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Hillary A. H. Richardson

Associate Professor/Librarian

Reflections from #DHRI 2021

Learning NLTK in Python with Jupyter notebooks

Even though learning new technologies and tech skills is one of my favorite things to do, and it’s one of the things regularly I teach students, it is still SO HARD! Attending the Digital Humanities Research Institute in the last two weeks has reiterated this for me. I’ve attended several immersive trainings for digital literacies and technologies (some very good, and some not so much), and DHRI stood out to me. Here are my reflections on why that might have been so.

The “why”

Early on in the institute, Lisa Rhody, the Project Director, noted that previous participants expressed frustrations when they weren’t allotted time to discuss why things worked they way they did, why it was important to know this text-based editor when there were so many other other “easier” web-based applications out there, why this would be a building block for another skill, and so on. This “why” is obvious when teaching information literacy. Why you should consider some editions over others, why these search terms are more productive than others, why should you articulate a research question are things we discuss. But in some ways I’m still discovering the “why” of certain applications, and why some things work and some don’t.

Building “the why” into learning about tech literacies and applications is often obfuscated, saved until the end, or explained with an insider’s perspective. And there is so much consideration of your audience that has to go into this explanation, as well. “Why” matters so differently to different people! The faculty and leaders at DHRI made sure to explain “why” frequently, early, and in ways that didn’t just make sense to themselves.

Break it on purpose

Error messages in the Python interpreter (git bash)

The graduate fellows leading the Python workshops asked us to spend a portion of the workshop trying to create error messages that resulted from our coding. I found this difficult for 2 reasons. First, figuring out what lay outside the bounds of a new language was a different approach to learning the rules of this language, which is usually how language learning is taught! Unlike learning Spanish or French, you can still communicate with wrong syntax and punctuation. Computers do not work this way! (“Computers are not smart” was one of our mantras.) Even though there’s often more than one way to say something, you still cannot communicate outside of the normal structures of language with coding languages, so doing it on purpose was incredibly helpful, albeit challenging.

The other reason why this was difficult (but necessary!) was because in addition to speaking this new language, we also had to do some interpreting whenever our code threw an error message. One of the fellows, Rafael, showed us how to understand these errors by deconstructing the syntax of them, and modeling how to search for answers. Rafael also repeated that “error messages are our friends,” because the computer, in its computer-y way, tells you what it was unable to interpret. Through this, I gained some comprehension, but more importantly, I felt more confident that I could move forward.

Pacing and chunks

Each of the lessons in the DHRI Curriculum was

  • preceded by contextual information (“the why”),
  • was accompanied by ethical considerations of the potential consequences of using the technology without including its human-interaction component, and
  • was divided into easily digestible portions, all of which preceded short and varied formative assessments.

And DHRI fellows told us to work on these lessons before discussing them in person. In my own instruction, I have felt myself rush through a concept in order to squeeze all of the bits and pieces of software into one session, which I know is not good practice, and yet…

These online lessons allow for self-pacing and reiteration, are “chunked” into small-but-important concepts that are then assessed, and allow the in-person instruction to focus on what the learners are struggling with in that moment, rather than finishing a pre-determined lesson. Sometimes the solution is simple! If the full lesson is online and portioned into short lessons, students can work past the meetings on their own time and at their own pace.

Emphasis on the local

Screenshot from the DHRI Network webpage.

DHRI is also built on the principle of building local networks by bringing the experiences from DHRI to attendees’ different settings — at their own institutions, in their own neighborhoods, and on their own devices, and this was reinforced because we attended from our individual locations, virtually. This forced me to consider things on a different level that my own students might be working through. What executes successfully within your firewalls? What does this screen look like on a Mac vs. PC? What can you accomplish within your literal and metaphorical bandwidth? Additionally, the fellows held office hours before the institute started every day to meet with attendees one-on-one and work through installation issues, error messages, and then some.

Even though many of the students we work with are down the street from us, they are operating under different local restraints than I am. Providing them with a support network (each other, myself after class, static help pages, context, alternatives!) is essential to feeling confident while learning new technologies, and confidence itself is key to interacting at all.

