Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Professor and Me

[Special weekly post from Rachel Jorgensen, Digital & Information Literacy Librarian, University of the District of Columbia]

The posts of the past few weeks have focused on how information literacy is defined and what services the Information Literacy Program offers. This weeks post will focus on the relationship of the librarian and the professor and its importance in providing valuable learning opportunities for students.

As in any relationship, the one between teaching faculty and librarians is a bit lop-sided. It is my opinion to that academic librarians think a lot about faculty, but that faculty don't think much about librarians. To be blunt, librarians are quite often put into the position of helping students understand research assignments that have unclear instructions and/or learning outcomes and librarians are the ones that students are sent to when they ask their professor "what should I use for this paper?"

I had the good fortune of being graduated from a strong school system that taught me basic critical thinking skills and gave me a strong foundation in writing and reading. When I went on to college, I had the foundation necessary to do the type of thinking that is required at the college level -- I could write a decent sentence and read a complex text. Additionally, the library at the time had two ways for me to access scholarly materials: a card catalog and print journal indexes. Compared to today, I had it easy.

This is not the case for students at UDC.

Most students who come to UDC do not have the basic critical thinking, writing and reading skills necessary to do college-level work. Additionally, they do not understand the process by which one would go about completing a research project -- many of them have never been in a library before. Many students become confused and frustrated. Many of them give up.

The lack of basic skills is compounded by the technological knowledge that is required of them. There is a misconception that today's high school graduate is "computer literate." This may be so when it comes to playing a computer game, downloading a movie or browsing Facebook. It is not true, however, when it comes to the use of the library catalog and article databases.

And, let's not forget that many of our students are older, "non-traditional" students who do not have basic computer skills -- many of them have never used a word processing program, let alone a web-based library catalog.

This lack of skill makes it very hard for students to concentrate on the process of learning and gaining knowledge.

What I Need From Faculty

Simply put -- students must learn processes and knowledge. Research assignments, particularly for CCDC students, Freshmen and Sophomores, must be organized in such a way that the students learn how to do research.

If a professor were to ask me how a research assignment should be designed and presented to the students, this is what I would say:
  • Have a clearly explicated research assignment, preferably presented independently of the syllabus, which includes:
    • Paper style / formatting guidelines
    • Required page number or word count totals
    • Minimun number of resources
    • Guidelines on devising an appropriate subject / thesis statement
  • Set deadlines for a subjet or thesis statement, working bibliography, rough draft and final draft.
  • Suggest the appropriate types of library resources, including reference resources and article databases.

Additionally, professors cannot assume that students have the technical skills that will be required of them in order to format research papers using a word processor. Particularly for classes geared towards Freshmen and Sophomores, learing opportunities in technical skills should be integrated.

In all of these areas I can be of assistance. Do you need a video tutorial on how to format a hanging indentation? Do you want a web guide that provides students access to the appropriate resources? Do you think your students need a hands-on instruction session in using the library? Would you like help devising an assignment that clearly explicates the research process? I can help with all of that.

And one last little librarian pet peeve: I am not a babysitter.* When a professor schedules a library instruction session, he or she is required to show up, as well as the students! Having the professor interact with students while they are learning about scholarly resources is an important, teachable moment.

*I undertand that there may be occasional times, due to extenuating circumstances, that the professor cannot attend. Communication, as always, is the key in making sure my alter ego of grumpy librarian does not appear.

In Closing

The relationships between faculty and librarians can be a fruitful one, but it is a relationship that is often not inculcated in the collegial world. The students, per usual, are the ones who get left out of the cold because of this. What faculty and librarians share, hopefully, is a desire for their students to be effective: critical, pro-active thinkers.

Further Reading
Kraat, Susan B., ed. Relationships Between Teaching Faculty and Teaching Librarians. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Information Press, 2005.

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