On the subject of my subject

My name is Sarah, I’m the subject librarian for architecture at Cardiff University and since 2010 I’ve attended, of my own volition and in my own time, lectures at the Welsh School of Architecture. Here’s how and why…

The lectures

In 2008, after much extolling of the virtues of information literacy to academics, I succeeded in introducing into a module entitled Architecture since 1940 an assessed annotated and critical bibliography exercise, preceding first year students’ first essay

My appalling sketch of an iconic building from notes made during the Architecture since 1940 lectures

My appalling sketch of an iconic building from notes made during the Architecture since 1940 lectures

submission. It quickly became apparent that some underpinning knowledge would help my marking of students’ work. Students’ claims that source material analysed “an iconic building” would be easier to assess if I knew something about the architect.

Though I believed from the outset that lecture attendance would go beyond mere knowledge acquisition, allowing me to better integrate within the School and understand and meet its needs, what I’d not anticipated was quite how valuable and enjoyable the experience would be. So much so that, since attending Architecture since 1940 lectures in 2010I’ve also attended Issues in Contemporary Architecture, a third year module, which I chose because I felt I would enjoy the broad, sometimes multi-disciplinary, nature of the subjects it covers, Cities and Landscapes, a second year module, which starts the process of contextualising the build and makes heavy demands on the library with an extensive reading list and Architecture from Pre-history to the Industrial Revolution, a first year module, which I chose because I knew little of the formal architectural properties it examines.

Professional development

I work part-time, so attend lectures in my own time, adjusting my working hours in order to attend. Because of this flexible approach to my working week, line management support has been crucial and I formally acknowledge my lecture attendance in my appraisal documents.

Lecture attendance has encouraged me to diversify my professional development, which has enhanced my understanding of how best to support the School.  I’ve attended a training day on Building Regulations intended for construction professionals, accompanied a student heating, ventilation, and air conditioning visit, assisted at a Royal Society of Architects in Wales annual conference and participated in some Twentieth Century Society architectural events.

Learning to teach

My more publishable observations on others' teaching

My more publishable observations on others’ teaching

A more obvious benefit to my professional development has been the opportunity to observe others teaching.  I’ve valued the chance to see architecture lecturers at work, to observe their reliance on the visual representation of information and see how informal the lecture process can be.  This has directly impacted on my own teaching, as I’ve attempted to teach in a style more compatible with the School’s.


Collection development

Recommended reading for one module, collected during lectures

One module’s lecture notes, including recommended reading not on reading lists

Attending lectures confirmed my suspicions that lots of reading material is recommended during lectures, supplemental to formal reading lists. In the case of the Cities and Landscapes module, which has an unusually extensive reading list, attending the lectures gave me a better appreciation of how the sheer breadth of knowledge imparted has necessitated this extensive reading list.  It also helped me understand the odd fluctuations in student demands for texts, as I witnessed lecturers setting students’ informal assessments.

Student experience

I’ve gained some insight into how architecture students learn.  This insight led to some dalliance with Performance Based Learning techniques, to more informal delivery of teaching and to a better appreciation of student workload.  And hearing some of the subject-specific language they encounter, I’ve attempted to employ that vocabulary where feasible, to suggest a synergy between School and Library.

Staff engagement

Attendance at lectures has often resulted in an improved relationship with academics. Some now seek my advice on what texts to best set for student reading. More frequent, though not as warranted, are requests for feedback on the content and teaching style of modules. Viz,

Great to have feedback Sarah…I do sometimes feel like I am speaking into the void. […]  If you can see anything that I could improve please let me know.

If nothing else, the experience of attending lectures has offered witness to the extent to which some academics suffer the same anxieties as me about the relevance, interest or style of delivery of material.

Student engagement

Attending lectures has increased my visibility among students.  Most are unquestioning that I should be attending lectures.

Lovely architecture student demonstrates sketching in Dublin

I got paid to go abroad and watch students sketch. Lovely.

My first attendances at lectures signalled enough of an interest in architecture that I was invited to accompany the first year undergraduates on their week-long study visit to Dublin in March 2011.  This was an excellent opportunity to further engage with students, to discover a little better how they were taught, how they learned and what motivated their architectural interest.


Stourhead Gardens, which I viewed differently following a lecture on their construction

I visited Stourhead Gardens with a friend following a lecture on the Gardens. My poor friend was subjected to all sorts of facts.

Personal development

And, finally, I attend architecture lectures because I enjoy it.  I’m learning about buildings and I’m visiting places, such as Stourhead Gardens and Wells Cathedral, with fresh eyes.

The future

Next year the structure of the undergraduate curriculum is changing and I’m unsure whether I’ll be able to so easily slot lectures into my working week. But I’m very keen to do so. Do you think I should? Or am I deluding myself that attending architecture lectures is a valid part of my role?

At least one person I know agrees with my assessment of my experience… This blog post is adapted from a short presentation given at the 2013 ARCLIB conference in the University of York. Subsequent to this presentation one colleague felt encouraged to investigate attending lectures in their own institution, “with a view to improving the Library’s support for new undergraduates”. I hope they find it as rewarding as I have.

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

Librarian, heal thyself

Lovely architecture student demonstrates sketching in Dublin

I got paid to go abroad and watch students sketch. Lovely.

In March, I was fortunate to accompany the first year architecture students on their week-long architectural study visit to Dublin.  I spent the majority of my time watching the students sketch buildings.  I quickly realised that the act of sketching, the doing, was how these students were learning. And I began to wonder whether this explained why they rarely retained the information seeking skills I tried to instill in them.

Now, librarian chums, do not fear! I’ve always insisted students do the old information seeking and evaluation bit. I even tie it to an assessed critical bibliography, which precedes their first essay submission. But, I was thinking, was this enough doing? And the right sort of doing?

I resolved to review my first year workshops for the 2011/2012 academic year.

My doodles

My doodles. Mostly of food.

So, with the 2011/2012 academic year almost upon us, when I’ve a spare moment, I’ve stared at the wall and awaited inspiration. I’ve doodled. I’ve re-read my last year’s workshop material. I’ve played with a new architecture database and its fun visual representation of results.

Yes, wall-gazing is how I, a librarian, usually approach finding new ideas for my teaching. I, a librarian, who expends obscene amounts of energy telling other people to research their topics using bibliographic databases. I, a librarian, who looks ruefully at people when they tell me there’s no quality information for their essay, or pictures for their design project. I, a librarian, when I need to find information, don’t do research and I don’t do databases…

Oh, and I usually return my books late and get library fines…

Anyway, a fortnight ago, two things happened that reminded me there could be some professional literature out there that could help me with the whole right sort of doing thing…

First of all, I attended a Social Media for Researchers workshop with Dr Alice Bell, wherein we were encouraged to set up a blog, register for ResearchBlogging.com and blog about a peer-reviewed article.

Secondly, a colleague from the wonderful Architecture Librarians’ Group recommended an article on the information seeking behaviours of architects. From a peer-reviewed journal, no less. What fortune!

So, armed with one peer-reviewed article that I’m currently trying to digest and potentially blog about, I’ve also tracked down other relevant articles using LISTA, the Library, Information Science and Technology Abstracts database.  And I’ve found information from Dr Andrew Roberts and Professor Andrew Baldwin on the Centre for Education in the Built Environment‘s website, about problem-based learning in architecture and civil engineering students’ information searching behaviour.

Do I have my new workshop materials? Not yet. But do I feel a little reassured that my approach to teaching preparation won’t be as erratic as usual? Yes.

So, is this librarian healed?

Um, probably not…