Written by Jane Hammons, Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian with University Libraries Teaching and Learning Department


What can librarians and instructors learn from Shakespeare and other playwrights or composers that we can use to get, and keep, students’ attention in the classroom?

In Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It, James M. Lang explores the topic of distraction and makes recommendations for strategies we can use to cultivate students’ attention. While his book was not intended specifically for librarians, many of the strategies are ones that librarians could use to help capture students’ interest. As Lang notes, “Teaching fails when we can no longer focus our students’ attention” (pg. 5). And so, thinking about, and strategically incorporating, practices to garner students’ attention should be one of our key focus areas when planning an instruction session, workshop, or course.

Before diving into the strategies, Lang takes some time to explore the broader issue of attention and distraction. He describes a narrative that is likely familiar to many of us, which is the idea that at one point in time, we all were able to focus. But now, thanks to all of our devices, we have lost that ability. Lang, however, challenges this notion, stating that “we have been sidetracked” by “assertive voices who lay the entire blame for our distractible natures at the feet of our laptops and phones” (p. xiii). Instead, Lang argues that we have always been distracted, providing examples of complaints about the inability to concentrate that are found throughout history, well before the first smartphone. Distraction, Lang argues, is natural to humans. And so, rather than focusing on strategies for avoiding distraction, such as banning technology in the classroom, Lang proposes that we instead focus on strategies that we can use to get attention. Lang insists that it is possible for us to get and keep students’ attention but that this must be something that we cultivate deliberately.

And this is where the reference to Shakespeare and other playwrights and composers come in, for these are folks who are regularly able to get, and keep, people’s attention for long periods of time. Based on these examples, and other research into learning, Lang provides several strategies that instructors can use to help keep students focused. A few examples include:


  • Create a sense of community in the classroom. As Lang notes, we are social beings, and “we are built to pay attention to other human beings…” (pg. 98). Having students interact with other students in groups or pairs can help them to stay on task.
  • Use students’ names. As we know from those times when we hear our name shouted out in a crowd, “our names have tremendous power to capture our attention” (pg. 107). While this can be challenging for librarians teaching one-shot sessions, there are things that you can do, such as temporary or erasable name tents, that can allow you to use students’ names even during a one-shot setting.
  • Move students, and yourself, around. While this is not always possible due to room configurations, having students move around, or making sure that you move to different places in the classroom, can help to refocus attention. When possible, Lang recommends that you “make your movements around the room deliberate” by standing near different groups of students. He encourages you to “join them in their space” rather than remaining behind the invisible plane that often separates teachers from the students (p. 119).
  • Make students curious. Rather than starting with an overview of learning objectives, start with a question or activity intended to get students interested in the content of the session. For example, show an image and have them consider how that might be related to the overall theme of the class session.
  • Make it modular. Think of an instruction session of consisting of several different short modules, and have each module be a different kind of event or activity. For example, a short lecture followed by a group activity followed by a demonstration followed by an individual writing activity. When possible, try to follow a passive activity, such as a lecture, with a something more active, so that students are switching between modes. As Lang notes, attention degrades over time, so each time you switch between modules it is a chance to recapture attention.
  • Think like a composer or playwright and provide transitions and signposts. Similar to the point above, plays are broken into different acts, with each new act being another chance to regain the audience’s attention. In addition, the audience usually is given a program that provides them with clues to what is coming up and allows them to reorient themselves if they get lost. Providing a similar structure can also help get students’ attention.


As you review this list, you may be thinking that you already do many of these things, just as general best practices related to teaching. In this context, the key is thinking about these strategies as tactics for getting and keeping students’ attention, and making sure you are being deliberate about how you employ them in the pursuit of attention.



Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. Basic Books.


I’m Using EBSCO

Post written by Danny Dotson, Associate Professor, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist, and head of the Orton Memorial Library of Geology & the Gardner Family Map Room at The Ohio State University


So have you ever had a student tell you that they’re using EBSCO or ProQuest – or some other “database” for their searching? If you’re a librarian, you’ll know this isn’t useful info. But I’m going to help demonstrate just HOW unusual it is.

For those that may not know why at all, a background.  EBSCO and ProQuest are database vendors. They sell many different databases. Many many databases.  And while their branded platform may make most, if not all, of their databases look the similar (if not the same in some cases), what these databases search for and their search features can vary.

Imagine if you asked someone what they were eating. And they replied “Nabisco!”  That’s not very informative. Are they eating Chips Ahoy!? Ritz crackers? Easy Cheese?

