23 January 2015

User-Instruction Textbooks

The syllabus shows two types of reading assignments: textbooks and journal articles. Sure, textbooks provide structure and coherence over the length of a course, while article can delve deeply in specific spots, but there should be more. The readings should also bring forward some over-arching themes for the course.

This is more easily done through the textbooks choices, which makes it worth examining those choices more closely.

The default texts from last year’s syllabus, Transforming Information Literacy Instruction Using Learner-Centered Teaching and Engaging Ideas, give us different approaches to the same goal? each provides a method for moving beyond the lecture and engaging students. And each is a good method; used together, they can almost completely fill a class period.

The underlying theory, that we retain and understand new information better when we do something with it than when we, at most, make notes about what we’re told, seems evidently upon personal reflection. Incorporating increased participation and encouraging critical thinking seem like rational, responsible goals form instructors. And the ideas for individual activities, for group-work or writing assignments, are invaluable. These books are both keepers.

But they don’t explain how to plan a lesson, prepare for a class, or deal with the unexpected. This takes practice.

The Information Literacy User’s Guide is a text book, appropriate for high-school and undergraduate students, covering the basics of ‘information literacy’ as expressed by the Seven Pillars theory. It, like Learner-Centered Teaching, was an explicit nod to the academic instructional librarians for whom the course had been previously designed--but added as a writing assignment, not as a reading. The book, which wasn’t discussed in class, was the assigned text for an information literacy program the students would design. They could draw on it as much or as little as wanted. If they read it, even better. If not, they still had to practice presenting the content to an audience. Goal met.

Still, we’re left with big questions. What is this teaching thing all about, really? What do we (the students) wish to accomplish as (future) teachers? Who are we? Why are we here -- especially given the resistance academic library instruction programs sometimes face from those they’re trying to reach.

This is gist for in-class discussion, but nothing on the syllabus addressed these concerns in a meaningful way. We can discuss why teaching is an important skill, practice the routines of instruction, and consider methods. We should; these are important. We should also find a way to articulate the big questions, though, and begin groping toward answers that will keep our psyches healthy in an demanding and under-paid career. This is where Postman and Weingartner fills a need. It is a call for educational  reform -- from 1969. It states the question that Kaplowitz and Bean both answer, but the question still challenges us. More importantly, Teaching as a Subversive Activity creates an identity for teachers as those who help others ask questions and find answers, which should be a familiar identity for librarians. And forming this self-identity as a teacher, more than anything, is what students should achieve in this class.

John Bean, Engaging Ideas, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Deborah Bernnard, Greg Bobish, Daryl Bullis, Jenna Hecker, Irina Holden, Allison Hosier, Trudi Jacobson, and Tor Loney, The Information Literacy User's Guide: An Open, OnlineTextbook. New York: SUNY Open Textbooks, 2014.

Joan Kaplowitz, Transforming Information Literacy Instruction using Learner-Centered Teaching. NY: Neal-Schuman, 2012.

Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. NY: Delta, 1971.

17 January 2015

Library User Instruction

This fall, I was invited to teach a course on Library User Instruction at my wife’s iSchool. This lead to a question: what is library user instruction?

My first thought was that any client interaction is -- not can be or should be, but is -- user instruction, because that library user will learn something from the exchange. What the user learns depends on us. At a bare minimum, she ought learn that we want to help and that we try to help. If we aren’t conscious of this fact, though, what she learns may be that we don’t care, are too busy, or don’t have what she wants.

After an entire semester of readings and discussion, this is still my first thought on user instruction. The user will learn something form every interaction, and we need to make sure that what she learns is positive. That’s not what all the readings were about, though.

Turns out, my class had previously been focused on bibliographic instruction, and specifically the one-time ‘research lesson’ librarians often provide for freshman composition classes. These are, of course, an important example of instruction by librarians, but we also teach in many other situations. The textbooks weren’t going to cover that and it wasn’t baked into the syllabus, but I tried to make the point by discussing examples from my own career and the students’ work experiences. Still, the class was, of necessity, largely about teaching introductory college research sessions.

The problem, really, is that the course only accounted for the needs of academic librarians, and only for some of them. Public librarians and special librarians teach, too--even private firm law librarians sometimes teach. Sometimes teaching happens in front of a classroom. Sometimes, at the reference desk -- or in a fundraising letter to the local tax base. A cataloger is teaching us what each book is about, and saving us the time to read it. Other examples sound even more forced.

Which all circles around to my original point, so I’ll stop. The course focus should expand, and I’ll work on that if invited to teach it again. In the meantime, you can see my reviews of the primary texts, by John Bean and Joan Kapolwitz, on my other blog. Bean’s Engaging Ideas is about using writing to teach critical thinking across the curriculum; Kaplowitz’s about using learner-centered teaching methods in bibliographic instruction. Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity might be a good addition.