Reflecting on Teaching my First Library Instruction Session

I’m alive! I did it! (Not that I was particularly concerned about imminent death upon teaching, but still. Small victories.)

Before I go over how exactly the session went, I thought I should probably provide a bare-bones outline of how I structured my 50 minutes on Thursday:

  1. Introduction/pep talk
  2. IUB Libraries Webpage (Resource Gateway, Ask a Librarian, C121 class pages)
  3. Brief chat about citations (referenced my dear boyfriend today when I referred to them as he does–as “stuffy intellectual shoutouts”). Plugged the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), my preferred resource, for user-friendly help.
  4. Group work! 
  5. Group presentations to peers
  6. Brief wrap-up of main points
  7. Assessment survey link

Thursday morning, true to form, I continued tweaking my lesson plan until just about 20 minutes before the class started. (Instead of giving the students basic topics, I opted to give them an arguable stance–e.g., rather than the plain Jane “immigration,” I gave them, “Immigration reform is necessary in order to best serve our country’s future,” that sort of thing. I thought it best suited to the fact that they would be crafting real thesis statements for persuasive speeches.) Then I rushed to the Instruction Cluster, lucky Stephen Colbert tote stuffed with tissues, cough drops, and plenty of back-up medicine. At 15 minutes before class the course instructor was there already, which was nice because I was able to consult with him about what I would be doing. I felt as though we were on the same page with what we hoped the students to get from the session.

And, zoom ahead a few minutes and it was 11:15! The professor said a few words, introduced me and I was off!

During my introduction I talked to them a little about who I am and what we would be doing. I’m well aware that capturing students’ attention is key, so I walked around while I talked and I tried to keep it energetic and fun. Especially at the beginning of an instruction session, there’s a window of time where you’re assessed as either relevant or irrelevant; it’s human nature. I think that an (unearned) benefit of being their peer age-wise is that it may earn me a few more interest points; so many librarian stereotypes abound, and I do think that part of the problem with students approaching librarians is a generation gap. “I use Wikipedia, they are going to judge me,” “I never learned how to search databases and I’m already a senior, I can’t ask questions or I’ll be exposed,” that sort of thinking. Hence, I’m using my youth to my advantage as any crafty someday-old librarian would.

Looking out into the sea of students half obscured by computers, I realized very suddenly: IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO TELL WHAT THE ZOMBIE STUDENTS’ EMOTIONS ARE. Okay, okay, so this is an exaggeration; what I’m getting at, though, is something everyone who has ever been in a teaching/presenting role probably knows… audience faces are impossible to read. You can gauge the fact that students are looking at you as winning half the battle, but as to whether you are making sense to them or overwhelming them or boring them–who knows!? It would be easy to get hung up on this, but while I think it’s important to pay attention to the students’ faces, body language, etc., you could torture yourself trying to interpret it.

After my intro and brief run-through of the IUB Libraries webpage, it was time for everyone’s favorite part: group work! (Confession: I hated and still hate forced, time-constrained spontaneous group work to this day, so I feel guilty forcing it on them… but after pondering it I think it’s the most effective way to make active learning happen. You can call me evil. I am.)

After I explained what they would be doing in their groups and providing the topics and resources, I started walking around and clarifying the assignment for those who had questions. I overheard several students talking amongst themselves and I realized that they thought it must be a trick–unless I wanted a public flaying of G and W, why else would I have them search there? One girl even said something along the lines of, Librarians don’t like Google and Wikipedia. 

I immediately announced that asking them to look on Google, Wikipedia and a library resource wasn’t a trick–I simply wanted them to look at how the results compared and convey that to the rest of the class during their presentations. I think the simplicity of this eased their worries, and they continued to investigate.

Group work seemed productive enough, and I answered plenty more questions. One student who was searching on Google for capital punishment raised her hand and asked me if all .org sites are credible. I resisted the urge to talk at her and instead asked her to click on one of the .org results. We were quickly transported to a sloppy-looking website. I again resisted the urge to overtalk, overwhelm, and instead tried to show, not tell. I asked her what she thought about the site. “It doesn’t look very professional,” she admitted. I asked whether she could find any contact information for the organization creator/s; she scrolled to the bottom and found some fellow’s name. I asked if she would trust him and his unprofessional “organization” name, and she laughed and said no way. Only then did I talk more about .org sites, explaining that while nonprofit organizations websites usually contain credible information, .org by no means mean that it is immediately credible because some organizations are based on taking a particular stance on an issue and  may show misleading info. A teachable moment!

