Will this work?

In May 2017, I had an idea. I wanted to create a credit-bearing course, one that would provide students the foundation they needed to be peer research consultants (PRCs) within the libraries. The class would have the same vibes as writing tutor classes that are taught across the United States and called many different names (for example ENGL 250 at Penn State, Topics in Composition at Coe College). As a concept, the class made sense to me. Instead of cramming initial PRC training into a few weeks, we could have the space within a course to really dive into ideas and prepare students. It could also be a way to expose students to research through the lens of librarianship. 

In 2017, I had no clue about how to put together a semester long course, or the process at Penn State to get an actual class on the books. The course was a pipe dream, one that rattled around in my head, and had me jotting down stray thoughts in various notebooks and online documents. I would write out “Week 1” through “Week 16” and attempt different combinations of course content. My first drafts were a bunch of one-shots sessions, strung together, somewhat haphazardly, but with brief moments of clarity.

The more I thought about the class and the more I tinkered with it, the more I wanted to make it happen. About a year ago, I paired up with my colleague, co-teacher, and friend, Claire, and we started to take steps to get the course approved. At a large research institution, nothing is ever as easy as it seems. Beyond documentation around learning objectives, assessment techniques, and a rough course outline, we also had to find 15 people to consult on our course. After these consults, we submitted it into the ether and eventually, our proposal made its way up the Liberal Arts chain. Finally, in November, it reached our Faculty Senate.

We found out the class passed with little fanfare. It was approved in a committee meeting and we found out from a colleague in the group who sent us a Slack message. It was December and our immediate thought was, “crap, now we have like six weeks to put a course together.” Luckily, Claire and I had one another, and a framework we had continued to tweak while the course was being reviewed. LST 250: Peer Tutoring in Research was official and on January 14, we taught our first class.

This class is all about turning a research idea around and around. We were inspired by Allison Hosier’s 2019 article in College & Research Libraries entitled “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study: A Proposed Metaconcept and Its Practical Application.” It probably wasn’t an article we needed our students to read in the first week, but it has helped us find the core of the class. We focus our energies on a topic, of our choice, and spend the semester researching it from all angles. The goal is that by the end, the students are really knowledgeable in a topic they care about, and also deeply understand their own research process, embedded within their discipline. If you can understand how research works, then I believe you can help someone else through that process. Of course, the question always is, “Will that actually work as a course?”

So far, I think so. This week we wrote research questions on whiteboards and made concept maps. We explored databases we recommend students “try first” and talked about how that could set us up for a certain research journey. We also read LIS articles that spoke of students in strange, disconnected, deficit-like ways around their ability to do research. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we talk about the students we teach, how we think about their research process, and how those attitudes influence our work. This class seems like a natural extension to the work I’ve been doing with students and finding ways to keep them in the center. 

A friend asked, “How’s it going professor?” and while that still feels weird to be a professor, things are good. We’re four weeks in and I have a much better understanding of what readings will work than I did a year ago. While the first few classes felt like 75 minutes was too much, we’re now scrabbling at minute 70 to finish class on time. I haven’t taught many one-shots so far this semester, but I imagine my presence will be different. I feel more confident in leading a class, and some of that is probably due to regularly teaching twice a week. The course is a challenge, and I need that in 2020. I feel lucky that I get to tackle the course with Claire and we can navigate these credit-bearing waters together. I can’t believe it has been almost three years since my initial idea; a lot has changed in the evolution of the course, but I look forward to where the course will go. If you’ve taught a credit-bearing class before, do you have any advice? What has worked for you in the past? What do you wish you would have known before you started? 

Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Learning to Embrace the Uncomfortable

Please welcome Veronica Wells to the ACRLog team. Veronica is the Access Services/Music Librarian at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She is currently in her first professional position after earning an MLIS and Master of Arts in Music from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Veronica’s research interests include assessment of music information literacy instruction, incorporating emerging technologies into library instruction in a meaningful way, and best practices for educating faculty and students on Copyright Law and intellectual property.

“Be comfortable with being uncomfortable” is something I frequently hear my yoga teachers say. Usually this comes in midway through class, when sweat is dripping and hearts are racing. Part of my mind is saying “Mayday! Mayday! Let’s get out of here!” while the other part is saying “I’m too exhausted to do anything more.” But somehow or another, one pose at a time, I make it through class. And I’m gradually learning that it’s OK to be uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable shows you areas in which you have room to grow.

I was once a yoga teacher myself, a job that typically involves a lot of talking and demonstrating. When I began teaching information literacy sessions, I adopted a similar instructional style. After a short period of adjustment to the very different subject matter, I fell into a comfortable routine: (1) talk at students about research; (2) demonstrate the various library tools; (3) help students one-on-one as they practice individually.

What has always made me uncomfortable — and I mean very uncomfortable — is group work. I’ve always loathed group work, even in high school. Whenever a teacher mentioned that we were going to do a “group activity,” my heart would instantly start to race and my palms would sweat. I feared and hated being forced into collaborations with people I did not know and so I often didn’t contribute much and typically allowed my group members to complete the work. Thus, I never learned much from group activities.

This year I’ve been trying to practice being uncomfortable in my teaching sessions. After thinking a lot about my teaching and reading some excerpts from books like What the Best College Teachers Do by Kevin Bain and The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker Palmer, I’ve realized that the way I had been teaching was completely informed by the way I like to learn. I was teaching to a bunch of mini-mes, but not every student learns the way that I do. Once I understood the reason I was shying away from group activities, I was able to move beyond my own prejudices.

I made a resolution this school year to try to do a group activity in each of my library sessions. Some of these have involved looking at articles to determine if they are scholarly or popular. Others have taken the form of scavenger hunts in the library. And guess what? Just like in yoga, embracing the uncomfortable moments has allowed me to grow. It has made me more confident in my abilities as a librarian and educator and it has permitted me to let go of some of my issues with trying to control every moment of my library sessions.

Group activities have also greatly benefited my students. They give them the opportunity to speak with and learn from each other. They turn the library classroom into a laboratory where students can experiment with new ideas or library tools. Perhaps I’ve been lucky thus far because in all my group activities, the students have helped to bring each other up as opposed to competing with one another.

I still have a ways to go before I’m entirely comfortable with group activities. For instance, I have a tendency to spend more time preparing than is necessary. As with most things involving change, this will take baby steps.

In what ways can you make your teaching uncomfortable?