Alternative Library Instruction Models, or What Happens When You Want Back Out

I’ve been an instruction librarian since 2007, and over the years my perspective on library instruction has shifted from

How can I convince my liaison department faculty to schedule a class?
How can I make my classes more scaffolded within the curriculum?
How can I possibly do all of this teaching in one semester and get my other work done too?

The more experienced librarians reading this blog post might cry “BURNOUT!” but I am beginning to think that there’s a larger structural issue with library instruction programs like mine (and perhaps like yours as well).

The Set Up

I work at a small, public, liberal arts college that prides itself on its focus on teaching, undergraduate research, and close academic relationships between faculty and students. Librarians are 12 month tenure-track faculty, and although we don’t typically teach credit-bearing courses, we are heavily involved in the traditional “librarian-as-guest-lecturer” model of library instruction. I use the phrase “library instruction” because as much as I want to say we have an “information literacy education” program we aren’t quite there yet. My colleagues and I work with every section of incoming first year and transfer student liberal arts seminars (required for all new students) as well as multiple classes in multiple liaison departments. We’ve hit a point where our seminar involvement pretty much takes over our entire existence each fall semester, to the detriment of our other teaching, to say nothing of our other professional responsibilities, service, and scholarship. I’ve tried creating banks of activities based on our much-reduced information literacy learning outcomes so that my colleagues could plug-and-teach more easily, but the uniqueness of each seminar section makes it difficult to follow any kind of scripted lesson plan for all sections.

If the world is as wonderful a place as I hope it to be, I will likely be on sabbatical next academic year, leaving my colleagues–or, if we’re lucky, a visiting librarian–to absorb my teaching responsibilities (sorry, friends). As my library’s unofficial instruction coordinator, I realize that even with an extra teaching librarian we’d still be stretched far too thin to actually make a dent in the amount of work we put into these seminars. So…

What’s a Library Instruction Coordinator to Do?

I was professionally “raised” on the library instruction model that praised getting into as many research-based classes as you possibly can, because doing so would help students become better researchers and faculty better understand the importance of information literacy. I don’t buy this at all anymore. I feel like it puts librarians in an odd (perhaps even subservient) role and just isn’t pedagogically sound. What’s the point of teaching ALL THE THINGS ALL THE TIME? That just leads to repetition and, well, burnout.

That said, curriculum mapping is hard. Unless information literacy is built into the college’s curriculum from the top down (see Champlain College’s Core Curriculum sequence for scaffolding IL dreams), Major and Core Curricula are often unwieldy and not necessarily conducive to sequential information literacy integration. Plus doing so is not  a guarantee that teaching loads for librarians will be manageable and sustainable.

I know some libraries have pulled out of face-to-face instruction for first year courses like seminars and English Composition altogether, in favor of web-based tutorials or LMS embedded modules. Others hire one person to do all instruction for that particular course, and still others, like mine, split up the course load among all teaching librarians.

One way that our first year and transfer seminar is unique is that each section has a dedicated Peer Mentor–an upperclass student who takes the course and serves in this oddly defined role of part teaching assistant, part model student, part emotional support person. A visit to Swarthmore College last month, which has a wonderful peer research and information associates program, has me thinking about ways in which the Peer Mentors could take on many of the more mechanical teaching tasks that we as librarians are doing now. This would include things like introducing students to the discovery layer, databases, catalog, and interlibrary loan. We could then, as a library faculty, develop assignments, activities, and lesson plans to share with seminar instructors to integrate information literacy into their pedagogy.

I wonder if that’s going against one of librarianship’s sacred cows. Non-librarians teaching information literacy???? Gasp! Cringe! Ack! But I think it would free my colleagues and I up to work more thoughtfully with our liaison departments both in and outside of the classroom and develop a pedagogy of information literacy that best meets their needs.

My goal for the spring is to investigate pedagogy / library instruction models at other small colleges for ideas and inspiration, and create a plan for fall 2017. I’m curious to hear from readers who are perhaps in similar instruction predicaments. What’s worked for you?

3 thoughts on “Alternative Library Instruction Models, or What Happens When You Want Back Out

  1. We’ve successfully used student peer mentors for instruction for a while. It is still quite a bit of work (you have to hire and train and support them), but it’s different work and allows greater instruction reach for the effort. I’ve also learned a lot from the peer mentors, which has helped my own instruction. I’m happy to share details if you’re interested.

  2. I’d love to hear more about your peer mentor program, Etta. I’ll send you an email. Thank you for commenting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *