Posted by: Emily | November 12, 2009

Technical skills vs. content skills

I watched a student in my class yesterday struggle so hard with what to do with what she found in the library. She had a big broad topic, something along the lines of “How media affects the self-image of teenagers.” I worked with her until we found an edited book that addressed a number of narrower issues in that big broad topic. (I love an edited volume, though my publisher says they don’t tend to sell all that well.) She went and grabbed it from the stacks and brought it back and held it up and waved it at me, saying “So, is this related to my topic? Is it relevant? I don’t think this is useful!” I tried to explain that only she could tell me the answer to that, and that it would require both some reading and some thinking. I wonder if her reading skills aren’t very strong, if that’s what her resistance is about. By the end of our hour together in the classroom, she was thinking of jettisoning her topic (“There’s nothing on it”) and switching to another big broad topic that would present the same problems. Lots of frustration, lots of confusion.

I also watched her help another frustrated and confused student link from one of our citation databases to the full text of an article using our link resolver.

What’s the relationship between these two skill sets? If I’m succeeding at what I call “tool instruction,” maybe that’s as much as I could hope for as an instruction librarian. Is the rest simply beyond the scope of the library classroom? Is the reading, synthesizing, and writing in fact the domain of, well, a four year undergraduate education in the liberal arts?

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