This Week’s Eureka Moment: Focusing Phenomena

Those of you who know me well have probably heard me say that if I had lived during Puritan times, my name would have been Pragmatism. Useful objects, useful processes, and useful concepts make me inordinately happy. Pragmatism Sobel–that would have been me. 🙂 Of course I would not have fared well during the witch trials, but that…that is another story.

So, this week, I have been working on the presentation I’ll be giving at LILAC 2019 on using the actor-oriented transfer perspective (“AOT”) in information literacy instruction. I’ve been hyper-preparing to discuss major concepts within AOT at LILAC. As part of that, I spent time pulling together multiple examples of all the terminology, applied in information literacy. Would you like to know which AOT term sparked a “eureka moment”? Focusing phenomena.

The words “focusing phenomena” may not have lit up all of the synapses of professional excitement in your mind. But let me explain. When you’re working with AOT, “focusing phenomena” refers to all of the things that the instructor uses to help students know where to focus their attention in a particular situation. The word “things” is purposefully vague. The focusing phenomena used in a single classroom for a single purpose often refer to a collection of lesson plans, powerpoints, worksheets, posters(!), plans for activities, and more. The collection of focusing phenomena also includes completed student work. (For much more information, see Lobato, Ellis, & Munoz, 2003).

Although I’ve been working with this concept for several years now, here’s what excited me this week. One idea that I haven’t tried yet is discussing reinforcement for information literacy concepts in terms of focusing phenomena–particularly with the faculty for whom I teach. So–here are the focusing phenomena that I use to introduce and practice concepts of information literacy during my 75-minute session. What kinds of focusing phenomena can we use to help reinforce, and to help your students continue their connection with this concept throughout the semester? Pragmatic, yes?

My instruction sessions start on February 5th. Updates to come! And if you try this method, please give me a shout!


Lobato, J., Ellis, A. B., & Munoz, R. (2003). How “Focusing phenomena” in the instructional environment support individual students’ generalizations, mathematical thinking and learning, 5(1): 1-36. DOI: 10.1207/S15327833MTL0501_01

Moving to the Online Arena

I always knew that I’d eventually return to the original subject of this blog–how we can apply research & literature from the field of education in academic libraries. And here we are!

My colleague Lorrie and I will be presenting at the LILAC 2019 conference in Nottingham, UK–and we’re pretty darn psyched, by the way. One of our two workshops will be on a subject that is dear to our professional hearts & central to our work: modifying the techniques that we use for “in-person” information literacy instruction sessions for online courses. In other words, that music professor who we’ve taught for in person for five years gets her first online section of Music Appreciation, and we work together to determine how best to embed information literacy skills in the course. Good stuff.

By good fortune (and general interest in the subject), I took a course from CU Online titled Online Skills Mastery last summer. Concepts in the course are based partially on Aaron Johnson’s Excellent Online Teaching: Effective Strategies for a Successful Semester Online. (You can also learn more though Aaron’s Excellent Online Teaching site.) Online Skills Mastery helps faculty plan how they will teach superior-quality online courses. Even though I did not have any credit-bearing courses in the works at the time, I found the course very valuable. Full disclosure, just like many colleagues in our field, I had a difficult time adapting the lessons from the course for a while. Same set of problems/excuses–I would use all of this if [I had the students for the whole semester…if I knew the students better…if I actually had a syllabus and assignments…et cetera, et cetera, et cetera].

Then I actually listened to my own advice and said, this is valuable stuff! How can I adapt it to my own teaching landscape? Without further ado, here are several lessons from Excellent Online Teaching that have helped to strengthen my own online library instruction.

Embed your personality. This was a revelation for me! I bring a lot of personality to in-person instruction. But in the past, my online instruction sessions & tools for asynchronous teaching focused on the message and almost purposefully separated out any hints of personality. Now I’ve learned to put a myself into online instruction (sparingly, though) through the examples I choose & the narratives I use to present them, through the ways in which I introduce myself & converse with the students (synchronously or asynchronously), and through even simpler techniques like making sure that students see a photo or video showing me. After all, we often say in academic libraries, make sure that the students know that there’s a real person there to help them.

