I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about curiosity – “the desire to know more” – and how we can facilitate students’ curiosity within the context of information literacy instruction. One reason for this is that curiosity is so important to student success that researchers have deemed it to be the “third pillar” of academic success, along with intelligence and effort. Thus, if we can facilitate students’ curiosity, we as librarians will contribute to students’ success.
Another reason is that I think that research just is the further investigation of something you’re curious about, or interested in. And, since information literacy librarians teach students how to do research, it stands to reason that it’s our job to show them how to look up stuff you’re curious about, and how to do that well well. Yeah, we want to fill faculty requests for specific things, but, at bottom, my goal is to teach students what research is. Research is finding out more about something you’re curious about. My credo is stated.
But how do we do this within the context of information literacy? That is the question I want to address in this post.
For better or worse, my basic strategy has always been to model how I use the library to look up stuff I’m personally curious about, or interested in. The central thesis of my spiel, as it were, is that all the library is is a tool to satisfy your curiosities. I’ve published some articles and presented on how I’ve modeled for students how to do this within the context of their class assignments, during both one shots and at the reference desk (for this is where most of the information literacy instruction I do takes place). I think the modelling approach is pretty effective, in the sense that it actually shows students how they might take some “school-sounding” topic and actually write about something drawn from their own life. My suspicion is that although teachers say stuff like “Oh, I encourage my students all the time to write about stuff they’re interested in!” they don’t actually show them how to do that – and that, without showing them, the encouragement is not very useful. More precisely, I think that the encouragement may be necessary, but probably not sufficient: you’ve also got to give students the tools for how to conduct research in this way. As educational psychologists Elliot et al. write, educators should, “when possible, allow students to select topics that they are curious about” because this will give them “the freedom and the direction to explore for themselves.” In order to do this, they write that a teacher ought to “[t]ell students the things you are curious about and model some of the resourceful behavior that curious people use to solve problems” for one’s students. This modeling is effectively done when showing students how to search the library for information.
I have done this modeling behavior in the context of information literacy one-shots a good deal -and even wrote a master’s paper documenting its success as a tool for teaching information literacy – but lately I’ve been thinking about ways to do this as a way to teach students what research is in more general contexts. Two things got me thinking about this. One, I’ve been asked now, a few times since starting my current position in July, to do some workshops about “how to use the library for research” by various departments on campus. This is always sort of a challenge, for good information literacy instruction is assignment-based. However, I’ve now developed the idea that okay, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to talk about what research is (in the sense specified above), and how students (and faculty) can think about the library as a tool in this way.
Two, I’ve been working as a faculty-mentor with some students this semester, for a formal mentoring project we have on campus. I’ve gotten to know them fairly well, and, a few weeks ago, one of the students said to me, jokingly, something like, “Dude, you like, love research. Like whenever we say s0omething, you’re like, ‘Oh, that would be a great research question!'” The more I thought about this, the more it amused me, because I realized that I really was always saying “You know, you could do a research paper on that,” when we were just talking about something stupid, like selfies, or NCAA basketball, or something like that. So that comment got me thinking. I thought, well, why am I doing this? Am I just a huge nerd, or is there maybe also something more to this?
My conclusion was that, yes, I’m a huge nerd and, also, there was something to this. What I realized was that I was, sort of unconsciously, just always trying to show them that research just involves wanting to know more about something, and that that something can really be anything. My way of doing that, I guess, was anytime something like, “Yo, why does Jenny take so many selifies?!” comes up, I’d point out, “You know, it is weird that people take so many damn selfies. People didn’t do that when I was growing up. Why the hell do people take so many selfies? I bet there’s research on that.”
So now I’ve taken this as inspiration for how to teach these “how to conduct library research” sessions. I did one recently for a new department on campus, and, after explaining to them this idea (which they really liked), we called the session “Engaging Students with Library Research.” And then here’s what I did.. Basically, I spent about five minutes, maybe less, showing the students, okay, here’s how you search for an article, in the database. You click here to limit to peer-reviewed articles. You click here to limit the date to recent stuff. Etc. Naturally, everyone had fallen asleep by this time, because the stuff I was talking about was (legitimately) the most boring stuff on planet earth.
Then I said something like this: “Okay, all that stuff we just did, the only reason it’s remotely worth knowing is because sometimes you want to look up something you might want to know more about, and it will be useful to know those things,” and then I proceeded to pull from my list of research questions.
Yes, my list of research questions.
Here is how I started keeping a list of research questions. When that student said to me, “You’re always pointing out stuff that could be a research question,” I started being like, you know what, every time I say that, or see something that doesn’t seem like research but seems like I’d want to know more about it, I’m going to write it down, and then use it to show students how I’d develop a research question about it. And you come across this stuff – online, on Facebook, on Twitter – all the time.
For example, here is a thing that I once did. Once I was having a bad day, so (literally) I Googled “haters gon hate” because I was feeling at the moment surrounded by a disproportionate number of haters. I did this with no expectations. I don’t even know why I did it. Maybe, in a world of haters, I was looking for solace. But I Googled “haters gon’ hate” and, along with a few ridiculous memes, two pretty interesting articles came up talking about a scientific study demonstrating that, in fact, hater’s are, indeed, go’n hate. It’s just what they do. (I.e., people with negative attitudes/ dispositions tend to have those attitudes in lots of cases: it ain’t you, they’re just negative). So, like, you could write a paper about that for, say, your ENGL 130 class: a well researched paper on haters. Or on why people who use Facebook a lot develop low self esteem. Or selfies. Or whether elite college basketball players develop better in the NBA or college. Or whatever the hell you want to learn more about (I mean, I can’t give my entire list away, can I?)
When I told this idea to the faculty person in charge of this workshop, she said something I’ve always thought: that this will teach students to approach research like this [i.e., as an occasion to look up something they’re curious about] even in their future classes. I.e., it’s not about haters, or selfies: it’s that you’ve shown them that the library is just a tool, a thing to use to look up more (and better) information about stuff they might wanna know more about. And you’ve taught them something valuable about research, and maybe, hopefully, even in a one-shot, planted the seed for the future flicker of realization that, maybe, they could use this boring paper they’ve gotta write on Sunday night as an occasion to look up something they wanna know more about.
At any rate. This is my flailing attempt to engage students’ curiosity in the classroom.
What are other people doing to facilitate students curiosity in the context of information literacy/library instruction? Chime in!