Posts Tagged ‘Libraries’

In Memory of Teaching, Part 5: Assumptions

March 17, 2010

These are three excerpts from syllabi, slightly revised.  When I was a teacher, I tried to live up to these assumptions.


1.

Education should nurture the independent capability of the learner; these experiences should contribute to the composing of a new life.

A thoughtful student can make appropriate, skill-expanding choices among useful and challenging tasks; making the choice is part of the learning.

Mature critical thinking and design skills come through various and sometimes unexpected experiences.

Any inquiry, especially under the constraints of the classroom, is always unfinished; truly important work always remains dynamically open, ready for new data or reinterpretation.

If what we do is an art as well as a skill, students should develop their work as artists do, over time, with the critical suggestions of others.

2.

The collection is the center of experiences, the evolving core of the institution.

No cultural institution can be excellent without an excellent construction of information — a collection proven to be pertinent, responsive, and generative for everyone who uses it.

Assume that nothing in a library or museum collection is there by accident; it is the result of a conscious decision and active planning in support of a mission.  This is important:  Everything here has been collected; nothing is present by accident; all collections are part of the library’s design.

Assume that mastery cannot occur with anything less than a flexible collection expanding, extending, and completing the user’s search.  We must practice with the best information at hand.  Therefore a collection is designed, never finished.

A good collection helps us to create new paths and connections. A good collection also makes us more competent and more committed to service and self-knowledge. A great collection does these things, too – but better than a collection that is merely good. A great collection raises human intellect, advances minds and mindfulness, and invites human presence.

3.

All  service to others is informed by self-knowledge.  There is no way to mastery without grasping for yourself a mindful process for designing and constructing a collection of information, and centering it on human beings and their needs.

No library collection evolves by accident.  Intelligent people create it, animate it, and change it according to what they believe it ought to be.  My purpose is to encourage and expand your thinking.  You should know what you believe about libraries and their collections; and to help you to envision how you will craft your practice from those beliefs.

In school – any school — there is no substitute for individual thinking, and there is not much science to it at all.  Everything we practice gradually becomes an art.  Therefore be prepared to understand that the librarian’s greatest tool is, as it has ever been, the imagination of people and their lives, their limits and possibilities, and the alternatives they have not yet imagined.

In Memory of Teaching, Part 1

January 18, 2010

Situations have to be created that release the energies required, that provoke interest, that move persons to reach beyond themselves.

Maxine Greene, Variations on a Blue Guitar

Over four decades my work was teaching: teaching schoolchildren, teaching library users, teaching teachers, teaching researchers, and teaching librarians. It has always been useful to reflect on teaching from inside its challenges, to grasp both its disappointments and successes. As I shed that teaching life (Like an overcoat? Like a snake-skin?) there are traces that remain, and I have assembled them here in a series in memory of my teaching.

What happens when learning happens?

1. Some Observations

We risk something. We ask something.

We are willing to learn. We think of ourselves as willing to learn.

A feeling of openness, or fearlessness, or play, or all three, is present.

A valuable problem or an unknown with no evident solution or outcome is present, and we want to think about it.

One or all of these is present: an agent, a helper, or a teacher; useful evidence, sources of knowledge relevant and valuable to the question; experiences that release energies, provoke interest, and “move persons to reach beyond themselves.”

Our experiences are about the present, and about our own lives as they happen in different situations.

Our new experiences unfold our thoughts and memories.

We communicate with each other face to face.

We seek and select messages on our own, and are not subjected to unchosen messages from strangers.

We are encouraged to think for ourselves, and we freely experience that courage.

We are free to place our attention anywhere, for any time, to pause, to return, to move away, to stay.

We are able to talk about the issues, objects, dimensions, and ideas before us, and we feel that we can express what we need to say.

When we speak to each other, our words become parts of our experiences of each other.

Every experience we have affects the next experience we have.

Our capacity to contain changes: we know more tools, resources, or paths.

Our capacity to act changes: we have more skills, questions, or strategies.

Our capacity to plan changes: we think of the future as possibilities and responses.

We make observations of ordinary and extraordinary things amid useful information.

We do not always make our thinking small, safe, correct, or purposeful. We think big, take risks, oppose convention, and imagine freely.

Our identity changes: we are less hesitant, more confident and articulate.

We do not act as anyone other than ourselves, and we do not act in the interests of ourselves alone.

We think of the known and the unknown.

We become aware of ourselves learning.

We become capable of expressing what we have experienced and remembered, if only to ourselves.

We are likely to trust the situation for learning in the future.

We are likely to reflect on our experiences.

