In Brief: Two librarians who run a library commons space implemented a written reflection program with their undergraduate student employees to improve team communication, create a qualitative record of the space, and generate case studies for discussion in group meetings. In this article, they present and analyze examples of their student workers’ reflective writing about their library space, delve into the literature of written reflection, and share how they changed the program after an assessment.
Part I: Written Reflection in the Research Commons
I remember all the sounds of opening the library. The *shhnk* of swiping my card through the reader outside. The creaky turn and loud *click* of the door opening after turning the handle. The echoing *clack* of my boots resonating throughout the stairwell after stepping on the concrete floor….
These are the first few lines of a written reflection that an undergraduate student worker wrote in the library space we manage. A little over two years ago, we started a program in which we made written reflection a part of the jobs of the eight students we work with. These students staff a help desk, so periodically during their scheduled shifts, we cover the desk for them for a half hour. They have that time to reflect in writing about their work and their relationship to it, and the writing above shows a student describing what it’s like to open our library space. This student focuses on the sounds our space makes, playing with onomatopoeia, and they continue:
….The slight metal *hiss* of the stair gate’s springs being bent. The low, booming *gong* that echoes through the stairwell as the gate closes and hits the metal rail, syncopated with my boots descending down the steps. The quieter, smoother *sree* of the basement door handle. The lighter, higher pitched footsteps on the tiled hallway floor. The *chk* and *bmm* of the door closing as I round the hallway corner. The *sree* of another door handle and the muted *pmm* of my boots on carpeted floor. The echoing *bomm, bomm, bomm* of steps on concrete in another, more acousting stairwell. The vacuum cleaner’s *shvrooooooooom* getting louder and louder after each step up. The friendly *hello*, or *happy friday*. The almost unnoticeable *crinkle, crinkle, shvoop* of taking of jackets and setting down bags. The muted *click, click, click* of impatience as I wake the computer. The loud rattling and sometimes sudden *gleck, gleck, gleck, gleck* in rapid succession as I move a whiteboard without releasing the plastic brakes on the wheels. The whining *phwemp* of wiping down whiteboards. The *sveeeee*, *jingle, jangle*, and *svooooo* of opening and closing the drawers to retrieve the keys. The loud, mechanical *chk, chk*, *jingle*, *chk chk chk*, and *fwooomp* of unlocking and opening the doors. The *good morning* as patrons file in.
(Note: Throughout this article, we have chosen to preserve the spelling, punctuation, and syntax that students used in their writing and to forego any use of “SIC” in brackets.)
Reading this student’s reflection now, we are amazed anew by how creative and detailed it is. We had given this person a writing prompt for the reflection–a prompt we’ll discuss later–and it’s fascinating to see how they made sense of it and turned it into something wholly their own. It’s of note, too, that this student wrote this reflection by memory. They weren’t composing as they walked through the labyrinthine path they take to open the library in the morning. No, they were able to recall these specifics while sitting still, and such an act seems to show that the space in which they work isn’t just something to remember but a Memory Palace–that is, a place that helps one remember because it’s meaningful. And reading this reflection, taking in details we ourselves never considered, we are reminded again of why we began this program in the first place. We had three reasons for deciding to pay student workers to reflect in writing while on the job, and they are these:
- to improve communication between them and us
- to preserve a qualitative record of the space in which we work
- to use these writings in group meetings, where we treat them as case studies and works of literature
But like anyone who limits themselves to threes, we’ve discovered additional, unexpected reasons for committing to written reflection. Some of these are easy to quantify or justify, while others are more intangible. At times, we’ve noticed that the value of written reflection isn’t just what information the reflections convey. It’s simply, elegantly, the open-ended but focused practice itself that’s worthwhile.
Written Reflections Are Not Just for Therapists and Professors; Student Workers Can Benefit, Too!
Early on, when we began to consider incorporating written reflection into the library work of undergraduate students, we scanned library literature to see if such practices already existed. We wanted to find guidance on how to set up a written-reflection practice–as well as how to assess it–but our initial searches yielded nothing. We have yet to find anything directly related to what we’ve done. In fact, the only combination of “written reflection” and “librar*” we’ve found is in an article about MA Librarianship students in Sheffield, UK, who wrote reflections in a library management class (Greenall and Sen, 2016).
We were shocked to find so little research about the value of written reflection in librarianship and student work in libraries, and we were surprised further that when we opened our search to undergraduate-student work in general, we still found next to nothing about written reflection. The closest thing we could find is by Sykes and Dean (2013), who write about the uses of written reflection in a Work-Integrated Learning curriculum–a program in which third-year students find placement in an internship (p.186). They found that framing reflection as a “practice” rather than an “activity” brought about a shift in students’ thinking that reflections can lead to real-world action (p. 190).
When we broadened our search terms to the workplace in general, we finally had some success in locating scholarship about written reflection and its uses in employment. We found articles about written reflection and corporate managers at a Fortune 500 company (Wood Daudelin, 1996), an engineer at a refinery (Rigano & Edwards, 1998), and workers at a software company (Cyboran, 2005). This research all came to the conclusion that written reflection not only improved critical thinking skills but also productivity and job satisfaction.
