Have we confused surveillance with assessment of student learning?

Somehow I had been blissfully unaware of Respondus Lockdown Browser until last week, when several students came to the library asking if we had this software available on our computers. If you’re not familiar with this product, Respondus is one of several LMS-integrated cheating-prevention tools. In simple terms, it shuts down a student’s Internet browser while they are taking a test in an online class environment, such as Canvas or Blackboard. One of the students who asked about Respondus said something that raised the hair on the back of my neck.

“I need a webcam,” they said. “I have to take the quiz with my webcam on, and there can’t be any movement in the background.”

What the hell? I thought. What are they talking about?

Recording Students During Online Tests

After doing some digging through an e-mail chain, I found a message from the campus eLearning Administrator with instructions for students taking tests with Respondus.

You will be required to use LockDown Browser with a webcam which will record you while you are taking the three module tests. Your computer must have a functioning webcam and microphone. A broadband connection is also required.

  • You will first need to review and agree to the Terms of Use.
  • The Webcam Check will confirm that your webcam and microphone are working properly. The first time the Webcam Check is performed on a computer, Adobe Flash Player will require you to select Allow and Remember.
  • Next you will be asked to take a picture of yourself.
  • After that, you will be required to show and take a picture of a government issued ID such as a driver’s license with your picture clearly displayed. If you don’t have a driver’s license, you can use your student ID card with your picture clearly displayed.
  • Click “Start Recording” and slowly tilt/pan your webcam so a brief video can be made of the area around your computer. Make sure you show your desk, what’s underneath your desk, and a panorama of the room you are in.  (If the webcam is built into the monitor, move it around as best you can to show the areas described.)

As a librarian who cares deeply about student privacy, all of this makes me want to throw up. If I understand this correctly, students must:

  • Accept Terms of Use (which I couldn’t find on the Respondus website, so I’m not sure what, exactly, students are agreeing to)
  • Take a picture of themselves
  • Share their government-issued ID (which would include their date of birth, address, height, weight, and other personal details)
  • Share whatever is in visible around their desk and workspace which, if they’re at home, could include any number of extremely personal items.

Can we agree that asking a student to show “what’s underneath your desk” is particularly perverse?

But the benefits of this invasive procedure, according to Respondus, are numerous—easy to integrate with existing learning platforms, money saved on printing costs, increased efficiency, superior confidence in the accuracy of test results, and so on.

Beyond privacy, what are some other concerns? After some brief searching, I found a presentation from 2012 where two researchers at Central Washington University found that Respondus was incredibly easy to manipulate to steal student data—hopefully this has changed. The following year, the same presenter, Donald Moncrief, gave a follow up presentation about the exact methodology they used (which they withheld the previous year, probably to prevent folks from following their steps).

My outrage is a little delayed. Respondus has been in business for ten years. Their website boasts that their software is used to proctor 50 million exams annually and they work with 2,000 institutions in 50 different countries. But here I am, angry as ever, concerned that educators have gotten carried away with a technology without considering its implications. And, as usual, my gripe is about assessment.

What are we really measuring?

Respondus offers regular training webinars for instructors. Here are the outcomes for an upcoming webinar:

Each training will cover, from the instructor perspective:

  • How to use LockDown Browser to prevent digital cheating in proctored testing environments
  • How use Respondus Monitor in non-proctored environments, to protect exam integrity and confirm student identity
  • How Respondus Monitor provides greater flexibility for when and where tests are taken
  • Efficient review of the assessment data collected, including student videos
  • Best practices and tips for success with both applications
  • A chance to ask questions

I am particularly confused by the portion in bold (my emphasis added). How is the surveillance data collected considered assessment data? Isn’t the assessment data the actual test results (e.g., whether or not students could meet the learning outcomes of the quiz or test)? I suppose if you saw clear evidence of academic dishonesty in the surveillance data (for example, the student had the textbook open on their desk but it was a “no book” test), then it would invalidate the assessment results, but it would not be the assessment data itself.

Maybe they’re just using “assessment” in an inaccurate way. Maybe it’s not a big deal. But I’m inclined to believe the word “assessment” has a particular meaning about student learning, and most accrediting bodies would agree.

Accreditation and surveillance

Colleges and universities almost never lose accreditation over facilities. You can educate students in a cornfield, in a portable building, in a yurt without running water or electricity—provided you have assessment data that shows that student learning outcomes were met for the program. You can’t award degrees without assessment data. You have to show that your students learned something. Seems reasonable, no?

So here’s my worry. Are we confusing surveillance with assessment data? Do we think that recording students during exams will appease accreditors? “Look, see! They didn’t cheat. They answered all of these test questions, and they got good scores.”

I understand the occasional need for a controlled testing environment, especially in high-stakes exam situations for professional certification (I’m think of the NCLEX for nurses, for example). I don’t understand controlled testing for formative assessment, especially for short quizzes in a first-year general education course. Even in a completely online course, I’m not sure I see the value in putting students through surveillance measures for quick knowledge checks of essential facts. When it comes to summative assessment of your course’s essential learning outcomes, couldn’t you meet the learning outcomes some other way that prevented simple cheating? What possibilities might open up if you invited your students to deeply process the material, connect to it in their own way, and show you the meaning they’ve made from it?

I think that there is no greater indication of an instructor’s values than how they spend time in a classroom. If what you truly value is assessing student learning in a tightly-controlled, surveilled environment—why not just take the quiz in a computer lab classroom where you can watch all students at once?

Is surveillance necessary for accreditation of online degrees?

