Category Archives: TTW Contributor Dr. Troy Swanson

The Coolest Thing I Did on the Job Last Week (by TTW contributor Troy Swanson)

Right now is our busiest time of the year. Last week was especially crazy. I hosted an author event featuring our One Book author Tony Horwitz (, I chaired a department meeting, co-chaired a cataloing meeting in prep for RDA, attended a House of Delegates meeting for our union, met with our director of assessment about our annual assessment plan, and taught a couple of classes. But, out of all of this, the coolest thing I did all week happened at the reference desk.

I was doing my normal reference shift, and a student came up to the desk. He was a traditional aged student (18-20 years old), and he had a look of panic in his eyes. He had a necktie in one hand, and he asked me if I could help him tie it. He sheepishly told me that he had an interview, but never learned how to tie a tie. It was clear that he was a bit embarrassed. Of course, I told him no problem, and I untied my own tie. I had to stand next to him so that we were facing the same direction. I took him through each step, one by one. We did it a couple of times so that he felt comfortable, and I felt that he would be able to do it again on his own.

The student was very appreciative. I could feel his sense of relief. The thing that was stressing him out the most over his upcoming interview was tying a necktie. I have to say that this was one of the more meaningful reference transactions that I have had recently. I could feel the student’s frustration and embarrassment to ask this question, and I could also feel his appreciation for the time I spent with him. Now, I am probably way down on the list of people from whom you’d want to take fashion advice. Most mornings, I am grateful that my wife helps me to match my own tie with my shirt. But, I think we all can relate to being a young-adult and feeling intimidated by entering the working world. This was one of those interactions that happens that they can’t teach you in library school. They can’t help you feel what it is like to really help someone in their moment of need and panic.

Yes, I know just helped a student with a tie, so I don’t want to blow this too far out of proportion, but I also know that these are the kind of interactions that happen at reference desks and in classrooms across the country. Patrons come to us because they may not have other places to go. We live in a time where being a public employee is not glamorized, and in some circles, is even demonized. But, those of us who are active in our communities also know the difference we make.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the upcoming book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

My Frustration with CCSSE, Student Engagement and Libraries (by TTW contributor Troy Swanson)

Today, my blood started to boil as I sat through a presentation on my campus. The speaker actually did a good job. He was detailing information about a nation-wide survey called CCSSE (the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, in which our campus has participated for many years.

Engagement is much more than a buzzword within community colleges. The higher education literature is very clear that the ways that students build personal and intellectual connections with a campus (the ways they engage) have a major impact on the success of that student. (See Unmasking the Effects of Student Engagement on First-Year College Grades and Persistence by Kuh, et al, The Journal of Higher Education 79:5, 2008). My college has set out to make engagement our credo. It is the heart of our mission. The CCSSE survey is one of the central ways we measure how well we are doing with engaging our students.

Which brings me back to my boiling blood. I got all hot and bothered today, because I know that CCSSE does not include one single question on library usage. CCSSE is one of the largest national surveys given in US community colleges. It includes questions on writing papers, conducting research, and hours spent on coursework. It also includes questions on services such as advising, computers labs, and tutoring. But not even one question about library usage that we could correlate with other questions.

From 2006-2009, I was a member of a Community and Junior College Section task force (part of ACRL) which proposed and lobbied CCSSE to add several library-related questions. We outlined findings in the literature that demonstrated the types of engagement that libraries support. (You can find some of our work here: In the end, we had several conference calls with the organizers of CCSSE who are at the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin. We proposed four questions, but, frankly, even one question would have made a difference. To date, not one question has been added to CCSSE, which is really a travesty when one considers the work that community college libraries do across the US each and every day.

