2023 Research Agenda Conversations

This year the ACRL Instruction Section Research & Scholarship Committee invited Amanda Nichols Hess to engage in a discussion surrounding library instruction.

Amanda Nichols Hess is a Professor and Coordinator of Instruction & Research Help at Oakland University Libraries. She is widely published on academic library instruction, and her scholarship in the last several years has focused on librarians’ teaching identities and perspective transformation. Since 2017, Dr. Hess has written a mixed-methods book and several quantitative articles exploring these concepts; at present, she has an edited three-volume series forthcoming in early 2023 as well as a monograph in press that connects perspective transformation, librarians’ teaching identities, and critical pedagogy.

  1. Many of your recent works have focused on the changing identities of instructional librarians. Could you discuss what changes you have seen in recent years to the roles and positions for instructional librarians, and also if you have any specific examples?

That’s an interesting question – I hadn’t really thought about the changing roles and positions of instruction-focused librarians in the context of my research around librarians’ instructional identities, but I do think that there have certainly been evolutions in folks’ roles and responsibilities. For example, there seems to be emergent instruction-related positions based on what higher education is focusing on at that moment. I became an academic librarian in 2012 and, at that time, there were a lot of postings that focused on instruction and outreach to first-year students or first-year experience programs. I know that my institution was pouring a lot of resources into our first-year experience program around that same time, so I imagine others were in similar situations. Shortly after that, there seemed to be a boom for instructional design librarian positions; I wonder if that was in part because of the release of the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and the new possibilities it presented for library instruction. I’m sure there have been other cycles, but I think today’s instruction librarian positions are more apt to focus on critical information literacy or pedagogy, or relate to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility more generally, or emphasize integrating open educational resources into teaching and learning.

To be clear, I don’t think our FYE or ID librarians have gone away, that their work isn’t happening, or that these focus areas are no longer important. Instead, I think that those expectations have been integrated into the broader picture of what teaching librarians do. I think the same things will happen to these current focus areas for instruction librarians, which I view as both positive and detrimental. It’s good that instruction librarianship can incorporate and include so many facets, but there is a breaking point for any single workload. And in a time of diminishing resources, I do have concern about expecting the same – or more – for less when it comes to instruction librarians.

One thing that I think will be interesting to see going forward is whether the forthcoming enrollment cliff that many of our institutions face will impact how we think about and structure instruction librarians’ work. My institution has been grappling with this issue for some time, and academic administrators are really focusing on what they call “contemporary learners” – so, adult learners or non-traditional students. I wonder how colleges’ and universities’ needs to recruit and matriculate learners from outside of the K-12 pipeline will impact how we think about library instruction, and our work as educators, in the future.

  1. Something you’ve also hit on that we know is in the forefront of many (especially early career) librarians’ minds is the idea of a teaching identity or persona. Could you talk a little bit about how you developed your own identity in the classroom? Or, if you prefer, do you have recommendations for how a new instruction librarian might do this?

If I reflect on my own teaching identity and how it has developed over time, it’s very clear to me that it’s an ongoing, evolving, almost living thing – even today. At the outset, I went to library school thinking that I was going to be a school librarian, and so I earned a K-12 teaching certificate along with my Master’s degree. Therefore, my identity as a new librarian was very much grounded in teacher education-based experiences, such as my coursework and student teaching experiences. My sense of myself as an educator was quite nascent, as you might expect – it was largely based on external values that I’d adopted, not thoughts or views that I’d evaluated and honed in ways that were meaningful to me (which I think is the case for a lot of educators early in their careers, regardless of at what level or setting they work).

When I made the transition to academic librarianship, I began to have to grapple with those external attitudes and values. Although I felt my K-12 experience had prepared me to provide in-class and 1:1 instruction, that wasn’t a given for those around me; I definitely found that folks questioned whether my previous experiences had any relevance to academic librarianship. In the first few years, then, I engaged in a lot of introspection about what value I brought to the proverbial classroom, and how I could be an effective and authentic instructor, and what my educational philosophy really was. I was fortunate to have library colleagues and institutional resources, such as our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and office of e-Learning and Instructional Support, that helped me as I honed how I understood my instructional expertise and asserted that said expertise had value. I also pursued learning opportunities in more formal ways – I thrive in the formal structure of a classroom, so I pursued an Education Specialist certificate in Instructional Technology in my first two years as an academic librarian. My experiences in this program were really influential in shaping how I thought about my work as an educator as well as how I decided to invest my time and efforts to grow my teaching identity.

