“Somewhere in between”

The above being the title of a book chapter that my former colleague, learning technologist Chris Rowell, invited me to contribute to his work on social media in higher education. The submission and editing process has taken some time, but the finished book is looking to come out later this year.

I was happy to contribute. Part of the project involved an interview, discussing my chapter and my own relationship with social media. both writing the chapter and discussing it for the interview helped me think how it has formed a part of my development as a librarian and as a part of the community of higher education practitioners. I chose the title (from a Kate Bush song) for how social media positions itself in the spaces between personal and professional, and even between the physical and online world. How it can help us make connections with our peers and colleagues across disciplines and HE specialisations, start a virtual discussion and response to events, build a community of practice. Social media, Twitter in particular, has certainly helped me in my professional development.

First module

I received an email this morning saying that I have, subject to confirmation of marks by exam board, passed my foundation – the first of four modules of my PGCPHE.

Good news, but also a good time for reflection.

I have learned a lot already on the course. The theory of pedagogy and andragogy was new to me, and has given me grounds to think a lot about how people teach and learn within different contexts – my students, and myself. I have also learned a great deal from self- and peer observation. More, if I am honest, than I expected. I have come to think about how I teach, and how learners interact with me and with each other. I have already made some changes to my classes, and am developing further in this area.

My peer observation, from a former colleague, was an eye-opener. It made me realise how I have been hiding behind my “librarian” identity, and not thinking – or always acting – like a teacher. Addressing classroom talkers, and how to tactfully and effectively do so. Not being afraid to use my own experiences to relate to the teaching, to let my personality emerge in my teaching (“put a bit more of you in the room”).

Feedback, too – this was more than an empty exercise when you feel you have the agency to change how you teach in response to your learners’ responses.

As a piece of study, I found it harder than I would have liked. Portfolio assessment was new to me, and I was unsure how effectively I was evidencing the learning outcomes asked for. It was an interesting process though, as I read and reflected and wrote, records playing as late winter snow fell outside.

Now I am ready to engage with the next module. Which is on assessment, something we as librarians tend to be less involved with.

Listening to the Learners

In response to a series of enquiries from nursing students, I ran a workshop on referencing. I planned the lesson to cover the essentials, address what seemed to be the main issues I’d been helping with, and show the students where they could find guidance and support. As it went on, I found myself being asked a lot of questions. Some were on what I was about to cover, some were looking for more detail about what I had already covered. Some were questions about particular instances of referencing. The group was small enough that I could stop and go into that detail for them.

One thing I picked up from the questions was a recurring issue around identifying the provenance of a report or piece of research. This isn’t a referencing issue as such, but it is related. I was able to cover this and tie it in with the lesson’s theme. But it also gave me an idea for another short workshop.

A small example, but not the worst, of the benefits of listening to the learners’ needs.

Presenting to my peers

Late last term, I was given an opportunity to present a training session to an audience I don’t usually teach – other librarians. The British and Irish Association of Law Librarians (BIALL) were running a training event on business information for law librarians. Much of the focus was on supporting law firm librarians, but one strand was aimed at those in academic libraries. I had been invited to present this after an old colleague suggested my name – I’ve been a law librarian for fifteen years off and on, and was the Business Librarians Association (BLA) training officer until recently.

I found myself more nervous than I would have thought. Although I have often presented at conferences, this would be the first time I was actively presenting an external training session to other librarians. Impostor syndrome raised its head. “What if they already know more than me? What if I’m somehow suddenly wrong about everything I thought I knew?”

I was helped by discussing the event and audience with the organiser, Rob Turner. This set expectations for what I would be delivering, and at what level to pitch my content. I could also draw on my experience organising – though not presenting – a similarly-themed training event for the BLA earlier in they year.

The event itself, at the University of Law, was a success. My part in it? A partial success. The centre-piece of the afternoon was a practical workshop with a group exercise, based on the real-world company research experience of librarians at Pinsent Mason’s, a “magic circle” law firm. I learned a lot, and enjoyed the research process as our group produced post-it note bullet points on the current situation at Glaxo SmithKline.

Sandwiching this was a talk on changes at Companies House and my session. I’ve posted before about adjusting timings on the fly. As it happened, I needed to shorten my piece on this occasion, as the workshop overran. My planned hour had already been reduced to forty-five minutes some weeks before the event, and with hindsight I wasn’t confident enough to cut any content. I think if I’d been presenting to students, or even academic staff, I would have been able to drop some of the material. As it was, I had possibly over-prepared. I had wanted to make sure that they were getting their money’s worth, so I had prepared a quite dense session covering business students and academics, a range of online resources, and “tricks of the trade” to help non-business specialists supporting that subject. I had also prepared a short demonstration of an introductory training session as I might teach it to new undergraduates.

The teaching demonstration had to go. That was clear. I had taken the opportunity to speak with the other presenters. One positive thing was that one of the trainers from Pinsent Mason’s had seen from my slides (which we had shared beforehand), and was pleased that I would be giving an overview of some of the free resources that they use.

I had realised that the audience on the day was mostly composed of law firm librarians, and was wondering how relevant my session would be. The BIALL representative said that it would still be relevant, as many people are currently considering a change of direction from practice to academia. This meant I was able to angle my talk as an introduction to the field for outsiders, but did make me aware that I couldn’t assume common knowledge of academic library practice.

The session itself went quickly from my perspective. I kept to my timings, but by moving quicker than I was comfortable with. I did have an issue at first with voice protection. It was a big teaching room – bigger than I am used to – and I was using a monitor on a lectern at the front. With hindsight, I should have used the time when we were setting up to test how audible I was at the back of the room.

My session included some interactivity. I used Sli.do for simple polls near the start of the time to engage interest early. I came back to the poll results a few minutes later to keep the momentum going. I had still set myself a lot of ground to cover, though. I would have designed the session differently had I been starting with a forty minute slot.

Following on from the workshop wasn’t bad – I was able to make my session entertaining enough, and I think the audience enjoyed a less demanding end to the afternoon after the frantic rush to simulate researching to a deadline. The same techniques – questions, humorous asides, trying to use interesting and relevant examples – that work with students also worked with librarians.

there was a reception after the event, which provided an opportunity to invite feedback. I got the impression that my piece had been enjoyable, and there had certainly been a lot of note-taking visible as I spoke. As subject librarians, as support professionals, it is easy to overlook how much we learn about our subjects and the tools we teach.

With hindsight, I would have liked to have known in advance that the audience would not be the even mix of academic and professional librarians that BIALL had expected. Perhaps I could have anticipated this. If I were to be asked again, I would be more flexible in the content I was ready to offer. I would also be more confident in teaching to my peers.

The secret of great comedy (and teaching. And GMing…)

“What’s the secret of great comed…”

“Timing!”

So goes the old joke. But timing is important in a class, too. Pacing, when to break up your presentation with an activity, when to introduce a “set piece” like a video or demonstration. I was in a Twitter discussion this morning on my way to work about running role-playing games. When to build up pace, when to slow things down or take a break, how to structure a session. And thinking about it, I realised that this was one of the crossovers with teaching. And not only in structuring a session, but in adapting as it plays out. Many times, circumstances disrupt a lesson plan. A previous session overruns, or a class is smaller and finishes an exercise quicker. Adapting your timings on the fly can be vital – just as when your players do something unexpected, or a scene takes longer than you expected to play out.

Presenting the joint undergraduate induction this September, the library team found ourselves short of time as our presentation was last before the lunch break. And I was last up to present. My manager commented how neatly I had finished on time. As I’d seen the clock ticking down, I’d mentally pared my section to the key elements and selected what to drop, what to keep. Had I been facing a longer window, I had already identified where I would have expanded the material.

I had seen two of our student associates do the same earlier this year following an over-running keynote speaker. A swift whispered conversation, and they stood up and presented as if they’d been rehearsing a seventeen-minute (rather than half an hour) presentation for weeks. They had found the secret.

Who I am. How I came to be.

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In 1982 I first began to play and run games. In 1990, I first started working in libraries. In 2001, I first started to teach. In 2017, I started a PGCPHE.

This blog will feature my thoughts on teaching, on librarianship, and sometimes on the lessons from GMing – from running games like D&D – that, unknown to me at the time, formed my first experience in management, presentation skills, and teaching.

Welcome to Stirge Country.