Pregnant Pause

It’s been over a year since my last blog post – I’ve been away on maternity leave.  I enjoyed a wonderful Spring and Summer with my older daughter and new baby boy, and then returned to work at the end of October.  I thought I would take some time to reflect on returning to work after maternity leave …

Being a full-time working parent is not new to me; but being a full-time working parent to two children is new, and while wonderful it is also damn hard work!  I was only able to take 6 months maternity leave this time, and it has been a wrench leaving my baby, who is still breastfed.  I am fortunate that my university has a nursery on-campus, and my baby is just a few minutes walk away, which has given me great peace of mind.  The nursery staff are fabulous, and my baby has settled in well, although he has caught every germ in the nursery (as to be expected).

I had a phased return to work – just 3 days per week for the first month, to ease my baby into nursery, and me back into work.  While this worked well for my baby, it worked less well for me, as I found myself with a full-time workload and part-time hours.  I was fortunate that my return to full-time hours began in December, which is one of the more gentle times of the academic year, and I was able to catch-up.

When you are on maternity leave, you worry about your maternity cover: are they doing your job properly, and (crucially) are they doing your job better than you?  I was fortunate to have an excellent maternity cover – one of the assistants in my team stepped up to the role.  She did a great job (she made some great legal research videos), but I think that she was pleased to see me return.  On my first day back, a student came in with an obscure question about south african law reports, and the relief on her face was obvious to all.

I was only away for 6 months, but there were a lot of changes in that time.  There is a new assistant in our team (she started a week or two before I went on premature maternity leave), yet I feel like the new girl.  There is a new acquisitions manager, who has implemented lots of new policies, procedures and systems, which seem to change on a almost daily basis.  And we have a new library search engine – which appears (at least to me) to be much worse than the old library search engine.  Yet at the same time, there is a lot that is familiar: the office door is always locked at 8.45 when my colleague arrives at work, and the team still meet for coffee in the library cafe at 10.30 precisely!  I was also pleasantly surprised to find that Lexis Library and Westlaw had not rebranded and changed their database!

The media is full of stories about full-time working parents, and full-time working mothers in particular, and opinion is polarised.  My university has all the proper family friendly policies and procedures: we have good maternity, parental leave and care for dependents policies, but I don’t always feel supported.  However, I have struggled more with family, health and education services that are not working parent friendly, and entirely inflexible when it comes to making appointments that are not in the middle of the working day.

I hate to admit that I ‘clock watch’ in the afternoon, and I have a recurring daily appointment on my work calendar than simply says ‘go home’!  It’s not because I’m a bad employee, or less committed than my colleagues; but because I have to leave work on time, or face the consequences of not collecting my children from their childcare (upset children, late fees and social services).  I may leave the office at 4 o’clock, but I don’t sit down at home until 9 o’clock, by which time it’s almost time for bed.  I am entirely left out of office conversations about last night’s telly, and going out for drinks after work is unthinkable!

I’ve been really busy since the new year: I’ve been on a couple of training courses, I’ve restarted my teaching course, I’m working on a project to review official publications, and I’ve been accepted to speak at the BIALL conference in the Summer.  I’ve also been out of the office a lot: away on training courses, visiting other libraries, on holiday for school half-term, and on holiday to care for my poorly baby.  I’ve found it really hard to keep on top of my workload, and need more support and flexible working options.

I have considered making a formal request for flexible working, but I’m undecided on what ‘flexible’ should be (let alone if my employer would agree).  I have two children at very different ages and stages, and what would suit us now, would not work in a few years time.  For the time being it is ‘watchful waiting’ – a lot can happen in 6 months, let alone 3 years …

Speed referencing

I first heard about speed referencing at the HEA Teaching Research Skills to Law Students workshop earlier this month.  It’s a format for an activity in a referencing workshop – think speed dating meets OSCOLA.  I decided to give it a go in my Referencing for Law workshop earlier this week.  The workshop started with a traditional introduction to OSCOLA referencing, and the speed referencing activity followed thereafter.

