Librarianship: A Philosophical Investigation

I have a new piece out from UNC-Chapel Hill’s online publication Ethos Review called “Librarianship: A Philosophical Investigation” that I think might be of interest to Rule Number One Readers. Here’s the first part:

“One of the first things you learn as a professional librarian is that very few people have any idea what you do. In fact, enough people who actually want to become librarians are sufficiently in the dark about the nature of the profession that many Information and Library Science graduate programs explicitly require their prospective applicants to state in their applications what interests them about the field other than loving books.

arcimboldoIn fairness, the whole “librarians love books” thing isn’t entirely misguided. The very etymology of the word ties librarians to books, and, when Emerson famously announced the need for a “professor of books,” it was a role librarians consciously sought to fill. Nevertheless, I am a librarian and not only have I never read a novel during work, I’ve never shelved a book in any professional capacity either. In fact, my experience of the librarian-esque is really rather limited. I’ve never had the chance to use one of those little stamp things telling you when your book is due, because I’ve never actually checked out a book to someone. Only if forced to at gunpoint could I find a book using a card catalog (probably, if you gave me a minute); and my most frequent exposure to a rare book is the copy of former Buffalo Bills nose tackle Fred Smerlas’s autobiography sitting on my home bookshelf—a piece of childhood esoterica I’ve kept all these years merely to preserve proof of its existence. Recently, a girl I did not recognize came up to me at Starbucks and said, “Aren’t you a librarian?” When I said “Yes,” she said, “That’s so cool, it must be nice to have a job that isn’t very stressful.” I smiled and nodded, thinking it not worth the effort to explain that the whole reason I was at Starbucks was that I was so stressed out about something at work I was pretty sure my life was over.

Folks a little more hip to things sometimes say things like “Libraries are all about technology now, huh?” which, like most generalities, is sort of true in a limited sense, but not in a very interesting one. Sure, a class that could more or less have been called “How to Use Computers and Some Programs Commonly Found on Many of Them” was, indeed, a required course during the first semester of my Information and Library Science grad program. But the only reason I made it through the course was because I was failing such “easy” material, which was too unbearable for my fellow students to emotionally bear and so they held my hand through the material to ensure sure that I passed. Now, when it comes to tech skills, I’m somewhere in between, say, someone who doesn’t know how to check their email and someone who knows the shortcuts for doing mathematical calculations in Excel. So, you see, if you want to be a librarian (and by now why wouldn’t you?) and your computer skills aren’t exactly off the charts, you’ll probably be just fine.

One thing some of the technology advocates might also mean is this: the internet has changed things, and with that change librarians are increasingly viewed as becoming more and more obsolete. When I started “library school” this is something that concerned me, too. Librarians help people find information, we’ve been told, and now, with the success of Google, people don’t really need much help finding things. We can go ahead, then, and replace my tenure-track gig with a couple new computers, and give the rest of the money back to California’s taxpayers. But this would be too hasty, because helping people find stuff in the manner the public perceives is not, in fact, what librarians do.”

You can read the rest, where I solve definitively and for all time what librarianship really is, here.

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

Friday Quote

Raymond Carver was someone whose work was tremendously inspiring to me. So I felt very fortunate when I had a chance to meet him in 1980. I was asked to show him around New York City prior to a reading he was giving at Columbia that fall. Instead, we stayed at my apartment and talked literature for six hours, and subsequently began a correspondence.

He convinced me that if I really wanted to write fiction I had to stop hedging my bets with jobs in publishing and journalism and make a real commitment, and the next year I followed him to Syracuse University, where he was then teaching in the creative writing program. If not for that move, I doubt I would be answering these questions today. Carver somehow convinced me to go for it, and convinced me that I had the right stuff—I’m not sure how he could have guessed that at the time, on the basis of a few early stories.

He was also influential in convincing me that the only secret to writing was to put in serious hours every day for years. I’d been under the thrall of a sort of romantic image of the writer as a genius who effortlessly produces masterpieces under the influence of a kind of divine madness. Carver convinced me that writing was 90% perspiration. He used to call me up every day to see if I had been writing. And I used to hear his typewriter every day, down the street, clacking away. That was almost as inspiring as anything he said.

-Jay McInerney

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Don’t Teach, Facilitate Learning!

Teaching, in my estimation, is a vastly over-rated function [...]

Teaching means “to instruct.” Personally, I am not much interested in instructing another in what she should know or think, though others seem to love to do this [...]

We are, in my view, faced with an entirely new situation in education where the goal of education … is the facilitation of change and learning. The only man who is educated is the man who has learned how to learn; the man who has learned how to adapt and change; the man who has realized that no knowledge is secure, that only the process of seeking knowledge gives a basis for security. Changingness, a reliance on process rather than upon static knowledge, is the only thing that makes any sense as a goal for education in the modern world.

