Paradigm Shift

I’m an Instruction and Reference Librarian. Instruction is one of the main things I do, and it is my favorite part of my job. This is continually surprising to me because it’s not something I even considered during my graduate school work. Fortunately, many of the classes I took for my Digital Libraries concentration focused on user centered design. Although I learned about that concept in the framework of designing online spaces, it can easily apply to developing learning experiences. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year reading, attending conference presentations, and viewing webinars on instruction (from a library perspective, a general perspective, and an adult training perspective). At the beginning of this process I was heavily influenced by the instructional program in place here when I started because I had no relevant framework for instruction.

The process of self-directed learning on instruction has been vital as it’s helped me to gain new perspectives and apply them to my practice. Recently I read two articles within a few days of each other that caused me to go through a paradigm shift in the way I view instruction. At the time it felt profound and uncomfortable. After a few weeks of reflection it feels like something I should have known all along. The first article I read was “Rebooting infolit, the BATTLE DECKS way” from Ned Potter (aka thewikiman). In the article Ned discusses how he redesigned a traditional information literacy session. The biggest thing that struck me was how he structured the session more like he would a presentation to an external audience. In particular, he said this “For infolit teaching my process used to go like this: look at all the stuff I have to tell them about the library, and then work through it as unboringly as possible. For external workshops my process goes like this: think what is most useful and interesting to the audience, then try and present it in an engaging way so it stays with them. These are definitely distinct approaches. Thinking about what is most useful to the audience may well involve not actually talking about ‘library’ stuff nearly as much. But if the students get more out of it, is that really a problem?”

That was the first part of my shift. I realized that I’ve been doing my best to cram every bit of library information I can into a 45-75 minute session in the least boring way possible, rather than thinking about what’s most useful to my students. Over the last year I’ve redesigned the majority of our instruction with an attempt to focus on the skills I thought our students needed, but this article made me realize that I didn’t do a great job of it. I also realized that we tend to repeat very similar instruction to every class, regardless of subject or level. This article has inspired me to make a broad plan for instruction that teaches that massive glob of library information in stages. I think my lack of experience when I started working here caused me to develop an attitude that we had to present a comprehensive overview of library services/resources to every single class. Now I realize that it is likely better to tackle the information in stages and to be okay with the fact that some essential skills will get covered later in the students’ academic careers.

I think it’s probably better for beginning students to spend half an hour learning how to find a book by actually finding books for themselves than to cram that information into the first 5 minutes of every presentation. That would free up time in upper level courses to skip the generic catalog spiel and spend more time on constructing searches or exploring subject appropriate databases. On one of my listservs recently someone posted a link to an Integrated Instruction Framework from Portland Community College. I’d love to develop something similar to this for our campus now that I’m more familiar with when we get access to students and how they progress through a degree program.

The second article that cemented the shift was “Let’s (Not) Do the Numbers” by Barbara Fister. The article discusses how academic libraries are so focused on business metrics and being liked that they’re missing out on fulfilling the mission of  supporting student success. One quote I particularly liked was “There seems to be a sense that if libraries can’t please everyone all the time, if they don’t have as much market share and mindshare as possible, they are not demonstrating their value and . . . and what? They’ll be closed?” My partner has a business degree and through years of helping her study I developed a good knowledge of business terms and concepts. Throughout graduate school and my experiences since, I’ve noticed how much libraries have adopted these business concepts, and this article pointed out why that may not be the best way to do things.

This article cemented my shift because it made me realize that the most important thing I do every day is help our students achieve their educational goals. It doesn’t matter if I do it from the reference desk, through an online tutorial, by teaching one of their instructors how to embed a video in Blackboard, or by showing them how to print. Being focused on the number of student interactions or workshop attendees or website hits isn’t going to help me in the moment where a student is practically in tears trying to finish citations. As I begin my process of mapping our library instruction I’m going to challenge myself to ensure that each step is something that will be useful to our students and to be okay with presenting the library in a way that makes sense to them rather than in a way that makes me feel like I’m proving our worth.

Later today I’m attending a webinar on neuroscience and learning, tomorrow I’m attending one on customer service for libraries, and last week I attended one on learning activities. My plan is to reflect on these in my next post, which will hopefully be Thursday evening.

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