Erin Dorney

Blogging life & librarianship

Reflections on my teaching research writing course.

with 3 comments

The lamp in my hotel room is duct-taped to the nightstand. My window reveals a sparsely filled parking lot, I hurry in and out of the building so that the truckers down the hall can’t catch my room number. Live for five days on peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, metallic tap water and oranges. Reese’s Pieces from the vending machine. I feel homeless. Rootless. A transient pulled from her bed by the impending flood. I am a nomad wandering from bed to coffee to class. Repeat.

-August 19, 2010


What I have described here is a brief reflection on my first week-long, 3-credit summer workshop at West Chester University, where I am working on my MA in English through the creative writing program. As of today, I am 18 credits in. In order to earn these latest three credits, I gave up a week of work, my apartment, garden, kittens, friends, significant other, mail. I returned poorer, overripe tomatoes littering the yard, my boyfriend had jetted off to Florida, and I had to sort through a weeks-worth of church fliers, pizza coupons, and rip-off-scratch-off-car-dealership bullshit to find one treasured postcard from a friend. Damn you, Lancaster.

The workshop was called “Re-Learning Teaching Research Writing” and it was about how restrictive, meaningless, and intellectually stifling traditional research papers have become. I went into the class somewhat leery of my inexperience as a teacher (my “teaching moments” typically occur in library instruction sessions and in one-on-one research consultations with students) but realized that after being in school for 18 years now, I have certainly encountered these unappealing research assignments myself. Our two main texts were Bruce Ballenger’s “Beyond Note Cards: Rethinking the Freshman Research Paper” and Davis & Shadle’s “Building a Mystery: Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Act of Seeking.” In a nutshell, we have become so concerned with structure and formalities that we’re making student hate research writing, an activity that can not only be creative and fun, but helps writers negotiate authority, develop their own identity, and create new knowledge.

I have to say, I was very pleased with the classroom dynamic in this workshop. The majority of my classmates were practicing English teachers at the elementary, middle, or high school level and boy, to educators like to discuss! I think I adequately held my own in our conversations, and was able to shed some light on things from a librarian perspective. It also got me to thinking about many of the assignments I see when doing instruction for classes at Millersville… many of them seem to represent the traditional research assignment, overly concerned with conventions and number of sources. I am hoping to put some of what I learned into practice when negotiating sessions with faculty members as well as the general outlook I take when discussing research with students.

Another thing that struck me was the frequency that libraries and librarians came up in our conversations. Many of my classmates talked about how ill-equipped their school libraries are – many relied heavily on the PaLA POWER Library resources that have experienced drastic cuts. Others talked about how their schools do not have enough technology in the library for student use and their experiences with the digital divide. At least one school had fired their librarian due to budget issues and a number of other teachers told me about school librarians who made me want to apologize for my profession (librarians who were downright mean, unwilling to play nice with the teachers, etc). Many of these discussions were in the context of how access (or lack thereof) to librarians, resources and technology impacts the kinds of assignments that teachers can give their students, in turn impacting how well students can truly get to the heart of creative, fact-based writing.

Overall, while living in a hotel by myself for five days wasn’t much fun, I truly enjoyed this class. Particularly on Friday, when one of the teachers turned to me and said “Boy, I wish you could come be the librarian at my school!” ::Score:: Library scenester, challenging librarian stereotypes one day at a time…

What do you think about all of this, readers? Are there any school librarians out there who have had similar conversations? Have you ever taken a week-long intensive course? Did you love it? Hate it? Feel free to share your thoughts.


Written by Erin Dorney

August 30, 2010 at 8:39 AM

3 Responses

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  1. I think you’ve hit on a common theme within the schools I have been in here as a teacher: the librarians are either unwilling, or, unprepared to assist students doing quality research in support of a paper. This is surprising to me, as librarians have to teach before getting their librarian certification – so one would think that would breed more empathy.

    That said, I think that there needs to be a serious re-working of educator certification and training. The phrase “highly qualified” in NCLB means very little, especially when you look at the wildly inconsistent quality of teachers in the classrooms. In Texas, however, (and in New York, as I read in the Times) the job market for teachers is over-saturated at this point – so perhaps this will give schools the ability to pick and choose the best educator, rather than settling on a less than optimal candidate. Also, the president has mentioned an education overhaul bill, in which some different qualifications for teacher certification might be apparent.

