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The Whirlwind Class

After my first year here, when I realized that I needed to sell the power of a library instruction session from the inside rather than the outside (meaning, by actually teaching rather than begging for time) to those departments that hadn’t made much use of my services, I came up with a plan. The plan was to point out that students would come seek me out for help if they knew my face and could see that I’m a real person and not scary or mean or intimidating or any of those things. I pointed out that if professors were structuring their classes in a way that relied on their students coming to me rather than having me come to their class, they’d have to give me at least a little face time.

For reasons I’ve described before, this mini-class idea was especially important to the language departments, but it wasn’t just them. In a 10-week term, pretty much every professor is jealous not of hours, but of minutes of class time. It’s been one of the most interesting challenges of my time here to figure out a) when library sessions really are important and how to explain that to faculty, and b) when they’re not as important, and how to get students the help they need without the structure of a classroom.

So here I was, offering whirlwind sessions of 10, 15, or 20 minutes here and there. I’d bop in, hand out my trading cards and maybe a subversive handout, explain how to find my Availability Calendar, and then teach the class one thing that so boggled their minds that they’d realize I might be worth coming to see with questions later. My goal was to teach something that the teacher wouldn’t have known. Something flashy. Something so pithy and assignment-relevant that if this was the only thing these students learned all term, I’d be ok with that. And you know what? This is very very hard to do. I put more time into preparing these mini classes than I do into most of my hour-long classes.

And for the most part, I’ve been very pleased with them, and several of them have grown over the years into either longer sessions, or into more sessions over the course of the term. But they’re certainly not good for every situation, or even most situations. They’re really only good if several conditions are met:

  • It’s an upper-level class
    I have zero time to cover the basics.
  • Students will be working on wildly different topics
    I’ve had times when students did come to me after my whirlwind class, but I spent the first half-hour of every appointment going over the very same processes and resources… NOT a good use of anyone’s time.
  • I get the first portion of the class period, not the last
    Even when I finish my bit on time, the sessions usually stretch on as the professor and/or students ask questions. Of course, this leaves me in the odd position of having professors who think I accomplished a lot in 15 minutes, when really I was in their classrooms for twice that long.
  • I don’t have too many of them in a term
    They take a long time to prepare, and I would never have time to see every student in every class in every department I serve as an individual appointment.

Still, they do serve their purpose sometimes, and if nothing else, it’s a foot in the door. Still, I’m becoming a little bit uncomfortable with the thought that I might become known as “the one who can do a 15 minute class.” In reality, this is not enough time, and students do struggle with this stuff, and accessing and deploying the literature of a field is an integral part of becoming a scholar in that field. Simply plunking keywords into databases is only the first baby steps in that process. And really, if professors work with me and tell me what their course goals and readings are, I can craft a longer session that isn’t just an add-on to the class. They can be chalk full of course content and therefore not actually take much away from the incredibly precious minutes in a 10-week term. And I don’t want to undermine the efforts of my colleagues as they also struggle with ways to make their content and expertise an integral part of the classroom experience in their departments.

p.s. Yes… I know… I’ve been tagged. I’ll work on it. Really I will.

2 thoughts on “The Whirlwind Class

  1. Some of the criteria for making this work might be very hard to achieve in a public library setting. I am coming to believe that public librarians need to follow your example and get out into the classrooms of the public and private schools. Presently we rely on them coming to us and then we give them a whirlwind tour of the entire library and their teachers then expect them to be able to do good research. I would welcome any thoughts you might have on how you could see applying your methods into a public library setting.

  2. I’ve never taught in a public library context, so I’m really not certain. And I’m sure that just like each academic library has its own culture and set of patron needs and expectations, each public library would approach instruction differently to accommodate different patron communities.

    However, the principle at work here (which may have its faults, as I pointed out) was to reduce the barriers to being invited into the classroom to a point that library instruction no longer feels to the patron like an intrusion. In my case, 15 minutes didn’t seem like a huge burden on class time. At a public library, this may mean setting up sessions in a community center, advertising and getting yourself invited to business’ meetings when they’ll be planning projects… who knows? You’d probably know better than I.

    Another principle is to figure out what each patron population would consider important and speak to those needs. In my case, that meant learning that professors *did* want students to come see me individually, and then frame our conversations in terms of “helping students know that I’m available and useful” rather than “teach your students what they need to know to complete the assignment.”

    So while the whirlwind class may not translate very well to the public library setting, the principles of reducing barriers to involvement and speaking the language of the patron’s hoped-for outcome are probably generalizable.

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