Chasing moths

At the beginning of the academic year, a university-based librarian usually finds herself* instructing students in how to find information. I completed my initial forty-six hours of such instruction yesterday, so it’s time to take stock…

I sometimes wonder, when in the throes of teaching, whether the students reallise how much effort goes into educating them.  I reflect on the times I sat through certain of my degree lectures, a little bored, wondering when it would be over, not for one moment considering that the person talking had put hours and hours into preparing the lecture, was likely making a certain physical effort in delivering it and could wind up deflated if there was no obvious appreciation.

El Croquis. Smell the quality.

El Croquis. Smell the quality.

I put a lot of me into my teaching. I enthuse about beautiful architectural books, about databases, about fabulous high resolution Creative Commons licensed photographs of buildings. I’m quite physical in my enthusing.  When I talk about structuring searches and identifying synonyms for keywords, I run to the nearest window, point and ask the architectural students to tell me what it is (one day someone WILL say fenestration).  When I talk about the gorgeously glossy architectural journals such as El Croquis and Casabella, I have a good sniff of the pages and pass them around, instructing the students to smell the quality of the information (they always indulge me, bless ’em).  I positively force students to stroke material samples we hold in our trade literature collection.  I sometimes use interpretive dance to demonstrate ideas (this works particularly well when explaining CI/SfB classification). I have students join in panto-style, shouting out answers, telling me whether a search will result in more (higher!) or fewer (lower!) results.  I have them grade on a scale of one to ten how excited they are about particular database search features (it’s usually an eight).  I spend in the region of £25 each year buying lollies to hand out to students for answering a quiz question using databases, getting some Internet for Architecture Tutorial quizzes correct and answering my particularly tricky citing and referencing questions.  And I recently found myself running about a room trying to free a moth, offering a moment’s diversion for the students.

Architecture students are a particularly clever and creative lot.  They are peculiarly confident and sometimes delightfully cheeky.  So, more often than not, the instructing will descend into jolly banter, which I actively encourage.

And, each time I manage to sneak into another School of Architecture lecture and discover what the students are learning, I try to incorporate some of that experience into my own teaching.  This can leave me feeling very vulnerable, as I’m ignorant about architecture, and can’t easily express why I respond to a particular building in a particular way, but sometimes this obvious vulnerability draws an opinion from an otherwise retiring student.

Water Moth by Benjiman Green, on Flickr

This is not the moth I saved. This moth is likely dead now. (Photo by Benjiman Green)

I tell myself that these things combined mean the students stand a better chance of remembering what I’m trying to teach.  That these things combined mean I appear human to them and they’re more likely to approach me on library related matters.  And these things combined have often resulted in exactly that. But these things combined aren’t pedagogically sound and may be frowned upon were some colleagues to witness them.  And these things combined mean I could alienate students who judge me unprofessional.

I’d love to hear other librarians’ thoughts on this.  On whether it’s best to subdue one’s personality when teaching. Or whether a little bit of silliness goes a long way…

* shameful gender stereotyping


19 thoughts on “Chasing moths

  1. I say stick with the silliness! I would love to sit in on one of your lectures 🙂

    It might not be to every student’s taste but if you’re not doing things the way that feels right to you, you’re not going to be passionate about it or comfortable with it and that will show. There’s never going to be an approach that suits every student, so I’d say just be true to what you want to do.

  2. What’s the point of loving your job (and I assume you do), and not showing and wanting to share that joy and enthusiasm? I don’t see the point of suppressing your personality. All the memorable teachers and lecturers from my dim and distant past are those with personalities – indeed, some of them had more than one.

    Inspirational teachers aren’t bland individuals who toe the party line. You can see their love for their subject burn within them, and the best radiate this to their students.

    Enthusiasm is inspirational, and humour (and silliness) is its crowning glory. Consider yourself the spinning, flashing bow-tie on the inhibited collar of information retrieval instruction.

    And yes, I have been to the pub.

    More cider please Matron!

  3. Anyone who can dance though CI/SfB deserves a carton of lollipops all to themselves. I firmly believe that my teaching is totally ineffective if it isn’t genuinely my voice (mind you some students might think they’ve heard t0o much of it). Therefore I happily witter on with enthusiasm about the legal indexing in the Digest being similar to the teasers in the TV and Radio Times, use origami to interest lecturers in the nuts and bolts of Infomation Literacy and look for topical and unexpected hooks for lots of my sessions. In a reflective piece for my PGcert I likened it to improvising around the theme in jazz. I don’t envy you CI/SfB but must admit to being green eyed about the architecture which I gave up for the lure of the law and the gore of criminology!

      • Yes that was me. Have moved on from origami in terms of work though am involved in organising crafts at a street party next year so may be returning to do some simple bits with children.
        I’m currently involved in trying to give reading lists a new mage as dynamic tools rather than scrappy bits of paper. So currently occupied in identifying “Bombshell Books” that create havoc for students. I’m asking staff to re-examine how their lists work for students.and look at ways to make lists the basis of more interactive work around reading.

  4. I’m not terribly experienced – I’ve only got a couple of years’ teaching under my belt – but I can’t imagine how I could teach and completely suppress my personality. I’d have to memorise scripts and never deviate or something, which is soooo never going to happen.

    I try to reign in the bits that I think are too individual and not helpful when teaching (long pauses in the middle of sentences, interesting but ultimately meaningless tangents, extreme abuse of sarcasm, flippancy and ), but there’s no way I could communicate with students confidently and not still be myself: I’d just turn shy and lose my ability to talk at all.

