On teaching one-shot sessions

After a couple of semesters without teaching any one-shot instruction sessions, first due to my sabbatical and then because of the pandemic, I taught a handful of them this fall. “A handful” is about the usual number for me, given that I have no subject liaison responsibilities and so mostly end up teaching a few sessions for freshman seminar courses and stepping in to teach one for a first year composition course here and there.

Over time, I’ve grown to like teaching the freshman seminar classes, more or less. In these sessions, students are rarely working on an actual research assignment, so the purpose of the class is to introduce them to the library. I don’t necessarily think this is the best use of my expertise, but I have managed to create a standard spiel that helps students learn not so much about the library but about college research in general (and the library’s role in it) and how it might be different from other types of research they’ve done. If nothing else, this lesson allows me to talk to students about some ideas related to the contextual nature of research and I’m pretty happy with that.

The first year composition classes are more difficult because with those I’m usually working with professors who are used to working with a different librarian (our first year comp liaison, who is wonderful!) and they want me to use that librarian’s lesson plan and materials. Because my colleague is so good at what she does, this is not exactly a hardship but everyone approaches things differently, so when I teach these comp classes, I’m doing so in a way that reflects someone else’s thinking and teaching rather than my own, which can be hard to do. That said, I’m happy to defer to her authority on this—after all, this is her professional turf and she’s done a lot of great work to build her program and create relationships with these professors.

I still kind of hate teaching one-shot sessions, though.

I’ve talked before, both here and elsewhere, about how I don’t think one-shot sessions are a very good model for teaching information literacy, despite the fact that there are some very creative and enthusiastic librarians out there who are able to create fun and effective lessons. I still think that but I understand that, as a model, one-shot sessions are kind of what we librarians are stuck with. And at least it’s something, right? Some IL instruction is better than none. Or so we tell ourselves.

I also think there’s a lot of value in teaching students the basics of research. This is stuff they need to know and it helps them build a foundation of knowledge that they can use throughout their academic careers. I have no problem with helping students learn what peer-reviewed articles are and how to search for and identify them in a library database. I just happen to think that this sort of mechanical information is best taught with at least some conceptual background. That’s why I frame my freshman seminar classes not just as an “introduction to the library” but as an introduction to college research and the differences between college research and other types of research.

But the other day I was teaching a one-shot session where every time I started talking about more conceptual ideas—like what peer review is—the instructor stopped me. Literally stood up and stopped me. In the middle of the class. In front of her students. The students didn’t need to know any of the “why” behind the research process, she told me. They would forget all of that anyway. They just needed to know the “how”: how to create a concept map, how to choose keywords, how to search a database.

First, let me say that the course instructor who said this is a perfectly lovely person and that, overall, I enjoyed working with her. I also don’t think she was entirely wrong. Students probably will forget a lot of what they learn in a one-shot session, not just the conceptual stuff but also the mechanical stuff. That’s why one-shot sessions are such a bad model for learning about information literacy and how to do research in the first place.

But I still kind of resented being reined in like this. It wasn’t as if any of the conceptual stuff I was trying to talk to students about was all that out there—I was literally just trying to help them understand why it’s sometimes necessary to take some time to shape or adjust your research topic before you begin searching for information. But apparently the professor felt that the video she asked me to show on “Choosing a Manageable Research Topic” was all students really needed to know about this aspect of the research process. So I felt like I was basically there to show the class a couple of videos and then stand around while their peer mentors helped them do the actual work.

This was only the latest in a long list of examples of course instructors doing this type of thing in the classes I teach. Here are some more:

  • Instructors who don’t respond to e-mails asking what they would like their students to learn as part of the lesson
  • Instructors who respond to these messages with the equivalent of a shrug
  • Instructors who approve the lesson plan ahead of time…and then ask me to add three more things to it, either right before the session begins or in the middle of it
  • Instructors who ask me, in the middle of the session, to demonstrate a database I’m not familiar with and haven’t prepared a lesson for
  • Instructors who take up the first 10-20 minutes of a 50 minute lesson with attendance, announcements, and other course housekeeping without telling me ahead of time that they’re going to do this
  • Instructors who bring their students to the library classroom 10-20 minutes late for a 50 minute lesson, without telling me ahead of time that they’re going to do this(1)
  • Instructors who wait until the day of the lesson to tell students about the research project they’ll be working on
  • Instructors who let their students do any of the following during the lesson: engage in side conversations with each other, online shop, text on their phones, sleep, etc.
  • Instructors who do any of the following during the lesson: engage in side conversations with their students, online shop, text on their phones, sleep, grade, work on other work, etc.
  • Instructors who don’t even show up to class the day of the lesson
  • Instructors who call the instruction session a “library day”(2)
  • Instructors who ask me to spend as little time talking as possible so that students can use the time to get started on their research assignment instead
  • That one instructor who asked me to throw out my entire lesson plan, which I’d shared with him well in advance, just before the session began because he said that it was (and I quote) “a waste of students’ time”
  • Instructors who don’t send thank you notes or any sort of acknowledgement after the lesson is over

What really irks me about this is that I doubt other guest lecturers that course instructors invite into their classes are treated this way. Usually, when you ask someone to speak as a guest in your course, you’re doing it because you respect their expertise and their perspective and feel that there is value in what you want them to teach students (which is something you may feel you don’t have the right expertise in to teach yourself). When you ask someone to do a guest lecture, you recognize that they are probably a busy and important person who is taking time out of their hectic schedule to come talk to YOUR students about something you, as their instructor, feel it’s important for them to learn. You would never dictate their lesson to them. You would never interrupt them. You would never make them feel like they are wasting their time or wasting your students’ time by being there and trying to teach something.

Most of the time, when someone asks me to speak to their class, they act like they are somehow doing me a favor rather than the other way around.

Obviously, a lot of this is wrapped up in a general lack of respect or understanding non-library faculty tend to have for what librarians do in general. They don’t know what information literacy is. They think we “teach the library.” Which is fine, in a way. I don’t understand what a lot of them teach either.

But if I did invite them to speak to my class, I would have enough respect for their expertise and their time to communicate with them clearly about what I would generally like students to learn from them and then step back and let them decide how best to approach that material. I wouldn’t, for example, ask a comp instructor to come to my class to teach my students basic spelling and grammar, which is the comp equivalent of what I was asked to do when the professor I mentioned before asked that I limit my teaching to the “how” rather than spending time on any of the “why.”

By the way, I write a version of this rant after almost every one-shot I teach but I never post it because I’m afraid someone will find it and take it the wrong way. To be clear, I’m not trying to call out any specific individuals or departments or even institutions, since this is something that’s happened to me in one form or another everywhere I’ve worked and with every non-library department I’ve ever worked with.

But I don’t think asking to be treated with a little more respect—both for my time and my expertise—should be that controversial. Because if you don’t treat other guest lecturers in your course this way, then you shouldn’t do it to librarians either.


  1. To be fair, the classroom is hard to find and sometimes the extra time is because they all got lost. I don’t get mad about that, although I think planning ahead could help solve that issue. I’m more talking about incidents where this late arrival is clearly planned and no one told me and now I have to shave an extra 10-20 minutes off of an already abbreviated lesson more or less on the fly.
  2. Someday, I might write a whole post on why calling a one-shot session a “library day” is insulting, at least to some librarians. For now just know that it’s condescending in a way that signals to students that they shouldn’t take anything they’re about to learn seriously.

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