The UA Teaching Academy is delighted to shine the faculty spotlight on Dr. Miriam Sweeney, an associate professor and associate director in the School of Library and Information Studies. With a rich academic history spanning over a decade at UA, Sweeney brings a wealth of experience to her role. Her scholarly pursuits delve into the critical and cultural dimensions of technology, positioning her as a thought leader in the field.

In an insightful interview, Sweeney shares her educational journey, offering a glimpse into her innovative teaching methods. Beyond the conventional, she explores the dynamic engagement strategies that she employs in her classes, fostering an environment that transcends traditional learning boundaries. Sweeney also provides a firsthand account of her encounters with artificial intelligence in education, shedding light on the transformative impact of AI on the teaching landscape.



Video Transcript:

I am Miriam Sweeney. I’m an associate professor in the School of Library and Information Studies over in the College of Communication Information Sciences. And I started here at UA in 2013.

So this is my 10th year here at the university. Um, and the area I study in is, uh, related to critical and cultural aspects of technology. So I train library students, predominantly graduate students.

Um, but then I study, um, aspects of technology and society. Yeah, that’s an interesting story. So I started out working as, um, a librarian or working in libraries, and I had a lot of experience doing that in different capacities for like over a decade.

Um, and in, uh, the library world to kind of, you know, level up, you need a master’s degree. And so I went back to school to get that master’s degree in library and information studies.

And as part of that process, um, I didn’t realize that people also got PhDs in that field and that that was like its own academic discipline. You know, I thought of it more as like a professional area and didn’t think about the academic side.

So almost immediately when I started getting my master’s degree, um, I kind of realized there was this other area open. I hadn’t really considered the academy before that, um, but I had some really amazing professors who I was very inspired by and I thought, oh, like this is what I wanna do.

I don’t wanna go back to the public service desk. I actually want to train educators and train, you know, librarians, um, and be a part of that. So that kind of took me on that journey to academia.

Um, but really the thought of getting to be involved in the profession by, um, being an educator was part of the draw for me. Well, as part of, uh, library work.

And I also worked for some museums. Um, you do a lot of kind of, you have a lot of instruction and teaching moments, right? More one-on-one often, but also I have to say that I held down some odd jobs.

Like I worked part-time for the science museum, and part of what we did there was, um, and there were some historical parts to it as well. I led one room schoolhouse sessions as an old-fashioned schoolmarm when kids would come in third grade, they would come and I would, you know, dress up, um, in period wear and scold them and teach lessons, you know.

And so I had lots of experience doing like, programming for museums, and even in library settings, like you’re often doing kind of instructional things either formally or informally. Um, but none of those were sort of classroom experiences.

And so I didn’t really have my first classroom instructional, you know, uh, experience until I was a PhD student when I started doing graduate teaching. And I did that, um, immediately entering my PhD program.

And all through every semester in my program, Limited training at the college I went to at, uh, university of Illinois Champaign Urbana, they did have a program where if you were a teaching assistant, you did need to take a class where you talked basic, basic, some basic pedagogy, um, how to put together a syllabus, what an assessment was.

So that was, I remember, you know, so, uh, so, you know, intimidating at the time, you know, and now, I mean, to think about tea, you know, talking for five minutes is nothing, you know?

Um, but yeah, so we did have a little bit of instruction, but I don’t know that that fully prepared me to, you know, step in front of a class and have them all stare at me for the first time, which is, you know, ultimately what does happen when you, you know, go out on your own.

Yeah, I mean, there are so many, um, at this point now I’ve been teaching quite a long time, but I was thinking about that question and, um, I really love it when your classes have, you know, their individual personalities and you have sometimes these kind of spontaneous moments that develop out of class culture, you know, that just kind of establishes itself.

Um, most recently, as I’m wrapping up this semester, I had a class that, uh, we were talking about the classes about AI in society. We talk a lot about surveillance and, you know, being watched and often, um, sort of the creepy parts of that come up.

