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"

Student Workers: What do they owe us, and what do we owe them?

Whether you want to start a new habit or break an old one, the new year is a popular time to reconsider our patterns. In the academic library, the switch between semesters gives us a chance to start over – in the classroom, with our colleagues, and with our student workers. The questions I’ve been asking myself have to do with my role as a student supervisor: What do I owe these students and what should I expect from them?

We owe them mentoring.

Whether it’s in my job description or not, I’m more than a supervisor to our undergraduate student workers. I’m one of the main “adults” (by which I mean non-student, non-teacher) in their lives at school, a sounding board for homework questions but also the delicate issues of college social life. I can think of conversations from last semester where I thought, “Should I give my honest advice here, or let her make the mistakes I made and learned from when I was in college?” Mentoring student workers can be tricky and emotionally taxing, but it is very rewarding.

One of my colleagues says that part of our role as student managers is to be a campus ally, and I agree. Undergraduates face all kinds of real world obstacles during their time in college, from stress and mental health to poverty and family needs. Our student workers view us as a stable presence that can help them navigate campus resources and personal dilemmas. Even as I recognize the emotional labor cost of this work, I believe we owe our students a mentoring relationship, interest in their lives and their success. It’s worth our time, and absolutely part of our job.

We owe them meaningful work.

There’s been a conversation at my library lately about giving our student workers more meaningful work, beyond administrative and clerical duties. We’ve been brainstorming how to ask more of our student workers while still honoring their pay grade and what’s fair. But I don’t think we quite know what we mean by “meaningful work” yet – should we give away all the fun tasks like social media and event planning? Don’t our students expect to get homework done at the desk?

Recently I’ve encountered two models for student work that I found interesting. Hailley Fargo makes a good case for encouraging student employees to provide peer-to-peer reference services in her article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe: “Just like we value a librarian’s subject or functional expertise, we should also value our students’ expertise and the experiential knowledge they bring into their role as peer mentors/leaders…Just like we speak the language of library and information science, our students speak the language of their peers and this can be incredibly powerful.” Careful training and building student worker confidence so that they can handle more complex questions at the reference desk might be one answer to the meaningful work question.

I also had the privilege of meeting with the librarians at Gettysburg College and learning about their Peer Research Mentor (PRM) program, which was created to give student workers a high-impact learning experience beyond the traditional responsibilities of a library student gig. In both of these cases, the authors emphasize the importance of thorough and on-going training, and in an understaffed library that makes me tremble. But even if I am not sure how to find the time for this yet, I admire how the librarians at Gettysburg have worked to make the ongoing training fun and connected to real-world work responsibilities – from “research question of the week” activities to attending and running department meetings. Every library harnesses their student workforce differently, and comparing notes with other librarians will help our library find the way that works for us.

They owe us their labor – within reason.

If job creep bothers me in my position, then I should be a guardian against responsibilities sneaking up on my student employees as well. The librarian at Gettysburg who described the PRM program to me emphasized that these students are separately recruited, trained, and paid to reflect their additional responsibilities, and I think that’s key to harnessing student labor ethically.

I think that job descriptions should be as transparent as possible, regularly revisited, and created in collaboration between manager and employee. I don’t like the words “other duties as assigned,” because I think they crack the door for job creep, and I don’t want to exploit our student workers. And for good and bad, this is the first job of many of our student workers. It’s a good sandbox for them to learn professional norms like reliability, work attire, and taking initiative. It’s also a chance for their supervisors to demonstrate healthy management and boundaries.

We owe them respect.

In my tour of the library at Gettysburg, I was struck by how the staff worked to honor the contributions of their student workers. Student employees who work in rare book repair or the college archive are credited for their labor in archives publications and on the rare book containers themselves. The PRMs, with guidance from their librarian advisors, are trusted to design drop-in workshops and even help teach information literacy sessions. We should show that we value our student workers and their contributions to the library.

