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Summer Seminars Fuel Faculty Collaboration

By Amanda Waite Article published August 29, 2007

Earlier this month, as professors were preparing to resume their posts, authoritatively poised at the head of the classroom, a group of 15 faculty members took a break from their well-earned status as experts to spend three days as students again, seated eagerly around the seminar table.

On Aug. 13, 14 and 15, faculty from across the disciplines gathered to participate in the fourth annual Honors College-sponsored faculty seminar program to discuss the acquisition of information and knowledge in higher education, with a particular focus on the ways in which the internet has affected learning.

This year’s seminars were hosted by the library, with six library faculty members presenting on a range of topics, including sessions on “The Social Consequences of Information Inequality” with Laurie Kutner, library associate professor, and “The Collective Intelligence Wave: Students as Information Producers and Knowledge Shapers” with Keith Gresham, library professor.

“As a coordinator, I found it a really rich experience,” says Trina Magi, library associate professor and presenter of the first session of the program, “Is Academic Freedom for Students, too?” “The seminar format means that everybody is making significant contributions to the program, and it was really interesting to hear the perspectives of faculty from so many disciplines who have different teaching styles.”

Participants’ diverse backgrounds fueled a rich discussion on writing and internet sources in library associate professor Jeffrey Marshall’s “Turning Facts and Data into Knowledge — Research Projects and Critical Thinking.” While professors agreed that writing is an important tool for critical thinking — even chemistry professor Willem Leenstra assigns annotation to help his students more deeply understand the subject — many expressed frustration at the ways in which the internet can make short-hand work of completing writing assignments.

Marshall, who is director of Special Collections, asked his peers whether assigning reading from primary sources, such as those found in the trove of diaries, letters and manuscripts in his department, would help students develop their critical thinking skills by consulting texts not found online. Elizabeth Smith, assistant professor of anthropology, pointed out that for her upcoming course on gender in the Middle East, students will be reading and referencing Middle Easterners’ blogs as primary sources, thus complicating the notion of what constitutes a primary source and where to find them in a post-internet world.

“What I hope was most rewarding for participants,” says Magi, “was on the last day, when they were presenting their ideas on how to incorporate all of the things we had been discussing and how to change assignments based on what they learned… I know it was a real treat for us as library faculty to be able to showcase the information issues we grapple with and to demonstrate to our faculty colleagues how relevant our work is to all of the disciplines on campus.”