And throughout the semester, students would refer to those as like tinfoil hat moments. And so it just became something that we would continually say, you know, oh, but you know, another tinfoil hat moment.

Um, so, you know, it’s just moments like that that you can’t predict, but that come together because of the, you know, atmosphere that, you know, just, uh, organically grows. Yeah, absolutely.

Um, so, you know, it kind of depends on different class and the different outcomes for those classes. Uh, but I think that reflection and, and like building in reflection opportunities for students is important or has become important to me in all of my classes.

And sometimes that’s, um, you know, more formal through, um, written exercises where they can reflect on readings or discussions as we go, and I can kind of, you know, have that dialogue with them.

Um, it’s a way to check comprehension, but also to like, you know, have more personal conversations, um, that we might not have as a group in class. Um, and I teach often topics around, you know, um, diversity, equity and inclusion, race, gender, and sexuality in the profession.

So there are moments in those kinds of classes too, where creating kind of private moments can really supplement, um, you know, supplement the public discussion and make, allow for vulnerability and also, um, tackling difficult subjects that, um, in a safe way that kind of bridges the group discussion.

So I try to plan for sort of those private interactions through reflective pieces, um, as well as, you know, robust in-class activity and discussion as well. Yeah, absolutely. I think that, you know, uh, as a personality, I’m definitely someone who likes to be, you know, I’m a planner and I like the kind of having the control over the plan, but I have found that, and particularly as I’ve become more comfortable in the classroom, that, um, there’s a lot

of times when you’re really called to let go of the control, you know, and the teach and the learning and teaching process. Um, and I have classes who, you know, we have maybe herding cats moments where I have an agenda and I’m like trying to march through that agenda.

And what I think has is interesting about the lesson is not what they think is interesting about the lesson. They want it, they just, you know, wanna go elsewhere. And I have learned that, um, it’s okay to just put the script down and follow them because, you know, they’re trying to communicate, you know, as a group or as individuals that, um, that there is something that, you know, they wanna discuss that they’re really passionate about.

It just happens to not be the thing I thought we were gonna be passionate about. Um, so I’m a lot more comfortable now just sort of saying, okay, you know, I’m not the one in control.

We wanna talk about this, let’s just talk about that. You know? Um, and that’s not something that’s a place I’ve reached, but not a place maybe where I started as a newer teacher being more comfortable that that could happen.

Yeah, for sure. I feel like, you know, there are so many students I’ve encountered, and the metrics for success looks so different for all of them. You know, it’s not always, like I have had students who go on to prestigious PhD programs or get a really amazing job, and, um, and I’m so proud of those students, but sometimes, like the journeys are like quieter, you know, that I like, feel the most connected to.

And, um, we had lots of conversations about it. She would ask, you know, like, what a, like, what should I do? And I was like, you should quit that job. It sounds awful.

Um, and, you know, we talked a lot and, um, and throughout like the class and things, you know, she ended up leaving the job, seeking a new position. I, you know, helped give her advice about, um, that was adjacent to her career goals, um, gave her advice about the negotiating process.

She asked for more money and got it, you know, and watching her now thrive in that new job. And, and I know that, that where she’s had ended up is not where she thought she was gonna end up, but also seeing that, like, she’s really like, leaned into it, um, and has sort of taken subsequent classes with me and, you know, it’s all kind of come together, but it was just kind of an amazing moment because I reflect on

where she started and like where she’s at. And the difference in the two years is, you know, night and day. And so just watching people, you know, have and helping people, um, find their own confidence, find their own skills, you know, and just helping, sort of facilitating that is, you know, such a, a joy.

Um, so really for me it’s about those kinds of moments where you can just see like the confidence grow and, you know, people sort of step into their potential that I really love.

I think there’s, like, I’m involved in a lot of informal sort of collaborations. I mean, teaching is something that I talk about with a lot of my, um, you know, colleague peers at other institutions and share and steal and borrow ideals with them, you know?

