by Carroll Wetzel Wilkinson
[From Feminist Collections v.25, no.4 (Summer 2004).]
In 1997, in a Women’s Studies Center Curriculum Committee meeting at West Virginia University, our founding director, Dr. Judith Stitzel, observed that the students in the capstone course of the women’s studies curriculum were not yet ready to meet the expectations for critical thinking of this final stage of their undergraduate work. For some time I’d been pondering strategies to strengthen the curriculum and contribute to the development of critical thought.
Dr. Stitzel’s observation led me to conceive of a two-part solution: (1) creation of a program of integrated, sequential, active learning exercises about research that could be used by interested faculty throughout the curriculum’s four years; and (2) development of a three-credit course for advanced undergraduates, addressing the feminist research process in a context of scholarly and non-scholarly communication and dissemination. During the course of a professional development leave, I began to implement that solution by creating a course entitled “Women’s Studies Research in the Information Age” (WS 493). Four students successfully completed the requirements of the course this past summer. I hope to offer it again in Spring 2005 to a larger audience.
The new course addresses the power of learning through the research process in women’s studies. It aims to be an antidote for “Google overload,” brushes with plagiarism, and papers that only skim the surface of a subject. While developing the course, I tried to balance the traditional intellectual foundation of scholarly (and non-scholarly) communication in women’s studies with the constant flow of dazzling technological innovations. The course intertwines women’s studies information dissemination with the tenets of contemporary information literacy.
In this article I will first set out the problem I saw: Students are often unable to grasp research as an important process because it is rarely, if ever, presented to them in a meaningful way. I will note how this problem connected with some of my own professional frustrations, and how I addressed both matters. Finally, I will share the results of my creative and research process essential to the realization of the course’s objectives, as well as an assessment of the initial outcomes for the students and their instructor.
Beyond wishing to strengthen the undergraduate University Libraries’ and women’s studies curricula, one motivation for my work was my own dissatisfaction with visiting classes once a semester as a guest to talk about research before students start a research project. While the “one-shot” visit is a step in the right direction, it is not enough to ensure that students have rewarding experiences with the research process, or that more effective papers, exhibiting critical thought, result. Furthermore, I have not seen evidence that many faculty colleagues are preparing even their advanced undergraduate students for the realities of serious research. Many seem to assume that students have acquired research skills when in fact they have not. Since, as Mary Catherine Bateson observed, “Lifelong learning is not optional,” and since many faculty do not appear to be providing adequate preparation, it is up to academic librarians to teach as many students as possible about in-depth information skills they can use throughout their lives.1
Instructional collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty has been widely discussed, and programs to promote information literacy have been implemented on many campuses.2 In Wisconsin, for example, there are many excellent examples of information literacy initiatives, most notably at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Similar programs exist at the University of Rhode Island, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the State University of New York at Albany. The West Virginia University Libraries sponsor a one-credit course in basic library skills that reaches large numbers of students, many “one-shot” visits to courses in a variety of disciplines, and now my three-credit course for advanced undergraduates in women’s studies. We do not have a comprehensive information literacy campus initiative as yet; many other academic libraries are also at this stage of instructional development.
I want to promote students’ awareness of the information environment of women’s studies and the affective stages of research, including students’ hitherto unacknowledged anxieties and fears concerning the ways of scholarship and information technology. I wish to increase their familiarity with controlled vocabulary, Boolean searching, the variety of sources they may encounter, and the knowledge construction they must pursue in order to communicate their new knowledge effectively. Such work takes at least a semester.
The Association of College and Research Libraries has established national standards of information literacy, including the ability to recognize an information need, know how to satisfy it, evaluate information sources critically, and use information ethically and legally.3 In order to understand the significance of these standards, students must experience the information environment around topics that have meaning for them. The challenge has been to figure out how to create those experiences.
