Tag Archives: library instruction

A Tale of Two Sessions

Not long ago I taught two library sessions for two introductory composition classes with the same professor and the same assignment on the same day. I love it when the schedule serendipitously works out to make that happen, in part because it gives me the chance to informally evaluate my teaching: both what I tend to cover and how I structure those sessions.

Like many librarians, I’ve struggled over the past few years to move away from me standing at the front of the class talking talking talking, so I can increase the amount of time for students to work on their own research during the library session. Students are supposed to come to the session having already selected a topic for their research assignment (though not all of them do, of course). I try to spend no more than 10-15 minutes each discussing and demonstrating internet research, the library catalog, and article databases, interspersed with 10-15 minute chunks of time for students to search on their own while I circulate to answer questions and offer suggestions.

Our class sessions are 75 minutes long — this is a lot to do in 75 minutes. I’ve tried to work around those constraints by seriously abbreviating my demo and looking for ways to interject more information while students search on their own. For example, I won’t mention that spelling counts or talk about the difference between keywords and subject headings in a catalog search, but when a student asks me how to revise a search when she hasn’t retrieved any results, I’ll answer her question so the whole class can hear.

Sometimes, though, the class is quiet and the students don’t ask many questions. In these cases I always feel somewhat strange: I walk around the room a bit, but I don’t want to pace back and forth like an old-fashioned school marm monitoring an exam. I check in with the students who look like they’re lost (or Facebooking), but that can be hard to do with students who don’t seem interested in my help, and some of them are genuinely, quietly doing their work. Sometimes I stand in front of the class fiddling with the computer or looking at my notes. This is what happened in the second class I taught last week, and it feels awkward.

But sometimes the less talk more search strategy works really well, which also happened last week. In the first class students were talkative and interested, volunteering answers to my questions during the demos and spending time on their own searches in between. However, there was a wide range of student preparation for the assignment in this class, with some students still working to narrow down a topic and others ready to go. Additionally, several students came to the session with obvious prior experience searching for sources for academic work. In this case I was able to give each student a small amount of personalized attention, which let me suggest topic narrowing strategies to some and advanced search strategies to others.

I chatted with the course professor after both classes who mentioned that in her experience the afternoon class is just a quieter group of students overall (I’d originally suspected post-lunch digestive sleepiness). But it’s still a challenge — what’s the right balance of talking and search time? Will I ever be able to shake that weird, conspicuous feeling while students search and I just stand there? What are some other ways that I can encourage students to open up and ask the questions that I suspect they have?

Context Matters

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Catherine Pellegrino, Reference Librarian and Instruction Coordinator at Saint Mary’s College. She blogs at Spurious Tuples.

Ever since I went to ACRL’s Institute for Information Literacy Immersion program in the summer of 2009, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the library instruction session with no demonstrations of databases. “What?” you say, “how could that possibly work?” Well, there are lots of variations on this teaching model, but the basic idea is that students learn better by doing than by being lectured at, and many of our traditional-aged college students are very good at figuring out user interfaces. So you set them up in small groups, have them figure out the database(s) on their own, and then the small groups report back to the class as a whole.

I’ve heard anecdotal reports from other librarians that this method works very well for them, but when I tried it with the students at my small liberal arts college, it kind of flopped. In fact, our students almost seem to want to be told about things, rather than figure them out on their own. One of the comments that I get fairly regularly on post-session assessments is “I wish you had gone into more detail about [database].” So for now, I’m not doing no-demonstration classes, although I’d like to find a way to make it work for our students, on our campus. And thinking about how to make it work for our students got me thinking about larger issues of campus cultural contexts.

When Maura contacted me about writing this guest post, I had just returned from a visit to my friend Iris Jastram, who is a reference and instruction librarian at Carleton College in Minnesota. While there, I had noted some differences between Carleton’s students and the students at my own college. Those observations spawned a conversation between Iris and me, and got me thinking about those same issues of campus cultural contexts, and how they affect information literacy instruction. So that’s what I thought I’d write about here.

Iris writes, on her own blog and elsewhere, about some of the things she can do with her information literacy instruction: she can explain to students how scholars index their own literature, and how to use that internal indexing to the students’ advantage in searching efficiently and effectively. She also works with students to help them find ways to uncover the specialized vocabulary that researchers in their disciplines use — both so that they can use that vocabulary effectively when searching for scholarly literature, and also so that they can use it when entering into that scholarly conversation themselves.