Using what Ohio State has to offer, here are the possibilities for when people name a vendor rather than the actual database:

Now let’s look closer at EBSCO’s database.  I mean, real close.  How small does the font have to be to get all of the databases to fit so that this blog can be drafted in just a 1 page Word document (1/2 inch margins)? Even using 4 columns, the Arial font has to be at 4 pt!

This just addressed two vendors. There are others with multiple databases..

So next time you have someone say they’re using EBSCO or ProQuest, let them know you had some Nabisco earlier!

Limit Yourself

Post written by Danny Dotson, Associate Professor, Mathematical Sciences Librarian & Science Education Specialist, and head of the Orton Memorial Library of Geology & the Gardner Family Map Room at The Ohio State University


One of my favorite things to do when visiting a course is to talk about the value of the limit options in library search tools. I go into this knowing that some will likely not make use of some of these and go through the habit learned from years of using Google of doing a more manual sift through of content. I’ve even had a student in my own credit course say they preferred the manual sift after being introduced to these advanced features. Until they were made to use them and then indicated they realize how much work they made for themselves by not using these options.

I try to demonstrate the value by showing how much less you have to look at. For example:

Why limits?

Maybe you don’t read another language….

Maybe you don’t want to get up from your computer…

Maybe you only want to focus on recent content…

Or maybe you want all of these….

Of course, in any case, there may still be items not relevant. Relevant items may be removed because they don’t fit the imposed extra criteria. But it means less (sometimes far less) items to examine for relevance.


So make your life easier – limit yourself.


Connecting Instructors with Resources: Introducing the University Libraries’ Instructor Resources Site

Written by Jane Hammons (Teaching and Learning Engagement Librarian), Hanna Primeau (Instructional Designer), Amanda Larson (Affordable Learning Instructional Consultant), and Allison Schultz (Library Liaison for the Office of Technology and Digital Innovation) at The Ohio State University.


One of the challenges for librarians can be making sure that instructors are aware of all of the resources available through the library. Instructors, meanwhile, may find themselves searching for instructional materials to help students engage with the library and develop research skills, but not know where to go to find them. To overcome this problem, a team from The Ohio State University Libraries Teaching & Learning department has been working to develop a one-stop site where instructors can find guidance for incorporating library resources into their courses, learning more about affordable and open educational materials, and teaching information literacy and research.

Site Development

The creation of the site was a multi-year process that began with a desire to inventory the existing digital learning objects that had been created by Ohio State librarians and staff. The road from this beginning to the site launch did not always run smoothly. The COVID19 pandemic saw three members of the development team given new responsibilities to support the rapid transition to virtual instruction, taking time away from the project. An initial WordPress version of the site was developed and launched in 2020, but then came a new opportunity to transition to site to a location on the library website. While this shift brought new work, the opportunity to have a more visible and easily accessible location for the site was worth the challenge.

Site Overview

One of the major goals for the site was to connect instructors with “ready to share” resources that can be quickly integrated into a course. Resources include videos, recommended readings, and sample activities.

The newly launched Instructor Resources at University Libraries site provides information and resources on a range of different topics, including:

  • Integrating library materials
    • The materials on this part of the site are intended to help students gain familiarity with The Ohio State University Libraries system, with “ready to share” resources that will teach students how to utilize the library catalog, navigate databases, discover eBook collections and more.
  • Locating and teaching with affordable materials
    • This part of the site provides instructors with an overview of the affordability spectrum and gives guidance for locating, evaluating, and teaching with affordable resources.
  • Teaching research and information literacy
    • This part of the site includes resources and activities that instructors can use to help students select appropriate search tools, develop research questions, evaluate information sources and use information ethically.

In addition, instructors can request several pre-made Canvas modules on topics such as synthesizing sources, citation tracing, citing sources, annotated bibliographies and literature reviews. Modules can be downloaded into a course and edited by the instructor to meet course needs.

Resources are available to anyone teaching at The Ohio State University and are intended to be ready to share with students with minimal or no modification needed. Many of the resources are also available to librarians and instructors outside of Ohio State.

Next Steps

While the creation of the site was a long journey, our hope is that it will be a place where instructors and librarians can quickly locate library-curated materials to support student learning. We also recognize that the “launching” of the site does not mean the end of our work. For our next steps, we are developing a plan for the ongoing development, maintenance, and assessment of the site. This involves creating guidelines for how new material will be added to the site, including material created by Libraries’ faculty and staff outside of the development team.