I created 10 referencing exercises – a book, book chapter, journal article, website, UK Act, UK SI, UK case, EU legislation and EU case.  A copy of the title page or key information for each item was placed on a table.  The students were given a blank worksheet and a copy of the OSCOLA quick guide.  They had 90 seconds to reference an item, and then move on to exercise at the next table.  The speed referencing activity took about 20 minutes altogether – allowing some time between exercises.  At the end of the activity, the students were given a copy of the answers, time to review their results, and to ask questions and receive feedback.

The speed referencing went surprisingly well.  The students said they enjoyed the practice.  The time constraint made them realise that they could reference legal materials quickly, and that referencing did not have to take forever.  Eleven students attended the workshop, so it was a fortunate match of numbers – number of students to number of exercises.  The students preferred to stay in their seats around the tables and move the exercises around.  This worked well with the number of students, but did detract from the ‘active’ part of the activity.  I wonder if students are conditioned to learn while sitting still?  It’s certainly not the case for my 5 year old daughter – who appears to learn whilst maintaining a constant state of (com)motion!  

I will definitely give speed referencing another go – I am scheduled to teach referencing again to LLM students as part of their dissertation preparation training.  I think it’s a fun way to liven up an otherwise dull workshop!

HEA Teaching Research Skills to Law Students (5 February 2014)

I attended and presented at the HEA workshop on Teaching Research Skills to Law Students at the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies in London. The event was attended by both librarians and academics, and was so popular even the reserve list was full.  Not even the TUBE strike prevented a full house!

Recent developments in legal information literacy by Ruth Bird, Bodleian Law Librarian, University of Oxford

Ruth set the scene for the day, outlining the information skills gap of new university students, and some of the key information literacy standards, and developments in legal education.

Rosemary Auchmuty (University of Reading) made some interesting observations on legal information literacy, including:- the focus on preparing students for careers as lawyers, not as legal academics or into non-law professions (only 50% of law students follow a career in law); and different interpretations of key information literacy skills by academics and librarians, with librarians focusing on information retrieval, and academics on the use of information.

Personally, I think the AALL legal information literacy standard is better suited to developing transferable research skills regardless of the students final destination.

What research skills do our students need? a brainstorming session in small groups

I worked with Caroline Ball (University of Derby), Suzanne White (Coventry University) and Chris Umfreville (University of Wolverhampton).

  • Transferable research skills for students going into non-law professions
  • Understanding the research question and defining the scope of research
  • Practical application of black letter law to the research question
  • Developing advanced skills for LLM students: from spoon feeding to independent research

Case Study 1: University of Reading by Rosemary Auchmuty and Ross Connell

Research skills are embedded into the whole curriculum, and learnt in the context of substantive subjects, rather than front-loaded and taught in isolation in a legal research skills module.  Gave example of embedding legal research skills in a second year land law module (level 5).  Academic and librarian design, deliver and assess legal research skills together.  Reading have fewer contact teaching hours than many other institutions, and so make use of a variety of teaching methods including self-study workbook and online tutorials.  Assessment is in the form of a poster (group work, presentation and research skills), and a multiple-choice quiz on Blackboard.

Case Study 2: University of Greenwich by Sarah Crofts

Again, legal research skills are embedded into the whole curriculum, and learnt in the context of substantive subjects.  Library teaching sessions are embedded across the curriculum.  Librarian writes some of the assessments, but does not mark them.  Gave example of second year (level 5) assessment, where students have to research a topic and write an essay on a student they have not been taught.  Essay question is selected to be current, so that it can not be answered by textbooks, and students have to use primary resources and journal literature.

Case Study 3: University of Leicester by Eugenia Caracciolo, Jackie Hanes, Dawn Watkins, and Loveday Hodson

Our presentation was entitled The Invisible Librarian, and it discussed the challenge of teaching legal research skills to 450+ undergraduate law students with limited resources.  We teach legal research skills in the first year Introduction to Law module (level 4), and they are not embedded into the curriculum thereafter.  My contribution to this teaching is a single 1 hour library induction and legal research skills lecture.  Not an effective method of teaching legal information literacy skills!  I outlined plans to introduce longer practical sessions, for the teaching materials:- to be written by me, but delivered by academics in exisiting tutorial sessions.  I also outlined plans to develop online tutorials, pre-record the library lecture, and perhaps develop an elearning module for legal research.  Dawn Watkins introduced an innovative way of studying case law:- a creative writing exercise based around a real case (true liberal arts education!).  And Loveday Hodson discussed the problems of assessing legal research skills, in terms of both divising an appropriate assessment, and having the resources to mark the assessment.