As we continued to review literature related to written reflection, some of its deepest pools proved to be in the fields of therapy, education, and writing composition. Written reflection, especially in the form of journaling, has been practiced in therapy and counseling for decades. Ira Progoff’s (1975) At a Journal Workshop is a prime example of a reflective writing process that has gone from being an anomaly to an accepted practice to an institution. Gillie Bolton’s, Victoria Field’s, and Kate Thompson’s (2006) Writing Works: A Resource Handbook for Therapeutic Writing Workshops and Activities is another text that has popularized reflective writing in therapeutic contexts.
Reflection, written and otherwise, has a long history in education. One early place to start is John Dewey (1910), who in How We Think argued for the value of what he called “reflective thought” and defined it as follows: “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought” (p.6). What’s more, for over forty years in higher education, instructors have taught written reflection in writing composition classes, where it has undergone at least three generations of changes (Yancey, 2016, p. 9). Within these generations, Expressivist pedagogy, “which employs freewriting, journal keeping, reflective writing, and small-group dialogic collaborative response” has spoken to us and is the closest design and most obvious inspiration for the work we’ve done (Tate, Rupiper & Schick, 2001, p. 19). In particular, within Expressivist pedagogy, we’ve been most drawn to Peter Elbow and bell hooks, who are “paradigmatic examples of expressivist teachers” (Tate, Rupiper & Schick, 2001, p. 20). Their research about introspective writing practices as well as the practical, radical, and self-affirming ways of using such writing served as a crucial precedent for us.
This look at literature about written reflection helped us think about what it might look like in our own space, specifically, or in the world of library science, in general. In particular, we were curious about whether or not written reflection would be an annoying, disconnected add-on to what student workers were already doing or if it would actually affect their work, their attitudes about it, and the ways they imagine themselves.
Student Workers Reflect on Employment at the University of Washington Research Commons
We work in a library space–the University of Washington Research Commons–that is meant to help researchers through processes that are experimental, creative, and interdisciplinary, so in many ways it was a perfect setting for testing out a practice in written reflection that we believed was both novel and boundary spanning. As part of our work, we supervise eight undergraduate workers who staff a help desk, and in the Autumn Quarter of 2016, we began to fiddle with including written reflection in the training of new student workers. We did this by sharing a Google Doc with them, giving them time to periodically reflect in writing during their training, and reading their reflections and offering comments.
As mentioned earlier, we were aware of Peter Elbow’s work, especially his book Writing Without Teachers, and imagined that encouraging new library workers to reflect about the Research Commons might help them track not just what they were learning in their training but how they felt about it. Outlining a reflective-writing practice, Elbow (1998) writes, “Each week, take a fresh sheet of paper and write a brief account of what you think you got out of that week’s work: freewriting for class, any other writing, class reactions. These entries cannot profess to the truth. They are meant as a record of how you see things at the moment” (p. 145). In addition, we were attracted to the thinkings of theorists in Critical Pedagogy (like Paulo Freire and bell hooks), especially with regard to how they make sense of the concept of “praxis.” Dealing with the term and how it relates to reflection, Freire (2012) writes, “Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation… Education is thus constantly remade in the praxis. In order to be, it must become” (p. 84). For us, what all this means is that written reflection isn’t just a mode for thinking and remembering; the act of reflecting is an action that has the potential to bring about effects that can jump off a document. Whatever is written on a page can very much become real in a place like the Research Commons.
Below you’ll find a reflection that a student wrote in their first few weeks on the job. We believe it illustrates Peter Elbow’s point that reflection doesn’t necessarily capture capital “T” Truth but a record of perception from moments that could otherwise be forgotten:
Working at the Research Commons has been quite like what I expected, based on the description of the job, training, and talking to other student squad members. I enjoy the pace of the position, as it allows for the luxury of reading interesting articles as well as catching up on class readings. Most student jobs do not allow this, which makes me feel grateful for it. Aside from the magically moving furniture of the space at closing and occasional lack of human interaction, there aren’t many frustrations with this position (if those are frustrations at all). I’ve encountered some nice patrons here and there. Most are just students or faculty wishing to check out/return cords and markers, and they are usually in a rush. There were a couple people who stood out to me, however. One young man came up and decided to give me a gift certificate to the coffee shop he worked at (at the Henry) as a part of his mission of giving free cups of coffee to people who worked at libraries. Another older man came up and told me he was a new student here and wanted a small tour of the technology around here. Sometimes things like these happen, which is nice.
And though this reflection isn’t really written in the spirit of Paulo Freire’s problem-posing education, which jostles authors and readers into action (into praxis) via reflection, we do nevertheless think that the passage above shows someone who is in the process of becoming. This burgeoning reveals itself in the student’s turning over in their mind the pros and cons of different types of student work as well as the varied interactions they had had with patrons.
