What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like?

Perhaps you, too, have been following some of the recent instances of student shaming and blaming. I’m referring particularly to the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which the author suggests a fictional student is lying about a grandmother’s death as a way to get out of finals. I’m also referring to the session at the 2017 ACRL conference in which a few presenters disparagingly referred to their students as “our sweet dum-dums.” Even just a sample of the incisive commentaries on these and similar instances of student shaming (check out, for example, pieces from Acclimatrix, Jesse Stommel, Jordan Noyes, Joshua Eyler, and Veronica Arellano Douglas to name a few) illustrate how incongruous this talk is with the very real empathy, care, and respect I know we have for our students.

We could dissect the problems that are at the core of these troublesome statements further. We could discuss what happens when we talk like this and why it’s imperative that we don’t. We could reflect on the times we’ve inadvertently said regrettable things ourselves. But what I’m more interested to think about now is how we exercise our empathy, care, and respect for students, and how we can do it better still. What does it mean to keep students at the center of our library practice?

I think it’s worth checking in with the significant history and usage of the term “student-centered” in pedagogical contexts. There, we might see the concept phrased as “student-centered learning,” particularly when contrasted against “teacher-centered learning.” We might sometimes see it called “student-centered teaching” or “learner-centered education.” While these terms might indicate slightly different philosophical orientations, they are essentially variations of the same.

Maryellen Weimer says that learner-centered education is about learning skills for learning, alongside content. It requires learners to reflect on the what and the how of their learning. It invites students as collaborators and leaders of their learning. Learner-centered education, or student-centered education, changes the balance of power and control. “The goal of learner-centered teaching,” Weimer writes, “is the development of students as autonomous, self-directed, and self-regulating learners” (p. 10). In the learner-centered environment, learners have a lot of responsibility and, as Phyllis Blumberg asserts, the instructor’s role “shift[s] . . . from givers of information to facilitators of student learning or creators of an environment for learning” (p. xix).

When we talk about student-centered, then, we’re talking about engaging students in high-impact practices and with skills and resources that contribute to their learning and help them continue to learn. We’re talking about helping students succeed and continue to be successful. We’re talking about empowering our students to be active agents in their own learning.

Student-centered is a guiding principle by which we chart our path. Student-centered is an attitude or a disposition, a way of working.

A student-centered way of working means practicing empathy for students. It means inviting students to co-construct meaningful learning experiences and environments. It also means challenging our students to think deeply, critically. It means challenging them to challenge their assumptions and themselves, and to go further.

A student-centered lens on our library practice means enhancing the role of assessment in our decision-making and improvement, asking what kind of impact we are having (or not having) on student learning and success. It means enhancing student voices in our decision-making, inviting their input in formal and informal ways. This way of working means cultivating an attitude of flexibility, innovation, and improvement. It means collaborating across a library, across an institution.

What does your student-centered lens on library practice look like? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Peer Coaching for Professional Learning

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Marisa Méndez-Brady, Science Librarian, and Jennifer Bonnet, Social Sciences & Humanities Librarian, at the University of Maine.

Finding the time and resources to devote to professional learning can be a challenge, especially at institutions that are less geographically proximate to the broader library community. The University of Maine is a land and sea grant institution in the rural town of Orono, where opportunities to engage with peers at other colleges and universities take a concerted effort and may require additional financial resources to participate. While these constraints limit our ability to go to as many conferences as we would like, one day a year our department attends a gathering of Maine academic librarians where colleagues across the state present ideas that generate excitement and lead to further exploration.

During the 2016 Maine Academic Libraries Day, Bowdoin College librarian Beth Hoppe made a strong case for using the ACRL Framework to embrace non-prescriptive practices in our teaching, as part of a critical pedagogical approach to working with students.

Following this talk, we couldn’t stop thinking: how might we enhance the delivery of information literacy concepts in our own library instruction by more deliberately incorporating critical pedagogy? Motivated to improve our teaching techniques and extend our professional learning, the two of us embarked on a peer coaching project. Over the course of three months we used a study group model to brainstorm, design, and implement a suite of lesson plans that centered the diversity of student voices and experiences in our instruction sessions.

Peer coaching is commonly used in K-12 learning environments, and is a technique lauded by the instructional design community for its broad applicability. It is a non-evaluative, professional learning model in which two or more colleagues work collaboratively to: design curricula, create assessments, develop lesson plans, brainstorm ideas, problem solve, and reflect on current pedagogical practices (Robbins, 2015).

