Two Schools of Instruction

Fortunately that time of the year isn’t here yet, but I’m still thinking already about teaching of all kinds in the fall, including library instruction. Though there are busy times, even busy seasons, when I coast on my experience and skills, I try to be a reflective instructor when I can. A conversation with a friend the other day centered around library instruction. We were arguing about (discussing?) a couple of different schools of instruction, which I might call Kitchen Sink and Minimalist.

The names both explain themselves and hint at my own preferences. The Kitchen Sink approach wants to turn students into little librarians, though the Kitchen Sinkers would say "independent scholars." As a long term goal I have some sympathy to this approach. Within certain parameters, we should want students to become independent scholars, or maybe independent "scholars." The problem comes in the practice, and in the definition of scholar.

For example, I have seen good librarians spend 45-50 minutes explaining the intricacies of the OPAC to freshman in a composition course preparing to research a 10-page essay. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read a 10-page research essay by a freshman, but I can tell you from experience there’s just not that much an essay like that can cover. To do the research for an essay like that, freshman don’t need to know every nuance of the OPAC, or even every nuance of searching. Spending that much time on any one activity is a mistake, but I’ve seen it happen over and over.

Just at the technical level, I’ve seen the similar activities with online indexes and databases. Some librarians go through several in a session, as if there was any great difference in technique among them. For the purposes of search, a database is a database is a database.

The Kitchen Sinkers approach more theoretical applications in the same way. They want every student to come out of every one-shot with a mastery of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I guess the thinking is, I’ve only got this one hour, I’m going to make it count!

Needless to say, I’m not a Kitchen Sinker; I’m a Minimalist.  A former colleague (who hated most things about me professionally and personally, I should note) said that I should go into a BI, hand out my business card to students, and suggest they take notes on that. She meant this as a rebuke, no doubt, but it was an accurate enough description of my library instruction then and now. There’s only so much one can do in an hour (or 80 minutes, which is our typical freshman instruction session length). Even with 80 minutes, I might spend only half an hour on formal demonstration. The rest of the class I let the students start researching and I wander around consulting.

And in that half hour, I still try to minimize what I do. I certainly don’t cover every nuance of the OPAC, and typically I might demo one other database. Instead I emphasize what I call the geography of information. If you want this kind of thing, you look in this kind of place. It’s all abstract, but similar to some reference training. After all, if I know there’s such a thing as an historical atlas, I know all I really need to know about that topic to answer reference questions.

Search technique is easily enough dispensed with. I usually mention five things to do with a database:

  1. Search by Keyword
  2. Search by Subject
  3. Limit by date, language, etc.
  4. Mark the records you want to save
  5. Email citations/articles to yourself

How much more do students need to get started? I also discuss approaches summarized from Thomas Mann’s Library Research Methods:

  1. Keyword searches in online and print sources.
  2. Subject searches in online and print sources. 
  3. Citation searches in printed sources. 
  4. Searches through published bibliographies (including sets of footnotes in relevant subject documents). 
  5. Searches through people sources (whether by verbal contact, e-mail, electronic bulletin board, letters, etc.).
  6. Systematic browsing, especially of full-text sources arranged in predictable subject groupings.

Again, if students master the basic theory, do they need to be completely "information literate"?

There are a couple of possible objections to my approach. First, one might say I really am trying to get the students to be little librarians. Thomas Mann? He’s the reference librarian’s reference librarian! There’s some truth to that. But what I give students in a very brief time are guidelines. I don’t attempt to reinforce them all with extensive searching in a joint demonstration. Another possible criticism is that the students don’t leave with much. It’s true. They don’t. And they don’t leave with much in other classes, either. That’s because there’s only so much students can absorb in one class. They leave with enough to get started, to solve some problems, and to build from there.

The Kitchen Sinkers are motivated (I suspect) by the crisis of time. Unlike professors in a class, librarians don’t have much time with students. (I suppose there are those semester long information literacy courses, but those aren’t very common, which might not be a bad thing.) One doesn’t learn how to research quickly or abstractly, though. It takes not only time, but practice. This is the difficulty we all face. We can try to pack everything into one session, thus ensuring not only that the students won’t learn much but that they’ll be bored in the process. Or we can hint at the complexities of research in the class and get them started, with the hope that if they need more skills later on they’ll develop them through practice. Maybe we’ll be there; maybe we won’t. But there’s nothing we can do about it in a one shot class.

Research skills are learned over time with practice, even for librarians. Would we consider a new graduate student equal to a senior professor in research knowledge in a field? No. Nor would we consider a new library school graduate equal to a very experienced reference librarian, especially one who had also done her own research.

