As many public services librarians do, I give a lot of demonstrations, mostly to students, but sometimes to fellow librarians and even occasionally to the general public. I’ve been teaching a lot of instruction sessions the past month, all of which have demonstrations as part of their content. Last Saturday I presented a demonstration on Google tools to a community group at a NJ public library (which was great, especially since I didn’t know what to expect). Next week I’m giving workshops / demonstrations on Google tools and Internet searching beyond Google (does such exist anymore in the public mind?) to groups of public and school librarians. Then I’ll be giving a demo on some new resources to library staff here. I’m quite shy, which people who know me deny, but which causes me to be a little nervous when I speak in front of groups. Hundreds of hours teaching and presenting has done little to eliminate the queasy feeling I get in the ten minutes before beginning a class or presentation. Still, I’m a passable public speaker, and I don’t at all mind speaking in public for a good cause. Good causes include: it’s part of my job, sharing information with colleagues, and money. As I said, I don’t mind giving presentations and demonstrations, but I very much dislike being on the receiving end of one. I give demonstrations, it just puzzled me for a long time why anyone would go to one.
My problem is being wrapped up inside my own head (that sounds painful, doesn’t it?), and not thinking about the way other people learn. I know how I learn. I learn new things either by reading or doing. If it’s an intellectual subject, I’ll read a few books and articles. If it’s some sort of software or technical skill, I learn by just messing around with it until I’ve figured out how it works. I’ve even been known to combine these things and read the help pages if I can’t figure something out, and it puzzles me why so many people have an aversion to F1. This is why I don’t attend preconferences and avoid demonstrations about most things that I need to know about. Sometimes I attend demos as moral support, but I’m far more likely to go to a presentation about something of marginal use for me, just because I’m curious. For example, our economics librarian recently gave a fantastic two-part presentation on finance and finance resources. I don’t work with financial data and am highly unlikely ever to, but I found the talk interesting and informative. I learned a lot about something that I’ll probably never need to use, which incidentally characterizes most of my educational career.
However, when it comes to tools I might use, I would almost never go to a demo if I could avoid it. By the time someone gets around to giving a demonstration about something that might be of interest to me, it’s almost always the case that I’ve already read about it somewhere and if it seemed potentially useful played around with it already. Often, I feel that I could probably give the demonstration myself. And if it’s a demonstration of something like a new database, the demonstrator almost never covers what I want to cover at the pace I want to cover it.
Part of this is because I learn best on my own by doing, but I suspect part of it might have other motivations. Consider this old joke: a man staying in a boarding house sneaks a horse into the bathroom one night. The next morning the evidence is obvious: overturned furniture, hoof marks on the carpet and on the stairs, dents in the walls. The place is a mess. The landlord asked the man why he did it. The man says, “So the next morning when someone says, ‘There’s a horse in the bathroom!’ I could say, ‘Yes, I know.'” When some librarian says “You can do X with Y!” I like to be able to say, “Yes, I know.” Though I hardly think of myself as a faddist innovator desperately clinging to the bleeding edge, I also don’t want to be the person in the room saying I’ve never heard of some current subject or tool before. Also, for me it’s not enough just to have heard about it, I want to know more about it or how to use it, at least as a novice. I could just lie and say, “Yes, I know all about that,” but that would be dishonest. Plus, I might get questioned more and then have to resort to my standard technique for leaving awful meetings, which is to pretend I’m having a back spasm and leave the room never to return, which both gets me out of the awkward situation and gains me sympathy the next time I see people. (“How’s your back doing, you poor thing?”)
I’ve long since come to understand that other people want demonstrations because that’s how they learn best, by having someone speak to them and show them how things work. Still, I wonder if the people who learn best by watching demonstrations of, for example, new tools are the ones least likely to give such demonstrations themselves, and the people most likely to be giving the demonstrations are the least likely to have learned what they know by watching other demonstrations. This seems to be the case for some of the demonstrations I give, especially the ones off campus. This is the central irony that emerges whenever anyone asks, “but how did you learn about all this stuff?” Well, I just learned. There sometimes seems to be an assumption that such knowledge just comes naturally somehow, which is of course untrue. Perhaps the learning how to learn on my own comes naturally, which makes it different though not necessarily superior to learning from others. After all, people who attend demonstrations are there to learn something new. These days, it’s the people who don’t bother learning anything new at all who worry me.