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Geeking Out

geek is the new black

from STML on flickr

Mark Edmundson in the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, had a great article called Geek Lessons about why one cannot be “cool” and a good teacher.  I think there are a number of good insights in this article.  Parts of it hit somewhat close to home.

The most common way to become a hip teacher now — there have been other ways; there will be more — is to go wild for computers. Students love computers; you get points for loving them more. I’ve heard tell of a professor — whose energy and ingenuity I have to admire — who provides his students with hand-held wireless gizmos that have a dozen buttons on them. (I understand they look like TV remotes — not a good sign.) Every 10 minutes or so, the professor stops and checks the kids by polling them on the clicker to confirm that they have understood him. Many other teachers have turned their classes into light and laser shows. Three-D glasses are around the corner.

I have actually used those clickers in the past in sessions at UW-Madison.  I thought they were kinda neat and they brought some variety to the same old song and dance.  But the situations they were used in often felt contrived.  Questions were made up for students to answer without much real visible benefit to them or me.  I think it is very important to never let the technology drive your teaching.

The most important point I take away from this though is not just for teaching–it is for life.

Uncoolness can be a state that anyone slides into, a state in which we’re more open, vulnerable and susceptible to being surprised than when we’ve got the cold, deflective armor on. Teachers live for the moments when their students — and they themselves — cast off the breastplates and iron masks and open up.

Showing more of yourself, being curious, and not pretending to know it all is when you gain some of the best insights and make real connections to people.  Especially in teaching, when it is really important, don’t worry about being cool.  Worry about if your students are learning.  Worry about if they are connecting with the ideas and information that you are discussing.  And in life, try to take off your armor sometimes.  You can afford to be a geek every once in a while.  You will learn a lot more about yourself, and maybe even take up D&D.

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Why I went into the profession

Photo by Eric @ Flickr

Photo by Eric @ Flickr

Tonight I remembered why I went into librarianship in the first place — to make a difference and actually help people.

Often in your career (and in life) you get caught up in the mundane, day to day stuff: going to meetings, prepping for classes or presentations, whatever project you are working on next.  You put yourself on autopilot or stress out about things that do not go your way.  Or, especially with librarians, you get overwhelmed with all that you have to do, often leading to burnout.

Sometimes though, it is nice to step back and recognize, “hey, there is a reason I am doing this,” or “is this really worth worrying about…isn’t this just minor in the grand scheme of life?”

Every once in a while you get reminders of this.  One great example are reference sessions when you are able to find the perfect information for someone and they get really excited and thank you for all your help.  You can actually see yourself making a difference.

Tonight I did an instruction session with a Sports Management class.  I thought it went pretty decent for my first one of the year, except for a slight setback with setting up wireless for laptops.  The one thing that I really was pleased about was the information literacy gem that I presented them without even realizing I was going to do it.  I told them that sometimes in order to find information you must be creative.  You can’t get caught up always going to the same place for your information, no matter if that place is Google or the library catalog, or your uncle Jerry.  Information comes from a plethora of different places.  You may need to go out and observe a basketball game and document it, or e-mail someone at Burton Snowboards to get what you are looking for.  Don’t handcuff yourself by using only one source of information.  Think creatively…be a detective!

I didn’t say all that, but that was my general message.

What was really rewarding though was that after the session the instructor e-mailed me and told me, based on student feedback, that I “opened their eyes.  One said you hit a home run.”  I guess that is a little Sports Management humor.  Getting comments like that would make anybody’s day.  But it really made me realize once again why I went into this profession.

I take two things out of this:

  1. Write more thank you letters.  They are really powerful and appreciated.
  2. Even if you don’t get praise every day, try at least once a day to step back an look at the big picture.  We may get caught up in the mundane, but seeing things in their larger context puts things in perspective.  Stressful things don’t seem to be as big of a deal, and simple things have some of the most power to them.
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Information Literacy for the 22nd Century

Yesterday, I attended the Burlington Book Festival.  The best session was one entitled Writing in the 22nd Century: A Panel Discussion.  It was a terrible title that did not really fit what they were talking about.  Nevertheless, it was a great session.  They were actually talking about the 21st century — more specifically the near future.  It was also not limited to writing.  It was a discussion about writing, reading, and consumption of information.

The panel was composed of Steve Benen a political pundit blogger from the Washington Monthly, Cathy Resmer online editor of Seven Days Newspaper, and Ann DeMarle, head of the Emergent Media Center at Champlain College.  It was moderated by Jeff Rutenbeck Dean for the Division of Communication and Creative Media at Champlain College.

One thing that got people going in the audience was when Jeff said that books were an inefficient means of communication. Publishing online is much quicker and people can interact and have a conversation with the information, whereas books take years to publish and you cannot interact with a book.  The audience got defensive and sentimental about books, expressing that they did not want them to go away.  Someone actually stated how books were one of the most perfectly evolved forms of media.  Jeff also passed around a Kindle for people to gawk at.  The guy next to me was ogling it for about five minutes.

Photo by davidking

Photo by davidking

What was especially interesting was the discussion that ensued after Jeff brought up the idea that textbooks are “so superficial.”  He said that for his classes, “you could get 90 percent of the information in the textbooks from Wikipedia.”  At this a student commented that he did not go to textbooks first.  He went to Google or YouTube or blogs or other online sources.  Barbara Shatara, a librarian at the Fletcher Free Library asked him the same question I was thinking: how do you evaluate this information for credibility?  His answer was that he evaluated by cross referencing.  If he found info on one blog he would look and see if it was confirmed in other places.  If there were more people agreeing with something than disagreeing then he would believe it.

This gives a good insight into how information is being evaluated in this era.  Instead of looking for some authority people look to the masses.  “Do a lot of people believe this?  Ok, good then I will too.”  A lot of people believe that evolution is a falsehood and that global warming is a fabrication.   A great danger with this is when looking to corroborate or disprove a piece of information on the web, it very much depends on how you are searching.  If you search with keywords only  related to creationism, or find a creationist website and start following their links, the information your find is going to be colored in a very specific way.  With a mindset such as this, the tyranny of the majority can then determine what is true and not true, and that is very dangerous.

There were a number of debates back and forth and everyone really got into the session.  I was surprised at how many people were engaged and actually caring about these issues.  I guess information literacy is a real issue that people outside of libraries or academia care about.