What Else Are We “Teaching” When We Educate Users This Way?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from an academic librarian who asked to remain anonymous owing to his or her current job hunting status, and who wishes not to be judged by potential employers on the content of this post alone.

As a new member of the profession, I sometimes come across things on library web sites that leave me puzzled about how academic librarians are approaching their work, especially the important task of user education. For example, I recently discovered the podcasting site at the Fairfield University Library.

The intent is certainly laudable—to teach underclassmen to distinguish among various databases. Obviously, much energy, talent, and time had been invested. The layout was pleasing, the information perfectly accurate. But here is what I question: Why are they designing the site and their podcasts to appeal to a young adolescent rather than a college undergraduate. Is it just me, or does the approach seem reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon?

Why have the designers taken this approach? One answer may be that Millenials seem more child-like, more playful than previous generations. The designers might also argue that we must go wherever the students are in order to engage them. If the students learn the concepts we want them to master, then we have succeeded, right? Why worry about anything else? The end justifies the means.

But I see another crucial issue at stake. For one thing, some students will see through the ruse, realize they are being talked down to, and resent it. Perhaps a slim minority? What about the students who find the approach fun, cute, charming? They are being served, are they not? What’s the harm?

Perhaps some readers will say that I need to loosen up or that I’m too new to realize that traditional approaches will be perceived by today’s students as dull or boring. Nevertheless, I would argue that we are not just delivering user education, any more than a composition instructor is just teaching English. Everyone who teaches undergraduates is engaged in the process of transforming young people into critically reflective, fully mature, responsible citizens. Fairfield University’s own mission statement makes this point: “In its fullest sense liberal education initiates students at a mature level into the culture, its past, its present, its future.” When I treat students as adults, accord them that dignity, I am helping them become so. For me, that’s more important than anything I could teach them about databases.

6 thoughts on “What Else Are We “Teaching” When We Educate Users This Way?”

  1. This seems like an interesting way of addressing the essential problem of database descriptions: if you do them straight, they’re boring and the details that work for librarians aren’t usually helpful to students. One or two quick facts and some theme music seems like an honest approach to create an audience for some pretty dry stuff.

  2. Hi there,

    I am among the librarians who created the podcasts you’re talking about. It is interesting to read this reaction. I can assure you that the podcasts were not created with the intention of talking down to students. It’s surprising to realize that some listeners might feel that way.

    As Chris mentioned in his comment, above, the “Meet the Databases” podcasts were created to introduce students to databases in an unusual, hopefully interesting and entertaining manner. They were created with two purposes in mind–1) to make students aware of databases of use to them (marketing), and 2) to inform students about how the databases work and what they have to offer (instruction).

    The “Meet the Databases” podcast initiative was launched alongside the University’s iTunesU initiative, wherein some professors post course materials online, in iTunesU. Librarians thought that creating podcasts highlighting resources used in particular iTunesU courses would be handy, so we contacted professors teaching with iTunesU and customized the podcasts to fit into their courses.

    The “interview with the database” idea was spawned while listening to Fresh Air on NPR one evening. While excited to experiment with podcasting, I had doubts that many students would bother to listen to a dry overview–I’m in my thirties, and I might skip that myself. Listening to Terry Gross and her interviewee, it struck me–dialogue is almost always more captivating than a lecture. So, we decided to experiment with that concept. Out of the concept sprang the interviews, and later, the scenarios that are played out in the nursing podcasts.

    At this point, any librarian is free to create a podcast on any library resource, and we don’t mandate the conversational format that was described in this post as cartoonish. It just happens that the first two librarians to write scripts for podcasts enjoyed this oppotunity to be creative and hopefully, informative, too. Future “meet the databases” podcasts may follow this trend, or break away entirely. If a librarian prefers a more staid approach, that is also welcome.

    Feedback from students and professors has been positive, so far. You might be interested to know that humor has been cited as a stimulus to learning. Insofar as these podcasts are funny (and that is subjective), I hope they have potential as learning objects. We will be able to assess this further when we receive more feedback.

    I do hope you also noticed our “Library Lowdown” podcasts that are featured further down the page. These consist of serious interviews with professors on topics of serious concern to students, such as writing a thesis statement. As we continue our podcasting efforts, we hope to create a wide variety of programming to suit a wide range of tastes and learning styles.

    Thank you for your feedback on our first efforts.

  3. Humor is tricky, but I think it’s well worth trying. Straight descriptions ARE boring, and it’s great to see people try different approaches, particularly in this cultural moment when irreverence and irony are so much a part of how we think.

    I have a PhD friend who recently published an edited book that has a cartoon on the cover. Should the subject be portrayed that way? Does it make the book undignified? Isn’t knowledge often playful?

    I recommend Gregory Bateson’s “On Games and Being Serious” in Steps Toward and Ecology of Mind– it’s a good way to think about learning and knowledge. And most of what we call research is playing around with ideas.

    Besides, I really like the Peeps.

  4. I’d say that you need to loosen up. Or maybe you are just too new to realize that traditional approaches will be perceived by today’s students as dull or boring.

    More seriously, I think several things are at play here. I’d assume that the cartoony images for the different databases would immediately be recognized by students as the type of thing people sometimes use for their avatars in online environments, and they would think of them in that way, rather than as “kids stuff.”

    Also, I think we need to give our fellow librarians the benefit of the doubt in things like this, and assume that they have talked to their students on their campus, and that they are reasonably sure that most of their students will understand the podcasts in the way the library means them.

    Lastly, I think this also points out the need for a variety of approaches. I can’t see myself listening to a podcast about a database now, and I certainly can’t imagine I would have done so as a student. So it is important to recognize that the podcasts won’t work for everyone.

  5. As a creator of many of the podcasts in question, I will have a go at responding. Having just returned from the ACRL conference, I feel inspired by many of the academic librarians who I met and whose presentations I attended. One of the most powerful things that I got out of the conference was the idea of being brave. Being brave means not being afraid to try new things, it means looking at the world in different ways, it means starting something new. One of the themes of the conference was “rocking the boat.” My podcasts clearly rock the boat for some people, and I think that’s excellent! I am happy to see a dialog here about ways of reaching students with instruction, and I welcome debate on the issue. Please visit our podcasts page http://www.fairfield.edu/lib_podcasts.html often, as we are trying to add new ones. So far, as my colleague Ramona Islam has already pointed out, these include serious interviews with faculty on topics such as book recommendations for Women’s History Month and writing a thesis statement.

    Finally, I will add that I have played the podcasts for students in over 20 English 12 library instruction classes, and they have applauded on several occasions. Also, we do evaluations at the end of the sessions, and we have received many positive comments about the podcasts. I would like to post one here:

    6. What about this session surprised you most?
    the audio i thought it was really funny and will stick with me

    That’s powerful stuff!

    I hope the dialog and debate will continue.

    Leslie Porter
    Reference & Instruction Librarian
    Fairfield University

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