Achilles’ Heel?, or Coping Strategies Turned Strengths

I stumbled across this article the other day. The gist is that leaders can and should embrace their confusion when confronted with illogical situations. Whereas some might see confusion as a liability to be concealed or let confusion debilitate them, strong leaders embrace their confusion as a productive tool. The author suggests that the Reflective Inquiry and Action (RIA) framework can help folks negotiate and use confusion effectively. The five steps outlined in the RIA framework — “embrace your confusion,” “assert your need to make sense,” “structure the conversation,” “listen reflectively and learn,” and “process your response aloud” — feel like common sense really. Looking back, I can recognize some of my own attempts to navigate these steps and can see how productive they were for not only overcoming confusion, but for building relationships with colleagues, too. 

It makes me think about other techniques I’ve embraced — the organizational approaches I use, for example, to help me grab hold and make sense of the thoughts buzzing around in my brain. The reflective techniques I practice when I feel muddled. They’re coping strategies, really, that I’ve adopted to help navigate my work, my thinking, my overwhelm. They’re born out of a need to manage what have definitely felt like long-time weaknesses. But I can also see now that using and refining these organizational and metacognitive techniques over the years has actually turned them into strengths. These have become ways of working, ways of thinking that are powerful and constructive. 

I’ve often heard colleagues both in and out of the library describe how little formal education or training they had to prepare them for their teaching responsibilities. While I had the benefit of a bit of educational theory as an undergrad and a grad school class that gave a nod to teaching, I would largely characterize my own teaching preparation the same way — it’s been a learn-as-you-go situation. I can see how the organizational and metacognitive skills I’ve been developing have also served me well here, giving me a lens through which to examine and reflect on the why, how, and what of teaching and a foundation from which to develop pedagogical approaches. What started as experimentation with personal note taking techniques, for example, has evolved into strategies for working with students to grow their own brainstorming and organizational techniques as they develop topics, consider the different angles embedded in their questions, and manage the sources they’re using to explore those perspectives. The reflective techniques I use to process my own work have helped me introduce metacognitive practices into my teaching — to talk with students about why and how to use those brainstorming and organizational techniques, for example, or as a tool to direct students’ attention and reflection. 

I came to administrative and supervisory positions with little formal training either. And here, too, I’ve been able to translate and further grow these coping strategies turned skills, whether for facilitating collaborative decision-making processes or mentoring a colleague or setting priorities. It turns out these skills — skills for sense-making, really — can be cultivated to be a productive foundation across domains.

I’m about to take on some additional administrative responsibilities so it’s no surprise that my thoughts are lingering around questions of weakness and strength, questions of preparedness. I’ve reflected before on how truly powerful these kinds of “soft” skills are. It strikes me anew how important perception and attitude are in making good use of those soft skills. I feel I’m venturing into Pollyanna, let’s-make-lemonade-out-of-our-lemons territory here and that’s not my intention or not exactly. I just mean that frame of mind and point of view can make all the difference in setting the tone for how we approach a problem or a weakness, how we make use of what we’ve got. 

This all made me think of that statistic I’ve seen cited so often — the one about how women are less likely to apply for jobs than men if they feel they don’t meet 100% of the qualifications. Looking for that source just now, I came across this Harvard Business Review article. While the author doesn’t deny that women may need to build more confidence, which is how I’ve often heard that statistic interpreted, she layers on some additional dimensions. She contends that it’s not just a lack of confidence, but also too strict an adherence to what women see as the rules of hiring. “They thought that the required qualifications were…well, required qualifications. They didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.” I think it’s that “creative approach to framing one’s expertise” bit that really applies here. We might already be cultivating the skills we need. We might be more ready than we think we are. We just have to recognize our strengths and put them to use.

What is “research,” anyway?

I’ve been thinking recently (or maybe my whole career) about what the word “research” actually means. It’s a word I use frequently: in conversation, in the classroom, in one-on-one consultations. And broadly, too — in relation to acts of inquiry and information seeking, large and small, whether I’m helping a student look for an article for a discussion board post or mentoring a student working on designing their own semester-long study. I like the sense of intention the word engenders, the space it creates for reflection on process, how it helps us think about such work in terms of concepts, not just clicks.

