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Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up

Goose, by Flickr user HVargas

Goose, by Flickr user HVargas

I am doing a keynote address this coming Friday for the California Clearinghouse on Library Instruction and I cannot get my brain past the first three ideas I want to share. Help! Goose me!

The title of my talk is “Take the best and leave the rest,” which is the first problem. My original title was “Everything You Know is Wrong,” but I think they wanted something peppy. I’m the one who suggested “Take the best and leave the rest” as an alternate title, but it doesn’t even sound like me. It’s all squeaky and namby-pamby and sing-song and… ugh.

I do plan to address the title’s topic in my point about leveraging times of crisis for controlled burns–it’s a great time to let go of practices we know we shouldn’t be doing, under cover of economic crisis–but it’s not the focus of my talk.

However, I did one thing right: I just wrote to ask to be connected with my IT support for the talk. Years ago, when I was on the speaking circuit a lot on my own recognizance, I always, always did that, and it always, always was the right thing to do. I learned to do that the hard way, because there are a few too many people in LibraryLand who are simply dumbfounded by something like ensuring the projector doomaflatchy is available. You might think that someone wouldn’t organize a major event and fly someone cross-country–someone who has spent many hours cooking up a talk–and yet not make sure the crucial doomaflatchies were available, but you’d be wrong. (And now that I’m on a MacBook I absolutely must tape that little white video dongle to my forehead before I leave the house on the day of the talk.)

I feel in my heart of hearts that CCLI, of all groups, would get this stuff right, but What If the person in charge of all things important gets sick or has a family crisis? (That has happened.) Or What If it’s a venue they haven’t used before, and we’re both badly surprised? (That has happened, too.)  I’ll sleep better, and that’s reason enough for this belt-and-suspenders approach. (Sometimes it takes persistence–“Don’t worry, we have it under control!”–but I do have this ace up my sleeve: I’m the speaker.)

Naturally, “Everything You Know is Wrong” is intended to be playful, but the core of my talk is about moving toward evidence-based, well, everything, so it isn’t wrong. I’m starting with research findings related to students’ information-seeking behaviors. I’m using data from OCLC, Project Information Literacy (yes, I am on the PiL board–my compensation is I sometimes get to yak with Alison Head, one of the most interesting people I know), and anything else I can find in the next week.

One of the findings that emerges again and again is that librarians are at the bottom of the list of the resources students will use for help with research papers and other information needs. I keep worrying that finding is old hat and I’ll come across as some old geezer yammering about stuff everyone already knows and they’ll all start Tweeting about how they could have invited someone really sharp to come talk but no, they are wasting their time listening to an old wash-up. Which is scary because I usually go into a presentation thinking I’ll do at least credibly.

Should I pull a Lee Rainie and find some tweets about myself–critical as well as flattering? Wait, I don’t really think I get discussed on Twitter anyway. Pre-Twitter, I was famously heckled at Code4Lib, and attendees later complained that the talk wasn’t “technical” enough–that might be useful stuff.

How else could I frame this talk that would be fresh and amusing? Should I engage the audience more? Should I talk about high-octane stuff I did in the past and joke about being a busy administrator? (Remember Michael Gorman? Good times!)

I also want to talk about how we need to do assessment better in LibraryLand. I did something difficult several weeks ago: I handed out evaluation forms for two information literacy sessions I was conducting. That was a new thing for our library, and I felt I could not ask anyone to do what I would not do myself.

The first session was one of those technology tailspins where my classroom changed at the last minute, the projector was ordered for the wrong time so it had to be hustled in from elsewhere, the authentication wasn’t working and I was suddenly fumbling to log into the databases, and by the time I started my talk I was flustered and off my game.

I’m sorry that I’m not the cool cucumber who doesn’t get flustered, but that’s someone else. If there’s enough challenges, I will crumble a bit around the edges. So despite having an outline, I didn’t ground them well, I rushed them through stuff, I had any number of blips during my talk, and the evals were simply OK. No checkmarks below average, no “you suck” comments, but OK. Which meant that my one hour with these students, who may never get another info lit class again, was not all it could be.

For the  second session, I got into the room in advance, got all hooked up, felt comfortable with the slick new Smartboard (I’ve used them in previous lives), and was largely fluster-free. Plus the students were a little late so I was waiting for them, not vice versa. I followed my timed agenda, deviating a little when it seemed right to do so, but largely clipping along where I needed to be. I felt myself grounding them in the talk… felt the synergy… felt the mojo… felt the pacing click along… and the evals were excellent. I should send them to my mother.

In any event, I feel I did right by the students for both classes by having them do evaluations of my instruction. Which boils down to a point I want to make in my talk about measuring versus assessing. We do the former a lot. We need to focus more on the latter. Again, I’m hoping that’s not something everyone at CCLI has already assimilated and gone on board with.

One other point I want to make is know your users better. We make a lot of assumptions. At MPOW, I’ve had faculty tell me that all of their students own laptops. Working in the library, we know anecdotally that a lot of our students are dependent on campus computing–some entirely. We need to prove that (keep reading), but we see it every day.

Also, course evals may be important, but they still don’t answer the question: are students learning what they need to know?

We’re planning to use Project Sails this fall at MPOW to benchmark and then assess information literacy acquisition. (There’s an optional survey section in this product where we will also ask them a question about their computing environments–do they have a computer, a laptop, a smartphone, etc.)

(Though I am dying to do that tech asssessment as part of our “Hawk Day” registration activities… hmmm. We could even begin our assessment May 22, the first registration day, and repeat this six times over the summer. Hmmm, hmmmm, hmmmmmmmmm.)

I am looking forward to informating not just the students’ baseline skills, but how well we are addressing them. Project Sails is soon going to have the capacity for individual measurement, and when that happens, I’ll go first. (In fact, a faculty member who heard about Project Sails commented that she felt faculty should take it, too… which leads back into my talk, given the key role faculty play in students’ information literacy. Who should we really be teaching?)

A wise soul wrote me this past week to suggest using part of the database budget for marketing databases better, per a study that was done some years back, and though I need to wait to see what’s happening with our 2010-2011 budget, I’m in agreement that having one or two fewer resources but getting more usage out of what we have makes sense. But it doesn’t stop at marketing; evaluating usage matters as well. (The wise soul in question would probably agree that assessment and marketing go together.)

Developing a culture of assessment reminds me of how I first learned public speaking at Squadron Officer School, the Air Force’s charm school for junior captains. We presented to our peers and we were videotaped. Our peers gave us real-time feedback, and we reviewed the videos later. This was painful, but extremely effective.

I still remember one young pilot who had a problem with saying “Uh,” and our instructor had us repeat “Uh” whenever he said it. Cured him but good. There are several LibraryLand presenters, some quite well-known, who have tics that would go away forever if they watched themselves even once, such as the presenter who grunts a little “Enh” at the end of nearly every sentence. (In HomebrewLand, one occasional guest on Basic Brewing Radio has almost the same tic, but it’s a nasal “Anh” at the beginning of each sentence.)

How willing are we to self-inflict pain in order to improve? I wonder if that’s key to my talk.

Anyway, I have got to get this talk done… and it has to happen at home, preferably this weekend, as during the week I get home, exercise, eat dinner, and last another hour before I fall asleep…. not quality time. I get to work too early for creative time in the morning before I leave our apartment.

Anyway, ideas welcome, and my humble thanks for making it to the end of this think-out-loud post.

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