Tag Archives: critical pedagogy

Reflections on the Job Hunt: Writing a Teaching Philosophy

As an LIS student graduating in May 2015, the job search is on my mind a lot these days. One of my more recent applications required a one-page teaching philosophy, in addition to a letter of interest and resume. Like many people that write a teaching philosophy for the first time, I have years of varied instructional experience but I often don’t take the time or space to do intentional, deliberate reflection of my teaching.

I think that ACRL’s recent decision to move forward with the proposed Framework, while simultaneously making a conscious stand not to rescind the Standards is more than relevant to this post. With that being said, I think there has been a multitude of brilliant blog posts on this topic, some of which have taken place on ACRLog. (For some of my personal favorites, see Meredith Farkas’ post, a reflection from Donna Witek, and a resource that Nicole Pagowsky shared).

Instead, I’d like to think more critically about why reflection is important, how it is often integrated into our daily lives (even if we don’t realize it), and what the construction of my teaching philosophy entailed. My hope is that this post might help other LIS students or recent grads in their journey to construct a coherent statement.

One of the reasons I like Twitter is that I am reminded daily about what other people in our field are doing, especially in relation to instruction. Many #critlib discussions have explored critical pedagogy and reflection. Now #moocmooc is exploring some of these topics in more depth while challenging participants to blog and reflect on their professional praxis. I’m personally hoping that these discussions will develop into a longer chapter on critical pedagogy and reflection or teaching assessment in an exciting work that’s still in progress.

One of the more recent #critlib conversations was about critical reference. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of the conversation about how to do good critical reference also applies to instruction. Here’s one of my favorite tweets from that conversation:

critlib conversation

I understand that potential employers want applicants to write a teaching philosophy so that they can make sure the person is well suited for their institution’s teaching culture and set of values. But what I learned is that it does so much more than that. It makes your teaching more intentional and nuanced. When you have to sit down and really ask yourself questions like “Why do I care about or place value on this instructional method?” or “What are the big questions I ask in my classroom?” you become a more thoughtful teacher.

This might seem really obvious but I’m not sure I realized the true value of reflection until I actually did it. As librarians face more and more time constraints, I think that this is something good to keep in mind. Yes, it might take a few hours to hash out how you teach and why, but if it improves your practice and your interactions with students isn’t it worth it?

I’d like to give a tangible—albeit cheesy—example to illustrate what I mean. I try to attend a yoga class at least once a week. It gives me a space to decenter and relax while stretching and improving my posture and strength. One of my favorite yoga classes is a hot yoga session at a swanky yoga center in town. There are a few reasons I like the class. The heat intensifies my stress relief, they let you borrow equipment, and it’s a fairly small, close-knit space. But to be honest, the biggest reason I go out of my way to attend the particular session is because of the instructor. He starts every class by telling students that the session isn’t about replicating the exact pose he is doing. It’s more about how your individual body feels in the pose. In other words, he empowers students to do what they can without feeling shame about not being as flexible as their neighbor. He also solidifies the expectations of the class by saying upfront what the goals are and then he reiterates those expectations by giving modifications for each pose and talking about how your body should feel instead of how it should look.

I am, of course, living on a graduate student budget and I can’t afford to go to this expensive class every week. I decided to compromise by going to a much cheaper yoga session sponsored by the student recreation center every now and then instead. I went to my first session last week and quickly learned that the instructional techniques used there are very different. This instructor scolded students for looking at their neighbors’ pose for guidance instead of looking directly at him. He made students stop the flow they were moving in so that they could move to one side of the room and watch him demonstrate exactly how poses should be done. He never talked about modifications for those with limited flexibility or injuries. In short, he made the practice tedious and maybe even discouraged newcomers from practicing yoga again.

There are many things I learned from these two very different experiences (besides the fact that you get what you pay for):

  • Teachers are not the keepers of knowledge. They are there to facilitate, mentor, and encourage. Being a guide can often be more productive than being an “expert”. And why can’t teachers be both?
  • If both of these instructors would have reflected on not only their respective sessions but also their teaching philosophy and their goals when teaching yoga, there would undoubtedly be some improvement. (Maybe this is me being optimistic or naive, but I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to be discouraging).
  • Teachers reflect on teaching even when we don’t mean to. If that one experience informed my teaching, I know that reflecting more consciously would be even more beneficial.