In short, Iris is able to tap into a campus culture and mindset where Carleton students, regardless of their ultimate career plans, are able to conceptualize themselves as apprentice scholars, and she’s able to use that to do things in her classroom that don’t work in mine.

I work at Saint Mary’s College, a Catholic women’s liberal arts college in Notre Dame, Indiana (just outside of South Bend). On the surface, we’re very similar to Carleton: about 1400-1500 students, small liberal arts college in the Midwest. But under the surface, there are some key differences: our professional programs (education, business, social work, and nursing) account for a large number of our students, while Carleton has no professional programs. Nearly all of Saint Mary’s science majors enter with the intention of going on in health professions (about half of them keep that intention through graduation) while only a small fraction of them go on to Master’s and Ph.D. programs in the sciences.

More importantly, though — and this is what I observed on my visit to the Gould Library — Carleton College has a campus culture of intense engagement, of students who dive into their studies with gusto, of students for whom whatever is in front of them right now is the most important thing they’re working on. It’s not necessarily that they’re smarter — and my friend Marianne Reddin Aldrich’s observations about the students at her own liberal arts college helped me frame this issue — it’s just a campus culture of being really into things, whether they’re academic or otherwise.

That’s something that Saint Mary’s doesn’t precisely have, or if our students have it, it’s not visible in the classroom. (Our students are very committed to a lot of things, including a lot of service and volunteer work, and their religion and personal faith development, so perhaps those areas are where it’s visible, but those aren’t areas that I see in the library or in the classroom.) So when Iris said that when she “geeks out” over some really cool, powerful, or obscure database tool, it establishes a bond between her and her students, I had to reply that when I geek out over a similar tool, it actually distances me from my students.

And that brings me to the point that all these conversations and observations led me to: a question about how to engage these students, on this campus. What motivates them? What gets them as 100% engaged as the students at Carleton and Colorado College? What pedagogical strategies enable them to learn independently in the classroom? And I realized that I really don’t know. I know a lot about what “they” (whoever “they” are) say about “millennials,” but I’m realizing that local campus and classroom cultures also have powerful effects on students and their learning. So I’m trying to figure out how I can learn more about what drives our students: one thing I’m planning to do is engage in a semi-structured program of observing master teachers on our campus by auditing classes. But I need to find more ideas and strategies.

What engages your students? And how did you find that out?

In Praise of Ideas

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Emily Drabinski, Electronic Resources and Instruction Librarian at Long Island University in Brooklyn, NY. She’s the editor (with Alana Kumbier and Maria Accardi) of Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods, published by Library Juice Press.

I just completed a thesis in the English department of my home institution, finishing up the second masters our jobs so often require. When people ask me what my thesis is about, I give them a short answer: kairos, a Greek notion of qualitative time, and what it has to tell us about library instruction. But there’s a longer answer, of course; it’s 100 pages long, cites everyone from Plato to James Elmborg to Michel Foucault and back to Plato, and is a significant deposit both in my theoretical bank and the bank of raw text from which I’ll attempt to craft a tenurable research profile in the remaining four years of my clock.

But why did I need to do so much reading and writing just to be a librarian? We’re a profession of practice, after all. We do and make things more than we think things. The first chapter of my thesis parses the debate between Plato and the Sophists about the nature of time and truth. What in the world could that have to do with my daily work at the reference desk and in the library classroom?

Well, actually kind of a lot. Me, I came down on the side of the Sophists. Knowledge is contingent and happens in time. It’s not absolute. What it’s possible to know, or even conceive as a question, depends on the context–what has come to count as knowledge over the course of time. It may not be a set of how-tos, but the notion of kairos does provide me a frame through which I work, every day, in my office, at the reference desk, and in the classroom.

