When Did Efficiency Become the End-Goal?

Earlier this week I read the latest Library Trends article by Karen P. Nicholson, Nicole Pagowsky, and Maura Seale, Just-in-Time or Just-in-Case? Time, Learning Analytics, and the Academic Library (also available via the University of Arizona Repository. If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this blog post and head on over to that article because it is well worth your time.

It’s an exploration of time, in fact, and examines the relationship between academic libraries’ adoption of learning analytics as a crisis response to the “future of academic libraries” discourse that has been around as long as libraries. One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was in response to this constant state of crisis and dire warnings of the future. Nicholson, Pagowsky, and Seale describe this existential fear as the “timescape of a present-future, whose primary value lies in staving off the risk of a library-less future” (2019, p.4). By existing in this “present-future” we seem to be responding to a known-future, one that we must make changes to adapt to fit, rather than a future of our own making that we have the power to shape through organizing, taking actions based on values, and a concerted effort to create change as a profession.

I so appreciate the authors linking the notion of time to power, because time is being used in such a way that renders us powerless. We’re somehow always working against a constantly ticking clock, trying to be more productive and more effective and more efficient. But when did education become about efficiency? When did we collectively decide that our library instruction programs should be about teaching the most classes, reaching the most students, providing badges, or highlighting major initiatives. Learning is messy. Teaching have can impacts that are small but significant. If we are constantly living in a present-future of what our libraries will or will not be then we are unable to exist in the moment in our libraries, classrooms, and interactions with those around us.

The irony of the popularity of future-casting in libraries AND mindfulness is not lost on me. One is constantly urging us to look forward, mitigate risk, and plan against predictions. The other asks us to be present in our current state, maintain awareness of ourselves and those around us, and work to cultivate a sense of balance with the world. Is the push towards mindfulness a response to our ever-anxious existence as libraries looking toward the future? Is it the answer? Or do we need something more?

I suspect that mindfulness / awareness of the present is a start, but that it should then lead toward present action. What can I do in this moment to make things meaningful for myself, my colleagues, my library? The push towards making work, particularly instruction work, more sustainable tends to edge towards standardization, or, as Nicholson writes, the McDonaldization of Academic Libraries, again because we are looking towards a future rife with cost efficiency concerns, doing more with less, and proving value. It may appear to be programmatically sustainable, but ultimately sustainability relies on people, and people burn out. People get tired of teaching the same lesson plan over and over again. People get fed up with the distance between themselves and the students at the other end of that online lesson. For our work to be truly sustainable it needs to also be sustaining to our needs as people who entered the work of librarianship, specifically teaching librarianship, to help others.

So what can a present-aware, meaningful practice of librarianship look like in the current academic library?

Learning to Learn


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yesterday I attended a presentation and tour of a private school for children with learning differences (everything from dyslexia and dysgraphia, to autism, ADHD, anxiety, and processing issues, etc.). I’ve written about my son’s issues with learning within a school setting before, in part as a means of processing my own feelings about standardized education, but also as a way to reflect on my own work as a teacher. It’s hard for my experiences as a parent of a child with different learning needs NOT to influence my approach to the classroom.

At this presentation, the school administrators stressed the importance of teaching students to learn how to learn. Because the school sells itself as a transition school–one where the typical student attends for 3 years before moving on to a mainstream public or private school–some parents were concerned about students’ abilities to catch up in certain subject areas. I was so impressed by the school administrators’ answer, and realized that is what we try to do (to varying degrees of success) with students in college. Yes, there is a focus on content; it’s what academic majors are, after all. But there is also an emphasis on metacognition and the development of students’ ability to self-reflect, organize, self-regulate, and solve information needs and problems.

For children with learning differences, success is about coming to terms with the self. Self: acceptance, efficacy, accountability, motivation, advocacy, etc. They’re often the outliers in their classroom, and the source of frustration for teachers. Their confidence is rattled, their anxiety is high, and they often feel alienated by learning at school. Their ability is there but it’s hidden behind a complicated puzzle that can only be solved with care, time, attention, and an understanding of difference. Affect and feeling are central to unlocking their potential (really all learners’ potential) and making learning more than just a meaningless slog. A holistic approach to education is critical for these learners.