I know that adding a couple questions to a survey is not the only or even most important avenue in assessing the ways that my library engages students on my campus. But, libraries (public and academic) are all about engagement. Nothing is more crystal clear to me. Libraries are places of learning where authentic learning, personal connections, and individual development happen. Libraries are community spaces. The research into student engagement provides a commentary across all libraries for the work that we do. It doesn’t seem like such a big step to talk about the ways that public libraries engage their users and the community building that results from this engagement. The bottom line is that engagement means connections and that, after all, is the underpinnings of community.

But the designers of the CCSSE survey refuse to measure what we do.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the upcoming book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

The Book I am no Longer Reading (by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson)

I am no longer reading the book 1493 by Charles Mann (see my previous post about Mann’s earlier book, 1491, here). I was reading it but it just disappeared from my iPad. I had downloaded it via Overdrive from my local public library. My two-week loan period is over, the book vanished, and I am now back on the waiting list.

I am at a point in my life where I just don’t have time to read for fun. I just don’t have time to curl up with books any more. Young children, work responsibilities, side projects, homeownership, and the remnants of a social life (what’s left after having kids) mean that leisure reading is at a premium. Recently, my new reading space has been a local Chinese restaurant that serves tasty, unhealthy, Americanized-Chinese food. My iPad and I go for lunch, and I am able to read between between my chicken-fried rice and egg rolls.

When 1493 disappeared, I think I had just finished Chapter 1. I have a pretty good sense of the book’s organization and thesis. I was very excited about its direction and impressed at how Mann was connecting history to our modern world. But, the cruel hand of Overdrive swooped in and snatched Chapter 2 away from me. I kind of miss overdue notices.

The library where I am employed does not have access to Overdrive. We have been purposely dragging our feet. As a community college, we support research for the first two years of college, so we have focused our ebook efforts on collections of titles around specific subjects. We have found that browser-based options have been the low hanging fruit that provide useful content and easier access for our distance and off-campus students (probably many on-campus students as well). We have avoided Overdrive and some its competitors. But, we know that our ability to avoid moving in new directions is running out.

ALA’s recent report about Ebook Business Models doesn’t make me want to run our and dive into the market. James LaRue’s piece on ebooks (50 Shades of Red: Losing Our Shirts to Ebooks) doesn’t help much either (even though LaRue’s article is awesome).

I am sure that I could go out to a torrent site and find the book for free if I really tried. There is some irony that publishers are fearful of libraries, even though we do have budgets and we would like to purchase their content. My solution has been to interlibrary loan the book on CD so that I can listen to it on my drive to work. So, the race is on. Will I come off my library’s waiting list on Overdrive before the CD arrives via ILL?


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the upcoming book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Teaching & Learning Community Event (by TTW contributor Troy Swanson)

Following the inspiration of TED (actually, copying TED), our library partnered with our campus’ Center for Teaching & Learning to create a special event that highlights our campus’ faculty and staff. This event which we affectionately called TLC: Teaching & Learning Community event, featured five faculty and staff members who gave mini-lectures on a range of topics. Our goal was to host a program in our library that produced web-ready content. We purposely limited each speaker to 15 minutes per presentation.

Our Goals

  1. Find teachers, innovators and leaders who are able to inspire us with “ideas worth sharing.”
  2. Create a live learning event that is captured and shared via social media within the larger Moraine Valley Community College community.
  3. Disseminate ideas in support of the curriculum.
  4. Foster knowledge sharing among faculty and staff in support of Moraine Valley Community College’s strategic priority of continuous improvement.
  5. Exhibit Moraine Valley’s wide variety of knowledge and talent to the external college community.
  6. Demonstrate the technology and instructional possibilities that are available within the Center for Teaching & Learning and Library through the live event and the social media offerings.

The live event was well attended. We captured, edited, and uploaded five videos. Our views on YouTube have been steadily climbing. We are in the process of planning our next TLC event for November of 2012 featuring six speakers.

