Featured Teaching Librarian: Darren Ilett

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.

portrait of Darren Ilett

Name: Darren Ilett

Institution: University of Northern Colorado

Job Title: Teaching and Outreach Librarian

Number of years teaching: 5 in libraries (15 in German and language pedagogy)

Are you a dog or cats fan?

Definitely a dog person! I have two: Bruno, the 10-pound boss of the house who’s a chihuahua/pug/miniature doberman mix probably, and Maxx, a 55-pound pit bull mix who does whatever Bruno says. They’re both rescue dogs, which I feel are the best dogs in the world!

What are you reading right now?

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler. Though it was published nearly 25 years ago, it feels all too timely.

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

On the first day of credit-bearing classes, I ask students to choose the example research topic for the course. First, students anonymously submit via Padlet any topics that may be triggering so we can avoid those. Next, they suggest topics for the course, which I then enter onto a whiteboard with a March-Madness-style bracket. Then students vote on pairs of topics until we have a winner. For the rest of the course, students serve as consultants who help me develop this topic into a research project. They do background research, suggest how to focus the topic, come up with a research question, search for appropriate sources, find themes in the literature, etc. We encounter problems and solve them together. As we go through the research process, students apply the skills we practice together in their own research projects on topics of their choice. The example topic activities serve as a guiding thread that creates cohesion in the course. They also increase interest and buy-in since students choose the topic. Most importantly, they position the students as emerging expert consultants who have a say in how the project develops. These activities also position me as a lifelong learner, open to new information and students’ perspectives. Through this process, we have learned together about such fascinating topics as the ethics of personality testing in hiring, the impact of adverse childhood experiences on interpersonal relationships in adulthood, and the emotional intelligence of dogs.

What is your favorite class to teach and why?

My favorite class session is a one-shot for the McNair Scholars program, a federally-funded TRIO program that supports first-generation and underrepresented students both in completing an original research project with a faculty mentor and in preparing for graduate school. I do three one-shots for this program each year, but the session on literature reviews is my favorite. I enjoy discussing the pros and cons of various organizational tools and strategies with students and sharing our research experiences. Students are highly motivated and engaged because they are in the thick of developing their research projects. As I walk around the classroom and engage with students, the best part is seeing them use the strategies to organize their thoughts and findings from the literature. Some opt to create an annotated outline. Others use mind maps or spreadsheets organized by theme. I love to see the passion with which students engage in research on topics that are often tied to their lived experiences. And I inevitably learn about new research tools from them!

How has your teaching practice changed over time?

In my first career as a German professor, I was overly concerned about appearing knowledgeable and authoritative. I felt those were the defining characteristics of a good teacher. It’s such a cliche of the field, but in my case, it was true! If students were not enthusiastically engaged, attending every class, and turning in every assignment on time, I thought I was failing. I took their behavior as a referendum on my skills as a teacher. My current job has fundamentally shifted my teaching practice. I work largely with first-generation, low-income, and BIPOC students. These students have taught me that my previous approach was both self-centered and harmful. Students have complex lives and carry many responsibilities, which often impact their ability to engage with course content and complete assignments. What I can do is approach them with care, understanding, and interest in supporting their success. I can be flexible with deadlines and accept revisions of assignments. I can offer choices for the format of a research assignment (traditional paper, live oral presentation, recording of a presentation, etc.). I have also come to appreciate the importance of learning about the many assets students bring to college from their homes, communities, workplaces, and previous education. Identifying those strengths together and then building on them in the classroom increases the relevance of what we’re learning and boosts student engagement. It also centers students’ knowledge and experiences as valuable foundations for research and learning in higher education.

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