It was some years ago, early in my career at my former institution in a reference and instruction librarian position, when I got my first inkling that my expansive use of the word “research” could feel prickly to others. I remember sensing, on a few occasions, some tension or territoriality with faculty. I think their concern stemmed from anxiety about the library’s possible infringement on their autonomy or their domain expertise. Being mindful to define my scope and intentions — specifying “research” as “library research” or research skills as “information literacy skills or concepts” and acknowledging “research” as a larger umbrella — seemed to help. 

Some years ago, when I first came into my current institution and position, I was eager to connect with my new colleagues around our undergraduate research program. Helping support and grow this program at my campus has since become a priority area for me. This work has also given me further perspective on another kind of disconnect, wherein I continue to use “research” expansively and some prefer to preserve the integrity of the term for the highest levels of inquiry and the most independent work. To me, though, it continues to feel both relevant and important to use the word early and often in order to show how small acts of inquiry can be part of a developmental spectrum, a way to build stepping stones to the ultimate “undergraduate research.” 

In the last year or two, the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR), a leader in this arena, updated their definition of “undergraduate research.” Their earlier definition — “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” — always gave me pause. It seems to me very much in the vein of reserving “research” for the loftiest pursuits. And that bit about “original,” especially, always tripped me up — a tall order and is that the point anyway? Their new definition feels more on track to me: “Undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative inquiry is fundamentally a pedagogical approach to teaching and learning. With an emphasis on process, CUR defines undergraduate research as: A mentored investigation or creative inquiry conducted by undergraduates that seeks to make a scholarly or artistic contribution to knowledge.” The revised version suggests that undergraduate research is much more about process and less about product, aligning with that developmental lens I’m aiming to foreground and justifying the use of “research” more broadly.

This all makes me think, too, about the podcast that my colleague and I have been working on, “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” (Shameless plug: you can find season 1 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts. Season 2 coming soon!) We started “From Concept to Creation” because we think it’s important to share stories about research and inquiry — not just the what, but the why and the how. So often, when we talk about research, we just talk about the final polished product, our findings or outcomes. Those final products and takeaways are of course important, but our goal here is to take a peek behind the curtain to see how folks get from start to finish. By uncovering the steps, increasing the transparency of the processes of research and inquiry — the parts that are so often hidden from view — we think those projects and paths become more approachable to everyone. 

And that’s really the larger point behind this wordsmithing, or nit-picking some might say. It seems to me that framing even small acts of information seeking or other small forays into inquiry as “research” lends them a kind of gravity; it enlarges our thinking and can empower students to engage. 

I’d love to hear how you approach, define, and use the word research in an undergraduate context (or otherwise). Please share your thoughts in the comments.

So-called “soft” skills

A few months ago, I attended the teaching demonstration of a candidate interviewing for a position at my campus. The topic of her demonstration was motivational interviewing in the healthcare context. As I understand it, motivational interviewing is a technique that healthcare practitioners use with patients to inspire change in their health-related behaviors–quitting smoking, for example. The goal of this approach is to help uncover and employ the patients’ own motivations for change. Miller and Rollnick describe the different styles of “helping conversations as lying along a continuum,” from “directing” style on one end to “following” style on the other. They place “guiding” style, of which motivational interviewing is part, in the middle, describing a skillful guide as a “good listener … [who] also offers expertise where needed.” 

Motivational interviewing uses four core skills known as OARS: open questioning, affirming, reflecting, and summarizing. The candidate showed us two videos to illustrate motivational interviewing and OARS in practice. In the first video, demonstrating a non-motivational approach, the physician exhibits a rather confrontational style. In the second video, demonstrating a motivational approach, the physician’s OARS skills are readily apparent.  

I wasn’t previously acquainted with the term motivational interviewing, but its meaning and practice felt quite familiar, making me think first of the reference interview. Of course, there are obvious differences between the healthcare and library contexts, but there seem to be some notable similarities between their principles and techniques. Both, for example, are driven by careful, active listening and marked by an open attitude as well as empathy and respect for the patient/user. Effective use of these techniques–no easy task–is essential for facilitating successful communication, learning, and change. 

