Many faculty members complain that their students treat them as though education were on a service model: I (the student) paid for a product (my education) and you (the professor) are here to serve me. So, serve me!
Quite understandably, we might think, many faculty don’t like this. They believe that educators have a higher calling than to serve in a capitalistic sense. What is this higher calling? To teach students to think critically. To get them curious about the pursuit of truth. You know, to educate.
This is interesting, I think, when we think, as academic librarians, about our working relationships with faculty. Many of us are “liaisons” to various departments (for example, I’m the “philosophy librarian” at my university). Some of our roles are more nebulous, such as “information literacy coordination” or “Undergraduate Success Librarian”, where we’re often working with large first year courses in, say, English or Communication. What’s interesting about these working relationships (as opposed to, say, semester-long librarian-led information literacy courses) is that librarians are, in some vague sense, dependent on these faculty.
One reason for this, of course, is that we “serve” the research needs of students and faculty in these areas. For example, if faculty need books, we order them, and if students or faculty need assistance with research, we help them. It’s our job and it’s pretty much as it should be.
Things start to get more difficult when we think, as I and many others do, that our job is to teach information literacy, and that one really good way to do that is to embed our instruction within specific course research. I think about this a lot, because I think that one difficulty that comes up in practice is that there’s librarians who have a strictly “service” oriented approach to working with faculty: (a) if it wasn’t requested by a faculty member, it’s not their job to teach it, and on the other hand (b) if it was requested by a faculty member, it’s not our job to suggest something else.
I see this all the time during questions I’ve gotten when presenting in various platforms and I don’t believe in either premise, yet I continue to see both (a) and (b) having an enormous impact on our work as librarians. It’s really led me to believe that our self-concept has a huge impact on whether we’re serving our students’ best interests. And this is the important thing.
Let’s just take the simplest example of that.
Suppose a faculty member requests that you show their students “the databases.” “Just show them the databases and how to cite stuff.” No assignment, that’s the request.
Now, we know that this is bad practice: if our goal is to teach information literacy, this doesn’t even come close to providing students with the deep critical skills we can offer them that will facilitate their ability to interpret the world around them. And it’s not even an effective way to teach databases. What the students will probably end up learning is that the library is boring. I don’t blame them.
I realize that I take for granted many librarians having the professional self-esteem to suggest things like “I’m happy to offer your class instruction! Is there some kind of research assignment in the class that the students have? We could focus the session on the skills they’ll need to complete their assignment. I’ve found that students really find this valuable.” (Or whatever). But I’ve never personally had a faculty member object to something like that. Nor has any librarian I’ve ever known who has tried.
Now, of course, most requests will be more sensible than the example I gave. But I think it’s important to remember when thinking about such requests that adopting a servant mindset puts us in a bad position as educators. Librarians, as knowledge brokers, do inhabit a somewhat strange and unique position in the academy, in the sense that many of us don’t have our “own” classes. I think this is a large part of the servant mindset. As my friend Alex Carroll recently put it to me, it can create, in many librarians, a real need to be liked by faculty: “If I suggest other things they won’t like me, and if they don’t like me they won’t invite me to their class.” I think that probably both those claims are false. I have no idea what any faculty member on my campus feels about me personally but many certainly seem willing to work with me, and I suspect the reason is that they must think something I’m doing is important for their students to know.
That, I think, is the “higher calling” of librarians: to serve your students’ interests as an educator. This isn’t to say that you don’t collaborate with faculty in the best possible sense as a colleague. Of course you do. That should be too obvious to be mentioned. But I think we should think less about “serving” faculty and think more like educators and faculty about how we can help students develop information literacy skills. If we do that in the same way that other faculty think about teaching their subjects, the rest will follow. The importance of information literacy will be self-evident.
Like Drake says: “Know yourself, know your worth.”