Case Study 4: City University by Emily Albon

Emily is a law librarian plus – she is also responsible for the Law Bore website, and mooting and careers events at City University.  Emily runs the first year (level 4) legal research module.  Students attend a two hour lecture and a two hour workshop. (Emily repeats the workshop 10+ times to accomodate the 300+ students).  Students are assessed using an online legal research quiz in Blackboard – although Emily marks the assessments manually, because marks are also awarded for method.  Emily has some very good teaching ideas, including using everyday objects (e.g. toy car or shoe) to develop key words, and using ipads and other mobile devices in the workshops (because IT classrooms are not large enough).

Case Study 5: University of Salford by Nicola Sales

Nicola outlined how she has used flipped classroom methods to teach legal research.  Nicola presented a similar session at the BIALL Conference (2013), which is also written up in an article in Legal Information Management.  Legal research skills are taught in a first year (level 4) english legal system module.  In flipped classroom teaching, students undertake preparatory learning in advance of the class (e.g. online lectures and tutorials).  The contact teaching time is then spent in practical workshops (not lectures), and students are able to practice their legal research skills.  Students are assessed by a combination of quiz in Blackboard, and a research trail and bibliography.  They must also complete both Lexis Library and Westlaw user certificates.  I was particular keen on Nicola’s idea of speed referencing (think speed dating but with OSCOLA), and I intend to try this teaching method out later this month.

Case Study 6: Keele University by Fiona Cownie and Scott McGowan

Fiona has introduced a legal research skills module at three universities, and has published many well regarded books on the english legal system and legal skills.  Again legal research skills are taught in a first year (level 4) module, and include a mixture of lecture, self-directed study, and workshops.  Students are assessed by completed an essay on a topic that they have no previously studied.  Like me, Scott is not just a law librarian, and he supports a number of other departments, and his time is limited.  He cited use of mixed media and availability of a wide range of support materials as key to teaching legal research successfully.

What is best practice?

It is most common for legal research skills to be taught in a stand alone module in the first year, in isolation from substantive subjects.  There is a risk that students do not practice their legal research skills, and that they may not be assessed again.  (Law students are generally assessed by 100% unseen examination for their substantive subjects).  It is better practice for legal research skills teaching to be embedded into the curriculum, and taught and tested in across the 3 or 4 years of study.  However, this requires cooperation across the law school.  There was general agreement that academics and librarians need to work together to improve legal research skills teaching.  This is something that is alredy happening at the University of Leicester – but that may take a few years to achieve.

Module A – Result!

I have spent the last year studying Module A of the Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice in Higher Education. This included around 15 taught sessions, 3 formative essays, 2 teaching observations, and a final formative essay and portfolio. There were many stressful days and nights, particularly over the Christmas vacation, as I finished my final essay and portfolio. I have at times found it difficult to relate the academic theory to my practice, and I was concerned that my essay and portfolio would not make the grade. However, after a nervous few weeks, I am very pleased to say that I have passed, and passed with a merit! This also means that I will become a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy! The course has been both interesting and challenging, and I can see how I have developed as a teacher. I plan to continue my studies, complete Module D in eLearning, and gain my full postgraduate certificate qualification. However, these plans are going on hold for a year, as I will be taking maternity leave at Easter. I will be back – in 2015!

2nd Teaching Observation

I completed my second and final teaching observation in mid October.  I was observed delivering a library and legal research induction lecture to 450+ first year undergraduate law students by my Pg Cert tutor.  I am a guest lecturer on the Introduction to Law module, and so have some claim to being embedded in the curriculum.  While I am very confident with my subject matter; I am less comfortable with lectures as an effective method for teaching information literacy skills.  However, it is not currently practical to deliver the session in 10 x 2 hour small (50 student) group seminars.