My first answer to this question is, I’m not sure, and I’d like to learn more about this. I know that some fully online programs require students to take exams at proctored testing sites (e.g., by using a campus testing center at a nearby college or university). This practice is held up to accrediting agencies as proof of the program’s commitment to academic honesty. Of course, there is some healthy skepticism about this. In a 2011 article about online exam procedures, researchers suggested that requiring a once-per-semester proctored exam was a “a token effort to ensure academic honesty.”

I took a quick glance through the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Postsecondary Accreditation Manual and I couldn’t find the word proctor anywhere in the document. Or the word cheat or the phrase academic honesty (the word honesty is used—to describe the governance procedures of the institution). While it is important to demonstrate student learning outcomes are being met through valid means (e.g., institutions need some reasonable assurance that students are doing their own work), I could not find evidence that this accrediting body specifically requires proof of proctoring or cheating-prevention. Does anyone know if other accrediting standards indicate otherwise?


Cluskey Jr, G. R., Ehlen, C. R., & Raiborn, M. H. (2011). Thwarting online exam cheating without proctor supervision. Journal of Academic and Business Ethics4, 1-7.

Moncrief, D., & Foster, R. (2012). Well that was easy: Misdirecting Respondus Lockdown Browser for fun and profit. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.cwu.edu/source/2012/oralpresentations/18/

Moncrief, D. (2013). Respondus LockDown Browser revisited: Disclosure. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.cwu.edu/source/2013/oralpresentations/73/

Postsecondary Accreditation Manual. (2013).Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Retrieved from http://www.acswasc.org

Respondus Lockdown Browser. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.respondus.com

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.com.

On social media.

I don’t know why I stay.

Every day, I check Facebook and Twitter. Usually multiple times a day. And every time, I read something heinous that turns my stomach or makes me anxious.

Why do I stay? How do I justify continuing to give my most valuable commodity — my data, my ideas, my words, my photos — to Jack and Zuck, with all the terror they’ve endorsed?

Jack has never protected his users. Ever. He has chosen his business over human lives, every time. He chose data over GamerGate, over Pepe, over our President’s daily threats of nuclear war. Women and people of color are continuously harassed and stalked on his platform. He shrugs. Calls it free speech. Puts it back on the victim. Report. Block. Mute. Maybe it’s all in your head.

And Zuck? He sold ads to Russians, and those ads were shared and liked endlessly by our own family members, you know, the aunt or the grandparent that you hope you won’t have to sit next to at the holidays. You unfollowed their posts on Facebook so you don’t have to see the Breitbart posts they share.

In such a short amount of time, Jack and Zuck have made the Internet a terrifying place for women and for people of color. And yet we stay. Why?

It feels hard to justify.

It feels hard to justify my Gmail account, knowing that Google is reading every word that comes and goes from my inbox, and that Google uses that information to feed an algorithm they keep secret. But I know it’s the same algorithm that told Dylann Roof what he wanted to hear before he murdered Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons.

And the sick part is–and this is what really makes me angry–I tell myself the dumbest things. I say things to myself like, “This never would have happened if librarians were in charge.” Because I know it’s bullshit. I hold librarians on some higher pedestal, blindly believing some nonsense about how good we are, how our well-meaning (and generally socialist) ideals would have kept people safe from their worst selves. I know it’s true that libraries are in a continuous budget crisis, but still, I think, we never would have sold ads to the Russians!

These things are also true: Melvil Dewey was a rampant sexist. White librarians kept people with dark skin out of libraries until forced to integrate. The President of the American Library Association was quick to announce her willingness to work with the new administration. Some librarians think we should do outreach to the KKK. Others think we should just “be neutral”, as though neutrality is attainable. We are advised to develop strategies for dealing with “difficult patrons” (librarian-lingo for people living in poverty, or with mental illness, or without housing, or anything else that makes them “difficult”). Until very recently we still organized books about undocumented immigration using the pejorative phrase “illegal aliens” and, when it was finally changed, at least one librarian made it well-known that they couldn’t care less. The whiteness of librarianship, especially in colleges and universities, is oppressive and unyielding. So the idea that librarians could have somehow done better, that Twitter would be a better space if we had designed it, or that Facebook wouldn’t be full of racist memes if we curated the content as well as we curate our collections–well, all of that is a symptom of my own white wishful thinking.

I don’t have children. Yet. But I hope to, someday. And what will I say to them, when they ask me to explain why I stayed on Twitter, why I gave my information so freely to Jack and Zuck? Why I continued to endorse a platform exploited by Russian operatives to disrupt our democracy? Why I kept clicking on Facebook, knowing that Facebook profited from ads that spread lies like a virus?

Will it be enough when I say that my mom liked to see my pictures on Facebook, and I liked to talk to my librarian friends on Twitter?

I can see it now: they will scoff, twist their multi-colored bangs, and sigh, “How could you have been so stupid?”


Photo by Justin Main on Unsplash

What would it look like?

Here’s an exercise.

Try to imagine a library that does not care about its users.

What would it look like?

Let’s say that it’s an academic library on a large, urban campus, that serves tens of thousands of students.

What kind of library would it be if it didn’t care about those students?

It might look like this.

There would be no consequences. It wouldn’t really matter what the library did, or if it did it well. The library would have vague statements about its mission and goals, but there would be no measurable outcomes associated with any of the library’s spaces, services, or collections. This would include the library’s multimillion-dollar budget, which would only have a single budget code, so there would be no way to itemize how the library spends its funds. If you ask where the money comes from and how the budget is determined, someone will laugh and say, “Oh, that number is written down in a drawer somewhere.”

There would be no consequences for leaving obscenely large amounts of money unspent, year after year. Unused budget funds would be put into an ongoing, never-ending renovation that leaves the building in a constant state of uncertainty, chaos, physical disarray, and distracting noise. New spaces would be built without description, purpose, or plans to staff them. The library would celebrate the “substantial completion” of the renovation, complete with a ribbon-cutting and replica cake made of fondant, and then the renovation would continue for another year.

