Reflecting on Library Instruction

Palms are sweaty, knees weak but I’m not talking about spaghetti (sorry, Eminem); I’m talking about teaching a credit-bearing library course! This last Fall semester, I not only started my first official librarian position, but I also taught my own credit-bearing library course for the very first time. It’s something I’ve briefly mentioned in previous posts, but it’s actually been a huge part of my experience as a first-year academic librarian.  

Within my library, my position falls under the Teaching and Outreach Department. In addition to outreach services, my department’s responsible for teaching several one-shot library instruction sessions per semester as well as teaching credit-bearing library courses. Most of our one-shots are delivered to first-year undergraduate courses, but we also offer the usual library orientation session and course specific instruction as well. Our credit-bearing classes are often co-requisites of corresponding courses. For example, we teach library research classes that support the following programs: Speech and Audiology, Honors, CHE (a TRiO Program for first-gen students), History, and Criminal Justice. The course I teach, LIB 160: Library Research, supports the Criminal Justice program.  

There are several components that come with teaching a co-requisite course. Myself and my colleague, who has been teaching 160 for some time now, regularly collaborate with the faculty member in charge of the course we’re a co-requisite of, CRJ 380: Research Methods in Criminal Justice. This means we do our best to ensure the work that’s done in 160 is closely aligned with what students are expected to do in 380. The major project students complete in 380 is a research proposal. The final assignment in 160 is a literature review which becomes a part of students’ research proposal for 380. Though we work hard to ensure that 160 provides students with the information literacy skills necessary to be successful in their field, planning for and teaching the course is not without its share of struggles.  

Some of the struggles that came with teaching 160 were fairly standard for teaching a new course. In spite of finishing my MS-LS with a solid understanding of information literacy, learning an entirely new curriculum designed for a subject matter outside of my expertise was my first big challenge. Though my colleague who taught the course before me was open to questions and more than willing to share her materials, I still had several lessons and assignments to familiarize myself with in a relatively short period of time – My position started in July and classes began in August. Thus, a great deal of my orientation process was dedicated to learning the ins and outs of 160. After starting to learn the curriculum, actually being in the classroom itself and teaching the lessons became my next challenge.  

Thanks to my colleagues who introduced me to the idea, reflection has become a part of my teaching process. Last semester, I got into the habit of journaling after every class. I’ll be the first to admit that not every day was my best last semester. To give you an idea, the words and phrases I used to describe my first week of class were: nervous, felt weird, stress, sweaty, talking too fast, and I think they liked my personality. Imposter syndrome loomed large for me. Though I have years of experience teaching high school, the thought of teaching in a university was intimidating for me. I was always a little nervous whenever I taught high school, but this was different. In hindsight, it may have been a combination of different things: new job, new responsibilities, first time teaching a new course. Yet, all of that isn’t to say that there weren’t any successes last semester.  

Seeing my students learn and grow has always been among my greatest successes as an educator. This past semester was no different. At the beginning of 160, my first assignment asked students to illustrate their current research process. At the end of the course, I asked my students to carry out the same assignment but to add any new steps they may have developed in 160. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the majority of my students added several steps to their old processes. Course evaluations were another new but pleasant surprise. 

Needless to say, teaching an in-person course during a pandemic is a challenge. Though my institution has a vaccine and mask requirement, the semester was not without its fair share of quarantines, sicknesses, or students dealing with labor shortages at their jobs. I’ve always felt that, before anything, students are people with lives outside of the classroom – Lives which are often subject to circumstances outside of their control. Because of this, I’ve always strived to be an open and understanding instructor. Even so, it was my surprise to see that several students noted my approach in their course evaluations with comments like, “Professor García truly cares about his students and them succeeding” and “He was very understanding with assignments and helped me when I needed an extension.” Though I often felt like maybe I didn’t know what I was doing, I’m happy to report that I never lost sight of my students’ humanity and my responsibility to them as an instructor.  

Flash forward to the present, my class is entering its third week and I’m happy to report that it’s been great! In spite of the current Omicron surge, students in quarantine, and snow days, I feel so much more comfortable as an instructor this time around. Looking at my reflection journal, the first week was described as comfy, easier, nice balance, and connecting with students well. Though I know improving one’s pedagogy is a continuous process, knowing the semester has gotten off to a great start fills me with great optimism. 

My view of my classroom. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching: Reflections from MILEX

Last month I attended MILEX, a Maryland library conference. The subject was Culturally Responsive Teaching in Libraries, and it gave me a lot to think about. The timing was great: I’ve been looking forward to reflecting on my teaching practices this summer. As I’ve written in the past, library school did not prepare me for productively thinking about pedagogy, so I’m always eager to learn about different approaches from my peers.

Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) was a new term for me (one of the reasons I wanted to attend this conference). Ashleigh Coren, the keynote, asked us to write our own definitions of CRT before sharing an “official” one. This exercise showed me that most of us intuitively grasp what culturally responsive teaching must include: understanding your audience, inclusive language, and Universal Design for Learning. Coren shared Gloria Ladson-Billings’ definition: “a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning,” with these main characteristics:

  1. Positive perspectives on parents and families
  2. Communication of high expectations
  3. Learning within the context of culture
  4. Student-centered instruction
  5. Culturally mediated instruction
  6. Reshaping the curriculum
  7. Teacher as facilitator

We spent the rest of the day exploring applications of CRT, discussing teacher efforts and exercises that successfully make space for multiple perspectives as well as those that were less successful. Here are a few of my main takeaways.

All of the presenters touched on the importance of disclosing a bit of who you are at the beginning of class. This might seem 101, but I truly never considered meaningfully introducing myself to students in a one-shot. I feel pressed for time and I assume they don’t really care who I am or why I do this work. I just launch in after a quick, “This is my name, this is what librarians can do for you” spiel. But CRT isn’t just knowledge of the identities, learning styles, and values students bring to a classroom, but an awareness of my own identity, worldview, and blind spots. These students are going to meet me for 50 minutes one day, and if I don’t share anything about myself, why should they trust my expertise? Why should I expect them to feel comfortable approaching me or admitting they don’t know something if I remain a complete stranger to them? This conference helped me see how the disclosure of personal information (to the degree that you’re comfortable) can build trust with your students.

For example, several people at the conference suggested sharing your pronouns as part of your one-shot introduction. I know a lot of librarians already do this, or have pronouns in their email signature or name badge. This not only reveals something about your identity, but also communicates a degree of inclusion, even safety, in your classroom. Again, this must be to the degree you are comfortable, but as a cis woman I see this as a simple change I can make starting today.

Another lightbulb moment for me: reach out to the faculty ahead of the one-shot and ask about the classroom culture. I never think to do this. I ask for assignment instructions, resource requirements, and maybe potential topics, but it would be great to know ahead of time if the class is shy, prefers small-group work, or has lively group discussions. Asking the instructor about her classroom culture also shows that I care about her students’ comfort enough to adapt my one-shot to resemble their classroom environment.

For me the best part of CRT is student-centered instruction, where the teacher is a facilitator rather than sole bearer of knowledge. For librarians looking to make one-shots more engaging, I recommend turning over some control to the students. For one thing, it introduces a little bit of the unknown to your classroom, which always spices things up. But also, as Coren said after her keynote, “students think they know less than they do.” In the reverse: they know more than they think they do, and I believe they know more than we think they do.

CRT demands awareness of the student perspective, but also appreciation for their insights and experience. No one is a blank slate. Anyone who has made it to college has encountered information already, using strategies that work for them. I don’t want to be an instrument of assimilation, telling students that there’s one right way to navigate ideas, that there’s one right way to measure truth. My way is not a blank slate either; it’s informed by my identity, my education, and my privilege. I want to foster a learning environment where students bring their own instincts and cultural values to the research process.

I wanted to end with specific strategies to make your classroom culturally responsive and welcoming to all, because the practical takeaways are always my favorite part of a professional conference:

  • Create a safe place for students. Disclose pronouns and establish ground rules for group discussion.
  • Introduce yourself and explain where you’re coming from.
  • Spell out library jargon. Specifically, write the words you’re defining on the board or in your slide.
  • Repeat directions. Go slowly.
  • Allow time for small group discussions before asking people to share their answer with the class (think-pair-share style). Lindsay Inge Carpenter suggested that collectivist cultures might favor this approach; it also helps shy people feel comfortable speaking up.
  • Make your classroom a “no stupid questions” environment. Tell students they won’t be punished for asking about plagiarism or other topics they might be nervous about.
  • Regularly do peer observation with colleagues.
  • Know that cultural competency is not a box to check, but a skill to build over time.

Correction: Originally I had misattributed Ashleigh Coren’s quote about student knowledge to her keynote. The quote came from the Q&A that followed, not from her formal address. This post has been updated to reflect this.

Small Steps, Big Picture

As I thought about composing a blog post this week, I felt that familiar frustration of searching not only for a good idea, but a big one. I feel like I’m often striving (read: struggling!) to make space for big picture thinking. I’m either consumed by small to-do list items that, while important, feel piecemeal or puzzling over how to make a big idea more precise and actionable. So it feels worthwhile now, as I reflect back on the semester, to consider how small things can have a sizable impact.