The good news is that most students will never need to be little librarians, or even big professors. Most students will need the sort of minimal research skills necessary to navigate their way through life, which outside academia rarely requires long research projects. Most students won’t ever be real scholars, nor do they need to be. The bad news is that in a lot of schools, there’s no guarantee that as the students progress, the librarian’s help will be consistently offered or sought when needed.


16 thoughts on “Two Schools of Instruction

  1. Finally, someone who agrees to minimal teaching. During my required English comp BI session, I talk for 15 mins giving first year students the remaining 45 mins to do research on their assigned topics. During the independent time, I consult with most students and get a bunch of questions. I find it really effective and receive praise from students and professors. But different things work for different people. This works best for me.

  2. Wow, this was a really inspiring post! As a second year MLIS student possibly heading into the area of academic libraries in the future, I really took a lot from your view on teaching. Thanks for making library instruction make sense!

  3. That’s similar to my approach too. My introductory presentations follow this general outline:
    1. Here is your class’ individualized presentation outline web page. Basically everything I’m going to tell you is on here, so you can revisit it when doing your research.
    2. Librarians are your (research) friends. No, really. Please come talk to us (or email us or call us or use the chat service). It makes us happy.
    3. Here is the library website. We’ve tried to make it as self-serve as possible. All the same, come talk to us whenever you want.
    4. If something goes wrong, it’s always the computer’s fault. They’re not smart enough to understand the perfectly reasonable things you are asking them, a lot of the time.
    5. That said, here’s how the computer can help you find print and online resources. (Keywords vs. subject headings, limiting searches, following citation trails, getting the full text). It takes practice, so don’t worry about not finding everything perfectly right away.
    6. Try to think of the research you do as an ongoing process that will carry through your entire education, not just isolated parts of the work of single assignments. See connections between what scholars have said and are saying, and what you’re thinking about.
    7. Librarians are geeks and love this stuff. You might not. That’s cool, and one more reason to come talk to us and let us help you out. It makes us happy.
    If there’s time after that (I get anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes depending on instructor), I open it up to free search time, and am available for questions.
    Partly this is a philosophical approach on my part, but mostly it’s pragmatic. I’ve seen how much students retain from library presentations. Picking a few main points and really sticking to them seems more fitted to that reality.

  4. “Picking a few main points and really sticking to them seems more fitted to that reality.” I agree. I once had to work with a librarian who spent close to an hour lecturing the students on the catalog and a couple of databases. Everything they’d ever need to know. Then when it came time for the hands-on portion, they had no idea where to begin. They’d retained nothing. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so bad for the students.

  5. One obstacle to the minimalist approach is instructors who don’t really understand what their students are going through when they learn to do research. More times than I can count, faculty members have sent me a laundry list of databases they’d like me cover in a 50 minute class, or they’ll ask that I teach freshman comp students a semester’s worth of legal research skills in one class period. When I don’t manage to address all of these requests, instructors complain about the lack of content and, in some cases, decide that it’s not worth it to bring their classes back to the library for “library day.”
    I assume I’m not the first librarian to face this frustration, but I’ve not yet arrived at the best way of dealing with it.

  6. That probably is a common problem, but I’m pretty fortunate here in a lot of ways. Most of my instruction is with freshman in the Writing Program (I do mostly individual consultations with upper level students), and we have a good working relationship with them. Since I also teach in the program, I know the instructors fairly well also, so I have more control over what I want to do with the class because they trust me. I can make sure the students actually have an assignment and are ready to begin researching, which is crucial, and the faculty I work with for a long time help me by requiring short bibliographies or assignments the week after our class, so the students are motivated. We sit down over lunch and discuss the research and what the students need and how to achieve that. A lot of it also has to do with the writing program director supporting us and being great at working with the instructors to integrate the library into the courses.
    I also have the benefit that I can get more than one day if I want, or offer to do individual followups with everyone, which librarians with very large classes and student bodies can’t do.

  7. When looking at databases I try to focus on 1) why a database instead of a search engine (some of them really don’t know the difference and if they don’t know the difference they don’t see the point) 2) choosing search terms vs. typing in a complete sentence, and 3) the fact that sometimes you have to play around with it a bit before you get what you need (I assure them that this does not necessarily mean they are doing it wrong). I try to do this with hands on exercises and discussion, rather than me just talking at them. Having a period of hands on when they can start their own research while I’m there to help them is essential.
    My thought is that playing around with the database is the best way to learn how to do it. I just introduce it to them.
    But the most important thing to me, at least for freshman groups, is that they get a name and a face of a librarian who is eager to help them. I tell them that I know they won’t remember everything we cover and if they only remember one thing, it should be that everything in my job centers on helping them to use the library. They should never hesitate to contact me for help.
    And as a side note, I avoid the Kitchen Sink method for my own selfish reasons as much as for the students’ benefit. Not only is the minimalist way better, talking about the technical aspects of the OPAC, databases, etc. for a whole class period is boring for me! I’d much rather interact with the students than listen to myself explain the minute details of EBSCO.

