Interview of the Month: Emma Clausen on Library Instruction

I’m so excited to share with you the advice and experiences of another instruction librarian and a really fun, cool person. Because I know Emma is an awesome teacher, I asked her to share a little bit about both her transition to becoming a new professional and her role as a library instructor.

Emma graduated from the University of Illinois’ Library and Information Science program May 2013. She currently works as a Reference & Instruction Librarian at Pierce College in Washington. In her free time, you can find Emma hiking with her canine pal, Harold, learning at her sewing machine, or wandering around thrift stores. She’s currently reading J. Robert Lennon’s Mailman.

M: So in your transition from being a student to being a new professional, what was most surprising to you?

EC: To tell you the truth, I kind of puzzled over this. It’s hard to remember what you didn’t know… now that you’re having the experience. It was surprising to see how my day-to-day ended up. How reference and instruction duties were split and how my involvement with projects and committees has evolved over the last five months. And then sometimes at the end of the day, a whole day has passed and I maybe didn’t get done what I needed to get done. I’m sure you have that experience, too, where the day gets away from you.

M: Mm-hm. Yes, definitely.

EC: That wasn’t very poignant. [Laughs]

M: No, no! I understand what you mean. I don’t know—maybe it’s like a reference and instruction librarian thing to have a really weird, fluid schedule where you don’t even know what you’re going to be doing that day. I don’t know. That’s been my experience.

EC: Yeah, yeah totally.

M: In your job duties, what do you enjoy most and what do you find most challenging?

EC: What I enjoy most is working with students one-on-one at the reference desk, or in the classroom as a group – you get a different flavor working with a group of students.  Seeing them learn from each other and knowing that I’m contributing to their success in their courses and hopefully in their future careers and lives is an incredible experience. To some extent, I think we’re unprepared for the unexpected things that happen when we’re teaching and interacting with students, but we’re also unprepared for when a student says, “You really changed the way I do research for other classes.” So it’s just really cool to marvel at touching another human life and improving it.

So I had to puzzle about this too because a lot of things challenged me in making that transition. [Laughs] What has been most challenging in my first professional position has been trying to find a way to carve out a place on my library team. What I mean by that is developing a special interest – something that I could bring back to the library that would be unique so I could feel like I am making a contribution outside my day-to-day job duties. Even though I’m beginning to feel competent in the everyday, what else could I bring that’s value added? I have really struggled with this because the library world is huge and there are so many different things that I could explore and, of course, it depends on library and institutional goals. Another librarian and I are exploring Open Education Resources, so slowly but surely I’m finding a way to shape myself as a librarian.

M: Yeah, definitely. So what would you say is most difficult about library instruction?

EC: One thing I really struggled with when I was starting was feeling confident enough to teach. I think you sent a question out to one of the list-servs about teaching in disciplines with which you have little familiarity. It has been a struggle for me too. In library school we learned a lot about what it means to be a generalist and of course we have search strategies in our back pockets, but building confidence in disciplines outside of our comfort zones takes a lot of exposure and exploration. I’m beginning to get my footing as a generalist and one of the most exciting things every day is learning with students and other faculty, but it’s kind of disorienting to go into a session where you teach veterinary technician students about finding information on zoonotic diseases. [Laughs] I work closely in conversation with the discipline faculty member to understand what the students need to learn and be able to do, and I rely heavily on my library colleagues to learn about their experience teaching in the disciplines and to plan instruction.

M: Oh yeah. Well you know because I asked the list-serv, but I really had issues with that. I was like “What do you mean I have to teach the science students??” [Laughs]

EC: Yeah, exactly. What do you think was most helpful for you with that?

M: Well what I try to do is I make a LibGuide and in the process I look at as many other LibGuides in that field as possible. Then as I’m creating it I learn a lot about how to do research in that field. And like you said, talking to the faculty members helps too. And I’m really clear with them—I’m like “I’m not an expert at this, you are! So if you see things in my guide or in what I’m saying that are wrong, please just tell me. I’m not going to be offended.” I don’t want to teach the wrong thing. Like I was terrified and I thought I was just going to teach them everything wrong. But I’ve kind of mastered that a little bit better …

EC: Right.

M: What do you wish you had learned before you started teaching and do you feel that library school prepared you well for teaching?

EC: I wish I had more experience with instruction and course-related assessment. It’s not necessarily that I felt under-prepared. While in school, I took advantage of courses, had an assistantship, attended conferences, and pursued other opportunities. It’s just that replicating the process of instruction from planning to assessment during school is challenging and you experience it differently once you’re applying theories and techniques – once you’re living it.

M: Yes, that is true.

EC: I do feel that library school prepared me to teach the extent that taking classes can. There were classes like the instruction class, the reference class, use and users of information, and others that I feel gave me a strong theoretical grounding and hands-on experience, but I also think that I was really fortunate to have an assistantship when I was in library school. That’s where I gained a lot of practical and valuable experience, applying what I was learning in the classroom. And I think that having that support from really talented and dedicated librarians at the University of Illinois set me up for success. Do you feel the same way?

M: Oh yeah, definitely. I feel like that’s really where I learned the most.

EC: Yeah, me too, me too. I regret that more students do not have that opportunity.

M: Me too. I feel really bad. Because I try to imagine if I didn’t have that experience and I feel like I would not do well at all.

EC: Right. It would make that transition harder.

M: Okay. What advice would you give other new librarians who are just starting to teach?

EC: One approach that has helped me feel more motivated and confident in my teaching has been seeking out opportunities to get involved on campus. I’ve helped score high school completion culminating presentations and I’ve observed final presentations for a criminal justice class for example. After I began to feel more connected and comfortable with students and started building relationships with them outside the library I felt like I was better able to tailor and scope my instruction. I understand more about them and what they were learning. It takes so long to learn about degree programs and courses on campus, and honestly I’m really just scratching the surface of either where I am or what my students are doing, but it’s really been an essential part of my planning process for instruction.

M: So in addition to your advice for those starting to teach, do you have any general advice for new librarians?

EC: I can’t offer very sage advice after only being in my first position for five months, but one piece of advice that I’d share with other new librarians would be to recognize that it’s normal in the beginning to equate your feelings of newness with inadequacy. This can lead to questions like, “Am I in the right career?” “Am I capable at all?” It can be really crippling if you don’t recognize and dismiss the feelings. They still come and go for me.

M: Me too!

EC: Yeah! It’s very important for me to recognize that and reach out and talk to my colleagues or mentors and ask them to share what their transition was like in their first position. I have to remember to keep things in perspective, document my success, and then reflect on how far I’ve come and what I’ve learned. One of my colleagues recommended keeping a reflective journal for the first few years. Which for me is a Word document where I write about the unexpected and challenging happenings in instruction, reference, and daily work. When my mind goes back to the place of questioning my abilities, I look back at some of the experiences I have had.

M: Yes, that is really good advice.

EC: Well thanks for inviting me to do this. It’s actually really helpful to reflect on what that transition was like because I hadn’t been very intentional about it.

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