Re-envisioning an Instruction Program with Critical Information Literacy in Mind

My name is Kevin Adams and I am one of the new First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) bloggers! My pronouns are he/him/his. I am interested in critical information literacy, pedagogy, all things punk, and a bunch of other stuff. I am so happy to be writing for this blog and I hope that by sharing some of my experiences I can spark some fun conversations or just brighten somebody’s day.

I am the Information Literacy Librarian at Alfred University. Alfred University is a small private university in a little village in upstate New York. The closest city of note is Rochester. Because Alfred University is so small, I am one of eight librarians (including the dean and director). I don’t want to speak too much to other librarians’ workloads, but suffice to say we all have a lot of different responsibilities. One responsibility that we all share is instruction, and in my new position I find myself leading the instruction team. In this post I want to share my experience navigating reconstructing an information literacy program shaped by Critical Information Literacy. I hope to share what my goals are, what some of my strategies are, and the challenges I have faced.

Goals

The United States is a hell scape. Late stage capitalism is siphoning money from the working and middle class folks in this country to support billionaires’ and corporations’ hoarding habits; cops are continuing to murder innocent black and brown folks with no significant repercussions; climate change is driving natural disasters that are forcing people from their homes; innocent immigrants are being held in concentration camps where agents of the state are carrying out forced sterilizations; over 200,000 people have died in the United States from COVID-19; and the list goes on. I am aware of this, my colleagues are aware of this, other teaching faculty at my university are aware of this, and students are ABSOLUTELY aware of this. So, creating a standard information literacy program that doesn’t recognize what is going on in the world felt totally useless. For this reason, and others, I am trying to create an information literacy program that integrates Critical Information Literacy (CIL) throughout the instruction design and delivery process.

CIL is not the answer to all of the problems that I have listed above, but it is an approach that does not actively ignore the situation that we find ourselves in. CIL is an approach to information literacy that is informed by critical theory and critical pedagogy. It recognizes that information is not neutral or objective; rather, it reflects social, political, and economic power systems and privileges. CIL engages with learners as contributors in the classroom to investigate, understand, and use the contours of information structures and manifestations (Wong and Saunders, 2020). In many ways, this is an approach to information literacy that uses a social justice lens. 

This approach has two elements: 1) a deep understanding that information and libraries are not neutral, and 2) a centering of students in the classroom stemming from an understanding that students are important, active agents in the classroom. This agency allows students to contribute their ideas, experiences, and even expertise.

Strategies

When I applied and interviewed for this position, I centered my commitment to an inclusive information literacy program that, if possible, would implement CIL. Keeping this method front and center in my communications with potential new colleagues set the stage for me to have challenging conversations about neutrality and the role of instruction librarians as I began my new position.

Fast forward to my first month on the job. After getting acclimated to the new culture and climate of the position as best I could over Zoom, I started putting together a written Information Literacy Plan. I found myself in a unique position. Due to some shifts in the library prior to my joining, the previous instruction models were still primarily based on the ACRL Standards. This created a need for a new plan that centered the ACRL Framework. In filling this need, I saw an opportunity to incorporate CIL as a basic tenet of the Information Literacy Plan.

In order to tie the Information Literacy Plan into the values of my library and university, I consulted the strategic plans and mission and values statements for each. Alfred University strives to be “outside of ordinary” and uses language about inclusivity and diversity, affecting individual students, and changing the world for the better. While this type of branding sometimes leaves an unsavory taste in my mouth, it has allowed me to connect the CIL goals of social justice and inclusivity to the broader goals of the university. This has proven to be a failsafe as the White House has released statements that attack Critical Race Theory, an important theoretical foundation for CIL.

Implementing a plan for information literacy that negates that libraries and information are neutral from the very first page might not be possible at all institutions and might be highly controversial at others. In addition to creating a plan that ties in the values of the university, I worked closely with library administration. The Dean of Libraries at my institution is very sympathetic to social justice issues and information literacy. He has provided ample support for this idea from the outset. This has been extremely helpful in drumming up support for the idea amongst the other librarians, all of whom have been very receptive.