Um, a lot of the good ideas that I bring into my classroom are ideas that, you know, have, I’ve been inspired by or have directly steal, stole from, you know, a colleague.

Um, and so just, you know, getting, uh, to have that conversation about, Hey, I did this in my class and they loved it. Like, my, my students really liked this, or if I did it again, I would do it differently.

And I’m thinking, oh, I could, I could do that. You know? Um, so a lot of informal collaborations for me, um, in terms of formal collaboration, um, I, I think, I wish I had more teaching mentorship when I was newer at this because, um, as you kind of mentioned earlier, there’s not always a lot of training.

So, you know, we’ve recently had new faculty come in and, um, you know, I’ve offered to add them to my classes, let them sit in on classes, share syllabi, and do things like that, and just try to, you know, um, offer some transparency around that process that, um, wasn’t necessarily provided for me.

I mean, through no fault of anyone’s, but just, you know, I think we can do better at just helping each other kind of through that process. So, um, yeah, so technology is always a part, I think, of all of our classrooms, whether we think about that or not, right?

Mm-hmm. Um, it’s just a matter of kind of like what kinds of technologies we’re using and, um, and how comfortable we are with them. So I do a lot of online teaching, as you mentioned, and, um, and I find that, um, you know, that brings a whole other suite of possibilities.

And, you know, when new tools come out, like ai, I, I’m curious about them and I want to learn about them and help my students learn about them. Um, but in kind of like an experimental way, right?

So this semester was the first semester that I really started addressing AI in terms of, um, you know, putting it in kind of my syllabus and, you know, like what you can and can’t do with it.

Um, and I’ve really opened up that, you know, students are welcome to play with and try generative AI tools in their writing. Um, I have a worksheet that they fill out if they do use those tools, and I invite them, you know, it’s, it’s optional.

If you would like to try playing around with this, um, then feel free. But the worksheet invites them to, uh, both describe how they use it, um, how they, you know, check the content, how they, and then how they feel about it.

Like what were the affordances for them and maybe the limitations, you know, I just want them to sort of think about that as a tool and a process. And it’s been interesting.

I’ve had a few students, you know, take advantage of that, and I ask them sometimes to talk about it in class with other students, you know, for those of you who aren’t using it, you know, like Dana used it, let’s talk.

Um, and it’s been interesting because it’s enabled us to also have some conversations about, you know, academic writing and voice, because, um, I’ll get, I’ll get papers by students who have used it, and I can, I can tell not in a bad way, it’s just, it, like nothing is wrong, it’s just, it’s a bit like I lose voice sometimes.

And so we’ve talked about that, you know, like what does it mean to polish and learn how to be an academic writer, and then also to value the voice that you bring to your writing, and how do you navigate those?

So in other words, I guess, um, I’ve, I see it as an opportunity for more discussion, you know, in the classroom about these processes. Um, and I do think that, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of value to these tools.

Um, but for me, the interesting part is kind of interpreting them with my students. Like, it’s emerging for both of us. You know, like, I’m learning how to use these tools and so are they.

And so we kind of do it together and talk through that process. So, um, in terms of GAI stuff, that’s how I’ve been using them. I think never be afraid to experiment that it can be tempting to kind of, um, do what we’ve always done, whether it just feels like that’s the path of least resistance or it’s just what we’re comfortable with.

Um, but I find that, um, the moments where I take chances, you know, they don’t always work and that’s fine too, but the idea that like we can always grow and integrate more things, um, keeps it exciting and keeps us, you know, always moving.

So I think don’t be afraid to experiment and then also to invite your students in as not only like kind of co-collaborators, but like co-conspirators in that, you know, I often tell students, Hey, I’m trying this out on you all this semester.

I haven’t done this before. You know, I’ll be interested to know as we go if it’s something you all, you know, like, or if it’s working for us, and if not what you all think.

Um, and then it’s also like, you know, you’re doing it together. And, um, I think that that invites them in, uh, in a, in a different way to be sort of active in, in creating, um, the class experience.

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