Here’s an example: If knowledge is contingent, then I’m never looking for right answers. Instead, I’m looking for ways to engage students in their own active knowledge pursuits, pursuits that happen in time and are never final. I taught a class last week, and I framed my discussion with a metaphor that came directly from all that thinking, reading and writing. Instead of going with shoe shopping as a way to explain why students might use a subject database and not just Google (when I need shoes I go to a shoe store; I don’t go up and down the mall asking for shoes in every store), I went with dialogue as a metaphor. (Confession: I yoinked that one from Socrates.) Research is about a conversation one has with the literature of the past, in the present, toward the future of our own scholarly work. We ask databases questions, and databases give us answers. Sometimes they tell us no results. But there are no final answers, not if we embrace the kairos of research. There are simply next questions–with corrected spelling and broader keywords, maybe.

Ideas matter in librarianship, even for those of us at the frontlines of service delivery and not in the ivory towers. Ideas frame our action, the way we talk and teach about what we do, and what we make matter when we’re connecting our users to resources. If my frame of reference were informed purely by a desire to get things right, I might teach students how to follow my directions to get to a stable, unchanging and unchangeable answer. I’d be invested in describing how to use the correct language in the correct way in the correct database, all the while reinscribing as correct knowledge systems that reward some ways of knowing and not others.

That was a great class, the one that talked about research as a conversation. We all had a pretty great time, with a free flow of questions and answers. We spent a lot of time laughing, and a lot of time finding appropriate scholarly resources. There was applause as we wrapped things up, spontaneous and grateful. In the two weeks since the session, a quarter of the class has made follow up appointments with me or one of my colleagues. It’s not tenure-level evidence-based research, of course, but it anecdotally tells me my idea is one worth pursuing, not only in the scholarly literature of the field, but as a part of my classroom practice as well.

We don’t talk much about ideas, we practicing librarians. There doesn’t always seem time for them, between the classes and the desks and the meeting–oh, the meetings. But that’s the real advantage of the demand for scholarship, the demand that we engage and reflect on the ideological frames that guide our teaching, and a demand I’d like us to take up more often and more informally. What ideas undergird the way you work as a librarian?

They Need Us, They Really Need Us

Yesterday morning a friend’s retweet caught my eye. Apparently last week the productivity blog Lifehacker ran a survey in which readers were asked whether Google’s search results seemed increasingly full of spam and less useful. About 10,000 Lifehacker readers took the survey, and the top responses were eye-opening:

  • Nearly 34% of those who replied chose: “Absolutely. The spammers have gained a significant foothold.”
  • And almost 44% voted: “Kind of/sort of, but it’s still the best way to get at the good stuff.”

Of course this is a huge and open-ended survey question — exactly what kinds of information are users searching for? Looking at the comments (and the general content published by Lifehacker) it’s clear that most of the respondents probably use Google for typical, everyday searches: looking for news, weather, directions and travel, reliable product reviews and recommendations before purchasing, health and medical facts and advice, etc. I’d wager that most of the users who answered the survey weren’t referring to searches for research or scholarly information.

But I found these results especially interesting in light of Brian Sullivan’s satirical piece recently in the Chronicle reporting on the end of the academic library. The second factor he noted that contributed to the death of the academic library? “Library instruction was no longer necessary” because databases had become so easy to use, just like search engines.

(I should note that, while occasionally frustrating, I generally enjoy speculative futuristic scenarios about libraries and librarianship — they’re fun to read, and can be genuinely thought-provoking.)

Leaving aside issues of usability in library databases for the moment (because I think there’s still a long way to go), it doesn’t seem like instruction and reference librarians should strike out in search of new jobs quite yet. If Google and other search engines are increasingly not cutting it for even the basic, everyday searches for most people — usually the easy stuff, right? — how can we expect students to come to college already fluent in finding quality research information on the internet?

I was also struck by one of the Lifehacker commenters who wrote: “Part of the problem could be that people expect Google to read their minds.” We see students struggle with choosing and using appropriate search terms at the reference desk and in our classes, and we know how different the results list can be. What goes in determines what comes out — last semester I helped a student who was surprised to see that when she included the words “research paper” along with her topic in a Google search, her search results were dominated by websites selling term papers (which was, I hope, not what she was looking for).

So while I do hope that search engines and library databases continue to become easier to use and to give us better quality, more relevant results (and that seems likely to happen), I’m not at all ready to call it quits. I think we’ve still got a long way to go before our students won’t need library instruction.

