I am thinking a lot about writing these days. That’s partly because I am so lucky that I get to help coordinate our gen ed curriculum (what we call the Integrative Studies Program), the Center for Writing, undergraduate research (our Center for Creative Inquiry), and Faculty Enrichment. Each of these initiatives is coordinated by a faculty member and within the past year all have come under my administrative umbrella along with digital learning. We are all excited about the connections emerging from our work together.
It’s also because I have written about library instruction, research, and writing and because I still find writing to be one of the most intimidating and challenging parts of my work. I write a lot: academic papers, PhD dissertation, published articles, but mostly memos, reports, evaluation letters, more memos. After over 40 years of academic writing experience I still begin many projects (including this post) only after days of thinking, mulling over sentences in my head, and then with fits and starts. I have often wondered if it’s really more about my inadequacy as an idea creator, first in religious studies and then in librarianship.
I have lots of ideas. Sometimes they develop as I respond to things I am reading. Very often I they emerge when I am engaged in conversation with colleagues. I write them down and have lists of potential topics to write about. As I added a wide variety of blogs covering librarianship, politics, critical and open pedagogy to my regular reading, I find myself being much more discriminating in the more formal and traditional research I read. Some of that is a result of having less time to read, but I know it’s also because I know that this form of communication is not the only place for me to be exposed to new ideas (outside of conferences and other meetings).
Finally, I felt ready to use this way of communicating to put some of my ideas out into the marketplace. It’s still hard and takes much longer than I always assume it does for many of the people whose blogs I read and admire.
I still think and read a lot about information literacy, teaching research and writing, writing from sources, and open pedagogy. And I think a lot these days about what our students will do when they are not on campus. Some will need go on to hone their academic writing skills. Many will not. So what would it mean to ask students in a first-year seminar or “writing” class to write, speak, or design something that communicates an idea, argument, or opinion based on – wait for it – any sources they find? Convince a family member to change their mind about a political issue. Convince your class colleagues to support a change in campus policies. Explain why you think limits on immigration are a good/bad idea.
Select a format – poster, short video, podcast, short formal paper, op ed, live presentation, interview with an expert. Students would need to know their stuff and to be confident that the facts, ideas, or statistics they present are accurate representations of the sources from which they are taken. NB: Did you notice how I am deliberately ignoring all those questions about how to assess and grade?
I’m not suggesting this take the place of writing. But after spending the better part of a career trying to help students learn to write academic papers, I now wonder if we forgot to focus on why we wanted students to write. Writing, speaking, listening, drawing, and performing are how we communicate, connect, and learn more about others and ourselves. Writing is important. And hard. Believe me. An effective communicator places themselves in community of ideas. As I encounter our students today, I want to encourage them to see themselves, from the moment they arrive, as part of such a community.
Perhaps this whole post is really just a justification for my current diet of short-form essays (some of the best political writing going on these days), blogs, and Twitter. Is it age, attention span, laziness, the crush of too much to do with too few staff and not enough budget? All of the above? I’d like to think not.
I am grateful for my open pedagogy mentors here in New Hampshire (Karen Cangialosi, Robin de Rosa, and Jenny Darrow). I’m thinking in lots of new ways about what we do as librarians and as teachers. And the strong voices in the critical librarian movement (Veronica Arellano Douglas, Emily Drabinksi, Chris Bourg, and many more). Radical changes lie ahead. Our need to communicate won’t go away. How are you thinking about academic writing and our roles, especially as academic librarians?