There would be no consequences for employees, whose low performance would never be punished and whose outstanding performance would never be rewarded. Non-tenure track library faculty would be employed continuously without appointment letters or contracts. Salaried employees would come and go as they please, sometimes being late to meetings in the afternoon because they simply hadn’t come to work yet that day. Instruction librarians would be late to classes, leaving students and course faculty waiting. The instruction scheduler would be baffled by Microsoft Outlook and its calendaring system; they would assign classes incorrectly, neglect to send instruction confirmations, and humiliate the teaching team. The scholarly communication librarian would hate Open Access. Public services staff would really prefer to work in the back of the library. Instruction librarians would be afraid of speaking to large groups. Collection development librarians would look at crumbling books and say smugly, “A worn collection is a used collection.” Student workers, without supervision or guidance, would ride skateboards through the staff area.

There would be no consequences for not having a faculty handbook, for not following the established rules of shared governance, and for deliberately violating by-laws. Decisions would be made based on an e-mail someone sent once, or how things were done last year, or  something someone overheard in a meeting. Promotions would be given based on individual employees and their needs and desires, rather than the goals of the organization (there are no measurable goals, anyway). Knowledge management would be practically non-existent, with documents scattered between a shared drive, an intranet, and cloud-based software. Policies and procedures would refer to individuals by name, rather than by their position or role.

The university responsible for this library wouldn’t particularly care who was in charge of it, and would leave interim leadership in place for years. Interim reporting lines would cascade as mid-level management left the organization, so employees would be in “continuity of operations” plans indefinitely. The university would open and close a search for a Library Director, declaring none of the candidates “viable” because they do not meet the requirements of the rank of Full Professor. Nevermind, of course, that no one in the library has ever been promoted to Full Professor, and nevermind that only three of the library’s two dozen faculty are tenured or tenure-track. Nevermind that what the library really needs is an effective manager, not a scholar.

If this library didn’t care about students, they might or might not keep any data about how the library is used, and if such data were recorded, it probably wouldn’t be regularly reported or used to make decisions in any way. The library’s operating hours and its services would be available randomly at the whims of the library, whenever it felt like staffing things, whenever employees were available. On-boarding for new hires would be random and haphazard. There would be no orientations or procedures or checklists or training manuals. There would be no quality checks to see if things were being done well because who would decide what that looks like?

Who is actually in charge? Look at the staff directory, it says vacant.

If this library didn’t care about students, it wouldn’t keep them safe. Intoxicated people would interrupt instruction sessions and refuse to leave the classroom. People would camp in the building overnight. Security guards would gently nudge sleepers, then let them fall back asleep. It’s understandable, of course, that the library would be a popular place for anyone seeking refuge-the library is the only building on campus where community members cannot be trespassed. Students would leave the library, complaining about these safety issues, and study somewhere else.

If this library didn’t care about students, it would be impossible to retain faculty and staff who do care about them. Those people will get angry and exhausted. New hires would be undermined and sabotaged. Competent employees would be labeled as “over-ambitious.” People would leave this library, choosing lower-paying jobs, longer commutes, positions outside of libraries, expensive cross-country moves, or outright unemployment, simply to get away from the dysfunction.

The turnover rate would be high, but the remaining employees would tell themselves it’s somehow normal. “That person really wanted to get back into public libraries,” they would say. Or, “Their spouse got a new job out-of-state, so they had to go.” Some people stay just long enough to get a better job title to put on their CV, a reward for putting in their time, and then they would move on, too.

So the leftovers would settle in, determined to outlast all of the perky people with new ideas, and wait. What is there to lose? There are no consequences, anyway.


Featured image by NeONBRAND

On Angie Manfredi’s resignation from the Newbery Committee.

To the ALSC Executive Committee & Directors,

I was extremely disappointed to read Angie Manfredi’s blog post explaining her resignation from the 2018 Newbery Committee.

Some people might say that the details behind Angie’s resignation don’t matter. I believe the details do matter, and they matter a lot. In fact, it’s the details of this story that make my stomach turn.

I understand that Angie was asked to resign because she shared a story about her job as a children’s librarian on Twitter. Specifically, she shared a story about a young reader of color at her library who was excited to read a book that reflected his life and interests. Yes, Angie praised the author and publisher of the book for providing a story that connected with this young reader. This brief anecdote was widely shared as an example of the importance of diversity in children’s literature. And for this attention, for this highlighting of the need for diverse books, you determined that Angie gave the appearance of an inappropriate relationship with the author and publisher.

Shame on you. It can’t be said enough, so I’ll say it again. Shame on you.

Let’s consider all the messages that are sent by Angie’s resignation:

Celebrating diversity in children’s literature is an inappropriate activity for ALSC award committee members.

ALSC award committees are only interested in librarians who can comply with outdated procedures that silence and limit a librarian’s professional contributions.

White supremacy is the highest value in librarianship.

With your decision, you have left no room for otherness. What I mean is, how could you expect a librarian of color to want to participate in an ALSC award committee after this decision? Or a queer librarian? Or a librarian living with a disability, or a mental health issue? If they speak out publicly, in any way, about their work, their patrons, their excitement for diverse representations in children’s literature, they will be asked to resign. Because of the appearance of bias.

I hope it is has been made very clear to all of us in 2017 that there is no neutrality in librarianship. I am personally humiliated by the resignation of Angie Manfredi from the Newbery Committee because I feel it cheapens the reputation of librarians everywhere. How can we claim to support our communities when we punish librarians like Angie for doing their job, for celebrating literature, and for acknowledging the work of authors and publishers to make the world a better place?