Use These 5 Ideas from the Dance Classroom To Liven Up Your Next Instruction Session

Written by Mara Frazier, Curator of Dance at the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at The Ohio State University.


Take a moment to close your eyes and take a deep breath, filling up your belly. Let it out through your mouth. Teaching is hard. Teaching library instruction in a one-shot, during a global pandemic, is especially challenging.

Challenges in library teaching are many and include:

  • tricky instructor requests
  • library anxiety
  • limitations to the 50-minute 1-shot

Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has destabilized us. Due to Covid we must learn new tech tools and teach online and hybrid instruction. Covid has put an added emotional and cognitive load on students. All of this can make it hard to convey the information that we need to get across in a one-shot.

In 20+ years of teaching dance, I found that sustainable, transformative teaching always accounts for the mind and body. As crazy as it may seem to apply dance instruction ideas in the library, I believe that it is quite sensible.

The key is the common ground of the body.

What I am about to say is both obvious and profound: We all have a body.

It is with/through/in a body that we sense, process, and navigate the environment.

This is obvious and yet we often forget its import. We might focus more on the information we need to get across in a teaching session than on the ways our students will experience it in. By changing our orientation towards learning to account for the way mind and body work together, we can improve student engagement in our classrooms.

Here, I’ve gathered a few examples of how this plays out in the dance classroom and paired the examples with thoughts about how to implement this­–in fact, how I do implement this–in library instruction.

I hope in this list of 7 things, you find something you might want to try in your next one-shot to increase the engagement of your students.

1. More listening, less talking.

Chances are, you are talking too much in your teaching. (I know I do.)

As a novice dance teacher, I used to take a lot of time to explain the correct ways to do and think about a given movement. I would talk about a movement’s history, other names, and a thousand technical pointers about how to perform a given movement correctly. Meanwhile, students were standing, waiting, with their eyes glazing over. Over the years, I learned that almost anything else worked better. I learned to structure chances to practice early and often into the class. By doing, students could observe and respond to themselves and others.

The next time you are planning library instruction, build in time for listening and doing. Think about where and when to talk less. Where can you pause and offer students the opportunity to talk or experience?

For example, when a student asks a question, instead of answering it, open the question to the class. Try, “Great question. Does anyone have an answer they can contribute?” Or, when teaching a specific search strategy, try starting with an experience before explaining anything about it. Let the students have an experience, respond to it, and go from there.

2. Be Present

Many of us have been taught to prepare, prepare, prepare. But have you ever spent hours developing a beautiful slide deck and handouts only to have to skip the last 40% of the slides and rush through the handout in the class session? Have you ever spent so much time prepping that you have developed an overwhelming assemblage of information that is too much to share, and then become too stressed to connect with students and swore never to teach again?

I have. I’ve done the equivalent in the dance classroom too. This means rushing into and through dance movements in front of students, while forgetting to relate to them as actual humans. This results in stressed students and a stressed instructor. People who are stressed don’t learn well.

I’ve learned to replace some of my prep time with mindfulness meditation or deep breathing. Instead of a detailed document outlining my class plan, sometimes I will do a simple flow chart showing the concepts and activities I intend to engage in. Therefore, I show up more present and responsive.

Figure 1. A simple flow-chart style lesson plan for a dance class. Try something like this instead of a detailed document to free up your time and attention to be present with students.

It is more powerful to be mindfully present than to cover a large batch of information. Next time you’re prepping a lesson, take a step back.  Instead of detailing activities and resources down to the word, try simply sketching your class’s flow in a simple flowchart. Then use your remaining planning time to breathe and visualize your class. How do you want students to feel during and after the lesson? How do you want to feel? This is inspired by activist Adrienne Maree Brown’s idea of “more presence, less prep”–a principle of her theory and practice, Emergent Strategy.

3. Embrace Practice

Practice is everything in dance. In dance, a student may at first be unable to accomplish even the most basic step correctly. Take the plie, a bend of both knees with a straight back. Nearly every ballet class begins with a plie. It is only through years of repeated, intentional practice that dance students achieve mastery of this simple step. In the process of repeating it over years, students grow profoundly.

Furthermore, even expert ballet dancers continue to start their daily practice with plies. As an individual returns to this basic movement over the course of a career, they gain new insight into the same movement information.

What if we approached our library teaching sessions with a practice mindset?

