Teaching Humanities Reference

In the spring, I’ll be doing two things I never thought I would do: teach online and teach in a library school. I’ll be teaching arts & humanities reference online for the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library Science. I took the same class myself about eleven years ago when I was in library school at Illinois, but I think things have changed quite a bit since then.

I’m writing not to make a news announcement, but to run some ideas by you. I know many of you do humanities reference at some level, and quite possibly teach it, and I would love to have your opinions on some ideas I have (comments or emails welcome). I’m not going to divulge some of my specific ideas about what I want to do with the course, because even though I have the basic outline already formed, I’m still tinkering with specifics. Instead, I would love your advice about the principles governing it.

When I was in library school, reference courses were heavily driven by reference questions that had specific answers. Ready reference might be too slight a term to cover some of these, but they were still mostly factual queries that could be answered if you knew the right obscure or standard reference work to consult. The days of ready reference have passed, though. I remembered only one specific question from the course I took, and I remember it being difficult to answer because only one relatively obscure reference work addressed it in any detail. I Googled that question recently, and the top result was a Wikipedia article–complete with citations–giving a fairly good answer. I almost never field factual questions from students anymore, and this seems to be the trend with most librarians I talk to.

So first of all I think humanities reference has changed from being question-driven to being project-driven, at least in colleges. From students at all levels, I’m asked not for answers to questions, but for strategies of research. It seems crucial for my work not just to know that X database or Y book might cover a field or have an answer, but to be able to map a research strategy for a specific research question or project. Do you find that to be the case?

Sometimes this is a simple matter. "Search MLA for some secondary articles on your novel." But usually it’s much more complex, and might involve searching databases in various fields, thinking about various ways to approach the topic, different avenues of exploration, different ways of conceiving the question depending on what resources we find, etc. This is especially true as the students engage in interdisciplinary work.

To do this requires a lot more than the ability to search databases or know where to find answers or isolated secondary literature.

The requirements below are a bit jumbled, but my hypothesis is that to provide good humanities reference, a librarian should have:

  • Knowledge of the organization of information in the various humanities
  • Familiarity with the essential reference tools and indexes
  • Basic understanding of scholarly communication in the humanities
  • Familiarity with the ways scholars in different disciplines approach sources or use information
  • Some knowledge of the digital humanities
  • The ability to guide research projects, not just answer questions
  • A conceptual understanding of research projects in the humanities
  • The capacity to read and understand scholarly books and articles in the humanities

If you’re a humanities reference librarian, does this sound right based on your own work?

I realize different environments require different levels of skill and knowledge. I’ve done most of my humanities reference in what amounts to liberal arts colleges at the undergraduate level, and I’m sure it’s different answering basic questions at a community college or helping high school students research their essays. However, a course in humanities reference should prepare library school students to work with undergraduates in the humanities at a minimum. I would think the reason for taking a specialized reference course would be the hope or expectation of having a good understanding of the field, rather than a cursory glance that would be useless in practice, and in my opinion this knowledge (at least at a basic level) is necessary.

 So far I’ve thought of a number of specific ways in which to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to do good reference work in the humanities, but would be grateful for any advice you have to offer.


Updating My Status, or, A Blog Post is a 1,000 Word Tweet

I read John Dupuis’s response to my last blog post, as well as the comments generated by his post  Someone actually suggested regarding Twitter that I should try it before I say I won’t like it. Instead, I say, give it to Mikey. He’ll try anything.

The "don’t knock it ’til you try it response" is problematic for many reasons (not that I was knocking anything). To echo one person who commented on my blog, I haven’t tried cannibalism or genital piercing either, but I don’t want to. The response also smacks of an irritating paternalism, as if a grown man who’s reasonably bright and educated is like a child who needs to be told to eat his vegetables. "How do you know you don’t like cauliflower until you’ve tried it?" Not being a child, but instead a rather large man, there’s a temptation to suggest the inquisitor take the cauliflower and insert it somewhere very uncomfortable, like the back seat of a Volkswagen. Mostly, though, the response is flawed because it assumes that any given social software application is somehow sui generis, when in fact they are all just variations on a theme. Twitter, for example, is analogous to all sorts of other things, and even if it weren’t it’s not like it’s some difficult concept to understand.

There is in fact an analogous service I have tried: Facebook. I’ve been on for two or three years and find myself going to it less and less frequently. It’s been okay, but nothing especially life-changing. I’ve been in contact with people I haven’t seen since high school, which has been pleasant. I’ve played a few games of Scrabble. I know some people use Twitter and their Facebook status update the same way, and one thing I’ve never done is update my status. I’ve never told people what I was having for lunch, or posted a Youtube video of some funny antic, or tried to come up with a clever epigram or aphorism to show people how interesting I am.

Why? Mainly because I don’t think anyone would care, just as I’m interested in very few of other people’s postings. On a moment to moment basis, I, like most people, am just not very interesting. I’m not necessarily boring, and I do think I have my good qualities, but I really can’t figure out what I could say in a few characters that would be worth reading. Writing nothing worth reading may not bother most people, but I try to keep an audience in mind and not bore you too much.

However, I’m going to give this "status updating" thing a try. Would you really like to know what I’m thinking about right now? If not, stop reading! But if so, I’ll tell you.

I’m teaching another writing seminar in the fall, and I’m changing the topic to "justice" instead of "liberalism" and revamping the readings. For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to figure out how to present a coherent story about the extremely active philosophical discussion about justice since Rawls’ Theory of Justice in the equivalent of about 8-10 essays. Keep in mind, the goal of this course isn’t to teach philosophy, but academic research and writing. It’s just that to write anything worth reading, students need something to write about.

