When tried and true doesn’t work any longer: workshopping library instruction

Note: This was originally published on my now-defunct website, librarygrrrl.net. I enjoy puzzling through tricky teaching conundrums in small groups. What may seem obvious to someone else can be a breath of fresh air to me. This session included 5 research & instruction librarians and an instructional technologist who had a high level of comfort and trust with one another. I remain thrilled with the outcome of this workshopping.

There comes a time in many instruction librarians’ careers when all of a sudden, it’s really obvious that what they’ve been doing in a class just isn’t cutting it any longer.

  • Maybe there’s a new faculty member teaching the class.
  • Maybe professor changes what they’re teaching in the class.
  • Or maybe, just maybe, everyone is bored with the same old, same old (this is particularly true for those mid-level, required courses in a discipline – I’m looking at YOU, econometrics.)

This past summer, the team I’m on decided to tackle this problem in a head-on, low-risk, manageable way. Everyone picked one course they regularly taught that they wanted to revamp in some fashion, and the rest of the team helped them think through how to change it.

The courses we workshopped each week this summer ranged across the disciplines and across course levels:

  • 100-level first-year writing course focusing on Wellesley College
  • 200-level required econometrics course (librarian)
  • 200-level required econometrics course (instructional technologist)
  • 300-level French course on La Belle Epoque (in French)
  • 300-level history seminar on ethnic and religious violence

You’ll notice we had no science courses, for a good reason: our science librarian was on leave for the summer.

The format of each session worked the same way. Each person sent out material ahead of time, including:

  • course description
  • background on the course
  • description of how they have been involved in the course, learning outcomes, etc.
  • assignments, handouts, guides, or other supporting materials
  • description of “what I need help with” – which ranged from figuring out how to talk with an instructor about changing an assignment to dealing with a class where people in the class might be complete novices or subject experts to using extremely limited class time differently to basing an instruction session solely on discussion

Each workshopping meeting lasted an hour. The person who was “on” that week gave a brief overview of what was in the material she sent out and provided more context than what would fit in email. The conversation went from there. The “on” person always had free rein to say, “this conversation is straying and I need us to focus over here for a while.” (Because we are a chatty, idea-filled group, this happened more than once.) Typically, the “on” person and one other person in the room took notes or wrote on the whiteboard, so there was a record of all the wonderfully smart, intelligent, and 100% feasible ways to revamp the instruction.

In one of my later posts, I’m going to write about how I revamped instruction for econometrics, focusing on how this workshopping meeting gave me a different kind of confidence when I spoke with the faculty members teaching the course and asked if we could please please PLEASE do things differently because I was being swallowed alive by supporting the students after our session.

(Interestingly enough, the teaching and learning center at MPOW is hosting a series of similar lunchtime meetings for faculty this year, based on the Knotty Problem Roundtable developed by Mary Rigsby and Suzanne Sumner at the University of Mary Washington. I’m eager to try that method out with this team in the spring, focusing on different courses. The barrier to entry seems lower than what we did last summer – although the outcomes might be less dramatic as well.)

If you’re in New England, it looks like NELIG’s December meeting is going to be exactly this kind of thing! If you don’t have a group of colleagues at your workplace who you can do this kind of workshopping with, consider applying to present/get feedback from the wonderful NELIG community! Deadline for that is tomorrow, November 7, so get on it!

Published by Megan