Teaching Challenge

For most academic librarians our teaching consists of guest lectures by invitation from the course professor or instructor. In my experience many professors and instructors have a very general notion of what librarians are able to bring to the classroom For most, they idea of a guest lecture by a librarian is an overview of the library’s web site and a quick demonstration of several academic databases. Because of perception, the concept of linking or integrating the competencies of information fluency into a course’s curriculum is not one that occurs to many professors or instructors. Throughout my years of teaching, I have learned that I must initiate a deeper conversation with a professor or instructor about information fluency competencies prior to entering the classroom to ensure of positive learning experience for the students.

Early on in my career, as I was just learning what it meant to engage in a conversation with faculty about library skills and competencies, I received a request to provide a library session for an introductory course to a major. In my reply to the professor, I included my customary questions such as how many students were in the class and what was their makeup (e.g. all freshman, mixture of statuses, etc.), what assignment would the students be working on at the time of the visit, what were the resource and research requirements of the assignment, and was there anything specific s/he wanted the students to know. The professor happened to be the department chair so I was excited about the prospect of forging a teaching partnership with this individual.  The response I received was somewhat vague and it only included a description of an assignment. I wasn’t too concerned with the response as there were several weeks before the session so I made note to follow up closer to the session date.

As the date of the session drew closer, I again contacted the professor to confirm the date and time but to get more information about the class. I did not receive any response so I again contacted the professor. This time I did get a response but to only confirm the date and time. As time was running out I decided to work with the information I had and developed a 50-minute library session around the assignment I was given. As I did for most of the sessions I provided, it was a combination of overview, demonstration, and hands-on activities. The classroom space was a flexible learning space with mobile tables and laptops, which could accommodate 30 students comfortably. This space was particularly well suited to have students work in small groups.

Approximately 20 minutes prior to the session, I went to the classroom to help the student assistants set up the room and boot up the instructor’s workstation, load my powerpoint, and open the specific web sites I would be using. At about 5 minutes before the session I was a bit surprise there were not any students yet coming into the classroom. However, often professors would meet their students at the entrance of the library and have the entire class walk down to the classroom together. At 5 minutes after the time the professor indicated the class started there still were not any students or the professor. I waited another 5 minutes and still not students or professor. At that time I went up to the entrance of the library to check to see if the class was there or possibly in a different classroom. Nobody was around. I then called the professor’s office wondering if I had the wrong day and time. No answer. I left a voice mail message. At 20 minutes after the class was supposed to start and still no students, I shut down the instructor’s workstation and told the student workers they could put away the laptops. I just assumed there was some type of miscommunication. As I started going back to my office I am met what looked like a professor leading a class to the classroom. I introduced myself to the professor and quickly discovered it was indeed the class scheduled to be at the library.

As I quickly started the instructor’s workstation and turned on the LCD projector, I instructed the students to take a seat as they entered the classroom. And students kept coming in and students kept coming and students kept coming in. The class had 60 students enrolled. There were students everywhere — sitting on the floor and standing in the back. By the time all the students got situated there was maybe 20 minutes left of class. To make the most of the situation, I decided to forgo most of the overview and demonstration component of my lesson and just jumped right into the portion dealing with the class assignment. I started asking questions about topics and resource requirements. Absolute blank stares from some students but mostly confused looks. All of a sudden the professor sitting in the back stated that the assignment was changed that semester and he explained what they were doing. My confused response was ‘Okay, that wasn’t the assignment you sent to me.’ The professor then informed me he wasn’t actually teaching the class but just filling for a couple of sessions for the professor of record while he was at a conference. In attempt to salvage the class and engage the students, I started asking questions related to the actual assignment. Students at this point were completely disengaged. Many were completely ignoring me and talking to each other or reading the student newspaper. The students that were marginally paying attention made no attempt to answer questions I was asking. Finally, one student raised his hand and informed me that they had not yet been given the assignment so they didn’t really know how to answer the questions. I have to admit at this point I was quite mad and had a hard time concealing it. All I ended up doing for the class was a 10-minute generic demonstration of a relevant database. After the class was over, the professor came up to me and said ‘That was great! It is so important that the students come into the library and learn about the web site and databases.’ I was so angry I all I could do was mutter a banal response and walk away. I felt that this professor had no regard for my expertise or me as an individual.

It took me a while to get to a point where I could process the experience without putting all of the blame on the professor and reflect on how to avoid something like that again. Through my reflection I realized I was making a huge assumption that the professor understood why I was asking the questions I was asking in my email message. I was assuming he knew that I would be creating a session linked to an assignment the students were actually working on and would be planning to teach for the entire session. At that point I recognized I needed to be upfront about my expectations and my teaching methods. I needed to state specifically what I would be covering, how I would engage students, and how much time it would take. I also needed to be clear about classroom capacity and fire code. I did get reprimanded for teaching the class with that many students in that space. Once I started being more clear and forthcoming in my initial communications, I found professors and instructors where much more open to discussing what students could and would learn. For most they didn’t even realize that a library session could be more then just a generic database demonstration. Fortunately, I have not had a situation like that again. However, I am still surprised how many professors think that only option for a library session is just a database demonstration.