You Want Me to Teach What?: Responding to Troublesome Instruction Requests

By Jane Hammons, Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian

It has likely already happened to you at least once, perhaps more than once. You receive an instruction request from a faculty member, along with information on the topics or resources that they would like you to cover. As you review the information provided, your reaction ranges from concern to outright incredulity: They can’t really want me to teach them that!

For me, it was the Dewey Decimal System. A faculty member who was teaching a required introductory course in his major was having his students complete a worksheet on available library resources. As part of the instruction, he wanted me to teach them about Dewey. Of course, the library where I was working at the time did not use Dewey. But even if we had, I would not have wanted to spend a significant amount of class time on the topic. While classification systems can be appropriate for instruction sessions in some cases, I knew that the chances that any of the students would be using books for the course was low. The students did not have a research assignment at that time, and it was a field that was heavily oriented toward journals, not books. I connected with the professor and explained that teaching Dewey would not work, gave my reasons, and made other recommendations for content that I thought would be more helpful to the students at that specific time in that particular program.

Has this ever happened to you? Maybe you are asked to show students certain databases, when you think that others are more appropriate for the course or subject area. Perhaps you are asked to cover content that you think is inappropriate for students at the specific level. Maybe you know from past experience that the instruction session, as envisioned by the faculty member, does not engage the students in any meaningful way.

What do you do in this situation? We all want to form good relationships with disciplinary faculty, and for many of us, the first instinct is to accept any request and try to do what the faculty member requests. But this does not mean that you have to accept all requests, or to teach topics that you know are, for whatever reason, not appropriate. As Meulemans and Carr (2013) have argued, “in order to be an effective teacher, the instruction librarian cannot take such a service‐centered orientation.”

When you do get an inappropriate or misguided request, don’t be afraid to push back. Use your professional experience and expertise to support your argument. Keep in mind that faculty often have only a “vague idea” of how librarians can help their students, and in many cases, “their understanding of the teacher‐librarian’s role is far different than ours.” (Meulemans & Carr, 2013). Although it can be uncomfortable, educating faculty on how the library, and librarians, can best support their students is better for all involved in the long run.

 

Here are a few recommendations for how you can communicate with faculty about inappropriate requests. First, explain what you think is problematic about the request. If you really want to be polite about it, you can put it in the form of a request for clarification on your part. A few examples:

Professor X,
Thank you for contacting me about a possible instruction section for your ABCD 1000 course. Before I can schedule your session, I was hoping to clarify your goals. You mentioned that you wanted me to focus on the Dewey Decimal System. At OSUL, we do not use the Dewey System, but if you would like the students to know about library classification systems, I could spend a small amount of time briefly reviewing the Library of Congress Classification system. However…

Professor Z,
Thank you for contacting me about a possible instruction section for your ABCD 1000 course. Before I can prepare, I had a few questions. You indicated that you wanted me to show students how to use Tool A. In my past experience, I have found that students at this level struggle to use that tool effectively. It was designed for advanced researchers and has a steep learning curve…

 

Second, offer alternatives for content that you think is more appropriate. Explain why you think your proposed content will work better and will support the students in achieving the overall goals of the assignment or course.

However, based on the assignment you have described, I think that class time could be better spent by focusing on the following content…This will likely be more helpful for the students, since it will give them a chance to practice skills that will be directly applicable for the assignment they are completing.

In place of tool A, I think it more appropriate to show them tool B. The overall focus of the two tools is similar, but in my experience, students at this level often find tool B to be more accessible. If your goal is for them to learn how to locate a few data sources for their assignment, I think that tool B will be effective and more manageable for the students.

 

In many cases, this initial communication will likely be all that is needed. Most faculty members will be reasonable. The “Dewey” faculty member accepted my explanation, and alternative content, without hesitation. In my experience, in fact, faculty are often grateful for the recommendations. They make their requests based on their own knowledge of what the library can and does provide, and may be unaware of the range of options that are actually available. There have been several times in the past where I have recommended giving the students instruction on how to use Zotero, and after class found the faculty member was even more excited to learn about the tool than the students.

If the faculty member does continue to insist, don’t be afraid to just say no. We don’t like to turn down instruction requests, but if it is something that you really don’t think is appropriate to teach, or simply can’t teach for whatever reason, there is justification for refusing the request.

Negotiating the content of an instruction session can be tricky. But you shouldn’t let your desire to be helpful override your knowledge of appropriate content for a session. A poorly conceived instruction session will not help anyone. It may get you more time with students, but at what cost? You will have to struggle through a session that you know is not in the best interest of the students. The students will likely think it is a waste of time, and as a result will be more reluctant to engage if they are required to attend additional sessions in the future. And, the faculty member will leave with the same misconceptions about the library that they had coming in. As Meulemans and Carr note, “When a problematic request is fulfilled, it only ensures that librarians will receive more requests like it.”

 

Reference

Yvonne Nalani Meulemans, Allison Carr, (2013) “Not at your service: building genuine faculty‐librarian partnerships”, Reference Services Review, Vol. 41 Issue: 1, pp.80-90, https://doi.org/10.1108/00907321311300893

 

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