As a research project, it’s been an adventure. Building upon my previous knowledge, I’ve been using encyclopedias, anthologies, surveys, reviews, articles, bibliographies, footnotes, and even Google Scholar to develop the reading list. (I’ve been using the "cited by" feature in Google Scholar, not the discovery feature so much.) The goal is to give students a general overview of the subject using only primary texts while tracing a scholarly conversation over the course of four decades. I think I have a good list. The students will read excerpts or full essays by some heavy hitters, and in one unit every source we read will cite all of the previous sources we’ve read, in order to show how a scholarly conversation develops over time. A seminar should tell a story about the topic. This is naturally only one story among many possible ones, and I make that clear, but in the summation at the end of the semester it should be obvious that we’ve outlined an important and engaging dialog about the topic.

In addition, the readings have to lend themselves to the teaching of writing and research. I’ve also been thinking about that topic, and have formed some rough opinions. These classes are supposed to teach argumentative academic writing. Thus the best sources provoke argument. Often writing/ composition/ rhetoric is taught in English departments, and just as often the courses are focused on interpreting literature. In a course like that, the students get a novel/ poem/ play/ film to discuss and write about. There is a clear difference between primary and secondary texts, and the students are writing secondary works while studying primary works, for the most part.

It seems easier to me to teach primary sources that are themselves examples of argumentative writing, and political philosophy works very well in this regard. Philosophers are trained to argue, not interpret. And political topics tend to be engaging to a lot of people simply because they’re an inescapable part of life. So in my class the students are reading the sorts of essays they’re writing. There’s not much of a distinction between a primary and a secondary source. If everything works well, the whole course coheres. My goal is the perfect writing seminar, in the sense that A argues in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or that Don Giovanni is the perfect work of music because it best exemplifies what makes a classic work of art: an absolute correlation of form and content. Every text we read in class is both something to write about and an example of how one should write argumentative academic prose, and they’re all arguing with each other.

Is this interesting to you? It’s more about writing pedagogy than librarianship, but I can see where it might be. Teaching writing and research has certainly made me a better librarian. The skills I’ve gained carry over into research consultations and instruction sessions all the time. Thinking about the nature of scholarly exchange in an academic discipline is the sort of thing lots of academic librarians do.

This is just the merest summary of activity, though I’ve been considering further developing some of these rough thoughts into posts or articles. What’s here says little of substance, and yet I still can’t figure out how to condense it to 140 characters. To be clear yet again, I’m not knocking any of this, even if I haven’t tried it. I just know what I want to read and how I want to spend my time and interact with others.  Maybe instead of macro-tweeting, I should just write:

Wayne Bivens-Tatum just dropped in to see what condition his condition was in.


The Evolution of a Teaching Persona

Every year as I’m finishing up another year and recovering from the pressure of teaching I read around in a handful of books on the subject that have been influential for my thinking, looking for inspiration or reassurance or something. This year I’ve been rereading portions of Banner and Cannon’s The Elements of Teaching, which I always find calming and thoughtful. I was just browsing the chapter on Character, which gives several tips: a teaching character must be authentic and consistent, distinct and individual; it means showing humanity by acknowledging lapses and errors and requires sociability; and it should mature with age.

Banner and Cannon note that "a trap young teachers often fall into is that of assuming ‘teaching personalities’ that are not their own. Such teachers are like unconscious actors; they are playing roles based, often unknowingly, on the favorite school teachers or college mentors of their own youth" (108). My only disagreement with this is to always consider it a trap. They remark that when 23-year-olds face 18-year-olds, they can’t play the graybeard. I started teaching freshman when I was 23, and this is certainly true. I could no more have been myself in front of those 18-year-olds than I could have plausibly played the graybeard. Still, based upon readings at the time on teaching persona, I did deliberately fashion one for the class, and it was indeed based upon a specific professor I’d had in college, which is not to say that it wasn’t also me.

My last year in college I took a two-semester sequence on critical theory from an English professor. We read in the history of critical theory from Plato to Derrida, and the lectures and discussions were engaging. The professor was very intense and treated whatever we were reading as well worth the intellectual effort it took to get through it. Everything was important. You knew this from the intensity of his lectures and comments. I’m thumbing now through one of the textbooks that year, David Richter’s The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Assuming what I marked up was what we read (this was seventeen years ago, after all), we read Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, Dante, Philip Sidney, Hume, Kant, Hegel, T.S. Eliot, Kenneth Burke, Marx, Georg Lukacs, Benjamin, Freud, Frye, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, de Man, Edward Said, Gilbert and Gubar, and Cixous among others. I’ve read few of these for years, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading the post-structuralists ever again, but this was the intellectual meat of my youth and much of it I first ate at this professor’s table.

Though I had a number of good professors over the years, he still remains my touchstone, and I still recall my months working with him. He still remains the most intellectually serious and engaging professor in the classroom I’ve ever encountered. From him I learned not just to read or think intensely, but to try to communicate that intensity, that passion for ideas, to my own students. He showed me in his own teaching what it was like to live with ideas. I went to grad school in English thinking I would encounter this same intellectual rigor and passion. C’est la vie.

I entered the classroom with the same intense demeanor, and I always try to convey the intellectual worth of whatever I teach, but I’m sure I looked ridiculous as a baby-faced twenty-something talking about whatever fluff was in our rhetoric readers as if it were Kant or Hegel. Other young teachers played the hipster or the clown, but I couldn’t do it. Playing the graybeard, I wanted gravitas, and the only way to achieve it was, I thought, with the serious demeanor.  I was serious about my ideas and the intellectual life, but there are other ways to achieve that. Seriousness doesn’t make up for inexperience, ignorance, and bad teaching, all of which were my lot when I began.