Of course, my hands-on experiences were also crucial in this identity development process. My experiences in Instructional Technology inspired me to work with my colleague, Katie Greer, to redesign and teach a for-credit general education class; that really informed my sense of myself as an educator (and my own confidence in asserting that identity and perspective at my institution). In that experience, as well as my engagement in instruction with our first-year instruction partnership and my work with students and faculty in my liaison areas, I built a toolkit of teaching techniques, activities, and approaches that supported my teaching identity. I also like to think that these experiences were like “deposits” into my instructional bank, which I could draw on when I needed to adjust or pivot in the moment when a class isn’t going as I hoped or it seems like things aren’t working. In other words, I used internal and external resources, as well as my own hands-on experiences, to develop confidence in my own competence; this outcome was critical to successfully constructing an authentic teaching identity.

At this point, I’m solidly mid-career, and I think my teaching identity continues to evolve. Maturity and growth that I’ve experienced both in my life and my career have helped me develop new facets to my identity as an educator. I am much more inclined to use humor (self-deprecating, especially), or reference my own life or broader societal events, when I’m working in classes with students of all ages; I think I was far less comfortable with that when I was a newer, younger librarian, because I felt like I needed to establish myself in more formal, fixed ways. I am also much more able to consider how my teaching identity is (or needs to be) informed by critical issues, both in terms of critical library pedagogy and critical librarianship more generally. Earlier in my career, I don’t think I had the capacity to really consider those pieces like I should have done, but that’s something that I am intentionally taking on now.

My own experiences align with what I’ve found when I’ve investigated this topic – newer, mid-, and later career academic librarians find different supports or resources valuable in shaping their teaching identities. Folks who are earlier in their careers seem to benefit more from building internal networks within their academic libraries or with closer colleagues, but there seems to be a point where that need evolves. Librarians who are more experienced but who continue to grapple with their identities as educators may find it more beneficial to look outside of their library organization, or librarianship entirely, for teaching and learning connections. Moreover, librarians of all career stages find their teaching identities informed by informal and formal learning experiences – just as I did. The core ideas I see here are connection and reflection – through a variety of reflective practices; these are the central through lines that support librarians’ ongoing instructional identity development, regardless of career stage. And the librarians who see their perception of themselves as educators as evolving and changing over time are perhaps more open to meaningful connection and reflection that helps them to make these identities more authentic and holistic.

  1. Another struggle that teaching librarians at any point in their career might face is bumping up against others’ perceptions about what teaching librarians do or should be. Is this something you have found in your personal work, or research? Can you talk a little about those perceptions or expectations, and managing them?

In conversation with other librarians, I think they’ve most commonly talked about the difference between perception and reality when it comes to folks outside of libraries – so academic administrators, community members, even friends and family not really understanding what they do or what role they play. Obviously, when institutional leaders don’t understand our work, that directly impacts our ability to effectively do our jobs and influence student success. These perceptions or expectations can be really challenging to deal with, and I think that everyone has to manage those differently depending on their institution as well as their status, the culture where they work, and really, their own personalities. Based on my research experiences, though, I think that the instruction librarians who have most effectively pushed back on these perceptions have done so by building relationships and connections which they could then leverage to reframe their roles or more clearly define the value they bring to their institutions in concrete ways.

I think the most problematic perceptions, though, are the ones that we hold about ourselves: Many of the folks I’ve talked with shared experiences of how their first instructional experiences did not align with what they thought a teaching librarian should do or should be. So maybe the class session didn’t go as they planned, even though (read: because?) they had scripted everything out and practiced it ad nauseam and planned for every contingency. I actually wonder if the discrepancies in what those outside of libraries think that teaching librarians do (or really whether they think about librarians teaching, at all) influence the dissonance between our perceptions of what an instructional librarian is and what we really experience. Here, too, connection and reflection can be helpful – having colleagues (whether within your own library, or at your institution, or in the profession more widely) we can talk with about our teaching experiences and find ways to learn and grow from those experiences is essential to manage our own expectations and perceptions. Reflection is a core facet of these kinds of connection, but of course we can also do that independently – and folks may feel more comfortable doing that, especially right after a particularly raw instructional experience. Critically considering what went well (because there’s always something that did go well!), what went differently than we anticipated, and what we will take away from the experience can help us to reframe our own views of what teaching librarians are or should be – and whether we align with those views.

What I’ve not really heard in conversations with other librarians is how we externalize expectations on our library colleagues – as in, “This is how you ‘instruction librarian’.” I’m sure that folks have experienced that, and I do think there have been times when I’ve noticed that in the profession more widely; for instance, I sometimes got that sense when ACRL was transitioning from the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education to the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I think that sea change raised questions, internally, for many teaching librarians about what our work looked like. So if more of those large-scale shifts come our way, that may be something that we want to pay attention for.