My thoughts went next to a podcasting project I’ve been working on with a colleague for the past year and a half or so. The gist here is that we chat with guests about their research and inquiry-based projects or professional paths, attempting to uncover the steps, skills, behaviors, and attitudes essential to the process of research and creative accomplishments. (You can find season 1 on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.) This has been a challenging project in many ways. For one, this is totally new territory for us and the learning curve has felt steep at times. It’s also challenging in that it feels rather uncomfortable to put ourselves out there in this way (kind of like blogging, really). Listening back to the conversations we’ve had with our lovely and accomplished guests during the season 1 editing process, it was funny (read: embarrassing, torturous) to hear myself stumble or blather as I tried to ask questions or make connections, to notice how many noises I made without even realizing–an mm-hmm here, an uh-huh there–to show I’m invested and listening. But looking back on these recordings through this lens now gives me new appreciation for how truly crucial questioning and listening skills are, what an impact they make on the connection between speaker and listener in the moment and on the quality of the conversation. 

And then, a few weeks ago at the LOEX conference, I delivered a presentation that was in large part a reflection on the changes I’ve made to how I teach over the course of my career so far in order to support students’ more conceptual and strategic understanding of information literacy and deepen my own teaching practice. Reflecting on my teaching trajectory to prepare that presentation gave me a fresh perspective on some of the most transformative changes and stages along the way: applying constructivist and metacognitive practices and using active learning and formative assessment methods. Thinking about these milestones again now shows me how deeply embedded this questioning, listening, and guiding thread is in these pedagogical approaches and, therefore, in my teaching. 

I’m struck now, as I follow this thread through domains of my work, by how important these questioning, listening, and guiding techniques–skills, really–are to me in all areas of my professional, not to mention personal, practice. How foundational they are to the way I operate in the world, or at least the way I want to. It feels too self-important to call it an ethic, but this foundation of careful and active listening with an open attitude, empathy, and respect does seem rather like a way of working to aspire to, to practice. 

In thinking anew here about the value and essentialness of these skills to me, I can’t help but also think about how invisible–or perhaps overlooked, undervalued–they are. “Soft skills,” they’re sometimes called–a term used to refer to a wide range of abilities, questioning and listening as well as leadership and teamwork to public speaking and professional writing to emotional awareness and adaptability and plenty more. I have to say, I’ve long disliked the term. While perhaps not the original intention, it seems to me that the “soft” label implies that such skills can be easily achieved, as in the opposite of “hard.” Or perhaps “soft” gives the impression of being weak and, as such, less important or less desirable. I’m not alone in wanting to re-brand these essential abilities. Some recent articles (like here and here) suggest “power skills” instead, for example–a change that would more appropriately convey their significance. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that these skills are, in fact, my lifeblood, infusing every domain, every interaction. And maybe that’s the key to seeing “soft” from a different angle. Soft as in fleshy, meaty, meaning substantive and weighty. Soft as in flexible, meaning adaptable to any context. And soft as in without boundaries, meaning permeating and, therefore, penetrating. Powerful, indeed.

Navigating Hard Times in the Higher Ed Landscape

We’ve been experiencing some staffing issues on my team in recent months. While these issues have been difficult to navigate, they are (fingers crossed) temporary and the end is in sight. (Maybe I’ll knock on wood, too, for good measure.) At the same time, though, we’re confronting broader and more lasting budget, staffing, and workload issues across my organization. While the particulars of these challenges might be specific to my institution, it seems that we’re all dealing with related barriers, delays, and diversions (or full-on road closures, perhaps, to take this metaphor further) across higher ed. It’s my turn to coordinate a collaborative post and I’m curious to hear from my fellow ACRLoggers about how they’re working through some of the questions and dilemmas inherent in this difficult landscape. Readers, we’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences, too, in the comments. 

How does communication around budget and staffing challenges happen at your institution? What about those communication practices works well? What changes to communication practices do you think would be helpful? 

Angie: I think greater transparency and assessment is needed around the question of whether to invest in new hires or improve compensation for existing staff. Offers for new hires present certain challenges to compensation equity. But for lots of reasons I can imagine this a path of least resistance compared to a process of examining the inequities across existing staff compensation–nevermind the additional workload distributed to staff as a result of turnover. It’s also tricky, though, when transparency is intertwined with needs for confidentiality. And conversely, when transparency of that inequity can exacerbate morale issues inherent in this. Practices that could be helpful might focus transparency around the factors influencing both ends of these decisions. I also think it will be imperative to address those factors through the more diverse and complex lens of individual equitability over systemic (in)equality. 

