Railroaded by the librarian — teaching in collaboration (or not)

Teaching in collaboration is a wonderful tool, but it is often challenging!  I have had the pleasure in my sports history class to invite experts to come in and speak to my class: Dr. Stephanie Molholt guest lectured on the native American origins of lacrosse and John Gartrell, MA, lectured on sports in the Jim Crow era.  They both brought expertise with them that enhanced the class lectures and provided greater experience than I could.  In each instance, I asked them to place some emphasis on sources for their material because the students are going to be doing their own research projects in the upcoming months.  Otherwise, I placed few restrictions on them, not wanting to interfere with their natural teaching and lecture styles.  Any exercises they introduced were of their own design and device.

This differs from my approach with the librarian, when we went to a fairly routine library-provided “course” on using the library facilities for research.  When I scheduled the meeting,  I was told I could introduce an exercise into the proceedings–since this would be taking up a class period, this was something I was particularly interested in doing to preserve the course topics.

What I am going to do, from here, is describe how my day went and then talk about ideas in classroom collaboration a bit further, including my own growing pains, the advantages and disadvantages.

Leading up to the class, I had some difficulty in getting in contact with my assigned librarian.  When I chatted with him two days before the class was scheduled, he was leaving campus and we talked as he walked to the car.  He had made no other attempt to contact me before that point, but that afternoon said we could talk before the class on Thursday.  (In retrospect, respecting his need to get to an appointment I probably should have requested his e-mail and sent him exactly what I hoped to achieve, but I did not so we left it until the day-of.)  On Thursday, he was working on another project and it was a little difficult to get a word in edgewise when we finally met and actually spent a fairly limited amount of time in our collaborative preparation.

What I wanted to do that day was cover the library resources, databases and smart online searches to compile first the basic facts about Jesse Owens and his participation in the 1936 Olympics–which was the topic for the day, but focusing on Owens, in particular, would be more useful for their own projects.  The second half would be to use primary sources available online to make some interpretations and take it a step beyond just establishing facts.  The final product was to create a Jesse Owens profile at MyFakeWall.com.  In other words, I wanted the students to have an exercise that would allow them to actually practice using the resources.  None of this happened.  The students did not get on to the computers at all.  They did not do anything!  My librarian took over.

After opening introductions, my librarian opened up by challenging the students to clarify their understanding of the upcoming project to the extent that they understood it up to this point (I have not handed out the official assignment, yet, but we have talked about it–some of them may have even read the syllabus), and after fielding some answers explained that this was a multi-disciplinary project (which is largely true).  Then he launched into a discourse on themes he found particularly important from the general subject of the course.  I did not mind at first, because he had some legitimate points to make, but he carried on the subject for almost the first half of the class.  Also, I think he was a bit off-putting when he singled out students by race and asked them how they thought they might have been treated in Alabama a few decades ago (where he had previously worked).

Finally, we started to move in the direction of library sciences, but quickly were bogged down in plagiarism.  This is a very important subject and he made some very useful points but a half hour’s worth quickly becomes more proselytizing and less instruction.  We did, however, cover some useful points regarding sources, both primary and secondary, and how perspectives of an event change over time, even from direct witnesses.  Using the projector, he also covered some useful tools and rules of thumb in quality versus quantity internet searches.  For example, he explained how to use and Advanced Search on Google and direct it towards .edu sites for more reliable content, but also explained that the responses are based not on quality of the site, or even on closest match, rather simply on popularity of the site, i.e. number of hits.

With a short time left in class, we finally actually looked at what the CCBC library databases afford, including the newspaper database and educational sites run by Gale and Ebseco to which the school subscribes.  What we did not cover particularly well were the book sources available in the library–most of which are merely reference books, but many of which provide quick reference material of facts, such as DOB, individual’s educational institutions, careers, etc., plus provided stimulus for students trying to find a topic for their final project.  (I went back after the class and took pictures with my Android of the library entrance with directions to the relevant shelves and then photos of the actual books and series so they could see the various resources that were immediately available.)

I was trying to squeeze in information about the other area libraries that they could use and would have access to when I was abruptly informed by my librarian that we were done.  (Me: (mid-sentence)– Librarian: “We’re done.”  Me: “Yes, we’re at the end–” Librarian: “No.  We’re done.”  And, then he pretty much turned and walked out of the classroom.)  I managed to get in that the students had access to anything available in our neighboring institution, UMBC–a five minute drive from our campus.  But, was cut off while explaining that the best Maryland resources are in Baltimore’s public library, the Enoch Pratt, and that Johns Hopkins University’s collection is open to the public, even as he interjected with affirmations regarding this information–all information of which I had learned from him before class.