What I’m doing differently this time

  1. Before launching into a step-by-step or the layout of a new platform, I’m going to make sure students understand why before how. Why does this matter? Why are we doing it this way? Why? My 4 year old will be so proud.
  2. I am still not, by any stretch, an expert in coding languages, but I do work with technologies that fail. So I’m going to create space and time to decipher and comprehend these failures with my students. Why didn’t this render? What should I do differently? And with some demonstrations, the answer will be “I don’t know,” but I know that allotting time to discuss the failure is important to understanding computer operations and building confidence.
  3. The lessons and lectures that previously happened in class will come from a static place (currently under construction) that allows students to rinse, lather, and repeat. In class, we will go over more difficult concepts in those lessons, but focus our scheduled time together on working through what’s most important.
  4. I will give more channels for finding support when we are not meeting. I always emphasized seeking support as a self-lead endeavor in the past, but going forward, mediating these referrals will be a part of that process. In other words, here is how you search this documentation for the resolution to this error message; here’s when I’m available outside of class…let’s schedule a meeting; share your contact information with your group members now, and schedule a time when you’ll meet to work on this project.
dhri | digital pedagogy

First-Wave Reflections from #acrlimm16

The view of the Adirondack Mountains from Willard Street, on the campus of Champlain College

The view of the Adirondack Mountains from Willard Street, on the campus of Champlain College

I spent the last week of July at ACRL’s Immersion in beautiful Burlington, VT, on the campus of Champlain College. In five days I experienced beautiful vistas, met intelligent and hard-working librarians, and grappled with my own vision of what a teaching librarian should strive for.  In reflecting on that experience shortly after it happened, here are just a few things that I learned. (Hopefully there will be more reflections in the coming months!)

The importance of building in time for critical reflection in everyday practice

I started this blog with a sense that I needed to deliberately reflect “out loud” about my teaching.  The difference, now, is that I can steer this reflection with more questions that “What worked?” and “What didn’t work?”  Though these are important questions, I will also begin to ask myself what my assumptions are, whether or not I am creating spaces for universally-accessible learning, if my plans are suited for active learning, or if they are just “activities,” and if my plans include any assessment elements.

How to take a more holistic approach with a spectrum of teaching and learning styles

Analyzing the pros and cons (with Post-its!) of using different learning theories to undergird your teaching.

Analyzing the pros and cons (with Post-its!) of using different learning theories to undergird your teaching.

I have been struggling with a style of library instruction that I call the “pointer,” where students spend 50 minutes watching a librarian point to resources, point to drop-down menus and filter buttons, point to shelves, etc.  My style of teaching had admittedly been a reaction to this.  I wanted to students to get more from my library instruction than a list of resources to look at, but instead a way of thinking. In my reaction, I neglected that some students really need and benefit from a “pointed” look at operational features of library resources. As my fellow Immersion cohort Amanda has already noted, my assumptions (we spent a lot of time talking about these!) lead me to ignore this generic-but-important part of instruction. Our teaching, I learned, needs to consider the holistic approach of generic (behavioral), situational (contextual), and transformative (critical) literacy perspectives (See Bruce and Lupton’s Chapter 1 of Practising Information Literacy). Our discussion of these literacy models and other learning theories (namely behavioral, cognitive, and social) showed me that a little bit of pointing (balanced with thinking and doing) can be a good thing!

I tell my students that research is a process, but I am reminded that teaching is one, too.

Using different learning styles to translate Student Learning Outcomes into active and measurable plans.

Using different learning styles from the Kolb Cycle to translate Student Learning Outcomes into active and measurable plans.