We know that students will not achieve mastery in a 50-minute one-off. Therefore, it makes sense to think of the student’s lifelong relationship to information. Even though we may only have one instruction session with them, they will need to access information over and over throughout the course of their lives. What foundational concepts can you give students a chance to practice in your next teaching session, even if they have practiced it before? Can you allow the possibility that students will struggle with their practice, knowing that they may achieve mastery down the road through the struggle?

4. Invite students to explicitly pay attention to their physical sensations

Dance classes often start and end with ritualized opportunities to become aware of sensations. This may include instruction to take a deep breath, to be still, or to sense one’s physical weight supports in a seated or standing position.

Applying a strategy like this doesn’t have to be anything complicated for the library classroom. It can be as simple as an invitation to observe something they see in the room, to observe the temperature, the feel of air on their skin, feel their seat underneath themselves, or take a deep breath. This can be particularly useful when trying to approach an activity or topic that you anticipate can bring up anxiety, like engaging with technology or using complex search strategies. You can offer this as simply as how this article began, by saying “Take a deep breath.”

Explicitly acknowledging the body can feel like an impossible barrier to breach as an instructor. However, in my experience, students love to be given a low-stakes opportunity to become aware of their sensations, breath, or physical location.

5. Try a “brain dance”.

Brain dance comes from creative dance instructor Anne Green Gilbert, who founded the creative dance center in Seattle. Brain dance moves reduce tension, helping students coordinate their breath, body, and focus of their eyes, becoming more ready to learn. When I see students showing tension in their muscles or becoming restless, I offer a brain dance exercise as a quick reset.

A simple, non-threatening, brain dance-inspired exercise to invite students to do during library instruction is to a cross-lateral movement. This is any movement that brings a body part across the body’s center line to the other side. For example (this is the one I use most often), invite students to bring their right fingertips across their body to touch the back surface of their left shoulder. While touching the shoulder, invite them to take a deep breath into the belly and let it out. If you phrase it right, explaining that this is an optional reset to help them focus better on the next phase of a lesson, you can avoid making anyone feel performance anxiety, and give an out to any who are determined not to participate in a movement activity.

Try it out

I hope this post gave you a few physical or mental strategies you’d like to try to increase student engagement in your classroom. Now I will turn it over to you:

How do you already engage students physically in their learning?

Which of these things would you like to try in your next one shot?

How would you tailor it to apply to your subject area?

Let me know in a comment.



Adrienne Marie Brown, Emergent Strategy (Chico: AK Press, 2017).

Anne Green Gilbert, Brain-Compatible Dance Education. (Champaign, Human Kinetics, 2019).

Thoughts on Making Sustainable Anti-Racism Last in the Classroom

Written by Shannon Simpson, Scholarly Instruction Librarian at Kenyon College


Around the socially distant fire pit a few weeks ago, a friend in aeronautics contemplated a hypothetical alternative career. Librarian was his conclusion. He had been thinking about all the ways libraries have come through for people in the pandemic, from wifi hotspots to streaming services, he rattled off ways libraries fill a plethora of individual needs in our communities. And, we all agreed, once again, that if libraries weren’t in existence today, the idea would be laughed out of any room. “Socialism. Communism! ANARCHY!”

He’s not the first person to share this with me. I’ve had everyone from tattoo artists to musicians (and even sometimes tattoo artist musicians) tell me that they too, have considered the field of library science. Much of their interest and appreciation comes from what they see public libraries doing. Having only interned or been a page in public libraries, I have deep admiration for their work with limited resources and time–all while dealing with endless printer and HVAC issues. 

Academic libraries have a few similarities. We too have endless HVAC and printer issues. I bet you didn’t know that the upcoming version of the 2022 OED defines “Library,” as “a building with information professionals and services in which there is inadequate printing, plumbing, or heating.” True story. We provide laptops and study rooms, and software and cameras, and databases and books, and, and, and… not unlike public libraries. But here’s the thing, most of these provisions (aside from books and journals) started with one librarian identifying a need in their community and putting a plan of action together to address that need. Then, other librarians heard about the thing and some of them did the same. (I found the rapping librarian phenomenon of the early 2000’s a particularly dark time in our field.) And what my friend doesn’t realize is that each of those cool provisions was often the sole idea of one inspired librarian. 

So what happens when the librarian with an ear to the ground and a problem solving skill-set leaves? When the librarians change so can the programs, services, types of material, etc. So. What lasts in our spaces? What is required to last? Especially when budgets are cut and the pipe that was once leaky, finally bursts all over the LJ145s and there goes wifi hotspots, new additions to the LGBTQ+ zine collection, Kanopy, the overnight gaming event, etc. etc.

