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Push Back: Creating a Teachable Moment

Pushing car

Photo by Craig Sunter on Flickr

I finally got around to reading an article that has been in my reading queue since the spring:

Meulemans, Yvonne Nalani, and Allison Carr. 2013. “Not at Your Service: Building Genuine Faculty-librarian Partnerships.” Reference Services Review 41 (1) (February 15): 80–90. doi:10.1108/00907321311300893.

It’s an interesting write-up of a series of workshops CSU-San Marcos librarians hosted for new faculty at their institution. In these sessions, librarians focused on common misconceptions held by faculty about students’ ability to do research, the kinds of instruction librarians can offer, and the types of assignments that give students the opportunity to learn valuable research skills in a meaningful way. The impetus for the workshops were situations that instruction librarians face on a daily basis: Vague (sometimes bordering on insulting) requests from professors to visit a class to “talk about the library” or “do a library thing while I’m away at a conference” or “show my students the journals.” The approach taken by the CSU-San Marcos librarians to remedy this situation was one I think we can all replicate:

“If you do not like what is being said, change the conversation” (Meulemans and Carr 84).

That’s been my mantra for the fall semester, and I’ve tried to implement it as much as possible when I’ve responded to research instruction requests by departmental faculty. Often librarians are afraid to push back at faculty who make vague instructional requests. We’re afraid we’ll miss an opportunity to reach students or we just want to get our foot in the door with a particular department, so we agree to the “teach them about the library” session, likely to mediocre results. We’ve convinced ourselves that somehow we’re a part of this all-or-nothing game where we have to take what departmental faculty will offer us or else suffer by not getting the opportunity to teach students. This is, of course, problematic. When we acquiesce to these kinds of requests we’re not building collaborative partnerships and we’re missing an opportunity to educate our colleagues that 1) we are indeed colleagues and 2) there is a wealth of research-related knowledge we have the ability to share with students. As Meulemans and Carr note in their article, “When a problematic request is fulfilled, it only ensures that librarians will receive more requests like it” (83). We’re setting ourselves up for more generic library tours and song-and-dance sessions every time we say yes to one.

Pushing Back

In the spring I received an instruction request from a colleague who is a fantastic teacher and scholar. It was a very standard come talk to my class kind of request. My reply was a yes, but it was highly qualified yes. Instead of just accepting the request as issue, I specifically asked my colleague if she would like me to cover particular topics. I offered up a menu of sorts. The students were working on a literature review so I offered to talk about any one of the following topics:

  • how to develop a good research question
  • how to turn a research question into search terms and develop a good search strategy
  • what a literature review is (and is not)
  • how to evaluate different sources
  • how to search for books and articles using the library’s resources.

In the end, the professor was most concerned with teaching her students how to evaluate different sources, how to use non-scholarly sources without necessarily citing them in their lit review, and how do determine which sources were the best ones to use in a lit review. It was a fun class, and I got some great feedback from the professor. Months later this faculty member mentioned expressed appreciation for the instructions topics I offered to cover in the class. Without them, this faculty member believed the class would have been very generic and not as helpful to the students as the class I ultimately taught. This professor now wants to encourage colleagues in that department to take advantage of me as an instructor because of this new awareness of the research-related topics I can cover.

Will This Always Work?

I realize that the example I offer is just that: one example. In my defense I will say that I’ve been following this tactic throughout all of my fall instruction planning and it seems to be going well. It’s a nice approach to altering the approach we have to research/information literacy instruction. Rather than departmental faculty making a request and us either approving or denying it, we can turn the interaction into a meaningful conversation where we in part educate our colleagues about the type of instruction we can offer. In the end it will make for a much better session for the students and ourselves.

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