Author Archives: Dani B. Cook

What Does It Mean to be a Teaching Librarian?

This summer, my department is in the midst of an organizational transition, as we move from a traditional, disciplinary-bound reference department to a “Teaching & Learning” team. I’m excited to undertake this work alongside some really amazing colleagues (and you can bet your buttons that we’ll be writing and presenting on this process in the future), but this context is (for now) only to set the stage for why I’m thinking about the question in the title of this post.

As I’ve been thinking about what a library department of teaching and learning looks like, I’ve been considering what makes someone a teaching librarian (as opposed to a librarian who happens to teach, or a teacher, or some other category of educator). What are the qualities that are unique to this group of professionals, that position us to engage in the work of information literacy instruction?

I started by looking at ACRL’s recently released Roles and Strength of Teaching Librarianswhich is pretty useful for thinking about qualities that teaching librarians need to have in order to be successful in their work. There’s a nifty little graphic in the report that shows the various roles that a teaching librarian may need to embody:

Hats off to the committee who put together this report, as it’s helped me to think through goals for a teaching and learning department, and areas where we might need to grow. I certainly self-identify with most (if not all) of these roles, but it still didn’t really help me get at the librarian part of the teaching librarian equation. Basically, if my professional identity is about being a librarian (hint: it is), then how can I view my role and strengths as an educator more explicitly through that lens?

School librarians in K-12 institutions are often explicitly “teacher-librarian” positions, and the Australian School Library Association has a nice breakdown of how those different identities play together. Librarians in these roles (both in the U.S. and elsewhere) typically are required to have training in both education and librarianship–something that academic librarians generally do not, which explains the emphasis in the ACRL document on developing competencies related to teaching and instructional design.

After sitting with this for a few weeks, I’ve come up with a few thoughts on what the specific strengths of teaching librarians might be, and I’d love to hear your ideas too.

  1. We understand the organization of information and hierarchies of knowledge. Basically, this is the bread-and-potatoes of the library school curriculum, and I’d argue the most important part of having an MLS. All those cataloging and metadata classes? Those ideas are transferable across disciplines, which means that we can usually figure out how information is structured in any given database (with enough time) and help people find the stuff they need with a little librarian magic. Sometimes, even people immersed in a discipline don’t quite understand how or why information is organized in these repositories. Shedding a light on that is what we do.
  2. We understand the pedagogy of research. On a broad level, we understand what goes into the research process across a variety of disciplines. Librarians contributing to a reference service or leading library instruction have seen hundreds of research assignments–some excellent, some not-so-good. After a few years on the job, we can spot assignment pitfalls from a mile away, because we’ve seen how a large number of people approach this process. I’d argue that even if we don’t have formal pedagogical training, most librarians have some sense of what works and what doesn’t in student research assignments. The challenge is to tease out that knowledge and apply it to our work as educational partners.
  3. We’re really good at asking questions about things we know very little about. A.K.A. the reference interview. Most people don’t have this skill, because it’s uncomfortable to admit that you don’t know about something and ask a zillion questions to get to the precise knowledge you need to help someone find what they are looking for. But that’s what we are trained to do as reference librarians, and we can put that skill to work in thinking about consulting on research assignments, which could lead to interesting opportunities involving the collections, or a more scaffolded assignment structure, or something equally exciting. Bonus: This is also a student-centered approach, because students might be nervous or afraid to ask questions about something that’s unclear in a research assignment, but we can use our positionality to ask those “stupid questions.”
  4. We continually bring a beginner’s mind to our work. Again, because that’s the basis for reference. Librarians are trained not to make assumptions, and we can use that same mindset for approaching research assignments, thinking about what students might already know (and what might be confusing), etc.

Of course, we also have idiosyncratic expertise in research tools, disciplinary knowledge, etc. based on our individual unique experiences, and I want to acknowledge those as well.

The more I think about it, the more I think that reference experience (or perhaps a general ethos of reference?) is crucial for the role of teaching librarian. I don’t know that we have to “do” reference, but many of the ideas and approaches that we cultivate in that sphere seem entirely important for teaching work.

What do you think? Are there other things that you would add to this list?

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher, The Library Game

Coupon Code for Rule Number One Readers!

Happy June! We’re really excited that our book is being published this month, and ALA is helping us to celebrate this by offering a coupon code for Rule Number One Readers. If you use code LCPP17 via the ALA Store, you can receive $5 off Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice.

It’s very strange (and exciting) to think that other people will read this book, after we spent such a long and lonely time writing it (together, but still). Stay tuned for more Rule Number One posts coming soon, as we emerge from the book-writing/editing hole and return to blogging!