I share the opinion with many others that Angie is one of the most valuable librarians we have working today because she actively criticizes and critiques the field of librarianship. We need more librarians like Angie Manfredi, and we need them to serve on more committees, and we need them to provide examples of how to lead.

I look forward to a public response from ALSC that acknowledges a plan to update the policy for service on awards committees to avoid situations like this in the future.


Zoe Fisher
Stonewall Award Committee Member, 2018
MLS, Emporia State University, 2010
BA, Oberlin College, 2008

Time to go.

I started a mutual admiration society with Kevin Seeber on or about July 2014, when we were both at Library Instruction West in Portland, Oregon. At that time, I was a tenure-track librarian at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington and he was a librarian at Colorado State University – Pueblo. He came to my lightning talk about inquiry-based learning, which included the following slides about microfilm (illustrating the most common question I received from my students):




Even though I made fun of microfilm, he still had nice things to say about me on his blog.

Fast forward two years. It’s April 2016 and I’m a tenured librarian at Pierce and Kevin is Foundational Experiences Librarian at the University of Colorado Denver. He invites me to apply for a newly-created opening: Pedagogy & Assessment Librarian. I apply and, in a turn of events that surprises only me, I’m offered the position. My husband and I have a quickie wedding on the beach in Tacoma, throw our stuff in a car, and drive east to Denver.

For the past thirteen months, I have had the daily thrill of working with Kevin. He is, in my opinion, one of the most passionate and thoughtful information literacy librarians alive.  I love every second of every conversation I have with him, especially when we disagree. Over the past year, we have debated topics ranging from neoliberalism in higher education to assessment procedures and active learning strategies. We have regular conversations about mentorship, lesson planning, approaches to internal professional development, and the praxis of critical librarianship. We both care deeply about students, and we both see ourselves as teachers. We love a good Negroni. We agree that Pilot G2 pens are the best. Working with him has made me a better librarian in a hundred ways.

But it’s time for me to go. And if I’m honest, it’s been time for me to go for a while. Denver is not a good fit for me or my family. I’m a Pacific Northwest native and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. While it’s been a blast to work with Kevin, I haven’t been happy in my job. I had no idea how much I would miss teaching community college students.

Thanks to my talented software engineer spouse, we have a reason to move back to Washington. He starts his new job in Seattle on August 21.

Friday, August 11 is my last day in Denver.




For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I don’t take back the microfilm joke, the Max Fischer tweets, or the decision to take a new job in an unfamiliar city. I may not fully understand yet all the lessons I’m supposed to learn from this experience, but I am grateful.

I don’t know what’s next. I don’t have a job lined up in Seattle. This is the first time in my adult life that I’ll be unemployed. I worked non-stop all through college and graduate school and I have held a full-time job in some form since I was 21 years old. I realize this makes me incredibly lucky. But it will also make the next few months pretty challenging.

I’m interested in working on my writing, learning how to play professional poker, and teaching community college classes like Reading and College Success. Of course, I’d love to be a community college librarian again, but I recognize that those opportunities are rare, so I may need to wait it out for a while. My librarian life won’t stop, though. I have a couple of research projects in the works and I’m reading dozens of books for the Stonewall Book Award Committee. I plan to attend local conferences like the UW Critical Librarianship in Practice Unconference and ACRL OR/WA Joint Conference. I know I’ll see a lot of familiar faces when I’m back in Denver in February for ALA Midwinter, and I’ll be back in Colorado in July for Library Instruction West 2018.


I got my first (and only) tarot deck when I was 12 years old. I purchased the classic Rider Waite deck at the Goddess Gallery on Hawthorne Boulevard in Portland, Oregon. In the seventh grade, I would practice reading the cards on the school bus, which yielded accusations of Satanism from my classmates. I have always thought the Strength card was one of the most beautiful cards in the deck. Salem Tarot suggests it can be interpreted that the lion and the woman are the same: You may imagine the two figures on the card as the two sides of yourself: the woman is your superego, and the lion is your id.

You are the Goddess and the beast, the tamed and the tamer, the rage and the joy. It’s a helpful image, a reminder that something can be more than one thing at once. That I can be heartbroken to leave and excited to go home. That I can know and not know. That it’s okay, and it will be.




What I want for my birthday.

I am 31 years old today, and here’s what I want for my birthday:

I want a frozen Negroni. Okay, maybe I want a couple of them. I want to drink them with my favorite librarians.

I want to not have to worry about your healthcare, or mine, or the idea that the only people who will survive are the people who can afford to get sick.

I want a flat of chocolate Costco muffins, and I want to eat them by myself.

I want you to read my essay at The Rumpus, but I also want you to listen to Fobazi Ettarh’s keynote about vocational awe. For my birthday, I want a future with fewer white librarians.

I want abortion funding.

I want the Pacific Ocean and I want it to love me back.

I want Ted Berrigan to read his sonnets to me.

I want what I’ve already got–friends and family who adore me exactly as I am, feminine marvelous and tough, wild and loud, breathless and exuberant, freckled and fierce.

If I could ask you for one thing for my birthday, it’s this.

Stop repeating the mantra that defeats you. Stop telling yourself the lie that holds you back. Even if just for one minute today, tell yourself that you are enough, you have enough, and you do enough.

For my birthday, I want you to wear that sleeveless shirt, the one that you’ve been afraid to wear because you’re embarrassed of how your arms look. I want you to sing even if your voice warbles. Write that thing that scares you. Kiss that girl even if you know she can’t love you back. See what it feels like to forgive the person who hurt you. I want you to do whatever you need to do to feel completely free, even if it’s only for a moment.

