Emotional Intelligence and … Academic Libraries? You Bet!

My girlfriend pointed out this super-interesting New York Times article on teaching emotional intelligence in the classroom. An excerpt:

Something we now know, from doing dozens of studies, is that emotions can either enhance or hinder your ability to learn,” Marc Brackett, a senior research scientist in psychology at Yale University, told a crowd of educators at a conference last June. “They affect our attention and our memory. If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?

It got me to thinking about how librarians could contribute to helping students succeed by developing their emotional intelligence. This seems like a tall order for any teacher, and it’s going to a particularly difficult one for librarians, who only get a certain amount of time with students. But there do seem to be ways.

We know, for example, that searching for information is a high anxiety area for many students (click on the image below to enlarge your Kuhlthau refresher course).

Search Process


This is something I definitely try to consider when working with students in any capacity. The way I try to approach this is always to be empathetic to students, and try to consider what the research experience is like for them, no matter how small the context. I remember during a formal part of the interview for my current job, I was asked how I approach situations at the reference desk where a student comes up to you annoyed because he can’t find a book in the stacks that’s supposed to be there, and “Why do you have to organize these things by call numbers, anyway?!”  My response was something like … I try to put myself in the student’s shoes and think … well, honestly, why would a freshman know how to read a LC call number and use it to find a book in an academic library? I’m a librarian, and, you know what? The only time I really entered the library in college was to go to the coffee shop housed within the library entrance. I think I learned to read a call number when I was a graduate student in philosophy. And even then, by “learned to read a call number,” I mean something like, “These things seem to be organized by letters  … and philosophy is in the … B’s.” By trying to think of what it’s like to be this person in this moment – this young, confused, and frustrated person – I can actually contribute something to their learning, instead of getting annoyed with them, and even somewhat squash their anxiety, just by being honest. I think during my interview I said that I’d just be honest with the student; “I know, it’s really tricky how this stuff is organized, right? I’ve been confused plenty of times myself, before I figured out how to do this stuff.” That leads the way to an actual opportunity to teach the student something. It’s easier to do when I realize that searching is stressful for students, just like it was stressful the first time I had to, say, find a Gov Doc. Why would any of this be simple if you don’t already know how to do it? Does this develop student’s emotional intelligence? Well … probably not. But it does take into account, within an educational context, the fact that, emotionally speaking, there’s something that it’s like to be them. Mindfulness of that fact is a pretty good start.

Another thing, maybe, that I think we can work on teaching students is persistence, by teaching students that searching is, actually, an iterative, multi-step process. It ain’t as simple as typing “When is Drake coming to Sacramento?” into Google and getting an immediate response (November!!!).  And, on top of that, there’s no “magic-bullet” source that’s going to solve all of your research needs. If we explain to our students, explicitly, that searching is a process, and model the various steps of that process for them, I think that, maybe, students can come to have some of their search anxiety reduced, by having their expectations subtly changed. Yeah, searching is hard work, and it can be frustrating, but you can do it. And it’s a lot less frustrating when you know from the outset that it’s not going to be super simple. But a little bit of good information literacy instruction can go a long way toward decrease student frustration with research.  According to recent studies,

So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures. A 2011 study using data collected on 17,000 British infants followed over 50 years found that a child’s level of mental well-being correlated strongly with future success. Similar studies have found that kids who develop these skills are not only more likely to do well at work but also to have longer marriages and to suffer less from depression and anxiety. Some evidence even shows that they will be physically healthier.

This was startling news. “Everybody said, Oh, it’s how kids achieve academically that will predict their adult employment, and health, and everything else,” recalls Mark Greenberg, a Penn State University psychologist. “And then it turned out that for both employment and health outcomes, academic achievement actually predicted less than these other factors.”

We’ve touched on the growth mindset before; and this seems to be another instance of its importance. I suppose I’ve long thought that our goal as educators goes far beyond merely transmitting content to our students, and articles like this, that show how to incorporate what it means to be a person into learning, can serve as a guide for how we build relationships with students in the classroom.

My thoughts on this stuff are pretty tentative. What do our legions of readers think?



Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, On Being Human, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

6 responses to “Emotional Intelligence and … Academic Libraries? You Bet!