I’m recalling, for example, a few small changes I’ve made to some information evaluation activities this semester in order to deepen students’ critical thinking skills. For context, here’s an example of the kind of activity I had been using. I would ask students to work together to compare two sources that I gave them and talk about what made the sources reliable or not and if one source was more reliable than the other. As a class, we would then turn the characteristics they articulated into criteria that we thought generally make for reliable sources. It seemed like the activity helped students identify and articulate what made those particular sources reliable or not and permitted us to abstract to evaluation criteria that could be applied to other sources.

While effective in some ways, I began to see how this activity contributed to, rather than countered, the problem of oversimplified information evaluation. Generally, I have found that students can identify key criteria for source evaluation such as an author’s credentials, an author’s use of evidence to support claims, the publication’s reputation, and the presence of bias. Despite their facility with naming these characteristics, though, I’ve observed that students’ evaluation of them is sometimes simplistic. In this activity, it felt like students could easily say evidence, author, bias, etc., but those seemed like knee-jerk reactions. Instead of creating opportunities to balance a source’s strengths/weaknesses on a spectrum, this activity seemed to reinforce the checklist approach to information evaluation and students’ assumptions of sources as good versus bad.  

At the same time, I’ve noticed that increased attention to “fake news” in the media has heightened students’ awareness of the need to evaluate information. Yet many students seem more prone to dismiss a source altogether as biased or unreliable without careful evaluation. The “fake news” conversation seems to have bolstered some students’ simplistic evaluations rather than deepen them.

In an effort to introduce more nuance into students’ evaluation practices and attitudes, then, I experimented with a few small shifts and have so far landed with revisions like the following.

Small shift #1 – Students balance the characteristics of a single source.
I ask students to work with a partner to evaluate a single source. Specifically, I ask them to brainstorm two characteristics about a given source that make it reliable and/or not reliable. I set this up on the board in two columns. Students can write in either/both columns: two reliable, two not reliable, or one of each. Using the columns side-by-side helps to visually illustrate evaluation as a balance of characteristics; a source isn’t necessarily all good or all bad, but has strengths and weaknesses.

Small shift #2 – Students examine how other students balance the strengths and weaknesses of the source.
Sometimes different students will write similar characteristics in both columns (e.g., comments about evidence used in the source show up in both sides) helping students to recognize how others might evaluate the same characteristic as reliable when they see it as unreliable or vice versa. This helps illustrate the ways different readers might approach and interpret a source.

Small shift #3 – Rather than develop a list of evaluation criteria, we turn the characteristics they notice into questions to ask about sources.
In our class discussion, we talk about the characteristics of the source that they identify, but we don’t turn them into criteria. Instead we talk about them in terms of questions they might ask of any source. For example, they might cite “data” as a characteristic that suggests a source is reliable. With a little coaxing, they might expand, “well, I think the author in this source used a variety of types of evidence – statistics, interviews, research study, etc.” So we would turn that into questions to ask of any source (e.g., what type(s) of evidence are used? what is the quantity and quality of the evidence used?) rather than a criterion to check off.

Despite their smallness, these shifts have helped make space for conversation about pretty big ideas in information evaluation: interpretation, nuance, and balance. What small steps do you take to connect to the big picture? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

When is the Struggle TOO Real?

One of the advantages of having a partner who happens to be a math professor is that we can talk academic shop. A few weeks ago, over a serious dishwasher unloading, we started talking about a recurring theme manifesting itself in our college’s faculty Facebook group: toughening up college students. From debates about trigger warnings to conversations about cultivating students’ grit and comfort with failure, our colleagues are consistently inconsistent about how we should help college students succeed in academia and life. I’ll lump myself and my partner into this group, too. As a faculty we want to be sensitive to student needs and life experiences, but we also don’t want them to fall apart if they get a bad grade on an exam. We want them to make a real attempt at solving a difficult problem or tackling a challenging project on their own before asking for help, but we also recognize that many students have serious outside stressors (economic, familial, emotional, etc.) that might prevent them from giving their all to their studies.

For years librarians have been chanting that “failure is good” because it is a signal of attempted innovation, creative practice, and learning (particularly when applied to information literacy instruction). We want our students to learn from their mistakes, which means they have to make them first. Math education is no different. There’s a small but mighty push for experiential and problem-based learning within the discipline that wants students to learn from their mistakes. As my partner and I discussed this we couldn’t help but wonder:

At what point is the struggle too much?

Earlier in the day he’d met with a student who claimed she was working on one homework problem for 4 hours. Earlier that semester I’d met with a student who spent an entire weekend looking for research in the wrong places with the wrong search terms. I’m all for giving it the old college try, but in both cases, this just plain excessive struggle for little reward. As a librarian who has been doing this job for a while, I have a good sense of when I’ve tapped my intellectual well. I know when to ask for help. My partner does, too. Most academics know when to take a step back, take another approach, or ask a colleague for suggestions. But this is a learned skill. We like to think of it as tacit knowledge–students have to experience failure to know when they are failing the right way as opposed to just struggling unnecessarily–but is it really? Does the experience alone help them gain this knowledge? Or can the struggle just be too real for some students, leading them to eventually equate math or research with pointless stress?