You don’t need to get me anything else. I would trade a mountain of shiny, wrapped packages to share that feeling of being free. Free of guilt, free of shame, free of the Not-Enoughs. And that’s what I want for you.

Happy birthday to me.

Featured image by Annie Spratt

Teacher identities, empathy, and the beginner’s mind: A conversation with Nicole Gustavsen.

Teaching is terrifying. It’s also exhilarating, fascinating, challenging, and deeply rewarding. Making the transition from being a student to being a teacher is a complex process, as evidenced by the questions raised by librarian Nicole Gustavsen on Twitter last week.



I asked Nicole if she would be interested in having a longer conversation about the topic of teacher identity to be published here and she generously agreed. Below you’ll find a lightly-edited transcript of our nearly three-hour conversation, during which we discuss information literacy instruction, teaching philosophies, impostor syndrome, false binaries, classroom management, the importance of community, and more.

Zoe Fisher (Zoe): Tell me a little bit about your experience and background. What’s your current role and how did you come to it?

Nicole Gustavsen (Nicole): I am a new academic librarian, currently in a temporary position as a research & instruction librarian at the University of Washington Bothell & Cascadia College Campus Library. I got this position because during library school (I attended the U of Washington iSchool residential program from 2013-16) I worked at the UW Seattle campus graduate library, Suzzallo & Allen, as a graduate reference assistant. In this position I did a lot of reference and a lot of info lit instruction. After I graduated I wasn’t able to keep the position, of course, but my supervisors recommended me to the head of Teaching & Learning here at UWB when a temporary position opened up, and I’ve been in this position since the beginning of January. It was originally just a 6 month contract but I was recently approved for an additional 12 months, which I’m very excited about.

Zoe: Congratulations on the contract extension! What have you noticed about the differences between the UW grad library and your current role? Specifically, what differences have impacted your role in teaching/your role with students?

Nicole: Just a spot of context about our library: we are in the somewhat unusual situation of serving two schools on one campus: a university (UW Bothell), and a community college (Cascadia College). We teach sessions and provide services for students, staff, and faculty at both institutions. That’s definitely one of the biggest differences off the bat. It affects everything.

At UW Seattle, we were part of a program that was focused on targeting lots of classes for short, 50 minute sessions. Here at UWB, our teaching program is able to do a lot more. There’s significant buy-in from faculty at both institutions, and we are encouraged to experiment. For Cascadia we get to work with a lot of online classes, which I had never done before. Last quarter I got to help with a 100-level English class where we had embedded content throughout the quarter. So cool!

Zoe: That’s excellent! And I definitely understand your context–as you know, I was at Pierce College in Puyallup, Washington (about 50 miles south of UW Bothell) for four years, and we were very familiar with your library. In my current role, I work in an academic library that serves three institutions (University of Colorado Denver, Metropolitan State University of Denver, and the Community College of Denver). It makes sense that the increased emphasis on teaching in your current role would give you reason to reflect on student/teacher identities.

Nicole: Yes, absolutely. It’s also a great thing that the culture here among the librarians is very collaborative, so if I really tank a class (as I did last quarter), I feel comfortable discussing it with my colleagues and knowing their response will probably be both supportive and something like “Oh that reminds me of the time I [description of an equally horrible classroom experience.]” I was way too nervous to have those conversations at my last position!

Zoe: That sounds like a wonderful environment. I think the advantage of being a community college librarian is that you teach SO much–even if you do have a flubbed class, it’s only one of dozens, so it’s pretty quickly forgotten.

Nicole: I love that in your description of teaching experience on the blog, you identify that you’ve been in teaching roles beginning at 13. Do you have a sense of any particular point at which you began to see yourself as an educator? Was it a natural progression, or did you find it required a lot of deliberate thought or work?

Zoe: Peer teaching became a part of my life at a very young age. In grade school, I was often singled out by teachers for finishing my work quickly or easily meeting their expectations… so they did what teachers often do, and they paired me with students who were struggling. At times, I resented that (I think a lot of younger students feel this way, especially), but after a while, I think teaching and helping others became a really core part of my identity.

Things opened up for me when I realized that I could be a teacher to all kinds of people, and that’s where my experience as a volunteer at a public library significantly shifted my identity. Even though I was very young, I was teaching all sorts of people how to find information, how to use the library, and how to use computers/technology. It was empowering and exhilarating. It still is. So I would say that my teacher identity began informally at a very young age, and it’s something that I continue to refine & reflect on as a professional. I have been called a “natural” teacher, which I don’t like (I reject the idea that there are “naturals”, in general), but I do think that this is an essential part of who I am and it’s a role for which I have a strong affinity.

Nicole: I see this peer teaching and communal education piece comes out in your teaching statement as well. Do you have any signature classroom activities or techniques that you’ve developed that speak to this?

Zoe: Sure, that’s a great question. Anyone who has attended a conference session that I’ve presented, or been in any class that I’ve taught, knows that I do a lot of reflective writing & pair or group sharing. We often teach how we like to learn best and it’s no surprise that, as a writer, I like to write things down and share them with others. I think this is a quick, low-stakes way to get people thinking, reflecting, and talking. I always want to know what other people in the room think, and it can be hard to just stick your hand in the air and say it out loud to a group of strangers. Writing it down for yourself, then sharing it with one person, can help refine and externalize those inner thoughts.

My ultimate goal in almost any learning situation is to surface process. What was your process, why was that your process, why does thinking about our process matter?

Nicole: Something I’ve been dismayed to see in my teaching since starting here is a tendency to lecture, despite all my best intentions (and my normally attention-averse personality). I’m seeing our conversation as part of a bigger reflection process so that by fall quarter, I’m heading confidently away from that tendency.