Although peer coaching can be formalized within a department or unit, we participated in an informal method known as the study group model, where two or more people engage in collaborative professional development for learning (PDL) around a subject of interest. We chose this model because it offers flexibility when it comes to constraints on time or finances, providing a sustainable method for professional development during the hectic instruction schedule of a typical semester. The graphic below illustrates different approaches to utilizing peer coaching for professional learning.

From https://www.polk-fl.net/staff/professionaldevelopment/documents/Chapter16-PeerCoaching.pdf

To shape our peer coaching project, we consulted instructional design literature, which (1) emphasizes the importance of creating professional learning that is individualized to the specific learning context and audience for the learning, and (2) focuses on content, pedagogy, or both (Guskey, 2009). We also integrated the three key components of effective peer coaching: a pre-conference to establish the goals for PDL; the learning process; and a post-conference to assess the PDL process.

The pre-conference in the context of peer coaching consists of meeting to establish PDL goals based on participant interest and applicability to one’s praxis. Our pre-conferencing took a two-pronged approach. First, we established an overarching goal to use the ACRL Framework to develop learner-centered teaching outcomes. Then, we held individual pre-conferences focused on the following Frames: (1) research as inquiry, (2) scholarship as conversation, and (3) searching as strategic exploration. We selected three upcoming instruction sessions (i.e., already scheduled in the library) that would be opportune for trying out new pedagogical approaches.

After we set each agenda, we turned from pre-conferencing to the learning process, which involved three study group meetings to design our lesson plans. In advance of each meeting, we selected relevant articles to read and reviewed two to three corresponding lesson plans in the Community of Online Research Assignments. The lesson plans we chose not only engaged with the Framework but revolved around students’ interests and experiences, which helped us consider teaching techniques that were non-prescriptive in practice and drew on critical pedagogical concepts. We then used the scheduled meeting time to adapt these lesson plans to fit the goals of our upcoming instruction sessions.

“When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful.” – bell hooks, Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom

The first lesson plan involved a teach-in that asked students to share their decision-making process when searching for information in both open and licensed resources (ACRL frame: research as inquiry), and was targeted at an upper-level undergraduate communications and marketing course. The second lesson plan focused on deconstructing citations and reverse engineering bibliographies, and was designed for an upper-level undergraduate wildlife policy class (ACRL frame: scholarship as conversation). The third lesson plan used one piece of information from a vaguely-worded news article as a jumping-off point for finding related information across various media, which we co-taught for a student club on campus (ACRL frame: searching as strategic exploration). Although these lesson plans were designed for specific contexts, they are broadly applicable across disciplines and academic levels.

We further engaged with critical pedagogy in a post-conference that succeeded each study group meeting. In the peer coaching context, the post-conference acts as an assessment of the study group experience for us (the learners) and emphasizes the role of self-reflection in gauging our own learning. Building on the work we started in the classroom (via each lesson plan), we took a feminist pedagogical perspective to self reflection that involved open-ended questions about process and practice, and addressed our own PDL outcomes.

“Feminist assessment is inherently reflective, and reflection itself is a feminist act.” Maria Accardi, Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction

We hope to continue using peer coaching in other areas of our praxis. Peer coaching offers a low stakes, low-cost option for professional development that leverages existing resources, draws on the interests and skills of colleagues, and allows for higher frequency contact among participant learners (versus a traditional yearly conference). We also found that the informal structure of the study group model supports flexible implementation and facilitates home-grown continuing education opportunities that are targeted to specific issues we face at our library.

So often, we absorb ideas at conferences, webinars, or through informal conversations. Yet, actualizing these ideas in our own institutional environments can be challenging due to issues like time, motivation, and support. Next time you discover a novel approach or way of thinking about your praxis, we encourage you to try peer coaching! We’d love to hear from you about how you use this professional learning strategy in your own environment.

Failure is an Option or When Things Go Wrong

Several times I thought about writing about my experiences as a first-year librarian at ACRL in Baltimore, but many others wrote about the controversies, the twitter fights, and the OA panel better than I could have. Zoe Fisher’s post about the twitter fiasco is a must read as well as Veronica’s post on ACRL.

As a new librarian, something stuck with me though, and that is the idea of failure and works in progress at the conference. A conversation with Katlyn Griffin, a fellow new librarian,  and I had via twitter and in person about the idea of “works in progress” or even “failed projects” as learning opportunities at conferences. ACRL, as I’m sure many of you know, isn’t the venue for unfinished or failed products.