CIL does not exist in a vacuum. I was thrilled to find that AU libraries were actively working on a commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression. In this commitment the librarians showed that they were already thinking about many of the concepts that inform a CIL approach, for example anti-racism, false neutrality in academic spaces, the history of white supremacy in libraries, etc. Finding ways to talk to fellow librarians about these topics created fertile ground for the seeds of CIL.

Challenges

A little over a month ago I introduced the librarians to the Information Literacy Plan. The plan is still a living document and will be adapted as necessary, but it lays out a shared groundwork that can inform each librarian’s instruction practice. The plan was so well received that I nearly cried after sharing. It can be difficult to find high points this semester, but that was certainly one of them.

In spite of how well received the plan was, explaining and implementing it is and will continue to be challenging. Most of the instruction practices at my institution have, up until recently, been primarily informed by the ACRL Standards. Updating the program to include both the ACRL Frameworks and CIL is a dramatic shift. While working with fellow librarians that are excited and curious, I continue to find myself asking and answering new questions about how to best connect with and platform students in the classroom.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that all our instruction sessions have been online this semester. Centering students in a meaningful way during a one shot can be challenging in any circumstance. Add to that Zoom fatigue, frequent technical difficulties, and all the social, political, and environmental challenges weighing on our minds in 2020. JEEZE. It is not easy, and feeling encouraged by or excited about a session is becoming a rare occurrence.

I am still figuring out new strategies to overcome these challenges. I am excited to continue to share about this and other new developments in my first year as an academic librarian! I would be thrilled to speak with anyone about what this process has looked like, share strategies, or just commiserate. You can reach me by email, or hit me up on twitter @a_rad_librarian.

Reflecting on Seven Years of Librarianship

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now?: Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Ariana Santiago, Open Educational Resources Coordinator at the University of Houston.

Just over seven years ago, I began my career as an academic librarian. I also had the opportunity to write for the ACRLog First Year Academic Librarian Experience series. I’m so glad I did, because writing a monthly post motivated me to assess and reflect, and now I’m thankful that my old posts capture the unique experience of my first year on the job. So what have I been up to since then? And how have things changed?

Let’s start at the beginning

I started as the Residency Librarian for Undergraduate Services at the University of Iowa in August 2013. In my undergraduate services role, I focused on library outreach and information literacy instruction, and had a lot of flexibility to try things out so that I could make the most of my residency program. I got involved in campus committees, collaborated on outreach and programming events, was introduced to critical librarianship, and dove into learning about instructional design. I participated in professional development programs that had long lasting impacts on me, specifically ACRL Immersion: Intentional Teaching and the Minnesota Institute for Early Career Librarians from Traditionally Underrepresented Groups. I also dealt with uncertainty, knowing that I didn’t yet understand the full picture – of the library and university where I worked, and academia more broadly. I struggled with imposter syndrome, especially when it came to teaching, and hadn’t yet figured out how to ask for the help that I needed. I definitely didn’t have a long-term plan for my career, but I knew I wanted to improve and excel at what I was doing. 

Finding my niche with a side of burnout

After my residency, I moved to the University of Houston where I started as the Instruction Librarian in 2015. By this time I had gotten a lot more comfortable and confident with instruction, and really enjoyed not just being in the classroom and working with students, but the problem-solving nature of figuring out how to teach and engage students in different learning contexts. It was around this time that I started to realize my facilitation skills and that I really wanted to facilitate others’ success, whether through IL instruction, working with colleagues on their teaching, or leading a library project or committee. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize I was headed towards burnout. I got increasingly involved in professional service, started presenting and publishing as I prepared for eventual promotion, and was working on a second master’s degree (M.A. in Applied Learning and Instruction, which I completed in 2017), all the while maintaining a heavy teaching load. I think it’s safe to say I still hadn’t figured out how to ask for help, or even admit when I was struggling and needed help. 

Then in 2018, I got the opportunity to move into a new position at the University of Houston, and started as the Open Educational Resources (OER) Coordinator. I’ve read my fellow former FYAL’s posts and they all speak of the inspirations that shaped their career paths and landed them where they are today. For me, this part of my career trajectory was far less intentional. I had the opportunity to take on this position, though to be completely honest, at the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. But I took a chance, and I’m definitely glad that I did. 

