Category Archives: Teaching

I Can’t Think of Anything to Ask

My family and I have been deep in the health care system these past few weeks, in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, on the phone scheduling appointments, and in line at pharmacies. Everyone is home, everyone is as fine as can be expected, and long-term plans are being made for maintenance and healing strategies for my family member.

During every interaction with a medical professional, inevitably someone in a coat or scrubs would ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “Is there anything I can answer for you?” or “Do you need anything from me, right now?” In response I always felt like I should have had a list of questions. Occasionally I’d have one or two to tack on to a question a family member already asked, but more often than not I was struck by the feeling of not knowing what to ask. 

Information is my field. I teach students how to ask questions and engage in inquiry in subjects that are new to them. I know that when someone asks me if I have any questions, they genuinely want to give me information, because when I ask my students if they have any questions, I want to answer them. That doesn’t change the fact that

  1. Questions are hard to ask; and
  2. Anxiety, fear, sadness, and exhaustion turn brains to mush; and
  3. It’s hard to ask questions with mush for brains.

Every time I unsuccessfully came up with questions to ask about the future health and well-being of my family member I felt like a failure. It felt like such a high-pressure critical moment, as though I could have drastically changed things by simply asking a question that would get to the *right* piece of information that would unlock this whole health puzzle. I know it’s an illogical thought, but again, Mush. Brains. Brain Mush.

I don’t want to equate families seeking health care information with all library patrons seeking information. I know that most people would argue that we are not necessarily in the same headspace or seeking information of equal importance, but really, how do we know? We don’t know what’s going on with our students, faculty, staff, and community members. Assumptions are poor substitutes for empathy, openness, and understanding.

One thing I wish were possible with health care professionals is the opportunity to email them or text them a question after an appointment or hospital visit. I am so frustrated by having to wait until our next meeting to rattle off my list of questions, the ones I could never come up with on the spot, without adequate time to research and reflect. We, as librarians, have that opportunity of continued interaction with our community. It’s what makes us special. We don’t need someone to have all the questions at one critical moment. We’re open to questions whenever they arise. I feel as though I could do a better job of making sure my own community knows that there isn’t just one right time to ask me a question. Questions are always welcome, and compassion is a needed response.

Finalizing the “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education”

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sara Harrington, Head of Arts and Archives at Ohio University Libraries.

The Task Force is pleased to announce the release of the Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education document. The Task Force revising the “Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators” now called “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education” announced a call for feedback via ACRLog and the ILI-L listerv. Feedback was submitted via the gmail address set up for this purpose as well as came in-person at the ALA annual poster session presentation in 2015.

The stakeholder community offered robust feedback on the “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians in Higher Education.”  This input ranged from overarching comments to specific suggestions, and included:

  • Awareness of the fact that hiring institutions will be looking to this document for guidance as position descriptions for teaching librarians are developed
  • Word changes to improve readability and clarity
  • Background information on the quantitative analysis of job posting done before the Task Force’s writing process began
  • Questions and suggestions about the nature and formulation of references to the Framework
  • Questions about how the Task Force engaged in its work
  • Questions and suggestions about the organization and order of the roles
  • Suggestions about the relationships of the roles to each other
  • Suggestions about the revision or expansion of specific strengths statements
  • Suggestions about the relationship of specific strengths to roles and suggestions for additional strengths under particular roles
  • Recommendations to include particular concepts, including innovation, curricula, and hospitality
  • Questions and concerns about the significance of the terminology used in the document, most notably the shift from “instruction librarian” to “teaching librarian” and “skills” to “strengths”

The Task Force made a number of grammatical corrections and clarifications based on feedback, as well as made a range of more substantive changes intended to clarify and strengthen the descriptions of the roles and attendant strengths. The Task Force did retain the terminology “teaching librarian” as well as “roles” and “strengths.”

A Google doc containing feedback can be found here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1V4XKtoOf-GQ05YwQaDN9Rwnk0LrDXfzuOlC2LjM-pgs/edit?usp=sharing

After the revision process the document was sent to the Instruction Section Executive Committee and Standards Committee for approval.

The “Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians” is now available at: http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/teachinglibrarians

This document will be formally shared via a variety channels in the coming months, including ili-l, the Instruction Section Newsletter, College and Research Libraries News, and other ACRL digital promotion channels of communication.

