Building a Pedagogy

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pedagogy. To tell you the truth, throughout graduate school I thought very infrequently about pedagogy, assuming that even as an instruction librarian, something as theoretical as pedagogy would be outside of my professional bounds. Though the instruction course offered at my university did touch on the aspects of designing an information literacy curriculum, it was a far cry from being a course in pedagogy. In fact, as librarians, we often become so overworked in our day-to-day tasks of making sure our resources and services are accessible, we can forget that first and foremost, we are educators. And like any highly skilled educators, having a strong grounding in pedagogy is essential to our job.

Pedagogy is, simply, the art of education. It is how we teach, how we connect students to the curriculum, and how we position students to be learners. Pedagogy is the beating heart of the teaching professions. I come from a strong social science background, particularly one poised to challenge and investigate systems of the status quo. I spent all of my undergraduate years studying the prison industrial complex from a gender perspective and my favorite courses in library school were on the politics of classification and knowledge production. Not surprisingly, then, I tend to frame my own librarian practice within a framework of social progress and have only recently begun to consider how to use this framework in library instruction. Yes, I want my students to be skilled in information seeking, but I also want them to be willing and able to think critically about information and the politics through which it’s produced. I take my pedagogy cues from the likes of Freire, hooks, Zinn – in other words, I want my students to be rabble rousers.

I am extremely lucky to be part of an institution with which I share these strong social convictions. My university’s commitment to social justice and radical learning is at the core of all it does, including its library instruction. I, along with the library director, have recently begun developing a comprehensive information literacy curriculum for the library. How can we reframe the ACRL Information Literacy Standards to a more critical perspective? We always have and will continue to have the one-shot in-class library workshops, but we are starting to strategically envision what skills and concepts we want to consistently deliver. In addition to the traditional keyword-forming, full-text finding skills, how can we give students the skills to think critically about the information they both find and can’t find? How can I open the discussion about the problematic nature of academic publishing? Where is the room for this agenda? It’s a lot to fit in the 50-minute one-shot.

I am in no way the first person to think about this. Many, many books have been published on this topic and continue to be published. And, indeed, many of the student-centered, critical strategies involve very few bells and whistles. A few ideas that have left me inspired:

  • include critical reading skills in every workshop. As simple as that! It is as important as knowing how to properly cite a resource or construct a search term.
  • Have students search for articles on a purposefully controversial topic, like the link between autism and vaccines. Have them note what information is in the peer-reviewed literature, what stance it tends to take, the methodologies it tends to employ, and where alternatives may exist.
  • Show students how to find and use open-access journals and repositories. The few times I’ve done this, I’ve vetted these sources to ensure they are of high quality and repute (and explain that I’ve done so, using which criteria).
  • Change the way I organize my lessons. Instead of PowerPoints, I try to structure the lesson according to student suggestions and examples.
  • Leave the more traditional information literacy skills to Lib Guides and other digital learning objects. I’d rather spend my precious face-to-face time on the more nuanced aspects of information seeking and point them to videos and other online resources to do the more mundane tasks, like how to find full-text.

Where do you draw your pedagogical inspiration? Does your library have an comprehensive information literacy curriculum? Share your thoughts, resources, and inspirations in the comments section, or tweet me @beccakatharine.

The Polymer Librarian?

Happy 2013 everyone, it will be incrementally different than 2012.

In my new position one of my primary responsibilities (depending on whom you ask, THE primary responsibility) is providing support to our departments of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering. Akron is the historic home of the rubber industry and the regional research focus on rubber has expanded and evolved over time to encompass all aspects of polymer research. University of Akron has the only Polymer College in the United States, so while there are many fine polymer graduate schools, none of them carry quite the administrative gravitas of polymer science at Akron. To put it in perspective there’s a building for polymer science and another building for polymer engineering. It is the university’s strongest research field.

Which leaves me in a strange place for subject work. There are, relative to a subject like chemistry, relatively few librarians supporting polymer science and there’s a correspondingly thin literature on the subject. Also, chemistry resources for polymers usually don’t have quite the same functionality (for example, you cannot order polymer substance results by molecular weight in SciFinder). So there are few colleagues to talk to and not a whole lot to read. (But shout-out to Nico Adams for his work on polymer informatics – very interesting stuff.) The final issue is that one department is a few blocks away and the one next door is physically locked to me, which is a problem when your liaison style could accurately be described as “just barge in on them”.

