The awesome in libraries and service-learning…and yes, the students see me in my jammies


Artwork by John LeMasney,

I’m super stoked to be a part of Show Me The Awesome, a multi-blog series initiated by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, and Kelly Jensen for librarians to share their awesome ideas and success stories, a-ha moments, and much more!  Read more about the project here.

In order to share my most recent awesome experience, I must share another awesome experience.  Consider it a two for-one, if you will.  About five years ago, my a-ha moment came to me.

I was really frustrated with my information literacy course and needed to make some changes.  I had several faculty friends who taught service-learning courses, and it suddenly occurred to me…could I integrate service-learning in my own course?  Service-learning requires that service be integrated into the curriculum of the course to support the learning objectives (it isn’t a stand-alone day of volunteerism, for example).  Why can’t my students do research for a nonprofit as I teach them the process?  The research would be the service.  Wouldn’t this give their work more meaning?  My theory was that they would be much more motivated to turn in a research portfolio to a real, living organization that will actually put it to use, rather than just turning it in to me (who will grade it and then…what?  It gets recycled?)

I scoured the literature.  There was no evidence of anyone, anywhere teaching such a course.  This simultaneously thrilled and discouraged me.  It thrilled me because I realized maybe I was on to something that I could contribute to my profession.  It discouraged me because huge projects like this overwhelm me, in general.  It’s my nature.  I doubted that I could do it.  Most of the time, I prefer a road map from which to start.  There was no road map.  I would have to pave the road myself, with the help of my co-teacher at the time, a faculty friend with service-learning experience and our Director of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement at Wright State.  We figured it all out, and we made it work!  I have taught the course once a year for the past five years (excluding this year…unfortunately, the course had to be cancelled due to low enrollment…but I digress.  Suffice it to say the course will be back and better than ever next year!).

The result?  The students are much more motivated to do the work; in fact, on the final day of reflection I inevitably hear this phrase:  “This class should be required for all students.  It really helped me understand research better and I know these will be useful skills throughout my college career.”  I NEVER heard that before my service-learning course.  Of course, I never had a final reflection day before I incorporated service-learning, either.  If you’d like to learn more about this course, everything I’ve ever written about it is here on my blog, and in a C&RL News Article and my book chapter in Student Engagement and the Academic Library.  (How’s that for shameless self-promotion!?)

All of this brings me to my most recent AWESOME experience, which is really meant to be the focus of this post.  Because of my service-learning experience in my own course, I stumbled upon an opportunity to become an embedded librarian in a course called Social and Environmental Sustainability in Appalachia.  It’s an interdisciplinary service-learning honors course taught by a Social Work faculty member, Dr. Sarah Twill, and an Earth and Environmental Sciences faculty member, Hunt Brown.  They had taught the course twice before and had been disappointed with their students research papers, so I suggested the concept of the embedded librarian.  Right on the spot, they offered me the job, so to speak.  (Full disclosure:  it does help that I am a friend of Dr. Twill).

Here’s where the AWESOME comes in, if you ask me.  If I’m truly going to embed myself in the course, it means I must also take the week-long service trip to Southeast Ohio in the Appalachian region.  This is the culminating service experience in the course.  The instructors provide content all semester about the social and environmental issues faced in Appalachia, and then we experience them for ourselves by working with multiple community partners on both social and environmental service projects in Athens County in Southeast Ohio.

So, by now, maybe your wheels are spinning.  “Wait, so you go on a week long service trip? With the faculty and students?”  Me:  Yes!    “Wow, your administration lets you go for the week?”  Me:  Yes, and I’m every so grateful to them and to my colleagues for covering extra desk hours that week.  “Wait, so…the students see you in your pajamas?” Me:  Yep, they sure do!

We stay for a week and work on projects like:  cutting kale and other veggies at an organic farm, testing water pH and flow in Monday Creek and it’s tributaries, building a hoop house for a community garden, help local elderly or disabled neighbors with chores around their home, shift collections in the local library system, and lots more!  The community becomes the co-educator.  It’s a win-win-win-win for all!

[An aside:  There are lots of other posts on my blog, Service Learning Librarian, about this course and this trip, so you can stick around and read more if you’d like.  If nothing else, search for “ethic of inefficiency” and learn more about it – it’s a refreshing perspective on work.  Do it!  You’ll be glad you did!]

We returned from my second service trip (Sarah & Hunt’s fourth trip) about a month ago.  Experiencing such an immersion with students (and faculty, for that matter) is rare for most librarians who typically get to spend only 50 minutes with students (unless we teach our own for-credit course or otherwise embed ourselves).  It reminds me about all of the things they deal with as students and allows me to reflect on my expectations of them.  And, I hope that they learn that they don’t know everything there is to know about research and that they can and should ask for help.  I also hope they get that librarian stereotype out of their heads, if I’m being perfectly honest.  (In addition to learning at least some information literacy skills along the way).

Dr. Twill and I, along with two additional co-presenters, spoke about this course (and other opportunities, in general, for librarians to become involved with service-learning) at the Association of College and Research Libraries Conference in Indianapolis this April.  Shortly after our presentation, I found this tweet:

“I’ve decided that Maureen Barry is a rock star with her service-learning projects and embedded librarianship. #acrl2013

Not only that, but since I’ve returned from the conference, I’ve had at least 6 emails from colleagues all over the country inquiring about my service-learning information literacy course.

AND….the good news keeps on coming…I discovered a couple days ago that our panel session was voted as honorable mention in the People’s Choice Awards for the conference.

There you have it, folks:  the REALLY AWESOME happens when we all share ideas and spread the awesome!   Thanks for yet another opportunity to do so, Sophie, Liz & Kelly.


Follow the awesome on Twitter:  #30Awesome

See the Week 5 roundup.

One final shout out to my fellow librarian colleagues who have done some awesome work by pairing information literacy and service-learning.  In particular, Christopher Sweet (who has been a guest contributor on Service Learning Librarian) who has a forthcoming book chapter about his experiences and Jennifer Nutefall, with whom I have presented a few times.  There are really only a handful of folks who have published about these experiences.  A bibliography of related articles are listed here.

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