During my leave, I reviewed much of the literature of teaching information literacy in the context of women’s studies. “Women’s Studies Research in the Information Age” did not turn out to be simply tool-based. Its intellectual foundation is a mélange of research from the literature of feminism, information services and literacy, and education. I developed a conceptual framework for the course, emphasizing authentic experience. I decided to introduce feminist and non-feminist reference sources through “orchestrated improvisation.” Though the students were expected to do traditional reading throughout the course and to use relevant print and electronic sources, I also presented active learning assignments as a key part of the pedagogy.
The research supporting “Women’s Studies Research in the Information Age” appears in writings published over the last thirty-five years that address the education of library users and the unique aspects of the information environment of women’s studies. What emerged from the literature was the outline of a developmental process by which students would begin to experience research as a problem-solving process. This included rigorous thought about problem definition, critical reading and analysis of source materials, and drafting and revision of reports of their findings. Although students may know something about parts of this process, they may never have seen it presented as a tightly integrated and clearly structured research protocol. Space does not allow explication of the ideas on which I based the course, but my online bibliography lists all of my sources.4
I sought, within the framework of the course, to enable students to understand that intellectual foundation and research protocol through active learning. Eight of the assignments I developed to cultivate such an understanding appear below.
1. Do the Curiosity Inventory provided (a series of questions about things you may have wondered about but not yet had time to explore) and see what answers you give to the questions. Discover whether you already have a topic on women that you wish to explore that you have been discouraged from exploring in the past.
2. Review the requirements of the four-part research process essay and annotated bibliography throughout the course.5 Parts include: a statement of your subject and how you chose it, your reasons for picking it, and your expectations for the directions it may take you. The first and second drafts and the final research process essay with supporting annotated bibliography complete the assignment, and relevant parts will be due at four points through the course. At each stage you will get feedback from the instructor.
3. Read the Kulhthau ISP (Information Search Process) model6 and do self-diagnosis to determine where you are in the six stages of the process. Maintain a research journal to keep a record your progress through the stages, noting the thoughts, feelings, actions, strategies, and moods you experience as you continue to work through your project. Be ready to hand in this journal from time to time through the course.
4. Read the 26-page “Library of Congress Subject Headings on Women” handout provided in class. Discuss in class their helpful applications as well as their drawbacks in searching. Using the headings in searches on topics provided by the instructor in class, practice subject searching. Share findings with class. Use the handout to determine relevant headings for your topic, once you decide what it is. Do more subject searching using your own subject and review the results.
5. Study the Mann “methods of searching model” and his defense of the book.7 Go over the seven types of searches noted and practice using them on a topic of interest in class, making use of the instructor as a guide as you work. Try these various methods outside class as well throughout the course. Find at least four books to include in your bibliography.
6. Do the in-class “Hierarchy of Knowledge” assignment by going over the definitions of fact, opinion, data, information, knowledge, and understanding with the instructor, and then break up into groups of two to find examples about women of each level of information in the New York Times.8
7. Visit the class community information stations and examine the publications you find there and visit the websites on the handout at Station 1. Using the evaluation sheets provided, write up your assessment of the quality and authority of each publication or site and be ready to come back to class and report on your findings.
8. For extra credit in this course, maintain a “Research Portfolio” throughout the semester. Over and above the required research journal, the portfolio may contain examples that illustrate your “mess of research scrapbook,” which will be very individual to you and your area of interest and topic of choice. There may be cognitive maps, drawings, photographs, photocopies of articles and books, screen prints of bibliographic records you find that are particularly interesting to you, interview notes from talks you had with friends, faculty advisors, or others during your research process, interlibrary loan requests, stills from films, clips from video, quotations of particular meaning, and anything else that has spurred your creativity and encouraged your research process and improved its quality and diversity.
Though the students are expected to do traditional reading throughout the course, class time was spent on active assignments such as the ones described above—assignments carefully crafted around ideas and objectives of information literacy, key developments in women’s studies, and the students’ own research subjects. To illustrate these processes, I introduced a variety of topics related to women, such as breakthrough publications in global women’s studies, friendships of women over the lifespan, the suffrage movement in West Virginia, and class issues in the workplaces of women in male-dominated fields.