We were pleased with this simple practice of having new student workers reflect in writing during their training. Their writing was helping us understand some of the questions and concerns that new people might have about working in the Research Commons, and it led us to get to know them in ways that differed from in-person interactions. We probably would have stuck with this enlightening–though limited–practice and never thought about expanding it if we hadn’t attended a presentation about High-Impact Practices (or HIPs). In this presentation, some of our colleagues at the University of Washington Tacoma Library laid out a new initiative in which they were systematically incorporating High-Impact Practices into their work and strategic plan (“UW Tacoma Library and High-Impact Educational Practices,” n.d.). According to George Kuh (2008), who coined the term “High-Impact Practices,” HIPs are things that “have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds” (p. 9). They are practices like these:
- First-year seminars and experiences
- Common intellectual experiences
- Learning communities
- Writing-intensive courses
- Collaborative assignments and projects
- Undergraduate research
- Diversity/global learning
- Service learning, community-based learning
- Capstone courses and projects (p. 9-11)
Our colleagues’ work with HIPs captured our imagination and made us wonder if we should experiment with different HIPs or perhaps further develop the reflective-writing practice we had started. We began to think that all the student workers we supervise–not just the new ones in training–could benefit from the reflections and that perhaps the writing should be even more frequent and focused. With regard to the High-Impact Practice of “intensive writing courses,” Kuh (2008) writes, “Students are encouraged to produce and revise various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines” (p. 10), so we wondered if we could push our students’ reflections to be even more varied and intense. For example, we imagined that, in terms of audience, it might be beneficial for student workers to think about not only writing for us, their supervisors, but also for each other. Further, we began to think of written reflections as “Super HIPs” because we envisioned ways of connecting them to learning communities and collaborative projects.
First Rounds of Revamped Reflection: “Why are we doing this again?”
In the Winter Quarter of 2017, we introduced a revised and revamped written-reflection practice in the Research Commons–one that all student workers would do every quarter of the academic year. We explained this change to everyone (albeit hurriedly–more on that later…), and as we had already been doing, we shared a Google Doc with each of the eight workers, letting them know that this writing would be shared with us and no one else without their consent. We made it clear that they would get compensated for the time they put into their reflections, so we decided we would do this by covering the help desk for students for a half hour during times in which they were slated to work. That way, we wouldn’t have to schedule separate times for them or ask them to do their reflections outside of their regular hours.
In this new program, we experimented with using a writing prompt. With the training reflections, we had simply asked students to write about how they were feeling or what they were thinking about, but with a new prompt, we decided to use an activity that Dr. Phyllis Moore, Chair of the Liberal Arts Department at the Kansas City Art Institute, created. When Moore provides orientation to new adjunct writing-composition instructors in what she calls “Comp Camp,” she often shares a creative-writing activity that brings about unusually vivid and reflective results. It was inspired by the painter and poet Joe Brainard, who is known for having written a number of books in which every line starts with “I remember…” For example, Brainard (2012) writes lines like these:
“I remember the first drawing I remember doing. It was of a bride with a very long train” (p. 5).
“I remember corrugated ribbon that you ran across the blade of a pair of scissors and it curled up” (p. 30).
“I remember a dream of meeting a man made out of a very soft yellow cheese and when I went to shake his hand I just pulled his whole arm off” (p. 134).
The first part of Phyllis Moore’s prompt is to share some of Brainard’s work with students. Next, the students get some time to list quickly some “I remember…” lines of their own, and in doing this, it’s important that they be as specific, detailed, and sensory focused as possible. Once the students list their lines, they pick one of them and develop it into a few paragraphs that tell a story. Finally, they examine their stories and write a few lines about what they think they mean. We were grabbed by this activity because it reminded us of some of the Expressivist writing strategies that Peter Elbow argues for in Writing Without Teachers. For example, he says, “It’s at the beginning of things that you most need to get yourself to write a lot and fast. Beginnings are hardest: the beginning of a sentence, of a paragraph, of a section, of a stanza, of a whole piece” (1989, p. 26). With the “I remember…” activity, in its first part, it’s hard to get stuck because you know you’re starting every line with the same two words.
And writing about getting past beginnings and into selecting something to develop, Elbow says, “Sum up this main point, this incipient center of gravity in a sentence. Write it down. It’s got to stick its neck out, not just hedge or wonder” (p. 20). This advice from Elbow helped us to make sense of the second part of Phyllis Moore’s prompt, where students move from listing “I remember…” lines to picking one “center of gravity” to stick with and expand.
So we took this activity and covered the help desk for half-hour spells so that the student workers could do their reflections. We recommended that they focus on their work and memories in the Research Commons, but we also said that if they had trouble getting started they could write about any experiences they deemed appropriate. If they didn’t like the “I remember…” prompt, we gave them the option not to use it at all and to spend the time reflecting in writing however they wanted. The writing at the very beginning of this article is one example of how a student responded to the first part of the prompt. Here are some more “I remember…” examples from the Winter 2017 quarter, all of which are set in the Research Commons:
I remember craning my neck to see the slightest bit of snow through the windows in the corner.
I remember noticing my surroundings and how the RC [Research Commons] is kind of like a fish bowl. I wrote a poem about it.