The Surprise Process
One surprise was the process that evolved around the event preparation. We were concerned that our speakers would ignore the 15-minute time limit given to them, so we set up a practice session several weeks in advance. This led to additional practice sessions where the presenters worked with each other to craft and hone their ideas. A real sense of community formed among the speakers. Several of the presentations were very personal, so the encouragement of fellow participants spread in the confidence presenters. Creating a focused presentation that stays within the 15-minute limit is difficult. The editing & revision process helped to improve the finished product.

The live event was recorded with 2 HD cameras for video and an MP3 recorder for audio. Our editor (event co-planner, John Neff  from the MVCC Center for Teaching & Learning) used Final Cut Pro and PluralEyes to pull together the video & audio.

Volunteering to Speak
I volunteered to also be one of the speakers. As one of the organizers of this event, I wanted to experience the process as a speaker. I used one of my information-literacy lectures (on bigfoot) which I had given several times in the past. I took a 50-minute lecture and reworked it for 15 minutes. I definitely felt the pressures of the 15-minute limit. The support and input of fellow-presenters made a difference.

Here’s a list of our finished videos:

“What Bigfoot Can Teach Us About Belief”
Dr. Troy Swanson
Knowledge and belief are intertwined in surprising ways. Troy Swanson discusses how the mythic creature Bigfoot can teach us about knowledge and belief.

“Perseverance and Hope: The Words of My Life”
Lawanda Burrell
Our experiences help to define who we are. LaWanda Burrell discusses how using perseverance and hope helped define her purpose in the eye of a life-altering storm.

“The Heart of My Writing: Younger Sons, Bastards, and Devils”
Dr. Thomas Dow
All good writing is personal. Tom Dow discusses how his own research into Victorian literature led back to himself.

“Why Joni Can’t (Won’t) Do Math or Science—And What You Can Do About It”
Larry Langellier
American students struggle in math and science. Larry Langellier discusses how the Lego project engages students in scientific thinking and problem solving.

“Communicating by Cutting Up Fabric and Sewing It Back Together”
Martha Mazeika
Life is a process of taking apart and sewing back together again. Martha Mazeika discusses her obsession with quilting and how she combines history and emotion in her art.

You can learn more about the TLC event at our website:

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the upcoming book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

An Opportunity for Library Advocacy (by TTW contributor Troy Swanson)

Each month, our college has a show on one of the local public access television station (PHTV 4 in Palos Heights, Illinois). I was invited to participate to discuss libraries and librarians as well as help spread the word about services we offer to our local community. I saw this as a chance to do some local library advocacy, so you can judge how well I pulled it off. This was definitely something new for me (my segment starts at minute 3:33).

Meet with Moraine (June 2012)

Eat Your Heart Out, Hollywood, I’m a Librarian! (by TTW Contributor Dr. Troy Swanson)

Last week, a poet was in my office. We had planned a poetry reading, but she was pitching me a new idea focusing on a book she was writing about her birth father. Before that, a geography faculty member was describing a lecture about how hedgehogs can be used to explain key concepts in geography. Before that, I was at our marketing department proofing publicity for our upcoming One Book series. Before that, I was in a meeting about training staff members to run our HD cameras.

When I was in library school, no one told me that one of my primary jobs would be producer, but lately I’ve been feeling like a mini-mogul. Eat your heart out, hollywood! Our library is one of the hottest venues around (on campus) for public events partly because we have a nice facility and partly because we help record and distribute events. Over the years, I’ve “produced” over 100 cultural events in our library that have included invited speakers, our faculty members, community members, and students.

Of course, public events in libraries are nothing new. Most libraries offer a range of programming that engages and even challenges local communities to think in new ways. One difference that I increasingly notice as someone who offers programming is the focus on capturing events for distribution. This is one reason why faculty and student groups come to me. They know that I will at least make an audio recording of their event which I will post online and put in iTunes. This is very popular on a community college (commuter) campus where a vast majority of students have jobs and families. Most faculty members feel that it is unfair to require students to attend lectures outside of class time, but they feel just fine about requiring students to listen to an event as their schedule permits.

