With a Tangled Skein

My library, and the branch campus where I work, is quite small and in a very rural part of Alabama.  We have about 250 students right now, though enrollment doubled since we opened the new building and we expect it to keep growing.  I’ve been quite busy the last few weeks with a new and rather odd trend, and I’m wondering if it’s demographically based or perhaps caused by a wierd atmospheric disturbance.  Students are coming to me to ask how to do assignments for other instructors.  I’ve gotten used to teaching basic computer literacy, “This is a mouse” or “this is how you print,” or “this is how you make Powerpoint print slides with six on a page.”  We are heavily invested in technology, and almost every class requires the students to do some work within our WebCT/Blackboard framework.  So of course I’m also answering a LOT of questions about how to attach documents and how to use the email system, but I expect that.  Recently, though, the threads of my library life have become a bit more knotty as it appears students are thinking I am nearly all-knowing.  Heh.

Two weeks ago I had a student come in and ask “I have this assignment due, can you tell me what I’m supposed to do?”  I said sure, assuming it was a research assignment and that she needed help with getting started.  Nope.  It was a math assignment.  And it wasn’t that she didn’t know how to print it out, or save it to her jump drive.  She wanted me to tell her how to do the math problems.  I was an English major in college and math is not so much my strong suit!  I recommended that she see her instructor.  She hemmed and hawed as though she thought I was holding back on her.  She was one of the students that I’d helped quite a bit with WebCT and Office 2007, so I suppose I can see why she thought I could be of assistance. Finally I explained that while I was quite capable as a librarian, her needs were of the kind that really should be addressed by her instructor.  She left, somewhat disgruntled, with a promise to me that she would talk to her teacher.

A few days later, I had a student ask me how to do a sociology assignment.  Not research, but answering technical questions about scatterplots and outliers.  ::she shivers::  Nursing students and bone structure, elementary education students and D’Nealian handwriting.  It keeps happening!  Today was the final straw – a student came in and wanted me to show her how to use a website that was required for an assignment.  The instructions were quite clear, and after just a moment I saw that it was a basic online survey to evaluate a student’s computer skills.  She seemed in a panic about what to do, and terrified that she would fail her computer class.  I had her read through the assignment out loud, making comments like “see, you go to this website” and “once you click on the link it takes you to a survey” and said that was really all I could do to help.  She really wanted me to stand there while she did it, but fortunately I had another student waiting at the desk which made for a convenient excuse.

I am fine with helping students navigate websites.  I am fine guiding them to information about D’Nealian handwriting, or telling them what reference book they can use to find a labeled skeleton or some statistical analysis definitions.  But where is the line to be drawn?  If I had walked her through using this website, I would’ve essentially DONE her assignment for her.  Whether by fate, luck, or blessing, I am not a nursing instructor, nor an early education instructor, and DEFINITELY not a math instructor.  But I am comfortable using computers and navigating online, so it’s harder for me to “say no” when students ask for help in those areas.  How do y’all handle students who want you to help them with everything – especially those things far outside your purview as a librarian – even when you may have some knowledge about the subject?

21 thoughts on “With a Tangled Skein”

  1. It helps if you have a writing center, tutoring center, etc type place you can refer people to. I tend to explain to the students what I can help them with and suggest avenues for who can help them with the things I can’t help.

  2. Perhaps this is the by-product of what I saw in my public library job: parents doing the work for their children (even college-aged children). Some students don’t have the necessary skills to take responsibility for their education, having been taught that everything will be done for them. It’s unfortunate that the students aren’t aware of more appropriate places for help (like a homework assistance/tutoring center).

  3. Do you have a lot of continuing education students? Those are generally the ones that I find need the most assistance, but can also be the most interesting to work with. Either way, like you I have pretty good experience with tech or office, but I learned very early on where to draw the line. We had one student that kept coming back and asking the same office questions over and over that we started directing her to the tutoring center. Not that we couldn’t help her, but we started becoming her crutch and it got to the point where she started blaming us if something went wrong when changes were made to the document.

    I also tend to draw the line when they start asking about what resources are appropriate. I can offer my opinion, but I’ve learned to be careful about that and just say I’m not the one giving you your grade. And that’s the point that I tend to come back too, the grade. I’m not the one that gave the assignment, I’m not the one teaching the course, or charting their path in the student’s profession. I know it sounds harsh, but it’s what I found has worked. They know that I can help them find just about anything, but I’m not the one to ask how to do as assignment or if sources are appropriate, or what style to write the paper in. I refer them to their professor as the best possible person to explain things.

