Teaching basic lab skills
for research computing

Three Instructors, Two Coasts and One Spatula

In the space of a year, interest and participation in the Library Carpentry community has exploded like an amoeba who over-ate at an algae banquet and attempted one too many pseudopods.

For Library Carpentry, though, this is a good thing; the pseudopods are propelling us forward across institutions, disciplines, and continents. The community, grounded in collaborative tools like Github and Gitter (I always want to type Glitter) is coalescing around lesson development and holding new workshops. Why is the buzz so strong? I think it’s a combination of relentless energy from people like Belinda Weaver and Tim Dennis (to name just a few), the acceptance and active encouragement of new people who want to contribute in some way, and the mutual recognition by all of us that in any one thing, we are all absolute beginners, and we all give each other permission to be terrible until we aren’t.

I am still terrible at Github and command line and use Tim’s Github workflow post every time I work with Github - seriously, this is Github workflow gold, people. I am less terrible at OpenRefine and will happily show anyone how to rearrange columns because OpenRefine hides that function in a super weird place.

There’s a Library Carpentry Sprint coming up on June 1, with sites worldwide contributing to new lessons, and updating/improving existing ones. There’s this powerhouse woman in Australia called Carmi Cronje (what is it you Aussies are drinking, the way you get stuff done?) who is Githubbing the hell out of the prep for it. Go, Carmi! I encourage anyone with an interest in the Library Carpentry community to check out the Sprint and find a way to participate.

Remember, Library Carpentry is a no-judgement zone. My cat will judge you, but the LC community will not.

Juliane's cat

West Coast, Library Carpentry Instructor Training

Led by the intrepid and hilarious Belinda Weaver and Tim Dennis, with help from John Chodacki and me, 28 very enthusiastic participants were inducted into the Library Carpentry instructor community over two days in Portland, OR. Back when I took the instructor training at UC Davis, I came to it with no experience in instruction whatsoever. By the end of the two days, I was faintly confident in my instructor skills, had learned pedagogical things that seemed obvious but were so not obvious and jumped right into organizing a week-long Library Carpentry workshop with Tim Dennis because Tim happened to have the biggest library conference room reserved and nothing to use it for.

I have a feeling this group will be doing the same, and the beauty of OpenRefine will resound throughout the land. The best part about observing my first instructor training from the helper side was the abject terror that the first mention of the video exercise produced. And the second best part was how much confidence they all gained by realizing how good they really were, and how supportive, constructive suggestions for improvement actually sustained that confidence instead of undermining it. Community, yo!

On the morning of the workshop, Belinda decided she needed a speaking stick, so we claimed a wooden toy spatula from the daycare room next to the classroom. It was a very popular form of speaking stick, and people were using it as a fake microphone, sometimes without thinking about it which was effective and also hilarious. Here is John Chodacki, using the spatula in a mindful way.


This workshop happened because UC3 and the csv,conf came up with the support to make it happen, so thanks, UC3 and csv,conf!

East Coast, Boston Library Carpentry Workshop

Having conquered the West Coast, Library Carpentry invaded Boston to teach a one-day workshop that included sections on data basics, jargon busting, shell/bash, line command, regular expressions and OpenRefine.

[The workshop was actually held across the river, at MIT in Cambridge.]

There was no corporeal spatula, but it was there in spirit.

Belinda started off discussing the threat that algorithms present to those of us in the info workforce, and how learning new skills can help us move into new roles. Then we did the jargon busting exercise, which was fantastic! The Boston crowd came up with terms I hadn’t yet seen surface in this section, like flag/parameter/option/argument and Bayesian and they were enthusiastic users of the etherpad. Some of the best etherpad use I’ve encountered in an LC event.

And then there was regex. Oh regex. So useful, so painful to actually look at! But so useful … The challenge with teaching regex is that to truly understand its power, you need to see it work against a block of text or data. I’m currently developing an after-workshop exercise that students can use to really dig into regex, and look at why an expression returns the strings that it does. So stay tuned for that!

The most interesting section was the bash/shell lesson, with Belinda using the text of Little Women to demonstrate how to count how many times a specific word appears. If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Belinda do her thing, you need to! I learned so much about effective instruction just by watching her engage with the room. She makes everyone instantly comfortable in learning complex new concepts.

And, as often happens, a discussion ensued about the context of using bash/shell in libraries. There are definite use cases for using command line, including file management and text evaluation, but is there a more direct line to library work? Are we missing the definitive use case that would drive home why librarians should use this method of working with a computer, or are we not presenting its core benefits clearly enough? (Hint: I don’t know). This discussion comes up every time I’ve seen it taught, so it is something to consider (and has been raised as an issue to fix in the sprint).

OpenRefine was, as always, a joy to teach, and the Boston audience got me out of a muddle when I lost my head and forgot the GREL string for extracting the JSON from CrossRef. I learn something every time I get up there and do instruction, and am consistently impressed by the kindness of the people in our workshops. We’re in this together!

I look forward to taking the next step, learning how to teach OpenRefine wikidata reconciliation.

Finally, I’d like to thank our helpers and our hosts, the amazing Kate Nyland of Yale (and NEASIST), Thomas Hohenstein of Boston University, Daina Bouquin of the Wolbach Library at Harvard, Joshua Dull of Yale, and Christine N Malinowski and Olimpia Estela Caceres-Brown of MIT.

This happened through the generosity of NEASIST. Woo NEASIST!

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