"Character should mature with age." I read that line and laughed at my earlier self in a way that my earlier self probably wouldn’t have appreciated. When I started teaching, speaking in public terrified me. It literally made me sick; my stomach would ache before every class began. Combine shyness with inexperience and only a passing familiarity with the material, and you have a good recipe for my first year. I pity those poor students I had that year, and I used to hope later that if I encountered them again they wouldn’t remember me. I grew my hair long and grew a beard so they wouldn’t recognize me.

As I’ve gotten better at teaching, my teaching persona has edged ever closer to whatever might pass for my "real" persona. After enough years, I’ve started to grow more comfortble with myself in the classroom, more comfortable tolerating a certain amount of levity and personal disclosure I couldn’t have mustered seventeen years ago. Because I know how to maintain control, I don’t fear mutiny. Because I’m confident in my abilities, I’m more willing to admit my weaknesses or my lapses. Because I’m not trying to persuade my students that I’m not a fraud, I also tend to be more open and even to like the students more. An actor sees an audience, but I see individuals and personalities, and, I think, come across as more of a real person to them in consequence. And, ironically, now that I have a beard and it is in fact going gray, I never feel the need to play the graybeard.

Humor in the Classroom, or Wherever

The other day I was chatting with a friend and fellow librarian about using humor in presentations and in the classroom. Whenever we’re working on presentations, we’ll run ideas by each other, and she has to endure comments from me like, “I have the basic outline, but I can’t figure out where to put in any jokes.” This may sound unnecessary, but I’m a firm believer in using humor in presentations as well as in the classroom. Humor engages listeners and reduces their anxiety.

Though I said “jokes,” I don’t really mean jokes in the general sense. I’m not very good at telling jokes, mostly because I can never remember any. Humor (or if it’s extemporaneous, wit) is more what I’m talking about. I know a few jokes of the “guy walks into a bar” variety, but I can’t imagine they would be very useful in a presentation to librarians or to a group of students in a class. Possibly I could develop some “guy walks into a library” jokes, but they probably wouldn’t be funny and wouldn’t blend into the material being presented. (I’ve appended my attempt at a “guy walks into a library” joke below, based on another joke I know.)

Sometimes I can actually plan a joke. I gave a talk on Google this summer, and was briefly comparing the now defunct Lively to Second Life. I’ve always been skeptical about Second Life, which seems to be losing its buzz (pace the claims of the SL people). In my presentation I said: “I haven’t seen any reason to use Second Life yet. Every time I’m there, I just end up naked and bumping into walls.” So far, so good. There were several head nods and a couple of titters, because anyone who’s used or read about SL knows this stuff happens. Then I followed with, “Since that’s how I spend a lot of my time in real life, I don’t see much point in going online.” I thought the joke went well. It highlighted my sketicism about SL as a useful tool while keeping the audience’s attention.

Usually whatever jokes I make are spontaneous. Recently, I was talking to a group of librarians about my theories and experiences weeding the collection for offsite storage. If anything cries out for levity, it’s this subject, which can manage to be boring and contentious at the same time. I was speaking off the cuff, but in discussing what kinds of little used materials I might send offsite, I remembered that I’d once discovered in a tight area of the stacks a whole shelf of books about Albert Schweitzer that hadn’t circulated since the 1960s. They were easy to send offsite. “So Albert Schweitzer, years after his death, was still performing good works by creating space in my stacks.” This joke might not work with college students, because it assumes at least a minimal familiarity with Schweitzer.

Audience is important. At another recent talk I was recalling a discussion I’d once had with one of my superiors about the way philosophy students work. I was being pressured to perform some library-related activities for which there was no need. For some reason, the Marshall McLuhan scene from Annie Hall popped into my head, and I did an impersonation of him in that scene. “You know nothing of my work.” I was just playing around, but a lot of the audience had obviously seen Annie Hall, which wouldn’t have been the case with most college students, especially freshmen.

In general, librarians are an easy crowd, though. Freshmen writing classes are another story. For those, I have almost no canned humor, but look for spaces to insert a witty comment. I’m not looking for belly-laughs, but simply want to hold their attention so they’ll listen to what I’m trying to communicate. Sometimes this is a joke about a book or article title we find. Or sometimes I tell them that while they might wait until the night before to write their research papers, they sure don’t want to wait until the night before to research them. I think it shocks them a bit that I say this, and it allows for a game instructor to jump in and reinforce lessons about time planning.

I’ve never set out to try to be funny in presentations, and I’ve tended to use humor more as I feel more comfortable being myself in front of groups of people, which has been a long time coming. I like joking around with friends, but for much of my life found it difficult to allow myself levity in public performances. Some people think funny can’t be taught, and to some extent I suppose this is true. Plenty of people have senses of humor without being funny themeselves. Some funniness possibly can be taught, though.

There are a lot of instructional materials to learn to be funnier, but it turns out that there’s a bit of library literature on the topic of using humor for library instruction as well. I found the recent Walker article in Library Lit, and that led me to the Trefts/Blakeslee article, which in turn led me to the Booth-Butterfield article in the communications literature (citations below, all available through ProQuest). Walker discusses the benefits to using humor in the classroom, like keeping students’ attention, increasing their retention of material, and reducing their information anxiety. She also summarizes someone’s suggestions of how to cultivate humor in the classroom (p. 120):

  • Smile/ be light-hearted.
  • Be spontaneous/natural.
  • Foster an informal climate/be conversations and loose.
  • Begin class with an ice-breaker, a short anecdote, or a humorous climate.
  • Encourage a give-and-take between yourself and students. Play off their comments.

These all seemed good recommendations to me, and in line with my experience.

Trefts and Blakeslee enrolled in a comedy course to see if they could become funnier. Their instructor divided people into two kinds of people: those who divide people into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. No, I’m kidding. He divided them into Fog People and Comedy People.