All of the assignments aimed to encourage the students to do the following:
· Understand the process of inquiry in the interdisciplinary environment of women’s studies.
· Find a women’s studies subject and use search techniques demonstrated in class.
· Analyze the subject: state it in a sentence and ask at least three questions about it; then turn it into a research problem.
· Learn about subject language and controlled vocabulary concerning women.
· Understand the Mann “methods of searching” model.
· Understand the social, political, and economic components of the information environment and the special differences for women and women’s studies.
· Understand the hierarchy of knowledge and find examples in a daily newspaper on subjects about women.9
· Understand the publication sequence flow,10 and find examples of changes in information over time through use of the women’s history timeline.11
· Expand publication awareness: experience exposure to an array of publication types about women.
· Evaluate sources of all kinds, including print and electronic genres.
· Organize and present evidence.
· Write responsibly from sources.
· Cite sources and avoid plagiarism.
Central to the course were the following questions: What does it take to select a workable topic for exploration in women’s studies research? What are students’ experiences searching for information? What is an effective model that addresses the process of searching for information based on student experience? What can be done to incorporate that model into teaching about research? How do the students feel at various points during their searches for information? Do their views of the information environment change as they work on their research and complete the expectations of the course?
The students all took a pre-test at the beginning of the course that, not surprisingly, revealed spotty familiarity with both basic and advanced research skills. They could identify indexes and abstracts and access sources on the Libraries’ online catalog. All had written at least five to ten papers within the last two years; however, they used random searching, depending on Internet search engines as their primary search mechanism. Boolean searching and the use of formal subject headings were unknown. Even the basic notion of having a plan for gathering information was new to these students. Asked whether their curiosity about any subject had ever been fostered or encouraged by a college or research instructor in their past, they all answered “no.” In fact, the two graduate students taking the course volunteered that they elected it because they were both starting master’s theses and felt overwhelmed with the lack of guidance they had received from their advisors.
At the end of the course, in an assessment cognitive map,12 one student commented, “Curiosity is investigation into knowledge, not claiming to know or acquiring more knowledge to control a subject.” This observation came after completion of the final project and reflected a good grasp of the process orientation that I had hoped to get across.
As noted, the course’s final project was a research process essay to be accompanied by a sixteen-item annotated bibliography adapted from Susan Beck’s “Meta-Learning Research Project.”13 Based on the results of that four-part assignment, I know that the students learned to acknowledge and respect the steps of information gathering, the difficulty (and necessity) of focusing on a smaller subject than, or implication of, the one they initially chose to work on, the need to read at different levels to help the process of self-teaching during research, and the reality that they had little idea of the wealth and sophistication of the information environment available to them through the Libraries and the invisible Web. Two students also bashfully admitted in their course evaluations that there were quite a few library services they had never realized were available to them.
The illustration above shows a small portion of the information environment model the author constructed to use as a point of reference in class. (Photo by Janet Robbins, West Virginia University.)
Summer school enrollment tends to be small on our campus. I anticipate a larger enrollment when I teach the course in the spring semester. The students and I all agreed that the class sessions in summer school were too long. They would have benefited from the extended time of a regular semester to absorb and apply the ideas of the course. The next time I will not only assign out-of-class readings, but also expect students to report on the content of the readings in class. This will ensure that they do the readings at least when they are responsible for a report.
Some students found evaluation of websites and many varieties of print publications beneath them; others liked the exercises. This has not, however, shaken my resolve to present criteria for website and other publication assessment. I have learned that cognitive mapping can be used effectively as an assessment tool near the end of the course to determine what themes the students actually grasped. The annotated bibliography, no matter how thoroughly explained and how many examples of it are given, is still a difficult genre for some students to create correctly. Finally, the class involved more consciousness-raising than I expected. One student chose to work on the subject of the wage gap for women in employment. She assumed that a level playing field for women in the workforce had by now been achieved. Although she did grasp the concept of sex-based discrimination by the end of the semester, I am unsure that she accepted how widespread it still is.
