More Final Reflections

Like Melissa, the time for my farewell post has come. I’ve greatly enjoyed my time writing for ACRLog—I’ve always found that writing helps me to process my thoughts and to reflect on my experiences. ACRLog has allowed me to do just that as I took my first steps into the life of a library professional. Looking back on it, the year has gone very quickly and, on the cusp of my second year, it feels like this year was a practice run. I tried some instruction, I tried some liaison work, I tried some purchasing, and now I’m ready to do it all over again in a more focused, organized manner.

I want to start this post with a few things I’ve learned along the way, or things that have surprised me.

You will be busy

My first few weeks, I had several different people tell me that I would probably feel like I had nothing to do for a good chunk of time, until suddenly I would feel like I had too much to do. They were right. This is exactly what happened for me. My first few weeks, I rattled around the library and filled my days with campus talks because I didn’t know what else to do. Then all of the sudden I had so much to do. I can’t pinpoint when that transition happened, but I know that it happened because, on top of learning more about what my job responsibilities really meant, I had also been saying yes to everything. Yes, I’ll go to that meeting, I have nothing better to do. Yes, I’ll write that book review, I have nothing better to do. These things eventually really do fill up your time.

This isn’t a bad thing, because I like to be busy, but now I’ve entered phase two: trying to figure out what I actually need to work on and what I can let go. Advice for those just starting out: you really can be picky. Your schedule will eventually fill up either way. Take that beginning time just to explore campus and explore where and how you really want to be involved.

Ask for things

Though it may be hard for the timid introverts among us, if there’s something you want, ask for it. You might be surprised. Whether you need something in your space like an extra bookcase or a standing desk, or you want time to pursue a new interest, or you need some extra professional development support, it doesn’t hurt to ask. I’ve been surprised at the help I’ve received when I needed it, but I shouldn’t be. Generally, people do want to support and help you.

Making time for research is hard

I was excited to start organizing my professional life and finally carve out some time for my own research. (Step one: figuring out what my research interests actually are.) It turns out, this isn’t quite so easy to do. As I already mentioned, it’s easy to get busy, and when that happens, it’s even easier for research to slip through the cracks, since it’s such a long-term practice and there are so many more time-sensitive things that need my attention.

I don’t have a good solution to this one yet. Yes, there’s always blocking off time in the schedule, but I’m not always disciplined enough to guard that time judiciously, so sometimes I don’t follow through. At least for now, though, this is my strategy.

How to learn?

It came as no surprise to me that there were things I would need to learn on the job: everything from library culture to how to subscribe to a new database to where donated books go. Generally, I’ve learned by doing. I needed to learn how to make a LibGuide, so I worked at creating one. I needed to learn how to write a book review, so I wrote one. However, I’ve also found that it’s very helpful to be taught things, or to follow along while someone else does something. Yes, I do like taking the time to figure things out on my own, but sometimes it’s more efficient and I learn more if I let someone know that I need help and they show me how they accomplish whatever it is I need to do myself. This way, I can see a good example and ask questions before I make my own attempt.

So, again, ask for help when you need it!


Despite learning some things and certainly feeling more comfortable than I did beginning this job, I still have a long way to go. Some of my goals for this coming year include really getting to know my faculty and their work. I want to be more engaged with the communities I serve, especially students, and I want to develop a deeper knowledge of the subject areas that I cover. This, in turn, will only improve my collection development. There’s also a buying trip in my future, which will be an entirely new challenge and another reason to turn to my colleagues for help and support.

And then there’s all the networking and conferencing that I have yet to learn to do properly. I’ve been working on building my online presence this year, while at the same time working on networking and understanding conferences. I can’t say I have figured everything out about online or in-person networking, but luckily I have more than year to learn and grow. I’m looking forward to everything this next year has in store for me, be it working more with others or getting deeper into librarianship.

Once again, it’s been a pleasure blogging this year and I want to thank ACRLog for the opportunity. Going forward, find me on Twitter or at my website.