I remember when I tried to replace a marker cartridge that was still full. Blue ink splattered everywhere, on the desk and on my hands. Luckily, it’s washable.
I remember the man who wears fake glasses and glitter on his face realizing he and I both had the same favorite Twilight Zone episode. He was so excited to recommend me more “monster” shows (and later campy shows) that he wrote down the names of 15 ones to watch, each on a different green scratch paper.
I remember the days when my best friend would stop by and bring me tea when I was working at the desk. The tea always had honey in it, and it would make me smile every time.
I remember when a girl asked me to close the door during a Black Lives Matter protest because it was distracting her from studying for her midterm. I said no.
When we first read these lines, we immediately felt happy that we opened up the reflective-writing practice to everyone and that we planned to do it every quarter. These “I remember…” moments, with their crisp specificity and poetics, communicated important details and emotions to us that we had been missing. We also enjoyed the experience of being surprised by student workers whom we thought we knew and surely took for granted. In their writing, they revealed funny, intimate, and surprising insights. Their gusto in responding to the writing prompt made us think of something bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress: “The first paradigm that shaped my pedagogy was the idea that the classroom should be an exciting place, never boring. And if boredom should prevail, then pedagogical strategies were needed that would intervene, alter, even disrupt the atmosphere” (1994, p. 7). Though we weren’t bored by our workplace, we still felt that this writing brought fresh excitement and frisson to it.
But the students didn’t stop with isolated lines. After completing the first part of the prompt, they continued by selecting one “I remember…” and developing it into a story. One student expanded one of the lines above into this true story:
During spring quarter of last year, there was a large Black Lives Matter protest that marched through the libraries. The protest exited the libraries through the Research Commons lobby, and they were armed with megaphones, signs and a lot of emotion. All of the students in the Research Commons stopped what they were doing, and quietly watched as the protestors marched by, except for this one girl. About five minutes into the protests exit, a girl came up to me, looked me dead in the face, and said, “Can you close the doors or something? This is too loud”. I calmly replied, “I’m sorry, but you have to understand why I can’t do that. It’s incredibly disrespectful, and the Research Commons is an open space, so closing the doors will make no difference”. The girl then looked disgusted, and promptly retorted back with, “Black lives matter? My midterm matters more”. That was the day that I realized that being in college doesn’t automatically make students immune to ignorance.
I remember this story because it was so appalling. This girl showed no remorse for her words, and had such a hatred in her heart for people who were trying to peacefully make a difference. I will never forget the look on her face, and I will never forget how her words made me feel. My encounter with her made me realize that college doesn’t purge a person of their ignorance and close mindedness. It made me realize that sometimes college can make a person more self-centered, whether it be the pressure of maintaining grades or making friends. This experience has made me more cautious in the way that I handle frustrated students.
When we first read the reflection above, we were excited and moved. We found it beautifully written and engaging to read, and it gave us a fresh insight into a place about which we thought we were experts. In addition, we were energized by the writing in that we believed it to be an example of what Paolo Freire would call “problem-posing education” in that the person who wrote it is clearly engaged in critical inquiry, not to mention “a constant unveiling of reality” (2012, p. 81). In the narrative, they are wrestling with what’s ethical and true.
To say that we were pleased by this reflection as well as the other seven is an understatement. And to say that the students were as pleased we were, unfortunately, was not at all the case. Instead, for the students, there was mostly confusion and some frustration about this new practice. Though some of them seemed intrigued by it, others were simply tolerant or at a loss. More than once, they asked us, “Why are we doing this again?”At the outset, we had hurriedly outlined what we were doing, but at this stuck point we decided we needed to do what we should have done in the first place: carefully detail what a written-reflection practice is and why we were committing to it. We also invited comments, feedback, and questions.
To address this disconnect, we waited for our next monthly group meeting, and we gave a presentation in which we covered Critical Pedagogy, praxis, High-Impact Practices, and research about the value of written reflection. Because we had only cursorily explained why we were committing to a written-reflection practice, we now did so explicitly. We said we saw three key benefits: to improve communication between student workers and supervisors, to maintain a qualitative record of the Research Commons, and to use reflections–with writers’ permission only–in monthly group meetings as case studies and discussion starters. We spent the rest of the meeting in conversation with each other, and when we finished, everyone seemed far more accepting of the experiment.
After the meeting, we were able to settle into the written-reflection practice, and it seemed as though there was less puzzlement and more acceptance of what we were doing. A couple of quarters into this practice, we even conducted some assessment of it, and though the assessment had some weaknesses, it did nevertheless indicate that the students saw some value in reflecting while on the job.
We decided to make written reflection a solidified part of student work in the Research Commons, and we’ve stuck with it to the present day. Over time, we tinkered with alterations and revisions. For example, we’ve tried out different prompts. The “I remember…” one proved to work well, but for the sake of variation, we tested out a modified version of Lynda Barry’s “Other People’s Mothers” exercise in her book What It Is (Barry, 2008, p. 151-154). This was our attempt:
- Make a list of ten powerful/strange/specific/weird/beautiful objects or people from your time at the Research Commons.