Throughout much of my 12 year librarian career, (I had a few careers before this one. One in music. Another in tattooing. Okay, not tattooing. Yet.), I have been dedicated to integrating more and more DEI ideas and standards of practice, into any new programming, communication, and instructional endeavors that I touch. Using a Black feminist lens, and imbuing information literacy sessions with decolonized perspectives and sources by historically excluded voices, is now my norm. But, these are my individual choices. And, while most instructional librarians are given the same autonomy, what choices are they making? Much of my work life, as an academic teaching librarian, is based on individual choices that I make as an individual librarian in deciding what voices and perspectives to include or exclude in my practice. 

Most organizations, colleges, libraries, public and private, etc fell over themselves making statements of anti-racism, creating land acknowledgments, and publicly supporting Black Lives Matter. And, even though I have contributed to a few statements myself, now is the time to carefully examine ourselves and start making public changes to back up those statements. Who are we going to be accountable to? What will we be accountable for? What will actually last in our spaces? What do we want to last?

Here’s where I see the conversation around DEI finally shifting; rather than focus on an individual’s cultural competence, (very important but a different conversation), what if we start to examine the system itself. Where are we upholding white supremacy in the spaces and spheres in which we have control and influence? Where are we still upholding an inequitably designed system? Is it in the decision-making process? Budgeting? The way we conduct a reference interview? How we don’t acknowledge the silences in our collections? Where do we have enough power to change? And how can we turn those ideas into job and career expectations and responsibilities no matter who inhabits our spaces in the future. 

I posit all of this with my heart on my sleeve. I want a better system for all future librarians, I want a welcoming and engaging instruction experience for ALL students, and I’m not really sure that I have much faith in lasting and meaningful change. Let’s challenge each other to come up with some great ideas and prove me wrong.



Anti-Racism Organizational Development


Ohio 5 Codex Group (with Anti-Racism and Decolonizing classroom inspiration ideas)


Design Justice Network


Reflecting on Searching Strategy Development

By Kerry Dhakal, MAA, MLS, Assistant Professor, Research and Education Librarian at The Ohio State University’s Health Sciences Library

How concepts are developed and how they are organized, searched and mapped in databases is the crux of searching the literature for me and what initially drew me to health sciences librarianship. Since becoming an MLS health sciences librarian, I have spent hours upon hours in learning, conducting, evaluating, revising, disseminating and publishing search strategies in collaboration with clinical healthcare providers, faculty and students in academia. Librarians regularly think about search strategy development, especially when teaching others, but we often do not have a lot of time to teach deeply on critically reflecting on search strategies. In May, I attended a presentation by Jolene Miller, University of Toledo, about reflective practice in health sciences librarianship. It got me thinking about how I can incorporate reflective thinking about searching in one-shot sessions or courses I help teach. I wanted to see if having students reflect on their strategy development was valuable for them in learning about the systematic search process, particularly since the product of their searching in the future will lead to guidelines, policies or practices that directly affect the care of patients.

In a course that I help teach in the fall each year, N8460 Integrative Reviews, the professor provided class time to students, the professor and myself to dive deeper into these types of observations. Why does using a certain keyword or subject heading pull articles on this relevant concept but not others? Why do certain subject headings, particularly those concerning demographics, include specific groups and not others, when the general understanding of that concept is that it should? Why do individual research databases have the same name for a concept but a different definition? These are great questions for students to ask.

This semester the professor and I also collaborated to develop a search strategy assignment. The doctoral (PhD) students in the course developed clinical or research questions, then I taught a full class session on how to search systematically in PubMed, using keywords, subject headings, and synonym searching techniques. The students were asked to submit the search strategies they developed for their questions in PubMed and to answer three questions reflecting on the steps that they took for developing their strategy. The assignment was a great success as not only did the students make observations about their search strategies, they commented that the process of reflecting on the assignment provided them with an opportunity to have time to critically think about the process of searching. The following class session, I provided additional guidance and tips for developing their search strategies more effectively. In that same class session, several of the students asked additional critical questions about the process of searching and about how the databases find articles, particularly focusing on article recall, sensitivity and specificity aspects of searching.

Next fall semester, I would like to take a second step and ask students to complete a survey to learn what reflecting on their practice taught them, based on the findings from Miller’s study (2020) about how reflection helps one identify personal strengths and weaknesses, gaps in knowledge or skills, achieving perspective, and recognizing errors (p25).