Recently, I’ve been noting a more conscious effort on my part and the part of speakers to mold presentations for distribution. We are taking pains to ensure that presentations look good on video or come across well on audio. The recording of programs has changed from a nice, residual bonus to co-equal with the live event. The live event is molded to meet the needs of the virtual event that will be available at a later date.

When planning for a program, I consider the following:

  • Content: The subject matter remains king. Topics should be timely. I don’t fear controversy, but I also keep in my mind the my reputation and the library’s reputation are tied to our events.
  • Audience: As we plan events, it is my job to keep our audience in mind. When we invite outside researchers or writers to speak, I have to remind them that this is not a seminar for graduate students. I also have to remind them that this is not aimed at 7th graders. Speakers sometimes need guidance in finding the appropriate approach for first and second year college students. Additionally, I try to help aim events at particular classes so that programs can fit in with topics covered in the curriculum.
  • Format: The format shapes the content as much as audience. The length of the program and the type of event (lecture, discussion, panel, etc) dictates what content will be covered and how the content will be approached.
  • Budget: Since I don’t have much of a budget, most of my speakers donate their time. But, I am able to provide a small travel stipend for some outside speakers. The rest of the budget goes toward publicity. As an event schedule unfolds, one eye should watch the budget.
  • Publicity & Marketing: There is no audience without publicity. We create posters, send emails, write blogs posts, and send out press releases. I also go out of my way to find faculty members with classes who may attend.
  • Production: Making the event happen is a matter of logistics. Chairs, podium, projectors, computers, sound systems, cameras, microphones, presenters, and audience all have to come together at the same time in the same place. I generally plan events a semester (or more) in advance to ensure that there is time for promotion and managing the logistics. After the event, video, MP3s, powerpoints, and digital images all have to come together in a timely fashion. I anticipate 1.5 hours of work to produce a podcast following an event, and significantly longer time for anything with video (3-5 hours).
  • Distribution: After the event, I spend time emailing links to podcasts and videos to people who will have interest. I post links to social media, and we catalog events in our collection.

I definitely try to use our public programming and my role as producer to fulfill R. David Lankes’ conceptualization of librarians as “Publisher of Community,”

“I foresee the day in the near future when librarians spend the majority of their time working with community members and community organizations making their content accessible: where acquisitions is a matter of production, not purchasing. The future of libraries (and librarians) is in becoming publishers of the community.” (The Atlas of New Librarianship, p. 67)

If you are interested in some of our past events, here is a link to our event podcast:

-Post by Troy Swanson, Tame the Web Contributor

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the upcoming book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Do You Know A Librarian Who Could be a Pritzker Fellow?

The Pritzker Fellowship from Chicago Public Media is designed to cultivate a “new generation” of journalists. The fellows are nominated by community organizations, cannot have a degree in journalism, must not be in an academic program, and must be interested in community reporting. This would be perfect for a librarian. In fact, I wish that I could nominate a librarian for this! Do you know a librarian who might qualify?

Check out the curriculum from their website:

Program Curriculum

Throughout the training period, the Pritzker Fellows will work on many projects and develop skills within their chosen arena.  The training will be extremely targeted and in-depth. 

Pritzker Fellows will start off closely observing station life – from story production to field work.  They will be given the opportunity to meet our experts and learn more about what they do. 

Throughout the first months, Fellows will be given basic story production and editing training, including:

  • Journalism, ethics training
  • Audio and video production
  • Writing for the radio and web
  • On-air skills
  • Web production

Based on specific areas of interest, Pritzker Fellows will be paired with a mentor for the remainder of the program.  That mentor will be a senior level journalist or producer who will provide rigorous coaching, critique, hands-on opportunities, and special assignments.  

By the end of the program, each Pritzker Fellow will be expected to produce a feature story as their final project.  Throughout their months at the station, they will work closely with their mentor to define the project and to receive the training needed to make it a success. 

