Expecting the unexpected in the library classroom

This week I taught four classes and observed three.  Especially in the last couple of classes this week, I suddenly felt a lot more confident.  I think one of the big things that has helped me be more confident is realizing that things are going to go wrong in a class and that it will all be ok.  In fact, I think sometimes demonstrating how things go wrong in the research process can be really beneficial to students.  Doing library instruction that’s not canned is nerve-wracking.  The way I’ve been learning in this practicum is to have students suggest topics that they’re researching and then to demonstrate how to develop good keywords and construct a good search.  My biggest fear is that a student will say a topic and I’ll have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

In one of the classes I observed this week, Jenny demonstrated a really good way to deal with that.  It was an English 102 class and the assignment was for students to research a “moment of apocalyptic fear” in American history.  When we were planning for the class Jenny and I were thinking about big ones–the stock market crash, the Cuban Missile Crisis, 9/11–but one of the first students to volunteer a topic gave a really obscure name of a serial killer.  When Jenny Googled the name, it turned out that there was recently a movie released about it, so the results were all about that movie.  She had to do a few different searches in the New York Times Historical database before she got results that were right.  If that had happened when I was teaching, I might have panicked a little bit.  But Jenny was very calm, and when search results went awry she was able to effectively explain how that is part of the research process, especially if you have an obscure topic or a weird obstacle like a movie with the same name.

I think I’ve gotten a little better about dealing with unexpected search results and explaining what happened in the search.  A couple times in the past week I’ve even purposely constructed bad searches, like putting a complex “Google-esque” phrase into a database, in order to talk about what could be done better.  In the beginning I felt like I had to do everything perfectly, like students were sitting there expecting the librarian to magically construct the perfect search and–ta da!–they suddenly have all the perfect resources.  Some of them might be expecting that, but I actually think it’s valuable to demonstrate how messy research is.  It makes their expectations for themselves more realistic.

Along those same lines of expecting the unexpected, Jenny threw me a class this week that I hadn’t prepared for at all.  Fun!  And it was a class where the instructor couldn’t be there.  Even more fun!  She said that those were the two worst-case scenarios: getting a class last-minute and having no instructor there to put “The Fear” in students so that they won’t spend the whole hour on facebook.  Library instruction has so many weird variables: you’re coming into a class that already has an established culture and you don’t know what it is, you know what the assignment is but you’re not sure how the students feel about it, and the instructor has certain goals for the library session but temporarily has to relinquish power over the class and let you take the lead.  So many things are out of the librarian’s control that there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong and it’s important to be prepared–whether it’s an issue with the class itself or a tricky topic that won’t play nice with the database.