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"

Asking questions to create opportunities for conversation and learning

I was chatting with one of my colleagues the other day about challenges he’s been experiencing recently in some of his one-shot information literacy classes. He regularly makes time in class for students to work on their own research and to consult with them individually. Yet he described difficulty engaging students in one-on-one conversation about their progress. He described how he typically circulates the room, asking students “How’s it going?” hoping they might share their progress or pose a problem which would provide him a point of entry into conversation or an opportunity to advise the student. Instead, he said, students typically reply “I’m doing fine” or “I’m good.” Hopefully, such responses mean students really are progressing in their research, successfully applying the concepts from the session to their own work. Yet their polite reply to my colleague’s opening line shuts him out of even the possibility of conversation.

I knew exactly what my colleague meant. I’ve felt frustrated by the same scenario, too. I have often asked the same question and often gotten the same reply, essentially “no thanks.” My colleague wondered how he might create space for conversation without uncomfortably forcing the issue. While some students might indeed really be doing fine and not need assistance with research, plenty do. And even if their research is progressing well, that doesn’t mean a conversation about their work couldn’t be useful. I shared with my colleague some of the ways I’ve tried to open conversation with students during this kind of working time. Essentially, I’ve stopped asking “How are you doing?” and instead ask “What are you working on?,” “What topic or question are you researching?,” or “What have you been trying so far?” This slight variation has helped me open the door to conversation with even reticent students.

I’ve seen a variety of both cognitive and affective advantages via this small, but significant, shift. This type of question gives students fewer outs. It doesn’t require students to make a judgment of their progress (or lack thereof), either. Instead, it’s a low-stakes, low-judgment question that just asks them to account for what they’re doing so far. And once they’ve articulated what they’re doing, I can ask follow-up questions that help them probe their own steps and thinking and even identify problems or opportunities on their own. The conversation serves as a kind of formative assessment, too, helping me check in with students about their level of understanding and application of the concepts, practices, and tools we’ve been focusing on in class. I can then meet them where they are, clarifying or redirecting where needed or helping them advance further when appropriate.

This exchange with my colleague prompted me to reflect on my questioning practices in other ways and settings. I recognized this same shift across my pedagogy, in fact. Where I used to tell, I see that I now ask. Instead of first telling students how to construct a search or pick a source, for example, I instead start by asking how they would approach a search or select a source: “What steps would you take?,” “What choices would you make?,” and most importantly “Why?” When I meet with students in individual research consultations, I don’t just ask “What are you working on?,” but also “What are you hoping to accomplish in our meeting today?” These questions again help me meet students where they are and then scaffold instruction to help them develop progressively. Significantly, they also help give students a chance to construct their own learning, puzzle over their intentions and rationales, and make meaning for themselves. These questions help us (students and myself alike) recognize students’ agency in their research.

Much like I’m trying to help students develop an attitude of inquiry for their own research and learning, these questions help me cultivate my own attitude of inquiry for teaching. I don’t want to ask only the kind of questions that require students to parrot rote, meaningless responses at me. I want to foster meaningful and impactful learning moments where students construct their understanding and develop frameworks for their future use. These questions help me learn from and listen to my students.

Incorporating Failure Into Library Instruction

Failure is what’s getting a fair amount of attention right now, especially when the conversation turns to learning. I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as a growing consensus, but I’m hearing and reading more about the importance of allowing students to learn through authentic practice, what some call experiential learning, that puts them into situations where they can succeed or fail – and learn by doing so themselves or from the experiences of their fellow students. Educators have known for many years that students have better learning experiences when there is a hands-on component which enables them to learn through their own mistakes and by coming to their own conclusions; what then need is less lecturing and demonstration. Think back to the days when the vast majority of trades were learned through apprenticeships. It was all about having authentic practice, and learning from one’s own mistakes.

One good example that promotes the value of failure for learning is a TED Talk by Diana Laufenberg on the topic of “How to Learn? From Mistakes.” In this talk Laufenberg, who is a teacher at a progressive school in Philadelphia, describes how she creates projects that promote constructivism in the classroom. Traditional education, as she describes it, is focused entirely on getting things right – and never being wrong. How do you get an A grade? You always give the right answers on tests. The problem associated with test taking is that it rarely results in real learning (a permanent change in behavior/thinking). I really like the point that the traditional methods are based on a world of information scarcity when you had to sit in a classroom to have an expert pour it into your head. In a world of information abundance, the answers and possibilities are all around contemporary students. They know how to find it. What they need are learning activities that enable them to hone their thinking skills to enable them to sort, synthesize, evaluate and create from the information they find (sounds familiar, right). What Laufenberg discovered through her learning projects was how much more effectively students learned when there were no hard and fast rules, and they learned through experience and the making of mistakes.