So now with some relief i turn to an activity, a purpose, which really warms me – the facilitation of learning. When I have been able to transform a group – and here I mean all the members of a group, myself included – into a community of learners, then the excitement has been almost beyond belief. To free curiosity; to permit individuals to go charging off in new directions dictated by their own interests; to unleash the sense of inquiry; to open everything to questioning and exploration; to recognize that everything is in process of change – here is an experience I can never forget … Out of such a context arise true students, real learners, creative scientists and scholars, and practitioners, the kind of individuals who can live in a delicate but ever-changing balance between what is presently known and the flowing, moving, altering problems and facts of the future.

Here then is a goal to which I can give myself wholeheartedly. I see the facilitation of learningand the aim of education, the way in which we might develop the learner, the way in which we can learn to live as individuals in the process.

-Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn, pp. 119-120.

Rogers FTL


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“The Myth of Learning Styles,” Revisited

I’ve written before about how there’s no scientific basis for the belief that teaching to students’ preferences for “learning styles” actually enhances student learning. I just came across this nice little piece by educational psychologists Cedar Reiner & Daniel Willingham on “The Myth of Learning Styles” that gives a clear, readable overview of the issue. An excerpt:

There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist. While we will elaborate on this assertion, it is important to counteract the real harm that may be done by equivocating on the matter. In what follows, we will begin by defining “learning styles”; then we will address the claims made by those who believe that they exist, in the process acknowledging what we consider the valid claims of learning-styles theorists. But in separating the wheat from the pseudoscientific chaff in learning-styles theory, we will make clear that the wheat is contained in other educational approaches as well. A belief in learning styles is not necessary to incorporating useful knowledge about learning into one’s teaching. We will then discuss the reasons why learning styles beliefs are so prevalent. Finally, we will offer suggestions about collegiate pedagogy, given that we have no evidence learning styles do not exist.

Now, as the authors note, “[a] belief in learning styles is not necessary to incorporating useful knowledge about learning into one’s teaching”; this is one of the reasons Dani and I have presented on (and should shortly be publishing on) how to incorporate some evidence based insights from the science of learning into information literacy instruction.

Why is this important? Here’s a few reasons: (1) It’s hard to be good, student-centered educators unless we have an understanding of how students learn; (2) teaching to learning styles does not help students learn; (3) teaching to learning styles is still a method advocated in the library profession (Example 1: it was recommended in my library instruction class during library school) (Example 2: one of the currently most read and cited articles from the Journal of Academic Librarianship rests most of its case on a belief in differentiating teaching to different learners based on learning styles.) Thus, if we want to be engaged in evidence based practice geared toward student learning, we should stop teaching to learning styles!

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Friday Quote

If you mean to please everybody you will
Set to work both ignorance and skill.
For a great multitude are ignorant,
And skill to them seems raving and rant.
Like putting oil and water in a lamp,
‘Twill make a great splutter with smoke and damp.
For there is no use as it seems to me
Of lighting a lamp, when you don’t wish to see.

-William Blake

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Look at Banner, Readers!

Thanks to my  lovely girlfriend for the new banner.

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How Can We Make Students More Curious?: Some Thoughts from Daniel Willingham

Dani and I have long been fans of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham’s work on the science of  learning, since being introduced to his work in the School of Education at UNC. I recently  came across a great bit from one of his papers on a topic close to my heart, engaging students’ curiosity:

Can we make students more habitually curious? If curiosity is like other aspects of motivation it’s likely that some part of it is genetically inherited but not all (Gottschling et al. 2012). The home and school environments make a difference. So what can be done?

First, as is almost always true, modeling what we want students to learn is a good place to start. I remember when I first started teaching I was surprised that my end-of-semester student evaluations often mentioned my interest in cognition. That seemed odd. Wasn’t it my teaching that mattered, not how I felt about cognition? Looking back, I’m surprised that I was surprised. After all, if I don’t seem keenly interested, why should the students be? Likewise, if we want students to be habitually curious, they should see that attitude in us.

Second, we should bear in mind the distinction between long-term interest and short-term curiosity. Curiosity is not a serious commitment. It’s a pleasurable sampling, like a wine-tasting. For that reason, it can be frivolous. I would argue that indulging our curiosity is never a waste of time. That perspective implies we should honor curiosity in students wherever we find it, however trivial its object may appear to us.

Third, we should bear in mind that curiosity is prompted by a good question. We are curious because we detect a problem, an unanswered question, and we think that if we work on it, we’ll feel the pleasure that comes with solution. So, we might prompt more curiosity in students if we spend more time thinking about and developing questions. But not all questions are created equal. For the solution to seem rewarding requires that the student have some investment in the question in the first place. That’s why bald, out-of the- blue questions—“Why do you suppose snakes shed their skins?”— seldom work. The best books, documentaries, and speakers are able to sneak up on good questions, so that by the time the question is posed, the audience is panting to know the answer. A common technique is to use a narrative structure, which I’ve described in detail elsewhere.

Willingham, D. (2014). Making Students More CURIOUS. Knowledge Quest, 42(5), 32-35.

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