Hailley: Our institution is facing budget challenges so it has been a topic of conversation in just about every group I’m a part of. Our Dean has been good about providing budget updates to the Leadership Team (which I’m a part of) and through regular email updates to the entire library. Even if the news is “There is no new news” it’s good to feel like we know as much as we can, at a moment where things are constantly changing and shifting. I think a challenge that exists in these situations is finding the right balance; you want folks to feel like they are “in the know” but you also don’t want to overwhelm with information or constant updates. Finding that sweet spot with frequency is a challenge and I think so much of it depends on the situation, the organization, and the trust a leader (or leaders) have with their people.  

Jen: I agree with Angie and Hailley that transparency and frequency of communication are key considerations here. I’m happy to say that leaders in my library system are practicing both; they’re regularly providing information on what’s happening within the library organization and across the university. My institution is huge and I think size, as Hailley alluded to, can be a complicating factor in all this. Despite any leader’s best efforts, there are bound to be gaps and oversights in communication. Inevitably, some of us won’t be privy to the details and confidences of those top-level or nitty gritty conversations yet we still feel the effects of them–budget cuts or staffing shortages or what have you–on a regular basis, even daily. That contrast can make it easy to feel overlooked and undervalued. I think it’s important to remember how important it is for us to speak up. I, for one, know I can sometimes get tunnel vision in my middle management position (that also includes daily service desk responsibilities and instruction), just trying to uphold our team’s responsibilities and meet users’ needs. I sometimes forget that administrators aren’t seeing what I’m seeing and that the on-the-ground perspectives I can offer are essential. And administrators, even those with the best intentions, may sometimes assume or forget to ask how their difficult decisions are playing out in the day-to-day reality of our work. It’s up to us to tell them.

Justin: Agreed with everyone else for the need for transparency and communication. Our University Librarian and other members of the library admin team regularly present to our Librarians’ Council on current and upcoming staffing changes and challenges. This gives librarians context and a chance to ask questions about any staffing issues coming up in our library system. As well, every winter our University Librarian shares her budget presentation with all library staff. This gives us a great look into the direction of the library and any budget constraints that present challenges. Again, this gives library staff the opportunity to ask questions and get greater clarity on the library’s budget. 

Is your organization experimenting with any new models or practices to address staffing issues? What ideas would you like to try if you could?

Angie: In addition to an increase in staff turnover, my library (and probably yours) is finding fewer candidates applying for the positions that we can advertise. At the convergence of these two realities, effects on staff workload and hiring practices certainly require rethinking. In hiring, I’ve been asked to consider what experience and skills I can realistically expect to attract, for example. What represents a full time need, and how do we address that need when it is not?  What at a given moment do I have the resources to train for, or train quickly enough? And that answer may be different at different times. Current approaches to developing position advertisements as well and how we maintain current position descriptions has involved a lot of rethinking and re-translating skills, and seeking experience that might fall outside of the traditional library contexts. I recently advertised and hired a license specialist position, in which for the first time we explicitly sought legal expertise in the requirements. Also a first, I included my general counsel in the interview process, and learned that it is not uncommon across the University to find professionals with law degrees not working as lawyers. As librarians, with many diverse credentials and career backgrounds, this should not surprise us. Take advantage of (in the best sense, and equitably compensating for) the fact that many people may seek to leverage their careers and expertise in different ways. 

Hailley: One of the hats I wear in my role is helping to coordinate our reference services. One commitment we as coordinators made this spring was if we lose librarians, we won’t try to stretch ourselves thin by covering desk and consultation gaps. We got to put this promise into action at the end of February when one of our colleagues left for another job. We reviewed the schedule, used our reference data to identify the popular times at the desk, and made the decision to cut back on hours. We worked with folks to rearrange a few schedules, with an eye towards creating a consistent experience for our users and student employees. It felt good to have the data to make an informed decision and also to not ask folks to do even more with less (a phrase I’m never really a fan of). 