He says that the Fog People are people who “just don’t get It” (humor), and Comedy People are the ones who “reveal It” to the Fog People. From Greg Dean’s comedy tapes we learned that there is a distinct difference between having a sense of humor and being funny, or, as he describes it, having a “sense of funny”. Many of us probably feel we have a pretty good sense of humor, but that we are not particularly funny. Being funny, or having a sense of funny, is having the ability to make other people laugh; knowing what is funny in certain situations; and being able to look at the world, to observe, and to find humor in everything – even libraries! Therefore, Comedy People, the ones that can make people laugh, have both a sense of funny and a sense of humor. The Fog People only have a sense of humor.

To use humor in the classroom, the goal is to move from being a Fog Person to being a Comedy Person, the person who sees what is funny in a given situation. They have several tips tips to pass on:

  1. Do not give up after one try.
  2. Practice, practice, practice.
  3. Be yourself.
  4. Think about your audience.
  5. Keep a comedy journal.

They discuss each of these in turn. For me, 3 and 4 have been the most useful. They also do a good job of enumerating and discussing various practical ways to introduce humor: jokes, icebreakers, audio, questionaires, videos, cartoons, the unexpected, spontaneous wit, planned wit, and active learning.

The Booth-Butterfield article is much more abstract and less specifically applicable to library instruction. It does have a Humor Orientation (HO) scale that Trefts and Blakeslee use, though. It uses a Lickert scale to see if you agree or disagree with seventeen statements such as “1. I regularly tell jokes or funny stories when I am with a group” or “10. Even funny jokes seem flat when I tell them” (207). They also have an impressive taxonmy of types of humor with many examples. The types include Low Humor, Nonverbal, Impersonation, Language, Other Orientation, and Expressiveness, and gives examples of when these types are in play (212). Like most discussions of humor, the article itself isn’t very funny, but it does tell us a lot about funny people, or high-HO people. Unsurprisingly, they see potential for humor in more situations than low-HO people, and communicate more specifically what that potential is.

A large cognitive difference exists between a description which states “I’d tell a joke,” versus “Did you hear the one about…” It is the difference between “I’d give a great speech” and “Fourscore and seven years ago…” People who report high humor use know more exactly what they can say and do to elicit the laughter response, while low humor use people must describe that behavior in general and abstract terms. (215)

It’s also the difference between “I’d tell a joke about Second Life,” and “I’d talk about being naked and bumping into walls.”

Based on my own experience and the studies I’ve cited, the use of humor in the classroom or in presentations has many benefits, though it can’t be taken too far. There are some caveats in the articles I’ve been discussing, such as that the use of ethnic humor, culturally specific humor, or sarcasm can be problematic. One must also avoid the shift from being funny to just being a clown. This is well captured in a vignette from The Elements of Teaching (which I highly recommend as a thoughtful analysis and discussion of said elements). The book has chapters discussing Learning, Authority, Ethics, etc. Each chapter ends with a case study of a fictional, but plausible teacher. The chapter on Character finishes with a professor who conveyed no content and engaged no learning, but who was very popular with students because his class demanded little and had the nature of a vaudeville routine (115-19) which always left the students laughing, but not learning. I don’t think there’s any danger of that happening with librarians in instruction sessions, but it still is something to look out for if you want to use humor in the classroom.

Addendum: A guy walks into a library wearing a duck on his head and wants to use a computer. The librarian says, “We don’t allow pigs near our computers.” The guy says, “That’s not a pig. That’s a duck.” The librarian says, “I was talking to the duck!”

Banner, Jr., James M., and Harold C. Cannon. The Elements of Teaching. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Booth-Butterfield, S., and M. Booth-Butterfield. “Individual Differences in the Communication of Humorous Messages.” Southern Communication Journal 56, no. 3 (1991): 205-18.

Trefts, Kristin, and Sarah Blakeslee. “Did You Hear the One About the Boolean Operators? Incorporating Comedy into Library Instruction.” Reference Services Review  28, no. 4 (2000): 369-377.

Walker., B.E. “Using humor in Library Instruction.” Reference Services Review  34, no. 1 (2006): 117-28.


Problems of Part Timers

Another study (found via KUAL) has highlighted the many problems with a heavy reliance on adjunct instructors in higher education. This has been a controversial issue for a generation at least, and where I went to grad school it was discussed ad nauseum by the graduate students who were doing the bulk of the teaching in the lower level classes. They eventually unionized, though I’m not sure they’ve ever gotten much of a benefit from that.

What impresses me about the more recent entries in the debate over part time adjuncts is the emphasis on the problems caused to the students, not just the teachers. Rhetorically, I’ve always thought arguments that teachers were being manipulated had little effect on the public. If someone wants to earn a PhD in a field with few jobs and refuses to do any other kind of work, how sympathetic is anyone supposed to be that the person has to teach six classes at three different universities to make ends meet? Other adjuncts sympathize. The rest of us just think, why don’t you go do something else then? Or, stop being such a sucker.

The average parent paying for college probably doesn’t care about the status of the college instructors, but they should care if the reliance upon and poor treatment of adjuncts means their children are less likely to graduate. The part timers and faculty unions should have been pushing this agenda all along instead of complaining that part timers don’t have tenure or academic freedom. Most workers don’t have tenure or academic freedom, so why should that bother them.

I was looking back through books like Will Teach for Food and related tomes and couldn’t help but notice the sense of entitlement driving the eventual turn to bitterness regarding the unavailability of tenure track positions. I’ve run across this a lot over the years. It’s the idea that just because you finished a PhD in some field, the world owes you a job as a professor. As long as the arguments were based upon resentment that highly educated people didn’t get the jobs that the seem to think they were owed, it’s no wonder nobody was paying attention. The success of books like Tenured Radicals and others and the inability of the professoriate to make their case to the public has in practice meant that nobody really cares about the part timer problem in academia.