As a field that feels on the brink, it is difficult to talk about projects that fall flat. No one, least of all me, wants to broadcast failures. Unfortunately, if you’re a new person, it is often the failed projects or the work-in-progress projects are all that you have to contribute. I think there is a difference between work-in-progress and failures, but they exist at this periphery of prepared and completed national conference level discussion. I presented a work-in-progress at ACRL and it actually went very well; I learned a lot about the process and it helped me move towards a conclusion, and I believe that conferences should encourage unfinished work outside of the lightning rounds where the blur makes the projects blend in with the background. But where does failure stand?

Scenes from NASA

“Failure is Not an Option” Gene Kranz, Flight Director of Apollo 13

It is difficult to broadcast or talk about failing, especially in competitive circles, but I am a product of failure.

Prior to library school I was on a traditional academic path. I interviewed at PRESTIGIOUS UNIVERSITY for a PhD program in Media Studies. After three days of being wined and/or dined, tours of campus, meetings with students and faculty, talking about my future there, I was not given a spot in the program. I felt rejected, like all that I had been working toward was squashed on the whims of a committee. I thought a lot about why I was drawn to the field and where I was the happiest when I was a student. That place for me was the library. I was interested in memory and media but more than that I was interested in knowledge as an academic field.

Ultimately, the library was the better and wiser choice for me. I am thankful that prestigious university did not pick me for their PhD program, as much as it hurt at the time.  I’m able to write and publish about topics I feel passionate about, teach and work with students, support faculty, and I’m extremely happy to be where I am. Libraries are my home, but still I felt like it was a “plan b.” I’m certain that I’m not the only one out there in our field who has a similar story.

Even writing this paragraph was difficult because failures, or the perceptions of failure or disappointment, are difficult to talk about.  It would be even more difficult to stand in front of an audience of colleagues and say “this is what went wrong.” Imagine that during a staff meeting… now imagine it during a National conference.

Given the response that accompanied the polished, but controversial, papers presented at ACRL, I wonder what the response would be if a paper concluded with “this project failed.” Would it be seen as a waste of time? Would the twitter-sphere explode in rage at the failed project? Currently, we all struggle silently alone.

In the past year I’ve had a few projects go awry. I had our Research Week Student Research Symposium hosted entirely by our Institutional Repository, it did not go well. In the end, our research office decided to go another direction but will now require students to deposit their materials. This was my first professional set back, but it allowed me to grow and see where the edges were in our partnerships across campus. I worked extremely hard on getting this to work, and in the end it just could not do what our research office wanted. Does this reflect poorly on me as a librarian? I thought so at the time. When I took a step back and thought about it, I really began to believe that this was a bump on a long road. Sharing this experience with the other librarians and saying “here is what didn’t work,” allowed all of us to learn from this experience. Getting all of the student projects deposited in the IR after the fact is all that I wanted in the first place, so this failure ended up as a slight win.

Projects fail. We do not know when that they will fail when we start them, if we did we probably wouldn’t repeat the mistakes that caused the problems, but these are valuable opportunities to learn about the process and the problems we all share. If creativity and experimentation are valued in our field then there should be expectations of failure and we should talk about them openly. I firmly believe that opening forums like ACRL or ALA to “failure talks” could be a great asset for new and old librarians. Talking frankly about what went wrong instead of sweeping it under the rug should be a goal of the larger library community.

More importantly, we fail. Failure has formed me as a librarian. We sometimes do not get the jobs we desperately wanted, or the promotion, or the book chapter. Right now the culture tells us to be quiet about these instances and shames; because being a sore loser or being upset about losing out on a fellowship or project is unbecoming and might jeopardize our future goals. I don’t agree with this because I think as a field we should grow to a place where we are not ashamed of our baggage and our failures and drop the feelings of animosity and competition. Especially for new librarians where the road upwards is the most difficult, letting  individual failures be known is a powerful reminder of what we have to gain and lose as a field. Ultimately, this means that successful librarians must lift up those around us when projects or goals fail. We should be open about our failures to serve as a guide to those who will follow, and lift up those who are not as lucky as we. 