Zoe: The fact that you recognize that in yourself is a good sign. Try to be patient and give yourself some grace.

On Twitter, you questioned how you could see yourself as an instructor without losing empathy for your students, and, more broadly, you questioned the authority that students see in you that you don’t (yet) see in yourself. Can you talk a little bit about your teaching philosophy and how you see (or don’t see) yourself as a librarian-teacher?

Nicole: My teaching philosophy is constantly expanding and changing, but at its core is a concern with presenting information literacy as a lifelong skill, one that is not limited to the classroom or even school. I want the people I work with to feel empowered to take these skills and apply them all over the place! So I like to do activities that incorporate non-academic sources, contexts, experiences.

When I wrote the tweets that spurred this conversation, I had just got out of a post-quarter meeting with a faculty member. In one of her sections, the students were rowdy, it was hard to keep them on track, I wasn’t happy with the instructional materials I had put together, and it didn’t help that the instructor couldn’t be there on that day. It was a very frustrating experience for me.

I met with the course faculty twice and we talked a lot, in both of our meetings, about classroom management, about managing expectations, those sorts of things.

But what most got me thinking, and worrying, and tweeting, was a comment she made about how no matter how I see myself, the students will always see me as the instructor, and that there’s a divide there that I need to acknowledge.

Having been until just last year a lifer student, I still carry a lot of the student mind-set, and in my head I feel that I can relate to students I work with on that level. Sort of, “Hey, I know what you’re going through, and I want you to know you can do it. That it’s hard, but you can do it.”

Zoe: Thinking about the comments that the faculty made to you, I’m guessing that she was saying that some students might have an oppositional attitude to you no matter what you do because they are so deeply entrenched in the known hierarchies of education. Students’ prior learning experiences inform a lot of their behaviors and choices, especially in the classroom, and it’s true that we can’t always control for how past instructors (or even the current faculty) have treated them. What do you think students expect from you as an instructor? I think about this a lot, and I’ll admit that I try to openly defy expectations of typical teacher roles.

Nicole: Your question about what students expect from me/us is so challenging to answer! Let me think a bit more… I think you’re right about what my faculty member was trying to convey. But I also think it gets, for me, at the truth that if I approach teaching from an “I’m a student too, basically” perspective, it’s gonna look different than if I approach it from a more confident place of feeling like I “am” an instructor, not just studying to eventually be one. As I am typing this out, it sounds a lot like the impostor syndrome problem. Did/do you experience this? Did it get better?

Zoe: You know, it’s funny, I never felt like an imposter with community college students. Not once. But sometimes I feel out of place in my current role and have had imposter syndrome related to other things–teaching graduate students (I don’t have another graduate degree beyond my MLS so I feel awkward in front of them), or presenting to administration who have no idea what information literacy is, or talking about my own research agenda. I will say that after getting a journal article rejected three times, I definitely felt like an impostor when it comes to conducting/executing research. To answer, “Does it get better?” — Yes, infinitely. Your relationship to teaching will change constantly the more you do it!

Nicole: Something I have discovered over the years that never fails to amaze me and make me feel (weirdly) hopeful is how many people around me, who are doing work I admire and who are my definition of success, also experience impostor syndrome. You’re a great example of this; from my vantage point you seem very confident and accomplished, so if you’re having these feelings too (and if as you say they do change and get better) then I feel like I can also manage them.

I think you sort of spoke to my second question just above, but I wanted to ask it again in case you had more thoughts to add on it:   A lot of what I’m thinking about at the moment around this topic is identity: what it means to self-identify as a teacher or educator, and how self-identifying this way might change how I relate to my students. One of my fears right now is that if I embrace the identity of an instructor too closely, I’ll lose touch with what it was like to be a student. Where are you on all of this, having been a library instructor for several years yet not terribly far from your own student days?

Zoe: I think the fact that you’re asking yourself these questions about identity means that you’re a great teacher already! Seriously, it’s awesome that you care so much and you’re already reflecting so deeply about what you do and HOW you do what you do, and you acknowledge the fact that how you identify also impacts your praxis.

Your question is extremely provocative to me because it seems to suggest (and correct me if I’m wrong) that teacher and student are separate identities. To me, they’re not. And the identities of student and teacher don’t exist in opposition.

(We could go into a whole discussion about binaries right now! Are there really oppositional identities, or are they just mirrors/shadows of each other? But, I’ll set that aside.)

I guess I would suggest a minor tweak in language. “Student” is the role you might assign to yourself while you’re actively enrolled in a program or a course. But “learner” is an internalized identity you can hold onto for the rest of your life. I want to be a teacher forever because I want to be a learner forever. I’m convinced that I’ll never stop learning new things as long as I’m teaching others. That really excites me and drives me. So, while my formal “student” days ended in August 2010 when I finished my Master’s in Library Science, I’ve never stopped seeing myself as a learner.

Nicole: You are bringing up something very important with binaries! I just last week gave an LGBTQ+ 101 talk to staff at my library, and a big chunk of the first part is dissecting false binaries in gender, sexuality, and even biological sex. So I’m really glad you pointed out this OTHER false binary that I have been trying to shove myself into.

Zoe: In general, I don’t trust simple binaries, especially relating to gender and sexuality–perhaps that extends to my pedagogy, too? To say I don’t believe in those binaries, I mean, it’s not like they’re the tooth fairy–obviously lots of people structure their lives around those binaries, but it’s just that I don’t live my life by them. Hope that makes sense.