With four students, the first offering of WS 493 was a small beginning but a good start. Will my hybrid classroom, with its community information stations stacked with examples of feminist publications and URL lists, catch on as an immersion method? Will my process approach to teaching research have staying power? Did mixing the theoretical with active learning applications from issues and trends from women’s studies work? Did the students become more effective researchers, and will they craft enriched research for the body of writing and study that they do in the future? Will they actually be life-long learners because of the experience in my class? These are the questions I hope to answer as I repeat the course next spring and over the next few years.
I am indebted to Phyllis Holman Weisbard for inviting me to share this work with the readers of Feminist Collections. The course syllabus and outline are posted online at www.libraries.wvu.edu/instruction/classes.htm (Library Course MDS WS SPTS 493G; MDS SPTS 493P: Women’s Studies Research in the Information Age). Readers are welcome to send comments and questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am also grateful to Phyllis, Sheridan Harvey and Janice Ruth of the Library of Congress, and the librarians of the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in
1. Mary Catherine Bateson, “Lives of Learning,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 25, 2003, p.B3.
2. Rosemary Young & Stephena Harmony, Working with Faculty To Design Undergraduate Literacy Programs (New York: Neal Schuman, 1999).
3. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (Chicago: American Library Association/Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000). Online at http://www.ala.org/ala/acrl/acrlstandards/informationliteracycompetency.htm
4. The bibliography appears online at http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/presentations/wilkinson/2004/sources.pdf. Knapp, Westbrook, Searing, Beck, Kuhlthau, Delamont, Jacobson & Gatti, Mann, Birks & Hunt, Bruce, Grassian & Kaplowitz, and Reichel & Ramey, among others, all contributed to the intellectual and practical foundations of the course.
5. See Susan Beck, “Meta-Learning Research Project,” in Trudi Jacobson & Timothy Gatti, eds., Teaching Information Literacy Concepts: Activities and Frameworks from the Field (Pittsburgh: Library Instruction Publications, 2001).
6. Carol Collier Kuhlthau, Seeking Meaning: A Process Approach to Library and Information Services, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004).
7. Thomas Mann, Library Research Models (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); “The Importance of Books, Free Access, and Libraries as Places—and the Dangerous Inadequacy of the Information Science Paradigm,” Journal of Academic Librarianship, v.27, no.4 (July 2001), pp.268–81.
8. See Gerald T. Burke, “Defining, Identifying, and Understanding the Difference Between Data, Information, and Knowledge,” in Jacobson & Gatti, eds., Teaching Information Literacy Concepts: Activities and Frameworks from the Field.
9. Burke, in Jacobson & Gatti, eds., Teaching Information Literacy Concepts: Activities and Frameworks from the Field.
10. Sharon Hogan, “Flow of Information” (conceptual approach to library instruction), 1980. (Adapted by Diane Zwemer, UCLA Libraries; confirmed in email correspondence between Sharon Hogan and Esther Grassian, September 18, 1998.)
11. National Women’s History Project, Timeline of Legal History of Women in the
12. See Jacobson & Gatti, eds., Teaching Information Literacy Concepts: Activities and Frameworks from the Field.
13. In Jacobson & Gatti, eds., Teaching Information Literacy Concepts: Activities and Frameworks from the Field.
[Carroll Wetzel Wilkinson is Women’s Studies Bibliographer, Department Head for Access Services and the Depository, and University Librarian at West Virginia University Libraries in Morgantown, West Virginia. She holds an M.L.S. degree from Rutgers University and a B.A. from Wells College (Aurora, NY). In July 2003, supported by a professional development grant from West Virginia University and a fellowship from the WVU Stitzel Endowment for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Women’s Studies, she took a six-month leave to create the new three-credit course described in this article. “Women’s Studies Research in the Information Age” will be taught for the second time in the Spring 2005 semester at WVU.]
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