We often say they’re the public face of the library, and the assistance they provide makes a lot of things possible. At our library, student workers make regular shelving (and my lunch break!) possible. With great responsibility should come at least a little power – a say in programming or marketing materials, a voice at staff meetings perhaps, or their work memorialized by bookplates and other employee celebrations. Connecting the shelving, printer restocking, and front desk management to our larger mission makes those tasks meaningful too. It’s worth taking the time to help our student workforce see how they advance the mission of the library, and celebrating their contributions how we can.

As I conclude this blog post, I realize that I’ve been thinking out loud and I don’t have a simple definition for the give and take of the librarian/student worker relationship, but I’d like to continue this conversation. How does your library manage and/or mentor its student workforce?

Valuing Student Experience

Discussions surrounding student experiences and how to incorporate those experiences during library instruction have been a hot topic in library land and is something I’ve thought about as well. How can I best value student experiences and ensure that what I’m teaching is relevant to them? What do I need to do to make my teaching student-centered?  When I think about student experiences, I think about the unique backgrounds, perspectives, ideas, beliefs, identities, and skills that students bring into the classroom. I think about what I bring to the classroom as well and what all of this might mean for library instruction.

Student experience is at the forefront of my mind – now more than ever – because I work for a Jesuit university. Though Jesuit pedagogy is built on religious foundations, you don’t have to be religious to understand and adopt the pieces that work for your own teaching practice. Jesuit education is based on the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (IPP). I’m not an expert on IPP since I was only introduced to the concept a few months ago, but there are a few things I’ve been able to take away from this approach to teaching. I’ve found it a useful framework when thinking about how to bring student experience into the library classroom, especially in a one-shot setting.

In IPP, experience is labelled as context. On page 10, section 35 of the IPP document, context is explained as this:

Since human experience, always the starting point in an Ignatian pedagogy, never occurs in a vacuum, we must know as much as we can about the actual context within which teaching and learning take place. As teachers, therefore, we need to understand the world of the student, including the ways in which family, friends, peers, youth culture and mores as well as social pressures, school life, politics, economics, religion, media, art, music, and other realities impact that world and affect the student for better or worse. Indeed, from time to time we should work seriously with students to reflect on the contextual realities of both our worlds. (IPP, p. 10)

Essentially, we need to understand the world surrounding students and how that world works for or against them. I don’t think there’s an easy, one-size fits all approach to doing this. If critically reflecting on and incorporating student experiences into library instruction were easy, everyone would do it right now; however, there are many ways we can value students. For me, the first step to valuing a student’s context is to not make assumptions about their world. I can’t assume that every student has the same educational background, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, experience with technology, or beliefs about a subject. If I do make those assumptions, I’m already de-valuing the experiences a student brings into my classroom; I’m forcing my own experiences and understandings of the world onto them. I have to actively practice this because I have my own implicit biases that affect my worldview and how I interact with students. Reshaping the way we think about students, what they bring to the classroom, and what we think they know is an active and ongoing process.

Since many librarians teach one-shots, or sessions that are shorter than the typical for-credit class, it can be difficult to really get to know the students in our classrooms. With these constraints, I really struggle with the question of how to build context with such little time because I want to build continuing relationships and strong connections, which are not possible in one, 75 minute class. I think context can be built in smaller ways. Conversations with faculty before library instruction help build context. We can understand the class students are in, the topics that they are studying, and the assignment that they are working on. We can also be aware of campus, state, country, and worldwide issues that affect student lives.

Within library instruction, there are ways that we can continue to value student experiences. One way to do this is with short questions at the beginning of class such as asking students if they’ve been to the library before, what their major is, or who they go to for research help. Any information about what students know and where they are coming from is useful. Using varied and inclusive examples can also ensure that multiple backgrounds are valued. I also try to make references students can connect to, and I’ll check in with students to make sure they are still relevant (Do you all use Twitter? Is SparkNotes still a thing?). I think it’s also important to connect new concepts or tools to things that students already know because that acknowledges their life outside the classroom. If students use Google, let’s talk about Google and how that relates to library research.

