Following the road of assessment

This Fall semester has been taking off like a rocket. It’s been a little less than a month, but library instruction has been taking up a good chunk of my time. At my institution, American University, we have a program called College Writing. This program requires all incoming freshman to take at least one section of College Writing.

Every faculty member that teaches College Writing is paired with a librarian. At least one library instruction session is required and it’s up to us to shape the lesson so that it’s relevant to the student’s’ current assignment.

This semester is a bit different. I had a total of 18 sections of College Writing, compared to the nine sections I had last Fall. I was prepared for a busy semester. Oh boy, has it been busy and it’s only been 2 weeks!

I could be as detailed as I want about my routine, but it’s basically a chain of communication. I ask the faculty member about learning outcomes, what they want out of this library instruction day, what skill level their students are at, and are the students quiet? Do they participate? Details like these help me out a lot, since I will only see the students in the classroom once or twice in the semester.

As I scheduled classes, reserved rooms, and worked on my class outlines, I struggled with how I would incorporate assessment into my lessons. Assessment is a topic I have been thinking about for a while. To be honest, this was a subject that I had been avoiding because it was something that made me uneasy. I have always told myself “I’ll do it next semester” or “I’ll find more information about it later.”

However, it’s been a year since I have started my job at American and decided that this semester it was time to incorporate assessment into my library instruction. When I think of assessment, I tend to think of a ton of data, a desk full of papers everywhere, and an endless amount of work (OK, I like to exaggerate). Now, I do have some forms of assessment in my classes, but it’s in the form of the questions I ask the students in order to evaluate their familiarity with not only the library, but the resources that we are using in class.

Assessment comes in many forms, but I specifically had one method in mind. Over the summer, I worked with another colleague in doing library instruction for the Summer Transition Enrichment Program (STEP). This program provides incoming freshman with preparation for academic success. STEP is a 7 week residential program that helps students with the transition from high school to college. They have a class that is very similar to a College Writing class, meaning, they have a research paper due by the end of the program. One of the components of that class is a library instruction day. As my colleague and I started preparing to co-teach one of the classes, she asked what form of assessment I do for my College Writing classes.

Immediately, I felt ashamed. All the time I had put assessment off and this was the moment where I finally had to own up to it. However, I have awesome colleagues who don’t poke (too much) fun at me. She talked about the post class questionnaire that she usually did with her students. Together, we came up with a couple of questions for the students in the STEP class. It was not a long process whatsoever, but I came to see that there is actually nothing scary about it, like I had thought.

There are many different types of assessment, ones more complicated and time consuming than my little questionnaire. However, I wanted to start small and with something I was comfortable with.  My library instruction classes only started last week, but I remember getting back the questionnaires and leaving them on my desk for a couple of hours. I was afraid to look at them. What if the students did not learn anything? What if they hated me? What if I was the worst librarian ever?

After a couple hours, I needed to log my classes into our stats. I counted the questionnaires and look through them. To my surprise, the students did well. Now, this is an assessment to help me analyze what the students had trouble comprehending and also the areas where I need to do better.

And guess what happened? I found one area where I realized I needed to explain better and spend a little more time on. It’s only the beginning of the semester and I have already found ways to improve upon and this is what it’s really about. To me, assessment is an opportunity to learn about your teaching and improve as you go along.

As someone who is new to this, I want to continue to learn about assessment. There are a couple of resources that one can turn to:

-Look at your own institution to see if they offer any workshops on assessment. What resources do they offer to help their staff or faculty?

-Research other institutions to see if they have assessment in place or an assessment toolkit

-Research the literature on instruction and assessment to see how other institutions go about it

Finally, your colleagues will be your most valuable tools. What assessment do they do? Take them out for coffee and ask them!

I still have a couple more College Writing classes, but I am going to make it my goal to incorporate even more assessment for next semester’s classes. In other words, I am going to make myself accountable. For next semester, I will write another post on how I plan to incorporate more assessment into my teaching, but I also want to know from our readers, what assessment do you do for library instruction? Stay tuned!

