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I need to stop being such a librarian

We’ve nearly finished the first term of the new first year seminars, and I’ve worked with a whole bunch of them now, and they’ve all been totally different. Sure, they’re all required to give students practice finding, evaluating, and using information, but just as we suspected, there are lots and lots of ways to work those things into a course. Some courses have taught The Research Paper, others have concentrated on teaching students to build context for what they’re reading and hearing in class.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, though, it’s been that I am not there to teach the students how to find, evaluate, and use information. I tried that with a couple of courses, and it failed. Miserably.

No, I’m there to do two things: to give the students a couple of skills they need right now, and to spark their imaginations about what could be possible if they decided to make a habit of this research stuff.

This clicked for me the other day when I thought about what it would look like if the college decided that all first year students have a foreign language component in their first year seminar, or a biology component, or a stats component. The guest lecturer from French or Bio or Econ would never be expected to teach French or Bio or stats in half an hour or an hour. Instead, they’d get the students interested in their fields of study by providing just enough basic knowledge to make some interesting, higher order process make sense, and then they’d concentrate on making that higher order process interesting and engaging for the rest of the half hour or hour.

You can’t inoculate students in one easy session and expect that now they know French.

Note to self: There’s no way to teach it all, anyway, so think harder about things that are both practical and imagination-sparking, and then teach those things more consistently. These students like to be intellectually engaged — that’s why they’re here — so go with that. Be a guest lecturer.

Published inFirst Year StudentsTeaching and Learning


  1. This post is so dead on. It’s not the Matrix where you can download into people’s head. It’s more like a sales pitch or asking out for coffee; you want to generate enough interest that they will come back and take you up on the offer.

  2. “It’s not the Matrix.” But man would that be cool!

    I kind of like taking bits and pieces that work from me for these metaphors, because there’s certainly something to the “put your best (most interesting) foot forward” and “make sure they have a positive experience” aspects of a sales pitch and a coffee date. And to a large extent what we’re doing is enticing them to come back for more. But I think that for me, in my ivory tower, where that breaks down is that the thing that makes the sessions compelling isn’t “look what I can do for you” but more “look at the interesting intellectual puzzles you can invent and engage with.”

    Granted, this is where my only mentioning the one session in my post is a little over-simplified, because I think that there’s no way to accomplish this without a compelling assignment and some useful tie into the content of the course. Ideally the assignment and the session and the act of doing the research isn’t “extra” but is set up to give enriched intellectual access to the course content. So for it to work well, it’s more than just a guest lecture.

    Still, even when things aren’t set up ideally, and actually especially when things aren’t set up ideally, I’m going to try concentrating harder on the imagination-sparking aspects.

  3. This is another good reminder that less is more when it comes to instruction, but that’s always been the case with any type of learning situation. The general guideline you’ve probably heard is limit yourself to three outcomes. It also reminds me of something I heard in a presentation a few years ago. A consultant was brought in to help the instruction staff at a academic library improve the quality of instruction. The consultant went to the classes taught by each librarian. Turns out the consultant counted over 50 different things that were being taught across a similar set of instruction programs. The number one advice was to cut it down to no more than three specific learning tasks in any one session.

    What I’m trying to do more of these days is less lecture and demo (no more than 20 minutes in a 50 minute session), and more personalized assistance so that the students get 20 minutes at least of authentic practice – which is the best activity for learning anything. If you spend time doing it you will have a better chance of learning it. That does mean less time for covering evaluation or search logic development, but I try to work that in as I go around and talk to each student about their research project. The one major outcome I’m hoping for is that the personal attention I give will payoff by making the students better appreciate what librarians can do for them – and hopefully that will lead to some new relationships with us.

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