Although an OER position wasn’t something I had been purposefully working towards, I’m now 2+ years into it and clearly see how this work builds on my previous experience and strengths. I’m contributing to improving teaching and learning by helping instructors incorporate OER into their courses, allowing students to have free and immediate access to course materials. I get to incorporate elements of instructional design and campus outreach, and there’s no shortage of problem-solving on a regular basis. I enjoy working closely with instructors to support them in reaching their instructional goals, and further facilitating student success. 

However, because I didn’t start with a strong background in OER, I often went back to feelings of imposter syndrome. When I transitioned into this new area, I was reminded of how it feels to truly step outside of your comfort zone and became painfully aware of how much I didn’t know or understand yet. Fortunately, by this time (or perhaps because of this experience) I had gotten a lot better at identifying when I needed help and asking for it. In recent years, I’ve also practiced my ability to say “no” to things. Earlier on, my eagerness to get involved and help out wherever help was needed led to burnout from taking on too much. Now I know the value of my time and to be more selective about the commitments I take on. 

Still figuring it out

In my very last FYAL post, I gave the following advice: don’t take on too much, ask for help, and keep the big picture in mind. Turns out this was pretty good advice for me to listen to throughout the years! To add on to that advice now: it’s okay to not have things all figured out. I admire people who know exactly where they’re headed and what they want out of their careers, but I’m not that person (at least not right now), and I think it’s okay to figure things out as you go. 

Along with everyone else right now, I don’t know what the future holds. I know that I’m about to submit my portfolio for promotion, and that I’ll continue to work from home for the immediate future, but that’s about it. I don’t know what the next seven years will bring, but I’m excited to find out!

A Wrinkle in Time

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Susanna Smith, Acquisitions Librarian and Instructional Designer at Georgia Highlands College Library. 

Last time I wrote for ACRLog, back in June 2009, I was a librarian working as a Library Technical Assistant managing a one-person library at a small satellite community college campus in Alabama. Whew. Today … life is completely different, and not just because I’ve been working from home nearly a month! I’m currently the Acquisitions Librarian (who also wears a Reference and Instruction hat most days) at a medium-sized state college in Georgia. I received my M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Technology a couple of years ago so I also work as an Instructional Designer for our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, developing workshops for faculty and consulting with them on course design. And boy, howdy, I’ve been busy. I’ve recently been working with a library team to revamp our student learning objectives, assessment tools, and our peer observation form. I was part of the group who successfully got the library faculty included in the promotion and tenure process. And in my acquisitions role I’ve helped us switch to a new LMS, started a major weeding project removing 20k plus monographs, learned to negotiate with vendors and manage database resources, and juggled what was for me a mind-boggling budget. That’s a long way from sitting for ten hours a day at a tiny library’s circulation desk!

So how did I get from there to here? As with most stories, it starts with an unexpected change in circumstances.

In 2011, I got a new job. When I started the paraprofessional position in 2007, I helped open a branch campus library and this new job was much the same, except I would actually be library faculty. WooHoo! So my husband and I packed up our bags, moved to northwest Georgia, and I set to work building a new library from the ground up. The physical space was already determined, but I designed the layout, chose the furniture, and built the collection (mostly with second copies culled from the main library). It was another one-person-library situation, but it became clear pretty quickly that we definitely needed a second person to hold down the fort because I was in the classroom so often. For three years I continued to teach 30-50 library sessions a semester on two satellite campuses, and spent the rest of my time at the reference desk. I even had the opportunity to attend ACRL Immersion, which was a life- and instruction- changing experience for me. (Quick plug: I highly recommend it, especially if you feel inadequate in front of a class full of students.)

But ultimately, I still felt the siren-call of technical services. In a past life I was a bookstore special orders and office manager so in 2015, when our beloved Acquisitions Librarian retired, I applied and moved to the main campus to take over. It was a dream come true! I ordered books, managed databases, worked with vendors, did some cataloging. I still spent time at the reference desk, but I was mostly involved with back-office technical services projects.

Until….

