Getting Comfortable with Library Instruction, Part I: Remember the Assignment

 I often hear, when talking to new library instructors and graduate students, that they’re having a hard time getting comfortable teaching. It’s not (always) that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Rather, it’s that they’re having a hard time figuring out how to approach teaching in the unique format that it all goes down in most academic libraries, the one shot instruction session. With this I can certainly empathise.

Prior to going to library school, I had a fair amount of teaching experience. I had taught thirty semester-long philosophy courses at several different colleges and universities over a four-year period. I’d given what seemed like a million lectures, created my share of syllabi and course schedules, selected my own textbooks, and even supervised teaching assistants. Being in front of a classroom was one of the few places in my otherwise anxiety riddled existence that I felt totally comfortable. Yet, prior to teaching my first library instruction session, I couldn’t possibly have been more nervous. Even though I’d observed several instruction sessions from more experienced instructors, I felt like I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do. It all seemed so random, and I could discern no common threads I could latch onto and use to approach my own sessions with any degree of confidence. I was so out of my comfort zone that I put off teaching a session at the library I was working at – even though I was a Reference and Instruction graduate assistant – for almost an entire semester, until one of my supervisors called me out on it.

You see, the thing about library instruction, especially the one-shot variety, is that it’s really weird. I think this is true for anyone starting out, and I suspect it’s especially true for people who’ve had some prior teaching experience. Until you get used to it, it’s very awkward to go into someone else’s classroom, cold, to teach to a bunch of students who don’t know you and probably don’t understand at the outset why what you’re doing for them is relevant. It’s strange to have another instructor – a faculty member (a designation which most other librarians have tacitly or not so tacitly, through word and/or deed, made you terrified of) –  watching you teach their class. Back when I was teaching philosophy, I could have told my students that Nietzsche was a 14th Century Nordic Viking and nobody would have known or cared.  But now, all of the sudden, I’m second-guessing every word that comes out of my mouth, because there’s someone with a tenure track position who’s written 13 articles on what Byron ate for breakfast monitoring everything I say. By now I’ve catastrophized a serious case of cognitive dissonance, what with my working memory tied up in the first-order task of saying stuff to students that I hope helps them learn something … whilst engaging in the rather paralyzing second-order metacognitive exercise of repeating: “Does she think what I’m saying is stupid” like a mantra handed down by a sadistic Zen master. And, oh yeah, I don’t really have any idea what it is that I’m supposed to be saying to them, either, because library school doesn’t really teach you stuff that would help you out in an instruction session, anyway.

But this is all kind of hard to explain to everyone who’s telling you, “Oh, you’ve taught before, you’ll be fine,” because it’s hard to get across that, when it comes to applying the lessons you learned teaching full-length courses to library instruction, it’s pretty much like Maria Wyeth says – Nothing Applies.  So now I’m in the position of not really knowing what to teach, which is good, because I wouldn’t really know how to teach it, even if I did. Needless to say, that’s a pretty bad place to be in, even for a kid from Buffalo.

The first thing I had to learn was something every decent information literacy instructor probably already knows – that for the session to have half a chance of being meaningful for the students, you gotta have the assignment. The most successful sessions are when students know and are clear about what their assignment is; have at least begun to think about their topic; and are ready to begin their research. This gives them the problem context to see why the session might be valuable to them (more on that later). But it also gives me, as the instructor, a problem context, and something to base my session on: the research skills that the students will need to successfully complete their assignment. That, as far as I can tell, is my job during a 50 minute session: to help students acquire the major information literacy skills they’ll need to complete the particular assignment that they came into the library to work on. The hope is then that these skills will transfer for these students across contexts and into the rest of their college career.

Now, on the one hand, my job just got a lot easier: I (ostensibly) have the assignment in front of me, and can thereby figure out what skills the students need to complete the assignment. This I know how to do. I don’t feel confident, or think it’s particularly valuable, to go in there and talk about the wonderful world of libraries. Let’s be honest: I don’t really know how to Boolean search that well. I can sort of read a MARC record. At gunpoint I might be able to use a card catalog. But I feel like I know what the hell I’m doing when it comes taking an assignment, putting myself in the student’s shoes as if I were about to do that assignment, and showing them, “Okay, if I were you, here’s how I’d go about doing this thing.” I can start to stop being nervous because now I’ve got myself an approach: to focus the session on the skills the students need to complete the assignment they’re currently working on, and to focus the session on the stage of the research process where they’re currently at.

And lest this sounds obvious – and, in retrospect, it most certainly does – let me just say that I’ve seen some of you people in action, and a lot of you don’t do this. You talk for twenty-seven minutes about the various merits and demerits of the advanced search box in Web of Science during a session where the students came into the library to research travel writing topics for English 101. You use terms like “information need” and “H-index” and “the Kuhlthau model” to eighteen-year old freshman who’ve been at college for less time than I’ve been writing this blog post. I’ve sat riveted with schadenfreudic delight and professional horror as I watched a seasoned librarian demo a single database for fifty-straight minutes with such frenzied tenacity I wished I’d worn a helmet. The fact is, I’m on to you, contextless library instructors. I know all about you. And my advice to you is this: remember the assignment.

It’s not that this approach to instruction makes everything easy.  In fact, in a lot of ways, my job just got much harder. To be sure, it’s a lot more prep work to tailor instruction sessions to each classes’ particular needs, instead of demoing how to search Summon for articles on abortion in every class you get invited to.  Yeah, this approach is harder, but it’s also better for the students. Bibliographic instruction is dead. So deal with it.

Now, pragmatics aside, another problem – and I think this is the real one –  is that my overarching goal is to teach students not just the information literacy skills they need for a particular assignment (right?). It’s to teach them … information literacy skills. So somehow I need to figure out sound pedagogical strategies that will not only be relevant to this particular assignment, but will also encourage transfer of these skills across domains. And I’ve got fifty minutes minus a late instructor’s attendance-taking to do it in.

So therein lies the challenge: How do I approach an instruction session so that I facilitate the transfer of information literacy skills across domains when teaching to this particular assignment?

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3 Comments

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

3 responses to “Getting Comfortable with Library Instruction, Part I: Remember the Assignment

  1. Pingback: On Collaborating with Faculty: Or, The Librarian as Existential Hero | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  2. Pingback: Inspired by Experts: A Framework for IL Instruction | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  3. Pingback: The Librarian as Q: Defining Our Role in the Classroom | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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