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The Language of Learning

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with my talented colleague Robin Katz, and we talked about teaching things, just like you might expect. I was struck then, and in a later co-consult with a faculty member, how Robin talked about “learning goals” for library sessions, and how that language choice really seemed to open the door to seeing librarians and course instructors in collaboration about the library session.

Now, of course, for those precisionists among us (I see you), there is a difference between “learning goals” and “learning outcomes,” and what we usually actually mean when we talk about the library session is outcomes, BUT:

  • I learned long ago (and probably many of you did too) that people get a bit less excited to talk to you when you start talking in the language of assessment, so I usually ask questions like, “What do you hope your students will be able to do after the library session?” instead of using the word “outcome.”
  • There’s just something about the word “goal” that really resonates: It’s aspirational, and encourages us to try new things. It gives us something collaborative to work toward, together.

And in a conversation with an instructor, it seems to me that the precise definition of terms doesn’t matter–it’s the outcome of the conversation that is valuable (see what I did there?).

Since that coffee, I’ve started incorporating the language of “learning goals” into my discussions with course instructors, and I think it’s making a difference. When I go back to plan my class, I do return to thinking about “outcomes,” but that’s for my own personal use.

All of this is just to say that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the language that we use to describe what we do, and how we do it. Have you had any experiences like this, where a language change seems to have made a difference? I’d love to hear about it!

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Librarian in a Strange Land

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I’m teaching an introductory STEM class using a lesson plan that I’ve used approximately one billion times before, asking students to located a scientific study based on reporting in the popular media (shoutout to my awesome colleague Cynthia Cohen for first introducing me to this idea). Each quarter, I switch up the article so that it’s current; this time, I choose one about how consuming chili peppers can potentially help you live longer. In this class, we looked at two reported pieces: one from The New York Times that was a bit light on details, and one from The Olive Oil Times that included a surprising amount of evidence from the study. I’m hoping to complicate the idea that source type is a foolproof heuristic for quality, expecting that the students will claim that the NYT is a better source because…it’s the freaking New York Times.

We begin our discussion by looking at the NYT piece. “What do we know about this publication?” I ask.

“It’s not reliable,” one student says. “You have to be careful because it can be biased.”

This catches me by surprise. I ask the rest of the class, “Do you think the New York Times is a reliable source?” The majority shake their heads. I’m taken by surprise (not only because we’re specifically talking about peppers here): In every instruction session that I’ve ever led, sources like the New York Times are held up as gold-standard sources, basically the next-best thing you could get to a peer-reviewed scientific study. And, today, suddenly, it’s not.

In the days leading up to the inauguration, with “fake news” becoming an everyday part of our cultural lexicon, Danah Boyd publishes a piece called “Did Media Literacy Backfire?“, where she posits that, as a culture, we have done too good a job of encouraging people to question information, especially information that does not jive with their personal experiences and networks. Boyd writes, “Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving. People are. Unfortunately, that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another.”

I read this piece, and it feels right: My social networks are echo chambers, and when I see postings from the other end of the political spectrum, I doubt them more and more quickly than those that implicitly align with my worldview, ultimately true or not. I hear and participate in conversations about how social media is so distressing these days, and my corner of the Internet gets more and more homogeneous as those people who don’t agree either fall silent or unfriend. The echoes amplify, but I barely notice, and I have trouble imagining that there could be an inverse version of my world, but of course there is.

I appreciate the irony that I am validating the conclusions of this post on my own experiences.

One way to understand information (and media) literacy’s goal is to create wary consumers of information. In some ways, this project seems to have been a resounding success; in others, not, as this skepticism tends to come out more in certain contexts, and not at all in others. The project of information literacy feels like success in small ways (e.g., “My students can find peer-reviewed articles!”), but feels like failure once writ large. What happened?

My hypothesis is that we all took the concept of “evidence” (and, consequently, “good” information being rooted in evidence) for granted. And now, thanks to world events, we discover that a concept that we implicitly thought everyone understood the same way… well, we didn’t. And now we have to face that.

So what do we do now? In an analogy that seems more and more apt by the day, librarians and educators must be Vergils, leading learners through an informational hellscape. And to do that, we can’t rely on our old tricks, like CRAAP, because they presume an agreement about meanings of terms like “reliability.” We’ll have to break down these concepts, and build them up together toward a shared meaning. This is going to require empathy, and collaboration with our educator colleagues because this can’t be done in a 50-minute one-shot–it’ll have to happen over years, with consistent reinforcement, and librarians can’t own it alone. It’s going to need us to advocate for spending our efforts on more challenging material, like why someone might want to find a peer-reviewed study in the first place. If we live in a world where people question everything (or everything that doesn’t align with their worldview),then let’s help them think about the questions they’ll need to ask to interpret those sources.