We are unafraid of changing.

2. Some Questions

What is at risk when we learn?

What happens when the situation for learning is so open or broad that it becomes difficult to manage, or frightening to us?

What happens when the situation for learning is so closed or inflexible that it becomes out of our control, or threatening to us?

How do we negotiate and plan when the situation for learning is limitless or uncompromising?

What is our capability, when we are calm and unafraid?

Is our changing imperceptible, even to us?

If something is unknown to us, how can we describe it? How will we know it when we find it?

What kind of teacher or agent will we trust? How and when should we accept help?

What should our resources look like? What should they do for us?

How do we reflect on an invisible experience? How can we describe it?

When we regard ourselves as learners, do we perceive something inside or outside ourselves?

What motivates us? Our objectives? Our processes? Our needs?

What parts of ourselves become different in our own eyes?

What parts of ourselves become different in the eyes of others?

“In Memory of Teaching” has six parts. Next: “Teaching is Over.”

Last Night, Part 2

January 11, 2010

Typically, at the start of a course, I would distribute index cards and ask my students for vital data, please:  1.  Name, 2. Address, 3. E-mail, 4. Destiny, 5. Background …  followed by a pause to reflect, then we moved on.  In the second part of this last class talk I wanted to suggest that destiny appears every day in small and invisible ways, a possible self tentatively reminding us, as in a song, to be true.

When we think about the fundamental library cognition, connecting knowledge to knowledge in the presence of the unknown, we enter the magic part of our work.  There is no way to predict the cognitive value, ecstatic surge, or conversion of energy created by one connective act, no matter how frail the tissue of connection may be.  There are, of course, the natural connections between like beings, places, events, theories, and cultures; there are mirrors in every human and natural thing, waiting for us to recognize them and gaze into them and speak about what we see.

But I am more interested in thinking about the connections that are not driven by a natural order or the logics of reference.  I am far more interested in the ideas of insight (the small moment that changes an entire problem) and confluence (the strengthening resonance or solace that comes when you and I and others bring our minds together, outside of our insular differences). Our class, my students, has been a form of confluence.

As I said of one book we brought to class, “We use the metaphor so casually – the worldwide web – as though it is a new thing, our thing.  [We need] to understand that connection is human, continuous, generative, and ancient.  [We need] a long view, and an aerial view, of knowledge and complexity, information and its effects on our energy, imagination, and confidence.”  In this way, slowly and gradually, with countless setbacks and failures, we might come to create a practice that undermines fear, isolation, indifference, and blindness.

Among these we might first strive to reverse the blindness and begin to understand fear’s origins and how it induces despair in the long flight of human work.  Remember our responsibility for instruments of thought and vision, concepts to express the possibilities of public learning, and the diverse ways of looking at critical human issues and challenges.  We will be judged by what and how we gather, and then by how we give. When we cultivate these instruments together, in some cases inventing them to inspire our communities with ideas and thinking they have never held, we have begun to understand the cultural institution as a forum in a democracy, a place not a place.

Remember that much of what a cultural institution contains actually can be seen as a history of human dexterity, or a history of the human hand. This is clearly true of a museum, but it is less obviously true of a library. After all, what do we make by hand, what do we invent, what do we change, where do we change it, what do we teach, what do we touch, what do we give, in the making of a difference?  And yet, all meaning is a difference arrived at invisibly by hand:  a construction or a touch, an indication, a fresh connection, a book carried to a library desk, or borrowed and placed in a backpack.  I should have thought more and taught more about hands!

Now it is time to exhort you and end.

Never stop reading.  Reading invents our identity, and when we do not read deeply, our lives become shallow. Having just finished a book called Pretty Birds, by Scott Simon, about a young teenage Serbian Muslim girl pressed into service as a sniper during the war for Sarajevo, it is easy for me to say that (having recently been transported) the greatest difference ever made in human beings is the capacity to read.  The obvious reason, you know:  I read, I am a reader.  I love the police procedural, the western, the thriller, the essay, the sonnet.  But the invisible actions of reading make me wonder most:   How reading changes our intellects.  How reading causes us to ask questions.  How a great book is an incendiary device.  How reading is both our privacy and our openness.  How we are as permeable when we read as when we love.

Never ever underestimate the place of literacy in libraries – or, alas, the likelihood of the unappealing and perhaps imminent future that Tom Peters recently described in Library Journal as a place where, “Only at living history farms will we see people reading.”  Every day I remind myself that I am for reading.  What I do not do every day is thank people who taught me this skill; to be grateful that my father read; to remember that a library came to our town when I was in grade five or so; to acknowledge that I rescued myself several times from miserable choices by reading; and that, when I could, I made a new choice to become a librarian, and that I have lived a life constructed with books and renewed by reading every day for the past fifty years.  My courage, my possibility, what little there is of it, has come from reading.

