Religious Studies
Bytes & Books, Spring 2014 (Volume 28, no. 1)

Q: What motivated you to apply for an IL grant for REL232 Religion in Latin America?

A: The main reason had to do with wanting students to learn to do better research. From the limited experience I had as a professor, I could see that for a lot of students, research means Googling. That’s not sufficient, and it’s also sad that they are now at Lafayette that has an incredible library and all kinds of resources. Knowing how to use these resources should be part of their education. Since REL232 was a new course, I thought it would be good to incorporate IL from the start. However, I don’t think it’ll be a problem to build IL into an existing course as long as you’re willing to make significant changes.

Q: How did you come up with the research journal assignments? How were they structured?

A: I got the idea from Ben Cohen, a grant recipient in 2012, when he mentioned it in his IL presentation in 2013. Besides producing a piece of research, I wanted students to do sort of meta research, to see how they get from point A to point B and reflect critically on that process. The research journals were like a series of weekly assignments. For their first assignment, students had to brainstorm religion related topics in Latin America and picked a few that interested them. They then did some general reading with the objective of narrowing their topic. Most weeks in the middle of the semester, the assignment was to locate a book or peer-reviewed articles, summarize the main argument and describe the evidence the author used to support his or her argument. In a couple of earlier classes, I let students pick topics for their paper. It seemed liberating to me but it was really difficult for the students since they didn’t have enough background knowledge to select a good and narrow topic. On the other hand, I would try and give students a few narrow topics that work better, but as a grader that’s a little boring because I’m reading the same thing over and over again. With this, it was perfect.

Q: You devoted thirty minutes of your class time every Friday to IL. Were you concerned that you might not be able to cover enough content?

No. Maybe I thought that at the beginning but the reward was so great that I would never think that now. It was well worth it. Part of learning about research is to talk about how you do research so each Friday, students circulated their journals in small groups and shared with their peers what they were doing. One of the things students enjoyed was that those who had done more library research gave a lot of good advice to those who didn’t have much experience. They really helped each other. In the humanities, it’s really hard to do collaborative research projects with students. For me, this was a chance to collaborate with students. Two thirds the way through the semester after students had done their research, I decided their projects would start to constitute the content of the course. I divided them into smaller groups and each student had to provide a reading to their group that they thought was really important to read as part of religion in LA and discuss it within the group. I would just circulate around. I learned a lot from these students and seeing them grow and really start to care about the topic in a way that I don’t think me just talking about the topic would have ever inspired them.

Q: Ana Luhrs led a class session on concept mapping. How did it go?

A: That was great. I would definitely recommend it. I had students do drafts of it. They brought a concept map and had the small groups talked about them and then brought in second draft before creating an outline for their project. These do take time, but I just want to reiterate, it’s worth it.

Q: Your students also visited the Special Collections. What was that experience like?

A: Special Collections are amazing. The visit allowed students to see some ancient codices that Diane Shaw had pulled for the class. I gave the students a worksheet that helped them identify the pictographs. The thing for me about this course and I hope I’ve made this clear is the process of research as an exciting discovery. I think going to the Special Collections accentuated that.

Q: Would you continue to incorporate IL into future versions of this course or other courses?

A: Absolutely. The fact that I’ve learned to do it in one course is having a lot of positive effects on my other courses, a spill-over effect. I’ve been able to adopt some of the things Ana Luhrs did for REL in my FYS and other courses. In fact, teaching a FYS after having done the IL, I feel like I was more equipped to tell the FYS students why IL was important and why they really need to learn this. I had my FYS students do the follow the footnotes assignment. Each student had to take a chapter or an article I assigned and get their hands on all the sources in the footnotes and then assess whether they would come to the same conclusion as the author had using the sources. It worked out great. It felt like a detective story for students as they were putting all the clues together and see if they could figure out.

Q: What was your understanding of IL? How did it differ after REL232?

A: I never used the language before. I was thinking more like research skills but I have a broader understanding now, and I think IL is a better way of thinking about it since most of our students are not going to become researchers but all of them are (going to be) users and consumers of information. Through a research project students are learning not only how to do research but also how to think critically and manage information in general, which I think is a more important skill than academic research to our students.

Q: What more do you think professors and librarians could do to help students develop their critical thinking and IL skills?

A: I’m not sure. I was very pleased with the outcome of my class and I’d like to see it repeated. I know most of our students learn some basic IL skills in their FYSes and I’m mystified why they aren’t carrying those skills to other courses. It probably needs more than just one semester with a couple of times going to the library and students need opportunities to revisit this repeatedly throughout their time here. As professors, we should remember how much these are learned skills. The questions we ask of what we read seem like natural for us but we learned to ask them through years of study and research.

Q: Do you have any advice for faculty who’re interested in building IL into their classes?

A: My advice is just do it. If you’re going to make some significant changes, you might want to try it in a two-course semester to give yourself a little extra time. Trust the librarians. They are totally awesome. I’m really excited about this program. I think it’s great. I’m really glad I can do that, not only with the grant but working with a librarian is certainly a positive use of class time.