Thinking back to the context section of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm, one thing I find helpful are the questions posed at the end of the paragraph such as, “How do world experiences affect the very way in which students learn, helping to mold their habitual patterns of thinking and acting?” Class discussions are a place where students can both share their own experiences and also critically reflect on how their own lives influence their understanding of information. This is, again, difficult in a one-shot setting because we have to take the time to build familiarity with students so they feel comfortable talking to and with us. Luckily, I had several opportunities to work with a class multiple times throughout the semester, which allowed for more open conversations surrounding power, belief systems, and how that relates to information. I hope multiple instruction sessions become more of a norm for libraries in the future.

The last idea surrounding student experiences that I’ve been thinking about is how context-building goes beyond a library instruction session. I struggled with how to check-in with students after instruction, and one of my colleagues mentioned that she offers a follow-up email later in the semester to any student who wants one. It’s a simple idea, and it works. At the end of instruction, I pass a sheet around for any student who wants to write down their email for a check-in. A week later, I’ll send them an email asking how they are doing and let them know that they can contact me at any time if they need help. Most students don’t reply, but I’m surprised by the amount that do (especially once assignments are due!). It allows an opportunity to continue working outside of the classroom, learn more about students, and engage one-on-one. Beyond email follow-ups, attending student presentations and speeches, events, and celebrations on campus show students that we care about their lives and experiences.

Students are at the center of our work in academic libraries, and we should value the different backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences that they bring into the classroom. There’s no singular way to build or establish context, which can feel daunting, but we can start with smaller ideas, both inside and outside the library.

How do you recognize student experiences in library instruction?

Straight talk: Inviting students’ perspectives on information literacy teaching and learning

My colleagues and I received a grant from our regional consortium to develop information literacy continuing education opportunities for faculty, librarians, and other stakeholders at our institutions. As part of this initiative, we’re planning a one-day symposium during which participants can share successes and challenges in information literacy teaching and learning and that inspires intercampus dialog about our future teaching practices. We plan to include faculty and librarian presentations, discussions, and workshops. I’m especially excited about our plan to organize a panel of undergraduate students. We want to convene this panel so that we can hear directly from students themselves about information literacy teaching and learning. Some of the most interesting pedagogical conversations I have are with students about their perspectives on their own teaching and learning experiences and development. I’m eager to find more ways to facilitate these conversations.

We’re still in the early planning stages and are just beginning to think about how to invite students to participate in the panel and in what areas we want to focus the discussion. I’m so far thinking about posing questions like the following to the student panelists to help guide the session:

  • What information literacy teaching practices, learning experiences, and assignments have helped you learn and grow best?
  • What have been barriers to your information literacy development and successes?
  • What information literacy-related strategies, concepts, or skills have been most confusing or troublesome? Why? Have you been able to overcome those roadblocks? If so, how?
  • Do you think of yourself as an information consumer, creator, or both? How so?
  • What strategies, habits, or attitudes do you practice that help you plan, monitor, and assess your information consumption and creation?
  • What advice would you offer to other students information consumption and creation? About information literacy learning?

If you were to convene a panel of undergrads (or perhaps you already have), what would you want to ask students about information literacy? What do you want an audience of faculty to hear from students about information literacy? I’m eager to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The Grossly Exaggerated Death of the Library, or Why I Don’t Discourage Students from Attending Library School.

What do you say to the next generation of Librarians? Since I’m a First-Year Academic Librarian Experience I would assume the “next generation” is probably me, and it is a little too soon to play the grizzled older “in my day” type librarian. Because I work in a University Library, I know students finishing their undergraduate degrees considering graduate school or library school. They ask me if library school is a good idea and what a person like them should do if they’re interested in the humanities. I suspect that because I’m so close to having finished school I am sensitive to those questions. After my own negative experiences in undergraduate and graduate school, I have decided that I will not discourage anyone from the path that I succeeded on. I ask those who tell students not to pursue librarianship where else these students should focus their energies?

Libraries have a real crisis of confidence. Google “don’t go to library school” (I took a screen shot so you don’t actually have to google it) and you’ll see the kind of pessimism that plagues our students. The result of this is that students have a clear and unhealthy obsession (see any /r/Librarians Reddit posts), in some ways encouraged by current librarians, about whether or not they’ll get a job at the end of school. It doesn’t help that resources like Hiring Librarians, while a great source of information, often publishes the most pessimistic and disheartening interviews with “hiring” managers. Librarianship is dying, everyone abandon ship.

