Featured Teaching Librarian: Rebecca Snyder

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. Nominate yourself or someone great!

Name: Rebecca Snyder

Institution: Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Job Title: Manager, Information and Education Services

Number of Years Teaching: Two

Why did you become a librarian?

When I was a child, my mother built a PC for our home and used the early Web to search for health information while undergoing cancer treatment. I have fond memories of watching over her shoulder and learning some basic C++ commands, or following her to the library where I’d camp out on the floor of the history section as she perused self-help. I believe her insatiable love for learning became mine and libraries, great houses of knowledge, became my poetic space of choice. My sister once described my venture into librarianship as a natural progression toward professional “Know-It-All.” This is, perhaps, the most honest telling of my love affair with research.

What are you reading right now?

Dennis McCullough, M.D., a gifted geriatrician who coined the phrase “slow medicine,” wrote a how-to guide for elder caregiving titled My Mother, Your Mother: Embracing Slow Medicine. I read it once as I emerged into my death doula practice and developed an awareness that humans need guidance in prioritizing and selecting medical technologies during end-of-life processes. I’m revisiting it now as I work through aging in my own family.

Describe your favorite teaching method (e.g. flipped classroom, problem-based learning).

Problem-based learning is commonly employed in medical education and can be an effective way to contextualize knowledge as students are becoming familiar with a new topic or skill. Because so much of what I teach involves technology, I find it particularly useful to develop scenarios that mimic real-life situations to provide opportunities to practice a skill in the presence of an instructor. For example, I’ve transitioned our instructional approach for reference management tools from lecture-based sessions to a hands-on clinic format in which students are encouraged to bring their personal device as well as current challenges to workshop. Not only are students more engaged with questions and feedback, they spontaneously begin helping each other troubleshoot problems. This approach requires the instructor to become intimately familiar with the content and develop confidence as unpredictable questions and pathways emerge. I’ve also enjoyed coaching other librarians in developing this skillset.

What class do you teach the most and how do you keep it fresh?

I spend a considerable amount of time teaching PubMed for the medical school. Like many database interfaces, the engine is unappealing, particularly to new medical students. Alternatives to it are sleekly-designed apps that offer syntheses and bypass the critical appraisal required to sift through the literature. Understandably, in a time-constrained environment, who would prefer to slog through the tool to find pertinent information?

My chief objective when teaching PubMed is to hone in on specific elements that are most contextually-relevant to the learner or group of learners in front of me. This requires a dynamic approach and I’m continually developing different scenarios to help users map out features most useful to them. I employ the use of metaphor to demonstrate virtual spaces within the PubMed family and to develop a narrative for how to navigate them. I play with nerdy humor, like intentionally running searches on macabre topics, to keep things light. But, most importantly to me, I employ pragmatism. I don’t act as if there is one path into the literature through this established, vetted tool. Instead, I encourage students to complete an exercise using their natural go-to option, even if it’s Google, and then offer suggested workflows on how to utilize features of that tool to take advantage of the robust index within PubMed. Or, I prompt them to surface problems in using their preferred methods so they’ll next identify strategies to validate information before applying it to a clinical scenario.

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

It’s not uncommon for a new librarian to feel intimidated both among their peers as well as colleagues within an institution. With so much to learn, developing one’s teaching “voice” may seem daunting and the potential desire to mimic, strong. While we can learn from others who have experimented before us, and from literature documenting philosophies and methods, ultimately, the classroom becomes “ours” at some point. With respect to this emergence, I would share with a new librarian that:

1. Shared ownership of a group dynamic breeds vitality in adult education.
Familiarize yourself with the critical pedagogy literature. Designing learning experiences independent of the traditional role of an authority figure in the classroom is a powerful approach for establishing rapport and guiding learners toward skill acquisition. You’ll find yourself becoming a better listener.

2. In teaching and librarianship, failure is of equal importance to success.
There is an established practice in academic librarianship to acquire titles, publications, awards, and certifications. While most, if not all, of these opportunities enrich your understanding of the work we do, the time and energy spent on them is only as valuable to the future of the profession as the willingness you have to exert effort toward potential failures. Innovation awards are extended to winners, but experimentation necessarily produces useless effects at times. Establishing boundaries between your value and the value of your experimental products can be a liberating step toward a creative teaching practice.

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