The lecture theatre was full, and the students a little rowdy – it was a Friday afternoon, and I suspect many were either going to or coming from the pub!  I had to make use of all my classroom management skills to take control of the lecture theatre and manage the students behaviour.  At times, I had to interrupt myself to ask for quiet in the lecture theatre, which did disrupt my flow.  I also suffered the indignity of my mouse falling off the lectern, and having to put it back together, while remaining composed!  However, I was pleased when my observer commented that I managed the difficult situations well, and the disruption did not show in my lecture.

The first half of my lecture followed a standard library induction script. This is new for 2013/14, and is delivered by all liaison librarians at the university.  The focus of the script is to provide general information about the library, and how the library can support students in higher education, rather than the detail about opening hours and borrowing rules.  This included a live demonstration of a new interactive library map in Prezi format.  I have had varied success with this, because the Prezi refuses to display in selected teaching rooms, but I was pleased that it worked in the large lecture theatre!  My observer commented that I used different media formats well in my presentation.

The second half of my lecture enables me to deliver subject specific information.  For example, finding books, journal articles, cases and legislation on a reading list.  I was able to use real examples from their curriculum, which hopefully made the demonstration more immediately relevant to the students.  I was also able to talk to students about the research they would need to complete for their forthcoming workshops and assignments.  I then demonstrated Westlaw and Lexis Library, two of the key legal research databases.  In a 1 hour lecture, there is not time to teach students how to use these databases, but I was able to show them how to access online training tutorials, and obtain certificates in database research skills.

In an ideal world, I would like to have a follow-up session with students in IT classrooms. I do this with other departments, for example criminology, and it is an effective way of assessing student learning, and providing feedback on any problems encountered. I have been surprised at the number of students who can not distinguish books from journal articles, let alone find them in a library. However, the size of the law cohort makes small group sessions like this impractical at the moment. I have since been invited to attend and present at a HEA workshop on Teaching Legal Research Skills with academics from the School of Law. I am keen to get involved, and find more effective ways to deliver legal research training, perhaps with the aid of technology.

TeachMeet Leicester (1 October 2013)

I attended my first TeachMeet at New College Leicester one dark night in October.  TeachMeet is a forum for teachers to share ideas and good practice.  I attended as an observer only – not quite brave enough to present!  The evening comprised about 12 short presentations – either long (7 minutes) or short ( 2 minutes).  The event was organised by Dan Williams (@danwilliams1984), and it had a wild west theme: presenters were awarded sheriffs badges and/or shot with a (toy) gun if they ran overtime!  As a librarian from higher education – I was in a minority of one.  Most of the teachers were from primary or secondary schools, with a few from colleges of further education.

There were some excellent presentations – I was particularly struck by the imagination and enthusiasm that some teachers have for their both their teaching practice and the pupils in their classroom.  For example, at one primary school 4 year olds in reception class learn computer logic and programming on iPads using apps.  Other schools use Skype to connect with schools across Europe and America, and the children learn about different geography and languages by peer-to-peer learning.  It certainly made me question if I can do more with technology to connect with my distance learning students!

My favourite presentation was about using Twitter to teach Spanish in secondary school.  @wrennmfl encourages students to communicate in Spanish via social media.  Students are asked to summarise learning, ask questions, and comment on news items in 140 character tweets.  Students are also encouraged to follow the Twitter accounts of Spanish speaking role models including Cesc Fabregas, Rafael Nadal and our own Gary Linekar.  Twitter has increased student engagement with learning, both inside and outside the classroom, and helped to foster a sense of community among the students, particular among ‘hard-to-reach’ teenaged boys.

I also enjoyed the presentations and discussions about using Skype in the classroom.  Some teachers had paired their classes with others around the world, and used Skype as their primary form of communication, taking the concept of penpals a stage further.  A primary school had exchanged Christmas cards and shared traditional Christmas carols; and a secondary school had arranged an international dance competition as part of a PE class.  Others had used Skype to invite experts into their classrooms.  This ranged from getting guest lecturers, to watching a behind the scenes tour of the British Museum.

Finally, there was some interesting work with Google Drive and the use of Google Forms to assess learning (diagnostic, formative and summative) in a further education college.  While I am cautious about pushing Google as a learning platform, many of the ideas could be replicated in Blackboard or other virtual learning environments.

