Learning and Unlearning

One of the most difficult things for me as I grow older and presumably more experienced is unlearning what I have learned, or at least being aware of what I have learned since adulthood so I don’t make unwarranted assumptions about student knowledge. This might be the sort of thing the Beloit College Mindset List tries to do in a general way, but that list seems more to indicate what Boomers think is important that new college students have never heard of. I’m talking more about what the students themselves will eventually know about processes that will become common tasks for both the students and ourselves.

I was thinking about this in a small, specific way last week when I did an introductory research session for juniors about to begin what are most likely their first independent research projects since their first year writing seminar. Among other things, I discuss using WorldCat as a discovery tool because it shows so much that isn’t in our library as well as lets us easily distinguish between books, journals, archival resources, etc. Every year I ask who’s heard of WorldCat. Every year almost no one has. Afterwards, the professor expressed some surprise that they hadn’t, because for him, as for me, it was the first stop in any search for books. He joked that we have all these assumptions about what students know, even though the purpose of college that they come out knowing them rather than come in knowing them.

Something like knowing about WorldCat is minor compared to all the things I have to unlearn. It’s very easy for people well versed in the research process to forget that new college students aren’t. I’ve become much more minimalist in my instruction over the years, because I’ve come to believe that students have to learn how to do research by doing research, and trying to get them to memorize a treatise on library research for their first 10-page essay is folly. No one learned that way. I’ve seen librarians in instruction sessions who are of the kitchen-sink philosophy of library instruction, apparently believing that college freshmen really need a 45-minute introduction to the OPAC.

These librarians are certainly aware of the knowledge gap between them and the students, but have forgotten what it might be like to have an adult talk ad nauseum about any topic, much less one as dull as the OPAC. They’ve also forgotten that what they think is terribly important probably isn’t that important for the students, either theoretically or practically. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be eighteen, like the author of The Dumbest Generation. And some librarians seem to resent students for not knowing as much as they do.

Many of us could spend hours talking about the research process. Some of us, like my colleague Mary George, write books on the topic. A lot of us even do some of it. For me at least, it becomes more difficult over the years to remember what would be most useful or relevant to new college students and also to remember what they don’t know. Part of me has to unlearn everything I’ve learned to go back to that previous state and see the library through the eyes of a novice.

I’ve had similar experiences teaching. Last year I taught an essay on feminist political theory for the first time at Princeton. After eighteen years or so of feminist awareness, it never occurred to me that the new college students would have had no exposure whatsoever to feminism. The concept of gender was foreign to them, so naturally someone arguing that a complete theory of justice would require a society without gender confused them somewhat. What are they teaching in the schools these days, I almost said to them. I went into the class with a lot of assumptions about what people "just know" about feminism or gender and ended up having to deliver an impromptu lecture on the feminist movement. (This episode is fresh in my mind because I’m teaching the same essay tomorrow, this time prefaced by an encyclopedia article on feminist political theory.)

Assuming we can accomplish this unlearning – and I’m not at all sure we can – how would we do it? If only I could offer a bulleted list of techniques, I could probably start selling myself on the library motivational circuit. Some of it is relatively easy. When students ask the same questions year after year, those are the things they don’t know. This is why I prefer minimalizing my contribution and responding to students as much as possible, so I can remain somewhat aware of what they don’t know.  I try to assume the minimum amount of knowledge while respecting their intelligence.  Some of it may be more difficult. Can we ever look at the library through fresh eyes?

There’s one place where I at least can’t unlearn. Once I finally drank of the Pierian Spring, as Pope puts it, I’ve tried to drink as deeply as I can, which would explain why I do the sort of job I do instead of some job without access to a large library. I doubt most of the students have the same assumptions I have about the centrality of learning, but I try to assume that if everything goes well, the spark will ignite, and they will discover the thrill of the life of the mind. Here is perhaps where I can’t unlearn but only try to model.

For the rest, I try think of how I might remember what it’s like not to know what I know, to remember how I felt the first time I worked in a library with ten million books or so, how daunted I was by the sheer size of everything and the scope of all I didn’t even know I didn’t know.  Then I remember why the Delphic Oracle considerd Socrates the wisest man in Greece, because he was the only one who knew he didn’t know anything. To put it more mildly, he was aware of how much he didn’t know.

This makes it a little easier, I think, for me to look through fresh eyes and avoid the jaded cynicism of the old and experienced. Everyone’s ignorant about most things, but it’s always easy for me to see how little I know even about subjects I’m interested in. However much I might know, I always have the feeling that it isn’t nearly enough. Achieving that humility is a first step. We’re all novices in most areas, and perhaps that common ground makes it easier for us both to strip away our assumptions and not to mind so much that yet again we’re going over the same material we’ve covered a hundred times for students who seem to change only in that they always look younger than they did the year before.

5 thoughts on “Learning and Unlearning

  1. Speaking of Worldcat, I always demo Google Books Search in my IL sessions. It’s great for uncovering material on obscure topics and does have the cool factor going for it too.

  2. Very inspiring! This applies much more broadly than just to research. I used to observe people using library systems as part of designing better ones. It seemed to me that we need to let users discover what they need to know through the process of doing rather than presenting an overwhelming amount of information along the way. It’s really true that less can be more!

  3. I always recommend, but don’t always demo, Google Books as well as Google Scholar. I’m not sure the students believe me, but I try to emphasize how messy and chaotic the world of information is right now, and they should try every path they can think of, from Google to footnote chasing.

  4. Really nice, Wayne. I am just now getting into instruction theory, and it’s all new to me. I never know how much is the right amount to throw at the new kids! Really nice!

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