Sugar and Caffeine (and Active Learning)

A student once said to me “Professor Stonebraker, I like your class, but I also feel like I need to take a nap after it.”

As previously mentioned, I really enjoy teaching in an active learning classroom. But I am also aware that active learning is often more challenging than we give it credit for. What we are asking students to do is often to do more cognitively challenging things often in ways that they have not done them before. That takes labor.

The problem with active learning in academia is that we expect the highest most productive output during the times in which students are the least likely to be ready to perform. I teach a class that meets at 8:30 in the morning on a Wednesday. I can tell you for a fact that I’m not at my best at that time of the day, and I go to bed at 9pm like an old person.

There’s a reason why professors focused on papers and take home exams for so long. That meant that students could do the “hard” more cognitively challenging parts of learning at their own leisure. Even if you think you weren’t ready to learn during the traditional lecture all you really needed to do was soak up what was said, write down as much of what was said in hopes that later you would be better able to understand what was said. In that classroom universe, we really aren’t expecting that much more out of our students really data entry during class time. Any more would just be asking for trouble.

Imagine if there was  some of device that would make sure that the students stayed focused and also kept them awake at 8:30 in the morning? Wouldn’t we want that in all of our classrooms?

I keep a candy basket in my office. I fill it mostly with stocked Halloween and Valentines day candy. At times I’ve also used some extra Starbucks stars and gotten one of those cardboard boxes of coffee. You would be amazed how much more awake those students are when they have had a bit of coffee. You would be amazed at how much better they are at doing the “hard stuff” of active learning when they are more ready to learn.

Is this overkill? Should I be encouraging sugar and caffeine in a society where we already have too much sugar and caffeine? Maybe. But the thing about my class is that it exists in one space, not throughout all different times, and I think it’s a little unfair to depend on students to come prepared for before each and every class for a new and challenging learning environment. We ask students to spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks, what’s wrong with buying them a little candy to help them make it through?


Spring Break Cognitive Bias Assignment

I’m really interested in how people make decisions, and I think it’s very applicable to information literacy. I wrote this article about it. It’s kinda my thing.

It’s spring break here at Purdue this week. The Purdue academic calendar is really mean to second half semester classes in spring. You start the eight weeks, then immediately go on Spring Break the next week. After the break, I have honestly had multiple students who actually forgot that they are taking my class and forget to show up. The assignment can’t be too much of a burden, since I have only instructed these students for a week and don’t know what they are capable of. This assignment acts as a bit of an introduction among students and also a way for students to apply the concept of bias.

For this lesson sequence, students read the Harvard Business Review Article “Before You Make that Big Decision”. This article is really great summary of lots of different cognitive biases that might happen. Student then select a decision they made as a group that may have been affected one of the biases. The group aspect is really important because I think that decisions are more interesting when you make them as a group. It also allows them to not have to take blame if the outcome was bad.

I like this assignment because I have found that students make all sort of decisions as a group. It usually gets pretty silly and I think the conversations students have are often very frank with each other. It usually builds community while bringing home the idea of thinking through your decisions.

The debrief after break is especially interesting. When students come back, we talk about the outcomes of the decision. Students are asked whether or not they think their decision was good or bad and why. The ‘why’ is interesting because student usually end up in two camps: people who think a decision is good because the outcome is good, and people who think that a decision was good because the process was good. This is actually a big schism in decision science between the two. Often students will ask which the best way is, and the answer is that you need both ways. The decisions-that-are-good-because-the-outcome-is-good people tend to be more scientific, in that they observe what happened and try again, and again and again. That’s how new knowledge gets discovered. On the other side, you would not like to have an accountant, for example, who was an outcome-best decision maker. For those decisions, you want someone who consider all outcomes, crosses every T. Imagine is your accountant would consider your taxes filed if no one sent you to jail for tax fraud. That would not end well for you.

This assignment also a great way to get students to think through their decisions without telling them their way of making decisions might be misguided. That’s not exactly the point. We all make decisions in different ways and in different contexts. Thinking about thinking is crucial.

Assignment Description: Spring Break

The reading “Before You Make that Big Decision” is all about checking biases and pitfalls when making business decisions. But it applies to every day decisions as well.

Pick a type of bias mentioned in the article (self-interested bias, affect heuristic, groupthink, cost fallacy, endowment effect, disaster effect, loss aversion, overconfidence, planning fallacy, optimistic bias, competitor neglect, etc).