- Pick one of those objects or people.
- Answer some of these questions about that object or person:
- Where are you in the Research Commons?
- What are you doing?
- Why are you there?
- What time of day or night is it?
- Who else is there?
- What season is it?
- What is in front of you? Behind you? Left? Right? Above?
- Beginning with “I am,” tell us what is happening. Write it like a story with details and dialogue.
- If you have the time, look at what you’ve written and write a line or two about what it means or how it’s significant to you.
This prompt did produce results, though some of the students said it was too complicated and that a half hour wasn’t enough time for them to work through all its parts.
Another prompt that we experimented with–one that was far more popular–came by way of a colleague, Anne Davis, who is a Collection Development Coordinator and Anthropology Librarian. Hearing about our written-reflection practice and amused by it, she said that a good activity might be to ask the students to periodically walk loops through the 15,000-square-foot space of the Research Commons and take notes about what they noticed. Then, later in the quarter, the students could choose one or more of their noticings and use them to catapult into reflection. This idea immediately appealed to us because it reminded us of the work of Eleanor Duckworth, a theorist and researcher in the Harvard Graduate School of Education who had challenged and inspired graduate students for decades. Duckworth had done research with Jean Piaget in the 1960s and went on to found the concept of “Critical Exploration,” a process in which children question, investigate, hypothesize, and reflect about problems. With Critical Exploration, the most important thing is that people learn not from being told but through close observation and inquiry (Duckworth, 2006, p. 171). By requesting that students take at least three strolls through the Research Commons and ponder the question “What do you notice?” our hope was that they’d begin to assemble new statements and stories of the place in which we work and not simply take it for how it’s defined in its web pages.
As mentioned, the students enjoyed this prompt, and one of them even chose to record more than the three noticings we requested. This is that student’s account:
170411 – Hushed phone calls and rapid typing in the morning light. The trees outside the eastern windows filtered the sun into a pleasant pale green color on the carpet floor.
170413 – Someone took the welcome whiteboard in the lobby w/o me noticing again…. How does this keep happening?
170416 – Someone straightened the paintings on the north wall.
170418 – Where do things belong? The whiteboards all used to have (arbitrary) spots that they belonged in and would be reset to.
170420 – The paintings are no longer straight on the wall…..
170423 – Sometimes I see people rolling long distances across the floor in their chairs when it would be far easier to just stand up.
170425 – The temperatures is normal in the research commons. Not too cold. Not too hot. I can wear a light sweater and be comfortable for 3 hours. Incredible.
170427 – There are 41 people in the RC at 9:45am.
170430 – N/A
170502 – Sometimes people just come in here to chill. Some of our regulars are just here for an hour to be on their phones. It’s nice.
170504 – I keep forgetting to mention … whoever opens thursday is not changing the signs. Also, today I answered a reference question about bees!
These noticings are rich and varied, showing the number of stories and experiences involved in one student’s work in the Research Commons. This expanded composition came from this student’s noticings:
Reading through the above, I notice that most of my observations in regards to the research commons as a space have to do with how people interact with it. People straightening the paintings. People moving the whiteboards. People just sitting in a chair for an hour on their phones. As we sit behind the desk, there are many blind spots that hide all of these tiny interactions. First, there’s the big yellow stairwell, the core of the building, that blocks any view of about half of the research commons. Then there’s presentation place, which only allows the slightest glimpse of what’s going on behind it’s tall whiteboard walls through the small arch to the west. The screen behind the desk, although transparent, is still just opaque enough to blot out important details (plus it’s behind the desk, and how often do we turn around in our chairs?). The view from the desk is really quite limited. There’s the entrance, the lobby, Green B, the stairway, the green chairs to the north, and the large whiteboard tables to the south. That’s it. If you move your head around a bit you can get glimpses into Green A too. In order to really see what’s going on in the RC, you have to walk (or roll in your chair, but the one at the desk is a little too tall for that).
I think this raises an interesting idea about what our role is at the desk. In one meeting a while ago, I remember discussing what service we fulfill at the desk. We’re a help desk. We provide information about the libraries, the RC, campus, and where the bathrooms are. We check out materials, we help patrons with technology, but we’re also there to make sure patrons are using the space appropriately. Walking around as a practice, doing so with the purpose of observing, highlights the blind spots at the desk and how much is always going on throughout the RC. I noticed people more, and I noticed their activities too, but most interestingly I noticed the traces of where people had been and what they’d been doing through the objects that were out of place. The RC is a dynamic space. In order to understand how people use it, we can look towards the space and its materials.
Writing like this is fascinating to us–not just because of the information it conveys and the channels of communication it opens. It interests us because it’s part of a tradition of thinking and learning that goes back over a hundred years to, at the very least, John Dewey. Earlier in this article, we cite Dewey’s lines, “Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought” (p.6). And such behavior is exactly what we see in this student worker’s writing. We see they are looking for new patterns–and questioning old ones–all with the desire to make meaning and define purpose.