Every morning, I wake up and am not sure how I will find the world. I question things I thought I knew (Sure, CNN is sensationalist, but is it really “fake news”?). I wonder if the work I’m doing will have any impact. I don’t presume to know how learners will respond to questions now. This new world requires humility.

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

Information Literacy Implications of “Algorithmic Bias in Library Discovery Systems”

In the not-too-distant past, my library adopted a new discovery system for our catalog access. Right away, my colleagues and I noticed weirdness: some keyword searches would pull up seemingly unrelated items (where a search through the bib record revealed no clues) or an exact title search would display the title we were looking for several items down. I’ve been stumped for why this is happening, and got no good answers from the vendor.

Which is why I’m super grateful for Matthew Reidsma’s recent, very excellent blog post, “Algorithmic Bias in Library Discovery Systems.” It’s long, but worth reading the whole thing. In fact, I’d say it’s a necessity for all librarians—go read it, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! So, to summarize: Reidsma tested Summon’s Topic Explorer function and discovered some odd, leading things, which are the function of how the tool’s algorithm works. For example, a search for “muslim terrorist in the United States” led to a Wikipedia result about “Islam in the United States”—a distressing conflation.

This is why it’s really *not good* for us to present the whole “Internet=bad, Library=good” dichotomy that is so easy to fall into. In many cases, the library search isn’t great either: the algorithms that run it are created by people, and are certainly not perfect, and may reflect the biases or simple not-thinking of the creator. So no matter what the tool is that we use to find information, that question of evaluation is critical: is this actually a reflection of what I was looking for, or does it take a leap (e.g., terrorists –> Islam)? And even if all of the results do seem related, we need to interrogate how they are being displayed: most people are only going to look at (maybe) the first ten results: do they represent a certain viewpoint? These problematic issues exist in ALL library discovery systems, not just open web products like Google.

When I go back to teaching in the fall, I’m going to be sure to teach evaluation outside of the context of a specific search engine—I want students to feel comfortable questioning all information they see, and not to elide that skillset because they implicitly trust that a certain search (i.e., the library search) is more reliable. If our job is to teach students to be critical consumers and creators of information, I’d say that it’s incumbent upon us not to take the easier path, but to surface the way these systems are constructed and the potential for bias and leading that such systems create. Many thanks again to Matthew Reidsma for his excellent article, that highlights the problematic nature of discovery systems.

How will you approach this in your teaching?

#questioneverything

For more related research on algorithms, you should check out Safiya Noble’s work on how commercial search engines represent gender and racial identity. It’ll make you stop in your tracks and rethink how you approach teaching searching. Promise.

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Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher, The Library Game

Friday Quote

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

-Samuel Beckett

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Filed under On Being Human, Posts by Dani Brecher, Quotes

What We Can Learn From Preschool

This month’s copy of The Atlantic includes an interesting (and attention-grabbingly titled) article by Erika Christakis on “How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids.” While I can’t vouch for the conclusions regarding early childhood education (though there are lots of outlets that have weighed in—Slate, a bazillion early childhood education blogs), I was struck by how many of the observations and conclusions rang true for me when thinking about library instruction, teaching, and higher education.

The crux of the article is this: Preschools have become more and more about “school readiness” and teaching kids academic skills before they get to primary school, and the curriculum has shifted away from exploration and play toward “accountability.” This all seems to be backfiring, as a recent study from Tennessee showed that students who attended preschool were performing worse than their non-preschool attending colleagues by the second grade, and had a worse attitude about school by the first grade. You can read the full study from Vanderbilt here.

Here’s the part of the article that really struck me:

…We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted….

Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning…Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown.

In fact, it’s never possible to anticipate what anyone, regardless of age, needs to learn, so this focus on inquiry-based learning and encouraging conversation and reflection on a topic is critical no matter what age we are working with.

For example, when I’m working with a student and they find a peer-reviewed article, I have basically two options in the way I talk with them. I could say, “Excellent work. You found a peer-reviewed article,” and basically end the conversation there. Or I could say, “Tell me about the article you found and how you know whether it’s relevant for the assignment,” which will get them to reflect on their process, consider whether the article is (in fact) appropriate for what they are doing, and potentially highlight any problem areas (e.g., “Because I found it in EBSCO” does not demonstrate deep understanding of evaluation).

So while academic librarians work with a different population and a different skill set, we can take many of these lessons from preschool and apply them to our own work: conversation-based sessions, a focus on inquiry, working with other students to solve problems. As we’ve discussed on this blog before, there’s a huge body of empirical data pointing to the efficacy of these methods, and this article was a great reminder of how this is key across the field of education.

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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher