First Try at Team-Teaching

This past week I team-taught my first two classes and there were no major disasters.  Hurray!  But there’s nothing like standing up in front of 25 bored, sleepy 18-year-olds to bring you to a quick realization of what you need to improve.

So far this semester I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make research relevant for students.  I think this is a strength of the librarians I’ve observed in action so far, but they make it look easier than it actually is.  For the freshman classes I’ve observed, most have followed a pattern that I think is effective: get students to explain what their research project is, develop a list of topics, find keywords using Google/Wikipedia, move to Academic Search Premiere and demonstrate how to narrow down a search using the topics and keywords students have already developed.  And along the way they throw in how to evaluate a website for authority, bias, and currency (ABCs!), and talk about scholarly vs. popular articles.

I’ve seen this pattern work out differently, even for the pros: sometimes students are bleary-eyed and reticent, other times they’re excited and engaged.  I think it has a lot to do with the time of day and the existing culture of the class.  And there are all sorts of other factors that can complicate things: they might not have an assignment, they might not have had time to think through the assignment if they do have one, they might not understand the assignment, or they might just be terrified of it.

What it ultimately comes down to, I think, is communicating to students that the research process is complicated, but totally doable.  The pattern that I mentioned above starts students out where they’re comfortable (Google/Wikipedia) and moves them into the library databases.  When done correctly, the librarian makes a connection between the two and discusses how searching has to be conducted differently in a database.

In one of the classes I just did the database portion: taking a topic, discussing what the “and” search connectors mean, and narrowing it down based on student suggestions.  It was relatively successful, and I especially liked using a method where all the students stand up, and then they are narrowed down based on adding categories (“Stand up if you’re a student at UNCG…Stay standing if you’re a student at UNCG and you were born in NC…etc).  I stole that one from one of the librarians I observed and I think it’s a great way to help students understand what happens in a database search.  When it got to searching the actual database, though, I think I could have been a lot more clear about how to develop good search terms.  We only really went through one search and I didn’t explain as well as I could have how to take one term (a student suggested “post traumatic stress disorder” to narrow down the “Vietnam War” search) and think of different ways to say it (we could have looked more broadly at mental disorders or added a population).  I avoided doing too much of that because I didn’t want to confuse them, but at the same time it’s really necessary to demonstrate that research in a database is more complex than typing a phrase into Google.  It requires a delicate balance to give students a realistic picture of research without scaring them.

The second class I did almost all by myself, and it was a lot harder than just doing one part!  In that one I realized that librarian instructors have only a few moments to prove themselves to the class and gain student buy-in.  A teacher in a semester-long class has a lot more time to gain students’ trust.  In library instruction, you’ve only got one shot.  Almost immediately, you have to appear to be trustworthy, smart, and not too scary (but scary enough that they won’t spend the whole class on facebook).  I think that starting out by having a conversation with students about what their project is and why they need quality sources is one way to get off to a good start.  As I practice this more, I think I’ll get better at it–it’s definitely not as easy as the pros make it look!