Posted by: Emily | November 6, 2008

Authority in the library classroom

I am a firm believer in projecting fun in the library classroom, and try my best to upend assumptions students bring with them to the library about librarians: That we’re stern and boring out of touch know-it-alls. I do plenty of clowning around to try to make students think I’m more like one of them and less like one of their professors, and refer liberally to Facebook, MySpace, instant messaging, and whatever other computer stuff I figure they’re goofing off with at the back of the class. I try to use examples that go awry and am committed to failing in some small way during every class. I think this engine only runs when I am approachable and easy to talk to and nonthreatening and willing to need help and appear stupid just like we all do if we want to eventually become successful researchers. Being wrong is a big part of the process, and I try to model that in class.

Sometimes this backfires.

Yesterday I had a class of surly adolescent boys. We were standing outside the library talking, waiting for the professor to show up, and one of the students, cap pulled firmly down over his eyes, looked out from under the brim and said to me, Why are we here? Instead of answering this challenge with a cheerful but clear and authoritative response along the lines of To learn how to use library resources! I said, I’m not sure! Let’s decide together! My authority? Down the drain. When we got upstairs to the classroom, my traditional I’m-a-pal strategies caused not the shy smiling and raised hands in the back that I’m used to, but outright hostility. The students didn’t laugh with me, they laughed at me. And the conviction of the boys in the front row that We know all this already made it hard for me to teach to the students in the back who didn’t actually know all this, and made it impossible for me to teach those same boys who, as it turned out, did not know what you might find in a library catalog. And when my search strategy went awry? They shook their heads as if they knew it all along: Emily doesn’t know what she’s doing.

So what do you think? How do you balance approachability with the need to keep control of the classroom? How do you project authority without appearing authoritarian? How much does the presence and committment of the faculty member in the session contribute to the ways the students view you? And what do you do when you lose control of the classroom like I did? How do you pull things back in line?



  1. Oh, Emily. I’m sorry about your hard time in the classroom. I’ve had classes like that, and they feel awful.

    The way I handle disruptive students often depends on my mood and whether it’s a battle I feel like fighting. Sometimes I ignore it. Sometimes I’ll comment on it in a neutral way, “You know, I really shouldn’t be hearing people talking right now, and it’s kind of distracting.” Or I’ll say, “Did you have a question?” And sometimes I’m much more forthright. The other day, when a student was doing a presentation in one of my student-led demo sessions, other kids were talking and laughing. I said to them, “Why are you talking when your classmate is presenting? That is incredibly rude and disrespectful!” That shut them up right quick.

    It is a tricky balance, straddling the line between approachability while also maintaining order. My strategy is to be myself while also being a good teacher. For me, that means being my own funny, friendly, approachable self, while also being committed to the outcomes I am charged with achieving. I’ll make jokes, sure, and if students engage me in a fun and friendly manner, I’ll ride that wave and play along. But I’ll rein it in if I need to. I can usually sense when that energy is getting out of control, and I’ll modify my approach or demeanor accordingly in order to get back on track.

    This happened in an FYS I did a few weeks ago. The energy in the room was amazing and I was totally enjoying myself. I was totally engaged with the students and they were engaged with me and I was ON. But I knew I needed to pull back a bit, so I was all like, “Okay, okay, I’m sooo glad that that library research is so entertaining, but let’s get back to work here.”

    I feel like what we do in the library instruction classroom requires a constant battle of self-legitimating. Students don’t take the session seriously. They think it’s a goof-off class. They think they don’t have to pay attention. Of course I want students to like me, but I’m ever mindful of the seriousness of my charge, and while I want the classroom to be fun, it is still a *classroom*, and I’m willing to sacrifice their liking me in favor of carrying out the job I’m there to do.

  2. […] adolescents, redux Much to my trepidation last week, I faced session two with the group of surly teens. I felt so defeated by our first session together that I didn’t know how in the world I […]

  3. I would have preferred the stuffy know-it-all to the calculated hipster. It’s the difference between open indoctrination and underhanded manipulation. Either way you’re going to face resistance and hostility, in the first place because the kids are still trying to establish their own autonomy, and in the second place because they’re smart enough to know when they’re being conned. But only the former guarantees their respect and maybe even sympathy, if not their actual cooperation, unless you’re a genuinely regressive grown-up. It’s all about authenticity, baby. You may think you’re being authentic, but who are we to make demands on how others ought to see us? They’ll see us however they want, and we have to learn to be cool with that — or oblivious. Isn’t that why so many people like Napolean Dynamite? Also watch the movie Waterland.

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