So:  thank you to Mrs. Mills, who taught me to read in kindergarten, Autumn 1950; Mr. Woodruff, the principal of that school; Mae Carden, who wrote our reading method book; Cliff Carr, who read every day at the kitchen table and in the middle of his sleepless nights; and Mrs. Nordling – the first town librarian of Whippany, NJ.  I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived long enough to attend library school, to have taught librarians, and to have made a life among books. And thank you to Carol, who sees me buy countless books without one word of reproach.  Marry a reader and the pleasures of a reading life will multiply beyond counting.

My students, it is our last reading, The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel, that is the most savory to me and the most profound, because it confirms and illuminates the conundrum in the title of my essay and book, “A Place Not a Place.”  Even after writing that essay and others and collecting them in that book, I felt unsure of myself, and unable to explain with certainty what I meant by the title phrase, “a place not a place.”  Fortunately or not, no one has asked me to explain.

Manguel helped me to understand how the library embodies knowledge; how knowledge is our workplace, both inviting and constructing our imagination of the possible; and how such collections – library collections, with their extraordinary collisions and alliances, openings and expansions, gateways and locked secrets, variations and confirmations – are not themselves most importantly books or objects, but other, invisible things and invisible actions.  Like museums, libraries are living configurations, always in motion, always flowing toward something we are challenged to name.  What is it, this moving thing?

It is a process of becoming different, alone or with others.  Alone, it is a process of becoming something previously uninvented in other lives. Among others, it is a process of becoming something together.

It is an array of possibilities, connective paths, undesigned and almost imperceptible patterns; suggestions and strands, evoked not by themselves but because of our presence and our actions as we ask.

It is an organization of differences in content and perspective, a structure that accommodates variances, seeks out contradictions, and holds truth – where? – somewhere waiting for the person to craft it for one self, a truth to hold for now (as every truth is) until a revision becomes necessary.

It is a record of human change, perceptible and imperceptible.  It is a record of the human hand.

It is a forum, message center, meditation center, inquiry center, workshop, kitchen, laboratory.

It is a construction of categories and classes, precise, exhaustive, and impermeable.  And yet, it is also a construction of invisible strands, tangled, insensible yet often sensuous, vessels tangling and coursing between categories and classes, permitting the practice of constant, promiscuous and essential intercourse among them.

It is an endless conceptual web, and it always has been.

It is a hypothesis.  What will happen if we make a library here? What might we want to have happen here?

It is a mirror for every intellect.   It is a flow of new knowledge in countless forms – that flow including the thoughts and experiences of human beings walking through the door as I say this.  And so, it is also a perpetual encounter.

And so on, and so on, and so on and on and on:  this is my description of knowledge, our workplace, appropriately incomplete, certainly shallow and inadequate, an evolving fabrication of my own that my students have had to endure, as they have done kindly, for sixty or seventy, or eighty semesters, if you include summer school.

My dear students, it is fabricating, crafting, constructing, connecting, interpreting.  If I were to find a model for the librarian, it would be an artist, an architect, a musician, a choreographer, a builder.  And I would educate you as an artist, an architect, a musician, a choreographer, a builder is educated.

But that is over, and there is no more chance of that.  Instead, here are these words from the American painter, Robert Henri.

There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual.  Such are the moments of our greatest happiness.  Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.  If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign.  It was in this hope that the arts were invented.  Sign-posts on the way to what may be.  Sign-posts toward greater knowledge.

Every person (even if not an artist) deserves such moments in a life, and moments in a day where the sign-posts clearly tell where knowledge lies and what it means.  Not information; knowledge.  Because you have been my students, I have confidence that you all can decide the difference for yourselves.

You deserve these moments, just like everyone else.  In practice I hope you will teach yourselves to understand the relationship between living and knowing. I hope you will become clear about the possibilities of lives with information and the impossibilities of lives without information in democracy. I trust you will learn to use the former as ways to rescue and revitalize the latter. But mostly, you rescue the lives; then democracy will be rescued as well.

We are at our best when we give freely until we disappear.  Our fundamental value, as I see it, is to be generous with our gifts and judgments, and kind in our words to each other.

I am not yet done:  I have many more things to write and speak.  But I want to thank you for being my students in this last term, and thank you for being here on this last night of my work as a teacher.

[Next:  Recovered Documents About Teaching]