The Task Force plans to propose an online session for Fall 2017/Winter 2018 on practical applications for implementation of the Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians document including, for example:

  • how a librarian writing position descriptions for teaching librarians might use the language
  • how a coordinator of instruction might plan a professional development session around the document
  • how a librarian might apply the document’s language in collaborative work with a faculty member
  • how several teaching librarians might use the document in their own practice.

The Task Force will be sending out a call for volunteers to participate in the session. Please share your comments for us here, as well.

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.

A Revised Model for First Year Seminar IL Integration

In December I wrote about possible changes to our librarians’ involvement in our college’s first year and transfer liberal arts seminar. As victims of our success, our instruction model has become unsustainable. Teaching and support of this course leaves us with little mental energy for our other teaching and librarian responsibilities, which is problematic when those of us who teach have multiple liaison departments to support, not to mention our own research interests and library projects. We could, of course, teach this seminar and nothing else, but there is so much opportunity for course-integrated instruction and embedded librarianship at the major/minor level of study, that focusing only on the first year/transfer seminar would be a huge disservice to students and the college curriculum.

We’re in a transition period. I’m planning to take a sabbatical in August, the faculty member overseeing the seminar program is changing, and we may have a visiting librarian working with us in the fall. We’ve also been working much more closely with our colleagues in the Writing Center this year, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years now, as they are, in a word, AWESOME. It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new with our seminar involvement, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.

Instead of assigning librarian liaisons to each of the seminars, who then teach a minimum of two classes per seminar, we’re adopting the “train the trainer” approach that our colleagues in the Writing Center were wise enough to push through last year. We’re leading workshops for both faculty and seminar peer mentors (upperclass students who take the class and provide academic and social support to new students). And we’re doing this jointly, with the Writing Center, which I am so glad is finally happening. I think it makes a lot of sense, and will hopefully encourage faculty to better interconnect our college’s four core liberal arts skills–writing, oral expression, information literacy, critical thinking–rather than viewing them as discrete concepts. Our hope is that with these workshops, and a supporting Seminar Toolkit (in a libguide, of course), faculty and peer mentors will have a better understanding of writing and information literacy as a developmental process rather than a checklist. The toolkit will contain learning activities, sample assignments, and lesson plans from the librarians, Writing Center faculty, and faculty who have taught seminar in past years. There is so much overlap between teaching writing and teaching information literacy, and I’m glad that we’re finding ways to approach our faculty peers together.

I’m particularly excited about teaching and working with the seminar peer mentors. They’re bright, engaged students who the first year and transfer students really look up to and respect. They have a lot of social capital that we aren’t using to maximum benefit, and better still, they have a relationship with the seminar students. Peer teaching and learning was a major theme of my ACRL 2017 conference, and I was able to find some well-developed examples of peer learning programs in practice.

  • Danielle Salomon, Casey Shapiro, Reed Buck, Annie Pho, and Marc Levis-Fitzgerald have an excellent conference paper on the Embedded Peer Specialists program at UCLA, which, in their words, “combines the academic context of academic librarianship with the scalability of peer learning services.”
  • Rachel Gammons, Alexander Carroll, and Lindsay Inge wrote about the Research and Teaching Fellowship at the University of Maryland, a 3-semester teacher training program for MLIS students in which fellows in their third semester provide mentorship and training to incoming junior fellows.
  • Rosan Mitola, John Watts, and Erin Rinto presented alongside student Peer Research Coaches Kameron Joyner, Jason Meza, and Katia Uriarte about the peer-assisted learning program at the UNLV Libraries and extensive Peer Research Coach training program.

One thing these presenters and writers all seemed to stress (which is something I’ll need to keep in mind) is that this peer-assisted learning/ train the trainer approach won’t really mean less work. It takes a lot of time, planning, and emotional / mental energy to empower student-teachers (because really, that’s what they are) and ensure their continued development and growth. But all of the librarians involved in these programs seem to agree that the benefits–a more empowered student cohort, wider educational reach, meaningful interaction with smaller groups of students–are substantial. I am feeling very much indebted to these colleagues who presented at ACRL 2017 and hope that I’ll be able to share successes and failures from my own attempts at figuring out a new way to involve the library in our first year and transfer seminar program.