This brings me to constructing my actual teaching philosophy. I tried to keep all of this in mind while doing so: what is important to me as a student, what good (and poor) experiences I have had with past teachers and why, and how a reflection might inform and represent my teaching. I searched for examples in many different places and asked my mentors to share their teaching philosophies with me. A quick Google search brings up an overwhelming amount of resources. There are many sample philosophies, checklists, and rubrics. If I had to simplify and just give a few pieces of advice, they would be the following:

  • Use examples from fields like rhetoric and composition. Sometimes it’s hard to find good library examples because our field is so diverse. Graduate students writing statements in these areas often have similar goals to our own (facilitating critical thinking, putting information in context, etc.) and I think we can learn a lot from them.
  • Be yourself! More than anything else, your energy should shine through. Think about how your lived experiences have guided your teaching practices and philosophy. Reflect on your role and why you believe in the importance of that role.
  • Give examples. Most of us can write all day about what we want to do in the classroom. But what do we actually do? How do the activities we create embody the concepts we want students to understand? This might seem harsh, but if you can’t give a practical, tangible example of how you teach a particular concept or philosophy, it might not be as important to you as you claim.

My philosophy is in no way perfect. I actually think of it as a living, developing document that I hope will continue to grow and change as I grow and change. Still, I think that sharing parts of it might help others are they are thinking about their own philosophy. Here are a few excerpts:

As an educator, my goal is to foster personal exploration, challenge critical thinking, and frame students’ experiences within larger societal issues. Multiple teaching experiences have taught me that this process only happens if students develop a sense of autonomy and accomplishment. My role, then, is less about being an expert who dictates content and authority and more about being a leader who guides students through learning in the context of their lived experiences.

 I am also an information expert with a tangible agenda for my classroom. The students of today are swimming in information, all of which differs in format, reliability, and means of production. Thus, today’s librarian teachers are facing a very different obstacle than the librarians of even twenty years ago. The challenge is not in teaching students how to find information, but instead in teaching them how to be critical, contextual consumers of the information they already have access to. Therefore, my role as an information expert shapes the way I teach the skills needed to understand the complicated relationship between knowledge, information production, and power.

My greatest calling as an instructor is to help students realize their responsibilities as citizens, consumers, friends, mentors, and ethical human beings. Teaching them not only how to be more information literate but also why it matters is the constant objective behind my instruction.

Have you written a teaching philosophy? How often do you revise it? What advice would you give to new librarians going through this process?



Beyond Livetweeting: Twitter Chats for Professional Development

This time 11 days ago I was grumpy. It was the last Friday before Spring Break, and I was prepping to teach an English Comp I session the next morning — not just a Saturday class but the Saturday before the break week. Our English Comp I sessions are typically assignment-driven, as we’ve found that to be more useful for students than a library tour or orientation, and having an assignment to work on encourages them to participate during the session.

But this class was different. Just one week prior to the library session, the current professor had taken over this class from another professor who’d fallen ill. The new prof was still getting his bearings with the students and he hadn’t yet assigned the research essay. I’d been thinking for a while now that I need to develop a solid plan for these occasional no-assignment sessions, something interactive and useful to students, but it’s been a busy semester and I haven’t found the time to put to it. So there I was with a class the next morning, not at all sure what I’d do with those students, how I’d keep them awake and engaged on the last day before break, or what I could offer that would be of most use to them when they eventually got to work on their research assignments near the end of the semester.

And then I remembered the most recent #critlib chat. What is #critlib, you ask? It’s a Twitter chat held at 9pm Eastern time every other Tuesday, begun earlier this month by moderators (in alphabetical order by Twitter handle) Jenna Freedman (@barnlib), Annie Pho (@catladylib), Emily Drabinski (@edrabinski), Kelly McElroy (@kellymce), and Nicole Pagowsky (@pumpedlibrarian). The purpose of the chat is to “engage in discussion about what critical pedagogy is and how it can be used in library instruction.” The most recent chat, on April 8, was terrific, with conversation ranging from whether neutrality is possible to strategies for encouraging our students to think critically about information. As Barbara pointed out:

At the time I’d wondered how I could incorporate what I read and learned during the chat into my usual strategy for teaching the English Comp I library session, and the need to create a new strategy for this no-assignment session let me do just that. I was lucky that the professor’s broad topic for the class is the American Dream, which is perhaps more amenable to a critical information literacy lens than many topics. I began by spending time talking with students about creating a more narrow research question from a broad topic, and we used the hypothetical research question “Is the American Dream available to all Americans in 2014?” to generate keywords and synonyms for searching which I wrote on the whiteboard.

