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TL v63n4: Secrets of the Borg
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Secrets of the Borg: Lessons Learned from the University Seminar

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The Borg and University Seminar

One bright and sunny morning, I drove to the library listening to a discussion of the new Star Trek film on NPR, while thinking about the class I was going to teach in the next hour. As a reference and instruction librarian at Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), I wondered if I would be able to connect to the students and help them achieve at least a small mastery of information literacy. Having taught a three hour semester long course entitled University Seminar for four years, I had come to recognize that classes often have their own vibe or collective consciousness, much like the Borg from Star Trek. A fictional space-dwelling alien race, the Borg assimilate other species and connect them to their collective “hive mind” (see http://www.startrek.com/database_article/borg). A collective consciousness can influence what works and what doesn’t in a classroom. In my four years of teaching University 1010, I learned this and other lessons from the Borg that I could transfer to 55 minute library instruction classes.

MTSU requires freshmen who have not declared a major to enroll in University Seminar. This introduction to college life can also be taken as an elective. The purpose of the course is to assist students in making a successful transition from high school to college by learning about the university, clarifying their goals, developing essential academic skills, and knowing where to find help if and when they need it. About five years ago, while a librarian in Collection Management, I thought it would be fun and helpful to teach a section of this course and work with some of our students. After an interview, I was hired to teach one section of University Seminar.

Like most faculty at a college or university, I had neither an academic background in education nor much knowledge of teaching methodology. Fortunately, there was a two day workshop for all those teaching the Seminar, with suggestions and ideas for teaching and an introduction to Desire2Learn, MTSU’s web based learning environment. Somehow, I survived a class of twenty freshmen, and we all learned from the experience, especially me. By next fall, I was again teaching University Seminar and a member of the Reference and Instruction team at Walker Library, putting into practice what I learned from my students.

After teaching only four semesters, I am definitely not an expert on teaching. I still have much more to learn, but the experience with my University Seminar classes has been great training for teaching library instruction, especially to our beginning freshmen. Walker Library offers instruction sessions for several courses that target freshmen students. The first is University Seminar, which has a library component. Almost every instructor teaching a section of this course schedules a 55 or 85 minute instruction session at the library The second is the English 1010 and 1020 writing courses, which also include either a 55 or 85 minute minute library class. My experience in teaching the semester-long University Seminar definitely helped me prepare for teaching the library instruction classes for freshmen and taught me several valuable lessons.

Lessons Learned

1. The most important thing I learned from the Borg is be prepared. No matter the presentation style or instructional technique, whether it is a demonstration of databases, a bingo game, a scavenger hunt, or student directed learning, you should know exactly what you want the students to learn in that particular class period. Your library probably has learning outcomes for the instruction program in general, but each class may be slightly different depending upon its writing assignments.

Remember, however, that students can only take in so much information in 55 minutes, so be selective and organized. Students are often more attentive at the beginning of class and at the end of a class, so use this time to emphasize what is most important. I always begin a class with how students can get library help if they need it. I end with the same information, but I have the students tell me how they would get library assistance. Being prepared also means anticipating the possibility of computer or Internet problems and knowing what you would do in those situations.

2. All classes seem to have some kind of collective consciousness like the Borg in Star Trek. Some classes are responsive and ask questions, others laugh easily at any attempt at humor, some are almost comatose or uninterested, and occasionally some are disruptive or unruly. You can’t do much about changing the Borg in 55 minutes, but you can come to class five or ten minutes early and get to know the students. Ask them about how the library can help them. What is the topic of their paper? What is their opinion about what’s in the news, or the weather? Get them talking to you, and with a little luck, they will continue to be responsive once you begin talking about library resources and searching strategies. Also, in this short time, you can probably identify one or two outgoing students that you can direct questions to without causing embarrassment. This collective consciousness can sometimes explain why an instruction technique might succeed with one class and fail miserably with another. For example, in the first three years that I taught the three hour University 1010 classes, the students really enjoyed participating in group projects in the classroom, but the class in the fourth year preferred a lecture or PowerPoint presentation. 

