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Subversive Handouts: One Librarian’s Secret Weapon

I’ve recently (within the last year and a half) taken to the idea of handouts. Real, printed, paper handouts. I almost never list specific resources on those handouts, though, since I save that kind of thing for the online guide that goes with each class (unless I have a good reason to think the class will want a paper cheat-sheet). That kind of handout works well with some teachers and some students, but I’ve never been able to pull it off to my satisfaction. Instead I create what I’ve affectionately termed “subversive handouts.”

Before you get too worried, I should say that the name came from my very first incarnation of this thing and is no longer an accurate description of the genre. I’d been asked one too many times to do an “everything the class will need to know about research in 10-15 minutes, please” session. All efforts to get more time failed, so instead I paired the class down to the two small tasks that I thought the students would need most… and I created my very first subversive handout. This listed the two things they’d learn that day at the top, continued with a lengthy list of catchy and interesting/important sounding skills they could ask me about later, and concluded with my contact information and the URL for my calendar at the bottom.

The idea was threefold:
1) Students would still get a little concrete information and a chance to see my face (invaluable if they’re supposed to come make individual appointments with me later).
2) They’d have their imaginations jogged about the kinds of things they didn’t know were possible, or the skills they didn’t know they needed to learn.
3) The professor would see that “everything they need to know” encompassed a whole lot more than the library catalog and finding journal articles. And I won’t lie; in this original case, this third point was the most important to me.

And you know what? It worked. I ended up staying 15 minutes past time as the professor and students asked me questions off of that handout during class time. That meant I had effectively doubled my face-to-face time for with that class, and everyone was engaged and asking questions.

Since then I’ve used the “Here’s what we learned today… Here’s what you can ask me about any time… Here’s how you can get help…” handout in many, many classes. And while they’re useful for lots of kinds of classes, they’re particularly good for two kinds of sessions: those like the one I described above, and those where the professors know full well that the primary goal of a short session is to introduce their students to me so that the students will be more likely to come see me with their research conundrums later. And my original experience of having professors and students alike ask questions from the handout while still in class has held true of almost every session for which I’ve created one of these. (Here’s an example of one I created for English major thesis students.)

Even though I almost never create these handouts with the primary goal of educating the professor any more, the name has stuck. It’s just so fun to knuckle down to the task of creating a handout and be able to rub my fingers together and imagine myself scheming minor subversion. (Imagine shifty eyes and a monologue populated with mutterings such as “They didn’t know they’d want to know about THIS…. Mwa-ha-ha-ha.”) This little bit of fiction is all it takes to make a mundane task feel interesting every single time. Which I suppose means that I’m easily amused.

Published inIn My Classroom


  1. Meredith Meredith

    Wow! I love this idea! So often, I have a long list of things that I’d like to teach but don’t have time for. And I’d much rather cover less stuff well than run through a bunch of things that the students will never absorb or remember.

    Thanks for sharing it. :)

  2. Iris Iris

    You’re absolutely right! I forgot to be more explicit about the fact that this actually allows me to cover less in class. :-)

  3. Iris Iris

    To those who asked: No, I didn’t invent the graphic on the handout. It’s a screenshot from the library website thrown into a header.

  4. Catherine Catherine

    I’m very late to the party here, but I bookmarked this long ago, knowing that I’d need it someday…and that day is today!

    I’m totally going to create a Subversive Handout for a class I have to teach next month that will be one of those “everything you need to know about finding and evaluating sources, and also avoiding plagiarism, in 50 minutes” sessions.

    Thank you! (And I agree, your handouts are gorgeous – lucky you, to be able to print them in color!)

  5. Iris Iris

    I hope it works well for you! And hey, if anyone wants to share what they include in their “things we could have covered but didn’t” section, I’d love to see what you came up with.

  6. Jason Jason

    Iris, I just discovered this via Catherine’s Librarian Blogger Heroes post. Consider the idea stolen for my next class.

  7. […] what to leave out altogether. Which is always sad, but necessary. (I get around this by making subversive handouts for most of my […]

  8. […] When I talk to faculty about the sessions I’m going to teach for them, I start with their goals. What are their learning goals for the course? What are their learning goals for this assignment? And then I match those to my goals for the session. That way we can prioritize what to include in the class, and we can both feel better about why we’re including those things rather than all the rest of everything we could include. And prioritizing is important because 2 goals is quite enough for a session — 3 if we’re feeling really ambitious. (Believe me, I’ve balked against that constraint HARD, but it’s absolutely true.) Whatever I can’t cover in the session, I include on a Subversive Handout. […]

  9. Gisele McDaniel Gisele McDaniel

    Hi Iris,
    Thank you for sharing. I usually prepare hand-outs for sessions. I always feel better leaving the student with something tangible to review and also print it on colored paper so it stands out. I love your idea of “some things I haven’t covered”. Will include that and shorten the other stuff to keep hand-out to 1 page. Thank you! Gisele

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