Some previous arguments I’ve read have tried to paint people like me as a problem, arguing that it’s terribly important for freshman writing teachers to have tenure track jobs and PhDs in any field whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that that’s really the problem. The subject of a writing class is writing, and having a PhD in a field other than writing studies guarantees nothing.

It’s also that the shift in emphasis is no longer trying to make me out a villian for being a part-time writing instructor that I find attractive. The problem isn’t inherently that someone is part-time, or not tenured, or whatever. The problem for student development, according to some of these newer studies, is that the relationships with students that benefit their retention and graduation can’t be built when teachers are shuffling around between two or three universities to make ends meet. While I teach writing only part time, I’m fully a member of the university community, and in fact have more permanence than the full time writing instructors here, who are ineligible for tenure and have a maximum contract of five years. I’m not contributing to the exploitation of part-time instructors – even though I am one – because the university fully supports me and I have the time to devote to my students.

So for personal and rhetorical reasons, I’m glad for the recent shift away from complaining about the poor treatment of adjuncts – which in general is shameful, and the university administrators who treat them so badly should be publicly shamed – to showing how that poor treatment affects student learning. The problem isn’t part timers. The problem isn’t a lack of tenure. The problem isn’t that people resent not getting the kinds of jobs they think they’re owed. The problem is that the way higher education treats its part-time instructors destroys the community necessary for learning.

Some people these days seem obsessed with online univeristies and distance education. These education institutions seem more appropriate for dispensing facts and credentialing people cheaply. However, they can never replace the community that comes with student life on campus or engaging others in discussion in a seminar room. There is a level of education that requires more than the presentation of some facts and some online quizzes, and that more is lost when colleges and universities become like businesses and the instructors become like day laborers. Nobody outside of academia cares that some PhD can’t get a cushy job. They might care when the complete lack of cushy jobs means that their children aren’t graduating.

Learning Lessons

Last week I wrote about an experience with a bad teacher, but I wasn’t ruminating on that just to complain. Moments like that make me reflect on my own teaching, and my own teaching makes me examine other people’s teaching more carefully than I did before.

Part of the problem of that particular professor was probably that he hadn’t been able to experiment on undergraduates while working on his PhD in library science. In other graduate programs, the graduate students gain teaching experience by making the freshmen suffer, or at least that’s how it was at UIUC. It pains me to think what the students had to put up with during my first year teaching. I was shy and quiet, and supposedly when I did speak I spoke too quickly and paced too much (at least according to my evaluations). Though I never got the abysmal evaluations some of my peers did (the best one I heard about: “This is the worst TA I’ve ever had, and he needs to wash his hair!”), they were mediocre at best that first year. The students were somewhat forgiving because they didn’t know any better. However, had those first students been 30 years old with several years of teaching experience, they would have known how pathetic I was.

Bad experiences in the audience have affected my library instruction as well, which is probably where many of us give most of our public performances. When I was boring the students that first year, there was always one day of the semester where I knew they would be even more bored–the library instruction day. We teachers were all supposed to set up an appointment with the library, and we’d spend a class period with a library graduate assistant teaching the students about the catalog and maybe a database. It’s hard to remember what was happening in the early 90s. Perhaps we got a demo of Infotrac or something. What I do remember is this library GA lecturing us for close to an hour on the catalog in a complete monotone while we just sat and stared. The only good points were that I didn’t have to teach that day and that the lights were turned off, thus making it easier to sleep. After two semesters of complaints about how boring and useless these sessions were (and they all seemed to be by the same person), I stopped taking the students and started doing the introductions myself. We were both learning to teach, and were using those poor freshmen as our guinea pigs.

Sometimes we complain that professors don’t want to let us into the classrooms to provide library instruction, but how much of that reluctance is based on bad experiences just like the one I had? We want to give the students help, but is our library instruction uniformly good? When I started teaching research sessions as a librarian, I always had in mind that poor GA from years past and how mind-numbing those sessions had been. The real benefit of those awful sessions was that I always knew at least some things to avoid.

Over the years I’ve had some great professors, and have often modeled parts of my teaching persona directly on them. As a teacher, I’ve benefited from bad teachers as well. I know not to hand out grades willy-nilly without being able to justify them, but I also learned to be honest with students when I don’t know something and not try to bluff my way out of a bad situation. Part of my anger with the bad professor was that he was trying to bluff me. He didn’t know what he was talking about, but seemed to treat me as some lesser being who could be lied to with no consequences. With him I think it was the product of nervousness and not arrogance, but still I didn’t like it. He was anxious and trying to hide his embarrassment instead of just being honest.

Other teachers do this in the classroom. I’ve seen a couple of different teachers go out of their way to mask their ignorance. (Though my favorite story was second hand, about an English professor in a seminar who spent fifteen minutes of discussion time avoiding admitting he knew nothing about Condorcet, as if this is some sort of crime.) Librarians probably do this in instruction sessions as well, but I haven’t seen as many of those. Yet I’ve never had a student who seemed to respect me less if I answered a direct question with, “I don’t know, but I’ll get back to you with an answer.”

This post isn’t so much about cataloging lessons learned from bad experiences as a student or audience member, but more about how I’ve tried to learn from other people’s mistakes and avoid them myself. My teaching might not be great, but I know at least some things to avoid so that it doesn’t become execrable, and for that I have even the execrable teachers in my past to thank. Thank you, execrable teachers from my past.