Over the next week, look for a time in which you made a decision AS A PART OF A GROUP that may have been affected by this bias. Describe that that situation below, and how that bias affected that decision (minimum 150 words)


Leaving space by being my usual not-fitting-in self

Very early in my career, I started thinking about the people who will come after me. I think a lot about how I impact the environment in which I work. I care about leaving that environment better than I found it. I have been blessed by knowing all sorts of really great people who have made the environment better and they inspire me.

Fitting in is hard. Even now in 2018, I found myself sometimes entering all white all male rooms or all baby-boomer rooms and it’s surreal for someone like me who entered a deeply feminized and increasingly millennial profession. In these positions I feel a great pressure to emulate women that came before me. I can feel the woman-shaped shadow that they have left.

Sometimes I can fit into that shadow, sometimes I just can’t. It’s not other women’s fault that I am not them. The legacy left behind can feel as if difference is frozen in glass, like being in this space means you can only be a specific type of person or as a specific type of worker from specific time or place, because great incredible people who look like you were a specific type of person or from a specific type of place.

When you are the first in an environment, the most important part is sometimes making sure that there is still a spot for those people who come after you. In these environments, I think the part where I can be my most effective is if I be my usual weird self. You know, the normal person that I am. With my sarcastic sense of humor. With my own bad handwriting. And my love of pictures of guinea pigs in cups.

I think that being weird is the most responsible thing I can do. Because in the end, it’s the most I can do. I just try to bring my whole self to work, because I hope that if I am as much of my whole self as I can be, then I will encourage others to be themselves as well, or at least the best versions of themselves that they can bring to work. They won’t spend all their time trying to fit into the leader shaped shadows that others have left before them.

Really Excellent People I have met: Betty Nelson

I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet, specifically the great women that I get to meet. I hope that people don’t mind me talking good about them behind their back.

Betty Nelson is the first person I have met who I would describe as larger than life. She’s a giant in this community. There are a few people out there who just have an amazing presence that at once asserts that this person is important but also that this person is very kind and supportive. Betty Nelson was Purdue’s third dean of students in 1987-1995, after 20 years as an assistant and an associate dean. After she retired, she continued to be active in the community. Her nickname at Purdue was the iron fist in a velvet glove.

I first met Betty Nelson through another excellent person I met at Purdue, Mike Piggott. Mike was interested in talking to me because he worked with another group, the Greater Lafayette Quality of Life Council, on which I now sit. At that time, Betty Nelson chaired the committee. I met with Mike and I expressed my desire through the course to make the community better. He said something like “You’ve got to meet Betty Nelson.” He suggested I meet up with her and the impressive Tetia Lee. The meeting was really validating for me to discuss many issues in the community. Betty Nelson was, and is, a tireless advocate for women. One of the first thing she said to me when I said I was teaching a course in Honors was how she was so impressed all the Deans and Associate Deans were women.

I could talk to Betty Nelson all day. Betty is the sort of person with an eye toward implementation. She makes you feel supportive even when she is being critical because sometimes the best support is to help refine and strengthen your ideas. Betty told me of teaching that “rivers need banks” which I think is going to change the way that I structure final projects. Betty and I are both really interested in the Greater Lafayette. I think one of the amazing parts of Betty is how open she is to students. She really is always trying to understand young people and how to help them. Betty is an inspiration to me because she’s very good at directing the energy of others without really taking ownership or responsibility over their projects. This is something I have realized is very important as I increasingly move into the part of my career that is most focused on mentorship.

In meeting Betty Nelson, I knew I had met a legend, even when I didn’t know as much about her story. She’s the impetus for this blog series of really excellent people. I met her and I just felt immediately so grateful for being at Purdue and having the chance to meet her. I hope someday I have half the passion and drive that she has!


Really Excellent People I have met: Mike Piggott

I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet. Betty Nelson refers to Mike Piggott (Community Relations Director at Purdue) as the living embodiment of the Connector Bus – that the bus which runs from Lafayette to West Lafayette, connecting people together. It seems peculiar to refer to a person as some form of idea transportation, but I think in this case it works.

Mike Piggott does not have to be as nice to me as he is. The first time I was aware of Mike Piggott was when I was working on a library committee for an event called Boiler Gold Rush. I was putting together a presentation that needed to be funny to 3000 freshmen crowded into the Elliot Hall of Music on a Friday morning. I needed a “game show” personality. Since what we were talking about did not really need library skills, I thought back to the person that I had heard at faculty orientation a couple of year before. I remember being really impressed by Mike’s understanding of Purdue lore and also how much confidence and personality made him engaging and dynamic at faculty orientation. It turns out that was because he was a television personality, he was a retired reporter and anchor. I reached out to him and asked if he would be interested in hosting this event.

Mike Piggott did not have to say yes, but Mike said yes. To speaking in front of 3000 students. In a program that he did not have control over. That takes a very special person to agree to a random email. I think that even now I would probably not sign up for something like that. I don’t think that I would have the guts. Or the trust. In the end, we couldn’t do the game show due to other factors, but what an incredible person to just be willing to jump on to such a crazy plan. He didn’t have to do that, he could have said no, but he didn’t.

A couple years later, he cold-emailed me. He had been talking to Greater Lafayette Commerce, who had been one of the first groups that I had gotten to come talk to my Greater Lafayette Greater class. It turned out that he sat on the Quality of Life Council, which he was very interested in getting involved in the class. It turned out to be a great fit and the class benefited from interaction.

Mike reached out and found ways to get involved. He also went one step further, introducing me to other people in the community who could help me teach my class. He told me about events. He also linked me to a video of the totally amazing “Lafayette’s Great” theme song. This type of emotional labor is really something I’m used to only seeing in women on campus, but it’s by no means something that only women can do. He has a way of making you feel like you are very valuable to the whole organization, but also that there are ways that you could serve the organization better.

The thing I like the most about Mike is also how genuinely nice he is. What does it mean to be a nice person, even when you don’t need to be? It’s more than just showing people the door.  I am trying more and more to figure out what habits of niceness might look like, that sort of seemingly effortless way that you bring people into something.  Without him, I don’t think I would know where to go around Purdue. And I’m very grateful for that. Mike Piggott is making Lafayette great.

Really Excellent People I have met: Joy Dietz

For February, I am focusing on really excellent people. Call it the nice version of talking about people behind their back. I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet, specifically the great women that I get to meet. I like to highlight those people because I feel really lucky to know so many really excellent people. One who I really only got to know as she was retiring is the incredible Joy Dietz.

In academia, people like to talk a lot about coaching versus teaching or advising. Coaching drives us to direct our attention to the individual’s strengths and encourage people to achieve greater things. It’s really tough, but if I were to look at a model of effective coaching I would look to Joy Dietz. She’s the real deal.

Joy was Director of the Women in Management Center when I first met her, but she also ran the Leadership Communication Center during the same period. Her work involves incredible amounts of individual development. I have never met someone who is as good at encouraging people as Joy. Every conversation I have had, every project I have considering, no matter how big small or otherwise, Joy has found a way to encourage me. I like to think I am special (we are all above average after all) but I see this with students as well. Students and staff light up when she see her. I can tell why she was drawn the Women in Management project. There’s no better mentor in Krannert, especially for women.

It can be very scary to imagine a better future. One of Joy’s strengths is how much she makes people feel valued and how she really does believe we can make the world a better place. She is very interested in seeing everyone succeed in the community. Work in people-development positions can often be draining. It’s often very hard to see the forest for the trees. But Joy really has the vision see what things can be, versus what things always are. She can look at a group of services and see a center, or a group of people and see a movement. The world of work can be a challenge, especially for women, but she’s not afraid to imagine that better future.

I have benefit ted direct from her leadership and I feel very lucky to have her in my community.

Really excellent people I have met: Amanda Thompson

For February, I am focusing my blog on really excellent people. Call it my Valentines to people who inspire me. I work at Purdue University, and I think one of the greatest gifts of working at Purdue University is all the great people I get to meet, and more specifically the great women that I get to meet. There’s some really badass females around this place that I have had the great chance to work with.

One such person is Amanda Thompson, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Foundry.

I first met Amanda while I was co-chair of the Purdue Faculty Association. She was a regular at many of our events around town. I didn’t really know her very well except socially, but I grew to know her more as I worked with many of the entrepreneurship initiatives around campus.

The thing that most inspires me about Amanda is how much she really values the people around her. Amanda is the sort of person who really has people’s backs. When I was working on a business plan competition, I needed someone to help me pick out a financial model for how the theoretical company would make money. I know that there were lot of better ways that she could probably have spent her time. Instead she walked me through the complicated areas of a financial model, asking me all sorts of questions that I had not thought to ask, in ways that I had not thought to ask them. Because of our meeting, I feel like I now know a lot more about the details that I would need in a business plan.

