Laughter in the Dark

It’s crazy season for instruction – the month when you have to keep trying to remember what day of the week it is. Is this the day I teach a first term seminar, a psychology methods course, a section of invertebrate biology, and art history, or is it that tomorrow? It can be thrilling, and draining, but sometimes you hit the wall of blank stares from a class that has apparently taken a vow of silence and have given up fun for lent a few months early.

Too many of those in one week and you can have one of those semi-annual crises of faith, when the librarians have to huddle together and remind each other why we do this to our students.

Friday night was different. A group of first year students, all enrolled in an alternative general education curriculum, came to the library two hours after it closed with their flashlights to solve the Mystery of the Missing Professor. We got the idea from Carleton College, which hosted its first murder mystery in 2002. We wrote our own script, giving students a missing persons case that led them to seek out clues in the library collection. They started with a secondary source in which they found scraps of paper left by the missing faculty member that led them to a primary source, and from there to a reference book where they found a print-out of an e-mail message containing a reference to a journal article that they had to look up. When they ran out of clues, they were to stop at the reference desk to see if the librarian would have any further information.

Maybe it was because the library was dark and they had flashlights. Maybe it was the pure silliness of it all. But this is the first time I have seen students actually run to look up the next reference they’ve been given.

They’ll be back in a few weeks to get the more in-depth version of library wisdom and probably won’t enjoy themselves so much. But our first after-dark mystery showed that with a little foolishness and a touch of competition – and flashlights! – students can make quick work of what would otherwise be just another boring library exercise.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

One thought on “Laughter in the Dark”

  1. Wow! I wish that I’d gotten that type of library orientation when I was a junior college student.

    Seriously, the murder mystery concept does the single most important thing in instruction: engage and invest the students in the pedagogical process. Of course I can clearly remember having teachers that believed in that principle as far back as high school. I recall my alegebra/geometry teacher telling us to treat our homework like a game all the time. Strangely it always helped me to think of mathematics as a kind of black magic.

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