I think the key in the library classroom is not to focus on failure but to focus on process: Model, practice, repeat–over and over again. It’s a challenge when so much of students’ grades depend on a final product (an exam, a paper, a presentation, etc.) and often requires a shift in emphasis from the professor. By modeling a process–a step I think we (and I know I) often overlook in our attempts to make our classrooms spaces for active learning–we give students a sense of what struggle can look like. Granted, there’s no one standard process for research, and we don’t want to imply that there is one, but making our thinking and doing visible to our students can go a long way towards demystifying research. We get stuck, we back-track, we try again, we struggle, but we are never alone when we do so. It’s something I try to stress to all my students in hopes that they too feel like they never have to struggle alone.

Standing in Front: The Lecture in One-Time Library Instruction Sessions

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Amber Gray, Social Sciences and Humanities Librarian at the University of Maine.

There’s been some discussion lately, quite a bit of it spurred by a recent New York Times editorial, about the potential benefits or detriments of the lecture format as well as the potential benefits or detriments of interactivity and active learning in the classroom. I, like many people, believe that both lectures and active learning are useful tools and are useful in different contexts, but what I’d like to discuss here is the unique utility of the lecture format in the one-time-only library instruction session.

Before I continue, I want to be absolutely clear that I am in favor of finding new and interesting ways for students to learn in a classroom environment. If you are looking for a piece of writing that rails against flipped classrooms and active learning, you won’t find it here. I think all these different methods can be and are very useful in a classroom setting. The point that I want to make is that, while flipped classrooms and active learning are great, there are some elements of the lecture format that may be particularly well-suited for the type of one-time library instruction sessions that we as librarians may give in conjunction with college and university classes.

You’ll notice that I used the term “one-time” to describe library instruction sessions, and I think this particular phrase is crucial in distinguishing the work of a semester-long class from the type of instruction librarians often give. A professor, instructor, lecturer, or teaching assistant has a class for a certain period of time at least once a week for a certain number of weeks. A librarian often has a class once for a certain period of time, and whether or not she sees any of those students again is a matter generally left to the individual students. The amount of time a librarian has in which to present is also dependent on the professor; some professors are happy to schedule an entire class session with the librarian, while others prefer a brief twenty- or thirty-minute overview.

Regardless of the amount of time the librarian has, what the librarian presents tends to be defined by the requirements of the class—whether there are any research projects the students will have to conduct, for example, or whether they have to find scholarly articles about a particular topic. And, in what I think is an essential element of the library instruction session, the librarian often has specific resources, research strategies, and tools that the students need to know about by the time the instruction session is over.

This is where the usefulness of the lecture format comes in. In a lecture, the instructor (a librarian, in this case) stands before a class and gives them information they need to know. Especially for library instruction sessions that are twenty minutes or half an hour long, information needs to get to the students in the most efficient way possible, and I would argue that the lecture is one of the best ways in which to do this. A librarian doesn’t have the time the instructor has; there is no additional meeting in which the librarian can share material there wasn’t time to cover in the first meeting. This single meeting has to give the students the tools they need for the rest of the semester; some of the students may contact me for additional information, but I can’t assume they will, and almost certainly some of them won’t. The lecture is, to me, one of the best tools for getting information across in a direct and efficient way, particularly if I’ve got a limited time frame in which to accomplish this.

Now, I’m not suggesting that a lecture is the answer to everything, or that it should be used exclusively instead of any other teaching style. If a professor brings in a class for two hours, I’m not going to lecture to them for two hours. I’m going to talk with them for perhaps forty or forty-five minutes, and the rest of the time can be used for active learning, individual research, questions, or whatever else might be most helpful for this particular group. But even in a longer instruction session, I think that a lecture is a good method of giving students the tools they need to begin.

Lectures are useful, but they can also be difficult, and they tend to require periodic revision. Some of the most successful instructors I have known have used the lecture format, and they change and refine their lectures every year, with the continued inclusion of material that works and the excision of material that doesn’t. As with creating any other type of lesson plan, creating informative and interesting lectures is an iterative process. But when a lecture goes well, it is incredibly satisfying, and students leave the session energized, knowing more about what they need to be able to do their own academic work.

Library instruction is a constantly changing and innovating field, and I think that’s wonderful. I also think that one of the most important aspects of innovation in relation to instruction is, along with creating and working with tools and techniques that are new, being able to use them in conjunction with tools and techniques that aren’t, like the lecture. The teaching styles at our disposal can be as expansive and as varied as we want them to be.