Encouraging Engagement

Right now we’re in the midst of our busiest time in the semester for instruction at my library. I coordinate our information literacy program so instruction is always a big part of my job, but it looms even larger for me at this time of year. If I’m not teaching a class, I’m probably thinking about the classes I teach.

Like many other colleges, most of our library instruction program consists of the single required library class for all English Composition I students. Much has been written about the challenges of the humble one-shot, and I think we do a good job with these sessions given their constraints. Still, over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun to target on a few things that frustrate me. The more I’ve thought on this, the more I realize that a critical factor is engagement.

Student Engagement
It’s no secret that students often find their library sessions to be less than inspiring, and are often more engaged with the computers and each other. Some of these are classroom management issues, though we do require that professors attend sessions with their students, which usually encourages students to pay attention. But relevance is a factor, too: do students see the material covered by librarians as relevant to their coursework? There’s lots of evidence that students are more engaged when their library session is scheduled at the point of need, just as they are starting research on a paper or project. (Anecdotal evidence from the sessions I’ve taught supports this, too.)

One solution is to schedule our English Comp sessions just as students receive their assignments and are beginning their research. We’ve tried a couple of different scheduling strategies, including spreading the sessions evenly over the semester, and concentrating the classes in the few weeks just after midterms. But speaking with students and faculty and our student evaluations reveal that sometimes the sessions are too early, sometimes too late.

Next semester we may try contacting all English Comp faculty just before the semester begins to ask when they’d like to schedule the library session. We’ll need to be sure to emphasize that the best time for students to visit the library with their class is concurrent with their research assignments. Ultimately this scheduling method may not be possible because of sheer numbers: we’re a small library, and this semester there are 126 sections of English Comp. But given the real increase in student engagement that I’ve observed in my classes that do have a research assignment, it’s probably worth a try.

Faculty Engagement
I’ll admit that when I first started teaching library sessions I vastly preferred the classes in which the instructor sat quietly in the back of the classroom while I made my presentation at the front. I was nervous about my own teaching skills, especially covering all of the material in the session, and it seemed easier to go straight through it all without diversion.

Now that I’ve been at this for awhile I really value my library sessions with involved, engaged faculty. I can appreciate many of the reasons that faculty may sit quietly through the class. Many faculty appreciate that librarians have specialized training in research skills and information literacy, and are happy to give us space to teach in our discipline. But when an instructor engages with the librarian and the class — offering additional examples of relevant topics, search strategies, and keywords; reinforcing the need to critically evaluate sources; etc. — these sessions seem to be the most valuable for the students (and also more enjoyable for me).

Encouraging faculty engagement seems like it might be a bit more difficult than with students. A colleague suggested that we maintain the same pairings between librarians and instructors across multiple semesters. This would allow us to develop a closer relationship with faculty teaching English Comp, and help us tailor the library session more closely to the assignment in each class. Again, we may hit a snag because of the large number of sections, though with the increase in enrollment this semester we’ve got a new crop of adjunct English Comp faculty, so this may be a good time to try.

I’m sure there are lots of other strategies for encouraging student and faculty engagement in library instruction sessions. What methods have you used successfully? Which haven’t worked so well?

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

6 thoughts on “Encouraging Engagement

  1. I often try to draw classroom faculty into the session by asking them questions or asking for their comments. And it feels more comfortable and integrated to everyone, I think.

  2. The university librarians at my institution are direct liaisons between the library and the English Department’s writing program courses. There is extensive collaboration between faculty and the university librarians; course pedagogy, syllabi, and even the training of new instructors are collectively done by both populations. The bibliographic instruction sessions are also a training ground for graduate students studying Library and Information Science, who run the class workshops on occasion. Both the faculty and the university librarians work together as equals, educating the undergraduate population in the rudiments of information literacy, academic research and academic writing.

  3. One of my earliest experiences with a truly, deeply engaged group of first years was when the teacher thought they could do research without any help. They failed spectacularly. When he hastily scheduled a session to repair the damage they were really paying attention!

    But I’m growing more and more convinced that beginners are going through the ropes because they’re in boot camp and they have to do something that has no purpose other than to prepare them to do something meaningful later. In most institutions, their drill sergeants are often adjunct faculty and TAs who have (unfortunately) low status and are seen as providing a service to the institution by getting students ready to do academic work. The work they do in the class is not, itself, valued except as practice for the real thing, which in actual practice often looks very different. Richard Larson’s classic essay on the topic remains valuable a quarter of a century after it was published.

    Students seem so much more ready to be interested and engaged when they are working in their majors and have some contextual knowledge and a purpose in mind – when they’re doing more meaningful research, not just learning how to write a generic research paper. While being able to “reach” every student through a generic writing course seems important and takes up much of librarians’ energies, I sometimes think we could actually reach students more successfully in upper division courses.

  4. Barbara, I agree. I’m beginning to think we need to step back from teaching first-year students, and instead educate their instructors, and focus our classroom teaching on upper-level classes, especially in majors.

  5. I’ve also found that scheduling tutorials just when students are starting their research keeps them focused and allows them to find materials for that specific assignment. Having the faculty member actively assisting is also very helpful, especially in keeping students on task. Students who have had a previous tutorial are often bored and disruptive, though, even though the assignment is different and they will still need to gather information for it.

    One of the pitfalls I’ve found is that students are too locked in to a research topic before they come in. They haven’t done any preliminary reading and don’t know if their chosen topic is well-represented in the library collection or if it is even a valid or meaningful research question. With our students, who are community college students, I would prefer to see faculty assign specific topics/questions rather than letting the students flounder around trying to choose one.

  6. Thanks for all of these comments, everyone, they’re great food for thought. I’d definitely like to expand our instruction into more upper level classes — we do some now but our coverage could be broader.

    That’s a great point about choosing a research topic, too, Kyri. My gut wants to believe that students may be more interested in a topic of their choosing. But I also see that it can be very hard for them to narrow down to an appropriate topic when they’re given the universe to choose from.

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