I realized I actually missed being in the classroom. Wait a minute … I’m an introvert … how was that possible? Those few classes I had to teach at my first job were always the least fun things I did. But after being in the classroom so much in my recent position, I’d come to enjoy the interaction and now I realized I wanted to continue that. Enter another unexpected opportunity: At about the same time as this surprising self-revelation, the college’s web-based course offerings expanded mightily. The library needed someone to become an “embedded librarian” and work with those online faculty and students. I volunteered, and discovered a whole new world. I worked with faculty directly to develop assignments and even, in a few cases, did some grading. I learned how to use technology in ways far beyond searching databases for information. I started working with assessment, and scaffolding instruction sessions which would lead to better student learning, and considering what a structured one-shot class should look like instead of the free-for-all “teach the students everything in an hour” that is still common practice.

That work led me, eventually, to an instructional design program in 2016 and to where I find myself now. As I’ve been considering what to write for this post, I realized how much has changed in my life over the past ten years. It didn’t seem like such a seismic shift when I was in the moment, but reflecting back I am in awe of how different I am today. And that brings me to another startling bit of self-reflection. What should I call myself? Librarian, certainly. But I also live a lot of my life now on the “teaching faculty” side of the house, wearing my instructional designer hat. I’ve had the opportunity recently to apply for a library managerial position as well as an instructional designer position. I decided against both because, as I told my husband, “I am a librarian at heart.” I never wanted to be an administrator, so that was easy. And I can connect students and faculty with the information they need when they need it using all my hats. In reference and instruction, I do it the old-fashioned way. In acquisitions, I listen to what they need and find the resources to meet that need. As an instructional designer, I work on a meta-level, through pedagogy and design and lay the groundwork for teaching BOTH faculty and students how to better meet their information needs.

If I’ve changed this much in ten years, I wonder what life will be like in 2030? Onward and upward!

Feeling my way as a teacher

This month, I’ve been participating in the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), an intensive three-day program that involves presenting mini-lessons, peer feedback, and discussions on learner-centred teaching practices.  

My experience with teaching is not extensive. While I did have opportunities to assist with library instruction and co-teach some classes in library school, I had never designed or developed an information literacy (IL) lesson before starting my current position. While I had crammed as much as I could about learning outcomes, active learning techniques, frameworks and standards, and educational philosophies, the idea of creating an IL lesson on my own was daunting. 

When I first started my position in the summer, I had grand plans to explore and be creative in my teaching, and spent time perusing Project CORA, ACRL Framework for Information Literacy Sandbox, and various library instruction books and guides, particularly around critical approaches. But when September rolled around and my calendar started filling up, exploration and creativity went out the window! As a new librarian, lesson planning took longer than I had anticipated, filled with constant questions of “am I doing this right? Is this going to work?”

I was extremely grateful to my colleague who shared their detailed lesson plans with me, and I heavily relied on what they had already created and delivered. While it was amazing to not have to create lessons from scratch and approach faculty with IL lessons that they were already familiar with, I also felt that I wasn’t developing my own teaching style and philosophy. I was reluctant to take risks or try anything new.

While the ISW program isn’t focused on information literacy, it’s been a valuable opportunity for me to learn and to try out (and fail at!) new teaching techniques and learning activities in a relatively risk-free environment. For example, I’ve explored looking at evaluating sources and peer review through online recipes, which was a fun for me because I got to talk about my current obsession with Bon Appétit! Last week I tried designing a 10-minute lesson around mapping out research journeys and exploring research strategies based on everyone’s personal journey. I ran out of time and didn’t feel super great about how the lesson went, but it was a great opportunity to experiment with learning activities that involve giving over control to the learners.

I’m not entirely sure if I’m going to try to take any big risks in my IL classes next semester. In the ISW, I didn’t have to consider what faculty want, the pressures of an assignment, or even the challenges of teaching in a large classroom. The context of the one-shot class is another thing to consider when thinking about experimenting with new teaching techniques. As a new librarian, I’m still feeling my way. But I did gain a bit more confidence in my teaching while participating in the ISW, and the opportunity to try new things was invigorating. I’m hoping that confidence will encourage me to try new things, however small, in my IL classes. 

