lördag 23 februari 2013

20 years in Library and Information Science - reflect and repent, part 2: teaching

Having worked for a full 20 years in academia, there has been a lot of teaching. I enjoy being in the classroom. I have never seen myself as a teacher – I still don’t – but I enjoy it. It’s a decent way to make a living. When I first entered a classroom in the role of a teacher in 1993, I had been employed at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science (SSLIS) in Borås for about three weeks, immediately after graduating at that very department. The new semester was just about to start and one of the most experienced teachers had, for reasons I have long forgot, failed to appear. I was told to replace him and at a three days notice I had to prepare a course in cataloguing and bibliography. I was given a copy of the Swedish cataloguing rules and a few articles and set off to work.  I quickly got a grasp of the rules (I had studied them thoroughly only a year earlier, as a student). What really scared me, however, was the idea of mantling the role of a teacher. Not ever have I had any urge whatsoever to lead anyone else, and a teacher is obviously a leader. I needed to get over this nervousness, so went to the bookstore and bought a copy of Karl Popper’s ”Unended quest: an intellectual autobiography” - don’t ask… For some reason it worked; when the students arrived I had prepared a series of lectures on cataloguing and bibliograhpic control. To my sincere surprise, I found that they accepted the authority I was set to uphold. Up until today I have since favoured the traditional lecture as my pedagogical vehicle. I find it simple enough; the only thing I want from the students is their full attention – as they can demand my full attention while giving my talk. If I find the group unattentative, I leave the room, as I expect my students to leave if they find me unfocused or ill prepared. We should not waste each other’s time.
In the mid 1990’s distance studies were not as common as they are today. At the SSLIS we had, interestingly enough, a group of students in Stockholm, some 400 km away. Several times each semester teachers went on the train, booked into hotels, and taught the same things as on campus. In between meetings assignmets were sent by mail – not e-mail, of course – real mail. It was, by today’s measures a clumpsy and not very efficient way of teaching, but it worked well. It’s easy to forget that such solutions actually did work, and that the new tools for distance learning has done nothing in increasing the quality of the work performed by the students – even though we have a whole learning industry feeding the denial about this. Technology is only just that  - technology – not something which increases quality in teaching or learning. What it has done, however, is impose a lot of previously unecessary work on the teachers. It has not done us much good.
In 2008, I shifted departments to my present one, at what now is Linnaeus university in Växjö. In terms of teaching I was put in a completely new situation. Leaving a large school with (topically) limited teaching assignments, I now had to teach ”everything”. Fewer students and less faculty doing the same job as at the larger department. I had to reconsider my view on how we best teach Library and Information Science. The discipline consists of a large number of disparate subfields, and it often requires both skills and patience to make the students see how it all fits together. Is it reallly necessary to cover it all? As I am a friend of deep study rather than of superficial overviews, I sometimes consider the order that was taught when a was a student myself; there were two lines of study. One that focussed on public librarianship, with literature, pedagogy, school librarianship etc. The other focussed on academic and specialized librarianship, and consisted of study in scholarly communication, advanced information seeking, bibliographic practices etc. As that was a division set to fit a vocational education of its time, it made sense. I wonder though, if perhaps it still would make sense, in some odd way. Would it be completely impossible to make indepth study into the different fields of the academic discipline, focusing on the relation to the (increasingly) various fields our students, for the most parts, are entering their educational programmes to reach?
There is no answer to this, of course, but today when we are more or less forced to simplify university courses in order to get every student to pass, it is important to question the development. Not everyone should study at university level, just as not everyone should be allowed to fly an aeroplane. A university should pride itself in offerning students qualifyed, indepth teaching and study opportunities.  Today that has become, strangely enough, more or less a utopia.  It is really sad. The bizarre trust put in technology, social media and other new ”tools” in teaching contributes – along with short-sighted funding terms and evaluation practices – to the eroding of the system. Pedagogical theory, based on these tools take us away from the essence of learning – the knowledge itself.  When I introduce a course, I tell my students that I, apart from their full attention, only expect one thing; that they read. Books and articles. In full. A lot. There is no way around it – small talk and web-based communication platforms can never replace slow and deep reading as a way of attaining new and durable knowledge. Does this seem hard? Well, take comfort in thae fact that I could never impose such demands on others if I had not imposed them on myself first. I skip the new learning platforms in my daily work as a teacher, as much as I possibly can. Instead I read. A lot. The order is really that simple – first we read, then we can talk. In the end, we might just learn something.

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