Logos and Ethos in the Classroom

By now some of you might have heard of this strange story. An instructor of introductory writing classes at Dartmouth threatened for a while to sue Dartmouth and several of her students because they resisted her ideas, or something like that. The story looks complicated, and based on her own statements and those of students it seemed the instructor had a number of problems that had nothing to do with unruly students. (Follow the various links in the story.) Some have interpreted this controversy as the typical result of the relativist absurdity run amok in the humanities. While there is plenty of absurdity in the humanities these days, a more mundane interpretation might be that this instructor just wasn’t a very good teacher. Specifically, it seems to me she failed in at least three ways: she tried to base her authority on her degree rather than her abilities (based on student comments); she treated her students with disrespect; and she mistakenly thought her job was to teach French theory and something called “science studies” when in fact her job was to teach them college writing. Generally, though, she was unable to establish a proper ethos in the classroom, in part because of a failure of logos. All teachers can learn lessons from this.

Ethos and logos are two of the three standard appeals in classical rhetoric, the third being pathos. Logos is the appeal to reason. Ethos is the appeal based upon the character of the speaker. Both of these are crucial for establishing authority in classrooms, at least in classrooms of intelligent college students. Both our intellectual abilities and our characters affect how students view us.

Our writing instructor blamed the students for being resistant to French theory, among other things. If she was a product of the same sort of English department I toiled in, she had probably been surrounded for years by people who were unable or unwilling to challenge the theories propounded by their professors. Once one leaves the intellectual hothouse of graduate school, one necessarily meets people for whom the phrases “Foucault says” or “according to Lacan” carry no argumentative weight whatsoever, and some graduate students aren’t prepared to respond to the normal reaction to such a statement, which is “So?” Lacan may be like a god to radical psychoanalysts, but nothing he says is likely to be accepted by critical people without a lot of argumentation. Unfortunately too many academics take a hagiographic approach to too much French theory. French theory is so alien to Anglo-American intellectual traditions that to use if effectively, one needs to start at the beginning and build the necessary base upon which one can later erect the extravagant superstructure. One cannot rely upon the claim that one’s graduate training proves one is correct. One has to be able to make arguments and overcome objections. The problem is that these so-called “theories” are hardly self-evident and rarely subject to verification or falsification, which makes them difficult to prove. Nevertheless, regardless of their validity or lack thereof, or even whether they would implicitly deny their own validity and render moot why anyone would accept them, it is still necessary and possible to provide arguments for why anyone would even find these thinkers compelling.

This is logos in the classroom. At eighteen college students may be immature in various ways, but they’re rarely stupid, at least ones at places like Dartmouth or Princeton. The students I teach are usually very intelligent and also very critical. To treat them as babes who should sit at the feet of their French masters and accept everything told to them without argument is disrespectful both of them and of the common activity of learning in which we should all be engaged. Nothing I read made it sound like the students were just rowdies, at least until their criticisms had been ignored. The students were critical and challenged ideas. That’s what college students should do, though never in a belligerent way. If teachers cannot respond effectively to legitimate criticism of their ideas, then it’s clear that either their ideas are faulty or that they have insufficient grasp of them. Either way, the fault is in the teacher.

I had little sympathy for the teacher in this situation because she seemed to place an inordinate amount of importance on her degree rather than her abilities, as if this is enough to establish intellectual authority. We’ve probably all known plenty of people with PhDs who were nevertheless intellectual lightweights. I’ve taught several writing seminars at Princeton similar to the one at Dartmouth. I didn’t go to an Ivy League university and I don’t have a PhD, but I’ve never had any trouble establishing my intellectual authority with students or responding to their criticisms. I’ve also not had any trouble with students resisting my readings, whether those readings are liberal, socialist, feminist, or conservative. Almost any reasonable arguments can be made compelling if taught properly.

I think the main reason students don’t challenge me belligerently is because I deliberately try to cultivate an ethos based both on logos and on mutual respect. First, logos. I assume that every reading in my class is up for argument, and indeed choose sources that argue with each other. They might all be wrong, but they can’t all be right. Logos in a class such as this requires taking both sides with equal rigor. The best way to appreciate any argumentative text is to read it three times. First, as sympathetically as possible, trying to get into the mindset of the writer and understand why such an argument would be appealing and making the best possible case for the reading at hand, whatever it may be. Second, as contrarily as possible, subjecting every statement to as rigorous and hostile critique as possible. Only after these two approaches is it possible to approach an argument open-mindedly, understanding both its merits and faults. The assumption is always that people make their arguments in good faith and have justifiable reasons to believe as they do, even if I think they’re absolutely mistaken. But what I think doesn’t matter. Learning to write academic essays shouldn’t be about learning to regurgitate what the instructor thinks about an issue or to parrot the party line, but instead learning to enter critically into a scholarly conversation on a particular issue.

This technique is shunned by zealots who think they’re absolutely right and everyone else is absolutely wrong. The zealots rarely engage counterarguments and surround themselves with the like-minded. Unfortunately this unwillingness to engage counterarguments makes them intellectually slack until they reach the point they cannot defend their ideas against criticism and instead try to dismiss their critics without bothering to reason with them. Hence, assumptions such as that people who don’t agree with you are just evil or stupid or ignorant or intellectually resistant whatever. That might be the case for some people, but pretty much any theoretical point of view has articulate defenders somewhere. If you can’t understand why someone would believe other than you do about an issue, then you just don’t understand the issue. For example, if you can’t understand the appeals of liberalism, conservatism, socialism, feminism, libertarianism, republicanism, communitarianism, communism or whatever ism has attracted articulate followers in the past century or so, then that usually shows an lack of knowledge and imagination on your part.

