Limits to Instruction

I’m in the midst of the library instruction silly season, and because we’re slightly short-handed I’m teaching more sessions than I usually do. When I was in library school and tried to explain to non-library grad students what I was training to do, I used to say that reference was something like research without the writing and teaching without the grading. Later it became increasingly clear that it was also teaching without developing longer relationships with students or engaging in intellectual discussion about topics of mutual interest, but that’s neither here nor there. Of course, library instruction is more like training than teaching in ordinary academic senses. As time passes and I learn more, I’m also increasingly aware that the initial training must of necessity cover less ground, only because the ground to cover has grown so much.

Let me explain a bit. The sessions I typically do this time of year are for freshmen in the writing program. The Princeton Writing Program is a great model for such a program. The classes are all focused around an academic topic and students can choose their topic for the most part, the class size is limited to twelve students, and every class is assigned a librarian usually conversant with the general area of the topic (so humanities librarians do humanities topics, science librarians science topics, etc.). When I teach a writing seminar, I’m my own librarian, but I also act as the librarian for several other writing seminars.

The problem comes with the variety of topics and approaches. If there were, for example, a purely literary seminar, the instruction is somewhat easy. Search the catalog, search MLA, read your text closely. The typical instruction session lends itself easily to that general format: finding books and articles. But as we all know that’s just the beginning, and not necessarily even an appropriate beginning for some areas. For historical topics, it might be best to start with an archive somewhere and work outwards from that, but these students typically don’t have that opportunity. Because of the compressed timeline of their projects, they also typically wouldn’t have the time, for example, to page through year after year of print indexes of old newspapers, which they might then have to acquire on microfilm through ILL, especially if this is only a portion of their research. Our effort here is to prepare them for their junior and senior years, when most of the students will be doing sustained independent work for junior papers and senior theses. In these seminars we can only show them bits and pieces.

Another challenge is the multidisciplinary nature of many of the seminars, at least the ones I tend to get. There’s no one model of library research that will benefit everyone. In some of the classes, one person will be working on 17th century English political history while another will be working on contemporary media treatments of terrorist acts (this happened in a session last night). Great beginnings, perhaps, but in one session it’s tough to cover enough general information to start working on both of these topics, so all I can do is show a few tips and techniques and try to provide some general theorizing on how to proceed. After that, I try to work on a student by student basis. I can show everyone how to search WorldCat and Proquest, but with several hundred databases to choose from, showing new students how to begin navigating just our online resources is tricky, not to mention various print sources and archives and free online sources.

The most frequent request I get when working with these students is for books or articles already doing what they propose to do. “Can you help me find articles on how email is a form of civic friendship?” is one of my favorites from a couple of years ago. To which I can only answer, well, no, because there are no such articles (at least there weren’t then). We have to get the students to understand that it’s their job to bring together a variety of theories and facts and interpretations into a coherent argument.

If we add in the further challenge of trying to get the students to get out of the reporting mindset, the obstacles grow even more. There’s the “I need five articles to support X topic.” I don’t get this as much here as I did in previous libraries, but there is still sometimes the belief that you can choose a topic, find the required number of sources quickly, read them, then write an essay, rather than reading a lot before they can even begin to think about a thesis. Instead, we have to argue and sometimes demonstrate that scholarship rarely happens in a vacuum. Scholars have conversations with each other, sometimes over centuries or even millennia. In the humanities, these conversations take place in texts; books respond to books, articles to articles, but always one scholar responding to one or more other scholars discussing a problem. So we have to get the students looking for these conversations and finding a place to insert themselves, to know that they need to find a clearing in the forest of scholarship to build their own shanty of argument. (I think I’ll use that metaphor with the students just to sound obscurantist.)

Another way to think of this problem is through the rhetorical concept of kairos. Kairos is the rhetorical situation, the proper moment to speak or write. Part of kairos is the exigence, the crisis that calls forth rhetoric. How can we show students how to use library research and engagement with sources to find their own kairos? What crisis do they discover that calls forth their rhetoric? What clearing in the conversation can allow them to emerge? And how can library research help that?

And finally, how can all this be started effectively within an hour?