I’ve always appreciated the experimental/experiential and risk-taking elements of teaching, but our several discussions on student learning outcomes (SLOs) really tested my appreciation.  I grappled with creating meaningful SLOs that allowed me to be creative in my teaching but also kept that creativity from getting away from me, or in other words, from being too esoteric or jam-packed for students to benefit from in a short period of time.  I also learned that crafting SLOs is as much a trial-and-error process as research and writing are.  In several instances, I started with a question (what is this session’s purpose, and how can I measure it?), I drafted a way to pursue this question (SLO), and I worked on improving it, sometimes by myself, but more often by workshopping them with my peers (peer-review, y’all! Duh.).  Something I already knew–that teaching was an iterative exercise–now has a concrete method to inform it and make it more purposeful! More importantly, I was also reminded that part of instructional design is tapping into your teaching community of practice.  When we resume our teaching loads in the coming weeks, I will challenge myself to rely on this and imbue my teaching with not just the ideas in the Frameworks or the bygone Standards, but with these foundational principals of purposeful design.


Teasing out teaching philosophies


Image courtesy:

I’ll be attending the 2016 Immersion (Teacher Track) at the end of this month, and in preparation for this and for general maintenance of my teaching endeavors I’ve decided to unpack my teaching philosophy as a way of jump-starting my efforts in critical reflection. Lately, 3 things have been on my mind.

  1. I believe questions are one of our most powerful tools, as teachers and as learners.

In a letter to a senator, Helen Keller wrote, “I used to think that when I studied Civil Government and Economics, all my difficulties and perplexities would blossom into beautiful certainties; but alas, I find that there are more tares than wheat in these fertile fields of knowledge” (Story of My Life).  Questions, at least in my life’s experience, admittedly, have only ever lead to more questions, which is not frustrating, but a mouth-watering promise to feed a curiosity that can never be satiated. And to ask questions is to assert power, which l use as a purposefully loaded word, in this case.  Which leads me to my second point.

2. It is our duties as teachers to provide the most diverse (in the broadest sense of the word) materials in an environment that respects all forms of literacy and questions all forms of inquiry.

Power structures in the classroom are inevitable, which can be a barrier to those-not-in-power to asking questions. It’s imperative that I remember that diverse backgrounds create diverse sociocultural literacies (Elmborg, 2006), which can make it difficult for people to communicate freely in an environment that does not respect the legitimacy of different cultural literacies.  This is something I struggle with, because as much as I want classrooms to be a safe space for questions and debate, this is often easier said than done.  It’s also something, for me, at least, that is a constant pursuit, an asymptotic learning curve that I, as someone who was born into privilege, will always hope to approach.  And in order to create the dialogue that so badly needs to be a part of a well-rounded educational experience, the person leading that classroom, whether she portends to upholding a hierarchical structure or not, is in charge of that.  So it is just as important to ask questions as it is to invite them.

3. Fostering curiosity and the willfulness to pursue that curiosity is easier said than done.

I have lately been fascinated by studies done by psychologists and educational scholars on how to tackle difficult-to-measure and difficult-to-foster measures of success in the classroom.  This may be because my only exposure to teaching (other than being a TA for literature surveys in graduate school) has been in subjects that students are classically averse to.  I think that this kind of teaching warrants as much curiosity and grit as it requires from students.  I think that being an effective teacher also means being a willing learner,  opening up to the community of teachers that have already tackled and still tackle these questions, which leads to my last point:

4. Teaching and learning are about engaging in community, in one way or another.

I subscribe to the school of social constructivist teaching, where learners who are can actively participate in their learning communities are more likely to gain deeper understanding.  At the least, this creates a democratic learning environment among peers, and ideally, it imbues the importance of active citizenship in the classroom.  Whether classmates are communing with each other, or creating something with/for their communities, they are social activists in their own education.  At its core, teaching is activism, and to engage productively with one’s community is to participate in social justice.

Taking critical reflection seriously

Confession: this is my return to the blogosphere, since I stopped reflecting on my graduate school experiences in 2010.  I’ve been reluctant to write again, and I’ve been resisting taking this practice back up for many excuses, including a general disdain for the self-referential and occasional self-serving tone that blogs can assume, and a presumed lack of time that I would otherwise dedicate to various other work-related activities. Excuses aside, it’s time to shed my presumptions and get back to it! As a proponent of critical reflection, I think it’s time to jump back into the practice of evaluating my thoughts and practices as a teacher-librarian. So as I work on my self-serving reflections (!) in this public space (!), feel free to stop by, have a gander, rearrange some of the furniture, and help me give this space more feng shui.