The TeachMeet lasted about 2 hours in total, with a break for cowboy themed refreshments (wagon wheels and strawberry shoelaces/lassos) at half time.  Also in attendance was a Clive Francis a conference artist, who made a visual cartoon record of the evening.  At the end of the evening, we voted for our favourite presentation (with cowboy stickers), and a prize was awarded to the winning speaker.  The TeachMeet was not always directly relevant to libraries or higher education, but has certainly opened my eyes to new possibilities in education.  I would like to attend another, and also maybe try a LibTeachMeet …

Library Routes from the BIALL Newsletter (Sept 2013)

I am published!  I was asked to write the Library Routes feature for the BIALL Newsletter.  My professional life story: how I became a law librarian.  On reflection, it’s not a hugely exciting story, certainly not an international best seller.  As I wrote the article, I did reminisce about the good old days.  I also realised how much has changed in the last decade, personally as well as professionally.  For those who are not BIALL members, and can not read the newsletter, this is my story:-

I never held any childhood ambitions to be a librarian, but I have always been drawn to the ‘helping professions’, first wanting to be a police officer and then a social worker. 

I graduated from Keele University in 1997 intending to become a social worker.  I returned home to my family, and started to work for social services, to gain the pre-course work experience required for the (then) postgraduate diploma in social work.  However, at just 21 years old, I had doubts about my ability to work in the profession, so decided to seek an alternative career, and return to social work when I had grown up. 

I applied for a number of library assistant posts at local colleges and universities, and started work as Learning Resources Assistant at East Birmingham College (now City College Birmingham) in Autumn 1997.  East Birmingham College was a further education college, specialising in technical vocational education, with a large number of Rover and Land Rover engineering apprentices.  I found myself in a great team of people, doing a job that I really enjoyed, and I was encouraged to pursue a library qualification. 

I enrolled on the masters degree in library and information management at the University of Central England (now Birmingham City University).  I studied part-time, every Wednesday for two years, and continued to work full-time.   East Birmingham College was an Investor in People, and they sponsored my studies; although I had to make-up my time off work, which meant many late night librarian shifts.  In my second year, I took an elective module in official and legal information, under the tutelage of David Butcher, and decided that I wanted to be a law librarian. 

The College of Law (now University of Law) opened a new branch in Birmingham in 2001.  As a newly qualified librarian, I started work as Senior Library Assistant in Summer 2001, and worked alongside the Branch Librarian Lindsey Withecombe (now Fratus).  On my first day, I was given a hard-hat and overshoes, and we started work building a brand new law library.  The first law students started six weeks later, and we only just got the books on the library shelves in time.

My first year at the College of Law was a huge learning curve.  I had studied legal information, but had no experience of legal research.  Nor had I any experience of the private education sector, and the particular demands of law students.  I remember how we collapsed with exhaustion after the first practice legal research assessment!  I was one of the many who have benefitted from an introductory legal reference materials course.

Under Lindsey’s mentorship, I was encouraged to become a chartered librarian, and to become more involved in the law library profession.  I joined BIALL and the ALLICE local law library group, and attended my first BIALL conference in Cardiff.  Those early years at the College of Law were some of the happiest of my working life.  In 2004, after a reorganisation of library services, I was promoted to Information Officer at the College of Law in Birmingham.  And there I stayed for nearly 10 years …

So what tempted me to leave?  I wasn’t actively looking for another job, but after 10 years at the College of Law, I was ready for a new challenge.  When the University of Leicester advertised their law librarian post, I applied without any expectation of an interview, and was rather surprised be offered the job.  A few months later, I started work as their Information Librarian, and also began 15 months of daily commuting between Birmingham and Leicester, before eventually relocating in at Easter. 

I was originally appointed to look after law, criminology and official publications, and I thought that the diversification would be good for my career.  However, I got a little more diversity than I bargained for.  After another reorganisation of library services, I am now academic liaison librarian for 7 departments including not only law and criminology, but also archaeology, ancient history, history, history of art and film, english and museum studies!

I still consider myself first and foremost a law librarian, and I’m still actively involved in BIALL and the EMLIP local law library group.  I have become Chair of BIALL’s professional development committee, and now find myself organising legal reference materials course for new recruits to our profession.  I am now also studying for a postgraduate certificate in higher education, because in my new role, teaching qualifications are more highly valued than library qualifications and chartership.