Thursday, May 20, 2010

Apparently, a lack of planning on your part does constitute an emergency on my part

I know it's been a while since I've written a post with much substance--there are many reasons for that, of varying levels of validity. It's been "research season" at school, which means I'm busier than usual (and more brain dead than usual when I do have down time). I've also been putting together a presentation for a grant proposal I wrote about increasing the availability of assistive tech on campus; that happened on Tuesday, and I should know the final decision on it in mid-June. And I've been working on the Summer Reading program (which I will write more about later). So it's not that I haven't had anything to say; it's just that--as anyone who's talked to me in real life in the past few weeks can tell you--sentence formation has not been my strong suit.

There is one significant issue I've been grappling with, and it's one I'm regularly confronted with, particularly when there are a lot of research papers and projects going on; I've resisted writing about it for many reasons, but mostly because not only do I not have a sense of what the right answer is, I'm not sure I know what my right answer is.

One of my guiding principles is that I won't do research for students. I will show students where to search. I will help students devise search terms. I will guide them in effective database usage. I will try--and mostly fail--to clearly explain the difference between keywords and subject headings. I will resist the urge to wail and gnash my teeth (at least openly) when a student refuses to believe me when I tell them that search engines and databases don't understand natural language (and remain patient when a student asks why I just don't invent one that does, as it would make life easier). I will sit next to a student as long as necessary to help them find the sources they need and cite them properly. I will keep my hand off the damn mouse and let them do the work.

But I will not do the research for the student.


All of my principles and beliefs work just fine when students start the research process when they're supposed to, and come for help (for which I am readily and frequently available, and routinely rearrange my schedule to provide), and ask for help once they're run into a dead end. None of my principles and beliefs work at all when a student (or, a couple times this semester, their parent) comes to me less than 24 hours before a paper is due, hopelessly lost about what they need or where to find it.

I want to do exactly what I do with other students--sit them down at a computer, put their hand on the mouse, and walk them through the research process. But that whole process takes time. And when a student is in the middle of a full-scale-freakout, the last thing they have is the time or patience needed to do research. And so that is the point at which I often end up taking over the mouse and finding resources for (or, I like to delude myself, with) a student. I say "click here, click here, print this, here's the source you need." I try and throw in some incidental instruction, but I know none of that sticks. And it drives me crazy.

In those moments I want to be able to say, with a clear conscience, "I'm sorry, but you've waited too long." It hardly seems right that the students who didn't plan and didn't make the effort get the most research "help." And I know, in the long term, that the students who plan properly and start early and actually learn research skills will be better off, academically, in the long run. And I know, in the long term, that students who don't develop these skills in high school will reap the consequences of poor planning and researching skills. Or they won't. 'Cause chances are there will always be someone like me who is willing to compromise their principles in order to help students find information. Because that is, after all, another core principle of librarianship.

Trying to hold the line between teaching students and doing the research for them becomes infinitely more difficult any time the process involves a) tears b) irate parents or c) both. And anything I can do to neutralize tears or parents is, in that moment, the right choice. Because as much as I would like to be able to tell students that they've waited too long and will need to throw themselves at the mercy of their teachers, that is not a viable option.

But here's the thing that I think rankles most about this whole issue. The students who wait to the last minute and come to me in a panic? The students who demand resources--usually late at night--immediately if not sooner? The students who, by some measures, get the most help? Also the students least likely to say thank you.

If I'm going to compromise my principles for you, the least you could do is show a little gratitude.


  1. I have a sweet, persistent delusion that the students I "help" with last-minute research will learn their lesson and start their next project a little earlier.

    More often they just get mad at me because the sources available the night before are sometimes sub-optimal sources.

  2. I find that by the time I'm helping these students that, because I've worked with so many other students on the same assignment, I'm really good at finding the resources. So sometimes I'll fake the same dead ends I've seen other students run into, just to prove a point. A point which is, of course, lost on these students.

  3. Ha! Just think of the excitement involved with people coming to your apartment the night before a test, an exam, etc. looking to learn a unit/month/year's worth of [insert ANY subject matter here]. In other words, I feel your pain. Here is an [albeit slightly passive-aggressive] alternative --Make a schedule/policy noting you are only available > 24(48)hrs (or whenever you're comfy with before the due date for actual research) -- after this you will reserve your resources for checking reference lists, research for projects further out, & all that other stuff you do.

    Also, aren't you proud of me for properly signing in?

  4. Oh so proud.

    My other favorite is students looking for "extra" credit at the end of the year; I always explain that "extra" implies that they've done everything they needed to up until that point--and if they had, they wouldn't be scrambling for points.

    I would like to set up a schedule/policy like that, but I feel like enforcing such a policy could get me the kind of attention I don't want from parents/powers that be. But I'm going to try and come up with something like that for next year. It will at least make a little more clear that these last-minute requests are ridiculous, even if I do end up being directed to comply with them.

  5. Ooh the extra credit one is another sore spot for me. I've wanted to have the following grading policy that would address that but after you read it you'll see it will never fly. (Not enough grade inflation)

    I would probably change lettering a bit, but I'll use existing letters:

    F - Does not demonstrate sufficient mastery of course objectives
    C - Demonstrates minimal acceptable mastery of course objectives
    B - Demonstrates superior mastery of course objectives
    A - Demonstrates superior mastery of course objectives AND goes significantly above and beyond base requirements. (I would have optional (extra credit) assignments that students would need to successfully complete to obtain an "A"

    Most people in the course would earn a C, by the way, and there would be nothing wrong with that. (In my imaginary world of course)
    I also would keep "an effort system you are familiar with" - as I like to give that feedback. It's helpful to know a student got a C but worked hard for it vs. a student that should have had a B but didn't work hard.

    Of course, really we probably should just eliminate grades all together and just have PASS/FAIL with extensive comments. But that takes too much effort. (I am not being sarcastic -- it is unreasonable for some public school teachers with huge student loads to do that)

    Oh, "the powers that be". I miss that place a little bit, I must admit!