Communicate regularly (and do it well). Aaron’s best practices for communicating regularly provided a couple of eureka moments for me. (These points come from Chapter 4 of Excellent Teaching Online; learn much more there.) I can easily modify them for courses with which I have a semester-long relationship. I can also use them as inspiration for the ways I follow up with students from one-shot sessions. The most insightful points for me were [paraphrased]:

  • Each message should help students find a starting point with some part of their work. Thinking about the questions that students send my way, this makes a lot of sense.
  • Explain why the instructions you’re giving the students matter.
  • Make expectations clear. Be specific about what we’re looking for, or what a successful application of skills will look like.
  • And, of course, encourage students. This may be easy or difficult for you as an individual teacher. I believe that a little extra encouragement is something powerful that we librarians can provide–a supportive “ally” relationship.

It’s well worth finding a copy of Aaron’s book and/or checking out his website. These and other principles can easily be modified for your information literacy instruction.

Please let me know how these are working for you–or if there are other principles of good online teaching that you’ve adapted for online environments.



Johnson, A. (2013). Excellent online teaching: Effective strategies for a successful semester online. Amazon Digital Services.

The Superpower that Has No Name

There’s a fair amount of popular/professional literature out there about librarians’ supposed superpowers. There are numerous articles about librarians saving the world, and then, of course, there’s Batgirl. You can Google it (yes, we ‘brarians Google from time to time. 🙂  )

Tonight I’m thinking about my own superpower. I wasn’t gifted with one of the exciting ones–but when it comes to useful superpowers that empower students, I lucked out. Maybe this is a superpower that you have, too?

Here’s the secret: I don’t get bored. Really. You can explain the most esoteric, detailed academic concept to me and I think it’s fascinating. (Don’t try mansplaining anything to me, though; that’s different.) In fact, I think that your engagement with the topic is cool. I want to hear how you hope to change the world with your knowledge–because I know that you have plans, or at least some powerful starting points.

Like many bona fide superheroes, it was part chance and part upbringing that helped me to hone this superpower. I sprang from two generations of talented phytopathologists (Google it.)–my Dad researches wheat and corn, and my Grandpa researched potato fungus. We are a family that does not hesitate to discuss science over the dinner table. Also, I get that sometimes it’s the tiniest details, shrouded in science and magic, that have the biggest implications for the world. Sometimes you have to tell me what those implications are, though.

How can all of this be empowering to students? That part is easy! I’ll gladly listen. I enjoy serving as the “educated public” to whom you explain your science. I love hearing about the work that you hope to do one day, and how it could change the world. I can connect you with resources for your research. I can also tell you stories of other students who have made it in the past–just ask.

Oh, yeah–and I don’t expect that you have the same superpower. You have your own superpowers. When you find a career that’s a match for your powers, that’s when you’ll know you’re in the right place. That’s your wisdom for the day. 😉


While I’ve been working on sketching out a post that really does relate to the theme of this blog(!), I’ve also been thinking about something else. For me, in my own mind and heart and work, this ties together education and library science and other major components of my profession and my life. (But yeah — it does stray away from the theme a bit. No excuses. 🙂  )

Recently I’ve been doing some organized soul searching — among other things, receiving some amazing mid-career coaching from my friend Janneke — and I have developed a new practice. It’s changed things.

When I find myself hesitating to take a professional leap right now, I try to pull apart the layers of emotion that are guiding my choice. What’s really there, layer upon layer? What’s keeping me from taking action? Sometimes there are perfectly good reasons — the time isn’t right, or I need to think through the options further, or…sometimes it’s just a case of common sense!…but sometimes there’s a layer of fear.

And if it’s fear without a good reason, I try to look at the situation and the choices without that layer of fear. What does the answer look like now? Powerful magic, my friends.

What we can learn from each other: Librarians and university faculty

Welcome to the new year! May it be a year of learning from each other.

I spend a lot of my working life in academic libraries talking with university faculty. (At my institution, librarians are faculty as well. But I’m talking about English professors, art professors, engineering professors…you get the idea.) I spend a lot of my commuting & research time reading articles about academic libraries, and about both P-12 and higher education. I spend a lot of time in my doctoral program debating and discussing and binding with teachers and administrators from a wide variety of settings. So you can guess some of the things that I think about.

One of the most pragmatic, given my work is–my gosh, there is so much that academic librarians and university faculty can learn from each other! Another is–why aren’t we talking more about this? That and other connections between the fields of LIS and education–which can so intimately inform each other–is indeed the theme of this blog.