Don't google this
Don’t google this

As a student, I wrote extensively about this phenomena and how it breeds insecurity and negativity in already stressful student lives. Now that I’m a professional I see that this insecurity and negativity then leads to an undervaluing of the work that we do on college campuses. Many of us had formative experiences working closely with librarians in University Libraries and wanted to “pay it forward” by being part of the library-industrial-complex. When we tell students not to pursue what we have succeeded at we tell them that they are not as good, elite, or lucky as we are.

Judging from my friends and colleagues, I know that these concerns are not limited to librarianship. Anxiety over jobs and the economy is one of many issues that drove voters to the polls seeking “change” a month ago. Many of you will say “but librarianship is special because it is really dying!” Much of this is predicated on a longstanding prophecy of the death of print and of the book itself (after all what is a library if not a place for books). Whether or not this death comes from technology or from a deep-seated American anti-intellectualism, the threat to learning and reading impacts directly on our profession. Ongoing austerity movements in government challenge librarians to justify their own existence. But our “worth” is transcendent as J. Stephen Town writes “relying on a shared belief that there is an impact through higher education on individuals and society, and beyond that there is a value arising from being educated, which relates in a fundamental way to human flourishing.”(112) While “human flourishing” is difficult to measure it is unlikely our society will totally move past an expectation of education and learning as a hallmark of growth. But if we cannot measure the impact of the library, how do we know that it isn’t dying?

In anticipation of the death of libraries, there are two paths that librarians and scholars have taken. One has been toward change and innovation (or as a pessimist might say bargaining) where we change what we do and how we measure it to prove our worth and the other toward resignation and defeatism, where we tell people the library is dead and not to join our funeral parade. There is a great article that counters this pessimism entitled “The Library is Dead, Long Live the Library!” where the authors acknowledge that the academic library faces competition in the digital world as we are no longer the chief source of information for students and the public while positing the changes we need to make to ensure our own survival.(Ross 146) The “information fog,” as William Badke calls, makes us all lost and librarians are those who can leads us through the murk.

Interestingly, the rise of the anti-intellectual is often attributed as either the result or the cause of the libraries downfall. The ongoing and well publicized struggles with “fake news” are seen as either calls to arms for librarians or defeated examples of the long decline of the library in American life. Either way, the importance of librarians is still central to the teaching of information efficacy and theory, and, if the present crises in media confidence shows, we will always be needed. The library is not dying, it is changing. This is not outside of our own history nor is it something about which we should be afraid. Students should be aware of that change and the challenges of the future but never discouraged by it.  If we believe that the current and future work is worth doing then we should encourage those likeminded students to continue our cause.

I do not want to downplay the struggles of unemployed or underemployed librarians, and I don’t ascribe to the ongoing and troublesome myth that librarians will be retiring and we’ll all get nice paychecks when that happens. I also do not want to paint a rosier picture than exists for new graduates. There are real struggles for people wanting to get into librarianship, but we should never discourage those that are interested in our work from getting involved. If every Library student listened to their faculty mentors about not applying to graduate school we’d have no graduate students next year, and no new librarians in two years, and our universities would collapse along with society. This is an exaggeration, but if I was discouraged from reading about how librarianship was dying, I wouldn’t have the job that I enjoy so much. I expect that many of you had that same discussion and warning prior to enrolling in school. Losing people like us is the danger in telling students not to pursue the work that we love.

 

References:

Badke, William. Research strategies. iUniverse: New York, 2004.

Town, J. Stephen. “Value, Impact, and the Transcendent Library: Progress and Pressures in Performance Measurement and Evaluation.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 81, no. 1 (2011): 111-25. doi:10.1086/657445.

Ross, Lyman, and Pongracz Sennyey. “The library is dead, long live the library! The practice of academic librarianship and the digital revolution.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 34, no. 2 (2008): 145-152.