    Do you use feedback forms at the end? I find them really scary and I always delay looking at them, but it’s really helpful when you see that actually, most people like your style most of the time.

    • I’ve not used feedback forms this century. Not because I don’t think they’re an invaluable guide to the success or otherwise of teaching sessions, but because I’m aware my students are having to constantly critique (each others’ designs, buildings, each module in their degree course) and I don’t want to add to that burden. But I appreciate greatly that they can act to reassure that we’re getting things right. Maybe I need to use feedback forms next year, to avoid these anxieties I sometimes feel!

  5. Keep doing what comes naturally too you. It may not be to every student’s taste as Jo says, but by God they’ll remember it. Students are canny creatures and will instantly pick up when you are feeling uncomfortable as in adopting a teaching style alien to your natural way of working. Go forth with the silliness 🙂

  6. If what you are doing is authentically you and has integrity, then the students will connect with it – I remember best those teachers from my school / college days who were slightly eccentric and individual in their approach 😉

  7. Sounds fantastic all round. I myself am a big believer in lollies and silliness. (I quoted Star Wars in my last PG session and have used lollies and sweets at induction.)

    Sounds to me like it is perfectly pedagogically sound. You are getting information across to them and you are engaging with them and they are in turn engaging with you. You are enabling them to interact,the silliness will allow them to feel more comfortable to do so and therefore (I think) you are helping them to embed their learning and reflect on it. Also a mixture of presentation/interaction/quizzes/ even the touching and smelling, all tap into different learning styles. Have a look at Gardner’s multiple intelligences:

    And let’s face it, this could be an incredibly dull session if you did it differently.

    Also – if you are worried about incorporating formal feedback to add to their growing list of forms to fill out then you could always do it ‘your’ way. ie. Add an exercise at the end that involves some sort of reflection on the session – even something as simple as getting them to put down 1 thing they learnt (or liked/disliked from the session) on coloured post-its and get them to stick them onto a flip chart on their way out. They could even discuss in pairs before hand if you have time. It might be a little ‘quick and dirty’, but still useful info to take on to next session.

    However as Jo says – you are never going to please everyone (and it sounds to me like you please a lot of them) so don’t focus on that 1 negative comment.

    I would never do that. 😉 No. Not me, Never. (Translation – I do it all the time and I should know better)

    I know a lot of this is down to your sparkling personality and would never expect another librarian to copy exactly what you do. However I do feel that a lot more of us could take inspiration from it and have a think about what we could do to inject a little more personality into our teaching. (Those already inspirational infolit/teachers, I obviously don’t mean you).

    • How lovely to be getting a good bit of feedback on this post 🙂

      I’ll certainly have a read of Gardner. I’ve delivered sessions in the recent past to engineering and planning students and I notice that I have to adapt my style of teaching to elicit anything from them. I find this, in itself, fascinating, so the Gardner will be interesting… I discovered a while back that my MBTI profile (assuming it has any validity) isn’t one that is traditionally librarian… but falls part way between the MBTI profile of most librarians and most architects. How convenient! This may explain, in part, why I feel so at home with the architectural students.

      When people refer to “feedback”, I’m rather stuck thinking about bits of paper and tick boxes. I like the suggestion of a more informal approach.

      (I have never seen Star Wars.)

      • Agree it’s great to have this discussion, really enjoying reading the comments! 🙂

        Re: feedback – do your students tend to have mobile phones? I find PollEverywhere ( a more interesting way of gathering feedback – they can just text in to the number you give them and you then have their feedback in the system straight away. Useful way to gather quick anonymous feedback I find. You can also use it live to test their knowledge by setting up multiple choice responses. There’s always the old post-it notes for general feedback too (although I’m lazy and prefer it to be electronic so I don’t have to input it myself and can just deal with analysing).

        • This is why I love t’internet, ‘cos someone’s always around with some top ideas. I’d heard of PollEverywhere, but had never really made the connection to my teaching. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s too easy to be blinkered when under stress at the beginning of the academic year. I’ve got some more teaching coming up at the beginning of December… I’ll try and build some sort of phone feedback into those sessions.

      • There again there is the frankly disturbing feed back you wish you’d never read. From a distance learner I quote “your reputation on the cohort is somewhere between Florence Nightingale (I can see I offer first aid for problems) and Cat Woman ” It’s the last I find is the stuff of nightmares considering the costume let alone the anti-socail bahaviour!

  8. Great to hear your passion and absolutely be true to yourself as a teacher. If you are interested in this, I recommend Parker Palmer’s _The Courage to Teach_ and especially his discussion about being our authentic selves. Best, Lisa Hinchliffe

  9. It is absolutely VITAL to express your personality when you teach. If you do, you show that you love your subject, it’s interesting, fun and enjoyable. People will enjoy the session much more, and they will remember more of it – especially if you use slightly unusual methods (ala fenestration).

  10. I’m an accidental librarian, and find the teaching part hard. Enjoyed these discussions, although they make me feel guilty for not making my sessions more exciting. However the student feedback is generally good so again it’s a case of being overly self-critical. Interested to try the texting feedback s/w – will look into that. One thing I’m aware of is the increasing number of non-native English speakers in our groups & whether my English sarcasm or slang is sometimes inappropriate & excluding for this group. Be interested on others’ views on this.

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