This is awesome! This would be perfect for a Production Librarian/Community Content Librarian (see my TTW blog post “Publisher of the Community”).

-Post by Troy Swanson, Tame the Web Contributor

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at@t_swanson.

Help Me Write a Job Description: Publisher of Community

For the past year, I have had a foggy notion for a new librarian position, but I can’t quite get my mind wrapped around it. So, I am turning to you, TTW community, to help.

Today, I am once again skimming through R. David Lankes’ amazing book The Atlas of New Librarianship. I am looking over page 67 at the idea of librarians as “Publisher of Community.” This may be the closest definition to what I have in mind. Lankes writes,

“I foresee the day in the near future when librarians spend the majority of their time working with community members and community organizations making their content accessible: where acquisitions is a matter of production, not purchasing. The future of libraries (and librarians) is in becoming publishers of the community.”

For me, this is another demonstration that the most powerful ideas are not new ideas. They are ideas you’ve already had but someone else expresses for you. In the future, I want all of the librarians at my library to be publishers of the community. We do this on a smaller scale now, but I would like to see this grow. The best way to make this happen is to devote a position to it so that there is a person taking on the responsibility and providing leadership.

But, what skills should this person develop? What responsibilities should this position carry forward? Considering our library’s organizational structure, this position would work best as an faculty librarian with public service & instructional responsibilities. On our campus, this would align the position with classroom faculty and build connections to the curriculum. Additionally, momentum is building on our campus around mobile technology, lecture capture, cloud-based solutions, and e-textbooks. The timing could be right.

With all of this in mind, I want to find someone who can:

  1. Capture content: I am thinking digitally (video, images, blog posts, etc), but I am not quite sure. This may also be more along the lines of publishing. But, I am not really thinking about an archivist. Maybe…
  2. Think like an activist: see my past TTW post
  3. Act with the sensibility of a journalist: I envision someone who can develop content following a process similar to that of a journalist developing a story. This is someone who can write (create?) information that engages the community in discussion around important issues facing our campus & region.
  4. Help instill meta-literacy skills in our information literacy program: We have built a solid information literacy program on our campus, but it is largely focused on traditional research skills. While this is still relevant, we have a need to expand our conceptualization of information literacy.
  5. Work with students and faculty within and outside of the classroom: Ideally, this person would be able to speak the language of the classroom, so she or he would understand assessment, classroom management, and the instructional design process.

I am not sure about a job title: Community Publishing Librarian, Meta-Literacy Librarian, Digital Content Librarian,???

Now, I turn to you TTW readers. I know that I have listed enough ideas here for about five positions, but in this budget environment, it may take several years of advocating before I get one (if any). So, I have to shoehorn these skills together as much as possible, get a job description together, and then start planning.

Maybe you know of job descriptions that could be helpful? Perhaps you can better define needed skills? What am I missing? What should I remove?

Focusing and defining this position will require specific knowledge of our campus and our library, so don’t stress about that. I’ll worry about that. I am looking for ideas, inspiration, and examples. I would love to hear what’s on your mind.


-Post by Troy Swanson, Tame the Web Contributor

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.
Two quick disclaimers: 1) This is an academic exercise focusing more on the evolution of librarians and is in no way part of my job responsibilities on my campus. No confidential or HR-related information has been shared in this post. 2) If you are a job seeker (and I know there are many out there), please do not send me your resume. As I mentioned above, we do not have a job opening and probably will not have a job opening in the near future.

Think Like an Activist

At several points in my life I have had the opportunity to work closely with activists. I have seen political, social, and union activists up close and in action. The true activist is a special breed who is in touch with a different reality that is just outside the reach of the present. They have been touched by a holy spirit of change that drives them forward. Librarians can learn a great deal from activists.

