Musings on Outreach as Instruction

Last week, librarians from many branches of our university gathered for a Teaching Librarians Retreat. The retreat was organized and hosted by a few wonderful colleagues, who I cannot thank enough for their efforts and a fantastic event. The goal for the retreat was to promote a community of sharing, peer support, and ongoing learning among UI librarians who teach, and was a chance to reflect on the year and find colleagues with similar interests and concerns about teaching. Making dedicated time for sharing and reflection is especially important in an institution as large and with as many librarians as ours.

We broke out into discussion groups for part of the retreat, and my group gathered to talk about “outreach as instruction.” What struck me first as we each shared our thoughts is that “outreach” can mean so many different things. We had people contributing to the conversation from perspectives of social media, events and programming, marketing, digital badges, special collections, working with student organizations, and outreach to faculty vs. students vs. the community.

My take on “outreach as instruction” and why it matters has to do with the limitations of one-shot sessions and ways we can expand the impact of instruction beyond traditional methods. One-shot sessions are valuable as point-of-need instruction for academic coursework, but relying solely on them is limiting: only a fraction of students receive library instruction, and a number of them may not be particularly interested in the General Education required course that brought them into the library. This is where I think outreach can be powerful – in the many possibilities to connect with students outside of a classroom setting, while still teaching something. Here are a few ideas on how to go about doing that:

  1. Connect over something interest-based, rather than academics-based. For example, I’ve heard of academic libraries having knitting sessions (which is also closely tied with stress-relief activities during finals week), but it could be something else. The draw to participate is something of general interest that can also be connected to research and resources available at the library.
  2. Communicate with student organizations, and let the student leaders know how the library can support their group and members. This can lead to tailored teaching opportunities for students who are involved and invested in a group that may not get this attention and instruction otherwise.
  3. Use the collection creatively. We’ve found ways to do this by using images from the Iowa Digital Library on buttons, postcards, and Valentine cards. Those are all short and simple activities that can naturally lead to learning something new about a variety of resources. (You can see the Valentine’s activities here.)

Those are just a few ideas, which clearly come from my perspective as an Undergraduate Services Librarian (and barely crack the surface of our group discussion at the Teaching Librarians Retreat). For you, “outreach as instruction” could mean building on relationships with faculty, an emphasis on social media, or something else. Outreach itself is a broad concept with multiple definitions, but that also means there are so many variations and opportunities for librarians to engage with their users and community.

When I hear “outreach as instruction,” I think of how we can connect with undergraduates in ways other than in the classroom for a one-shot session, and incorporate what I like to call “nuggets of information literacy.” What does it mean for you and your library?

Thoughts for 2014 MLIS Grads from a Newbie Librarian

At my college reunion last month, I watched an energetic crop of newly minted liberal arts graduates receive their diplomas from my east coast alma mater. The University of Washington operates on a quarter system and our students graduate in June, so now that I’m back at my post I get to watch the whole thing play out a second time for the seniors and graduate students of my acquaintance.

I know that when this cohort of graduates leaves the Information School at the University of Washington and information schools around the country, a handful will find a job that is a great fit, right out of school.  A few will never end up working as professional librarians. Most of those students, however, will take a middle path. They won’t find their dream job right away. They might make sacrifices in location, schedule, salary or job description. They will experience bewildering inconsistencies–like being turned down for a part time page position one week and offered a salaried job the next. They will be expected to take on additional unpaid work or expensive training in order to get a shot at the jobs they want.

It turns out, the post-graduate school job search and subsequent first few years of work are, like just about every aspect of adult life that I’ve experienced so far, about a hundred times more difficult than I imagined. As I’ve mentioned here before, I worked for a couple of years in an academic library job that I really enjoyed, but I had a crazy schedule and no professional status.  My current position is temporary and not tenure-track, so the learning curve is far from over for me.

I don't REALLY believe this sentiment...honest!
I don’t REALLY believe this sentiment…honest!

For example: at the moment, we are working on hiring next year’s crop of graduate student assistants in the Research Commons, and I have found that I can learn a lot from their poise and professionalism. The iSchool at UW admits great students, and it seems like every year the cohort gets savvier and more competitive, but I was still surprised by the level of scrutiny that we needed to apply to these students in order to choose between many qualified applicants. It freaked me out to realize that when I must pursue the next step in my career, that scrutiny will be turned in my direction.