 

You Are What is Killing Librarianship

Last week I had a conversation with a colleague at a different academic library about potential large-scale (read: scary) changes to our information literacy instruction program models. We talked through rationale, pain-points, and strategies for cultivating buy-in from our colleagues. At a certain point in our discussion, we recognized that this was going to be a tough sell, and this wonderful colleague shared an anecdote where she was once demeaned for ideas like these. You are what is killing librarianship! she was told by a former coworker. We were able to laugh off the comment in our conversation, but it’s one I’ve been continuing to mull over in the days following our talk.

It’s such a hard line to take, because what it implies is that this profession you are a part of–one that required at least one advanced degree and years of practice and experience–is fundamentally incompatible with the way in which you conceive of and are practicing it. You are not only not doing your job well, you are actively working to dismantle the profession you love. To your colleague(s) you are a threat to the professional identity they’ve constructed as a librarian. But as hurtful as this line (and line of thinking) is, it does beg the following question:

What exactly is the “essence of librarianship” and by whom is it determined?

 

What the ALA Has to Say

It’s natural to want to turn to our professional organizations when faced with this question. Ideally they represent us and we embody their beliefs. According to the American Library Association, “modern librarianship” is based on the following core values that “define, inform, and guide our professional practice:”

  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education & Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • The Public Good
  • Preservation
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility

Notice that these are “core values” and not “core tasks.” There’s no mention of staffing a reference desk, planning library orientation for first year students, soliciting book recommendations from faculty, or teaching every class an instructor requests us to teach. In last week’s ACRLog post there was a great comment by Sandra Cochrane who claims that many librarians respond to the question, “What do librarians do?” with “a list of tasks.” In many ways it’s natural: Our CVs and resumes are lists of things we do/have done; our job advertisements list duties and responsibilities, and our day-to-day is spent in practice. But those practices are rooted in deeply-held beliefs and core values, which may or may not align with those put forth by the ALA.

I’m not going to deconstruct each ALA Core Value in this post, but I will say that there are likely parts of this list that are open to interpretation based on sociopolitical contexts, problematic in light of issues of racism and oppression, and questionable in regards to their intent/founding motive. All of that is to say, it’s complicated, folks, and there are likely other values we’ve internalized as a profession that haven’t made it onto this list.

Core Values & Professional Identity Formulation

Just last week, guest writer Courtney Block expressed the centrality of advocacy to librarianship on ACRLog, and two weeks before that a group of librarians gathered at USC’s Doheny Library for the first ever conference on Identity, Agency, and Culture in Academic Libraries, where discussions on our professional values, identity formulation, and labor conditions abounded. Attending this conference reinforced for me that although I may share certain professional values with other academic librarians, the ways in which we conceptualize them may be vastly different. That being the case, how does that then impact our formulation of our professional identity and the ways in which we perform librarianship?

For example, ServiceEducation, Anti-Racism, and Social Responsibility are the heart of my own professional practice. I view these values through a feminist, relational lens, in which I am a co-educator, co-learner,  and partner with students, faculty (in and out of the library), staff, and my local community. What’s important to me is cultivating meaningful relationships at all times. This perspective has a direct impact on the ways in which I facilitate classes, approach reference, and propose the development or elimination of certain library services. Someone else in this same job role might have a different definition of each of those values (or a different set of values altogether), which would in turn make their professional practice look different from my own. This difference in practice then accounts for the difference in experience of librarianship and the difference in what we see as “the essence of the profession.”

In my mind, I am improving my professional practice by exploring alternative reference models to the reference desk, because I see the “desk” as both a physical and emotional barrier to egalitarian educational relationships, and a barrier to the core values of Education and Service. My coworker might see the reference desk as an expression of librarian visibility in an educational setting and an embodiment of the professional value of Service. Am I killing librarianship with my practice? Is he? Or are we “killing,” or to be less dramatic, contradicting, our deeply held notions of professional practice?

Is Practice All Relative? 

As I write this post, I am chatting with a friend online about it, working out my argument and thought-process via Google Chat. I’m anticipating being critiqued for being overly equivocal and unable to come to a “correct conclusion” or “truth.” It’s ok! I can take it! Yes, there is a whiff of social constructionism to this post, but really what I’m trying to do is encourage a professional conversation about what we value about librarianship. This needs to happen locally, at our respective institutions, and nationally, via professional conferences, writing (“academic” or otherwise), conversations on social media, and other venues.