  4. I have experienced this with students in upper division classes. That’s not to say I haven’t seen it with freshman or sophomores, but their inquires were more along the lines of, “Can I ask you for help or should I go to my professor?”

    Much of what I ran into with juniors and seniors came from my instruction sessions. I would tell them I would be available to help them, and many felt that meant I would tell them how to start writing or they thought I knew what their professor wanted them to say. I started having hands-on sessions after some basic instruction so that students could ask questions of both me and the professor. Even more importantly, I started telling them that I could show them how to research their topic and how to find sources, but that I wouldn’t do it for them. If I had multiple inquiries asking for help actually writing their assignment, I would call their professor. Sometimes the prof appreciated it, sometimes he or she didn’t.

    In the end, I told the students that I could show them where to find the sources for their assignment. I would help them interpret their assignment (and I always told them to ask their professor for sure). But in the end, I told them I couldn’t–and wouldn’t–complete their homework for them.

  5. It’s nice that your students have faith in you and feel so comfortable approaching you, that they ask you anything and everything.

    It’s interesting, in terms of the students’ information literacy skills, that they are not discriminating between various information needs they have. They are not thinking: librarian for research; math tutor for math problems; peer study group for bone structure or handwriting. Instead, they are putting all of their academic needs into the librarian basket!

  6. My first job was in an inner city School of Nursing library where our students came from a wide variety of backgrounds. I found that the students who behaved in the way you’re describing were the ones who had poorest preparation and were least likely to be academically successful. They were in over their heads in school and were looking for anyone who would listen to them and provide assistance–in other words, they are panicking and not really in a place where they are receptive to constructive referrals.

    Looking back, I took a number of students under my wing and assisted them as I could. The few who made it through the program were always very grateful. Thirty years later I still run into some of them and it’s very gratifying to hear from them how much my assistance meant to them.

  7. Well, part of the problem I think is that “up here in the boonies” we don’t have a tutoring center. So they come to me. And I do recommend the center down at the main campus, but it’s 30 minutes away and most are reluctant to drive that far. (“It’s so much easier to come here than to go down there,” they say.) So in they come, thinking I have the answers to all life’s questions. And this “librarian basket” is already overflowing! 😎

  8. I think another factor in getting questions like these is, it is “safe” to ask the librarian questions (any questions). The students might be afraid to talk to their instructor for fear of looking stupid, or otherwise being judged.

  9. @Jonathan, I agree on the “safety” factor. So much of our work is dependent on a certain level of trust as well as the development of a relationship with the students that is different from their relationship with their instructors. We do walk a tightrope in this regard, and will encounter students who may (knowingly or not) abuse this relationship.

    This doesn’t answer the original question, I know. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to the dilemma. if there was, it may not have been asked in the first place. 🙂 instead, it reminds us, or it at least reminds me of all the gaps that need to be filled (i.e. writing centres, math labs, etc) within academics..

  10. Its not easy, but you just have to explain to the students (sometimes over and over again) that there are certain questions and types of things you can help them with, but then there are things you can’t.

    Most of the time, in my experience, its because you are there, you are convenient, and you helped them before, so why not again? But part of the learning experience, and part of the growing experience, is learning who to ask, for what, and when, right?

    (And if you are in a bigger place, you may have been unlucky enough to have had a colleague who thought they were being really helpful and did someone’s homework for them, thus leading that student to want everyone to do ALL their homework for them., including writing a paper…)

  11. One problem that you may be having is that the students are just not prepared in any way for college. Although it might be the demographic issue, i.e. parents doing too much for their kids’ assignments, it might be a rural area combined with low educational expectations and little money. I work in a rural community college and I find that the older students have the most trouble getting started. However, I am alarmed at the level of unpreparedness that you are seeing. You need a tutoring or supplemental instruction center asap! Look into some grant funders if possible. I recommend keeping a log of the types of questions you are getting in the library and what you are doing (like punting them back to the instructor) so that the instructors and adminstrative types can see what you’re up against. Also, despite the fact that the under-30 students embrace the concept of online learning, they may not in fact be prepared in any way for it. Stuedenst in a rural area do not have access to high speed internet and cheap computers at home, which goes a long way toward computer literacy.