Test for E.C.H.O.

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Marc Mason, Library Undergraduate Services Associate at Arizona State University Libraries.

I had one of those days today. One of those rare ones, the kind of day where you walk around with a little more bounce in your step, your chin tilted a bit higher. It was a day where – hallelujah! – validation rained down upon my shoulders and washed away some of the frustrations I’ve felt lately on the job.

We could all use a few more of those days. Mine came about courtesy of our university’s International Students and Scholar Center. Prior to school starting, they held a day-long conference for all incoming international graduate students. This is the second time that the ISSC has put on this conference, and they have generously included me as a breakout session speaker each time. Last time out, around 20 students came to my talk, which I will admit was disappointing. I suppose the competition during that time slot was fierce, but my library-guy pride to this day still kind of believes it can’t have been that fierce and more students should have come to see me.

Arrogance? Sure. But I think libraries could use a little more swagger.

Because of that tiny turnout last time, I had little in the way of expectations going into this second conference. So it was more than a bit shocking when I arrived at my room to set up and saw that there were 240 chairs arranged in the audience. I can take a joke at my expense, but this had the look of something that was going to be embarrassing. I swear I felt my sense of pride start to shrivel. The time ticked down. The previous session finished. I held my breath.

A flood of people poured into my room. 180 of them as a matter of fact.

Floating on air, I did my thing, offering up the library services I wanted them to know about, and keeping them laughing all the way through. When I was done, over two dozen stayed to talk to me further. Like I said: it was incredibly validating. May each and every one of you have a day like that, and soon – that’s my wish for you.

I’ve been working with the international population for over seven years now, and in general, it is always my favorite part of my job (even when it isn’t one of “those” days). The opportunity to meet and teach people from all over the world is truly a gift. It has also put me in a position to speak at conferences on international student topics and to meet amazing colleagues from across the country in the process. It has given me the opportunity to see humanity in an incredible light, and to truly take a stand for tolerance. I would not trade it for anything. My job gives me the chance to continuously learn, both on an academic and on a cultural level.

I have occasionally been asked about best practices for working with international students, and with that in mind, I decided to put into words how I go about working with these student populations and their extraordinary cultural differences. I call it “Test for E.C.H.O.”

E stands for Empathy: The first thing you can do is show your capability for understanding. These folks have traveled thousands upon thousands of miles to be at your institution. Sometimes they have traveled for almost three days depending on long layovers. They’re far from home, they cannot get home easily, and everything is somewhat scary. The signage is in a second language. The odds of any random cashier speaking their native tongue is slim. Local foods may not sit well with their digestive systems for a while and they may get sick for the first few weeks of being here. Oh, and they may not see their families for a year or better. The whole process can be wildly intimidating, and all it takes is one bad interaction with a local to make them question their life decisions.

Don’t be that local. Keep some of the above in your mind and let it guide you in how you approach working with these students.

C stands for Care: After you have shown empathy, follow that up by demonstrating that you believe that they matter. That you care about them as fellow human beings. Don’t allow that physical distance they’ve traveled to become an emotional one as well. (Life need not always batter us with metaphors.) I can’t even begin to tell you how many students I have worked with over the last few years who responded to simple moments of genuine caring. Creating that connection grounds that student to the university and provides them a human connection to their educational experience.

Be that connection. It’s great for them, and I promise it’s great for you as well.

H stands for Humor: Different cultures have different senses of humor, that much is certain. But laughter creates a bond between you and the international student that will be of enormous benefit.

There is a tendency among many in our profession to take themselves very, very seriously. And I get that – we are the gatekeepers for information, freedom fighters against the tyranny of government overreach, yadda yadda yadda. However, that seriousness can also be rather intimidating, not just for our international students, but for all students. This sometimes places our expectations for students far out of reach for where their real capabilities lie. If and when that happens, students start avoiding the library, seeing it as a foreboding place where they do not belong.

