Posts Tagged ‘Students’

In Memory of Teaching, Part 6: An Event

March 22, 2010

At some point during the past several years, colleagues reviewed me.  I wrote this.

My work as a teacher is described elsewhere in these documents,[1] but here I want to write briefly about myself as a learner.  These are general statements of belief and practice, but they are also the principles that describe my work as a scholar and professor.

  • The way to learn is to solve a problem that you give to yourself, discover for yourself, or use to explore situations where learning can occur.  Among the themes I have described steadily are the continuing, unfinished issues that have stayed with me for a long time and continue to lead me on.  As a teacher, I ask my students to work with problems of their design, not mine.
  • Critical thinking is an essential characteristic of professional practice.  In the classroom, I ask my students to describe their understandings of process, exploring options and making choices, and the patterns of relevance and response that lead them toward information.
  • Some of the most important parts of professional service – questioning, interviewing, articulating, responding, reflecting – might usefully be regarded as art forms, the crafting of inquiry as an artifact.  Beyond skill, tenacity and accuracy, our work should lead to an evolving aesthetics of our service and to an understanding of designed practice that aspires to the qualities of artistry.
  • Good conversations about practice are not accidental; they happen between people with aspirations for good work, and they can lead to real, practical insights for the design of services.  Encouraged to collaborate in public, to assist each other in reference rooms, and to grasp the relationship between interdependence and success in the giving of help, my students cannot learn the lessons I hope for alone.
  • The truths that guide practice are best crafted from experiences in situations that permit error, confusion, ambiguity and doubt.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, these conditions have an educative value that a good learner would not want to miss.  We may not always have help, support, advice, or time. Consequently it is important to experience situations where we learn to rely upon ourselves and our own thoughts; to test, reject and accept them, and to discover that we are typically more able than we think ourselves to be.
  • Perhaps our greatest challenge is to grasp the large part of our work that will always remain silent.

In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds — a book I have often asked my Cultural Institutions students to read Jerome Bruner describes his schoolteacher, Miss Orcutt.

In effect she was inviting me to extend my world of wonder to encompass hers.  She was not just informing me.  She was, rather negotiating the world of wonder and possibility.  Molecules, solids,  liquid, movement were not facts; they were to be used in pondering and imagining.  Miss Orcutt was the rarity.  She was a human event, not a transmission device. (126)

I think it is my style, and certainly it is my aspiration, to be like Miss Orcutt, a human event in the lives of my learners, among professionals, and others.  This is all I wanted to do.


[1] See also:  David Carr, “Tensions of Teaching,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, Volume 39, Number 3, Summer 1998, pages 195-203.

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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]