The best instruction librarians are also good existentialists: when it comes to teaching information literacy, they recognize that existence precedes essence. It follows that our librarian existential heroes acknowledge the immense freedom they have to create their own instructional contexts out of the best interests of their students, since no a priori rules for how to do so have been laid down for them. And they bear the responsibility for their freedom, by reaching out and going beyond what’s expected of them. They make their own rules.
Sure, some limited constraints – developing solid working relationships with faculty; 9,432 mystifying ACRL Information Literacy Competency performance indicators; the homeless guy who keeps sleeping in front of the library instruction room – a whole range of limiting factors representing the facticity of one’s institutional context – will apply, and necessarily restrict some of the things you can do. But most faculty I’ve worked with don’t have very many expectations about working with instruction librarians. I don’t mean that they have low expectations. That may or may not be the case, depending on that particular faculty member’s personal experience. No, I’m talking about the fact that most teaching faculty don’t really have a very good idea what we do. And, really, why would they? Do even the people close to me really know that? Sure, judging by the fact that no one’s asked her whether this blazer matches this polo for a few hours, my girlfriend has a basic idea that I left for work at some point this morning; but if you asked her what an “Information Literacy Coordinator” does, she’d probably mumble something vague about “Research, nerd,” and then forge ahead with her favorite activity, directing your attention to an incontrovertibly adorable video of a kitten. So then should it really come as much of a surprise that some faculty might be somewhat in the dark about all the cutting edge research services we can offer them? Or that, on occasion, the ones they do request are ones that we maybe don’t think are the most awesome?
In my own case, I’ve always viewed this situation as an “existential” opportunity for some self-definition. I’ve had a lot of success just by saying to teaching faculty, “You know, I could do x in your class.” Sometimes x was as simple as “Hey, I’m more than happy to come to your class any time your students have a particular research need,” and the instructor had no idea you could schedule more than one session a semester. I’ve even found that you can often just reframe things in ways the faculty wouldn’t have thought of requesting, to really good results. For example, when I was in library school I was once asked to talk to a class about the difference between popular vs. scholarly sources. Now, we’d basically tried to call a moratorium on instruction requests like this, albeit with varying degrees of success. But I was just like, you know what, no problem, I’ll come to your class to talk about scholarly vs. popular sources, and framed the class in the way I wanted to talk about it: by taking the opportunity to discuss the deep structure of reliability, and what, in general, makes something truth conducive, or not. I even created a digital learning object illustrating a “Reliability Continuum” that insulted both Duke basketball and my 84 year-old Italian grandmother, which continuum, though definitely not requested, most certainly turned out to be welcome. This new way of talking about reliability went over so well with students (report from instructor: “When doing research for their paper they got like … all competetive about having really good sources)” and their instructor (“This I liked!”) that I was not only invited back to this particular class a bunch of times to work on completely unrelated projects, but was also asked to give this same presentation to a pedagogy course in the English Department, where new graduate student instructors were learning how to teach first year writing. This kind of simple reaching out redefined the role these faculty saw librarians playing in their courses and departments. And now they, too, can pass down Nana’s age-old Sicilian wisdom – “You don’t have to be hungry to eat” – to their own grandchildren, as Nana did to hers, and perhaps even join me in trying to figure out what the hell that even means, anyway. Everybody wins.
When I was beginning to think about curriculum-level collaboration, I, against my usual better judgment, turned to the library literature. I was extremely delighted – and more than a little blown away – to come across the best library article I’ve ever read, by Yvonne Nalani Meulemans and Allison Carr, instruction librarians at CSU, San Marcos. The piece, entitled “Not at your Service: building genuine faculty-librarian partnerships,” published recently in Reference Services Review, is epic. You should probably sit down before reading it. These ladies are Librarians, folks, and they’re not messing around. If I ever run into them at the Chateau Marmont I’m going to snub all the other rock stars they’re hanging with and ask them to sign my article, if I can ever figure out how to get the damn thing to stop from smoking. It’s that good.
In their paper the authors describe what is, in their own words, “a strikingly and alarmingly frank approach” to establishing themselves as genuine equals in an authentic collaboration with faculty, based on the goal shared by librarians and teaching faculty alike, teaching critical thinking skills to students. I’ll leave you to read their article for the details of their innovative approach, particularly w/r/t/ their faculty workshops. What I wanted to talk about here, though, is one of my favorite parts of the article, their section When collaboration really is not collaboration, which details a few “common requests from professors: “Show my students the journals while I’m away at a conference; take the student on a tour of the library so they can learn how to do research; tell them not to use the internet and use scholarly sources [reliability continuum, here I come!]; I don’t have a research project for them, but can you talk to my students about the library?” (81) and some spectacularly bad – and truly subservient – responses from librarians: “But at least I get in front of the students … I want the professor to know I can be helpful … Even if they get something little out of it, it’s worth it” (81).
The problem with these responses is that they’re in complete bad faith: the librarians deny their professional responsibility to do what’s best for the students. We know that without a research context given by the assignment sessions are a waste of students’ time, but many librarians go ahead and do it anyway. Meulemans and Carr summarize the point brilliantly: this inauthentic behavior “indicates much about our teaching philosophy and professional values as teacher-librarians. Instruction librarians know the responses described above are not how genuine partnerships for instruction are built, and that fulfilling such requests are […] ineffective professional or pedagogical practices, and lacking student learning outcomes” (81-82, my emphasis).
So, when thinking about creating the information literacy learning goals for my library, I’ve been driven to create a set of standards with an inherently pragmatic function: establishing a set of learning goals and best practices – grounded in the empirical literature in education, my own work in information literacy, ACRL/ALA information literacy standards more generally, and important articles like Meulemans and Carr’s – that clearly set out what we do, and that we can use and implement when we collaborate with faculty.
And therein lies the existentialist point: Information literacy instructors must be responsible for clearly articulating and choosing to enforce a set of learning outcomes and pedagogical best practices in our collaborations with teaching faculty, otherwise we simply aren’t doing our jobs: creating the best possible conditions for students to improve their research and learn information literacy skills.
This is why the best instruction librarians are also good existentialists.