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. 

From clicks toward concepts in the information literacy classroom

I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter the other day when a tweet caught my eye. I wish I could find it again to do it justice, but it was essentially a critique of the author’s missteps in the classroom early in their career by way of a funny apology to students. It immediately transported me back to some of the most disappointing and embarrassing teaching experiences in my own early career days. My whole body still cringes when I remember those moments: the one-shots where, for example, I droned on about database navigation and put students, and myself, to sleep; the ones where I stuffed every minute of class, often with insignificant minutiae, thereby camouflaging what really mattered. I didn’t know how to prioritize or pace instruction, much less how to engage students. 

I’m grateful to say that almost everything about my teaching has changed since then, and for the better. Now, more than a decade later, my teaching is much more grounded in constructivist pedagogy and organized around cultivating students’ awareness and understanding of their research processes. My approach then could perhaps be described as tool-driven and largely based in demonstration. It was common for me to develop some kind of resource guide for the course–essentially a long list of links to recommended databases, books, websites, etc.–and then to spend our time in class focused on modeling and practicing effective use of those tools. Of course, there are still plenty of occasions when it makes sense to orient students to effectively using library databases. But now uncovering, conceptualizing, and shaping the process of research–the methods, stages, and purpose–is my organizational blueprint. Today–guided by constructivist and metacognitive principles, active learning pedagogy, and formative assessment techniques–my teaching is much less about tools and much more about strategies, much less about clicks and much more about concepts. 

While the impact of this long transformation has reaped many rewards in student engagement and learning, as well as my personal interest and satisfaction, I know there are many ways I could further improve what I’m doing and the way I’m doing it. I hope to keep iterating and advancing. Specifically, I’m thinking about a technique that I’ve long recognized as a weak spot in my teaching and that could support this road from clicks to concepts: storytelling. 

I’m using the word storytelling quite broadly for my purposes. Perhaps examples is more accurate (and less lofty and self-aggrandizing)? Yet examples feels just a bit narrow. I’m not referring only to developing instructive sample searches to demonstrate how to keep keywords simple yet precise or selecting the ideal sample article to model how to effectively organize a literature review. Of course, those are important kinds of examples and, when done well, very impactful ones. But when I say I want to use storytelling or examples, I’m thinking more about allegories, anecdotes, and analogies, case studies and real-world problems to wrap around the research strategies and concepts at the core of each class. I’m imagining that such storytelling techniques could extend or enhance information literacy teaching and learning by making abstract or technical concepts more accessible and concrete, facilitating recall, demonstrating relevance and impact, prompting reflection and meaning-making, not to mention simply providing inspiration or general interest. I’ve so far been thinking of these as discrete stories to insert at key moments in class to illustrate a point, hook a students’ interest, or propel us all toward moments of understanding.

The small amount of reading on this topic that I’ve done thus far seems to affirm the effectiveness of storytelling and precise, compelling examples in teaching (not to mention other domains like management and leadership). And the tips I’ve stumbled on so far suggest that, like many things in teaching, it’s best to start small by focusing on a single area or concept that students regularly struggle with in order to integrate storytelling where it’s most needed. Otherwise, I’m still a bit at sea here on how to do this best. It’s one thing to be able to identify where a story would be most helpful; it’s another to compose a compelling story that helps students reach a meaningful takeaway and recognize why that takeaway matters. I certainly need to do more research and thinking, but I’m curious about your experience. Have you incorporated storytelling and examples in your teaching? What kinds of stories? And to what effect? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Cameras Off: Transitioning from Virtual to In-Person Instruction

This guest post comes from Grace Spiewak, the Instructional Services Librarian at Aurora University.

Virtual instruction is my normal – not my new normal, but the only normal I’ve known since becoming a librarian.

I started my first professional librarian position in August 2020, right after completing my last one and a half semesters of graduate school online.  After securing a job focused on information literacy instruction, I have not had to adapt to virtual teaching because it’s all I’ve practiced in the early stage of my career.  Even the instruction classes I took in graduate school met virtually, with all our teaching demonstrations conducted online.

For some, the return to in-person instruction may feel overdue and familiar.  While I am excited to meet students and faculty face-to-face, I also acknowledge that the transition will initiate a learning curve as I wean off of virtual instruction. 

To prepare for the switch, I am reflecting on the assets of virtual teaching that I can implement in the physical classroom.  Whether you’re a first year librarian in a similar situation or a seasoned instructor, I hope to initiate conversation on the ways that this year’s virtual experience can enhance students’ learning moving forward.

Let’s Chat

The obstacles to reading body language during virtual meetings and the awkwardness of staring at faces while waiting for a brave individual to hop on the microphone contributes to my reliance on virtual chat during instruction.  Discomfort around using mics can stilt class discussions, and students seem more open to typing in the chat to participate. 