Here are some resources about reflective practice in the health sciences:

Miller J. M. (2020). Reflective practice and health sciences librarians: engagement, benefits, and barriers. Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA, 108(1), 17–28. https://doi.org/10.5195/jmla.2020.777
Winkel, A. F., Yingling, S., Jones, A. A., & Nicholson, J. (2017). Reflection as a Learning Tool in Graduate Medical Education: A Systematic Review. Journal of graduate medical education, 9(4), 430–439. https://doi.org/10.4300/JGME-D-16-00500.1

Raterink, G. (2016). Reflective Journaling for Critical Thinking Development in Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Students. The Journal of nursing education, 55(2), 101–104. https://doi.org/10.3928/01484834-20160114-08

Zori, S. (2016). Teaching Critical Thinking Using Reflective Journaling in a Nursing Fellowship Program. Journal of continuing education in nursing, 47(7), 321–329. https://doi.org/10.3928/00220124-20160616-09

Thompson, N., Pascal, J. (2012) Developing critically reflective practice, Reflective Practice, 13:2, 311-325, DOI: 10.1080/14623943.2012.657795

Teaching in the Fall Semester

Written by Zach Walton, Reference and Instruction Librarian at The Ohio State University’s Lima Campus Library

Now that we are firmly in the Fall semester, I thought now would be as good a time as any to reflect on some of the changes we’ve likely made in how we teach at present. It’s likely that some of us are teaching in more of a hybrid format, while others favor more virtual or in-person instruction. In a recent OSUL Teaching & Learning Workshop, a major theme of the session was determining and planning how librarians will be teaching this semester. It was generally agreed upon that OSUL librarians will likely be determining the mode of outreach, engagement, and instruction in a way that best works with campus faculty, colleagues, and students. We discussed how teaching in a virtual environment was incredibly convenient, but also discussed the benefits of face to face instruction.  

How have you been preparing for your class sessions this Fall? Have you encountered any challenges in planning, or have you developed new strategies you’ve been implementing in your instruction? How have you been engaging with your students? Have you had success negotiating with faculty on the best mode of instruction?

Living in Liminality

Written by Craig Gibson, Professor & Professional Development Coordinator and Drake Institute Faculty Fellow for Mentoring


During this pandemic-inflicted year (or more), all of us have experienced a range of experiences, emotions, interactions, hopes, and fears as we’ve thought about our work—our practice as professionals and as members of the university community. Time itself has become an uncertain and radically more subjective space, with the markers of days and weeks and signposts of events blurring, with some recognizable features but with more uncertainty and searching for stable milestones in our work and in our personal lives. Commentary on this uncertainty appears often in major media outlets, in blog posts, and in articles and books. We are living in an unmoored space, seeing each other across virtual meetings in Zoom rectangles, through phone calls, in emails, and occasionally in person, but the reality of teleworking for many of us has lessened connection and also presented opportunities for reflection on the uncertainties enveloping us.   We are living, in effect, in a “liminal space.”

I am pointing to the idea of “liminality” here to raise some important issues about our work with our students and faculty. I first learned about this notion of “liminality” while co-chairing an ACRL Task Force, the one that created the Framework for Information Literacy, the generative and often controversial document that continues to cause interest, some disagreement, and productive discussions among teaching librarians. The theory behind the Framework, Threshold Concepts theory, posits that students or novices must learn the foundational and often counterintuitive ideas in any discipline by traversing a “liminal” space with uncertain markers and guideposts, with many questions, with unsettling ideas, that may upend students’ comfortable, unquestioned, and previously naïve conceptions about the discipline. The student must live with uncertainty for an extended period, the theory goes, in order to emerge with greater understanding of that field, its ways of thinking, the way its scholars and experts talk and write, their habits and signaling and the accepted norms of professional communication within the field. Only in moving through that emotionally challenging and difficult space of liminality can the student emerge as an expert, or at least more expert-like in habits of mind, and in understanding the big ideas of the discipline that organize the mental universe of the field. The student may oscillate between more expert-like thinking and revert to earlier naïve notions while in the liminal space, and that traversing through the fog of uncertainty is necessary for the pain of learning to occur.

