On Collaborating with Faculty: Or, The Librarian as Existential Hero

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.

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4 Comments

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

4 responses to “On Collaborating with Faculty: Or, The Librarian as Existential Hero

  1. Alex Carroll

    Dig. Loved this post Kevin, and it’s relevance to my current efforts at work are spot on. I’ll share my (not so) brief observations from the perspective of a subject specialist librarian. In my current job as a liaison librarian, I’m the sole librarian responsible for working with all of the departments within one College at my University. This seems great right? All of the faculty within the College only need to know one librarian, and I can easily attend events and get to know the movers and shakers in the College. However, when I entered this position, it had been vacant for nearly two years. In those proceeding two years, individual departments within the College were split off between a number of librarians, who were already stretched thin in terms of duties. I didn’t need to just repair some bridges – I needed to dig out the ditches and lay down foundations.

    So in my attempts to build this relationship with my assigned College, I’ve found myself sitting in a number of meetings. Meetings with Deans, meetings with department staff, meetings with Faculty chairs, etc. What I’ve come to realize in these meetings is two things, which I’ll expand upon below:
    1) It really helps if the Dean and the Department Chairs are excited to work with you.
    2) It can be really difficult to describe and communicate how you can actually be of use to faculty.

    So as I mentioned in point 1, getting to know the leaders within the departments you’ll be working with is incredibly valuable. While I have no doubt that you can successfully integrate yourself into your Departments even if the Dean and the Department Chairs want nothing to do with you, it’s certainly not a task I’d particularly enjoy. So what are the benefits of developing that relationship? For one, having the leaders within your academic departments vouch for you goes a long way in getting faculty interested in talking to you – despite occasional grumblings, (junior) faculty will listen to their bosses. But even more importantly, Deans and Department Chairs are the gatekeepers that can get you access to their faculty by inviting you to events. In a personal anecdote, my relationship with the Associate Dean of my College enabled me to get an invitation to attend a new faculty orientation event this month, which is a three day overnight trip around the state. I’m hard pressed to think of a better venue than a smelly charter bus for engaging with faculty about the role of the librarian in instruction.

    However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address point 2, which is the point that actually ties this comment back to you original post (I promise). When sitting in these meetings and invited to speak, I have a really difficult time articulating exactly how I can be of use to faculty. I find myself speaking in cliches like “helping your students navigate the research process” and “how to effectively use citation management software.” While I can do those things in the classroom, it’s really not what I should be selling. After all, presenting these cliche and half-baked ideas to faculty is what leads to the “show my students the journals while I’m away at a conference” requests in the first place. It’s a bitter pill to swallow to accept that I might be part of the problem rather than solution. But frankly, its very easy as a subject specialists to get bogged down in issues like database and serials renewal budgets. When this happens, difficult tasks like developing learn objectives that actually meet the educational needs of undergraduates drift towards the backburner. For that reason, I’m really grateful to have information literacy librarians like Dani and you out there spreading the gospel of the death of bibliographic instruction. Thank you for the inspiration to stay true to learning objectives, and please keep shouting out great articles on instruction like Meulemans and Carr – what a great read.

    • Alex,

      I identify with the need to lay down some foundations. This is precisely what I’ve been trying to do with the learning outcomes and program description website I’ve been putting together. The idea, I suppose, is that I can use the learning outcomes (and a bunch of other materials I’ve put together) as a frame of reference to constantly refer back to, and can wield like Bateman with a business card if need be. I think in this situation it’s especially important to have specific, concrete things we can offer to faculty for how we can help students do more effective research. That’s what it’s always going to come back to. IL outcomes may be central to, e.g., the strategic plan of my university, or even its accreditation, but when building relationships I think the key is to find a way to articulate how we can help students do what faculty care about, helping the students do more effective research.

      So regarding point (2), the exact situation I didn’t want to be in when trying to organize instruction at a higher level – or in your position as a liaison – is to know that what I can do is important, but only be able to vaguely articulate that to faculty face-to-face. What I wanted to be able to do was be able to say, I can do x, y, and z things for you, (where x, y, and z are things that I hope meet our mutual goals, as M. and C. put it, of teaching critical thinking (about research)). And I wanted to have something to point to. I wanted to be able to be in a workshop and open our IL webpage and have all our main learning objectives clearly in place, and be able to explain how I could incorporate them into their specific situations. I wanted to be able to have a handout of those outcomes that I could hand them and they could download. I wanted to have specific learning modules corresponding to those outcomes that I could show them if they want more detail, and they could incorporate into their classes themselves. And so on and so forth. This allows me to say specific things, e.g., “I can help your students develop a research question [something students struggle with] that authentically engages them (and here’s a PPT on that, as well). I’ve found that this actually increases their engagement with their work, etc [my unique contribution].” In my experience this kind of thing works better than “helping students navigate the research process.” To me, who cares about that? What does that even mean? It’s like saying, “Critical thinking is important.” Well, yeah! But what does that look like?

      So I think the thing to think about, really, is how to articulate what we can do in a way that faculty can identify as meeting their needs, and adding to what they do. A bit part of this is determining what those needs are (usually without asking). If you’re already getting in these rooms, that’s great. That’s the hard part. Now all you have to do is deliver. Which you can totally do.

  2. Pingback: What is Information Literacy? | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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