Activists do not just have energy and passion. They are absolutely goal focused. Ego is left behind. Partnerships are a necessity because resources are always lacking. Creativity is a requirement. Community education and constant outreach drive the agenda. Activists are not afraid to break the rules when the rules get in the way of the larger goals. They are willing to suffer the consequences. Activists do not fear work…very hard work. But, activists do not see their job as “work.” Activists do not see what they do as a job. It is always my hope that this is true for librarians. I like to think that it is true for me.

My wife always tells me that she has never seen anyone who loves his or her job more than me. She mostly says this when she’d rather have me focusing my attention away from work and toward other things like painting a bathroom or cleaning the garage. People always tell me, “you are not what I picture when I picture a librarian.” I hear this all the time. I heard this when I started my job. I hear this now when I meet new faculty members. I hear this when I am out in my home community. Mostly people say this because they are trying to pay me a compliment that I am not like other librarians, but I am never happy when given this “compliment.” To me, it partly demonstrates the lack of knowledge that people have about librarianship, and it partly demonstrates our profession’s inability to overcome this knowledge gap.

I think of Howard Zinn’s famous quote, “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience.” I don’t mean that libraries should practice civil disobedience. I mean that still, after all of these years, we spend too much time being obedient to the things that we have always done.

If you are reading this blog, you are aware that we are living through one of the greatest disruptions in the information ecosystem since the invention of the printing press. Journalist Jeff Jarvis reminds us that right now the Internet is somewhere around where the printing press was in 1472. The ways that we create and share information are being ripped apart, and the institutions built around information are transforming. When discussing the purpose of SOPA , Jarvis noted that “we can’t just protect the interest of legacy companies that are challenged by disruption and change…” He was talking about film and music companies, but when I heard him say this, I thought about libraries. (View interview here: DLD12 Interview Series: Jeff Jarvis). As long as we are obedient to the things we’ve always done, then we will continue to act like “legacy companies” fending off change.

R. David Lankes has challenged us to rethink libraries. In his ground-breaking book the Atlas of New Libraianship, he wrote, “The mission of librarians is to improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities.” Many of us have already embraced the “knowledge creation” part of this definition, but I am not so sure we have thought deeply about the “improve society” part. We are quick to call our libraries open-learning centers, but how ready are we to call our libraries society-transformation centers? How ready are we to really engage our communities by connecting on the challenging issues we face? How ready are we to really think like activists?

Right now, the most important thing librarians can learn from activists is that the face-to-face world exists as a complement to the online world. Activists get this. In the past, protests, marches, and demonstrations were held to get attention from bystanders and (hopefully) catch the eye of journalists who may cover the event and help spread the word. This remains partly true, but today, protests, marches, and demonstrations are held for the online world as much as they are for the actual time and place. The video, images, and Tweets that flow from these events carry on long after the event has ended. Activists are about information and communication. (See CBS News: How the revolution became digitized.) It’s not so much that the face-to-face world doesn’t matter, but that it matters in ways that are deeply entwined with the online world.

As a profession, we are stressed out. The future is blurry. The threats to the good work we do are real. But if you reminisce about the good old days and dream of going back to a format-bound world of information delivery, then now is the time for you to leave libraries. Retire, go away, get out, because you’ve missed the entire point. Activists don’t think like this, and neither should we.

-Post by Troy Swanson, Tame the Web Contributor

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

The Machine that is Replacing Me is Getting Cheaper Every Day – A TTW Guest Post by Dr. Troy Swanson

Two years ago, I had the painful pleasure of coauthoring a textbook with three other colleagues. This textbook was written for first-year writing students, and I wrote the sections of the book that focused on research and information literacy.

As we wrote the book, my thoughts went back to one of my former high school teachers, Michael McAvoy. This morning I learned through Facebook that he lost his battle with cancer. I have many memories of high school (most of them good), but out of all of them, Mr. McAvoy is the one person who rises above most of the others. As someone who works in education, I hope that I can have the same type of impact in my students.