Part II: Early Assessment
In this section we address the insights and challenges of a very early assessment that we conducted about written reflections, High-Impact Practices, and connections between student work and student lives. We began planning the assessment after several months using written reflections and conducted it about six months into the program. We did the assessment to better understand what the impact of work in the Research Commons was for our student employees; although we took a holistic look at working in the Research Commons rather than only focusing on written reflection, the assessment gave us useful information about our written reflection program.
This early assessment produced some insights, discussed below, that allowed us to make changes to the program. As a result, we focused our student employment experiments on written reflections, rather than continuing to try to offer a wide range of HIPs. We also made some changes in how we frame and scaffold written reflection with our students. Finally, we learned from the assessment’s limitations and gained clarity about the kind of further assessment we’d like to do. To more deeply understand written reflections and what they contribute to the Research Commons, we need to look at the program today and the reflections themselves–things we do in more depth in the final section of this article. We also need to reflect on how we have used pieces of reflective writing to communicate with each other, and what value we have come to take from those communications.
To assess our program of written reflections, we created an interview guide that covered a lot of ground related to student employment in the Research Commons. The eight questions were very broad, soliciting student input on the bigger work-life-academics picture within which they did their work at the Research Commons. We asked questions about connections between students’ work and their personal and academic lives, HIPs, and general learning in addition to written reflection. In fact, only one of the eight questions was focused solely on written reflection. The interview guide was very broad, but it did give us broad results that ultimately helped us focus our energy on written reflection going forward.
We pursued our university’s IRB process, but the IRB considered the project’s primary function to be assessment despite our stated plan to publish about the assessment, and so they determined it was not subject to IRB regulation. However, we nonetheless followed appropriate ethical protocol for research with regard to participant consent and identity.
We have made assessment interview participants anonymous in this article, and anything that could identify them has been removed. When we spoke with them about participating in assessment interviews, we made it clear that though they were required to do reflections for their jobs, they were not required to do interviews. Our library assessment team conducted the six twenty to thirty-minute semi-structured interviews and provided us with a written summary of the results that included a limited number of quotes.
We have never seen a full transcript of the interviews: all we have seen is the report written by our assessment team based on those transcripts. That report contained some interview participant quotes, pulled out by our assessment team, as well as an overall analysis of themes within the results (again conducted by our assessment team). All quotes and insights in this section come from that assessment report, and we have indicated whether we are quoting an interview participant (as quoted in the report) or the report itself. We proceeded in this way to protect the students’ privacy and allow them to feel comfortable sharing honestly in a context where they weren’t speaking to their supervisors.
The assessment report surfaced an important benefit of reflection along with a major contradiction: the assessment team indicated that “while many students felt that the reflections supported relationship-building among colleagues, they did not see this as directly useful to their work in the Research Commons” and “although some students questioned the value of writing and discussing reflections, they expressed interest in sharing stories about their professional experiences.” One student quoted in the report said, “Seeing what my peers reflected on in winter quarter was valuable. I now see the job through their eyes as well as mine.” This student was referring to our early experiments in using written reflection for communication: at the point we conducted the assessment, we had held several team meetings in which we all looked at several reflections together and talked about the different ways we can handle challenging situations. The reflection about a Black Lives Matter protest in the first section of this article was one such example.
To us, as supervisors, sharing stories and relationship-building among colleagues is important and does contribute to a better Research Commons. Does this mean that the students who participated in the assessment did not see relationship-building in the same way? Did they have preconceived opinions about what their supervisors might find useful? Because we made an ethical choice not to view the interview transcripts to protect participant privacy, we can’t know for certain. However, we could and did use the information we received to experiment with improvements.
We began to focus more on reflections as communication tools for students and supervisors, and as ways for students to share their stories, experiences and impressions with each other. Something that we tried as an early experiment–sharing reflections in group meetings–has become a core part of the program. In the final section of this article, we provide some examples of how we are now using reflections in this way. We also continued to work to better scaffold and contextualize written reflection in the Research Commons, work that we began in response to student confusion early in the program.
While we we were able to make some changes to our program of written reflection based on our assessment results, we were somewhat limited by the structure of the assessment itself. This discussion of our limitations provides future directions for assessment, and future questions for investigation.
We limited the depth in which we could investigate written reflection by asking students a very broad range of questions that went far beyond written reflection. We asked multiple questions about HIPs and focused extensively on connecting Research Commons work to student employees’ personal lives and career goals. This prevented us from focusing on how practices like reflection affect work in the Research Commons and relationships among supervisors and workers. Now that our early assessment has emphasized relationship-building as an aspect of written reflection that students particularly value, we see this as an area for potential future in-depth assessment.
Additionally, the procedures we developed to protect student privacy were important and necessary but prevented us from seeing the raw data the assessment generated. When we received the report summarizing the interviews, some things confused us, and we struggled with context. We saw inconsistencies that both baffled and intrigued us, as discussed above in the “Insights” section. Future assessment will need to continue to navigate this tension between student privacy and access to data.
After our early assessment, we were able to make changes intended to help new student workers in the Research Commons make sense of written reflection as part of their paid work. We also made changes in response to the value students place on written reflection as a communication tool. We learned much more about the questions we still have about written reflection in student employment, and the types of future assessment of this program that could be conducted.