  12. I guess it’s all about learning how to say “no”… At our branch we have mostly adjuncts (like most community colleges these days) and they can be hard for the students to track down. So I’m easy and accesible. I’m hoping the trend will start slacking off now that midterms are over and I’ve said “no” enough times that they’re starting to learn I’m not a “one-stop-shop” for all their academic needs. But I don’t want to appear that I won’t help at all – come to me with a niggly research problem and I’m all about it! I’ve also started compiling a list of adjunct “office hours” (times when I know they’re usually on campus in one of the adjunct offices) so I can tell students “Ah – you should see Mr X, the math instructor. He’s usually here on Monday afternoons.” That has seemed to help too – I can’t answer their question about bone structure, but I know when the nursing instructors are here!

  13. I think B had a good point. Our neediest students are those who are least prepared for college work. Since I teach so many library sessions, students associate me with help and maybe even knowledge. I always refer students to other resources when their requests get beyond library resources and research techniques. It’s the only way to stay sane.

  14. I almost feel a bit wistful — it’s been a long time since we’ve had too MANY questions at the desk! 😉 Having said that, I do understand about trying to find the way between appropriate and inappropriate questions. I worked closely this fall with 2 groups of students who, for various reasons, were not familiar with library services and college-level work generally. I was happy to have them think of me as “their” librarian, since I am comfortable referring when necessary. I do have one student this semester who has come to me a LOT with pretty much the same questions repeatedly, but they are about finding resources, using RefWorks, etc., and I’m definitely all about that!

  15. I try to be clear that I can show users how to find information but I can’t interpret the information for them. I can sometimes direct them to a person who can interpret it, but that is the limit. I think it’s common to get questions like this in both academic and public libraries.

  16. I’m seeing a lot of students come in who don’t know how to use our computers. This is complicated by a very slow connection, frustration if what they want isn’t readily available, and disinclination to learn HOW to use the system. When you put those factors together, it becomes a real issue. Ignorance is curable, but only if the patient is willing 🙂

  17. I am working at a large urban library in NJ and we are using a product that would be great for your patrons. It is tutor.com. This year it has been beefed up to help with more college courses and testing like the GRE’s. Students (of any age) log in to a chat/whiteboard session with a subject/level-specific tutor. Also the students can send a file up to the tutor for editing/comments. It is not cheap and it doesn’t help everyone but in locations where one-on-one help is difficult to come by this is good.

  18. You cannot and should not interpret assignments. I can empathize with students who don’t understand their assignment (and frankly, some are very poorly designed), but I always encourage them to talk to the professor/instructor and ask him/her to clarify the assignment. Writing/math/tech help centers are a great resource for a college to have, even for those who “know it.” We do see these types of problems occasionally at our school too and I would agree, the questions usually come from students who do not seem to be college-ready and should probably spend a year or two at community college before entering a 4 year institution. Of course we get LOTS of questions from all levels on pretty basic computer/tech issues, which only strengthens my position that younger people are not as tech savvy as the world would lead us to believe. But they catch on quickly.

  19. I agree with Beth but sometimes we can see assignments that are not clearly written. This is a time that we can talk with the professor and explain to him/her more what the library can offer and discuss information literacy more. Sometimes it is true that the student needs more preparation but sometimes it is the professor that needs our help.

  20. We over in Asia do have the same problem although not as often. And we dont have the luxury of a tutoring centre. Yes, we are not crutches. I think all librarians have this inate desire to help as much as we can so when we are faced with a question that we know we should not help, we feel uncomfortable about it.

    Here is what I usually do:
    1. Ask them questions about their assignment. By asking questions about the assignment I am getting the student to think about it. I would also tell him that I asking questions because I am not a subject specialist and this is my way of understanding his question so that I can help him. This puts him at ease and encourages him to talk.

    For eg. if the assignment requires an analysis of factors that affect the failure of a project, I will ask the student “What are these factors? Are they resource-related? Could the factors be linked to the project leader?”

    2. The last 2 quesions will get them thinking. If the student continues to say he does not know, then, I would refer him back to the lecturer. I have to make it clear to him that my referring him back is because he needs to know the content before he proceeds to analyze.

    3. The whole point is to ensure that we are able to discern whether it is a content/subject question. This is where drawing the line occurs.

    4. Some of us would like to help and treat it like a learning experience for ourselves. I think we need very careful as we risk misinforming and giving the student a crutch when he needs to learn.

    Hope this helps.

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