Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In the spaces in between

I like to practice what I preach over here on the blog, so yesterday I attended a lunchtime program at my library about ACRL's Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. I have become increasingly fascinated with the Framework and with understanding what the learning process looks like for our users. I grow more and more convinced that the key to effectively describing our collections and building our systems is to understand how our users approach the research process and are transformed by what they learn from our instruction-oriented colleagues.

But I digress. This post is not about that.

In preparation for that program, I read about threshold concepts. This primer on threshold concepts by Glynis Cousin was especially helpful for both explaining the concept of threshold concepts and grounding my understanding of the Framework. In this piece, Cousin explains that there is a space, the liminal state, between when a learner is introduced to a concept and when they master it. Cousin describes the concept of a liminal state as it relates to the mastery of threshold concepts, writing:
But once a learner enters this liminal space, she is engaged with the project of mastery unlike the learner who remains in a state of pre-liminality in which understandings are at best vague.
Cousin goes on to challenge those tasks with teaching by stating:
Teachers must demonstrate that they can tolerate learner confusion and can 'hold' their students through liminal states.
This idea of a liminal space and our responsibility to those in it stuck with me and made me think about how I approach working with people who are mastering new skills.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I did not study education at any point in my undergraduate or graduate studies. Any understanding I have of how people learn things comes from teaching people things--both informally and in a classroom setting. My limited experience with library-related instruction comes in the form of one hour one-shot sessions that are meant to serve as an orientation to library resources. When I started doing these sessions, I would cram in as much information as I could for 50 minutes. Students saw a variety of resources being demonstrated, but they didn't necessarily come away from the class understanding how to use them or understanding any of the underlying concepts of information literacy.

Over time, I have changed my teaching style, after seeing what was successful and what wasn't and modifying my lesson plans accordingly. I have landed on teaching classes where I identify 1-2 concepts I want them to come away knowing and then building my activities and discussion around those. But after reading Cousin's discussion about the liminal space, I believe it is not enough for me to pare down my lesson plans. I also need to make room in any class I teach for those I'm teaching to sit in the liminal space. I need to stop filling the space with own thoughts and, instead, leave that space for learners to consider and master a particular threshold concept.

Making room for students to be in that liminal space is, admittedly, really tough. Once you've mastered a threshold concept, you can't un-master it. And it can be hard to allow yourself to feel how you felt when you lived in the liminal space: the fear, the frustration, the feeling of isolation. It requires an extraordinary amount of empathy to put yourself back in that space. But I would argue that it is necessary if you want to be a good teacher.

When I was taking cataloging, I really struggled. For about 3/4 of the semester, I didn't not not understand it at all and I was sure that I was going to fail. At some point cataloging "clicked" for me and, as they say, the rest is history. But I remember keenly that feeling of frustration over not understanding cataloging. I carry that feeling with me and I let it guide me in how I help others master cataloging concepts.

The bottom line, I think, is this: when we teach, we are responsible for creating a safe space for people to wrestle with the mastery of a threshold concept. Whether it's teaching a class of students or training our colleagues, it is our job as teachers to make room for the the liminal space. And, while we're at it, to fill that space with empathy and support. It takes time and practice to develop the capacity to do these things. But we owe it to the people we teach and, in the end, it's so rewarding.

Stay positive,

1 comment:

Kate Irwin-Smiler said...

I'm in the throes of preparing my fall slate of courses and this could not have been timed better. You're so right. Your description of liminal space is exactly what I remember from cataloging and so much of law school -- except the ones that I teach. Those are the ones that I need to be particularly conscious of. I have had a similar teaching journey to the one you describe, and I think taking another step towards recognizing liminal space (calling it that or something else) will be a good one for me.