In taking a holistic approach to teaching and focusing on everything that makes learning possible, educators facilitate a version of learning that is self-directed and empowering. Learners have the agency to learn about whatever they want to learn and have the strategies and skills to make that happen. That’s not easy in public schools where teachers are accountable to standardized testing scores and hundreds of learning benchmarks. It’s difficult in college classrooms where faculty feel pressured to cover more content than is possible in one quarter or semester. It’s challenging in the teaching we do as librarians, where we manage our own desires to teach processes and critical thinking with faculty requests and student needs.

What could it look like to put learning how to learn first? How would that change our approach to teaching in libraries? In information literacy programs? The common refrain about library school is that it doesn’t teach you all the answers, but it teaches you how to find whatever answer you need. What if our graduate programs focused on teaching us to ask questions rather than find answers? To study learning as a social process (and research/information as a part of that process)? How might that impact our own approach to information literacy education?

Information Literacy: What’s the Question?

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Do you have an arch-frenemy book or article from the literature of library science?  Mine has to be Edward K. Owusu-Ansah’s 2005 “Debating Definitions of Information Literacy:  Enough is Enough!”  Owusu-Ansah argues persuasively that we have already defined information literacy clearly enough to know that it involves making a positive difference in our students’ experiences with learning.  Rather than dither about with the fine distinctions that a perfect definition of information literacy would require, Owusu-Ansah implores us to get on with the good work of teaching information literacy.[1]

But I can’t help myself.  Definitions of information literacy fascinate me because they open new possibilities for thinking about (and occasionally actually doing) my work.  The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards made it clear to me that information literacy was about more than just showing students how to use databases (which was a lesson I really needed to learn).  The ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education stimulated my thinking about information as an ecosystem that we inhabit and influence.  Even Owusu-Ansah’s 2003 characterization of information literacy as “conversance with the universe of information” taught me that conversance with information is a more reasonable and pressing instructional goal than expertise in information.[2]          

All of these conceptions describe information literacy as an attribute of learners:  competencies they exhibit, concepts they have mastered, a level of know-how they have attained.  The focus on such characteristics makes sense; literacy itself is a quality possessed by people.  But what if we took a step back from our focus on skills and competencies and instead thought about information literacy as a matter of learning something about the world?  What if we framed information literacy in terms of a big question, one that accurately conveys the depths of the unknowns that information literacy touches upon?  Getting the defining question right would help others understand the weight of the subject matter that we teach and research.  It would also improve our own understanding of the deep-rooted mysteries that pervade our work.

It bears emphasis that information is an aspect of the world that is teeming with mystery.  The range of questions includes current challenges, like how to learn about politics in the midst of our fractured public discourse, or how search algorithms can skew our searching and distort our learning.  But the span also includes questions as old as information itself.  How can I tell which information I should trust?  What’s the best way to obtain information that I can rely on?  Or, deepest of all, how do text, images, and sound, all physical signals, get taken up as meaning that influences future thought or action?  It’s easy to forget that learning with information is an everyday miracle, and that libraries are in the miracle business.

When we acknowledge the vastness and the subtlety of information literacy as a subject matter, it makes a difference in the way we approach our teaching.  I underestimate the subject matter and my students when I view teaching as a matter of giving the students what they need to know about research. 

Better to think of the teacher as a guide leading the students to a vantage point over a yawning chasm of information possibilities so that they can explore it together.[3]  The canyon is sublime when considered in its wholeness–it is so much bigger than the teacher or the students–but it is also composed of billions of details worth considering on their own.   The wind gnawing at the rock particle by particle.  The intrepid trees somehow growing on the face of the blasted cliffs.  The exquisitely adapted animals that find a way to thrive in this impossible place, where nature slowly gouges away at itself.  Each instance of information that we encounter, considered in its context, is a similar occasion for wonder, if we take the time to think about it.

To continue with the analogy, the teacher cannot give the students everything they need to know about the canyon.  The canyon is too vast, and the backgrounds and questions of the students are too varied.  The teacher can point out some interesting features and ask questions to bring the canyon into focus in a way that many students have not considered before.  But no one will leave having mastered the canyon, and that is the way it should be.  It is enough that the students have taken in one of the big, rich features of their world and come away more curious, inspired, or humble than they were before.

The canyon metaphor has important limitations.  It is too visual, as though information is something that we look at from afar rather than participate in up close.  In fact, none of us can ever really leave the information canyon.  We are composed of information in much the same way that we are made up of water, carbon, and iron.  Further, our choices, both big and small, influence the character of the information ecosystem that sustains us.  We must be mindful to do no harm.

