It’s been a busy Fall term so far and I haven’t had much time to spend on Twitter, but I usually check it first thing every morning. When I did one day last week, this thread caught my eye:

This just made me feel really sad, particularly that Nick felt he had to apologize for us and that he has so little confidence in librarians’ ability to teach. I’m certainly not going to deny that there are bad library instructors, but I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. I also find it funny that when people talk about the quality of library instruction, they always assume that they are the good ones (not just you Nick, but all of us). How do we really know that? I have never assumed that I’m great at teaching. I know that I’ve improved, based on assessments I’ve done and how students and faculty respond to my teaching, but I want to keep improving. If you think you’re a great instructor already and don’t need to improve, maybe you’re the problem.

And even great instruction librarians have awful sessions. This happens to disciplinary faculty too; I’ve had conversations with friends who teach outside of libraries and we all have horror stories. It sucks that one bad session can sour a disciplinary faculty member on library instruction entirely, especially when they should recognize that they’ve probably had bad one-off teaching experiences too. We’re all human.

But, still, I agree that there are librarians who are bad at teaching and bad at engaging students. There are also plenty of librarians who never wanted to teach in the first place. At my first job, everyone taught, from the the Head of Tech Services to the ILL Librarian to the Systems Librarian. There are a lot of libraries like that. But I also think that library schools don’t make it clear that teaching is part of being a librarian in so many library jobs, especially in academia. And in this job market, people will take jobs that include things they really don’t want to do so that they’re employed. If a librarian doesn’t want to teach, how motivated will they be on their own to try to improve?

Looking at my alma mater, Florida State, here is the recommended coursework if you’re going to focus on academic librarianship:

LIS 5603 Introduction to Information Services
LIS 5511 Management of Information Collections
LIS 5442 Information Leadership
LIS 5602 Marketing of Library and Information Services
LIS 5603 Introduction to Information Services
LIS 5485 Introduction to Information Technologies
LIS 5105 Communities of Practice (variable content areas)
LIS 5203 Assessing Information Needs
LIS 5241 International & Comparative Information Service
LIS 5260 Information Science
LIS 5263 Theory of Information Retrieval
LIS 5270 Evaluating Networked Information Services & Systems
LIS 5271 Research in Information Studies
LIS 5442 Information Leadership
LIS 5417 Introduction to Legal Resources
LIS 5474 Business Information Needs and Sources
LIS 5590 Museum Informatics
LIS 5602 Marketing Library and Information Services
LIS 5661 Government Information
LIS 5736 Indexing and Abstracting
LIS 5787 Fundamentals of Metadata Theory and Practice

Their only instruction-focused class, LIS 5524 Instructional Role of the Informational Specialist, is recommended for people focusing on “Reference” and “Youth Services,” not academic librarianship (yet somehow we all need Museum Informatics??? WTF FSU?). When I was at FSU, the class was 100% geared toward students planning to become Library Media Specialists so I didn’t take it. Based on the courses offered at FSU, I had NO IDEA instruction was a huge part of library work. I’m tremendously disappointed to see that they STILL aren’t doing more to promote courses on instruction and instructional design. Talk about out of touch!

So I think about the people who want to improve, but don’t have the time within their work day to develop professionally and improve or just don’t know where to start. Not everyone has the luxury of time and money to support their professional development. If you’re doing so much teaching and working at the reference desk that you don’t even have time to reflect on how classes went, how are you going to get better? And the fault for that does not lie with librarian, but with the institution that doesn’t support their improvement.

In response to what Nick Schiller tweeted, my collaborator and friend Lisa Hinchliffe wrote:

Here was my response to that:

I did a little informal survey on Twitter to get a sense of how many librarians were prepared in any way — either by their LIS programs or by their workplaces — to teach information literacy.

That is tremendously depressing. I have worked at three different academic libraries and at none of them did I receive any training in how to teach. I could understand that more in my second and third jobs, because they had some expectation that I knew how to teach (though I really had to relearn how to teach when I came to PCC and started working with community college classes). In my first job, I was thrown into the deep end with zero support and am sure I did a crappy job early on, especially since all of my classes in college had been lecture-focused so I didn’t have any models for active learning-style classes. Over time, I read books and articles and tried to learn as much as I could about how to be an effective instructor. I started to incorporate more activities into my teaching so students were actually doing (and sometimes teaching!) instead of me being a sage on the stage all the time. But I got no help from my colleagues because, though they had more experience, they had not been taught how to teach effectively either. We were all just fumbling around.

When you think about how few workplaces actually prepare librarians to teach, it makes me wonder whether those places think teaching is something anyone can do or if they just don’t value instruction. Reference and instruction positions are usually seen as entry-level, which is ironic, since they have the most contact with our students and faculty. They, to a large extent, determine how the library is viewed by faculty, which is hugely important! Administrators who don’t have a formal training program for library instruction, do you think this work is something anyone off the street can do? Or do you not value it? If neither of those things are true, then why are you not setting your library staff/faculty up to succeed?

I think having a formal training program around information literacy instruction for all librarians who teach when they are new to an institution is critically important and I urge every library director, dean, and AUL to consider why they don’t have something to on-board librarians for teaching at their institution. If it’s for all new hires who teach, it then becomes something that is supportive and not accusatory. Even experienced librarians have something to learn and instruction looks different at different institutions with different goals and different student populations.