Jen: Managing the multiple long-term absences on my team these past few months has meant that I’ve needed to take over primary responsibility for many key circulation workflows. Historically, I’ve done these jobs rarely, if at all, so I’ve had to learn or re-learn a number of procedures — and make room for them in my schedule. Thankfully, as I mentioned, my small library is part of a huge system so I’ve been able to ask my colleagues at other locations who are already skilled in these areas for guidance when needed. This is a clear advantage of a large organization like mine. While each of our locations and populations is unique, there are certainly similarities in positions and responsibilities, making it easier to get help. It makes sense, then, that there’s talk about how we might share work and positions across locations–whether as a way to fill a gap while someone is away or as a nature of the position itself (and a cost-saving measure). Still, though, as long as we have physical spaces and students on site, we need people here, too. And with such lean staffing already, I struggle to think about new ways to reorganize our team. There’s a limit to what we can do with only so many hours in the day and so much on our plates already. I think we need to be realistic, as Angie and Hailley are also suggesting, about reducing hours or programming or what have you. At the same time, though, I’m thinking about ways to better recognize and reward the range of responsibilities my colleagues have, at both individual and structural levels. How can I show my appreciation better? How can I support their work better? What can I do to enhance their decision-making power? 

Justin: At the University of Manitoba Libraries, we’re moving to more centralized and universal positions, both with library technicians and librarians; there’s less emphasis on specialization. This allows library services to be spread among a greater pool of staff and while subject specialty and expertise still plays a role, for certain services it’s easier to spread the load among the full complement of our librarians. One issue we’ve had with librarians is with leaves – both research and parental leaves – and retirements. These create holes throughout our library system, which other librarians have to cover, which is especially problematic if specific libraries or departments have fewer librarians. We’ve begun hiring leave/vacancy replacement librarians who are hired on terms, with the intent to cover for positions which are temporarily vacant due to leaves or retirements. As an entry-level librarian, these term positions are great to get experience, but you always have an eye to getting a permanent position. Regardless, it’s a good ‘stop-gap’ to not only get more entry-level librarian positions, but also to help continuing librarians manage their workload.

Veronica: Staffing issues were one of the major drivers of the dissolution of our liaison program and department in 2021. People were retiring or moving and we weren’t getting those positions back. We didn’t have a 1:1 ratio of liaisons to colleges, much less departments, and workload imbalance among librarians was a huge area of concern.  Our liaison program was unsustainable so we dissolved that department in favor of 3 functional departments: Research Services, Teaching and Learning (which I oversee), and Collections Strategies and Services. This gave librarians the opportunity to focus on a functional area of expertise and allowed for more consistency around services. 

When staffing issues mean workload issues or budget issues call for hard decisions, how do you, your team, or your organization adjust expectations and/or (re-)prioritize? 

Hailley: I’ve been thinking about this a lot as a department head. When I meet one-on-one with folks in the department, I continue to ask them about their workload and where they are placing their time and energy. This gives me a pulse on the unit and I have a better sense of what we as a team can do (both in the short and long term). I’ve also been better about extending timelines and deadlines. Everything doesn’t have to be done immediately. I’m trying to be better about thinking through the semester rhythms and the larger priorities for the library and assign work accordingly. Finally, I think talking about workload and uncertainty as a team is so important. We have to acknowledge that things are difficult and the team might need to make difficult decisions in the upcoming months. If we are able to come together as a team and set our sights on what is important, I think that helps make prioritization clearer.  

Jen: Hailley’s comments about getting a sense of the big picture and practicing open communication for shared understanding about priorities in order to make these challenging decisions resonate with me, as well. I’m reflecting on the kinds of questions I’ve used to inform this kind of prioritization and it seems that they center around considering the stakes involved… Who will be impacted? How and to what degree? Is this central to our mission? What are the trade-offs? What is lost and what is gained? 

Justin: Being in a liaison librarian position, I’m not typically involved in high-level decision-making regarding system-wide priorities due to staffing or budget challenges. I would hope that decision makers from all levels of academic libraries weigh and measure priorities and make a short- and long-term plan to address the questions that Jen poses. I really appreciate the times when I have the chance to provide input and feedback into addressing our library’s overarching mission, goals, and priorities,—and especially when there’s internal and external pressures, whether that’s staffing or budget—it feels rewarding to help guide the direction of your library.

