Be Curious: Research Instruction for First Year Studio Students

Recently I was asked to provide research instruction for a brand new 1 credit course required for all new incoming BFA and BArch students at Tyler School of Art. This course was designed to create a community of learning and introduce students to the world of art and design. I had 35 minutes and was asked to talk about image research and demonstrate only two databases. The professors requested specifically the free database of and our in-house image database of objects in our special collections. I was one of several “guest speakers” invited to talk to the students. The instruction room was packed with about 150 students.

I rarely teach with Powerpoint, but wanted to have visual material that represented my ideas and that engaged the students during my introductory talk. I took cue from my yoga class to spend some time at the beginning of the class giving a type of “pep talk” about what it was we, as a class, were about to embark on.

While I was composing my session, it occurred to me that when I’m teaching students about research, I’m really teaching them about curiosity – what it means to be curious, why they should be curious and how to act on their curiosity. I started my talk with the students by addressing that same concept. [I’ve illustrated this post with various slides from the presentation. You can watch and download the entire presentation at the end of this post.]

Slides 2 – 5: Illustrating Curiosity


In an effort to illustrate what I meant by curiosity, and to start them thinking about visual representations of concepts, I showed images of different ways to represent curiosity. As I clicked through the “Be Curious.” slides, I talked about the different ways to define what it means to be curious and the different ways in which you can illustrate those definitions.

Slide 7: Why be Curious

Slid 7 is animated and the images appear one at a time starting from the bottom right with Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster and working to the left, then up to the book cover of Graphic Design, moving right to Art in the Streets, then Art of Obama and ending with the headlines about the copyright case of Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster. During this slide I spoke about reasons why you would want to be curious. I used this slide to illustrate how curiosity can help you contextualize objects and give them depth. With curiosity you can discover the history of objects, learn about their influences and possibly find relationships between them and your own work.

For this slide I needed to start with an image I knew the students would recognize. The starting image also needed to be something I knew I could connect in an obvious way to other images. I was not going to talk about the images, so the connections had to speak for themselves. The bottom row are objects that demonstrate a sort of history of image making and the top row are resources about the objects.

Slid 8: Utilize Resources

From this slide I link to the image databases found in an art research guide I created. I demonstrated the free online image database, and our Head of Special Collections demonstrated searching images in our in-house image database. I used this opportunity to briefly talk about utilizing all resources available to them, whether they be Google or lectures, or professors or peers or the library. Different resources will connect you to different pieces of information.

Slide 9: Practice. Practice. Practice.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice drives our curiosity. The more we use something and the more we practice with it, the more we understand what it can do for us, and the more we understand how we can make it work for us. There is no level of perfection in information seeking, only levels of improvement.

Little did I know that the next reading assignment scheduled for the class was and essay entitled “Curiosity Cabinets, Museums, and Universities” by E. Bruce Robertson from the book, Cabinet of Curiosities: Mark Dion and the University as Installation. Two weeks after this session I spoke with the students more about developing a vocabulary for researching.

I’m curious to know about what you do to teach students about research.


Instruction Exercise for International Students

In this post, I thought I would share some of my experiments with creative instruction. I am a very green librarian (just one and a half years in the profession) and I’ve been practicing what I like to call “fearless creativity” with my outreach and instruction. I thought this blog would be a good place to share those ideas with other ADSL professionals and hopefully spur some dialogue and maybe even collaboration on other helpful approaches to instruction and outreach.

Since the article published in Urban Library Journal was written, I expanded on the button idea for an instructional project.

The Project

Every summer I teach four (one each day of the week) library instruction sessions to a group of students who are part of a program called SOPIS (Summer Orientation for Parsons International Students). SOPIS is an intensive summer program for international students that combines English language skills with a design project. Students who successfully complete this program will be accepted as full-time Parsons students in the Fall. Therefore, these students have a short amount of time to be successful: they work hard and ask a lot of questions.
This was my second summer to teach these students, and I decided to up the ante on the hands-on project I planned for them. My first summer with this program was much more challenging since I had been on the job for just about two months. I use this group of students as my test group for innovative projects for a couple of reasons: the time of year (summer) affords me a little more time to spend preparing new and often time consuming projects, and the four classes allows me to conduct a small case-study for the project.
After I showed the students how to use the online resources including our OPAC, I wanted an exercise that required them to use written and oral skills, in order for them to work on their English. Since I was only allotted an hour for the instruction session, I knew I needed the create a project that was simple, useful and quick. Each class received a button card that looked like this:
The image used to make the button came from the book mentioned in the middle of the card. In the lower right-hand corner of the card are a list of possible keywords to use when searching this book in the OPAC. The students were given a piece of paper with these instructions:

What To Do With Your Button Card?

  • Your card has information about a book. Your card also has a list of Keywords that relate to that book.
  • Using one or more of the Keywords in the list, find another book in BobCat.
  • After you find another book in BobCat, write down the Title, Author and Call Number of that book on the back of your card.
  • Now locate the new book in the stacks and bring it back to the group.
  • Be prepared to say something about your book. (Why did you choose it? Was it easy/difficult to find? Were there other books nearby that looked interesting?)
  • Now you have information for two books that relate to your class projects!

I also verbally explained the exercise to the class.

The Result:

Unfortunately, time only permitted one class to actually participate in this exercise. The exercise only takes about 10 minutes, but miscommunication meant I was not informed until after the fact that I only had 50 minutes with the students. At any rate, the section that allowed time for the exercise was the section with the lowest English speaking ability. Most of the students tried to find the book on the card, rather than search for a different book using the given search terms.

What I Learned:

If I did this exercise again, I would read the instructions to the students rather than just explain in my own words. Despite my efforts, many students still seemed confused about what to do. Since English is not their first language, reading the instructions to them would allow them to read and follow along. I also may just have them search for the one book and not have them use keywords. That seemed to be where most of the confusion happened.

If anyone has thoughts for next summer’s project, I’d love to hear them!