We never want them to feel like they don’t belong. Right? So be silly. Tell a joke that revolves around a pop cultural artifact that has worldwide appeal. No matter where we are from, certain things are popular. Star Wars, Beyonce, Harry Potter… it isn’t difficult to find common ground. Use it to get some laughs, put their minds at ease, and create a learning experience they will never forget.

O stands for Optimism: And finally, help these students believe. When you are working and learning in a second language, particularly one as difficult as English, confidence is a fragile thing. Setbacks can be crippling, and doubts about one’s ability to succeed (not to mention the time and money put into coming to the U.S.) can set in quickly. Numerous students have shared their “I almost quit” stories with me since I started working with this population, and they all have pretty much the same plot: a failure of some sort, painful phone calls to friends/confidants expressing regret and fear, worries about how family may react when they go home in “disgrace,” and (for those who stuck it out) a eureka moment where they got the right help to carry them through their struggles.

A librarian can be that help. Be that help.

When working with an international learner, using phrases like “yes, you’ve got this” or “I can tell you understand this stuff” can make a massive difference as that student continues working through their assignments. The reassurance of an expert goes a long way towards solidifying confidence and building a strong mindset for success. And they’ll remember the part you played in that success, I promise you.

The world isn’t slowing down anytime soon, and neither is the influx of international students to U.S. schools. Cultural literacy and competency is going to become one of the most critical skills our library staff can possess. So as you find yourself working with this population – whether individually or whole classes – take just a moment to remind yourself to test for E.C.H.O. Trust me – you’ll be glad you did. And you’ll have more than a few of those kinds of days.

Lingering Lockout Questions

It’s been a week since the faculty — including library faculty — at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus returned to the Fall semester. Just before the semester began, they were locked out by the university administration when their contract expired and before they could vote on a new contract. I know many of the librarians at LIU, some were formerly at my own university (City University of New York), and I count them as both colleagues and friends. I also live and work very close to the campus; I walk right by it on my way home each day.

While news of the lockout was initially slow to break, after the first few days both mainstream and education news began to run coverage of the lockout. If you weren’t following the lockout as it happened, you can catch up on the websites of my local paper, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and our own Barbara Fister’s great piece on Inside Higher Ed. And for a thoughtful discussion of the end of the lockout and future concerns, I recommend Emily Drabinski’s interview in Jacobin Magazine. Emily is both a librarian and the secretary of the faculty union (and, full disclosure, a friend); her Twitter updates were instrumental in getting the media attention that the lockout deserved.

I’m so relieved for the librarians, other faculty, and students that the lockout is over, that I no longer see police fences to corral protesters when I walk home past LIU’s campus. But I’m left with lots of questions, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’d been a member of CUNY’s faculty union when I was Instruction Coordinator, the only union job I’ve ever had. As a Chief Librarian I’m now on the management side, since mine is a title that’s excluded from the union. CUNY has had its own lengthy contract negotiation process, settled only this past summer after the old contract expired in 2010. But I realized over the past few weeks that I know little about unions, the history of labor, and the impact on librarians and libraries. I care very much about library workers — at my place of work and libraries generally — and it’s clear I have work to do to learn more.

I’m also left with questions like “what’s next?” Certainly LIU’s faculty and administration go back to the bargaining table to begin contract negotiations again. But what’s next for academic libraries? For higher education more generally, at institutions with and without a union? When faculty are replaced (even temporarily) and students walk out, is the college still doing the work of a college?

I Want You to Like Me

I know, intellectually, how naive it is to assume that other people, especially students, are here to help me fulfill myself—naive at best and arrogant at worst. But . . . my own growth as a teacher requires that I face such awkward facts. To become a better teacher, I must nurture a sense of self that both does and does not depend on the responses of others—and that is a true paradox.

–Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 73

I’d be lying if I said I entered my library classroom with no care for what the students think of me. As much as I want them to critically question and engage with the information we’ll be discussing over the next 1-2 hours, I also want them to like me. I want them to think I am approachable, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and if they happen to think I’m witty, that’s just icing on the cake.

I can admit this now, but would not have dreamed of sharing this desire early in my library career. My conception of the classroom then was as a space where individual needs and wants were secondary to the higher pursuit of learning. I would have told you my class was student-centered, learning-outcome-driven, and that my own needs and wants didn’t enter into my teaching. It would have been a bald-faced lie.

Silence in the classroom was difficult for me to stomach, and still is–I just handle it better now. I feel happiest when I have a good rapport with students in class, when I see them smile at me, when we share a laugh or two. There’s a big dollop of ego and narcissism that enters into the classroom with me, and if I don’t acknowledge it, if I try to negate it, it just works itself into the learning setting in insidious ways.

Parker Palmer’s vignette about his classroom interaction with the “Student from Hell” is one I come back to again and again. (You can find it in The Courage to Teach.) In it, he tries everything in his teaching arsenal to get one young man to engage with not just the material, but with him. He does so to the detriment of all other students in the room, so focused was he on getting this one student to like him, and ends up ending the class in a “black hole” of self-pity and doubt. Later he learns that the “Student from Hell” was in the middle of a difficult family situation that was putting a strain on his academic work and threatening to end his college career. It’s a powerful story, one that highlights the interplay between two persons with unique perspectives, experiences, and emotions and how these subjectivities meet in the classroom.

The classroom is not an unemotional place. It’s a space made up of human beings, teachers and students, who through their interactions can shape and influence one another’s identities and experiences. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks specifically addresses the denial of emotion and ego that so many teachers feel they must do in order create a truly “intellectual space,” and how it’s ultimately detrimental to the learning experience. An intellectual space is made up of people, and as people, we want to connect. We want to build relationships and forge friendships. Fear of rejection is powerful. There are moments when teaching can feel scary, because it’s not just about what you are teaching, it’s about you as a person and a teacher, and about your students as people. In some ways this is far more pronounced for librarians, who have a limited window in which to create meaningful connections with students.

I’ve found that acknowledging my own desire to be liked in the classroom and understanding the impact it has on my identity as a teacher has been incredibly freeing. I’m able to say, “you feel like that class was terrible because you didn’t quite feel a connection with the students, but maybe it wasn’t so bad.” I’m also able to think about the ways in which feeling like I have a classroom full of pals might lead me to think students are learning more than they are actually retaining. It’s a strange paradox, as Parker Palmer puts it, but it’s one that I’m willing to own up to these days.

The Rock and the Hard Place (Part 1): Renewal Season, No Big Deal?

The following is the first in a series of posts on the subscription-based model and open access alternatives, and how each get stuck from their respective ends of the scholarly information supply chain.  As a reminder: Opinions expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer or of ACRL.

September is renewal season when the largest percentage of a typical academic library’s collection budget is committed to the hands of publishers and vendors, thereby determining the largest part of what research is accessible in January of the following year.  This four-month lag between getting what you paid for is just one of the many problematic examples of the slow-churning scholarly information supply chain.

Here’s another.

These problems have been raised by a crisis of economic sustainability most commonly blamed on the serial subscription model.  The movement toward remedying this problem, however, often comes from the perspective of authors, copyright, and open access.  I think shedding light on some of the practical economics at play in the subscription renewal process can help show where both the subscription model and open access movement get stuck in this process, and may reveal ways to join forces for change.

“No big deal…”

In the grand scheme of the subscription renewal process, four months is not really too much to ask considering a subscription vendor must have time to process its multitude of customers’ orders from a further multitude of publishers, and all by the start of the calendar year. In a typical renewal year library staff must also build in sufficient advance processing time to meet that September deadline.  Accounting for fiscal close, data gathering and normalization, as well as faculty review and input, means renewals can require anywhere from 9 to 12 months of advance preparation.  Without any problems you might have a 3-month breather between January and March before the full cycle of renewal processing begins again.