In the end, the class got the Jesse Owens assignment as homework and a bunch of handouts.  I sent some follow-up e-mails, but they are going to be hard-pressed to complete the assignment, although the attempt should expose them to some useful resources.  Still, it would have been much more fruitful if we had worked together.

When I worked for the Close Up Foundation, most of our teaching was done collaboratively, both with our colleagues and our students–it was a huge driving force behind our methodology.  Collaborative learning is a particular approach that is very active.  It implies active learning, lots of doing, lots of thinking about how you are learning as you go.  Collaborative teaching combines the knowledge and experience of different people with widely varying backgrounds in both education and profession.  It implies preparation and planning towards a commonly understood goal.  Neither or these forms of educational collaboration were achieved that day in the Y building on CCBC’s Catonsville campus.

In general, I am wildly excited about collaboration in the teaching arts.  Whether this is simply teaming up and using each other for brainstorming and exchanging ideas or in more involved co-teaching assignments, especially introducing multi-disciplinarian approaches to history or humanities, I think opportunities exist to transform instruction into an interactive and successful experience for students, that explodes with innovation.  Now, this is obviously idealistic as people actually often have control or ego issues (problems I have encountered in other people and which other people encountered in me–especially in my initial attempts at this sort of thing), or other clashes along ideological or pedagogical lines and, of course, personalities.  Still, if both parties are committed to the students and willing to compromise than most differences and clashes can be overcome.

The longer I worked in the heavily collaborative climate at Close Up, the more I realized I had to adapt.  I was annoying, headstrong, resistant to some forms of help or input, bossy and struggled at the basic courtesy that accompanied collaboration.  (For example, I had to train myself to write ideas or questions that popped into my head down on a piece of paper in front of me and wait to see if they were really all that germane to the conversation before blurting it out.  This also helped me focus on listening more instead of waiting to speak.)  Part of my faults were rooted both in my genuine passion and excitement for the subject matter and for the pedagogy, but the other half was equal parts arrogance/ego and insecurity–neither of which really have any place in collaborative work.

I also think collaborative work is an important part of teaching and modeling for students–they are going to have to do it at some point in their lives and they need to learn to balance both what they can contribute with what they can get out of each other.  As educators, we so often hear the following with collaborative projects: 1) he didn’t do anything; 2) he took over everything; and 3) I didn’t understand.  Excuses are common from students, but no more consistently in group work, especially if they have to work together outside the classroom.  Refining this skill is so important that many schools (especially colleges) require professors to include them in the curriculum.  But, it is hard to get students to all put the same effort into the pot–maybe its unreasonable, even unnecessary for the “same effort”, still it requires something resembling an equitable division of labor, if not input specifically.

Even teaching a sports history class getting everyone on the same page is a challenge–and, these students fully understand the concept of team, though maybe not as it applies to intellectual endeavors.  I have tried various means to create templates and systems to at the very least encourage true collaboration and not tyranny or slacking.  For example, I have tried to establish group contracts that clarify the division of labor from the outset of the project, but nothing has been as successful as I hoped.

Additionally, we as historians come from a collaborative field and as much as we want our students to learn the methodology and approach within the field, we want them to learn about the functionality of the field.  This includes everything from conferences to peer-review and symposium to colloquium.  Students should engage in that activity!  In doing so, they refine their speaking, writing, reading and researching skills.

Obviously, I should have been more proactive from the beginning when planning this class, maybe even raised the possibility earlier in the process that I was not paired up with the right person for my goals.  I should have e-mailed a week out and started the ball rolling myself instead of waiting for him.  All of which is very clear and easy to identify, now, but that doesn’t help my students.  We’ll talk on Tuesday about where they are on the assignment that is due Thursday.  I will provide directions if they have had little success so far on their own and hopefully the tools they have been exposed to are now more familiar and stacked helpfully in their toolboxes in preparation for the final project.

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3 Comments

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

3 responses to “Railroaded by the librarian — teaching in collaboration (or not)

  1. Pingback: Ultimately Successful: a Jesse Owens Fake Wall | Brush off the dust! History now!

  2. Absoluter genialer Blog. Werde jetzt öfter die Seite besuchen Vielen Dank und Grüsse aus Hamburg

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