When we assume that we all not only hold the same professional values, but define them in the same way, without ever explicitly discussing them, we are setting ourselves up for professional blow-ups. As my friend on GChat put it: “We’re led to believe that if we aren’t ‘moving,’ we aren’t working.” We need to consider critical inquiry, reflection, discussion, and revision of our professional values and practices as an integral part of our work. The only thing that will ever “kill” librarianship is our inability to reflect and discuss our interpretations of our professional values and practice.

Confessions on Owning and Honing Your Weaknesses

The month of June marks the ramp up to fiscal close in my neck of the library wood.  In the otherwise quiet summer of academia there is this corner of buzzing frenzy. Staff work though last minute orders, pay invoices, troubleshoot problems, answer questions about the various statuses of the cash flow, and pull and prepare data to estimate a new year’s allocations.  In my role, I mostly coordinate various inter-dependencies of the workflows and people that must align for these numbers to be properly reconciled. Thankfully for all I’m not responsible for the number-crunching.

You see, I’ve never had the intuitive ease with numbers accountants, or it seems an acquisitions librarian, is expected to have.  I prefer to visualize and think around things rather than operate in the linear calculus that numbers require.  My analytical mind loves to think about cause and effect, and even the many complex inversions and formulas that produce usable data and its visualization. But producing those inversions on the spot, even in simple arithmetic, doesn’t come easy for me.  It explains why I was always terrible at timed math tests, but loved algebra and geometry.  I struggle with sewing patterns that instruct from the inside out, but love cooking, where I can follow strict instructions and play with them to my taste.

When I worked in serials, calculations took on linguistic obscurity when it came to publication frequencies and title changes.  “Is twice a month semi-monthly or bi-monthly?” Does continues mean what a title it used to be? Or what it will be going forward?”

And to this day, when gardening,  “Do annuals mean I plant them every year, or that they come back every year?!”

What gets me in trouble in all of this is my strong preference to operate intuitively and efficiently. This means I am often impatient with the extra time it takes me to slowly think through cost comparisons and reports. I know that extra time is necessary for me, though, to make sure it is done right.  Understanding of my own strengths and weaknesses in this way allows me to recognize the need to rely on other tools, systems, and people.  Relying on the strengths of others is not an excuse to avoid your weaknesses. In fact, identifying and using your particular strengths can be a tool to overcome weaknesses, and it can mean talking about those vulnerabilities in more empowering ways.

This important skill is perhaps most practically applied in job interviews, where some variation of “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is no doubt asked. The best interviewers do this using behavioral questioning or appreciative inquiry techniques, which often ask for examples that demonstrate direct personal experience with particular skill or trait.  My first ever job interview was as a senior in high school, and I had no previous work experience.  So I had to answer questions about what I find difficult when working with others using only my school experience.  Thinking of various show choirs and musicals, where I had to practice and perform with my ex-boyfriend (among other  characters), I answered:

“Sometimes I have a hard time separating my personal life from my work.”

*crickets chirping*

Surprise! I did not get the job.  Not knowing a lot about myself at 17, I failed to realize my strength as a performer was precisely the fact that I actually can and do work with others, even those with whom ‘it’s complicated’, probably better than the average person.   Even though inside it was a hormonally-charged tornado of difficult emotion, I could summon my inner Olivia Newton John and nail Grease’s  “You’re the One That I Want” number with a smile on my face. With each interview I got a little stronger at framing my skills.  When interviewing for a waitress position, in which I did have some experience, I shared my thoughts about an unreasonably disgruntled customer, but described how I worked foremost to best meet that customer’s need.

As I’ve learned more about how my own strengths help my weaknesses, I know I thrive in project management roles because there is a framework to breakdown milestones, tasks, and timelines.  I thrive on learning to use new tools because they help me be more efficient and accurate.  Perhaps most importantly, I rely the strengths of the people with whom I work.  What is painstaking for one person is often the effortless strength of another who is happy to be asked to contribute what they do best.  When dealing with numbers, as I must inevitably do in the day-to-day work of acquisitions and resource sharing, I strategize (a strength of mine) to build in the extra time to sit with, play with, and picture data (my analytic strength).  I am constantly using my learning strength not just to find new tools that can help me, but to know more about myself and others.  I also have an individual relational strength that allows me to know and connect with other people and the unique strengths they offer.

In my seventeenth year experiencing and third year overseeing the fiscal close, I’m putting my anxiety around the numbers in better perspective. I’ve come to see that working through vulnerabilities and getting help where you need it is not abnormal at all. It’s what a responsible adult person would do.

Please tell me your favorite job interview story!  What would you do over, if you could, from a position of strength?