There’s no doubt about it; the cost of a MLIS degree is high and the job market is uncertain. I don’t want to trivialize the very real challenges that new grads face, because it certainly seems that the stakes are higher for them than ever before. It’s very important to put some significant thought into how you are going to manage the financial aspects of your librarian endeavor, particularly if you might not be able to go directly into a well-paying job. These inevitabilities are frustrating, but even in my most cynical moments, I’ve never regretted my decision to get my MLIS. I love being able to tell people “I’m a librarian!” It’s a part of my identity now, and one that I’m unreasonably proud of. I have tons of loyalty and affection for the members of my MLIS cohort as well.  They are an awesome group of people, with whom I completed two years of challenging academic work. A little bit of magical thinking, or creative self-visualization, can help you get through the moments of doubt. When I’m feeling philosophical, or dire, I like to imagine that, even if there were no libraries left to run, I’d still be a librarian in the core of my being; that I’d be helping people find reliable sources of information in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, or telling half remembered novel plots around the campfire to a group of other zombie survivors. Heck yes!

From time to time, friends have asked me whether I think they should pursue an MLIS. That’s a really hard question to answer. It seems to me that the most successful information professionals are the ones that embody a series of paradoxes. It’s important, for example, to be very invested in your work and let your commitment show; but if you’re slavishly devoted, people will take advantage of that and you’ll end up burning out. You want to have compelling interests outside of your library work; but if a prospective employer senses that this is just a ‘day job’ and that you’d rather be doing something else, you probably won’t get hired. And, in my experience, the hardest part of forming my professional persona has been figuring out how much to diversify.  I greatly enjoy multiple (and sometimes competing) aspects of the library profession. I treated my graduate course schedule like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and when I graduated, I could see myself in several types of professional environments. A few years in the field have narrowed my focus somewhat, but I still feel conflicted between competing urges to specialize and diversify my librarian skillset. That conflict has tripped me up more often than not. So, I’m not sure how well I’m doing at embodying paradoxes. At this point, I’m just finally getting a handle on embodying myself, thanks very much!

So this is it…a work in progress. When you get it all figured out, let me know. I’ll see you around the campfire.

Academic Libraries and the Adjunct Crisis

The large and growing number of faculty members working off the tenure track at U.S. colleges and universities has been well-documented. Recent years have seen frequent articles in the higher ed media including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, as well as major media outlets like the New York Times. You may have read anthropologist and writer Sarah Kendzior‘s 2012 article about contingent faculty in Al Jazeera, or any of the blog posts by adjunct writing instructor Lee Skallerup Bessette at Inside Higher Ed, just to name a few of the many articles addressing what’s become known as the adjunct crisis.

As an academic librarian on the tenure track I’ve often found myself thinking on how the rise in adjunct faculty affects academic libraries. The ACRLog blog team has written about this issue in the past, though since the percentage of adjunct faculty has only continued to climb — up to 76% by 2011, according to the American Association of University Professors — the issue remains highly relevant to all in higher education. While hiring adjunct or part-time librarians obviously impacts academic libraries, I’d like to think here on the effects on academic libraries of increasing numbers of adjunct faculty in departments outside the library.

Working conditions for contingent faculty make participating fully in the campus community a challenge. Adjunct faculty may not have office space which, in addition to their potentially complicated schedules because of a need to teach at several different institutions, can mean that adjunct faculty don’t spend much time on campus outside of the classes they teach. Many adjunct faculty have multiple email accounts which may hinder our ability to connect with them if we don’t know which address they check most frequently. While some adjunct faculty return to teach the same courses in the same department over multiple semesters, many do not. At my institution new adjunct faculty are invited to attend an orientation to the college, though time pressures may make it difficult for them to do so. Staying in touch with adjuncts between semesters to keep them in the loop about library collections, services, and resources can be challenging.

As academic librarians we strive to provide access to collections that are most relevant for the disciplines and subjects taught and researched at our institutions. But while adjunct faculty may be teaching a majority of the courses in a department or subject, it can be difficult to involve them in acquisition decisions. Scheduling workshops and meetings at times when adjunct faculty are available may not be possible. At my college adjunct faculty often teach on evenings and weekends, when our full-time library faculty are less available. And though we do offer library workshops in the evenings occasionally, many adjuncts may not be able to attend them (or other faculty development programs) since to do so represents an investment of their own (often uncompensated) time.

