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.
Marisa L. Méndez-Brady
California Institute of the Arts (CalArts)
Reference and Instruction Librarian
Number of Years Teaching:
Are you a dogs or cats fan?
I love both, but I do have an adorable dog named Baxter, so I’ll have to go with dogs. He’s a rescued pittie-mix from Texas that I’ve had for about eight years now.
What’s your favorite thing to do in your free time?
In my free time I renovate houses with my partner! We started renovating homes in Austin for our then-landlords back in 2010 and just got hooked on taking something decrepit and making it beautiful again. We are currently working on our house in the San Fernando Valley in California. We’re about a year into the renovation and we’re finally almost moved in!
Describe a favorite activity that you use with students (this could be for a face-to-face class, online, or hybrid class).
One of my favorite activities that I use with students is commonly referred to as the “Teach-In.” The “Teach-In” activity is the central activity in many of my lesson plans, and relies on a structured open-ended exploratory approach to teaching and learning. Typically, this activity addresses the ACRL Information Literacy Frames “Searching as Strategic Exploration” and “Research as Inquiry.” The rough outline for the activity is as follows. First, break students up into small groups and then assign each group a resource to explore (e.g., database, website, journal index, etc.). The key is that all students should be exploring the same concept/topic, but using information sources that will each provide a different perspective. Then, the students should have ample time to explore each resource, basing their exploration on the prompts provided by the library instructor. Once the different groups have explored the assigned resource, each group then presents their information source and teaches the class about how they might use that source for that topic and/or any upcoming assignments.
This activity works the best when there is an upcoming assignment that can ground the learning and the teaching librarian has enough time to plan out the activity in detail. Since this is very much an active learning activity/lesson plan, it requires that the structure is in place that guides the learning and directions are crystal clear. Make sure to include: (1) what should the students be looking for in that resource? and (2) what key things do you want the students to include in their presentation to the class?
I love this activity because it helps create a wonderful dynamic in the classroom where students are centered in the learning community. Plus, I always learn something new from the ways students approach learning library resources!
How do you avoid teaching burnout?
I avoid teaching burnout through collaboration. Bouncing ideas off of peers, colleagues, and mentors helps me get excited about working with students and reminds me why I chose to go into academic librarianship.
When I was at a larger institution, I regularly sought out co-teaching opportunities with colleagues whose work I respected and who I wanted to learn from. Each co-teaching opportunity both helped me learn new skills and pushed me to continually grow as an instructor. Brainstorming lesson plans with others and then watching colleagues in their teaching element really inspires me to keep going, even when I’m feeling burned out.
Now that I am at a smaller institution, I still try to collaborate and brainstorm as often as I can, although I admit it requires more intentionality to find collaborators. I try to collaborate with faculty and graduate student teaching assistants whenever possible in my local environment. That being said, most of my collaboration takes the form of digital communications. To foster connections to other teaching and learning librarians I use Slack and Google Hangouts to brainstorm new techniques and lesson plans. I also regularly schedule video chats where I can see my collaborators and feed off of their energy.
I also think it’s important to acknowledge when the burnout feelings start manifesting and not push them down or ignore them. Academic librarianship can be really lonely and isolating, especially for those of us in smaller institutions. It’s so important that I have a network of like-minded people I can scream, cry, and work through my burnout with.
Name two things you would share with a librarian who is new to teaching.
(1) You are absolutely entitled to push back against unreasonable demands from faculty, supervisors, administrators, and colleagues. If you need two weeks to prepare for library instruction, then you are absolutely entitled to ask for that much advance notice. If you need additional support, then ask for additional support. If it makes sense to ask the faculty/instructor to have the students complete a pre-or post-class assignment, then go ahead and do so. Teaching is hard, so make sure you have what you need to be your best teacher self! You know yourself, and you know what you need to do your job.
(2) Don’t be intimidated in the space or feel like you should already have it all figured out. Most librarians don’t have a background in pedagogy/andragogy and most libraries are constantly trying to figure out where they fit into the greater teaching and learning landscape. Experiment, try new things out, and go boldly into that classroom! And then find yourself a group of colleagues (either at your institution or beyond your local environment) to talk through the things that went well and the things that didn’t go so well in the classroom. Almost all of my favorite activities were terrible the first time I tried them out and got better through taking iterative approaches.
What’s your teaching philosophy?
My teaching philosophy is succinctly summed up by this bell hooks quote from her book Teaching Critical Thinking: “When everyone in the classroom, teacher and students, recognizes that they are responsible for creating a learning community together, learning is at its most meaningful and useful” (2010, 11).
To elaborate, my approach is focusing on developing critical consciousness around a concept or approach, as opposed to teaching a specific database/tool/strategy. The term “critical consciousness” was coined by philosopher Frantz Fanon and popularized in educational circles by Paulo Freire. Critical consciousness focuses on achieving an in-depth understanding of the world, allowing for the perception and exposure of social and political contradictions. In instruction, instead of relying on information transfer as pedagogical practice (e.g.,”sage on a stage”), the teacher guides and structures the learning so that students arrive at the learning objective(s) on their own as their critical consciousness is raised. Building a learning community in the classroom requires decentering my own authority and instead, centering the diversity of student experiences by allowing for flexibility and self-expression.
James Elmborg introduced the term to instruction librarianship via his 2006 article, “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice.” I highly recommend this article as a must read. I also like to think a lot about sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of habitus, or the ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that together build one’s world view. It is the way that individuals perceive the social world around them and react to it. At the center of my lesson plans is almost always the question: How can we break students’ habitus to raise critical consciousness?