Having returned home after nearly a full week in busted/beloved Philly, I’ve had a bit of time to process ACRL 2011. Based on my three times attending, it’s as close to a model conference as one can get in terms of on-point collaborative utility. I’ve invariably come away with contacts and tech/teaching strategies that have implementation potential, and venues are always thoughtfully chosen (win/win on the Academy of Fine Arts reception). It is also clear that much care is taken with the selection of content, and it is welcome to experience frustration at the overlap of quality programming rather than underwhelm at its dearth.
I was encouraged that so much of this year’s conference was solidly instruction and assessment focused, validating my sense that academic librarians are engaging with the pedagogical missions of their institutions in a responsive and culturally conscious manner, and often in ways that challenge the traditional information literacy paradigm. Among the sessions I found most useful were Carrie Donovan, Dunstan McNutt, and Anthony Pash’s Instruction Deconstruction: Perspectives on Critical Information Literacy, Megan Sitar, Michelle Ostrow, and Cindy Fisher’s Letting Go: Giving Up Control to Improve First-year Information Literacy Programs, and Megan Oakleaf, Michelle Millet, and Rachel Fleming-May’s Evolution or Revolution? Strategies for Demonstrating the Library’s Impact in a New World of Assessment (make sure to check the conference schedule proper for their handouts, etc.: all three sessions have them at the ready).
From my podium-clutching perspective, it felt like the invited paper I gave went very well: the audience was extremely participatory, which breathes life into any content one might attempt to share with a group of people confined to chairs. My message was one of self-reflection and engagement with the teaching and learning side of one’s librarian identity, and a greater recognition of the communities of practice that comprise our institutions and our unique ability to perceive and create connections between them.
There is a live screencast available via the ACRL conference site through April 2012, or you can view my slides:
The crux: by focusing on communities of practice, engaging in situated and participatory learning, cultivating instructional literacy, and seeking a “good enough” mentality (e.g., neither striving for unattainable perfection nor being unfairly critical of our own efforts in the classroom, etc.), skill-building occurs organically and makes the process of designing learning objects and experiences more flexible and effective.
librarian as indicator species
The community of practice concept was affirmed by the conference itself: there was striking synchronicity of ideas between almost every teaching/learning session I attended. In my own case, this was particularly true of Carrie Donovan’s characterization of critical information literacy as a means of developing a shared professional identity as library educators. She described the challenge succinctly: traditional information literacy has focused more on the what of instruction than the why or how: in my book and in the ACRL preso, I have tried to emphasize that, particularly for teaching librarians who have not necessarily been trained in instructional techniques and design, the acquisition of skills can and should be an ongoing process over the course of one’s teaching experience.
In my talk I described an analogy I often use to engage students to think about the broader context of librarianship: the librarian as indicator species. That is, as a group of individuals possessing qualities representative of a thriving intellectual democracy (intellectual and social freedom, information access, intrinsic motivation) that are among the first to be threatened in times of strife and scarcity (case in point: now). It has always been clear to me that librarians share a collective sense of purpose, and that in the current climate we are considering our value and how it translates in the midst of a relentless paradigm shift. My belief is that when we discover the most authentic way to situate within our environments (rather than simply “embed”, which has always evoked images of librarian-as-projectile), we are able to demonstrate the value of our species rather than assume or describe it.
Recently inspired by one of Kenley Neufeld‘s own presentation moves, in the final minutes of the talk I asked attendees to leave me evidence of their experience of the event: that is, to write a brief synopsis, suggestion, impression, or question that would help me understand the what had transpired and its impact. I received hundreds of comments, and reading through them has been equally productive and emotionally exhausting (as any teacher or presenter knows, evaluating personal feedback of this nature, however positive, takes serious backbone). The insights I received expressed collectively faced teaching difficulties (not to mention the fact that my slide text is way too small), and unexpectedly revealed a widespread concern with relevance, efficacy, and simple library survival.
When I speak at a venue like ACRL, my goal is to express my own convictions and commitment to librarianship in a way that encourages my peers to see the depth of value in what they do and to productively assert this in their own context. While I received many comments validating this goal, one was by far the most powerful, and is something I am tempted to bedazzle and frame for inspiration in those inevitable work-is-killing-my-soul moments:
Many thanks to whomever wrote this, for a) making me feel like the work I poured into this presentation was worthwhile, and b) encouraging me to always remember that there is value in acknowledging the most challenging aspects of our experience.
The power of our community of practice is that, whether in venues like ACRL or in the day-to-day of the workplace, when we engage with one another we are able to perceive ourselves in a different (and often vastly more sustainable) light.