    I suppose my key complaint about educator training as it is now in Texas is that it is almost all theory, and very little real practice knowledge. After the classes, your opportunity to try things out is limited to one semester as a student teacher – at which point I was (and I am sure all first year teachers are) woefully unprepared to face a class of students. That said, I have no great plan to revolutionize teacher training.

    Related to your post, did you all talk about this book at all:

    I am interested to know if you did, or if you have read it. Glad the weeklong class is over!

    Jason W. Dean

    August 30, 2010 at 11:47 AM

  2. I find it interesting that one of the prevailing topics during your discussions was in relation to the “restrictive, meaningless, and intellectually stifling” nature of the current iteration of the research paper. In my masters program at UNC, I’ve found it peculiar that we haven’t really had to write a lot of in-depth research papers at all. In the past year, I have had to write only one, and it was a literature review to boot. This year it seems to be the same, save my masters paper that I’m required to write for graduation. Maybe this comes as a result of my course choices, but I’ve heard similar things from other students in the program. Although I’ve appreciated the fact that I haven’t had to write a ton of research papers (because I too completely despise them, and for the same aforementioned reasons), I thought it was weird that in a masters program, I wasn’t being required to do that kind of work on a more regular basis, or at all, as the case has pretty much been so far.

    Looking at it from this perspective makes me think that SILS might be onto something. The single research paper that we DO have to write is scientific and evidence-driven. We have to write a formal proposal, survey the literature, conduct a study of some kind with concrete outcomes, and analyze those outcomes in relation to a hypothesis. Very “scientific” and thorough, especially in comparison to the research papers I was asked to write in high school that seemed to harp a lot more on the details (formal citations, those stupid note cards, etc.) than the actual research process. It is embarrassing to admit that despite my former education, I STILL don’t feel that confident or comfortable with research writing. I don’t know how to take notes in this context either. And I think it is for the very reasons that were touched upon in this workshop. This arena is completely alien to me because my past experiences have been so forced and regimented. That being said, I have a greater appreciation for the UNC SILS course structure. What we do in terms of assignments is primarily practical, and often creative–writing book reviews, creating targeted source lists, journaling, allocating budget items for a new library, responding to real reference questions in the ipl2, and “microteaching” sessions, just to name a few. Maybe the short-comings of the research paper play a hand in the reasoning behind the lesson plans at SILS…

    Thanks for always having thoughtful posts to share. It’s fun getting to live vicariously through your experiences. This class sounds like it was super fun, even if it meant being away from all things dear for a week.

    Much ❤

    Lindsey Rae

    August 30, 2010 at 12:31 PM

  3. First, my apologies that it has taken this long for me to reply to your comments!! My bad.

    @ Jason – I don’t have a ton of experience with the school education system (other than my own travel through them) but I think you’re probably right. I know NY teacher education standards are high (compared to somewhere like PA anyway) but you’re right about the market being oversaturated. One of my good friends went through a program in NYS but had to cross the border to PA to do her student teaching because there just weren’t any openings. No, we didn’t talk about that book in class, but it looks great! Maybe I should pass it along to our professor. Have you read it?

    @ Lindsey – Well, most of our class discussion was based on elementary/high school level education, so maybe it’s not as interesting as you think… we were basically talking about how students’ initial introduction to research papers (typically in high school or freshman year of college) often encompass all of those traits (restrictive, meaningless, and intellectually stifling). I would hope that a master’s program would give you more leeway! From my experience, I didn’t have to do many research papers in my MLIS program – things were very much more project based, particularly with group projects. But in my MA in English program, I have to do at least one for every class. The lengths vary, and they have given me next to no boundaries in terms of topics (which makes it harder than you’d think because there are so many options!) but I do feel like I have had to write a lot of research papers over the past year.

    I am simultaneously glad and sad that our topics rang true for you – glad because it means lots of people are experiencing this, not just me and sad because we have to be forced into hating research when it could be a truly enjoyable and life-changing experience.

    Miss you both, friends! Thanks for paying attention to my lil’ blog here


    September 9, 2010 at 8:29 PM

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