The work we do with students can also be affected by whether their professors are full-time or adjunct. Difficulties getting in touch can hinder our ability to consult with adjunct faculty about their students’ research assignments before they come for library instruction. Some adjunct faculty may be unfamiliar with the collections and resources at our library, and may create assignments for students that are a mismatch with what we have to offer. Depending on their backgrounds and familiarity with the institution and the library, adjunct faculty may not realize that librarians are partners in information literacy and can offer research and library instruction. More than once I’ve heard from adjunct faculty members that they never knew that we provide research instruction for all subjects and disciplines at the college, not just English composition.

What actions can we as academic librarians take? We can stay informed about the challenges adjuncts face, and learn more about increasing adjunct activism, including the New Faculty Majority, an adjunct advocacy group. If we work in an institution with a union, we can advocate for health insurance and other benefits for contingent faculty members. Within the library there are small actions we can take as well. We can make a special effort to reach out to adjuncts with information about the library and, if budgets allow, consider offering a stipend to adjunct faculty to attend workshops, meetings, or other programs in the library. I’m sure there are other ways to partner and advocate with adjunct faculty members — I’d be interested to hear about what academic librarians are doing.

Experiences in Collaboration

In seventh grade, my English teacher required us to read a book each month and write a report on it. Naturally, there was an approved list of titles one could choose from, and on it were the works of Agatha Christie. My suspicion is that I’d seen one of the Poirot episodes on A&E and that piqued my interest in reading the works of Christie. Her Poirot novels I read in seventh grade were my entree into the detective novel genre – one that I enjoy to the present day.

It’s a love I share with my wife and Saint Bernard, as many evenings find us at home crammed on the couch watching one or another episode of a detective show. Poirot, Sherlock (both the Cumberbatch and Jeremy Brett incarnations), and Nero Wolfe are among our favorites. Recently, however, our show of preference has been Foyle’s War, set in World War II Great Britain. Many elements make this a great program – Michael Kitchen’s acting is excellent and the intro theme is lovely – but most interesting is the collaboration between Foyle (Michael Kitchen), his driver Sam Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks) and his Sergeant, Paul Milner (Anthony Howell). While Foyle is, in typical detective genre style, the “brain” behind it all, he would not be as successful without Sam and Sgt. Milner.

It was this collaboration that set my mind to thinking about collaboration for those of us that don’t investigate murders and jewel thefts, but instead work together to give access to the information held by our respective institutions. As a first-year academic librarian I’ve found collaboration both in and out of the library to be invaluable. It occurs to me that my posts here have touched on this but I’ve never really talked about the value of collaboration to me as a “first year.”

In my previous position, I worked closely and collaborated with the librarians who are now my colleagues here at the University of Arkansas. At a fundamental level, working well with others gives you a good reputation in the library community, both locally and globally. If that collaboration had not existed and been a positive one I would more than likely not have been selected for the position I am in now.

That is, admittedly, a selfish way to think about collaboration – and as members of the academy, we strive for service to that academy, as well as our respective disciplines. Most of that work is carried out in committees – to my mind a formalized collaboration. And as it’s something many of you have had experience with I will not spend any more time writing about committees. No, what I have in mind are the less formal collaborations one participates in.

For me these informal collaborations make my work richer in two very tangible ways. First, with a fellow cataloger here as well as a library specialist, I wrote an article currently under review at Cataloging & Classification Quarterly. The article details our method for handling electronic theses and dissertations, and is much richer with their contributions and ideas. Also, I don’t know if I could have written the article without their help and prodding! Second, in collaboration with Sarah Burke Cahalan of Dumbarton Oaks, I am presenting at the RBMS preconference in Las Vegas about an under researched scientific illustrator who spent most of his career in the Ozarks. This presentation and research would not have been possible without Sarah’s work with the artist’s family and her work with institutions in her area that hold work by this artist. I am immensely grateful for her work in making our research about the artist far better than that which I could have done on my own. As an aside, I will also say that our library administration really appreciates these collaborations – especially with other outside institutions.