Instead of mastery, I would rather see my students come away from our time together more alert to the likelihood that there is more to information than initially meets the eye, more aware of the ways that information shapes their lives, and more mindful of the ways that their choices influence the future, both for information and for themselves.  To awaken and encourage that sort of deliberate and probing curiosity, information literacy needs a really good question.

Can we meaningfully discern the human purpose (and, frequently, the human negligence) lying behind the information artifacts that occupy so much of our lives?  How do our information choices make us more (or less) fully human?

That’s my version of information literacy’s big question.  What’s yours?


[1] Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, “Debating definitions of information literacy: enough is enough!.” Library Review 54, no. 6 (2005): 366-374.

[2] Edward K. Owusu-Ansah, “Information literacy and the academic library: a critical look at a concept and the controversies surrounding it,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 29, no. 4 (2003): 219-230.

[3] I am not the first to use the image of a landscape to describe information literacy.  For an influential example, see Annemaree Lloyd,  “Information literacy landscapes: an emerging picture,” Journal of documentation 62, no. 5 (2006): 570-583.  The Sconul 7 Pillars of Information Literacy also makes extensive use of the landscape metaphor.

Assumptions & Expectations

May 31st was my son’s last day of first grade. His class had a pizza party, complete with cupcakes and cookies to round out the celebration. He had a fantastic year at this new school after a terrible one at his old school. He received two “awards” from his teacher, who handed out different award certificates to all the kids: the “Always Happy” award and the Mathematics award. This kid LOVES numbers and does math problems for fun.

My son is on the autism spectrum. He is in the regular classroom with supports. For those of you who speak the parent language of special education in U.S. public schools, he has an IEP and he is mainstreamed. He’s a lot like any quirky kid you’d meet at the park, but there are things about him that are unique. He doesn’t like loud noises (fire alarms are the worst) or persistent quiet ones (clicking ceiling fans). He may take a while to answer a question; so long, sometimes, that you wonder if he forgot what you asked him (he didn’t). Sometimes he doesn’t seem like he’s paying attention to what’s going on, but then he’ll ask a question, or say something, or point out a detail that indicate that he is fully present, aware, and alert. Sometimes he asks odd questions out of (what we think is) nowhere. His pattern of speech may sometimes sound a little different. He loves the outdoors, hugs, Legos, his bike, and oddball humor.

He’s also a constant reminder to me as I move through my day-to-day work, in and out of the library classroom, to check my expectations and assumptions of students. I’ve taught classes where the same student blurts out answers before anyone else can, or asks an odd question at what seems like an “off” time to be asking it. There have been other classes where students don’t make eye contact, appear to be somewhere else, or give blank stares. Sometimes students look confused. Sometimes they don’t answer questions. Sometimes they ask a lot of questions where the answers are things I’ve just said.

Those actions may be about me. Maybe my pacing is off or my explanation is confusing. I could be really really really ridiculously boring at that point in class. I could also seem like the kind of person who wants people to ask questions whenever they have them, no matter if it seems odd to others.

But those actions are also about them. Maybe a student doesn’t make eye contact and blurts out comments/questions because they too are on the autism spectrum. Maybe they look confused and sort of blank because they have issues with auditory processing, and I’ve given too much information or too many instructions all at once. They could have low vision, difficulty hearing, or could be in real pain that day (and everyday if it is chronic). They could be listening and processing everything I saw but not be able to externalize that interest and learning in the way I am used to seeing it.

There is so much we don’t know about the students we see once or twice a semester. Sometimes we have opportunities to really get to know them and sometimes we never see them again. In whatever time we have with them, we can drop our assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We can set expectations high for ourselves and for them, and do everything we can to support them in their learning so that they meet those expectations. (Check out Zoe’s last post on Universal Design in the classroom for some excellent ideas.) We can check any judgements we might be inclined to make about a student’s actions, facial expressions, or speech. It might feel a bit unusual at first, but if we practice it a little every day, we stop having to practice and we just start doing it.

It’s easier for me now that it was in years past, but I have practice at work and I have practice at home. Checking assumptions is hard work, but it’s a responsibility we have to the learners in our community. Beyond that, it also opens us up to a world of interesting people who can befriend, laugh with, and learn from that we might have otherwise missed. In setting aside our assumptions we leave room to get to know people. In expanding our ideas of what constitutes learning behavior and how we can support different kinds of learners in the classroom, we set the stage for all kinds of interesting education to happen.

photo of award certificate that reads "the always happy"

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.