Alternatives to Instruction

Since it’s Halloween, I thought I’d write about something scary, like getting rid of library instruction.

As is probably clear from the last post, I’ve never had much faith in traditional library instruction. At this point I’ve taught countless standard BI sessions (is that a hopelessly dated phrase?) and numerous other potentially innovative variations, and I’ve never been satisfied that any of them were worth my time.

My dissatisfaction isn’t with my own performance, necessarily. Without being immodest, I think I can say I’m a good public speaker, informative and even entertaining at times. I can hold the students attention and get them to participate in the process. The problem isn’t me so much as the general nature of the instruction. Two different possible alternatives to standard instruction come to mind based on my experience, but both have obstacles to overcome.

My most rewarding instruction experiences are with the religion juniors here (all juniors have to write independent papers, and all seniors have to write theses). When I first became the religion librarian I began targeting the juniors as a likely place to begin research instruction. I was allowed into their seminar, but only for a few minutes to introduce myself. My introduction consisted of me chatting them up, showing them what a good fellow I could be, and inviting them to set up appointments with me once they started on their research. Most of them did in fact set up individual appointments with me, and I’d sit in my office for an hour or more going over their paper topics, explaining what they needed to do, suggesting promising avenues of research, and searching for primary and secondary resources. Sometimes I met with them multiple times. It worked very well, and many students had good things to say about the process. Over the years I get more time in the seminar, but the individual consultations are still where I can give the best help to the student because the sessions are focused and I tailor the instruction to their needs and their questions. It’s also where I learn the most, because I always learn something new when preparing for a topic. I believe this is the ideal model of library instruction: focused individual consultations.

The problem is that most schools can’t afford this level of instruction. If you’re teaching in a large university with tens of thousands of students, most likely you don’t have enough librarians to devote to instruction this intensive and individualized. In a liberal arts college it might be possible, though. I also provide library instruction for a few freshmen writing seminars, and though I invite everyone to meet with me, only a small percentage do. I would probably be overwhelmed if I got the same response I get with juniors.

My second most rewarding instruction experiences are with my own writing students. When I act as my own librarian for my students, they get better instruction than they might otherwise, for a couple of reasons. First, I know exactly what they need. Second, they pay more attention to me because I’m also the instructor. Students know who has the power. Because of this, I have often considered a train-the-trainer model, where I prepare the instructors and they integrate research instruction into the class. This sort of seamless research instruction would probably be better for the students.

However, I see two problems with implementation. For one, the instructors would most likely balk, and for good reason. Just as I’ve given up keeping up with the latest trends in web design and resent it when some web developer expects me to master my job plus his, so the instructors would resent it if they’re expected to master their subject matter and mine as well. For the most basic level of library instruction, say, quick searching Proquest, this might be fine. But it’s undoubtedly true that I know more about general library research and approaches to teaching research skills to students than would any instructor. I should know more, that’s my job. Another objection is more selfish. If the instructors are also the librarians, then what need have we for librarians? If it’s so easy to assist students in their library research, what’s the point of having that staff of professional librarians who claim some expertise? Training the trainers might harm the already shaky status of librarians.

Obviously I have no firm objective in considering alternatives to instruction, and I have little control over the matter anyway. However, I still can’t help but think that the more personalized the service the better it will be for the students. The problem is how to sustain that.