This past semester I had the opportunity to take part in Michael Stephens’s Hyperlinked Library course. The course, especially the readings and discussions on reflective practice, teaching, and learning brought together for me the professional and the personal. A little bit about my background: my previous career was in German Studies, but a couple years ago my contract as an Assistant Professor wasn’t renewed. My wonderful, supportive colleagues said again and again that it was due to budget pressures, but deep down and for quite a while I felt I had failed. What the experience offered me, though, was a chance to reflect on where I had been and where I wanted to go.
From Germanist to Librarian
What drew me to LIS is the emphasis on helping others. I realized while reading the Rubin (2010) textbook for one a core MLIS class that the professions—teaching, librarianship, medicine, etc.—are about service. And several of those are the careers that have appealed to me. Yet something that had always bothered me about German Studies was my perception of its relevance. Certainly, some of my former students use their language and cultural competency skills (or become more open-minded and critical) because of what they learned in German classes. However, I still cannot articulate the purpose of the research I was doing (except, formulated a bit cynically, to get tenure). It was enjoyable and interesting to me, and perhaps a handful of other people read it. But that turned out not to be enough for me. In fact, being laid off brought this reality into relief because I could acknowledge my doubts more directly.
It seems much clearer to me that LIS careers have the potential to change people’s lives for the better and perhaps even to transform them. I see this in my work as a volunteer at the public library, teaching mostly older folks computer skills. An hour of caring, engaged conversation and guided play on the computer can change their mood and attitude and help them to begin overcoming their fear of technology. What matters most is that someone cares about their lives, needs, and problems and will take time to listen. They often tell me that the people in their lives won’t or can’t do that—or that they don’t have anyone they can turn to. Working at the public library is the best part of my week because I can often see its positive impact. And people often return repeatedly so that we get to know one another. This is the sort of work I can pour my heart and life into.
Learning across Disciplines
One aspect of changing careers that has caused me to grieve, however, is the notion that I had wasted over 20 years on a field that is no longer a part of my daily life. However, the readings on teaching and learning in the Hyperlinked Library course showed me the many connections between LIS and language teaching and learning. It has taken me time to understand and believe this, but no learning is wasted time or effort. Here are some connections between the two fields that will inform my work in LIS:
- Engaging in the practices of a given field leads to real learning. Contrary to traditional approaches, learning (actually, acquiring) a language is not primarily about memorizing grammatical structures or wrapping one’s mouth around strange sounds. Rather, it’s about communication of ideas and feelings among people, no matter how “imperfect.” Proof of this is that speakers of a language usually don’t correct a learner’s errors unless they interfere with comprehension (Shrum & Glisan, 2010). Learners need to use a language, not just learn to analyze it. The same emphasis on real practices applies to LIS education, as Michael points out (Stephens, 2011). We LIS students need to use the actual tools of the profession and engage in dialogues with practicing professionals, not just learn procedures and facts from a textbook. This is also something to keep in mind whenever we encounter teaching situations in our work as LIS professionals.
- In order for such practice to happen, learning cannot remain within the classroom, nor can communication be restricted to each individual student speaking with the teacher. In language learning, learners need to communicate with a wide variety of people about a range of topics, not just listen to canned dialogues, parrot preset responses back to the teacher, and fill in the blanks of a verb-ending worksheet. Again, Michael addresses this issue (Stephens, 2011) when he talks about LIS students sharing their learning products beyond the classroom on an open platform. It is within a conversation that learning happens.
- Learning is a lifelong endeavor. People frequently ask me how long it takes to become fluent in a second language. (First of all, what does fluent mean?) My stock answer is “forever” because one is always learning language, even a first language. Continuous learning in the LIS field is crucial as well, especially because of the constantly changing nature of what we do. As Grant and Zeichner (2001) argue so eloquently, if we aren’t reflective in our professional practice, we simply follow inherited practices and unquestioned routines, which can have horrible, oppressive consequences, such as fixating on procedures and forgetting our mission serving people’s needs. Reflective practice means being open to learning new ideas that may upset our longstanding way of doing things.
- Mistakes are a good thing. Research in language acquisition shows that errors are a sign of learning. A common example is the over application of the -ed ending to mark the past tense in English. Children go through a stage in which they produce forms like “goed” or “eated.” Why? Because they have correctly understood that “-ed” is the marker for the past tense, so they apply it everywhere despite the fact that they hear adults saying “went” and “ate” instead. This proves that children are applying rules, not just repeating what they hear (Lightbown & Spada, 2006). Frequently, errors are evidence of the learning process. Along the same lines, Michael writes (Stephens, 2010, March 2) that the new gaming generation shows us that learning is fraught with errors. Instead of a negative, errors offer rich opportunities for learning. We can impart this attitude to our library members as well. It’s one of the main things I want the folks at the public library to take away from computer instruction sessions with me. I model for them problem-solving strategies when things go wrong. Equally important is the modeling of affect: “If things go wrong, let’s look around for ways to fix it or find someone who can help.” It’s my way of combating the tendency stare at the monitor, afraid of making a mistake. Being open to risk is a crucial component to learning.
So I’m going to take my own advice. Nothing was lost in my career change, and I didn’t fail. In fact, something was gained. Ending one career has enriched my life and helped me find a field I can devote my efforts and heart to.
I know that many folks come to LIS from previous careers and other fields. I wonder what your experiences have been.
Grant, C. A., & Zeichner, K. M. (2001). On becoming a reflective teacher. In J. H. Strouse (Ed.), Exploring socio-cultural themes in education: Readings in social foundations (pp. 103-115). New York, NY: Pearson. Retrieved from http://www.wou.edu/~girodm/ foundations/Grant_and_Zeichner.pdf
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rubin, R. (2010). Foundations of library and information science (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
Shrum, J. L., & Glisan, E. W. (2010). Teacher’s handbook: Contextualized language instruction (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Heinle.
Stephens, M. (2011). Beyond the walled garden: LIS students in an era of participatory culture.
Student Research Journal, 1(2). Retrieved from http://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1067&context=slissrj
Stephens, M. (2010, March 2). The hyperlinked school library: Engage, explore, celebrate [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://tametheweb.com/2010/03/02/the-hyperlinked-school-library-engage-explore-celebrate/
Darren Ilett is currently in his third semester in the MLIS program at San José State University. At the moment he is enjoying an internship at the Fine Arts and Design Library at the University of New Mexico where he is helping to create online instructional materials. Upon graduation he hopes to work as a subject librarian in an academic context and with a focus on instruction. In his spare time he likes to play Scrabble, read Patricia Highsmith novels, and watch old German movies.