I have not taught in the proper, stand-in-front-of-the-classroom-and-spend-all-weekend-grading-papers sense in a while, but there are certain aspects of teaching that I engage in every day as a librarian. Among these is the always essential ability to know when a topic is likely to produce a “workable” research question, and when it needs to be redeveloped (or tossed). It’s always difficult to help a student who refuses to believe their research subject will not yield a good paper, whether due to lack of information available (more often than not because the student waited too long to find worthwhile information), or because the topic is too broad or narrow in scope to produce a thorough discussion or analysis. Even harder is the task of helping a student whose research topic has been assigned to them by a professor that over-estimates the scope of the library’s collection. When I was teaching, I generally tried to consider the subjects that I assigned from the researcher’s point of view, asking myself if a student was likely to find a good amount of information on the subject, or if there was anything I could do to aid them in their research.
Making sure students know how to make full use of their library is a great step in the right direction, but professors also need to be aware of the resources available when assigning research projects. Ours is a small academic library with a good, multidisciplinary collection. However; it is not an all-encompassing collection and our selection of databases is limited to those areas that best support the university’s schools. Obscure topics often require sources beyond our collection, which, in turn, require time on the part of the student. Assignments requiring that students only use print sources, or sources found through the library’s databases, further limit students’ ability to find relevant, credible information. Our collection currently features more ebooks than print books, but continued resistance from professors makes it difficult for students to become familiar with the valuable information contained in this collection. Instruction can go a long way, but the ability to understand and accept changes in information retrieval can help professors support students’ research skills and develop assignments that are challenging but doable. Learning should be an active part of teaching.
I am not an expert, but I always valued professors who learned with me and helped me find the information I needed to complete my assignment. Many students are uncomfortable asking for clarification, let alone discussing their concerns regarding a topic that is hard to research. This week I have helped several students completing an assignment that they were having a hard time completing based on the items available in our collection; only one student had the tenacity to bring her professor in to the library to show him why she was having no luck finding relevant information–the assignment required that they find a book, a print book, and bring it to class. Of the 7 books available on her subject, only 4 were in print, and these were all in Reference (so she couldn’t take them to class). The professor was surprised to find all the others were ebooks, but would not accept these as a substitute for print. Sometimes, you can only get so far.