Be the Bridge

Posted Monday, November 23, 2009 - 12:36
Librarians can span the gap between students and their instructors
Bridge photo

When working with students, librarians serve as bridges as well. Librarians must often interpret an assignment in order to bridge the gap between student and instructor expectations. But even with a well-designed assignment, addressing the student's expressed needs while interpreting the instructor's expectations is often a difficult balancing act. For example, when students are told they cannot use encyclopedias, does this mean only general encyclopedias or subject-specific ones as well? Making these sorts of decisions is all part of an academic or school librarian's daily routine; but it is not uncommon for public librarians to have to make similar judgments while working with students completing homework assignments.

Because librarians experience challenges like these on a firsthand basis, one of the most visible bridge-building roles a librarian can play is sharing these experiences and working with the instructor to create more effective assignments. Unfortunately, these collaborations do not always occur, and assignments involving the library fail.

A “bridge collapse” can occur for all sorts of reasons, including misinterpreting what's expected, poor design (e.g. unclear purpose), or administrative shortcomings (e.g. a required resource is not available).

The cause and the consequences of an unsuccessful assignment are typically associated with either the instructor who created the assignment, the students to whom it was assigned, or some combination thereof. For students, some of the consequences that can result from ineffective assignments include:

  • Lower grades;
  • Increased anxiety over present or future assignments;
  • Feelings of confusion, frustration, and self-doubt;
  • Diminished quality of the final product;
  • Failure to grasp the concept being conveyed;
  • Inability to master the content being conveyed;
  • Lowered ability to successfully participate in an information-rich society.

Ineffective assignments can also impact instructors in various ways:

  • Diminished reputation in the eyes of their peers and colleagues;
  • Diminished reputation in the eyes of students who may equate ineffective assignments with ineffective teaching or teachers;
  • The potential for frustration when students don't complete assignments as intended;
  • Lowered expectations due to the perceived inferiority of students' previously submitted work;
  • Student avoidance of future courses taught by professors administering such assignments;
  • The possibility that professors water down future assignments so that students "get it."

Failure's repercussions

However, it is both naïve and self-defeating for librarians to think that the consequences of a failed assignment only impact students and instructors. Many librarians often have difficulty accepting the role that their distance from the assignment may have played in these failures. Abdicating responsibility is not the proper response. When we are involved in working with students completing assignments, we must be prepared to accept some level of responsibility for the consequences—good or bad.

Librarians have similar difficulties understanding the collateral damage that failed assignments can have on the library and library staff. All too often, the focus of ineffective assignments revolves around tangible consequences such as the burden such assignments place on staff, resources, and services.

Arguably, though, the most troubling consequences are the intangible ones such as the librarian being perceived as unhelpful or even incompetent. When students have difficulty completing an assignment involving the library, even if the fault lies with the assignment, the library and/or librarian who provided assistance is often faulted by association.
In the above example involving encyclopedias, let's say the librarian suggested that it was probably all right to use a subject-specific encyclopedia. If the student were to lose points on the assignment because of the use of this source, the student is likely to be reluctant to contact that librarian in the future. Academic consequences aside, the student may also tell friends to avoid that librarian and maybe even the library itself. In turn, this may create an unintentional wall with the instructor, who may believe the librarian is incompetent for misinterpreting what was intended.

As educators prepare students for today's information-rich world, it is imperative for librarians to work more closely with instructors to develop, administer, and evaluate assignments. This need seems self-evident, with benefits for all involved; yet establishing strong collaborations between librarians and instructors isn't always as straightforward as it might seem.

Four of the more common challenges to effective collaborations are: personality, practical, perceptual, and institutional. As in any interaction, the personalities and experiences of those involved always pose challenges.

Some individuals, for example, are more resistant to change than others. As a result, such instructors will be less likely to enter into discussions about changing an assignment, particularly if they believe an ineffective assignment is in any way associated with perceived incompetence on their part and/or lack of knowledge about their discipline. Other instructors may simply not feel comfortable approaching a librarian for assistance. Others still may be completely unaware of what assistance the library has to offer.

There are any of a number of practical obstacles present in nearly every collaboration as well. Professional demands on time are common. Limitations on classroom time, for example, often make it difficult to include library instruction. Even so, professors must often choose between teaching and research/publication. Individuals whose focus is on the latter will generally place a low priority on meeting with a librarian to discuss an assignment.

Perceptual problems pose a third set of challenges.

These challenges are those associated with instructors' perceptions of librarians, or the perceptions librarians have of themselves. For example, the role of librarians in the educational process is often misunderstood or overlooked by instructors. This is exacerbated by instructors who may resist sharing or even discussing elements of their courses with those outside their discipline. Conversely, many librarians believe they have a monopoly on information or on teaching students to work with it. While this is clearly not true, it is also something some librarians are loathe to admit.

Lastly, there may be institutional impediments in place blocking effective collaboration. For example, even if an instructor wants to alter an assignment, the curriculum process may prohibit an individual from doing so. On a broader scale, an institution's governance structure may make it difficult to initiate and enact changes in programs and courses, let alone individual assignments.

Cultivating collaboration

Opening the lines of communication is a critical first step in creating a more collaborative, professional atmosphere in which instructors and librarians alike feel comfortable working together. Some of the many ways librarians can develop their approachability and otherwise become more involved with instructors and the curriculum include:

  • Getting involved with or starting a liaison program between the library and departments and/or classes requiring library use;
  • Attending nonlibrary departmental meetings;
  • Creating and participating in professional development activities for instructors about library resources and services;
  • Getting involved in curriculum development at the class or departmental level.

In the end, working with students to help them effectively navigate and utilize library and information resources to complete their assignments in the intended way is a shared responsibility. Librarians have a professional responsibility to be involved with any assignment involving the library. Admittedly, the level of involvement and degree of responsibility will certainly vary from assignment to assignment. And yet, as bridge builders, the simple reality is that when a library is involved in completing an assignment, librarians do share responsibility for an assignment's administration and its ultimate success or collapse.

Monty L. McAdoo is instructional services librarian at the Baron-Forness Library at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in Edinboro. His research interests include faculty understanding and use of information literacy and information  technology. He is also interested in the philosophy of library and information science. McAdoo earned his master’s degree in library science at the University of Pittsburgh and his doctorate of education in administration and leadership studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This article is taken from his forthcoming book Building Bridges: Connecting Faculty, Students, and the College Library (ALA Editions).