In face-to-face instruction, I cannot rely on chat as the primary means of discussion, nor do I want to abandon its beneficial features that invite students to contribute in a less intimidating format.  Online tools such as Mentimeter, Padlet, and Answer Garden allow me to utilize the features of virtual chat in any learning environment.  Students submit anonymous responses to prompts or questions via their devices, and results display on the screen in real time. 

Incorporating these chat-adjacent tools in addition to traditional discussion will increase accessibility and inclusivity for students who are uncomfortable or unable to verbally participate.  Varying the format of discussion to garner engagement serves as an essential lesson from the remote classroom.

Make Accessibility a Priority

Due to the pandemic, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) merits a nuanced scope beyond traditional accessibility requirements.  The virtual environment increases the difficulty to anticipate and recognize students’ accessibility needs.  Students may also have to commute during class, keep their volume low so as not to disturb family members at home, or silence their mic because they are accessing WiFi in a public space. 

UDL allows me to prepare for the variety of accessibility needs students may have, even if I am not made aware of them.  Offering multiple options for interaction such as using mics, virtual chat, and emojis aims to make participation possible regardless of students’ location.  Other UDL strategies I employ include typing directions into the chat in addition to verbal explanation, describing the images I show, and detailing the visual layout of resources I demonstrate. 

UDL remains an essential aspect of inclusive instruction, and the acuteness it has taken on during the pandemic emphasizes its necessity.  I have the opportunity to pursue this momentum by adapting virtual UDL strategies to the physical environment.

Get Excited!

On top of starting my first librarian job, working during a global pandemic, and developing my own instruction practices, the transition to in-person teaching compounds a substantial adjustment in a chaotic year – and an exciting change.  I will have increased interaction with students and faculty, the ability to better gauge and respond to students’ needs in real time, and the opportunity for organic discussion in the classroom.  I will also need to get used to standing up in front of a class rather than looking at squares on a screen, navigating campus to get to classrooms, and facilitating in-person discussions.

We have all experienced tremendous change in our personal and professional lives since last March.  While coming back to campus will introduce fresh challenges, we have the capacity to make them work for us.  Recognizing the benefits of virtual learning and applying them to the physical classroom can ease this shift and improve students’ experiences with library instruction going forward. 

Face-to-face teaching may be a new normal for me, but the lessons from this virtual year can progress the accessibility and inclusivity of my instruction.  After countless hours of virtual sessions, the anticipation of a buzzing campus life far outweighs the bumps bound to accompany this transition.

Your Personal Librarian

My daughter has a book called, Your Personal Penguin by Sandra Boynton, which is one of my favorites. In the book, a penguin follows a hippopotamus asking for its friendship. As with other children’s books, there aren’t many words, but the illustrations hint at the potential for a great friendship. I’ve found Sandra Boynton’s books to be endearing without being saccharine and they have brought light to a dark time.

In the meantime, our library started using a liaison model for instruction this semester. Students seeking degrees are required to take two classes covering the research process. It made sense to assign individual librarians to these sections so that they had one point of contact. We also thought it would make the library less of an abstraction since students can’t set foot inside. As a newbie it would also allow the chance to really get to know a few sections of students and be their personal librarian.

I am working with English and Communications classes. Last semester I did a one-off for a Communications class, but my instruction opportunities were limited as I had only started. That won’t be the case this semester as I have the chance to collaborate with another faculty member to talk about information literacy; how cool is that!? I feel equal parts overwhelmed and excited.

Even though I taught music for years before becoming a librarian, I’m still always amazed by the amount of preparation that goes into even shorter sessions. (Teachers need to be paid more.) I digress; I have a process for instruction, though it is evolving. First, I look at the instructor’s syllabus and create learning outcomes. My learning outcomes have the basic ingredients: an action verb, content, and context. I will admit that mine are a work in progress. It is too easy to create a bad learning outcome, “Learners will understand the thing at the place = success!” Ideally everything supports the learning outcomes, but if they aren’t up to snuff, nothing else will be either.

I want to create activities that reinforce the learning outcomes. I’ve been guilty, especially in my early days of teaching music, of creating activities that don’t justify the outcome. I also need to work on creating just enough scaffolding to provide context without giving the students information overload. Students don’t need to know everything inside of my head. Especially for brief sessions, a surface understanding is enough.

We are still working on assessment in this environment. During more typical semesters, paper surveys are handed out to students. That isn’t a realistic option and we still need to create standardized Google forms exclusively for library instruction. It surprised me though that I have enjoyed creating them.

The more I do this process, the more I can perfect it, and the more I can pivot in real time. Having plans is wonderful, but I want to have the flexibility and the experience to make changes when they aren’t working. As a newer librarian, I’m trying to follow best practices, believing that I need to both know and master the rules before I can break them. That time will come.

My hope is that this liaison model will allow me to be their personal librarian. Unlike the plucky little penguin, I know that we won’t go on adventures together, but I do hope that I can help them on their journey through research. I want to be a face and a name that is reliable and can be counted on. With any luck this model will translate back on campus, allowing the library to represent these same qualities.

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.