“Swanson, the machine I am getting to replace you is getting cheaper every day.” Mr. McAvoy would typically say this after I made some sort of smart-ass remark in class. He would smirk, fold his arms, and rock forward on the balls of his feet with an air of mild humor mixed with pretend contempt.

There was a time when I was out sick, and I missed a couple of his classes.  When I returned, I saw him in the hallway, and I asked him whether he missed me.  He responded, “Well, Swanson, I wasn’t shooting. But if I was, I wouldn’t miss.” Then he continued on his way down the hall. He said that at a time when this type of remark did not cause alarm. It was a different time and place.

I remember that he was a Packer fan and a Dodger fan, which were always points of debate since we were in Bears and Cubs country. He only had three toes on one foot due to an unfortunate incident with a lawnmower when he was a kid. One time he participated in a fantasy basketball league with his students. His team name was The Seven-Toed Chest Kickers.

When I think of Mr. McAvoy, I know he was one of my best teachers. He was the reason that when I entered college I was a better writer than most of my classmates. But, I liked him for more reasons than the simple transfer of writing skills.  I remember him so fondly because of the way he engaged us as students. I can distinctly remember the class discussion we had about Julius Caesar getting stabbed to death in Shakespeare’s play, our discussion of the novel Lord of the Flies, and a paper I wrote about Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. I remember being so amazed that these great works of literature could be understood by someone like me, who was just a high school kid. The thing with Mr. McAvoy’s classes was that these were not honors or advanced placement classes.  They were just regular English classes, and all of us were able to jump into this stuff.

In our public discourse online, on the media, and in debates at dinner parties, it is easy to cast our public schools as places that dampen creativity. Our education system is large and difficult to navigate, and I think that in some instances these systems get in the way of our larger goals. This is because we have an educational system. I would say that any time you have a group of people (so, more than one) who have to do something together you start to have a system. A system is a set of rules, processes, and procedures that explain how people interact with each other. For example, when you drive a car, you are participating in a system. Our society has put together a set of rules that help us work together so that we can efficiently drive at high speeds down our roads. If we had to make up our own rules or if we had to figure out the rules as we drove, then not only would driving be very inefficient, but it would also be very dangerous.

Systems do not really encourage us to be creative. Driving your car is not a time to decide to be creative. In fact, our rules of the road go out of the way to stamp out your creativity. Our police officers regularly give out tickets to “creative” drivers. For me, there are many times we criticize education when we are actually criticizing systems. Their purpose is to allow people to work together by creating solid rules where each person’s actions are predictable and standard. I think about all of the standardized tests I have ever taken. Not much room there for creativity, is there?

In the future, our students will spend a great deal of times within large systems. Our corporations, our governments, our charitable organizations, our religious organizations, and many other groups of people are essentially large systems. They all have rules so that people understand how to work together. But, these systems all suffer from the same problems.  First, how do you develop a system where everyone knows the rules but is also able to creatively come up with solutions to problems? Second, systems automatically include values and priorities that tend to benefit some groups of people over others. How do we create systems that are equitable and fair to everyone?  In high school, some of us found ways to be creative, and I would guess that many times it was our teachers were the ones who inspired us to be creative.

I think that there is a great deal of evidence to say that creativity can exist within systems, especially educational systems. It is my hope that college is a creative place. Yes, we are part of a very large system. Yes, at times, this system can hinder creativity. But, more importantly, for those of us who work in the system, creativity falls on our own shoulders.

I came from a small high school in rural Illinois. The college where I work is many times larger than my entire hometown. I know that many of us that came from there will remember our late teacher Mr. McAvoy. I have always made it my goal to follow his example and never forget that creativity does not come from our educational systems. It comes from educators.

Note: This essay is adapted from an essay in the book DeVillez, Eric, Tom Dow, Mike McGuire, and Troy Swanson (2010). Why White Rice?: Thinking Through Writing. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair & Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.