And when you move outside the world of education into business there is growing evidence of a “there’s value in failure” movement. Again, nothing particularly new when you consider that in the 1991 Deep Dive video the IDEO group emphasizes the important of trying lots of different ways to accomplish tasks knowing that many will fail, but that out of the failure will come learning and eventual success. More recently I came across this column titled “The Role of Failure in Learning” – you can’t get much more direct than that – that provides a corporate perspective. The author writes:

society tends to reward performers, rather than learners. All through school and life, it is not the person who learned the most who is rewarded but rather the person who came in first — the person who scored the highest. High performance is what is valued, not high learning. The downside to this is that high performers, without balancing high learning, will ultimately quit trying when they aren’t successful. They may leave avenues with an obstacle to success unexplored. Learners see the obstacle for what it is — a momentary blip to be dealt with. Failure is never failure; for the learner, it is simply an opportunity to learn.

I could point to other examples, but you get the message. It’s better perhaps to remind ourselves that there are different levels of failure, some are good for learning while others are just…bad failure. What do I mean? You don’t want the engineer who designs your car’s steering system or the factory worker who installs the parts to fail. They might learn something from the catastrophic failure, but at what cost? In this post about innovation, Michael Schrage makes the point that the best kind of failure for learning and innovation is some sort of partial failure – where you fail enough to have things go wrong but not so destructively that there’s nothing to learn from at all – the type of failure likely to result in quitting. I think what he’s saying is that we need the type of failure that takes us from version one to version two. Our libraries already have enough examples of systems that are so poorly designed that they lead to the type of failure that makes the students and faculty just want to give up on them. We don’t need more of that.

With so much discussion about the importance of failure for learning and innovation, how are academic library educators incorporating these lessons into research instruction? Are we still spending more time on making sure that students get things right, rather than on designing an experiential learning situation that allows them to make mistakes and learn from them? Admittedly, this is difficult to achieve in one course session. Laufenberg’s examples are week or month long projects that allow students to learn through experience at a more reasonable pace, as is often the case in the real world. The literature of information literacy contains good examples of problem-based learning where students are put into more realistic situations that require them to locate and use information to help solve a problem. That does get more to the point of experiential learning, but I’m not sure how the making of mistakes is capitalized upon to develop a more intense learning experience. My quick and dirty search of the library literature finds a few articles on the importance of learning from failure, but these are mostly geared to the profession – encouraging risk taking. What I don’t find are articles providing good examples of instruction designed with some intentional failure component that is there to ultimately aid students in learning how to think for themselves when they are dealing with information overload. If it appears that employers may be looking for the type of people who are comfortable with failure as long as they learn from it, and we’re about lifelong learning, perhaps that’s a skill we need to help our students develop.

In our rush to develop new “learning from failure” methods, let’s remember to recognize that as great as all this constructivist learning from mistakes sounds, there are times when a good old behaviorist approach might be better suited to the learning task at hand. If I have a room full of students who need to learn how to use the MediaMark (MRI) Plus database for a marketing assignment, I need to get them to learn the 15 steps they’ll need to get to the right data for their project. It would be pointless to get them to the first screen and then tell them to “experience” the interface and expect them to learn from the many, many mistakes they would no doubt make. This is a case where the reward for getting it done right is a successfully completed assignment.

In 2011 I will hope to see better examples of risk taking in the classroom, and models of library learning where there is an intentional element of “learning through failing” designed into the instruction. Despite my limited instruction opportunities, I’ll be giving more thought to this myself. Speaking of 2011, this may very well be the last ACRLog post of the year. If so, allow me to say thanks for your continued readership of ACRLog. It is greatly appreciated. On behalf of the blogging team, I hope you’ve found ACRLog worthwhile and have enjoyed the presence of new bloggers and guest bloggers throughout the year. As always, ACRLog is always open to ideas for guest posts. If you have something to share about academic librarianship, get in touch with us in 2011.