Featured Teaching Librarian: Becky Canovan

Several times a year, the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee selects and interviews a librarian who demonstrates a passion for teaching, innovation, and student learning.

Name: Becky Canovan

Institution: University of Dubuque

Job Title: Assistant Director of Public Services

Number of Years Teaching: 10

What’s your favorite season? Fall. Fall in the Midwest is best. I love wrapping up in a sweater, jeans and flip flops and taking a coffee out to my favorite park on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi. I’m not a big nature person, but I love being outside and “nature adjacent” when the bugs aren’t trying to eat me alive. Plus, because I’ve spent so much time in my life in academia, fall is a time of new beginnings and clean slates, even if it doesn’t look that way outside.

Where do you do your best thinking? I do my best creative and productive thinking in my car—the worst place for good ideas! I’ve been known to call my mom or a friend to ask them to email me an idea before I forget it. I also have a bunch of ideas in voice memos on my phone, including two different maid of honor toasts I’ve given in the last few years.

Describe a favorite activity that you use with students (this could be for a face-to-face class, online, or hybrid class).

In an upper-level sociology class, the students have to find 15 scholarly sources to weave into a one- page executive summary for an actual client. Stress levels are high in the class, and one semester a student asked me if we were going to talk about summarizing strategies for that many sources. I hadn’t planned on it, but decided to add a pair of activities to the instruction days. I have students describe an iSpy picture I provide in a maximum of two sentences. Then we share them and identify summarizing strategies like grouping (by color, theme, use, or feeling), listing, generalizing, and identifying outliers.

There happens to be a giant gold alligator in the middle of the picture that is a great metaphor for those outlying articles you might find that don’t quite fit the rest of your research. Seeing how students deal with that is illustrative. I’m sure to stress the importance of finding sources that work together to answer their question, not just discuss their topic. In a later session in the class, I use a similar technique with snippets of scholarly studies and a research question to help them practice the skill. Again, I craft the question and sources so it’s not a simple or singular correct answer. The idea of an alligator article definitely permeates the class now. [See associated Research Guide, scroll to bottom to see iSpy picture.]

Tell us about the library instruction program at your institution. How many librarians at your institution teach?

Our instruction team of four professional librarians and the library director teach about 400 IL sessions a year. A little over half of these come in Core Curriculum courses. The librarians collaboratively build a framework lesson plan, slides, and research guide for these courses. However, because we all have different teaching styles and strengths, we take those frameworks and tweak and adapt them to fit our style while ensuring our students learn the same skills and cover the same outcomes using similar techniques.

We each also work with liaison departments to provide IL instruction and resources. Last year we worked with 19 different disciplines to do one-shots, sequenced sessions, online support, and create research guides. The director doesn’t teach in the Core, but does teach credit-bearing IL courses in two of our graduate programs.

Our instruction team also includes four paraprofessional staff members who assist in classes. Some of our classes and orientation sessions are large enough that hands-on learning in class requires another person to assist. Our archives assistant is frequently in classes that utilize our archive materials. Our office manager helps with poster and graphic design. And most importantly, our reference staffers assist in Core classes to see what we teach to better help students at the reference desk.

Name two things you would share with a librarian who is new to teaching.

  1. Think about your approach to the instruction and be purposeful in that approach. I approach instruction from two perspectives: the professor and the student. I start with the faculty member’s goal for the assignment and work my way backward to identify the skills necessary for the students to be successful. Then I approach the assignment as the student would in order to see what hurdles they might encounter. That combination of skills and hurdles make up the backbone of my instruction and helps me figure out how to break down what is usually a large and complex process into a series of manageable ideas, steps, or concepts.

  3. Get creative! Use both concrete and abstract strategies. Practicing a skill, like critical thinking, over and over in the same way is not always the most effective way to learn it. Design activities and learning objects that might shine light on an abstract concept in ways many might think are ‘out of the box.’ For example, I teach summarizing strategies using iSpy pictures or explain the research process as a murder mystery. I liken research studies to baking chocolate chip cookies. Lit reviews are totally the academic version of Googling recipes to compare!
    Skill practice can be spiced up, too. For an activity on creating and delivering presentations, I took inspiration from the cooking show Chopped. I gave students a digital basket of all the materials to create a presentation on why not to cite Wikipedia: outline, images, quotes, citations, etc. Before the judging by a panel of my coworkers, each group had to justify why they selected what they did and why they designed it the way they did. I wanted both the students and faculty member to see that a presentation without a corresponding paper is about more than just slapping together a PowerPoint. You can see the activity on my old Google site.
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