So what to do? I’ve tried, with mild success, stalking the faculty at their seminars and I was able to do a presentation to one of the graduate student organizations. I’ve fielded a few research questions well and received some praise. I had a productive meeting with one department chair, while another has so far eluded me (his research is going gangbusters, so no hard feelings).  But I need to do more.

My current plan is to focus my research on our polymer collection, most likely by a citation analysis. Perhaps it’s a bit pedestrian, but my thought is that scientists will appreciate a data driven approach to meeting their needs. Also, I did work in a research lab and supporting researchers so when I see a problem, I look for ways that data collection and analysis can solve it.

So does anyone out there have any other (hopefull better) ideas on engaging my highly specialized research faculty in a locked tower? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thoughts on Weeding

As much as I enjoy the technology-focused projects I work on as an emerging technologies librarian, I also don’t spend as much time as I might like with our print collection. Since I am also a our psychology liaison, I do have collection development responsibilities which require a better familiarity with relevant areas of the collection. I see the books quite a bit while roaming around the library or helping students locate materials during reference and instruction interactions, but I don’t always have regular occasions to just browse our stacks. This means it was a rare treat for me to spend about an hour of quality time in my liaison area’s reference section this morning.

My time with the books was not all fun and games. Due to space constraints and collection reorganization within the library, we need to reduce the size of our physical reference collection. Which means – that’s right! – I was weeding.

Weeding (or “deselection”) can be controversial and anxiety provoking. But it’s also a necessary reality for academic librarians who manage an infinitely growing body of information while faced with limited resources (time, money, space, etc.) to manage such information and a mission to curate collections that are useful and relevant within the context of our institutions.

As I was working with this subsection within our larger reference collection, I realized there are several reasons why weeding may be a particularly important learning activity for new librarians.

You learn what is in the collection.

Of course, there may be half-a-dozen other ways to learn what is in your collection. Simple browsing may be one way. Another may be discovering gems during other routine duties. And through my reference and instruction activities this semester I’ve certainly spent time looking for books on particular topics and gained a greater sense of some of our more popular materials. However, I find that picking up each book in turn and evaluating its place within the context of the rest of the collection gives me a much more intimate connection to the the collection as a unit.

You learn what you don’t have.

During a recent lunch discussion, one of my colleagues referred to weeding as “pruning.” I like this analogy, because weeding can lead to growing and strengthening the collection. Although I was looking to remove items, I also learned which topics are covered in the collection but need updated or more balanced information, and I found areas which should be completely revamped. For instance, I chose to pull an older volume on human intelligence. However, as I moved through the rest of the section and later checked our catalog for e-reference sources, I discovered this item was the only reference work about intelligence available in the collection. Given that “intelligence” could be a topic in several different courses across our social science curriculum, it’s an important gap to fill. Knowing this, I can seek out alternatives for replacement.

You learn to identify good places for new resources.

Since, as discussed above, I found myself needing to replace items removed to the collection, weeding led to a search for new material. Although I remember learning about finding quality, authoritative materials in graduate school courses on reference services and collection development, it was definitely no substitute for real-world librarian-esque shopping. Particularly in the reference collection, where cost of materials can be significantly higher than materials for the general collection, learning where and how to find the best materials is a vital skill for new librarians learning to curate useful and authoritative collections.

You learn from your colleagues across the library.

For me, weeding led to a lot of questions. Of course, there are questions about how to evaluate materials and what type of information should be used in making deselection decisions. There are then additional questions about the process for physical removing items for the collection. And there are questions about selecting and purchasing new materials. These questions have been great conversation starters to learn from more experienced colleagues, and are a significant reason to talk to people in several different departments (reference and instruction, technical services, etc.).

 

Since I was working with a relatively small subsection of the reference collection to begin with, I did not remove more than a handful of books. And several of those will be moved to the stacks or are available electronically, so the net change in the collection is relatively small. But, in just an hour or two, I gained a greater understanding of the types of reference materials available within my liaison area, as well as the areas which need more attention in the future. I learned more about collection development at my library and enjoyed several conversations with my colleagues regarding the state of our collection and the complexities of deselection. Although it is a bit daunting, particularly as a new librarian, to be responsible for deselection decisions, I’m inspired to continue investigating further collection development and analysis projects within the general collection.

Professional Jurisdiction

One of the many things I love about my position is that I’m one of only 3 librarians.  This means I have a fairly liberal allowance for things I can get away with, professionally speaking.  If I want to create my own outreach events, my boss invariably says “Go for it!”  If I want to create video tutorials to teach students how to retrieve full-text articles from our databases, the idea is met with “How soon can you make it happen?”  In other words, I’m not bound by the same position-specific job roles other librarians in large institutions may have.  I’m the outreach, reference, systems, emerging technologies, and instruction librarian all at once.