Despite the neglect of the zealots, it’s remarkable how effective this approach is in the classroom, both for teaching students how to think critically and challenge their own dull and often unsupported ideas and for teaching an ethic of respect that should carry on into classroom discussion. Such a discussion makes it clear to students that we are all fallible human beings who argue and disagree but that it’s possible to come together in an intellectual endeavor, even if just for the brief period of the seminar. While avoiding the easy relativism of saying there’s no right and no wrong and I’m okay and you’re okay, I still try to convey the undeniable fact that when discussing politics and rhetoric there is room for healthy and considerate disagreement. Such is the case with French theory as well. The way to handle objections from students isn’t to assert your alleged intellectual authority, but to establish that authority in their minds by meeting their objections with better counterarguments while still showing you respect them as interlocutors. Classroom discussion is a rhetorical activity. In the humanities, at least, teachers have to persuade, not just dictate, if they want to be taken seriously by serious students. It’s not that hard if you know what you’re talking about.

Academic Research and Writing

Scholarly librarians help students with research better than unscholarly librarians, I believe, but sometimes, pace the old chestnut that those who can’t do, teach, librarians who not only know how to write but how to teach writing have an advantage over those who don’t.
Right now I’m glancing through Studying Students: the Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester. At the end of chapter 1 I was stuck by this sentence:

“Last but not least, the faculty interviews made clear the need for librarians to understand
the pedagogy of writing in order to assist students through the final steps of preparing
a well-crafted research paper.” (15) I couldn’t agree more. This led some of the librarians at Rochester to train to be writing consultants and work regular shifts in their writing center.

Without hesitation I can say that training in writing pedagogy makes me a better librarian. The English program at UIUC wasn’t very good about placing their graduate students in decent tenure track jobs, but it was outstanding in training those graduate students to teach writing, and reinforcing that training by requiring most of the students to teach two sections of rhetoric every semester in order to survive. (Do I sound bitter? It’s probably just heartburn.) I taught a dozen sections of rhetoric at UIUC as a graduate student and later as an adjunct, worked for five semesters as a writing consultant in the writing clinic there, and am teaching my fifth writing seminar at Princeton. All of this is valuable training for helping students with research essays.

It’s hard to articulate just how it helps, at least within the confines of a blog post. Teaching basic research skills is easy enough, but what librarians rarely see are the results of student writing. The librarians are concerned with locating resources, and we understand how complex the information world currently is, but professors want good essays, not just well researched ones.

According to the study, “when discussing their expectations, faculty commented more extensively on the problems of writing and critical thinking than on those related to locating the right sources. Evaluating and interpreting the information appear much more difficult for students than finding it.” Another source of complaint was that “students tend to summarize readings instead of reflecting upon them and writing critical, thoughtful papers.” And, “finally, all interviewed faculty complained about mechanical problems that plague students’ writing: ‘florid, overwrought language, jumbled and verbose’; ‘grammar declining over the years’; spelling mistakes; lack of clarity; poor organization of the text; inappropriate style for the discipline or intended audience. In the faculty’s opinion, bad writing is an acute problem that turns out to be the main obstacle to students’ success in research” (5). In other words, research is the least of these students’ problems.

In one sense, librarians have done their job. One way or another, students often find at least some resources for their essays, but they just don’t know what to do with them once they’ve found them. Unfortunately, these skills aren’t taught in regular classes. Professors expect students to know what to do with sources, but typically don’t spend much class time addressing these issues because that takes time away from the content of the class, which might also be why most professors don’t schedule library research sessions.

Teaching writing and research skills is the most fundamental part of academic preparation, and the least glamorous. That’s why librarians and rhetoric instructors are usually at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s still important, especially for the students who won’t pick these skills up on their own, i.e., most students.

Because of my experience teaching writing and working on research essays from possible research question to final revision, I understand what students are expected to do and where they may have problems. My research consultations often become to some extent writing consultations, and it would be difficult for me to separate the two. As a writing consultant, I would have appointments with students. They would come with anything from an idea to a finished draft, and within 30-60 minutes I’d have to read and comprehend their writing and be able to suggest possible areas for revision. I worked as a writing consultant and a reference graduate assistant all through library school, and I noticed that as I got better at reference my writing consultation skills for research essays improved.

The opposite is also true. Though I rarely read their writing, my research consultations with students often incorporate many of the same skills. I find myself asking questions about their research, discussing their topics with them, pointing out pitfalls they might encounter, suggesting alternative ways of looking at a topic that might be more fruitful for their research question (and thus their library research). I can do this because I’m trained to do it and have done it on and off for 15 years, and I also think that the students benefit more from it, rather than having a writing center that might be able to discuss ideas unrelated to possible paths of research, or a librarian who can discuss ways to find sources but doesn’t think of how these sources will be used in writing the research paper. It’s also why I’m my own librarian for my writing seminars, because I’ve found that my intimate knowledge of the subject and the expectations of the students allows me to give them the best research consultations. Often I’ve thought that librarians should help train the instructors and let the instructors train the students.

Academic writing and research are necessarily and fundamentally entwined, and the more we know about each the more we’ll be able to help students write good research essays.

Relating to Students

Watching the vision of students video last week got me thinking about ways to engage students. This led me to consider as well ways in which I don’t think we should try to engage students. Here I’m thinking mostly of engaging students in the classroom by trying to identify with them as kids in some way or to show them that we’re on their level somehow, to show them that we’re fun or relevant, to treat scholarship and learning like a bitter pill that needs a coating of fun to make it palatable.

Some ways to make ourselves fun I see as completely inappropriate. One comical way in which librarians sometimes try to be “fun” is by engaging in pop culture references allegedly appropriate to teenagers. If the librarian is young enough, this might work for a while, but inevitably the pop culture references date too quickly. What I might remember as a recent hit song might have been a hit when a student was 9. And how likely is it that any of us watch the same movies as teenagers today? I would probably have better luck making pop culture reference appropriate for someone twice my age than half my age. This might make it seem like only I would be ridiculous making pop culture references, but unless one has a teenager around the house how likely is it that teen pop culture references come to hand easily?