3. Be yourself, unless you want to be assimilated by the Borg. I wish I could be my colleague who charms students with his quirky humor, or the librarian with encyclopedic knowledge of all the databases and the intricacies of search strategy, but I’m not. So, be comfortable with yourself in front of class. Don’t worry about a search not working out just right, or misspelling a word, or a link to a full text article that doesn’t work. Let your students know that these things happen to all of us, no matter how many years of experience we have using the library, and show them how to handle the situation. And, don’t be afraid of marring your professional image by sharing something about yourself or your experiences, if it has some relevance. Even the most somnolent student will perk up in anticipation of a story or anecdote. Students love to find out something personal about their instructors or to hear a story about the library. It makes us real people and more approachable. We want our students to feel comfortable approaching us when they may need further assistance in the library.

4. Keep your attention on the collective consciousness of the class. When one or two of the Borg start to look overwhelmed or bored, act quickly before it starts to spread and you have the collective unconsciousness. If they are working on topics for papers, use those topics to poll the class. Who thinks there should be more gun control? Who has a tattoo? Should marijuana be legalized? Teach Boolean searching by having students wearing jeans and flip-flops stand up, or students with brown hair and contacts or glasses stand up, etc. If you have an EBSCO database listen to an article read with an Australian accent, or translate an article into a different language. Divide students into teams of three, and take five minutes to see who can be the first to find a full text article on college students and parking on campus. Just a few minutes to change the pace of the class will capture their attention again.

5. Recognize students as adults and treat them with respect. Let the students know at the beginning of class that this instruction session is to help them find what they need in library resources and library services. Even though they are part of the collective, try to see students as individuals whose expectations of your class range from learning everything they can about the library to catching up on sleep, or studying for their exam in the next class. If they were an attentive class who at least feigned interest, let the students know how much you enjoyed the instruction session with them.

6. College students know next to nothing about libraries. Strange terms like stacks, call number, circulation, refereed journal, and primary source are confusing and puzzling to many of our students. In our instruction classes, we need to be sure to explain terminology, and encourage the class to ask for clarification if we use an unfamiliar term. Many of our students see the library as a means to an end--a necessity for completing assignments and hopefully and eventually graduating. Becoming a scholar and mastering the literature of their field is not a first priority for many of students who are working while attending schools or have children at home. They need to know how to use the library as quickly and efficiently as possible. If these students are in a library instruction class, it is the perfect opportunity for us to provide the information and resources they will need to succeed in college.

7. Sometimes you just have a bad day in the classroom. It’s not logical, but it happens. No need to get emotional about it.  

8. Student learning is enhanced by transference, relating new knowledge to existing knowledge and experience. Using analogies to link something students know and understand to new library concepts or systems has been used in library instruction for a long time and is still very useful. Many librarians compare using a street address to using a call number to locate a book or compare searching in an article database to operating a car. Once you learn how to use one car (database), you can usually figure out how to operate other cars (databases). Another often used analogy is comparing a general database, such as General OneFile, to a department store like Walmart or Target, which has a little of everything. If you are looking for shoes and don’t find what you need at a department store, you need to go to a shoe store. If you don’t find relevant history articles in General OneFile, you need to go to a subject-specific database. It is commonly accepted that students that learn concepts or acquire new information by analogy, and that they often remember and retain this information for longer time periods.

9. Do a quick and easy assessment at the end of every class. A simple question to the class may be enough, such as, “What did you learn today that you didn’t know before?” The answers validate that the students did learn something new, and they also act as a quick review and repetition of what was covered in class, thereby helping to place that information in the student’s long term memory.

10. You never know enough. There will always be new databases, new ebooks with different methods of downloading, new technology to learn and integrate into the classroom, and new techniques to try in the classroom. Sometimes, however, just a small change can make a big difference in your instruction. For example, a colleague suggested to me that if I found the same person was always answering my questions, I should wait a little longer to give those who don’t think quite as quickly a chance to answer. We can always learn from our colleagues in the library and from teaching faculty, so take every opportunity to watch how others teach and present. If get the chance, try teaching in your university’s or college’s freshman orientation program. It is a satisfying experience to work with the same students throughout a semester and to watch them as they continue on to graduation. Some will even come to visit you at the reference desk, or give you a hug when they see you in the Student Union.

 

Ginny Vesper is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at the James E. Walker Library at Middle Tennessee State University. She can be reached at ginny.vesper@mtsu.edu.

 

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