So these collaborations are indeed valuable and helpful to the first-year librarian. What can you do to facilitate these collaborations? First, listen. Listen to the research interests and areas of your colleagues – academics love nothing better than to talk about their own research. Second, reach out. I never would have met Sarah if it weren’t for twitter. It’s important to have an active professional presence in whatever social media arena you feel comfortable in. Third, don’t be afraid of asking – the worst that could happen is that a potential collaborator could say no.

Finally, my charge to you is to start some form of collaboration next week. Identify and have lunch with a faculty member on campus about a shared research interest. Reach out to your “research hero” at another institution about that great idea you’ve had. But most of all, do it all with an upbeat attitude and a kind smile on your face!

Embedding, Flipping, and More at LOEX 2014

I was fortunate to be able to attend the LOEX Conference this year, which took place May 8-10 in Grand Rapids, MI. I have only ever heard great things about this conference, and accordingly, I had a great experience.

This was my first time attending the LOEX Conference and I only became aware of it recently (within the past year). Many readers here will likely be familiar with LOEX, but for those who aren’t, LOEX stands for Library Orientation Exchange and it is a “self-supporting, non-profit educational clearinghouse for library instruction and information literacy information.” The annual conference has earned a reputation for being particularly relevant and exciting for instruction and information literacy librarians, as attested by the many people I met who were either multiple-time attendees, or thrilled to finally get to go to the conference.

I went into the conference with high expectations, which were met and exceeded. The two days were full of presentations and workshops that are extremely relevant to my work, and with ideas I can incorporate by making small changes. I love coming away with new ideas that are practical, so I can actually implement them myself. Here are some things that the LOEX Conference got me thinking about:

Embedding

A few presentations focused on embedded librarianship in one way or another. “Embedded” often refers to being embedded in an online course, but these conversations also brought up ways to extend the library’s presence beyond the one-shot, without necessarily being embedded online. For example, librarians can collaborate with faculty to redesign a course or a central assignment. That sounds like it can be a huge task (to me, at least), but some possibilities for integrating information literacy outside of the one-shot could be having students do a reflection paper about their research process, introducing concept mapping to develop literature reviews, or discussing with faculty how information literacy fits in with their own disciplinary content and pedagogical goals.

Another opportunity to be more embedded comes as a solution to a common problem – when you receive a request for instruction at the very beginning of the semester, clearly not at the point-of-need. Of course, try to schedule the instruction session at a time when students will benefit more from the information, but you could also visit the classroom at the initial request for a short 5-10 minute introduction of yourself and the library. This would increase students’ familiarity with a librarian and allow you to build a relationship with students prior to the one-shot session, an important connection which I think can go a long way. If the initial classroom visit gets too time-intensive, it could be replaced by a re-usable introduction video.

Flipping

During the interactive session on the flipped classroom, my group ended up talking about student buy-in and accountability: what do you do when students come to class having not done the pre-assignment or reading? One answer is to plan ahead with faculty so that the pre-assignment can be added to their syllabus, thus adding more accountability. My first reaction to this idea was that there is no way I can have instruction sessions planned out far enough in advance to be added to a syllabus. However, I now think this could take the form of a more general statement, for example:  “At least one class session will be led by a librarian to introduce you to library resources and assist with research skills. This may require a pre-assignment.” This leads to another point that the presenters stressed as important for a successful flipped classroom: identifying faculty who will be supportive. It’s less likely that students will see value where their instructor doesn’t.

That session also served as a great reminder for me that flipping the class should not be an opportunity to cram in more information, but an opportunity to cover a topic more in depth through the use of a pre-assignment and in-class active learning. I realized that the one time I somewhat-flipped the classroom, it was because I didn’t have time to cover everything I wanted to. I sent a video tutorial for them to watch ahead of time, and it was just an add-on, rather than an enhancement.

And More

These are really just a few things that I came away with after LOEX, and it’s already my longest post here yet. Some other useful ideas I picked up had to do with active learning assessment, design recommendations for online tutorials, and reflecting on and improving teaching strategies.

I constantly had a tough time deciding which session to attend, because they all looked good. By scrolling through the conference hashtag (#loex2014) on Twitter, I could tell that was the case. One thing I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the interactive sessions. Although I didn’t think I would want to interact very much, I ended up loving how they facilitated conversation and sharing of ideas with new people.

It was great to attend a conference for academic librarians that was so focused on instruction and information literacy, and I definitely hope to go to the LOEX Conference again sometime.