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It’s About to Get Critical

IMG_2819It’s almost 6am, I’m sitting in the Tucson Airport waiting for my flight, and I can’t get CritLib out of my head. After two days at the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium I’m overwhelmed by new ways of knowing and experiencing my work (and life) as a librarian, teacher, and scholar. I’m feeling all kinds of feelings.  I’m thinking:

I should have said this.
I should have kept my mouth shut.
Why didn’t I think of things that way.
I don’t agree with that.
I am guilty of that.
I want to be better.
I want to do better.

The next few posts are going to be me making sense of the symposium, which will likely include a heavy dose of reflection, feeble attempts at critlib-ing, and innumerable questions. I’m not sure if this is a warning, an encouragement to read and share your thoughts, an apology to the symposium speakers for mangling their words, or some strange combination of all three. I suppose all that matters is that you’ve been informed of what’s to come!

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The EndNote Conundrum*


NOW will be THEN 52/52 via Dennis Skley on Flickr

*or, Do People Want to Learn Things When They Say They Want to Learn Them?

Last week I meet with three students beginning their literature review research for an independent senior thesis (what we call the St. Mary’s Project or SMP). Although much of the focus is on making sure they’re familiar with helpful research resources and able to gather all the background research they require, I do also offer a brief EndNote workshop. Although it’s not my favorite citation management software, our college has an institutional license, so it’s what we teach. I just want them to organize their research in some way; the particular tool is unimportant.

Inevitably, when I teach EndNote to senior students, I get loud exclamations and shocked expressions (complete with hanging jaws). “Why didn’t we learn this sooner?!?! Oh. My. God. This is AMAZING! We should all learn this as FRESHMAN!!!!!”

It’s that last line that always gets me–We should all learn this as Freshman. It’s absolutely true, but it’s also absolutely not. Case in point: I have a colleague who is routinely asked to teach EndNote to students in a First Year Seminar course. She thinks it’s a waste of time. The students think it’s a waste of time. The professor thinks it is critical. In many ways, it’s a parallel situation to my SMP EndNote workshop.

From their position as senior thesis writers, these students are able to see the applicability of EndNote to their previous years of study and research. As a scholar and researcher, the First Year Seminar professor can’t fathom why anyone wouldn’t want to organize their references with something like EndNote. Their early-college-student-perspective is totally lost, and they can only look at educational scenarios through the lens created by past experience. It leaves librarians with the complicated task of determining the ideal timing for a learning experience. We might all claim to focus on point-of-need instruction, but is our understood point-of-need the same as that of our students?

I don’t know what the “right time” for an EndNote workshop would be for my students, so I continue to learn from trial and error. I sometimes wonder what the “right time” is for so much of what I teach.


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Language Hang-ups: Why are we “instruction” librarians?

Words Tend to be Inadequate

Illustration by chrispiascik  (via Flickr)

I know many academics, librarians, and academic librarians who can’t help but get bogged down in semantic debates. They either feel so passionately about language and word usage that they can’t contain their opinions, or they just like to hold up document revisions out of spite/ego/a twisted sense of amusement. I like to assume the former explanation for language hangups, even though I often grumble as meetings progress well past their hour mark because of a group’s inability to get the wording just right.

Although hard on my own writing and word choices, I tend not to get to sucked in to arguments over semantics because I think that at some point we all just need to let it go and head home for dinner. But lately I’ve been really bothered by one word–really, it’s use–that’s never been problem for me before, and isn’t particularly controversial at all.


Specifically, when used as such:

  • library instruction
  • information literacy instruction
  • instruction session
  • library instruction session
  • instruction coordinator
  • conduct/hold an instruction session

You get the idea. Here’s my hangup:  Why is it Instruction and not Education?

Why are we instruction librarians conducting library instruction sessions as a part of an information literacy instruction program that has an instruction coordinator? Why are we not just librarians who teach relevant classes as a part of our information literacy education program? Is this a holdover from when we used the term bibliographic instruction? I ask because I don’t seem to have the capacity to determine the right keywords to answer this question by searching in various library-related databases (thanks, but no thanks, LISTA).

To a certain degree, language is important in that it helps members of group communicate with a shared sense of meaning and understanding. Despite variations in the term information literacy it’s generally one that all librarians use in conversation and practice. The same can easily be said for library or information literacy instruction. We all understand what an instruction session is and what we mean when we say we are instruction librarians, but a huge problem arises when we use that language outside of libraries in our respective academic environments where our peers say classes, education, teaching, and learning. Colleges and universities aren’t creating Centers for Instruction they’re creating Teaching & Learning Centers.

I think it’s easy to argue that librarians aren’t using instruction in place of teaching and education when we talk to people outside of libraryland; that we’re sophisticated enough to engage in the code-switching necessary to effectively communicate with faculty and administrators in the language they understand. Even if this is true (which I would argue it’s not), I think that when all of our professional literature, associations, and subsequently, documentation for tenure and promotion (for those of us in those kinds of positions) are expressed in a language that is fundamentally different from the way that teaching and education is expressed by our peers in K-12 and higher education, we have a problem. Yes, every discipline has its language, but in every discipline you have classes, teachers, and education (i.e. it’s math education, not math instruction as an expression of a discipline that teaches people how to teach math).

Our library is currently recruiting a new Research & Instruction Librarian. You’ll notice that we changed the typical reference to research but left the instruction bit in. At the time I didn’t give it much thought, but now that I’ve been thinking about what our language use potentially implies about our profession and how it can impact our relationships with others, I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.

Am I just missing something? Is there a good reason instruction has become our descriptor? Are there readings I missed in grad school that might help put this issue into perspective?