude and discriminatory measures attempted by the current administration: I believe it’s a matter of conscience whether or not you choose to participate in such a boycott, and I would not judge a fellow professional for deciding to travel to the US regardless of this, but I think it’s important for us all to examine our privilege and our consciences on this matter.privilege and our consciences on this matter.