A response to Meredith Farkas’ The ballad of the sad instruction librarian

One of my favorite fellow librarians referenced something I wrote on Twitter the other day. Please take a second and read Meredith Farkas’ The ballad of the sad instruction librarian.

Here is my response:

tl:dr students not getting the best learning experience possible is the only problem worth our attention.

I really want to say thank you to Meredith for writing her piece. It’s promoted a lot of useful lines of thought for me and I’ve read a number of really helpful discussions around it since I posted my tweet. I’ve seen a lot of good ideas on how we fix the problem of bad library instruction. When I wrote the tweets, and still today, I’m more interested in answering the question: “how can we (librarians) best respond to negative feedback.” Perhaps these work out to be similar, since fixing the problem is a damn fine response to negative feedback, but I don’t want to treat my instructor friends who were airing their library grievances like problems to be solved.

For what intentions are worth, my primary intention with my tweet was to honor the criticism given to us. If we don’t listen to the instructors complain about having their time wasted, if we don’t acknowledge that this is a problem, we deny ourselves the tools we need to make things better. Obviously, I chose words that are provocative and disrespectful to express how I feel about lazy teaching. I am frustrated and angry with bad teaching practice. I am angry and frustrated that hard working instructors go out of their way to include us in their classes and we repay them with bad instruction. If my expressions of anger and disrespect extend from bad librarianship to librarianship as a whole, that is my error and I accept it. I’m willing to risk making that kind of error if it means that I’m less likely to dismiss, belittle, or ignore useful feedback from the instructors and students that I work with.

As for the bad teaching, I want to deny it. (It wasn’t that bad!) I want to show it is an exception. (There are a lot of excellent library instructors!) I want to solve the problem. (Here’s how we can keep this from happening again!) For all of the value in these responses, I don’t want to skip over the first step of listening. Speaking only for myself, I’m tempted to skip over, excuse, or dilute the frustration of instructions who get bad work from us. Except, getting actual honest, unfiltered, direct feedback on the success or failure of library instruction is rare, difficult, and valuable. When it comes to doing better instruction work, this kind of feedback is chocolate-covered, deep-fried, and sugar-coated gold. Honestly, I only get it from instructors with whom I’ve invested enough time and emotional energy with to have earned that kind of direct talk.

“he has so little confidence in librarians’ ability to teach”

I also want to respond to the line: “he has so little confidence in librarians’ ability to teach”. I hope that my failure here is a failure of communication, not of confidence. I feel strongly confident in the teaching abilities of my colleagues. Librarians have taught me everything I know about interacting with students. (Although maybe that’s not as much as I give myself credit for.) I have seen great and humbling classroom work done by librarians. I’ve seen a programmatic approach to information literacy that integrates through an entire institution, led from the library. When I repeated “They’re not wrong” in my tweets I was attempting to accept the original criticism. I was striving to feel the wasted time of the students and to striving to feel the frustration of the instructor. “They’re not wrong” wasn’t reinforcement (or wasn’t intended to be reinforcement) of librarianship’s instructional failings. Rather it was an attempt to recognize and to accept that our work is important. When we fail, there are real costs and those real costs are payed by students, not by us. I do think that hyperbole is a useful tool in helping us remember that. “They’re not wrong” is accepting that there are people who are negatively impacted by our failings and they deserve better from us.

When we fail, there are real costs and those real costs are payed by students, not by us.

What stood out to me as the most powerful true thing in Meredith’s post is this: “If you think you’re a great instructor already and don’t need to improve, maybe you’re the problem.”

If you think you’re a great instructor already and don’t need to improve, maybe you’re the problem.

I believe this 100%. Even if it applies to me and my attitudes, I believe it is a necessary first step to improving. Student learning, actual people gaining the ability to do new things, is what drives my instruction work. It’s what drives all of us, collectively, as teaching librarians. Because this is true, I want to push back a little here. If library instructors as a group believe that we need to improve, this means we, as a group, have to listen when the people we are trying to serve tell us that we’re doing poorly. So, when I say that bad library instruction is shit, what I mean is that the time, effort, and learning opportunities squandered by me or other librarians doing bad work are harmful and students are the ones being disrespected. When I profanely question whether our instruction practices are reflective or skilled enough, I’m trying to say something close to “If librarians think that we have library instruction figured out and we don’t need to improve, maybe librarians are the problem.”

If librarians think that we have library instruction figured out and we don’t need to improve, maybe librarians are the problem

Afterward

Structurally, it makes sense to end the blog post here. Paraphrasing Meredith’s insight w/ a slight change seemed to communicate what I wanted to say. Wanted, as in, in the past tense. I realize that I’ve gone and changed my mind as I write this. When I’m writing “maybe _______ are the problem” I’m realizing that I DON’T think that.  I don’t think librarians are the problem. I don’t think bad librarians are the problem. I don’t think green librarians are the problem. I don’t think lazy librarians are the problem. I don’t think unskilled librarians are the problem. I don’t think overconfident librarians are the problem. I don’t think under-trained librarians are the problem. I don’t even think that lack of administrative understanding or support for the needs of teaching librarians is the problem. Certainly all these things are real and they can be problematic, but students not getting the best learning experience possible is the only problem worth our attention. Applying blame or trying to avoid blame don’t get us any closer to the real solutions.

students not getting the best learning experience possible is the only problem worth our attention

 

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