Part III: Where are we now?
Where are we today?
In these pages, we’ve given our reasoning for having student workers do written reflections on the job. We’ve shown some examples of their work, and we’ve gotten into some of the questions and conflicts we’ve encountered in introducing the practice as well as assessing it. As we write this article, though, what are things like? Where are we now? And what can other educators and library workers learn from the current landscape of our written reflection program? In the Research Commons today, written reflection gives us a tool for team communication, team-building, and personal expression, along with a record of our library space. These outcomes are related to our initial program goals listed at the beginning of this article, yet they are deeper for the assessment, learning, and changes that we undertaken over the last several years.
After conducting our assessment during the Spring Quarter of 2017, we realized we’d be hiring new student workers, and we saw this turnover as a chance to revise our job description and to make it clear to future workers that written reflection is a required and valued part of what we do. To our job description, in the “Duties” category, we added the line, “Periodically reflect in writing, sound recording, or drawing about work in the Research Commons.” Now, we make sure that we define what such a duty entails in interviews and ask prospective workers what they think about it or if they have any questions or concerns. We believe that this revision has not only taken away some confusion, but also encouraged those who like to reflect to self-select.
In the job duty we cite above, we made an additional alteration. Students have the option not just to reflect in writing. They can also do so by recording their voice or drawing something–like a portrait or a comic. We made this change after speaking with Kathleen Collins, who is a colleague of ours and the Children’s Literature and Sociology Librarian. When we described our written-reflection practice to her, she wondered about students who might prefer to express themselves in different ways. She helped us see that we were preferencing one mode of communication over others, so we decided to offer other modes–or potentially multi-modes–in the practice. At this writing, no one has yet reflected by recording their voice or drawing or painting something, but this option is now available.
As our job descriptions and hiring practices have evolved to center written reflection, so have our team communication practices. The assessment, in which students identified communication and story-sharing among team members as a benefit, highlighted the importance of reflections as a communication tool between team members. One of the consistent joys of this program today is discussing the stories of student workers in our monthly group meetings. Above, in Part II of this article, we quoted a student in our early assessment who said “seeing what my peers reflected on in winter quarter was valuable. I now see the job through their eyes as well as mine.” This statement is powerful to us, and it reflects how we now consistently use written reflections in group meetings and trainings. One memorable reflection that we talked about in a group meeting was written by a student who regularly opened the Research Commons in the morning:
As I came in to open, the library was so empty and so quiet. There wasn’t any life to it. While I was doing my routine walk through, I noticed that someone else was here with me. She was the janitor. I just smiled at her, and she smiled back. The library didn’t seem so empty anymore. At this point the library went from lacking life, to being full of life.
They wrote about how their relationship with that custodian evolved over the course of the quarter and how they got to know each other through early-morning conversations and shared work. They reflected on how their relationship with the custodian reminds them that we are all part of a team keeping the Research Commons clean, safe, and usable for our patrons: “while throughout the entire night the library seems so dead, [the custodian] and I bring it back to life in the mornings.” They concluded by saying that they and the custodian:
See each other every morning and we are super kind to each other. I think the main reason as to why this is so significant to me is because she reminds me a bit of my parents. I can also tell she is a hard worker and I value her work ethic. She makes sure our space is clean and she also is super sweet. I am happy that I got to meet [the custodian], and I am happy that we get to work together in the mornings to make sure that the research commons is presentable to the public.
Our discussion of this reflection reminded everyone in the meeting that we all have a role to play in keeping the Research Commons clean, orderly, and “presentable to the public” and led to people discussing how it’s important to respect our colleagues on the custodial staff by doing our part of the work rather than expecting them to do everything in the morning. Some Research Commons employees never or rarely open the Research Commons, so they never encounter the custodial staff. Discussing this reflection as a group gave us all a chance to think about the fact that, while we have professional custodial services at the University of Washington, we also have a responsibility to straighten up our space so that the custodians can do their work.
Another example of how our understanding of the written-reflection program has evolved relates to our use of the accumulated record of reflections. Because we employ undergraduate workers, we have a high and regular staff turnover. Once our student workers leave, they often apply for jobs and internships, and as supervisors, we take our responsibilities as references seriously. With a catalog of a students’ reflections over the course of two years, we find that we are able to write much more effective and personal letters of recommendation. In addition, when applying for work, one student even mentioned that they brought up their experiences with written reflection in an interview. They wrote this:
In the first two interviews I talked a bit about working in the libraries and how that has helped me be detail oriented and extra reliable. I mentioned those written reflections and how we collaborated as a team in creating an inviting space for students through various means.
All these concrete benefits aside, written reflection doesn’t always have to have an immediate, quantifiable benefit to be valuable to the Research Commons and to our team. We want to avoid entirely quantifying and commodifying the value of quarterly written reflections. While we talk about tangible benefits to the organization in this article–improved communication, team-building, bringing student voices into group meetings–those benefits are certainly no more important than the benefit of reflection for reflection’s sake.