I well recall, during one of the rich conversations in our ACRL Task Force, that one of the early adopters of Threshold Concepts theory in our profession observed that “threshold concepts themselves are a threshold concept for our profession.” She remarked on the collective “liminal space” that teaching librarians were living through in even considering this theory and adapting it to their teaching practices. Questions abounded during those years during virtual open hearings and at ALA conferences, and at other events, about our teaching role: how can these very complex ideas possibly be taught in our one-shot instruction sessions, which are our bread-and-butter approach to instruction?  How can we possibly assess learning outcomes for these messy, complicated ideas?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on the specifics of teaching databases and style guides and the immediately useful information students need for assignments given by faculty? How can our limited opportunities for teaching possibly reach for programmatic development if we tie ourselves to a theory developed outside the library profession, that many faculty hadn’t even heard of? These questions, among many others, challenged me and others, but we grappled with them, and understood that we were in our own liminal space in effecting change at scale across the profession. We made changes in multiple versions of the Framework through listening, responding, respecting a wide range of perspective offered by colleagues, while keeping our core principles about the emerging Framework before us. It was, as we often say, a learning experience.

I reflect now on the liminal space we’ve been traveling as a profession since the idea for the Framework first emerged from our Task Force’s discussion eight years ago, and see greater understanding of shifts in our teaching role because the Framework has provoked so much discussion, debate, and reflection. Some institutions have adopted it readily and have created structured curricula, partnering with Writing Programs, based on its elements of threshold concepts, knowledge practices, and dispositions. Others have taken parts of the Framework and created assignments or specific courses based on its elements. Some have adhered to an older—and in my view, outdated– set of Information Literacy Standards created over twenty years ago, which do not address the information challenges of this time. Among these are the authority/expertise problem, the reproducibility and data fraud problem in many science and social science fields, the misinformation/trust problem in media environments, the ideology/truth claim problem occasioned by Critical Theory in some humanities, the algorithmic mysteries of search engines and social media, and a general attention problem because of the bursts of information coming at us in our professional and personal lives. Sense-making as professionals about our teaching role as librarians is more challenging than ever in these times.

However, the liminal space we continue to traverse together offers opportunities for learning together. I have learned, through conversations and discussions with colleagues here and elsewhere, that our teaching role, whether based on the Framework or not, needs to be reimagined. We will need to navigate a difficult space of teaching in more traditional ways, face-to-face, in single instruction sessions, while planning for, and reaching toward, larger and deeper partnerships that build larger communities of practice for pedagogical innovation. We need architectures for deeper learning, multiple pathways that produce integrative learning, across longer trajectories of learning, in order to effect deeper educational change. The lesson from liminality here, for our profession, is that the uncertainty created by myriad disconnected one-shot sessions that don’t build toward something larger, leaves us in instructional limbo, in a service provider role, that of the occasional lecturer or guest presenter. Such a role matters, but what can be imagined based on it matters more: that of educational partner—in designing assignments and curricula, in joining communities of practice related to teaching development such as those sponsored by the Drake Institute at Ohio State, or in joining groups sponsored by academic departments reorganizing General Education courses, or in creating new ones founded on partnerships. The educational partnership role is vital for our continued success.

Another lesson learned from the liminal space opened up by the Framework is that the technocratic perfectionism of lesson plans and learning outcomes clearly specified, based on the previous Information Literacy Standards (or any other set of Standards), do not achieve the deepest learning possible, and don’t support the wide variability among students. We have learned much about assessment in our profession in the past decade, with proliferating presentations and articles about it, but learning outcomes that eliminate the spontaneous, the charged luminous moment in the classroom, the too-carefully managed activity, often remove the possibility for learning. Our students need to learn the vagaries and uncertainties of the research process, and too often our presentations and lessons are too “packaged” to give them that reality—the challenges of living with liminality themselves in working with disciplinary ideas in concert with information literacy concepts. A good example is teaching how to formulate a research question that is “researchable”: this is the reality that scholars and researchers grapple with all the time, but their expertise allows them to move quickly to another line of investigation, a reframed question, a new population, another perspective.   Students need to be taught in depth that “Research is Inquiry” (one of the Framework’s big ideas), and to modify questions and develop better ones as they work through dead ends and uncertain lines of investigation. Only the extended experience of liminality disciplines their minds and their habits to develop better questions worthy of inquiry. That extended experience of productive liminality can only be provided by thematic connections provided by the Framework, or other uber-concepts, across time, as students grapple with those ideas together and with faculty working with them—not necessarily always as unquestioned experts, but as co-learners.