As a former head of instruction at two institutions, I know how much ego and defensiveness can crop up around efforts to support instruction librarians with their teaching. It can feel like a threat to some, like an accusation that they are doing a shitty job. I’ve written about my own efforts as an instruction coordinator to support instructional improvement and there are a lot of ways to approach this. But, really, we’re no different than disciplinary faculty who are often equally uncomfortable being observed and/or critiqued. The difference is that we always have an instructor watching us when we teach, while they don’t.

Sometimes it’s less about the quality of the instructor and more about the approach the instructor takes. Every librarian has their own style; their own way of teaching certain concepts that may be more or less embraced by the people for whom we are teaching. My colleagues are all great teachers, but we all have widely varying approaches. At my library, each of us has instructors who request us specifically. I’ve been warned about instructors I loved teaching for and I’ve had classes go badly with instructors other colleagues love working with. I know instructors are sometimes frustrated that they will get a different approach to the outcomes depending on who is assigned to the class, but, again, we’re no different than they are. They don’t all teach the same either.

Any librarian who teaches information literacy also knows that there are things completely out of their control that impact how the class goes. Sometimes it’s the culture of the class. I remember once working with three sections of a criminal justice class in a row with the same instructor. Two of them went really well and one just was flat. The students were really low-energy and didn’t want to participate in activities. The instructor told me that class was like that with her as well. For some classes, I get to sit in on part of their class before I provide instruction, which gives me an interesting little window into the culture of the class. I’ve seen instructors who keep their students in rapt attention and instructors whose students look comatose. Not surprisingly, the students in classes where they are more engaged by their instructor are also usually more engaged when I’m teaching them. The instructor can really set the tone. Of course, we can still screw it up and I have, but how the instructor manages their own classroom makes a big difference. I’ve sometimes felt like a rock star leaving a classroom when, really, so much of the credit for how it went should have gone to their regular instructor.

We often walk into classes with incorrect or incomplete information about what the students are working on, where they are, and what they struggle with because their instructor doesn’t communicate the information to us. We walk into classes where students know nothing about the assignment even though the instructor told us they’d have selected topics by then. Sometimes they are doing their assignment later in the term, but the instructor requested that day because they couldn’t be in class. Sometimes in response to asking about their goals, instructors just tell us to do the “usual library spiel” or the “usual library tour” as if such a thing existed. Some instructors make it really difficult for us to create a tailored lesson plan for their class and sometimes we end up having to throw that plan out the window because we were misinformed. I recently wrote numerous times to an instructor who’d requested instruction to find out what they were working on and never received a response to any of my inquiries!

Our time and expertise is sometimes disrespected. We get instructors who request instruction because they’re going to be out that day. Often, we don’t find that out until the last minute when the instructor doesn’t show up. We have instructors who sit in the back and check email instead of participating in the class or even just being present. We get instructors who have noisy one-on-one conferences with students in the classroom while we are teaching (which isn’t at all distracting, right?). We get instructors who don’t give us enough time to cover the outcomes they want us to focus on or that give us time but then take the first 20 minutes to cover class stuff without warning us in advance. I’ve had instructors show up on the wrong day with their classes. One got angry at me about it, even after I showed them the confirmation email I’d sent. I ended up teaching the class (totally unprepared) and she never requested instruction again. Back in my first job, I was just starting a jigsaw activity with an English 101 class when the instructor said “I don’t want them doing that. That doesn’t sound useful.” Can you imagine how demoralizing it is to be contradicted in that way when you are teaching?

These stories do not represent the majority of the classes I work with. I also work with plenty of fantastic instructors who I love to work with year after year. I have instructors who really collaborate with me around determining the shape of library support for their classes. I have instructors who are totally game to try new things, even if they don’t always go well (and they’re kind enough to sympathize when things don’t go well). I have instructors who adequately prepare the students for what I’m going to cover in the information literacy session — they set the table for me. I have instructors who are active participants in my information literacy sessions. I have instructors who show they appreciate what I do. And those classes, not surprisingly, tend to go better than the ones where the instructors are checked out, disrespectful, or dismiss the work we put into tailoring a session to their students.

As I’ve mentioned before, I teach a class for San Jose State University’s iSchool on library embedment, which is mainly focused on embedding information literacy instruction and support into the curriculum and beyond the curriculum. A lot of what we read early on is focused on librarian-faculty collaboration and students always notice that there is often a lot of misunderstanding and also ego on both sides (am I the only person who now hears Donald Trump every time I hear or write “on both sides?” — barf). Librarians often assume that instructors are not teaching information literacy themselves and if they are, they’re certainly not doing it well. Instructors often underestimate librarians, seeing them more as service providers who demo databases rather than as instructors, experts, or collaborators. You can see it in the language both groups use. I witness that disconnect every time I see someone requesting a “library tour” when they don’t mean “walking students around the library” but actually mean information literacy instruction.

I think both librarians and disciplinary faculty should try to better understand and respect what the other does. I think we should cut each other some slack when it doesn’t always go well and also be willing to offer feedback, which I know is difficult (both for librarians and disciplinary faculty), but makes things better. I have saved many students from bad and unclear assignments by gently questioning the instructor about them and I would love to know what I can do to make their class’ experience better.

The problem of people who are poor instructors or lack motivation can only be solved by the Library. More resources should go toward training and on-boarding librarians to teach. The library should be set up to support the continuing development of veteran instruction librarians too; we all have more to learn. This won’t fix everything — there will always be people who just don’t care and aren’t motivated to improve — but everyone I have worked with earnestly wants to teach well and really cares about students. If we all had better support, the vast majority of us would be better instructors; and that includes our disciplinary colleagues.

Image credit: UIUC admissions blog