Nicole: Makes a lot of sense to me. I think it’s important to acknowledge that these binaries, while socially constructed, do have an enormous effect on every aspect of our culture, so they’re very real in that way. I’m not in the “down with all gender distinctions” camp, so much as the “up with genders beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’!” Similarly, the dichotomy between student and teacher is social, but also very very real!

Zoe: I’m curious about experiences you’ve had that may have reinforced this (as you just called it) false binary. What were some of the key learning experiences you had (at any point in your education) that informed your identity as a student?

Nicole: Well, I think the fact that most of my formal educational experiences have been in classroom, students sit and respectfully listen to the teacher, situations. So some of it’s conditioning. That “sage on the stage” phenomenon made the binary seem even more real and, for a shy person like me, almost insurmountable.

Zoe: Have you come across Geneva Gay’s work regarding culturally responsive pedagogy? I was introduced to her work by your (past) colleagues at UW Bothell. They gave a presentation about culturally responsive pedagogy at Library Instruction West 2014. The presenters included Dave Ellenwood, Althea Lazzaro, Sharde Mills, and Megan Watson.

Nicole: I have not heard of Geneva Gay! Thank you! I had been hoping you would suggest some reading, and this looks excellent.

All of my best learning experiences have been experiential in some way. I learn by doing. I want to bring as much “doing” as possible into my classes.

I don’t know everything about what students want, but based on two quarters of feedback and my own gut feelings, nobody really loves it when I lecture too much or make them sit quietly and listen to a video or w/e.

Zoe: Exactly. And I think the “doing” part of learning throws off some students who expect typically passive learning environments.

Nicole: Yes, that is true.

There’s always at least a few students who clearly came to the session expecting to be able to do whatever on their computers while someone stood in the front and said words.

Probably what I’m most sensitive to in classrooms is the students who are quiet (which usually includes those students who came to chill on facebook or do some homework). People are quiet for lots of reasons. One thing I am nervous about when I plan these activities is that I might be pushing some of the students past their healthy growing zone and into the zone of true fear, where they aren’t learning at all. How do you navigate incorporating these sorts of emotional concerns in your classes?

Zoe: I’ll say that’s probably a weak area for me. I’m an extrovert and an external processor, so I legit have trouble remembering that some people aren’t like me. I know I’ve upset students in the past by expecting their participation. It’s something I could work on, in terms of finding ways to be sensitive to folks who are quiet/anxious about participating, while also encouraging all voices in the room.

One thing I do regularly is acknowledge repeat participants. For example, “Okay, I see your hand, but you’ve already shared a couple times today. Let me just pause for a moment and open it up to anyone else who might like to jump in.”Sometimes doing a second call for participation, or acknowledging repeat participants, will get more folks to join in. I’m also comfortable waiting several seconds if people need time to think.

Nicole: The waiting in silence thing is something I find anxiety-inducing, but it does sometimes get people to talk. I am the opposite of you in that I am very introverted and am challenged more by the extroverted students and how to keep them from dominating my classroom.

I like to do activities where students work in small groups and then present to each other, and I think that can give quieter students the opportunity to contribute without forcing them to also present in front of their peers if they don’t want to. Just having the group stand in front can be activating enough for some students, I think, so it’s not completely challenge-free.

Zoe: We have a wireless keyboard/mouse in our classrooms–we can pass around the keyboard and mouse to the groups so they can share on the projector from wherever they’re sitting. It helps a lot!

Nicole: Part of my “student-identity” is that of struggle. I had a lot of difficulty in college and grad school due to mental illness.

When I see students struggling, especially with anything related to mood or self-image, I relate and want to help and reassure.

However, I don’t know how best to convey this in my instruction, and I wonder often if the “I lived it too” bit is even something my students would find helpful (especially coming from me, a very young-looking white woman with a graduate degree). It could read as presumptuous. Do you see value in bringing these kinds of lived experiences into our instruction? If so, what does that look like in your classes?

Zoe: I think that new teachers get the idea that teaching is all about them—like, you feel this pressure to be the most interesting, engaging, dynamic person in the room. (I won’t lie, I love that feeling.)

But, as time goes on, I think you develop the habit of being interested rather than interesting.

And you develop strategies for making students interested in each other. So when it comes to surfacing lived experience, I am less interested in sharing mine and I am more interested in helping students hear about the lived experiences of their peers. What can we learn from the way Tristan, a father of three, approached this assignment? How does Jessica’s comment inform our thinking about evaluating this source of information, given her background in the health professions? What about the person who hasn’t spoken up yet today, what can they contribute to our shared understanding?

Nicole: This is exactly the sort of thing I need to hear right now. I do feel a lot of pressure to perform, to keep the students’ interest, to teach them in a way that’s meaningful, to hit as many of the IL frames as possible, and on and on and on. Which isn’t bad in itself. But what you’re bringing up is a complete reframing of this work. The more I can redirect the students’ attention away from me the more comfortable I am working with them and presenting the material in meaningful ways.

Zoe: The typical response you’ll hear from folks who want to be the focus of attention is, “But what about the content!”

“If they’re not paying attention to me, I can’t show them the databases!”

“If they’re not listening to me, they’ll never know Boolean!”

“They can’t learn from each other because they’re all bad at research and they use Wikipedia!”

Nicole: Students don’t learn Boolean from me telling them how it works. However I choose to present it, they learn by applying it. So the question is how to present it so that’s the emphasis.

I thought what you wrote about what we can learn from our peers was really great. One of my coworkers here told me that her pedagogy is really focused around having the students teach each other, and I thought that was so neat when she told me but it got lost in the rush of the quarter.

Zoe: Well, it’s a theory, right? Which has to be put into practice.

Nicole: Therein lies the challenge.

