Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How to Best Help

(yep, lots of snow lately)

I've been trying to understand how to provide effective public service, both at the library and more broadly at the college. This may be oversimplifying, but I see two different ways of doing so:

(1) Spoon feeding -- No questions asked, provide an answer or solution as quickly as possible.

(2) Teaching how to fish, as in "Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime." -- Show how to accomplish a task independently.

In America, the second approach is widely admired, but when it comes to being on the receiving end of service, people prefer the former.

So when it comes to 18-year-old community college students, is our mission to promote independence, or to continue some of the hand-holding they might have gotten in their K-12 experiences? I think I know the answer, but I resent the abuse that can come along with it. Many students I encounter seem not to have been expected to act independently in the past. This means that in addition to the new academic subjects they are learning in college, they are also being asked to behave like adults for the first time.

I attended an ALA presentation last summer about a study of the academic habits of graduate students. Researchers found that not only were graduate student habits dictated by the preferences and tendencies of their departments and advisors, and that those expectations varied dramatically by department, but also that the graduate students were largely expected to be equipped and qualified for graduate level work from day one. For students who moved from undergraduate work directly to graduate school, this could be bewildering. If they did not get a base of understanding research in their fields as undergraduates, there was no built-in process for them to be brought up to speed in graduate school. They were supposed to already know.

I suspect this also happens during the transition from high school to college. High schools do their jobs with students who are considered children by legal standards. When these children turn 18 and come to college, they are held up to a sometimes different set of expectations. Yet it is possible that no-one ever introduced them to adulthood. I imagine the experience can be disorienting at best, and harsh at worst. And for community college students who already face various obstacles encouraging them not to persist with college, it may be one of those variables that convinces them they are not fit for higher education.

Here are some possible solutions I see that involve the library:
-Greater outreach to the K-12 schools that are feeding students to the college.
-Some kind of mandatory introduction or orientation to college, so that incoming students get the basics of what is expected.
-Some kind of computer prerequisite or test, to establish a minimum level of comprehension. I'm on shaky ground with this one, but I think college students are often given more credit than they deserve when it comes to computers and technology, in particular when it comes to doing serious academic work.

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