What I Would Do Differently, #2

Posted by jlubans on September 08, 2020


This is the second essay on rethinking something in my 40-year career that either failed or went well. Failure is ahead by two!
Today’s reflection is about a large-scale project. It was a group effort developed within my administrative area to provide new students with a thorough orientation to a research library. We were evangelically committed to the concept, and we had the enthusiastic support of the head of the English department. He proclaimed he was in, boots and all!
Ours was an early and ambitious effort among research libraries at teaching two thousand freshmen research skills, ones they would need– we were convinced – to be successful university students.
Our program would give each student 3 class hours of in-person instruction.
We were a platoon of public services librarians, on a righteous mission to do good.
Our planning team was high energy, creative, unafraid to take on this Herculean task.
But, in the first of the 3 classroom segments, we began to see disconcerting behaviors - tardiness, reading of newspapers, talking, etc. - among the students.
Well, the grape vine had it that the Teaching Assistants (TAs) were not on board. They’d been pretty much ordered by the department head to do it.
No doubt the students were picking up on the instructors’ unhappiness; some TAs probably were not above sabotage.
By the third and last class, the head of the English department had capitulated to the mutiny and declared the class was no longer mandatory; it was now up to each student to be there or not.
When I announced this to my section of 30 students, all but one gathered their things and rushed for the door.
The remaining one was asleep; when I roused him and explained to him the new deal, he yawned and exited wordlessly.
So, what would I have done differently?
Obviously, I’d involve a cadre of the English TAs – all graduate students – in the planning!
Also, we would include a few freshmen in the design.
And, we’d make a much greater effort to fight group think – we were apostolically like-minded in wanting students to learn how to be independent library users. Why would anyone not want that?
Our task force should have developed worst-case scenarios and what to do.
In one of our early planning meetings, one of our quietest participants spoke up; she said we might encounter resistance from the TAs.
While I well remember that small voice, at the time I paid little attention. I, as the leader, should have stopped and asked her to elaborate. Sometimes the devil’s advocate might be the quietest person on your team.
And, at the bitter end, we should have done an AAR (after actions review) to better understand the why. This AAR would include any TAs willing to explain their viewpoint.
Instead of discussing what went wrong, we licked our wounds and went on with other efforts, mostly away from large group instruction.
Some of us blamed the department head for caving to the TAs, but that was not fair.
We did offer another large-scale orientation for freshmen, a scavenger hunt. Several cases of beer probably had something to do with its success!
Subconsciously, I am sure the failed partnership with the English Department shaped future efforts for the better.
A subsequent very successful teaching program became pretty much the model for effective collaborations between teaching departments and college libraries. It was the pairing of subject librarians with instructors in various disciplines at the point when students were writing research papers for a specific class.
That’s about it.
In retrospect, all obvious lessons; the foremost is to involve clients in any project dependent on them.
Diversity trainers take note!
Be suspicious of virtue, when you think you’ve cornered the market, you’re on your way to disaster.

Copyright 2020 John Lubans

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