One of the challenges of this position, though, is navigating my professional jurisdiction.  My institution is very small (less than 1000 enrolled students) but we pride ourselves on spectacular support services.  We have Master’s-degreed writing and math tutors whose schedules are always full; we librarians spend most of our days meeting one-on-one with students for research consultations or conducting information literacy workshops.  But every so often, we’ll be presented with a unique student need and not know who to defer it to.  Unlike most of my first year librarian counterparts, I typically interact with students much older than myself: the average age of a student at my university is 38.  This means that some of our students are behind the technological curve and need some help catching up with basic computer skills. Is this the job of the academic librarian?

Public, and likely community college, libraries offer several classes a month in basic computer literacy skills.  They offer courses on setting up Email, Internet 101, and basic office software.   In addition to teaching these necessary computer basics, the courses might also cover more “high concept” topics like internet privacy and the politics of the publishing industry.  Typically, though, academic libraries do not offer these types of courses; maybe because the average college student is a digital native, or maybe because the university is in a city with a robust public library where the librarians can refer students with this need.  So when I began noticing a real need for technology support I couldn’t find many academic libraries to use for models.  For some reason, computer literacy workshops just don’t seem to fit in the library’s purview.

The library as a concept and place is in flux.  The needs of our students, the format of our collections, and the media through which we interact with the campus are all changing.  This means that as librarians, we’re always challenged to say one step ahead: to try to figure out how to best utilize our limited budgets and resources to meet the needs of visitors, students, faculty, and colleagues.  In this case of my campus, maybe this means taking on some of the more basic computer training.  Did I get my Master’s to teach classes in Microsoft Word?  No, not really.  But I did get my Master’s to facilitate a love of auto didacticism and self-sufficiency and life-long learning in my community.   However, I don’t want to lose the value of libraries by being a “one-stop-shop” or step on other campus department’s toes.  The question that remains on my mind is, given the changing demographics and needs of campus communities, where do library services begin and end?

Has your library faced a similar challenge?  How do you navigate where the library’s professional jurisdiction begins and ends?  Leave a comment or respond via Twitter, @beccakatharine.

The Unexpected Benefits of a Varied Life

This post originally was about using my liberal arts social science background as a physical science librarian. But a comment from “Bob” on my last post got to me when he mentioned some “dead ends” in his background. So here’s a roundup of ways I’ve tapped by wealth of experience to perhaps demonstrate the use of dead ends.

1) The history degree

My first tour of duty in academia was as a history major at a small liberal arts college and I wrote my thesis on Japanese militarism in China. Forward 18 years, I was asked to find an old Japanese patent that just didn’t come up in the Japanese Patent Database. But via a lovely non-linear insight, it struck me that there should be a year at the beginning of the patent application and it quickly clicked that the patent used the imperial calendar. The patent was retrieved quickly and the speed was due to this degree.

Also, I had a request for articles on Greek cultural life in America. Akron’s nursing program requires students to investigate an ethnic community and social sciences literature remains unfamiliar to most of the students. Although not as smooth as an actual specialist librarian, I at least knew to recommend an anthropology database and we found something a bit quicker than if I had not taken a few anthro classes.

2) Used Book Buying

For about five years. I worked as a book buyer at Powell’s Books and during that time purchased and priced around a million. From this job I was able to tell a coworker how to unslant a book’s spine and how to get out mildew smell. One of my liaison departments had a very nice book set donated to them and wanted an appraisal to decide if it was worth dealing with the administrative red tape to sell it (being useful is essential for liaison work).  Finally, dealing with customers at bookstore information shifts was solid preparation for reference shifts.

3) Janitorial

I can change toilet paper rolls like a champ.

4) Lab Work

My job as a research technician and lab manager has allowed me to talk shop with some of the students (giving advice on how to plate bacterial transforms is something of an eyebrow-raiser at the reference desk). Understanding lab group social structure and communication dynamics developed an understanding of the pressures facing my various user communities. Running a facility gave me experience in spending, budgeting and dealing with vendors. Also, being a former equipment manager certainly helps when the printers get jammed.

There’s more, but librarianship requires and rewards a broad skill set and may offer a chance to resurrect some of those career dead ends. That said, I’m not sad that my years of restaurant experience have lain dormant … oh, wait … I volunteered to help plan the holiday party.

But what about you? Please share your stories of unexpected value from allegedly unrelated fields, I’m really curious.