Zoe: With that in mind, what do you think are some advantages of keeping a student-mindset as a librarian-teacher?

Nicole: There are so many aspects involved in being a student at a college that are outside of the bounds of going to class, doing homework, amassing credits, etc.

One of my greatest fears is that I will one day forget just how scary and uncertain and all-consuming it can be to be a student.

Part of keeping a student-mindset, for me, is remembering that emotional aspect of student-hood, and being sensitive to it as I work with students in classrooms, at the reference desk, and elsewhere.

I have a quote written up on my whiteboard that I think is foundational to how I’ll move forward in all aspects of my life: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki

Zoe: Ooh, I love that quote! That’s a great one.

Nicole: Right?? It’s so powerful.

Zoe: Are there any experiences you’d like to have (but haven’t had yet) that you think would help you more fully adopt a teacher identity? What do you think you might lose in the process of developing that teacher identity?

Nicole: I think the experiences I need to have are more conversations like the one I had with my faculty member last week. Conversations that are genuinely challenging but push me forward. I also think I need to continue to teach and teach and teach, and get back into the groove of reading widely and obsessively. I will learn who I am as a teacher by doing, I think, and by accepting internally that I am good enough and competent enough to embody this new role.

Zoe: You definitely are! And I think you’re right that it takes time.

Nicole: That’s the key, really. I need to be patient, and continue to be reflective, and continue to push myself, and probably one day I’ll wake up and I’ll realize I’ve been a teacher for awhile, and that’ll feel right.

What parts of your student experience did you initially bring into your instruction? What parts of your student experience still inform your teaching? What have you let go of?

Zoe: I’ll go back to what I said earlier, which is that I think we tend to teach in the ways we prefer to learn. I also think we teach in the style that we’ve experienced as students. So, if I’m honest, I think I initially brought a lot of lecture to my instruction and that induced a lot of passivity for my students. But I also experimented a lot, tried a lot of labor-intensive things that were fun and interesting, but probably overwhelmed some students.

Nicole: Do you have any examples of things you tried early on that went spectacularly wrong?

Zoe: Haha! Oh, sure. I can think of a time I tried to split a class into pairs using cards with letters on them. Like, two A cards, two B cards, and so on. It just fell apart. Not enough students, several people didn’t have partners. We spent 5 minutes with students staring at each other, not knowing who their partner was. It was a total waste of time. Just one of many fabulous failures.

When I was a student, the teachers I enjoyed the most expressed love in some way–for students, for the act of learning, for their subject, for whatever. They had passion and curiosity. I remember seeing that as a student, and it’s what I try to emulate as a teacher.

I want students to feel seen and loved.

I think that is the greatest gift I can give them in a learning setting, whether it’s face to face or online or whatever else. If I’m a “natural” teacher, I think it’s because I have the capacity to love and to see others fully. That’s what I try to carry with me.

Nicole: Yes! And the flip version of that, being in classes with profs so checked out you wonder if they even know or care there’s a class of people in front of them.

Zoe: I guess I’ve always believed that learning is a shared experience. I’m trying to let go of some of my ideas of what that should look like, and I’m trying to acknowledge that there are lots of ways to have a shared experience.

I think one of my strengths is community-keeping–making sure everyone is together, being heard, being seen. But I think sometimes that can express itself as control, and that’s really what I want to let go of. I’d like to develop more learning scenarios that require less and less control on my part, but that still hold the experience together as a shared experience.

Nicole: I’m really impressed by your emphasis on community here. It can be easy, at least for me, to miss some of the community aspect in my desire to reach each student individually. What you’re thinking about with community-sustained learning scenarios sounds challenging, but could ultimately be rewarding in many ways.

These are complex questions with no clear answers or ways forward. Do you have any words of reassurance for new librarian-instructors such as myself who are wrestling with all of this? (Of course, new folks aren’t the only ones who are struggling in these ways!)

Zoe: Speaking of community, I think the most important thing that new folks can do is reach out–in person, to other librarians, to other faculty on campus, to the Center for Faculty Development (or its equivalent on your campus), on Twitter, at conferences, on listservs, and so on.

There are so many great resources available to new information literacy instructors, from blogs to discussion groups to conferences, etc. A couple of things I will plug that have been great for me:

  1. I attended Immersion Teacher Track in 2013 and it was fabulous! I made some lifelong friends and I really started to refine my pedagogy in meaningful ways.
  2. I attended Library Instruction West in 2014 and 2016, and it’s probably my favorite conference. It’s affordable, focused on infolit issues, and full of fabulous people. LI West 2018 will be in Grand Junction, Colorado in July 2018.
  3. I stay really connected to folks on Twitter and through my blog. That’s my own personal way of going about things, but it’s not for everybody. I think Twitter can be a great place just to listen/learn/observe, even if you don’t want to jump into conversation. But if you do, there are scheduled chats (like the #critlib chats), or, you know, you might make an offhanded comment someday that turns into a conversation like this one!

Nicole: I would like to cosign from personal experience on a few of these: librarians and the library community are honestly the best people and as I have integrated myself into the community and gone out of my comfort zone to meet librarians, go to conferences,  participate in orgs, and use Twitter more intentionally, I’ve learned so much and been challenged and all sorts of things that wouldn’t have happened if I had followed my internal impulse to stay quiet and removed.

This conversation we have had today, and the original tweet conversations, and all of the worrying and thinking and writing and rewriting and bugging my delightful colleagues for their opinion on teacher identity, it’s all part of my choice to integrate more into our shared community, and your choice to invite me further into it.

So for that I’ve gotta thank you.

Zoe: You’re so very welcome. Let’s do it again sometime!

Nicole: Yeah, let’s do!