Duke University Professor of Writing, Dr. Denise Comer shares her best practices for achieving research objectives by integrating library instruction into writing intensive courses.
In what ways, if any, does your institution’s library intersect with writing courses? How does this relationship (or lack thereof) impact writing course design and pedagogy?
Relationships between libraries and writing courses vary drastically across teaching contexts. At some institutions, writing courses have no interactions with libraries. Other institutions include one mandatory library workshop in each first-year writing class, and still others include a fully integrated, semester-long relationship between writing courses and the libraries.
Many factors shape the relationship between libraries and writing courses, including an institution’s resources, the learning objectives for the writing course and the library, the larger roles of the library and writing program across the curriculum, and individual instructor pedagogies and preferences.
At the institution where I teach, we have agreed to integrate library instruction into first-year writing. Since our first-year writing learning outcomes include research, and since our institution has the resources to sustain such arrangements, this relationship enriches and facilitates writing pedagogy.
Key to this success is that these library interactions are tailored individually for each writing course.
Key to this success, though, is that these library interactions are tailored individually for each writing course. Individual instructors partner with individual librarians, often who have subject-area specialty, to collaborate on the library component, so each interaction is uniquely shaped to fit with the particular course. Some instructors and librarians integrate one library workshop, others hold two or three. Some writing faculty include visits to a university archive or special collection. Some library workshops occur at an early stage in writing project development, for discovery purposes; others at a later stage, for more targeted research. Throughout each partnership, the instructor and librarian work together to define the goals and structure of the workshop(s).
Integrating library workshops effectively into writing courses involves considering the following questions:
- What are the research-based learning outcomes of the course?
- How can library research support and facilitate the course objectives and/or the goals of a particular writing project?
- What library resources can support students in their development as writers, be it for a particular writing project or longer term?
- When in the semester does it make the most sense for students to learn about library resources and research?
- What are the learning priorities for students regarding library research?
- What are the larger roles of the library and the writing course in the institution’s overall curriculum?
- What library-related resources are available to students?
With an online, asynchronous writing course, for instance, librarians and/or writing faculty could record video lectures about the library, post resources and links to the course site, and/or develop more robust online instructional modules.
My first-year writing course usually includes a research-based writing project, developed during the second half or latter third of the term. Each semester, I partner with a librarian to design and develop library instruction for the course. Our interactions tend to proceed along the following pattern, a structure that owes gratitude to the larger vision for library instruction in first-year writing developed at our institution; please see here for more detail):
Pre-semester. The librarian and I discuss learning outcomes for the writing project and the library workshop. We agree on a proposed date for when library instruction will be valuable for students, preferably at a point of need, when students are turning their attention directly to research. I provide the librarian with a syllabus and any writing assignments related to the library workshop.
Early Course Integration. The librarian has typically developed a Library Guide, integrated directly onto our course’s learning management system (Sakai, in our case). This Library Guide includes information about library services and relevant databases/periodicals that relate to the course’s overarching themes. I include reference to our librarian on our course’s syllabus, and discuss with students when, how, and why we will be making use of the library within our course, and how that work relates to our writing. The librarian typically reaches out to the students via email during the early weeks of the course to highlight available resources and make introductions. Pre-workshop Preparation. In advance of the library workshop, students complete an online mini-suite of tutorials that address basic components of library instruction, such as registering for inter-library loan. I discuss with students what we will be doing in the upcoming library workshop and why. Often, the library workshop occurs when students are beginning research for an annotated bibliography or when they are choosing from among several possible topics for their research projects. I often, therefore, ask students to prepare a research proposal in advance of the library workshop, and post it to a place where the librarian can access it. This helps students go into the library session with a sense of purpose and preparation, and provides the librarian tailored ideas about possible research routes for the students.
On the day of the library workshop (or the first of several library workshops), I aim to be fully present and engaged. This is not my day off.
Library Workshop(s). On the day of the library workshop (or the first of several library workshops), I aim to be fully present and engaged. This is not my day off. While the librarian takes lead, I listen and contribute as needed. The workshop tends to include time for students to conduct research so they can make progress on their assignments and see the value of the research. Often, students work in pairs or small groups to experiment with search terms or databases. Specific areas of focus during the library workshop may include one or more of the following: accessing and navigating the catalog and research databases, developing search terms, using Boolean operators, learning Endnote, browsing and skimming resources, and/or differentiating between scholarly and more popular materials.
Post-Workshop(s) Extension. Following the library workshop(s), I continue to work with students on library-related skills, and the librarian continues to be available as well, to consult individually with students through chat, in-person, or by phone. Sometimes students send the librarian final versions of their annotated bibliographies so that the librarian can see the results of the students’ library research.
Assessment & Development. Assessment is built into the library workshops programmatically. Librarians ask students to submit a feedback survey at the end of each workshop, and program leaders from first-year writing and the libraries meet semi-annually to review and discuss survey data and program needs. Other formal and informal interactions also sponsor assessment and development: librarians are invited to certain writing program events each year, and we invite a lead librarian to visit during pedagogy seminars for new writing faculty to discuss overarching aims for library instruction and to facilitate ideation about how to integrate library instruction most meaningfully into their courses.
In cases where library resources are scarce, writing faculty can guide students to make meaningful use of available scholarly resources such as JSTOR, Google Scholar, or Library Guides publicly accessible from other institutions.
But even as I describe this pattern of interactions, I can already imagine all the ways that this structure would be impossible or inadvisable to duplicate in other institutional contexts. Still, key components of effective integration can be adapted for other institutional contexts. With an online, asynchronous writing course, for instance, librarians and/or writing faculty could record video lectures about the library, post resources and links to the course site, and/or develop more robust online instructional modules. In cases where library resources are scarce, writing faculty can guide students to make meaningful use of available scholarly resources such as JSTOR, Google Scholar, or Library Guides publicly accessible from other institutions. When a writing course does not have a research-based component, writing faculty might choose not to integrate library workshops at all. Library instruction that is completely dissociated from a writing course would likely be ineffective anyway.
Of utmost importance across all contexts is careful, collaborative, and continued thinking about what role the libraries can and should have (or not) in a writing course.
What are your experiences with library instruction and writing? What have you found to be more or less effective across the contexts in which you teach and learn?