Thursday, October 11, 2012

Finding Your Voice, by Maureen Barry

Wright State students help prepare Chesterhill Produce Auction for it's opening during their week-long service trip to southeast Ohio last spring break.

When I was on the job market in 2004-2005, as I was finishing my MLS, I applied for both tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. I preferred non-tenure because, like many new librarians, I hadn’t yet discovered my voice. Why jump into publishing if I didn’t have anything to say yet? This idea came back to me in the response I got to a question I asked during a phone interview, “What are the benefits of the non-tenure position?”  She said, “I like this situation [non-tenure] because I don’t feel pressured to publish, but I am supported if I want to publish.” 

It wasn’t until about five years into my career that I got the urge to start publishing. It happened when one of my friends, Dr. Sarah Twill, a social work faculty member at my current institution, introduced me to service-learning. Service-learning is a teaching and learning pedagogy that closely ties together course content with service to the community to help solve real-world problems. It’s different from volunteerism in that service learning is a delicate balance of curricular materials, service, and reflection.  It’s also different from internship because an internship is usually done after your coursework is complete. (See Andrew Furco’s continuum for further explanation.)

The more I heard Sarah talk about service-learning, the more I was hooked. One day, I thought to myself:  How can I use service-learning in the for-credit information literacy course that I co-teach? Has it been done? My thought was that incorporating service-learning would attach a real-world component to the course making the class a more meaningful experience not only for me, but also for my students and our would-be community partner.

A journey into the literature revealed NO instances of such a course, although there was some discussion about the parallels between information literacy and service-learning (see Riddle, 2003). Hmm. I realized I might be on to something here, even though no one else appeared to have tried it yet. So I went for it. (If you’d like to read more about the course and how it came to be, see my article, “Research for the Greater Good:  Incorporating service-learning in an information literacy course at Wright State University,” in the June 2011 C&RL News.)

Then I had a light bulb moment near the end of my first quarter of teaching the service-learning information literacy course. I was walking across campus with my supervisor when I said, “I may have found my niche with service-learning.”  She responded, “If you want to be known for service-learning, you need to start a blog.”  All I could think was, “Ugh. Really? A blog? Do I really want to write THAT often?  She’s right though – it’s what we librarians do.” And now, looking back on it, I’m really grateful to her for giving me that push.  At the time, I really didn’t want to blog; but when your boss suggests something, it’s hard to say no.  So, here I am, the self-labeled Service Learning Librarian.    

Because of my blog, I was invited to write a two part piece for LOEX Quarterly (Part 1; Part 2). Loanne Snavely, an academic librarian, recognized from my blog that my course engaged students with the library in a unique way, so she contacted me because she was seeking chapters for Student Engagement and the Academic Library. I have also been invited to be a panelist for the Women’s & Gender Studies Section of ALA’s President’s Program at the annual conference in July 2013. And finally, just a few weeks ago, I was contacted to blind review an article about service-learning in library education.  All of these opportunities presented themselves because of my blog.

In addition to my for-credit information literacy course, my success has helped me seek new opportunities to partner with faculty and instructors who incorporate service-learning pedagogy.  Over the past few years, I helped instructors pair information literacy and service-learning in English composition courses. I was the embedded librarian in an honors interdisciplinary service-learning course about sustainability in Appalachia, co-taught by Dr. Sarah Twill and an instructor in Earth & Environmental Sciences.  This course includes a week-long service trip to southeast Ohio.  Yes, in case you were wondering, I went on the trip.  It was without a doubt the most meaningful interaction I’ve had with students at Wright State.  Another benefit is that these experiences have provided new material about which I can write and present.

Service-learning has been a rewarding way to serve both my community and my profession. I’m grateful that I discovered the concept here at Wright State. Or, perhaps it discovered me. Either way, I found my voice, and I continue to develop it through seeking new service-learning experiences at my institution, giving presentations, writing, and also a little reading, of course.

If you haven’t found your voice yet, don’t worry. It will come. It doesn’t happen overnight, so don’t get discouraged. It took me almost 5 years to figure out what I could possibly offer to my field that was new and different.   

Maureen Barry is the First Year Experience Librarian at Wright State University in Dayton, OH. She tweets @SLLibrarian and blogs at Service Learning Librarian.

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