Library Engagement with First Year Writing: 4 strategies. An interview with Julia Feerrar

July 12, 2015, 10:39 pm


Julia Feerrar

Here is an interview with Julia Feerrar, Learning Services Librarian at Virginia Tech. She joined our team last summer and spent the past year experimenting with first-year writing courses.

The team tested some new approaches and focused on relationship building in order to become better partners with the writing program.

Tell me a little about your work with English 1106 this year. What did you do differently?

JF: English 1106 and 1204 (honors) are first year writing classes at Virginia Tech that focus on writing from research. Traditionally (and not too surprisingly), these classes have been a high-volume instruction area for us and an opportunity to reach many students at a critical point in their college experience.

This past spring semester our teaching team tried some new things in our engagement with 1106 classes, looking to maximize our impact on student learning and also to think about the scalability of our program. We piloted some new teaching approaches that move beyond the traditional one-shot session, tested out using a worksheet as a form of authentic assessment, and worked on further strengthening our relationships with the first year writing program.

What are the different approaches? And what did you learn and what are the plans for the future?

JF: We piloted four new teaching approaches in addition to more traditional one- or two-shot library workshops and workshops in Special Collections:

  • We offered a series of four drop-in research studios where ENGL 1106 students from any section could show up for one-on-one help from a librarian. We had some great consults with the students who came to these studios—the highest attendance was at our pre-finals studios when most class sections had a longer research paper due.
  • We also adapted and used the Amazing Race game that librarians at Radford University play with some of their first year classes. During the game, students work with a partner to move through a series of authentic research tasks, so it’s a nice way to facilitate some guided discovery learning.
  • Some sections of 1106 had a flipped library workshop. In these classes students watched a video and completed a short assignment before their class time with a librarian, the goal being to encourage some deeper processing. I gathered videos and developed other materials to help facilitate these flipped classes, which brings me to our final pilot approach: training the trainers.
  • Drawing on these materials, we offered support and consultation to course instructors who wanted to integrate information concepts and skills often covered during a library workshop into their classes.

Ultimately, we engaged with 71% of the 1106 and 1204 classes offered in the spring and many of those class sections received multiple approaches or forms of instruction. I see that as a big success for our first semester of piloting and I’m especially excited about how we’ve continued to develop relationships with the faculty and graduate teaching assistants that teach 1106.

One of my biggest takeaways from each new approach we piloted was how much our ability to collaborate with instructors informs the success of every learning experience we help to facilitate. For example, I think that some of the most impactful workshops I taught were the flipped classes that I planned in person with the course instructor after discussing his or her assignment and students pretty thoroughly. Going forward, I’d like to try to assess whether or not that’s true! We’ll be building on what I think of as our ‘1106 community’ to strengthen our assessment practices and to further develop the drop-in, flipped, and train-the-trainer models.

I know that you developed some custom learning objects for these courses—can you tell me more about that?

JF: Yes! That was one of my favorite aspects of our ENGL 1106 engagement last semester. I put together a toolkit for instructors that includes sample lesson plans, tutorial videos, and the worksheet we used in multiple classes. I shared this toolkit with 1106 instructors, especially the graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), during some of their meetings and through email. Initially it served as a jumping off point for discussions about learning objectives, information literacy, pedagogy, and needs for additional learning objects like videos and LibGuides. But further, I talked with instructors about how they might actually incorporate parts of the toolkit into their own teaching.

In this way, we took on more of a consulting or instructional design role, which is something I’m excited to explore further! Many of the GTAs were enthusiastic about the toolkit—as new teachers, they seemed eager to have additional resources and ideas to pull from. I know that at least 8 instructors used our content, reaching 13 class sections. For some, this was the sole form of library instruction, while for others it was incorporated in addition to a workshop with a librarian.

Tell me a little more about your work with the GTAs and how you developed relationships/partnerships with them.

JF: Since I’m pretty new to Virginia Tech, one of my goals for working with ENGL 1106 this year was to get a better sense of who our writing instructors are and how their program is structured. A big chunk of the 1106 classes are taught by GTAs, so I knew that working with them would be important, but didn’t have a clear understanding of their needs or how to best reach out to them. The breakthrough came when we learned that GTAs in the English department move through a training cycle and are mentored in small groups by faculty advisors. Last winter we met with these advisors to talk about the approaches we were thinking about piloting and our collaboration more broadly. Eventually I was able to meet with each of the small groups, using the toolkit to spark discussion. I also did my best to meet one-on-one with every GTA whose class I was going to work with directly.

Most GTAs are in a really interesting position as novice teachers and budding scholars themselves. That’s a combination of roles that I identify with as a new librarian, but I hadn’t thought deeply about what it means for our partnerships until I started talking with a lot of the GTAs. I think there’s a lot that librarians can do to support GTAs as they navigate their teaching and learning roles, including talking through different pedagogies and educational technologies, providing examples of lesson plans and learning objects, collaborating on assignment design, and even just being an empathic listener.

Anything else you want to share?

JF: Another piece of the ENGL 1106 puzzle is the content of our workshops and learning objects. What learning objectives are we teaching towards? What aspects of information literacy are we exploring with our first year writing students? I tracked the learning outcomes that librarians reported teaching towards in 1106 last semester and found some interesting nuances. For example, we might talk about “picking,” “developing,” or “narrowing” a topic. I’m really interested in the discourse around research—how we frame and articulate research and information-related concepts—and I wonder what the implications of how we talk about things like developing topics might be. This would probably be a great collaborative project with our 1106 partners who just so happen to specialize in rhetorical analysis!

Here is an infographic Julia created:

ENGL 1106 & the Library 2015

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