Another comical way is to try to talk like the kids do today, using their slang. Perhaps it works for you, but it would never work for me, because I don’t know the slang and I rarely use slang anyway, especially with students. Slang is a great way for a cohort to communicate amongst itself, but outside of that context is often hinders communication. Regardless, slang is so quickly out of date and teen historical memories are so short. Just today in class a student was referring to some slang term I’d never heard. I said, “you kids today, with all your slang. I just can’t keep up. Everything’s the bee’s knees or groovy or whatever.” Another student asked if that was slang from my day, and I don’t think he was kidding.

I can’t relate to the teens as teens, and I would never try. I try to be witty and clever and even funny sometimes, but being funny is different from being funny in the same ways their friends would be funny. I want to show them that being a scholar isn’t the same as being a grind, but it’s also different from being their buddy.

Other librarians and teachers try to be relevant in different ways, but this can also backfire, because we’re not always sure what is relevant to teenagers, and our job isn’t to be relevant to where they are now, but to show them how anything can be relevant or interesting if approached from the right perspective. (On a semi-related note, read this article in the Chronicle on teaching a course at UMass about the Grateful Dead. Here I think it’s not the professor trying to be relevant, but a critic of the professor demonstrating how out of touch he is. The course about the Grateful Dead is criticized “as the latest example of modern higher education pandering to consumers.” Is the Grateful Dead what college students are pandering for these days?)

I want to engage students not by going to them but by bringing them to me. It’s no use me trying to find out what interests them, because it will never work. I’m not a teenager or a college student, and my memories of what it was like to be one are necessarily partial and limited by my own experience. But that’s okay, because it doesn’t matter what interests them now; what matters is whether I can make what I’m doing interesting to them. Admittedly this is more difficult for me in a library instruction session than in the ordinary classroom. I can make political philosophy interesting more easily than database searching, but I still try to make library sessions interesting. Research is a problem to be solved, and we engage students by showing how the problem presents interesting challenges, how it’s not just searching Google or searching the catalog or searching a subject specific index. Research is a complex endeavor that many enjoy for its own sake. Finding sources, relating sources, solving problems, answering questions, creating new questions, entering into a scholarly conversation about a subject and the give and take of debate–these are worthy and intellectually challenging activities. If we’re trying to train scholars, even junior scholars, we don’t need to go to their world. We need to bring them into our world.

Are we trying to become like students, or make the students become like scholars? The classroom is a stage, and like it or not we’re performers. Teaching is a performance, and we should carefully consider the personas we create. Do we create a persona of a teacher who desperately wants to be relevant to student life? I fear that way disappointment lies. Instead, we should create the persona we want students to model. We should show them a world beyond their world, a world of intelligent and educated and even witty people who are thoughtful and like to learn, who question the world and who take scholarship seriously. People with the historical and moral imagination that makes learning about the wider world an invigorating challenge. We don’t need to make scholarship or learning fun or relevant to them now. We need to mold them into people who instead find enjoyment in scholarship and learning.

Teaching and Learning

Today I taught my first class of the semester, 80 minutes on political rhetoric. The first day of class always wears me out because it’s me talking almost the whole time, which isn’t usually the case. Come November and research paper time I’ll really be worn out, and sometimes I wonder why I keep doing it every year. I guess I like teaching because it makes me feel slightly more a part of the intellectual community on campus and gives me an opportunity to develop relationships with students that I never could as a librarian. I also like discussing rhetoric and political philosophy with smart students, too. Oh, and I get extra pay. A semester’s teaching pay is a semester’s tuition for my daughter’s school. Every little bit helps.

I get something out of teaching personally and professionally, but I don’t often ponder what I get as a librarian out of teaching a regular seminar, or what other librarians might get out of teaching regular courses. That’s something I plan to do here more often as the semester progresses, but I have some preliminary thoughts.

First, I get a very different view of what the students are doing in their classes, or at least one of their classes. As a librarian, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the importance of the library. The library is important for freshman rhetoric, and we have an intensive research essay, but the library and research aren’t the center of the course. The intellectual engagement with the readings and the writing are the take up the bulk of the time. Writing with sources is an important part of the course, but for much of that writing the sources are provided by the instructor.

I remember this being true for me during most of college. I majored in English and Philosophy, and hardly ever went to the library, though I read constantly. In my humanistic education, learning to read difficult texts carefully and craft strong essays were more important than library research.

By the time the students are juniors and seniors, or especially graduate students, this obviously changes. Then they use and appreciate the importance of research collections, depending on their field. But in the humanities the library, except as a place to get the core texts they need, isn’t necessarily important to students until they’re advanced.

When it comes to the research essay, I also get an improved view of student work. When I teach a library instruction session, I rarely see the end result, but in my own seminar I get to see the students progress from vague research topic to working thesis to final draft. I see the results of the library instruction and the research consultation in a way I usually don’t. Did it work? Are the sources scholarly enough? Did they explore the research on this topic, or just take the first five articles that popped up on Proquest? Did they immerse themselves in a scholarly conversation, or just make a claim and then try to find a few sources that agree with them?

All the writing seminars here are assigned a librarian to work with. I’m my own librarian, and I work with the students on every part of the process, both the writing and the research. After several years of this, I’ve come to believe that it would be ideal if the instructor and the librarian were the same person. Never can I address research needs as effectively as when I’m also the one teaching the course. I know exactly what the students need and when. I know exactly what advice to give them. And I’m never in the position of having to say, “well, I might do it this way, but you should probably check with your instructor,” as I sometimes do when I’m just the consulting librarian. The research/writing process is seamless.

By teaching the whole course, I also get to show students that librarians know about things besides card catalogs and shushing. That in itself might be worth the effort.