Ready, Set, Teach: You in the Classroom

We’re introducing a new feature here at ACRLog for the new academic year. We know there are lots of great academic librarian bloggers out there who don’t often get as much attention as they should. They’re the bloggers who don’t show up on those publisher “best librarian blog” lists — and hey, why should we let a publisher or scam site dictate who’s a blogger that you should be giving your attention?

Our first guest academic librarian blogger is Sarah Faye Cohen, Assistant Director of the Miller Information Commons at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. She blogs regularly at The Sheck Spot, and we’re pleased to share her post about preparing for library instruction.

As Maura pointed out in her last post, back to school means back to instruction. There are many ways that each of us prepares to walk into the classroom: speaking with a professor about the students or about the assignment, making sure the technology in the room is working, making copies of handouts, etc. But those are logistical considerations. Getting ready for instruction is not just about putting things together. It’s about putting yourself together to go out and introduce students to new ways of thinking and new tools. Sometimes that feels easy. But sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s the hardest work we are faced with as librarians. So, let’s look at it on a more personal side for a moment:

- What do you do to get ready to teach?
- What are the ways that you prepare yourself for the hard work of teaching?
- What are the ways you fortify yourself and nurture yourself through a teaching load?

Here are some ways I prepare myself for instruction:

Take it as it comes:
There is a part of teaching where the truth of a phrase like “Don’t take it personally” comes into play. That being said, one of the challenges of being a teaching librarian, especially if your interactions are based on one-shots, is that you never know when the “lightbulb” moment happens for the students. A session that you thought was mediocre at best, might have been pivotal for a student. Perhaps this will be one of those sessions! Conversely, this might be one of those “dead” sessions: no one talks, they look bored out of their minds, and you could stand on your head and it wouldn’t matter. In both instances, there is probably something you could have done differently. Especially when sessions don’t go well, remember that there is a big difference between learning from your mistakes in order to make future sessions better and beating yourself up. No matter how it turns out, take the session as it comes.

What Makes You Feel Effective in the Classroom?
Part of what makes instruction so much fun is that we each get to make it our own, even when you are part of a coordinated instruction program like we have at Champlain. That is why it is so important to look in the mirror and ask yourself: what makes me feel effective in the classroom? In my own cohort of teaching librarians, some of us feel effective by walking around during small group work while others stand at the front of the room. Some of us feel effective by tweaking the lesson each time while others like to keep the rhythm of what works for them. It helps to hear about what works for your colleagues so that you can find ways to make yourself more effective. Remember, there is not one, sure fire answer about what makes each of us effective in a classroom. We are individuals with individual styles. But it’s important to give thought to what makes you feel effective.

Know your CI:
Over the summer, the teaching librarians at Champlain read Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. There’s a lot in this book that pertains to teaching and I would recommend it to anyone. The very first chapter of the book presented an idea that really “stuck” to me—knowing your CI. As the chapter explains, this is known in military circles as the “Commander’s Intent”:

“CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation…the CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events” (p. 26).

Another way to think of the CI is your Core Intent. What is it that your students must walk out of your session knowing? Is it a skill? Is it a specific resource? Or, what must your students walk out of your session thinking about? Is it a concept? Or is it a mindset? Is it to be curious? Or to never give up? Whatever “it” is, you need to know it so that no matter what happens in that class, you have a CI as your map. You know where that class is going. And you can express it to the professor, the students, your colleagues, but most importantly, to yourself.

The Back-Pocket Plan:
No matter how well prepared you are, no matter how much you’ve put into your lesson plan or activity design, sometimes it falls flat. This is when you need to pull out Plan B: the “Back-Pocket” Plan. This is absolutely vital when working with technology in the classroom. What is something else, something different you can do with the class to get your same message across but in a new way? Having a strong second option in your back pocket means that you are adaptable in the classroom and that you have a strong grasp on your CI.

Take Good Care:
This last one is one that we don’t talk very much about as a profession but I think is vital to instruction. Instruction is hard work. It demands a great deal of bravery and vulnerability, as Parker Palmer tells us in his transformative book, The Courage to Teach. To walk into session after session, we need to take good care of ourselves. For some of us, that might mean some quiet time before or after a session. Or, sharing (or venting) how the session went. Or, going for a walk. These are a few examples of what works for me. Whatever it is that you need, I hope you take the time to figure out what it is and that you make the time to take it.

Best of luck in the new semester!