Veronica: I have a colleague who introduced me to the idea of “right-sizing,” as in, when you lose people to new career opportunities, retirements, or budget cuts, you need to right-size your department. There is literally no way that 3 people can accomplish the same level of work as that done by 10 people. This is when departmental work has to change. Certain things will just not get done, and that is an indicator to the greater campus community that the budget sacrifices made by a library or university have an impact on library services and resources. As Hailley mentioned, it’s important to stay informed on the status of workload for the librarians you supervise (if you supervise) and ensure that they are doing the job they were hired to do, rather than the job of 2-3 people without additional compensation. 

We’d love to hear how things are going at your institution and how you’re navigating budget, staffing, and workload challenges. We hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.

Story Swap

“If a picture is worth a thousand words,
then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures.”
-George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

In this collaborative post from our ACRLog team, we’re sharing some of the “stories”–allegories, analogies, anecdotes, images, memes, metaphors, and more–that we use across the domains of our work to make abstract concepts more concrete, prompt meaning making, demonstrate relevance, communicate impact, bring a dry concept to life, or simply connect with our colleagues, users, and stakeholders.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to information literacy and research skills?

[Jen] I’ve recently become very interested in using stories as a pedagogical technique. I don’t have a large repository of stories to call on yet, but a few examples I’ve been using to good effect come to mind:

  • Source integration – Images of a container ship and a cargo train help me illustrate the goal of synthesizing sources in a literature review versus stringing them together one-by-one. I start with the train photo and ask students to imagine that each container on the train is a source. I describe how the train illustrates a style of writing where the author treats each source individually–the author might summarize, analyze, or otherwise comment on each source one by one in a long string of paragraphs. By contrast, I note that the ship is full of the same containers (i.e., sources) as the train but draw students’ attention to how the containers are instead stacked in groups, that each column is made up of many containers. In this image, I suggest that each container still represents a source but a paragraph is this time represented by a column of containers illustrating the goal of weaving sources together for more skillful analysis and writing around themes across sources.
  • Source evaluation – Wineburg and McGrew’s study serves as an anecdote regarding approaches to source evaluation (as well as the idea of relative, or domain, expertise on occasion). The researchers observed 45 people evaluating websites: historians with PhDs, Stanford University undergraduates, and professional fact checkers. When I ask students to guess which group was best at evaluating information, they typically vote for the historians with PhDs. Yet findings showed that the “fact checkers arrived at more warranted conclusions in a fraction of the time.” A primary difference in their approach? Fact checkers read laterally, not vertically. Because lateral reading is a departure from the kinds of information evaluation that are commonly taught to high school students, this story helps illustrate the effectiveness of an unfamiliar approach.  

I’m motivated to use stories more (and to better effect) in my classes because I think it can be so powerful; the sense of clarity and connection these stories can offer for students is incredibly productive and gratifying.

[Alex] I have referred to truncation as “my favorite library magic trick” when demonstrating searches in databases, and it’s true! It’s such a simple thing to do but can really change the list of results you get back. I also refer to it as advanced… I don’t normally go into the details of truncation until the learners I’m addressing have mastered some of the other concepts like Boolean operators and selecting keywords. But when I do introduce truncation, I love to tell this story. I was working with someone who needed information on radiation and adjuvant chemotherapy. Looking at my list of search terms, I saw radiation, radiotherapy, radiation therapy, etc… so I thought, truncation time! Radi*, easy. Because of the complexity of the rest of the search, there were about two pages of results so I looked through all of them and behold, one of them was about… radishes. You can’t anticipate every possibility when you truncate, but that one was a real surprise. Truncate responsibly, everyone!

[Justin] I like to use the metaphor of gardening for the research process:  

  • Prep your garden: determine a topic and a focused research statement or question, along with background research.  
  • Care for your garden as it grows: identify keywords, makes a list of databases and sites to find information, create search strings, and save sources.  
  • Inspect your produce: evaluate your sources for relevance and credibility.
  • Cook! Use your sources in your writing to make something new.
  • Modify your approach if nothing is growing.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to teaching and learning more broadly?