Another student raised his hand. He was the designated Wikipedia searcher in his group; the topic, equal funding for women’s collegiate sports. He looked up at me and said, “So, I searched Wikipedia, and I found collegiate sports and athletic funding, but I couldn’t find anything on women.” An unvoiced question hung in the air–what should I do? I felt every bit the mischievous elf when I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, if you can only find general information, that’s a good thing to talk about in your presentation.”

BAM! Teachable moment!

As the students started presenting I was impressed with what they were choosing to communicate to their peers. I think once they discovered that I really did just want them to talk about the differences between W, G, and their LR, they felt less pressured to “perform” for their teacher and I; instead, they used their own intuition in beginning to think about what makes a resource credible. Google and Wikipedia are thriving, and you can find citable resources from both. As librarians we shouldn’t demonize them out of fear for our profession’s relevancy, or as an attempt to protect librarianship’s traditional role… after all, does the world of information owe librarians anything? Does it owe our profession a monopoly on the library as the only way to get information? It’s almost as though a select percentage of librarians take it personally, as though the fact that these sites exist is an affront to them.

Denouncing Google and Wikipedia too much just makes us seem unreasonable, unrelatable and out of touch, and this doesn’t exactly make the kids that are growing up to be taxpayers remember librarians in a glowing light. Don’t get me wrong: there are SERIOUS issues with both Google and Wikipedia. Librarians know this better than anyone. This is why teaching students basic skills for assessing a resource’s credibility has never been more important, and why I’m taking the bull by the horns by getting them to start thinking about it. I have a job because those at the university think that understanding library resources makes better students, and undoubtedly it does. But additionally, if we do our job right and leave them asking the right questions, it will most certainly make them better citizens over their lifetime. Because of the internet, knowing how to navigate and analyze information is a fundamental life skill.

I was VERY pleased during the student presentations that because these groups of 4-5 students had made three separate searches, at least three students in each group talked. This has not been the case in other instruction sessions I’ve seen. Because it feels unpleasantly dictator-like to command pre-group work, “Everyone needs to talk,” this was a very cool bonus. And without me telling the groups what to say or how to think, just about all groups came up with similar results: they found general information on Wikipedia but it wasn’t specific enough to use in supporting the stance they’d been given, they found a few credible government/nonprofit websites via Google but also (not their words) a lot of weird shit, and on their library resource they found resources they could trust. A lot of them.

Well, what do you know.

At natural pauses throughout student presentations the instructor and I would both add in little bits and pieces to help things along. I loved that he was paying attention and involved but still let them do their thing. I heartily thanked groups for being so cooperative afterwards. Right before I left, I reminded them that they could email me if they needed anything (“I wouldn’t put my email address here if I was not actively wanting you to contact me!”) and they completed an online survey about how the session went. I hope to read the feedback soon.

Ultimately, it was a wonderful first library instruction experience. I think the Google/Wikipedia/library resource group work went off swimmingly and I plan to use it again, continuing to ponder ways to streamline the process. However, there are also a few aspects I would like to change.

Changes for the next session:

  • I will request that the prof take a seat in the back row; this session he was in the second row. I think this will keep students more on task in being attentive of their peers’ presentations–AKA off Facebook. I ended up heading to the back of the room for the presentations for this reason, and also to make sure I could hear the presenters.
  • I will print the resource and topic for each group on multiple slips of paper instead of just one, so that each group member can have their own copy. During this session, because only one group member was holding the topic and resource info, the other group members further down the row of computers were confused during the first few minutes.
  • After telling students that I am going to have them compare their search results on Google, Wikipedia and their library resource, I will emphasize that it’s not a trick. This was probably my most important realization of the session. 

I’m not sure when I will be able to teach again because my schedule is busy and there are not any upcoming instruction sessions that I’m available for. However, I hope to get the chance to go back out there soon!

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