Overall the session included more questions and discussion and less time for students to search on their own than the more assignment-driven sessions I teach. We spent lots of time talking about how information is produced and distributed while trying to keep a practical focus on what’s available in the library and what’s available on the open internet. We talked about how search engine results are ranked, and what to consider when choosing which information to use. I asked them to work with a partner to find one library and one internet source; while I love asking students to work together, it can be challenging if each student has chosen a different research topic.

While much of what I did in this session is similar to what I do in the more assignment-driven sessions, reviewing the #critlib chat before planning the session helped me stay mindful of critical approaches to information literacy as I was teaching. There’s always so much to cover in a library session and it can be so easy to charge on through, and I’m grateful that participating in the chat two weeks ago reminded me to look for opportunities to draw in students’ own experiences and to question the information landscape with students.

I’ve used Twitter to catch up on conference livetweeting for a while now, and also get lots of recommendations for professional reading and resources from the folks I follow, but this is the first time I’ve dipped into a Twitter chat for professional development. If you’ve missed the two chats so far, never fear: there’s a terrific cheat sheet/repository of chats and questions with links to a Zotero bibliography and a Storify of each chat. And if you’re interested in critical information literacy, please join in! The next chat is tomorrow, Tuesday April 22nd, at 9pm Eastern. Use the hashtag #critlib to tweet and follow the conversations.

Gone Camping

It’s summertime, so last week I packed my bag and headed off to camp: LibCampNYC, a library unconference held at Brooklyn College, CUNY.

This was the first unconference I’d ever attended, having narrowly missed out on signing up for Library Camp NYC in 2007. One of the defining features of an unconference is its loose structure. I have to admit that I came into the day somewhat skeptical that the model would actually work, that 100+ people would be able to plan the day’s events on the fly first thing in the morning. While the organizers had done some pre-planning, arranging the topics proposed by participants on the preconference wiki into clusters of similar themes, the 4-5 sessions that ran in each timeslot were determined by the entire group. It was amazing to watch the schedule coalesce right before our eyes.

I went to four sessions over the course of the day, opting to stay in each one rather than move around. Lots of interesting things were discussed:

  • In the How should we handle the dinosaur known as the reference desk? session, the point was made that at academic libraries students may not feel comfortable approaching the reference desk when it’s not crowded because the librarian on duty looks busy, and students don’t want to interrupt. On the Twitter backchannel, bentleywg shared that his library places signs in front of the librarians’ computers on the ref desk that read “Please Interrupt Me.” Such a great idea!
  • I co-facilitated Information literacy instruction and strategies, and I was especially pleased that so many public librarians came to that session. It was so interesting to learn about the variety of opportunities that public librarians have to teach their patrons, from kids through adults, aspects of information literacy. I’ve often wondered about how my library could partner with the public library, since we only have our students for four years and public libraries have them for the rest of their lives (but that’s probably a topic for another post).
  • The Open access session was fairly free-form, with discussion on the topic ranging far and wide. Advocacy was a recurring thread, especially how academic librarians can educate faculty about open access on their campuses. One of the most interesting suggestions was to engage students in advocacy, as discussed at the SPARC session on this topic at ALA’s Midwinter meeting in 2008. For example, Students for Free Culture, a multi-campus organization, seems like a great partner for librarians working on OA issues.
  • The final session I attended was Critical pedagogy/critical information literacy, a topic I’m very interested in though just starting to read and learn about. A big theme in this discussion was the “tyranny of the one-shot,” with many librarians chewing over how to bring critical pedagogies to a library session that may be restricted to as little as 45 minutes.

The day went by in a flash and was great fun. My only small frustration was that the sessions seemed too short. By the time the participants said a few words introducing ourselves and expressing our interest in the topic and the conversation really got going, the session time was nearly half gone. But it’s also true that longer sessions = fewer sessions, and I wouldn’t have wanted to drop any of the four that I attended.

Longer sessions would also have allowed for more space to accommodate the variety of experience with and interest in a topic that everyone brought to the sessions. And while I do think that this diversity of perspective added depth to our discussions, sometimes a conversational thread that was interesting to me was snipped short and I wished we had more time to for it. But of course that’s the spirit of an unconference, that the program evolves continuously. And that made the event one of the most exciting and learning-filled professional events that I’ve ever attended.

But I think that what I valued most about LibCampNYC was the ability to connect with librarians from across the profession. I spend most of my time with academic librarians, and it was great to have the opportunity to learn from my colleagues in public, special, medical, and other libraries. I also appreciated the diversity in experience — the mix of both newer and more seasoned librarians in addendance. And of course this was much more participatory than a typical conference, because the program and topics were determined by all of us, together.

If you’re interested in reading the session notes, you can find them on the LibCampNYC wiki. I can’t wait to go library camping again!