Amanda is also really inspiring to me because she never gives up. While we have spoken several times about the idea of failure and how it seemed to be much more catastrophic for women than men, but failure doesn’t seem to stick to Amanda. She’s a woman with a thousand hustles. She’s a mom, a professor of finance, a CFO, a rock climber, and an all-around go-to person in town. It seems at times like everyone knows Amanda, and with good reason. The woman is simply everywhere.

From Amanda I have learned many things. I’ve learned a little about how cool numbers can be. And I’ve learned how important it is to support people even when they don’t know anything about what you do.

She’s very inspiring to me and I feel glad to have met her.

Your Imposter Syndrome is Environmental

I have imposter syndrome and it’s something that affects my professional life. At my institution, librarians are often tenure-track and full rank. They do research, teach classes, and act as “professors” on the campus. I had never intended to become a professor. My masters program, while innovative, was not academic focused. I wrote code. I managed clients. I ran usability tests. I like my job and there are many aspects of it which I think are important and engaging, so I have chosen to manage my imposter syndrome. One of the ways I manage it is that I acknowledge the ways my imposter syndrome is environmental.

Those who have not read the Wikipedia page, Impostor syndrome is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as “fraud”. First observed among high-achieving women, it is also common among men. The part of the phenomenon which most stood out is this point: imposter syndrome is studied as a reaction to certain stimuli and events.

Not an ingrained personality trait, nor some sort of neurosis where I can’t see my own success, imposter syndrome is understood as a response to stimuli and is situational.

As I get older it becomes clear to me that my imposter syndrome is never going to go away entirely, because I haven’t changed the situation or my response to it. This makes sense because I never felt like an imposter in previous environments. My imposter syndrome is something I can overcome, as long as I don’t ignore it.

Below are some of the ways I manage my imposter syndrome through the management of environment.

  1. I acknowledge the ways environment may have led to my imposter syndrome. If you look at how psychologists examine imposter syndrome, it is not as “mental disorder” but as a “reaction to certain stimulus and events.” And yet people often talk about imposter syndrome in terms of their own feelings and not the environment that led to those feelings. So do think: when are you an imposter and why? In what situations do you feel most fake? Are people surprised when they meet you? Do they make comments that ask you about your personal story, such as where you are from, that may be hinting they are surprised at your rank or position? Do secretaries ask you to leave rooms so that meetings of professors can start? Do undergraduates ask you what your major is? In what ways do people expect you to do things you don’t actually know how to do, like operate SAP systems?
  2. I manage the environment to lessen impacts. Think about ways you can eliminate barriers to get your work done in the environment in which you work. Say No to things which don’t help you get work done and which make your imposter syndrome worse. If there’s a certain event or activity where you feel more like an imposter, then don’t go to that event. For me, it was events at the President’s house where I didn’t know people and there are no nametags with rank on them.
  3. I become part of the solution, not to the problem. I was in a meeting with another younger professor where an older professor commented about how great it was that the first professor looks so young. I called the professor out on this. Does that fix the whole environment? Not always. But we all need to weed our environments.
  4. I find mentors who believe in me. The thing about imposter syndrome is that most people with it can get along. It can be done, but you need advocates. Find mentors you trust, who believe in you. Accountability is a wonderful thing. Sometimes you can trust other people to call you out when you don’t give yourself enough credit, or you don’t take risks because you are afraid of being “uncovered”.

You deserve to be able to function in your environment. You are wonderful person who can benefit society greatly.

Before we start class…

There’s so much theatrics in teaching. Some classrooms have literal stages and podiums. There’s a definite feeling of what should be called the Fourth Wall There’s a moment when the teacher stops being whatever they are before they start each class and then they become The Professor. You can feel it like sharp intake of breath: you become the content at that moment. College classes are bound by space (RAWLS 1086, Purdue Campus), but mostly time. If it’s 8:30 on a Monday, you know that you are “in” MGMT 190 and are “listening” to The Professor.

The interesting part of “class” time is that it’s very fragile and very hierarchical. You are in MGMT 190 from 8:30 until 9:20 only if I, The Professor, say you are. I could cancel class. We could end early. Then the time becomes your own again. I remember in college I had a professor who used to joke that if he ended class early that you should take it out of our tuition checks. We decide their grade, we decide when they have met the objectives; they are to whom we deal the precious As and slap down with the dreaded Fs.

