Thinking About the Future

As the end of the semester rolls around I’ve been sorting through the evaluations that we ask our English Composition I students to fill out at the end of their required library session. I was scrolling through the spreadsheet of student responses the other day and one in particular jumped out at me: “How will this help us in the future?”

It’s often said that there are no bad questions (and I agree), but there are also some really good questions and that’s one of them. Why DO our students need what we teach them in a library session? How will they apply what they’ve learned in our classes to their lives in the future?

I spend the first part of my classes trying to emphasize that information literacy and the research skills they’ll begin to learn in college are transferable knowledge. I give them concrete examples of the relevance of information literacy to their careers (preparing for job interviews, staying current in their fields, etc.) and their lives beyond college (finding health information, moving or traveling to a new place, etc.). I’m at a college of technical and professional studies, and planning for their future jobs is always on students’ minds.

I also point out that becoming a proficient searcher is relevant to their work here at college, when they’ll need to search for library materials, and for searching the internet (again, both in college and in their everyday lives). I stress that different questions require different information to answer, and the importance of evaluating information, especially on the internet but also “traditionally” published information.

Our time in the library sessions always seems too short, but I feel like I do a reasonably good job of explaining the relevance of research skills and information literacy to the lives of our students both in college and in the future. So, what happened in that class? Did the student come to the session late, or sleep (or web surf) through the beginning, when I usually cover these topics?

Or are the reasons I give to students not compelling enough? Maybe they’ve heard it all before, that every subject they’re required to study is relevant, and since they haven’t actually gotten to their post-college careers and lives it’s not real for them yet.

Whatever the student’s reason for asking the question, it’s still a good question. I’ve written it on a post-it and stuck it above my computer monitor so I can keep it in mind when thinking about the future of our information literacy and instruction program, too.

Must Teaching and Learning Research Skills be Boring?

Olivia Nellums blogs about her first year experience as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Camden County College in New Jersey.

Even though I’m a young librarian, I can’t remember not knowing how to use the library. I learned gradually, through a process of trial and error, and then by going to library school.

This leaves me in a curious spot as an instruction librarian: A class comes to the library to learn how to do research for a particular assignment, and basically I communicate what I’ve learned so far about how to effectively use a library. Then, unless they find me later at the reference desk, I don’t see them again. Broadly speaking, library instruction seems to be regarded as skills-based: The librarian demonstrates the skills, and the students are supposed to absorb them in that traditional way that equates their brains with sponges. The library is relevant to them only in the context of their course, and I can tell they’d like me to hurry up and get it over with so they can get back to the competing concerns of their class.

So, as many instruction librarians before me, I’ve turned to learning theories for guidance. Here’s what I’m gathering:
-I should leave students wanting to strike out independently to learn more about information and information-gathering, but without omitting essential points in my lecture.
-I should encourage students to be curious about how to solve an information problem. Also I should nurture them into reconsidering what they think they know about information.
-I should assist with the above in a patient, encouraging, and overall enthusiastic manner.

Now, before I started this job my biggest worries were that I talk too fast and might be mistaken for a student rather than a librarian. On the bright side, I’m glad to see I can set aside those trivialities. I’m also glad that the ideas above are really part of information literacy, which seems to be getting an increasing amount of attention from the academy at large.

As for other past concerns – mainly that I’m in charge of helping students learn every little thing about the library, and that it’s a personal failure if they don’t get it – maybe what I ought to be supporting is a framework of information and the basics of how to find it. So, here’s my summary of that earlier list (borrowing slightly from Ken Bain‘s What the Best College Teachers Do):
-I should promote a natural critical learning environment where students can confront beautiful and intriguing information problems, yet not make it so theoretical that they throw rotten tomatoes at me.

I’m on it.