Meaning in Life and Motivation in the Classroom, Or The Librarian as Existential Counselor

Since a post I recently wrote for Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics on “Librarianship: A Philosophical Investigation” is getting a strange amount of attention over there, I thought I’d re-post (a heavily revised version of) a piece I wrote sometime last year, when the blog was still very new, detailing some of my views on an approach to librarianship based on engaging with students as human beings, which I’ve called “authentic engagement.” It’s based, in large part, on my reading of humanistic therapist and educator Carl Rogers (whom I’ve posted about before).  This post fills in a lot of the details for the views I briefly outline over at Ethos, and some of the motivations behind them. 

Sometimes people struggle to make life meaningful. Because of this, counseling often has as its aim the restoration of meaning for the individual in distress: the task of the therapist is to help the client take responsibility for making choices that will once again make their life meaningful. This parallels a good portion of the educational experience for many students. Indeed, students often find themselves in an educational context in which their schoolwork is not meaningful to them. They are alienated from school because it does not connect with who they are on a personal level. It does not interest them. Psychologist and philosopher of education Carl Rogers summarizes the point nicely:

nearly every student finds that large portions of his curriculum are for him, meaningless. Thus education becomes the futile attempt to learn material which has no personal meaning. Freedom to Learn, p. 4

Can librarians make a difference here? Is there some teaching strategy, or attitude, or approach to librarianship that can help students make their educational experience meaningful? Can librarians help students take an interest in their schoolwork? Can they, in effect, serve as existential counselors to their students? I think they can … in both one-shot instruction sessions and at the reference desk.Although not framed quite in these terms, this is the topic of an article of mine that was forthcoming in College & Research Libraries. My view, in a nutshell, is that if we want to figure out how to make school meaningful for students – if we want to engage them –  we would do well to think about what makes life meaningful more generally. And, overwhelmingly – from Western to Eastern philosophy, to counseling psychology, to contemporary empirical research in psychology and motivation – what seems to make life meaningful is living a life that is authentic, and in accordance with one’s true self.   Thus, if you want to engage your students, and you want to help them learn, you should figure out ways that students can bring their true selves to their schoolwork. This, in a sense, is what will make any librarian who follows this approach to librarianship – which in my article I term authentic engagement – an existential counselor: their aim is to create a meaningful experience for students where a lack of meaning may exist.

But even more than that, such a librarian will be existential, in the sense that, in order to figure out how to make the educational experience authentically meaningful for students – whether it’s one-shot instruction or a brief encounter at the reference desk – they’ll have to change their attitude toward patron interactions. Instead of looking at patrons as “information problems” to be solved, we’ll need to change our perspective, and understand our students as real, unique human beings, whose “information needs” are, in a very real sense, who they are as a person.

Being a librarian, in this sense, involves, like an existential counselor, taking a sincere interest in the inner world of another human being. As the existential therapist Rollo May put it,

[w]hat distinguishes existential psychotherapy from other types of counseling is whether the human being is an object to be analyzed or a being to be understood. Any therapist is existential to the extent that … he is still able to relate to the patient as ‘one existence communicating with another’. The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology, p. 158.

Many library instruction sessions may now, with this perspective in mind, subtly change their focus. One approach I’ve used has been to model for students how I go about doing research on a topic that interests me, even if it doesn’t “sound like school,” to use a phrase I’ve used in this regard. To me, encouraging students to choose topics they care about – as I’ve seen lots of faculty do – isn’t sufficient. If we don’t model that process for them, it’s not clear to students how they could take a real personal interest of theirs and turn that into legitimate research. But you can, and I think showing students that process increases their own confidence that they can do so with their own interests as well.

An article I recently published in Reference Services Review, “Authentic Engagement: Assessing the Effects of Authenticity on Student and Engagement and Information Literacy in Academic Library Instruction” gives some empirical data for the effectiveness of this approach during one-shot instruction sessions. The students for whom instruction was approached in this way reported, e.g., an increased interest in their schoolwork and a better ability to search for information than students for whom information literacy skills were taught via a more conventional approach.

The benefits of engaging with students in an authentic way can be a profound one.  As Rogers once put it:

 … as I think back … I can recall no teacher who ever asked me what my interests were. That seems an amazing statement, but I believe it is a true one. Had a teacher asked, I would have told him …but no one asked. Although nearly sixty years have gone by, I remember one question a teacher penciled in the margin of a freshmen theme … I have always remembered this marginal note but it is only in recent years that I realize the reason for the memory. It stands out because here was a teacher who seemed to take a real personal interest in knowing why I, Carl, had done something. I have forgotten all the wise comments written on my other themes, but this one I remember. To me it shows how rarely it comes across to a student that a teacher really wants to know some of the motivates and interests which make him tick. So if I were a teacher I would like very much to make it possible for students to tell me just these things. Carl Rogers, “Questions I Would Ask Myself If I Were a Teacher.

And recent educational psychologists put the point even more strongly:

[T]he primary task of the teacher is to try to understand their students’ authentic interests and goals, and then help students to understand the connection between their personal goals and interests and schoolwork. In addition, teachers may also find or develop tasks that fit their students’ interests. When students do not have clear personal interests and goals, teachers may assist them in developing such interests and goals.(Assor, A., Kaplan, H., & Roth, G. (2002). Choice is Good, but Relevance is Excellent: Enhancing and Suppressing Teacher Behaviors Predicting Students’ Engagement in SchoolworkBritish Journal of Educational Psychology, 72, 261–278.)

My hope is that by thinking about what makes things have meaning for people we can learn to engage our students in a deeper way, and I think a useful conversation we can begin to have as library educators is to think about further activities that we can use to help bring our students’ true selves to their schoolwork, instead of being yet another person in their lives telling them how they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to do.  We’ll have a good deal of evidence on our side.

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

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