As such, the start of class is very interesting, since it’s ultimately up to you (The Professor) when the class starts and you become The Professor. Of course we know as educators this start is a fallacy. Learning doesn’t stop when The Professor says it has to stop. That’s in fact a great crises in high education: we tell the students “now you learn” and somehow that isn’t enough. Learning doesn’t happen on command. But it can be invited in.

It’s something like this:
Before we start class, I want you to think about the last time you had to use information to make a decision. Where did you look? When did you know that you had enough information to decide?”

Sometimes I do this because I know students are going to be late and the start of class actually is postponed. Sometimes it’s because I want students to answer less formally and think about their lives not as students but as people. It’s a little of a trick to create a space for teaching that has is a little disconnected with the formal space of the classroom.

This question situates the learner to act before the formal confines of the “class” where students “learn”. That’s very important, especially in so-called soft skills like information literacy, because often the spaces where students have to use that information are outside the narrow confines of when “official” learning happens in classroom. We care more, possibly the most, about informal learning as librarians. Like most things in a classroom, this is situational. Sometimes you don’t have the rapport with a group of students to create an informal learning space. After all, creating an informal learning space requires trust, sometimes trust that may have been broke already by someone else. But I think it’s important to think of opportunities to invite such learning.

Researching on Purpose

Filed right behind “Teaching on Accident” is “Researching on Accident”. I never intended to be a researcher either, but I took a job where researching was an important part of the libraries’ mission. I was a history major in my undergraduate, so I knew how to write, but I had never really thought much about social science research: how to do it, why to do it. The type of research that I did for my (two!) undergraduate thesis papers was almost entirely primary documents historical research, mostly at the trusty microfilm machine. I never had to think about human subjects because of all of my subjects were either dead or really, really dead.

I’m a pretty plucky person, I don’t scare easily, and I jumped right into research when I got to Purdue. During my first two years I attended all manner of different programs to better understand how to do research better.

I found the single most important thing in performing research is asking good questions. The research question should:

  • Be interesting to you
  • Help you do your job better
  • Have an answer
  • Be the sort of question where either answer is publishable and interesting.
  • Be sort of scary.

The last two things are the most important. Let’s say you did something really innovative and hard that very successful. You can’t ask a question like “How awesome was that instruction that I just did?” because if the answer is “not that awesome”, what are you going to do? That study is not going to be very helpful to other people. While failure is certainly more interesting than success, I think it’s too easy for people to have multiple reasons for failure, whereas people are much more comfortable with success that is attributed to one single factor.

Questions that are a little scary are even better because that means that they might just a little innovative because innovative questions are almost always scary. Now it’s okay for a question to only be “sort of” scary versus totally scary as you start out because after all you are publishing things outside in the field and you don’t want to research anything too scary because that might make your institution look bad. 

You will find that you were wrong about almost everything by the end of the project. Working and reflecting on something for months has that effect. Don’t be afraid to be humbled. Push through the terrible truth of being wrong. It’s really hard to be wrong, and you can be wrong in so many different ways in the research that you will probably be wrong in multiple ways. Maybe you didn’t read enough of the literature and you missed studies. Maybe the data collection did not go as planned. Maybe you found something halfway through that might have known something. Push through. Projects don’t need to be perfect, they need to be published.

In addition here are some other tips for people getting started.

  • Pick a good team. I personally discourage a project from having more than three people actively managing the project, because I really think by four authors, one of the team members is probably spending most of their time managing the other three members and not really contributing to the project actively anymore. Try to pick people who bring different perspectives
  • Pick a citation manager. You should probably pick a citation manager that is what other people you are working with use. Since it doesn’t really matter which one you choose, it is easiest just to use what is most common in your work area, That just makes things easier. I use Mendeley, most because when I got to Purdue, the people I worked with were using Mendeley.
  • Be nice to the people who administrate human subject research. At Purdue they hold office hours, and they would love for you to ask questions about how to do ethical research. Like librarians, they love to help!
  • Create multiple outputs/exit opportunities for your projects. You should think about different stages where you can abandon the project if it goes awry, so you don’t spend too much time on a project that isn’t that interesting to you. Most of my projects have an initial scoping presentation, a primary resources presentation, a first paper with possible future work and sometimes the opportunity for a follow up second paper building on the first. That way you can take projects as far as you want and then say no.
  • You can do it. You are amazing, your hair looks amazing, ask those hard questions.