[Alex] This is so common it hardly feels like a story or metaphor but teachers as coaches is such a great framework. I can run you through practicing a skill, I can tell you the plays, but I can’t make the shot for you from the sidelines. You have to be able to apply what we did in practice while you’re on the court.

I’ve also used my experience as a DM for Dungeons & Dragons to explain outlining activities and learning objectives for a class. (Not to students, to other educators.) If you tell your players “you’re going to go here and do this, then go here and do this, ad nauseum” that’s called railroading and it isn’t as much fun as letting the players make decisions for themselves. Giving them multiple threads to follow and seeing what they value and decide to do is part of the game! Same goes for the classroom: here are all the objectives we need to meet, but you can help me decide which one we’re going to address next, and exactly how that’s going to look.

[Justin] I’ve used the example of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”. One of my favourite ways to illustrate the hero’s journey is using Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. I find it relates to learning quite well: there’s a problem, you set out on your journey with help from mentors, there’s transformation and atonement (and learning a lesson?!) and finally return. 

[Jen] I’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the past few years out of an anecdote I’ve drawn from Carrie Brownstein’s memoir in which she reflected on some of the key experiences of her adolescence that helped shape her as a musician. In short, Brownstein first described how enthralled she felt watching pop music giants perform in stadium-sized venues. The spectacle of those huge performances entranced and inspired her but they felt opaque and unattainable. “I had no idea how it [the music] had been assembled or how to break it apart,” she wrote. “I remained merely a fan …with no means of claiming the sounds as my own.” Brownstein went on to describe her experiences a few years later, this time at shows in small clubs. Here, Brownstein could get close to the musicians and observe their techniques and interactions. This is my favorite quote about her realization: “It seems obvious, but it was the first time I realized that music was playable, not just performable—that it had a process.” To me, her story showcases the power of uncovering process. At huge, heavily produced shows, she was an onlooker with no discernible entry point for her own participation. When the making of the music and the performances’ component parts were made visible at smaller shows, the performances felt more accessible and attainable; Brownstein could imagine doing it for herself. I’ve used this story time and again– when consulting with faculty on the design of research assignments, for example–to illustrate the power of uncovering the process of scholarly and creative work rather than focusing on polished products.

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate concepts related to library services, procedures, workflows?

[Maura] As a director I often find myself having to explain our work in the library to faculty and administrators on campus in a range of contexts: as library faculty progress through the tenure track, when sharing the institutional questions we get at our service desks in the library with Student Affairs staff, and especially when advocating to fill vacant faculty and staff lines in the library. The analogy I’ve found most useful is from the restaurant world: front of the house for Public Services, and back of the house for Technical Services/Technology. In my previous position I worked at a college that offered Hospitality Management degrees and this analogy was widely understood across campus. But with greater visibility in the media into food and restaurant services over the past few decades I think it could be a useful analogy for anyone trying to make visible the often invisible work that keeps the library functioning. 

[Justin] I’ve heard an interesting comparison from a friend of a librarian’s role to What We Do In The Shadows: there’s so much intellectual work happening behind the scenes, that not all of our students and faculty know about or are aware of. 

[Jen] I just started a new book and was struck by the proverb that the author used as an epigraph: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” I’ve never personally used this proverb although I’m sure I’ve heard it before. But I’m thinking about it with fresh eyes through the lens of this post’s theme. It seems to me that it might serve as a “story” to illustrate the interconnectedness of different domains within library work not to mention the value and importance of the many small details in our day-to-day work. 

What stories do you use (or have you heard) to help illustrate library impact and value?

[Justin] My friend mentioned the metaphor of weight of books to me recently. He’s interested in knowing how much our library collection weighs – why? I have no clue. But he’s right: it makes for an interesting metaphor of the weight of information.

[Hailley] I’ve been recently working on updating our library’s mission and vision statement. In our revision, we did a lot of looking at other library mission and vision statements and the idea that kept coming up is how the library is the “heart of the university.” I don’t have any brilliant thoughts on this at the moment, but it’s definitely a phrase I’ve been thinking about and thinking about if this phrase is useful in defining the impact, value, and place the library has at an institution. 

What stories do you use? To what effect? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.