One of the small goals for my teaching next semester is a suggestion one of the ISW facilitators made: make the implicit explicit. I hope to make my teaching decisions (the why am I doing this) more transparent to the classroom and also for myself through written reflection. 

I have one more ISW session left this upcoming Friday. While I won’t miss watching recordings of myself teaching, I will miss the dedicated time spent on talking about teaching. I’m definitely going to try and find more opportunities to share teaching practices with my colleagues, other librarians, and other instructors.

How Did You Learn to Teach?

If there’s one regret I have about graduate school, it’s that I never learned to teach. No courses on education are required as part of the curriculum, and the one class I remember being available was offered during an already overloaded semester for me. None of the internships I had involved information literacy instruction. So, I arrived a fully-fledged librarian without having taught (or been taught how to teach) an information literacy session. Meredith Farkas’ blog post on this topic made me realize I’m not alone. Her informal twitter poll shows that more than half of the librarians she surveyed didn’t receive information literacy training prior to starting to teach, and I’m sure there are many more out there.

By the time I was interviewing for jobs, I knew this was an area I would need to actively develop, partly because it was essential for the types of jobs I was interested in and partly because I thought I would really like it. When I started at UVa and needed to set my goals for the following year, learning to teach was at top of the list. Am I all the way there yet? Definitely not (it’s not exactly a finite goal). But I have made some strides towards getting more comfortable planning and teaching classes. Now that I’m wrapping up my instruction obligations for the semester, I thought I’d take a look at how I got here.

Digging into the literature

I knew I didn’t know enough about information literacy to teach it, so the first thing I did was dig into the literature to get up to speed.  Following along with Zoe Fisher’s 100 information literacy articles in 100 days project was a great primer, and I highly recommend her blog posts summarizing her findings. I also started following instruction-focused blogs like the excellent Rule Number One and following their reading recommendations. When I started to feel unsure about how to turn the abstraction of the framework into practice, I sought out lesson plans and activities written by other librarians. Browsing through Project CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments) and the Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook Volume 2 have been particularly helpful. This reading helped me lay the intellectual and theoretical groundwork for teaching, but I wasn’t yet sure what it looked like in the classroom.

Observing classes and co-teaching

Next, I shamelessly asked as many colleagues as I could to shadow their classes. I sat in on classes ranging from general library orientation sessions for first-years to discipline-specific research methods classes for upperclassmen. Watching experienced teachers in the classroom is probably the most helpful thing I could have done, since it gave me something to model my own teaching after. Co-teaching was another useful step in my learning process. Partnering on workshops and classes helped me gain confidence in lesson-planning and in the classroom. It feels a little bit like teaching with training wheels. If things go awry, or an idea you have is wildly off-base, there’s someone there to help gently correct you.

Just going for it

After reading so many blogs and articles and Twitter feeds and watching experienced colleagues, I started to feel paralyzed. No activity I thought of seemed creative enough. I was scared someone would ask me a question I couldn’t answer, or that I wouldn’t know how to facilitate an engaging discussion. On the morning of my first solo class of the semester, I took a moment to think about what I was really nervous about, and realized that I had started to fear that I would be responsible for the instruction session that turned a faculty member off the library for a decade. I had made the stakes feel way too high for myself.

I tried to reframe the things, and just think about myself going into a room full of people to learn and to help other people learn.  There was no article I could read or lesson plan I could write or class I could observe that would replace the experience of just trying it. And you know what? That class went really well. Since then, I’ve had a few more classes – some have been energizing and I left feeling like I had really hit the mark; a few have felt awkward or were received unenthusiastically, and the world didn’t end.

What makes these experiences feel so high-stakes is what Veronica mentioned (and problematized)  in her last post: you often have to work hard to get into the classroom in the first place. As someone whose departments do not have a strong history of library instruction, the few opportunities I had this semester to teach one-shot or multiple sessions in a course felt like critical breaks, instead of opportunities to learn. Taking some of the pressure off of myself – and remembering that I’m still learning – helped me approach them more openly.

For those of you who were launched into positions with teaching responsibilities without any training, how did you learn to teach? And for the experienced teachers out there, how would you recommend continuing to grow?