  1. Alex Carroll

    One of the best (and most accessible) studies I’ve seen on emotional intelligence and student success was done by NPR’s This American Life last September (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/474/back-to-school). This hour long radio program essentially summarizes Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0547564651/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0547564651&linkCode=as2&tag=thiamelif-20), which argues that the development of grit (persistence) within children is the most important indicator of educational and professional success later in life. If we buy into their argument (and I do), it suggests that as educators we need to take emotional intelligence seriously, and think of ways that we can help our students develop persistence.
    However, as librarians working in higher education, we might have our work cut out for us. Another interesting study on this topic was done by Planet Money (another NPR radio program). This report suggests that grit can most easily be learned by really young children. How young? Think pre-kindergarten (http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/06/13/137109349/the-friday-podcast-the-case-for-preschool).
    As a subject specialist, it can be really tempting to glaze over the iterative nature of research and information literacy in general, and to skip right to showing students all of the research tools at their disposal. I think this inclination is pretty understandable: an hour and fifteen minutes isn’t much time, and you want students to have the opportunity to take advantage of all the resources that their tuition and student fees are paying for. This is especially true when working with upper level undergraduate students and graduate students because it’s not like Web of Science and SciFinder have the most intuitive design. Oh, and a lot of students have never heard about software like EndNote, so you better show them how to use that too. And after all, the whole reason the instructor invited you into class was to show these discipline specific research tools, so that’s the type of instruction session her or she is expecting. When you start “wasting” time talking about things like “how to find a topic you’re legitimately interested in” or “here’s how to use Wikipedia to start your research,” you can sometimes get some really confused expressions on the instructor’s face.
    In my experience, research and teaching faculty often take for granted the expertise they have in searching, and forget how long it took for them to develop these skills. They don’t remember learning how to find pertinent keywords, and realizing how things like filters and Boolean operators can broaden or narrow a search. Furthermore, faculty tend to have such developed and narrow research interests that they forget that for the average undergraduate who doesn’t know much about the discipline, a lot of preliminary research (the “discovery phase”) has to occur before the student can even begin to look into a topic in depth. Giving a student these research tools without providing them with instruction on how to navigate the research process is like giving a car to a twelve year old who REALLY needs to get to soccer practice. Sure, by the grace of God the student might make it to her destination successfully and on time. But it’s just as likely that she’ll get into a crash while trying to merge off the freeway.
    I do a fair amount of instruction for our institution’s senior level composition classes, and during my (very short) lecture, one of the things I stress the most is that research is not a linear process. We start by coming up with a list of things we’re interested in, do some really light research about those things, and then slowly narrow our search from there. If it turns out that we don’t really like the topic after all, or that our original topic is too broad to find good results, or our topic is so narrow that there’s not enough research on that topic, then we can go back to our list of things we’re interested in and try again. From what I can tell from my anecdotal experiences, for most students this process doesn’t feel natural at first. I think it’s because people are inclined to want to get right into the research from the start, because it feels like you’re making progress that way. “Hey, I’ve already found four citations – I’m practically done!” As librarians, we’re doing students a serious disservice if we reinforce that behavior by modeling only how to use databases, and not how searching actually works (which features a lot more Google and Wikipedia than some librarians feel comfortable admitting).
    All of that is just a really long winded way of saying that yeah – talking about how research is an iterative process is really important.

    • Melissa Harden

      I think you bring up great points here, Alex. I agree that it’s important to stress that research is not a linear process! What you said reminded me of an instruction session I once observed where the librarian told the students that it’s okay if they feel like they are circling a bit in their research… it’s called “re-search” for a reason. Since then, when I’ve taught, I’ve used that same phrase and tried to stress that the students may find themselves repeating searches, trying again, looking in different places, etc. while maybe not feeling like they are moving forward instantly… and that it’s okay and normal!

  2. Jess Bellemer

    Kevin, I think you’ve really hit on something here. By teaching/encouraging emotional intelligence through librarianship, not only are you helping them develop skills and important qualities but you are removing some of the awful shame that always seems to be hanging around in higher education. The shame that students feel when they aren’t grasping things that everyone already seems to know. By being mindful, showing our own humanity, and encouraging persistence, you help students feel better about why they can’t always find something or why their searches might not be working as perfectly as the canned searches they saw in a library instruction session.

    The other day on Facebook, a friend of mine was bemoaning the fact that one of her students didn’t know what a call number was. She was so shocked an ivy league sophomore didn’t know this that she was blaming everyone and everything the student had ever come into contact with (the teachers, the school librarians, the internet, etc.). However, when I asked my friend if she had taken the time to sit with student, explain what a call number was, and try to understand why the student didn’t know, she admitted that she hadn’t done these things. Students can go a long while without knowing basic information because they are afraid that if they ask, they will receive a reaction like this student did.

    All this is to say yes, I do agree with you. Emotional intelligence is not only something that librarians can teach, it is something we should teach. Not only will it help the students learn but it will also improve the overall atmosphere of their educational experience.

  3. Pingback: On Self-Regulation, Intelligence, and Learning | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

  4. Thanks to both of you, Alex and Jess, for your supportive and insightful comments. It’s great to hear that other people are focused on teaching process, because I often get the impression from the profession that there’s still a lot of pointing and clicking going on. I think our goals should be larger.

    I am going to take a look at How Children Succeed. That looks good and it’s the kind of thing I think we should know about as librarians.

    You guys both give great examples of the importance of empathy in reference and instruction. This is the kind of thing you see all the time, where we forget what it’s like to be in the student’s shoes, and it’s almost always contrary to our student’s interests. Working to incorporate that kind of understanding into our work is, I think, fundamental, so that good librarians are not just people who know certain things, but are also certain kinds of people.

    It’s really great to hear that other people might think these things, too. It’s nice encouragement going forward.

  5. Pingback: Mind Reading and Literary Fiction | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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