ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Chelsea Heinbach, MLIS student at the University of Denver; Cyndi Landis, MLIS student at Emporia State University, and Alison Hicks, faculty at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
How can we bridge the divide between learning about library instruction and engaging more concretely with a teaching librarian’s values and responsibilities? This was the question that drove the design of a writing assignment in our recent library instruction course at the University of Denver, and that we have been grappling with since the semester ended. Designed to mimic a core part of many academic teaching librarian positions, as well as to involve students more closely with teaching librarian communities, the assignment asked students to write a 3000 word essay that was peer-reviewed by librarians in the field, and published as an Open Access book.
Drawing from the idea of publishing as pedagogy, as well as sociocultural learning theories that emphasize participation rather than imitation, students were excited to mold the assignment on the first day of class. At the same time, the prospect of writing for a broad audience at this stage of a career was very different from previous LIS program experiences. This blogpost serves to explore the experiences of two MLIS students who participated in this project, Chelsea Heinbach (University of Denver) and Cyndi Landis (Emporia State University), as well as attempting to reflect on the role and nature of instruction librarian education today.
Merging practice and theory
The MLIS degree is largely practical in nature. As academic librarians in training we talk about publishing as well as open access, conferences, and peer review, but there is often little room built in for identifying our own place in these processes. While there are opportunities to publish as a student, there are rarely chances in class to simulate the peer review process and to treat our work as serious academic contributions. The future regarding our own publishing remains abstract for the entirety of our master’s degree and there are few chances to explore our professional writing goals and ideas. This assignment offered us valuable mentorship in academic writing, extensive and thoughtful suggestions for improvement, as well as an opportunity to explore our professional identity in a supportive environment.
As a graduate student, there is pressure to have something on your resume to make you stand out among the pool of job applicants. We each scramble to find that extra separator to distinguish ourselves from others or at least to fill in the blanks of which accomplishments we think we should have by now. This assignment was something we could be proud of and use to prove ourselves.
Excitement and intimidation swept over us as we began to research and select our instruction topics. What did we want to know as a future teaching librarian? What could we research to make this open access book contribution count? This assignment was the opportunity we’d been waiting for throughout our graduate school experience – a professional introduction into scholarship that was guided and supported rather than just an assignment to be completed and tucked away in our personal portfolio.
Unlike most research papers throughout our LIS programs, this assignment would be shared with professionals beyond the student-teacher relationship. Not only would library professionals assist in the peer-review process, but the open access book would later be promoted within the LIS field as an example of this unique approach. This exercise was designed to emulate what research could be like in the “real-world”. Even the peer reviewers wished they had a similar opportunity when they were in school.
While we recognized this as a valuable opportunity that we were excited to engage with, we also grew nervous about the implications. With the permanence of this piece weighing heavy on each step of the writing and research process, we began to unravel the pieces of its potentially lasting effects. What topic would best fit our future career goals? Would it be something we could use to start building our curriculum vitae? Throughout the assignment, we felt the reality of this valuable opportunity sinking in, causing us to reflect hesitantly on the formation of our professional identity and our overall contributions to the field.
As we received feedback from our instructor and reviewer, the constructive comments revealed areas for improvement. Our wandering thoughts now had direction and our emphatic assertions were paired within the context of practicing librarians; we had a glimpse into our book’s audience and we could refine our papers with confidence.Throughout our academic careers, we had rarely received the opportunity to improve our scholarly writing within the assignment, or even within the course. The peer-review process gave us genuine, productive feedback to revise our paper before submitting the final piece for publication.
The feedback was two-fold, receiving detailed comments from Alison and our peer-reviewer. Comments ranged from pointing out areas to improve writing clarity, to making connections to concepts that we hadn’t seen before, and suggesting other sources to use for a broader perspective. As we are not yet practicing librarians, we found that some of the issues we wanted to discuss are already common knowledge in the profession. The reviewers’ comments provided the insight of instruction practitioners, helping us identify what truly needed further discussion and what research conclusions would prove helpful to our professional audience.
The level of detail in the feedback given in this assignment highlighted the lack of response have routinely received throughout our academic careers. With a few exceptions, we have rarely received suggestions for improvement on our work and instead have simply received a grade. After pouring hours into research and writing, a final grade isn’t as satisfying as encouragement and thoughtful recommendations for further development. Up until this point, some of our most demanding academic work stemmed from our expectations of ourselves and our future goals.
This assignment, therefore, provided a welcome break from the standard dynamic, as it gave us an opportunity to explore and assert our views in a way that felt more impactful than a simple class paper. It was encouraging to be taken seriously by a professional in the field and to have the opportunity to contribute to such a unique project.
However, after the excitement of the opportunity wore off, we realized we felt nervous about moving from passively reading the literature to owning our own viewpoints. This class is a mere ten weeks long and, as students, many of us are balancing multiple jobs, volunteer positions, job applications, committee obligations, and other classes. In addition, the academic library world can feel like an overwhelmingly polarized place where work is judged and dismissed openly and critically. While these conversations lead us to important awakenings regarding issues in the profession, we found it difficult to feel comfortable as students making assertions when we were still developing our own positions. Perhaps this was simply due to overzealous imposter syndrome, but it is why some of us ultimately focused on topics that were not overwhelmingly controversial, and decided against making an obvious political statement with our work.
In the end, this pressure to cultivate raw ideas and develop work that would be seen led to a more genuine interaction with the content than we have had in most other classes. Ultimately, it helped us develop our professional research goals in a more concrete and granular way, giving us a better understanding of publishing demands. At the same time, the intersection between student research and professional practice exposed some eye-opening issues that arise for LIS students. We are taught general theories of librarianship and given research assignments with little guidance of whether our conclusions and assertions are appropriate in the context of the challenges professionals face. To combat this block between the classroom and our professional careers, one of the most beneficial experiences we can have during library school is a mentor in our chosen area of librarianship.
We really appreciated the feedback and we encourage librarians to seek out opportunities to mentor LIS students, to share their professional experiences, and to help to bridge the divide between theory and practice. This project enlisted an enthusiastic group of librarian reviewers, who we recognize as invisible laborers behind its success. We are grateful to them for their collaborative participation and commitment to bettering LIS student work through this publishing practice. Lastly, this memorable assignment would not have been possible without Alison’s insightful vision, reviewer matchmaking, and endless encouragement. When students and professionals engage in dialogue, it fuels our profession with a stronger foundation of new ideas and perspectives.
Advice and suggestions for future improvements
For anyone who is interested in building upon this assignment, we would offer the following advice:
- Scaffold: The assignment built in plenty of drafting time so the peer review really helped to edit and shape the final essays. At the same time, many students found that choosing a relevant topic was tough. We suggest plenty of class discussion about potential directions, as well as interviewing a professional before starting in order to get guidance.
- Workshop: Our class did not build in any in-class workshopping, but that could have made the delivery of the first draft less stressful. The process of reviewing other people’s work is always helpful for writers to experience, too.
- Connect: This assignment was strengthened through the matching of reviewers with paper topics about which they were knowledgeable. Although the entire process was double blind,we found that this expertise, as well as the sincerity that the reviewers brought to the assignment, added considerably to the development of the second draft.