So let’s talk. First, what can academic librarians tell university faculty? Here’s a list to start with:

  • We have a longitudinal view of students’ academic and personal development. We often work closely with a small but meaningful number of students from the first time they choose to connect with the library until they graduate.
  • What do students really know about research? Ask a librarian. For many of us, that’s our life.
  • Students share their challenges, victories, fears, and complaints candidly.
  • Rather profoundly, students often verbalize how they are applying ideas learned in one class, in another class. We see transfer of learning on the large scale.
  • Similarly, students often explain assignments’ requirements to us. We have a good idea what kinds of instructions trip students up, and what supports smooth sailing.
  • Although you could argue that the students we work with may not represent campus demographics accurately, we do work extensively with both high achievers and struggling students. Academic librarians have insights into what students with different academic backgrounds and/or levels of preparation find helpful, struggle with, and so on.

What can librarians learn from university faculty? A few ideas based on my experiences:

  • Faculty know individual students deeply. They have a detailed view of individuals’ performance, needs, and more.
  • Likewise, they often have powerful narratives of individual students’ experiences to share.
  • While we know how assignments pan out on the reference desk or in the library instruction classroom, faculty know how they pan out across the semester. Sometimes my head is so deep in my own work with students that I need that reminder.
  • Faculty are wonderful sources of insight on trends in teaching & learning.
  • No matter how up to date I think I am on trends/requirements/changes/etc. on curriculum at my institution, faculty always have a lot to tell me. This is a favorite topic for a bit of conversation when I run into my favorite faculty members.

How do we find opportunities to connect? Some of my favorite opportunities are before, after, & during instruction; at university symposia; on university-level committees (I’m a committee junkie–I actually enjoy committee work); over coffee (no one says no!); and by offering to write posts for various university blogs & publications.

Whew! Librarians, what else can we share with university faculty? What else have you learned along the way from these interactions? Let’s talk.

Here’s to a vibrant new year! Thanks for being a part of it.

Brainstorming session: Creating Wicked Students

Hi, everyone!

So, getting back to the original purpose of this blog–let’s talk about some of the riches of the world of education & how we can use them in academic libraries. And why do we imagine that divide, anyway? Education and libraries are so closely, passionately, powerfully tied together anyway that I believe that we should be keeping an eye on each other’s thoughts and discoveries all the time.

Recently I participated in a professional book club through my university’s Center for Faculty Development. The sessions were focused on Paul Hanstedt’s book Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. The book is really worth reading(!!), but you can get a good sense of the major themes from a presentation on Creating Wicked Students provided by AAC&U.

The book focuses on the value of & methods for incorporating what Hanstedt calls “wicked problems” into college courses. What is a wicked problem, you ask? Wicked problems are typically the complicated, meaningful, messy problems with no perfect solution that we see in the real world. They’re the problems that we see in real jobs every day. To imagine that in the field of LIS…a wicked problem might be asking Master’s students in LIS to plan materials & instruction for an online, sophomore-level physics course where they’d been asked to serve as the course’s official librarian. They get a few hints from the fictitious professor ahead of time: for example, at this institution, about 10% of the students speak English as a second (or more!) language, so the librarian will need to take this into account. Also, a number of students have expressed interest (but not a deep knowledge…yet) of astrophysics early in the semester, so astrophysics is definitely a subtopic to include. This in and of itself would count as a “wicked problem.” The LIS students could be challenged even further by, for example, learning that the fictitious professor would miss a week due to unexpected surgery & that the course librarian would be asked to “cover” for that week on the spur of the moment.

Here’s where I am at the moment. I can imagine plenty of wicked problems for LIS. No problem there–my LIFE is wicked LIS problems! 🙂 I can also come up with ways to encourage faculty and students to consider taking relatively “wicked” approaches to assignments. Lean toward the complex, the real, the meaningful, and the messy.

What I’m working on right now, though, is how to incorporate wicked problems into information literacy instruction. I can come up with some on the small scale. For example, I can ask my music business students to explore public reactions to an artist across all kinds of media, and through all kinds of voices–social media, sales stats, and yes, scholarly venues. That’s wicked, and we can sample it during a 75-minute session. What else can we do? What options do we as librarians have for introducing wicked problems and wicked approaches to research & information literacy during the types of interactions we have with students every day?

Let’s talk! I’d like to hear your ideas & start bouncing options off each other.