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The Intermediary We Don’t Need?


Photo by Mark Rabe on Unsplash

My first experience teaching an information literacy class (10 years ago!!!) was a dud. It was a Psychology Research Methods course. I did the requisite library catalog and PsycINFO demo. I used student-supplied keywords. They didn’t “work.” I got flustered, but doubled-down and stuck to panicked typing in hopes that a demo would finally yield the “right” results. I was terrified, frustrated, and no doubt frustrating to students.

I don’t do resource demos in classes anymore. I will occasionally talk a class through a particularly sticky part of our link resolver if everyone is having the same issue, but for the most part I let students explore in groups, pairs, or alone and offer one-on-one assistance as needed. It warms my little librarian heart to see students helping one another. I am excited to facilitate discussions and listen to students’ points of view, experiences doing research, and comments on the appropriateness of different information sources to various needs. Those are the classes I love. The ones rooted in conversation and reflection, the ones where I don’t go near an instructor podium computer, the ones where my teaching tech tools are dry erase markers.

Last week one of my favorite librarians sparked this pedagogical reflection with a tweet:

That last line was telling: I never go near the library website. It made me try to think about another discipline that relied on teaching a website or web tool as central to the study of that subject. I couldn’t think of one.

Then I read a fantastic article by Kevin Seeber and Zoe Fisher, in which they, among other things, revised their lesson plan for English Composition II to focus on source evaluation rather than database selection and searching. It was uncomfortable for some of their colleagues who were used to database demos, but ultimately fit in better with the English Composition curriculum and helped students practice a more nuanced version of information evaluation.

And, because all my reading and worlds seem to be converging together these days, I just opened up my blog reader to see a wonderful post by Dani Cook on the Rule Number One blog that lists 10 ideas for making your teaching more learner-centered. Some of my favorite suggestions focus on active practice, showing an interest in students as people, and authenticity as a teacher in the classroom.

When taken together, Jo’s tweet, Zoe and Kevin’s article, and Dani’s post made me jot down a flurry of questions: How amazing would our teaching be if we didn’t have an instructor computer at all? Is our focus on databases, websites, and functionality of resources interrupting our relationships with our students? How much more effective would we be as teachers and facilitators without that tech intermediary? Do we even need it?

I spent 4 years as the web developer and administrator for my library’s website, so I’m no technophobe. I understand the value of a simple, easy-to-use interface and good information architecture. But I also don’t see the value in teaching the technical details of digital resources that are becoming to easier to use, and, let’s be honest, that students won’t be able to access after they graduate. They aren’t paying attention, I’m bored, and we could all just be at home watching Drag Race. I know that at this point in information literacy practice and teaching many of us are all about active learning and exploring deeper information literacy concepts. But I know–because I do it too–we sometimes still revert back to click here, here’s where you go to access this one thing, this is what this one error message means, etc. What if we just completely eliminated that from our teaching? We could give students a URL and let them have at it, offering help as needed individually or in small groups. Or we could just not have a class in a computer lab. No computers. None. Zero. What would that kind of information literacy class look like?

Relationships are scary, especially when you are the temporary instructor for a class that knows one another much better than they will likely ever know you. We tend to place the computer, resource, or website at the center, as the focus of our relationship with students in the classroom because it is “the information” in information literacy. It is seen as primary, as the thing that’s important. It’s a security blanket we all hide behind (myself included) because it’s easier to focus on our ability to know information and information resources than it is to emphasize our roles as teachers and facilitators of discussion with ambiguous results. But this intermediary places a roadblock in our relationship with learners. It might be an annoying pebble or a boulder, but it’s the object that can block the librarian from cultivating a relationship.

I used to hope that if students could remember one thing from class, it was that I was available to help them whenever they needed help. But my actions in the classroom were emphasizing the website, libguides, and datbases–the things–not me or our relationship. Now I hope that students remember our connection in class, and I try to structure classes (as much as they can be structured) to foster that connection. I don’t want an intermediary between my students and myself, and if that means I never turn on my instructor computer, I’m ok with that.

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