Another lesson from liminality in working on the Framework, and in reconsidering our teaching role in working with disciplinary faculty, is that faculty themselves are often the most neglected learners on campus (Rossing and Lavitt). Surely this is a counterintuitive “threshold concept” in itself! After all, faculty are highly educated, are experts in their field, have published extensively, conducted multi-year scholarly projects, have presented at conferences, and have sustained professional conversations with colleagues worldwide about the leading-edge questions in their fields. However, most faculty learn about teaching, if at all, episodically, and they are neglected learners in the sense that they often teach in solitude and may lack the time and commitment to make their expertise and knowledge more accessible to students and to a wider public.    Professional learning programs offered through Centers for Teaching and Learning on many campuses, and through the Drake Institute at Ohio State, provide opportunities and venues to create community and collective learning to make that knowledge come alive for more students, with more diverse students, and to a wider community, and enliven interdisciplinary conversations that create a more vibrant intellectual climate. How can librarians become part of those interdisciplinary conversations? We need to learn, more deeply than before, how scholarly conversations and influence work, how faculty are incentivized, and learn the language of complexity within disciplines, but also across them. Our teaching role in communities of practice, in research partnerships such as those offered by the Office of Research at Ohio State, and in many “small significant conversations” on campus (Roxa and Martensson), can coalesce to help us, with our partners, move through our collective liminal space toward a reinvigorated community—beyond this pandemic time, but more importantly, toward a revitalized time of real community where all contribute and make learning more sustained and vibrant for all who teach and learn together.

Sources for further reading

Rossing, Jonathan P., and Melissa A. Lavitt. “The Neglected Learner: A Call to Support Integrative Learning for Faculty.” Liberal Education 102, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 1–10.

Roxå, Torgny, and Katarina Mårtensson. “Significant Conversations and Significant Networks—Exploring the Backstage of the Teaching Arena.” Studies in Higher Education 34, no. 5 (2009): 547–59. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070802597200

Setting Teaching Goals for 2021

Written by Abigail Morgan, Social Sciences Librarian at Miami University


January is traditionally a time to pause, reflect, and set intentions for the next year. While 2020 and the early days of 2021 have taught me that our world can be upended in an instant and flexibility and openness to change is more important than ever, I still believe that goal-setting is an important practice. I also find that it helps bring stability and routine, even when working in less than ideal circumstances. Setting goals for learning is an inherent part of the instruction process, so it seems natural that now is the time to think about what I want to achieve in my teaching practice in the next calendar year. Here are the goals I’m setting:

Goal 1: Redesign lessons to incorporate critical pedagogy from the ground up

While I have been an enthusiastic proponent of critical pedagogy methods for several years, I have only been able to make small changes into my class sessions – such as using more diverse examples. In 2021, I’d like to move from proponent to active practitioner. This will entail overhauling several lessons I have taught many times in the past. My first priority is redesigning our mandatory first-year business student information literacy module to add more activities about authority and inclusion into the coursework, as well as more opportunities for discussion. I hope this will have a high impact since it reaches over 1,000 students. For the one-shot sessions I usually teach, I also plan on using less time in class on lecture, demonstrations, and individual activity and more time on group work and discussion. These practices will give students more voice and help them actively engage with the material.

Goal 2: Add more assessment from students

I confess I’m not the best at allotting time for student assessment of my teaching. That’s not because I think my teaching is perfect – in fact I suspect I’m my own worst critic. While I always include some sort of meaningful activity for students so they can demonstrate their learning, this is not the same as getting direct feedback. Incorporating more regular assessment of my instruction will make me see my teaching more clearly. One advantage of remote instruction is that it is easier to make assessment flow naturally into the pace of the lesson. I plan to make the most of remote instruction this spring to get more in the habit of assessing my sessions so by fall it will be easier to include in all instructional situations, online, hybrid, or face to face.

Goal 3: Preparing for in-person instruction in Fall 2021

I have been lucky enough to be able to work and teach from home throughout the pandemic.  When we resume classes for fall semester 2021, I will have been out of practice teaching in front of a class for over a year. Of course, conducting instruction via Zoom or Canvas modules is real teaching, but it requires a different approach than in-person instruction. Just as it took time to get used to the feeling of teaching through the barrier of technology, I think it will take another adjustment to adapt back into teaching face to face. My skills are rusty: my ‘teacher voice’ is unexercised and my ability to stand comfortably for 50 minutes in work appropriate shoes is non-existent! At the same time, I’m eager to teach in person again and I believe that students and faculty will share the same sense of delight returning to the classroom.

I’d love to hear from others about what they are planning to work on in 2021. What are your 2021 goals for teaching and learning?