  8. The human element is definitely important. They need a name and a face and a reason to find you. It’s one reason I try to use humor and other things I’ve written about, to engage them and show them there’s real person here who’s around to help.
    All my demos are extemporaneous, and sometimes that leads to messy results, just like in real research. And I’d definitely get bored just talking at them for an hour. I don’t even run the demo computer. I have students do it while I walk around the entire time. In addition to getting me out with the students, they tend to pay more attention if one of their peers is doing the driving and it keeps them from Facebook. Plus I know that at least one student is paying attention.

  9. Your approach is very similar to mine, and I’m making notes of both your lists of points to cover, and also Mark K’s list, especially his frequent references to “It takes practice, so don’t panic if it doesn’t work the first time.”
    But I frequently have to teach in the professor’s own classroom, with only an instructor’s computer/projector, and no computer stations for the students. Which puts a huge kink in the whole “here’s how to get started – now go mess around with it, and I’ll come around and help you” approach. I’m still trying to figure out how to handle that situation.

  10. I sometimes do that for the students in my own seminar, but then I ask they bring their laptops. Same basic structure. I’ll do brief demos, then walk around, popping back to my computer only to demonstrate an answer to a question.
    Oh, and the library research methods from Mann are on most of my Libguides, if you want to see them all with descriptions.

  11. Catherine, when it’s just me and a projector in a classroom, I will “take requests” for topics and do a sort of roundtable type of deal: “That search didn’t really get us what we want. What do you think we should try now?” Sometimes this is actually more engaging than when each student has their own computer, because of the aforementioned facebook problem…

  12. In regards to Catherine’s situation, I would try to get input from the students, even if they can’t actually get their hands on a computer during the demo. Give them a topic and ask which search terms they would use, ask for ideas on how to narrow the search, etc. Ask a student to share their topic and use it as an example.
    It’s not as engaging as if they had access to a computer but it beats a straight demo. And it can be messy as Wayne mentions but that’s good. If all they see is a perfect search with well planned results that fit the examples perfectly, they get really confused when their search doesn’t turn out that way.

  13. If I’m not careful I default to Kitchen Sinking, and then there’s no way to do it except by lecture. What I often do now is make my list of instructional segments, then chop out half of them. What’s left typically easily fills the time, and if it doesn’t, I can field questions or let students work on their own.
    This past year I started using a book called Creating the One-Shot Library Workshop and I found that it really helped me figure out where to trim content and what to emphasize. I haven’t seen the evals yet so I don’t know if it made a difference, but I enjoyed giving the sessions a lot more. I hate being a talking head. I like your idea of having a student drive the demo computer.

  14. I also do a class for new juniors where they don’t have computers. I do brief demos of Worldcat and ATLA, but a lot of the time is spent talking more theory, since hopefully most of them know searching techniques and have basic familiarity with the library website. Much of that class is like a seminar, where I point out some things to think about and they ask me questions, and the professor always chimes in as well. The juniors and seniors here write independent papers both years, so they do a lot of research at a pretty high level by the end.
    I haven’t seen “Creating the One Shot Library Workshop.” But year after year I’ve been cutting my formal instruction time down and allowing more experimental time while I consult. Ideally, there’d be no BI at all, and everything would be done individually, but there just aren’t enough librarians to go around, even here.

  15. Thanks for the suggestions, folks! I already do a fair bit of “suggestions from the audience,” which works fairly well. I’ll see what I can do to incorporate more of that kind of thing and less lecture/demo.
    The real solution, though, is for the Registrar to stop scheduling other classes in our library classroom (with student computers) so we can use the room for library instruction! But that’s another rant entirely.

  16. I am one of Wayne’s colleagues and frequently work, as does he, with groups of freshmen in writing seminars and with groups of more advanced students as they launch independent projects. Although my preferred mode of research instruction is individual consultation, I realize that is physically (if not also politically) impossible. So given that group BI remains a necessary first experience for students, I wholeheartedly agree with Wayne about minimalist content. But there is one other element I attempt to insinuate: the idea that library research is a process of discovery, driven by the researcher’s inquiry and never the same twice, because each project is different. I know this sounds arcane for novices, but it really isn’t. I manage it in my introductory and connecting comments as I briefly demonstrate keyword searching in our opac and no more than two article databases or reference tools. I am also prone to ask at least once during every session something like, So what QUESTIONS are you exploring about your topic? What I’m trying to prevent is the belief that one strategy fits all, relying on the power of suggestion rather than pronouncement.

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