Significant exceptions to  a typical cycle occur with the renewal of what’s called a “Big Deal” package.  These packages are so named because they are, well, big, both in terms of number of total titles and the fact that the titles represent most, or all, of a publisher’s content. The deal, beyond the size of what you get, lies (pun intended!) in the unique way in which the package is priced. Traditionally this is based on a library’s historic total spend with a publisher at a given time, rather than the title-by-title value of the list.

Another exception is these deals are often negotiated in multi-year contracts, requiring a comprehensive review only every 2-5 years, as opposed to annually. Yet all of the annual renewal steps above must still happen in a multi-year contract renewal.  If your library budget is under close scrutiny, that more comprehensive analysis probably involves more people, such as deans and directors, sister campuses, and often consortia. More than likely the analysis also involves more data, such as usage, interlibrary loan (ILL) or other article level access options, overlap analysis, or citation analysis.  A communication plan may also be necessary whether the purpose is justifying continuing expenses or considering cancellations.

“No Big Deal?”

When looking for savings these packages seem a reasonable option for cutting costs, given their large portion of the budget and the number of included titles, sometimes hundreds of which get little to no use.  Unfortunately, however, because the Big Deal is not designed according to title-by-title spend, attempting to subscribe to fewer titles at list price can mean paying more in the end.  Outright cancellation is not without risk either, since in addition to a major loss of revenue for the publisher, this can translate to unpredictable and shifted costs for the library.

Some publishers sensitive to the workflow and economic challenges of libraries — usually those with MLS degrees or a background in libraries — make an effort to negotiate for alternative solutions rather than lose large sums of subscription revenue.  Such alternatives, however, rarely include an ability to cut costs through cancellation or by swapping out underused titles.  Nor has there been much effort to limit the amount of content publishers may acquire that libraries must take on in additional spend.

According to a longitudinal ARL study on the topic of Big Deals, however, this model persists because “[n]either market studies or market forces have produced a sustainable new strategy for pricing and selling e-journals” (Strieb & Blixrud, 2014, p 587).  Or in words heard from some of the big names in the business:

“Our business model is not designed to save you money.” – Elsevier

“As long as we’re making money, we’re not inclined to change.” – Springer

Without an on-the-ground budget crisis or other disruptive force, institutions often continue to renew, stuck in a mess of our collective making.  I observed a parallel “stuck” reasoning on the open access side of things when I reported on Garnar & Knox’s ACRL 2015 conference session, “Ethical Issues in Open Access” (tweet above).   This shared state of paralysis led me to wonder how advancing scholarly communication and negotiating subscriptions renewals could work together to get ourselves unstuck.

New Dealings

On the surface these two areas appear to work against each other, since perpetuating renewal of subscription-based models can diminish purchasing power or investment in open access alternatives.  But there is evidence that this is changing both organizationally (MIT) and in the evolving models for open access (see OAWAL, NISO).   As my library prepares to renew four big deals in the near future there is real incentive to explore alternatives.

I would love to hear others’ experiences working with subscription renewals or open access workflows.  What intersections do you see?   Where are you are most stuck?  What alternatives have you tried? Anyone you making inroads to jointly address these issues?

Feel free to share responses in the comments, or email them to



Emery, J., & Stone, G. (n.d.) APC Processing Services. OAWAL: Open Access Workflows for Academic Librarians, 2.6. Retrieved from

MIT Libraries (n.d.). About Scholarly Communication & Collections Strategy. Retrieved from

NISO (2016). Managing an Open Access World, Part 1: Open Access & Acquisitions. [Webinar] Retrieved from

Strieb, K.L., & Blixrud, J.C. (2014) Unwrapping the Bundle: An Examination of Research Libraries and the “Big Deal” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 14 (4), 587–615.