Students are not just pieces in the Research Commons operation machine–they are individuals who bring their lived experiences, stories, and worldviews to this space. Respecting the intrinsic value of their reflections allows us to connect on a human level and to question the linear and quantifiable nature inherent in how we often talk about our work. A reflection in which a student writes about a problem with a patron is not inherently more valuable than a reflection in which a student writes about how the plant at our help desk makes them feel. For example, one student writes:
For some reason, whenever I am stuck on a problem or pondering a thought, I tend to stare at the plant that we have at the front desk. I’m not to sure why. I like the plant. I think it’s so cute and it really gives the research commons a sense of life further than the many patrons that use our services every day. Just like we take care of our patrons, we take care of our plant.
The writer of this reflection goes on to talk about how they find the plant “soothing” and concludes by saying, “In my personal opinion, I believe that at this point, the plant isn’t just a plant, it is also a part of the research commons staff.”
We never know how and when a reflection will be used or when it will be able to shed light on an unexpected situation. A reflection about a patron can be easy to apply and interact with on the surface, but it might end up providing no more than surface-level insight. The reflection about the plant could make us all look at our work environment in a new way. Or it could simply be valuable as a piece of expressive writing that helped the reader think about their relationship with the Research Commons.
Our sincere thanks to our peer reviewers–Misty Anne Winzenried and Bethany Messersmith–as well as to Annie Pho and the Lead Pipe editors for your direct, thoughtful feedback about this final paper and earlier drafts. Through your generous comments, we came to see new perspectives and found connections we had missed. We would also like to thank all our Research Commons student employees for exploring written reflection along with us, as well as the assessment team at the UW Libraries for their extensive help in assessing the program.
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Appendix: Assessment Questions
- Tell us a bit about your experiences working at the Research Commons, for example:
- How long have you worked here, what are some of your responsibilities?
- What have you found most enjoyable/challenging in your work here?
- What do you value most about working here?
- What have you learned through working at the Research Commons?
- About library services?
- About public/customer service?
- Have you learned any skills (e.g., related to research processes, technology, etc.)?
- How has your work at the Research Commons had an impact on your academic work? Your life?
- If interviewee is about to graduate: have you discussed the Research Commons in your job interviews, applications, etc.?
- For any skills mentioned in #2 above: how have you applied them to other situations (in academic/personal life)?
- Have you been able to bring anything you’ve learned in classes to bear on your work here in the Research Commons? This could be direct (subject knowledge to answer a student question) or more indirect (group work/collaborative skills that you’ve been able to apply as part of working in the Research Commons “student squad”).
- I understand that as part of your position here, you’ve been working on written reflections. Tell us a bit about what you did over the course of the year (e.g., how many did you do, what was the nature/content, did you talk about them with supervisor/peers, etc.).
- Could you describe anything you got out of doing these written reflections?
- If you don’t feel that you got anything out of them, why is that?
- What would have made them more useful to you?
- How did the written reflections (including the discussions of them with peers/supervisor) have an impact on your work at the Research Commons? Do you feel that they added value?
- How did they affect your relationship with your colleagues? Supervisors? Users of the Research Commons?
- What would you change about the reflections or the discussions about them?
- Could you describe anything you got out of doing these written reflections?
Transition to talking about High Impact Practices:
Intensive, reflective writing can be an element of what is known as a “High Impact Practice”. The concept of High Impact Practices is one that is becoming increasingly important in U.S. higher education. High Impact Practices are defined as “Transformative experiences that ‘require students to connect, reflect on, and integrate what they are learning from their classes with other life experiences” (Markgraf 2015, p. 770).
Within the field of librarianship, there has been some effort to expand the definition of high impact practices to include student employment experiences, as student employment can be one way of making connections between academic and extra-curricular activities (such as on-campus work).
It sounds like you’ve talked about what High Impact Practices are in the Research Commons over the past year, and it sounds like there were a couple of examples of these practices that you may have participated in, such as the opportunity to present about study abroad experiences and the reflective writing on your experiences as student employee.
- Beyond the reflective writing activities, have you participated in these kinds of activities/practices at the Research Commons (e.g. presenting about study abroad)?
- If so, what did you get out of it/them?
- For all the activities (including the reflective writing and any other activities you’d define as “high impact”), do you think that participating in these activities has changed your view of what it means to be a student employee and/or the relationship between your work/academic life?
- Why or why not (and, if so, how has your view changed)?
- Has your work in the Research Commons contributed in any way to achieving your academic goals?
- Are there experiences you wish you had while working in the Research Commons that would have been valuable in drawing connections between your academic learning and student work?
- Is this something you’re interested in (i.e., applying learning from classes in employment)? Why or why not?
- I’d like to get your view on what “High Impact Practices” mean. If you had to describe the concept of “High Impact Practices” to a friend, how would you explain it?
- Anything else you’d like to share with me about reflective writing activities or experiences as a student employee in the Research Commons?
- Beyond the reflective writing activities, have you participated in these kinds of activities/practices at the Research Commons (e.g. presenting about study abroad)?