  1. What excites or interests you most about next steps in your work?

Well, one thing I’m working on right now is to more explicitly and directly connect transformative learning theory with critical library pedagogy. Much of my research in the last five years has used Jack Mezirow’s transformative learning theory as its foundation, which is grounded in the idea that adults seek to hold perspectives and enact practices that are authentic, evidence-based, and reflective of their worldviews. Mezirow, and other scholars since, have explored how individuals engage in perspective transformation to accomplish these aims; I see some really rich connections between it and critical library instruction. Annie Downey linked critical stances in library instruction and this theoretical framework in her wonderful book, Critical Information Literacy, but right now I’m trying to advance that line of thinking in new ways. Many library scholars – especially those who focus on critical practices – have bemoaned the lack of theory we have in our discipline, and I am hopeful that bringing in transformative learning theory can enrich that conversation (in some small way).

While I’ve worked with transformative learning theory quite a bit at this point, I’ve been really energized and excited by how other academic librarians have considered our teaching and learning experiences in light of transformative learning. Specifically, I worked with dozens of colleagues on a forthcoming three-volume series, Instructional Identities and Information Literacy, from ACRL Editions, and these folks’ work inspired me to continue to explore perspective transformation and our teaching identities. I have been wowed by the ways that they think about, apply, and question transformative ideas in their instruction as well as how they frame what teaching identity development can encompass for academic librarians. I’m really excited to share this work and see how others build on it going forward.

  1. What advice would you give to librarians who are trying to formulate or refresh their own research agenda?

I’m going to go back to the ideas of connection and reflection, because I think they’re critical here for folks who are formulating a research agenda for the first time, or seeking to restart scholarly inquiry in new ways, or feeling like the intellectual well is dry. Clearly I tend to illustrate ideas through my own examples, so I’ll share what I’ve experienced – while specifically naming some folks who have helped me in this work, because no one does it alone – to highlight these core principles in concrete ways.

When I first started out in academic librarianship and had to engage in scholarly research, I had two colleagues who were junior faculty librarians like me – Katie Greer and Mariela Hristova – who were tremendous assets. They were invaluable as sounding boards and collaborators, and working with both of them helped me to figure out what interested me and the shape that my scholarly agenda might take. I also had wonderful veteran colleagues who provided guidance – especially Shawn Lombardo, who held my hand the first time I used SPSS and who is perhaps the most amazing and essential second-set-of-eyes, ever. So for folks who are just starting out, I’d recommend that you find “your people” – the ones whom you trust, and whose input you value. They don’t have to be in your library, or even at your institution – connecting with folks whom you respect and who can help you advance how you think about your research will help you to be reflective and intentional in your work.

As I have become more settled in my scholarly work, it’s been easy to find myself in ruts – like I don’t have any ideas for inquiry, and maybe I never will again! In such instances, I’ve let myself lean into that feeling a little bit (read: wallow, sometimes) while still keeping myself open to opportunity. One way I’ve stayed open is by offering carte blanche research support to my junior colleagues. My promise to them is that I’ll collaborate on the article of their choice, or I’ll support their research work in whatever way they need – their scholarly interests don’t need to align with mine. I’ve worked with one colleague, Helen Levenson, on an article about collective collection development, which is certainly not an area where I have expertise (nor is it a facet of my research agenda). But working with her on this project helped me to practice my research and analytical skills (e.g. survey design, data analysis, manuscript preparation); I also developed a better understanding of pressing issues in academic librarianship at the same time. Keeping a proverbial foot in the research door, then, ensured that I was open to and thinking about scholarship – and I could find new avenues of inquiry for my own areas of interest.

I also think it’s important to share that my research agenda has not been failure-free! When I completed my dissertation, I sought to develop a number of articles from the data set – and I had two articles roundly rejected by top journals. I’ve discussed these experiences in another venue (in the context of open peer review), but I found it really disheartening – I questioned whether my work had value and, really, whether I knew what I was doing. In this instance, I gave myself time to reflect – and this space allowed me to see how I might move forward. Again, Mariela Hristova and Shawn Lombardo were essential in reading and talking through these drafts with me, alongside me. And Ann Medaille, who was the Associate Editor for Research Articles at Evidence-Based Library and Information Practice at that time (and is now Editor-in-Chief of that publication), helped me in innumerable ways to clarify my ideas so that they were suitable for publication. I’m so grateful for her work – it was essential to advancing the research agenda that I’m still exploring today. Even as an experienced researcher, then, I had to connect and reflect to continue to move forward.