Thank you so much for going over this with us ! It was super helpful and can't wait to use this whenever I'm doing research ! btw, your cats are adorable :)
I LOVE HER CATS. And she was very clear with her explanations! It'll really help my researching skills.
She was kind and very informative. I liked that she stopped to ask questions even though we had none.
She was great! Super informative and explained everything thoroughly. Will definitely use the information. Also, her cat is super cute!
She was able to cultivate an environment where we felt comfortable talking. She did great.

What makes a successful library instruction session? In the chaotic scramble that has characterized 2020, academic librarians have been forced to radically revise our approach to instruction, both in terms of content and delivery. We have experimented with backwards design and flipped classrooms, asynchronous workbooks and synchronous Zoom sessions, recorded videos and customized LibGuides and point-of-need research consultations over chat. And I am pleased to announce that I have, at last, identified the thing that keeps students engaged during remote learning: cats.

This may seem flippant, but I’m not just talking about the well-documented importance of cats to our collective survival in 2020. The quotes above are five of the many generous responses I received from Lindsey Albracht’s students after I led a library instruction session in their first-year composition class in October. During that session, as I followed a relatively scripted lesson plan on developing research strategies and using library resources, my three energetic cats made a number of unscheduled appearances: jumping on the back of my chair, fighting loudly, and demanding affection. Their repeated interruptions clearly made an impression. Why, I wondered, would so many students respond so positively to my (admittedly adorable) cats?

It seems simple. Who (besides The New York Times) wouldn’t want to see cats? Aren’t cats (and dogs, and capybaras, and bears in hot tubs) basically the reason for the Internet? While that may be true, I argue that the way students respond to seeing our cats on camera reveals a particular kind of emotional engagement with the virtual space of remote learning. That engagement suggests the potential richness of a pedagogical approach to library instruction that embraces intimacy and interruption.

Vicky, 10, looking innocent.

Research is an iterative process, and interruptions are iterations

The instruction session that catalyzed my thinking about intimacy and interruption was for one of about 100 sections of a first-year writing course that runs each year. In years past, a one-shot library instruction session would be scheduled for each section. In these sessions, held in one of three computer classrooms in the library, an instruction librarian would introduce students to the library and its resources, walk the class through the process of finding and evaluating books and articles using these resources, and assist students one-on-one while they began their research.

As Alison Hicks has eloquently argued, research is “a highly iterative process.” Yet library instruction often “positions research as static and linear,” a quest for the “best” tools to identify the “best” sources. Similarly, materials such as “[r]esearch and course guides,” as Jeremiah Paschke-Wood, Ellen Dubinsky, and Leslie Sult note, “typically feature long lists of resources without the contextual or instructional framework to direct novice researchers through the research process.” All too often, library instruction sessions built around prepared lesson plans provide a similarly sanitized conception of the research process. One-shots and research guides have a tendency to leave students with the impression that Research is spelled with a capital-R, that it is distinct from life as it is lived, that it is confined by the walls of the library or the metaphorical wall between library databases and Wikipedia. In reality, research is messy. It spills out of the questions that we construct to define it. It is recorded on slips of paper and in browser tabs that we cannot close until we remember the flash of thought that compelled us to open them. It is interruptedespecially nowby the demands of students, of family, of text messages and emails, of construction and sirens and neighbors and, yes, cats. And it is interrupted by new ideas, new trains of thought that double back on themselves.

As I write this sentence, I am writing above eight pages of notes, most of them false starts and question marks; I have 41 tabs open in this browser window alone; a stack of eleven books at my right elbow reminds me that I am supposed to be using this time to research a different topic. I am cold and out of coffee. Each of these objects, digital and physical, marks an interruption in my research. That interruption is part of the research.

Since the switch to remote instruction in March 2020, our revised approach to library instruction has inadvertently made the messy activity of research more visible. Our new instruction materials are still being developed as we adapt to the variety of structures, modalities, platforms, and research assignments chosen by English 110 instructors. In general, the new library instruction curriculum for English 110 includes a short introduction early in the semester, an asynchronous workbook that guides students through the development and refinement of a research question and search terms, and a 45-minute synchronous session that builds on the pre-work to collectively develop effective research strategies, use library resources effectively, and critically evaluate information. In reality, it often feels like lecturing into an abyss of unresponsive black boxes. I sometimes wonder if there is any benefit at all to remote live instruction sessions. But pre-recorded video instruction cannot engage students in the unpredictability of research, and it cannot prepare them to respond critically to false starts and feline assaults. My cats’ interruptions provided an unexpected opportunity to break free of the sterile, linear narrative presented in scripted on-shots and the “traditional ‘pathfinder’ model” of LibGuides “that provides students with extensive lists of resources.” They helped establish a more nuanced understanding of research as iterative and frequently interrupted.

Hamilton, 10, in a perfect pike position. 

Research happens in space

How can we develop a pedagogy for library instruction that makes space for interruptions imposed by others and demanded by the weary self? We must begin by attending to the environment in which teaching, learning, and researching occur.

The contextual framework of research is not solely conceptual or instructional. Research happens in physical space. As Katie Zabrowski and Nathaniel Rivers argued in a narrated video essay, spaces and material surroundings “are more than places listed in my weekly calendar but co-collaborators in the project planning and writing that emerges there.” Research is an embodied practice, even when it is conducted remotely. It is an activity performed in space, with sometimes unwilling or unwanted “co-collaborators” that we might less generously call “interruptions.” “Place,” Zabrowski and Rivers suggest, “is a medium, and a medium can be a place. A medium makes a place by pulling together disparate elements. Place is a mediated aggregate of actors and forces. Place is a collaborator.”

Library instruction sessions held in a library classroom remove studentsand faculty, and librariansfrom the spaces of collaborative research. It is no wonder, then, that even the most positive assessments of one-shot library instruction sessions find evidence for their success in “the relationship between past exposure to library instruction and self-reported use of the library and its resources (such as checking out a book, using a library database, and asking a librarian for help).” While these are certainly valuable skills, the assessment standards contribute to a sense of disconnect between library research and the other spaces in which research might be conducted.

When we allow students to see us in our places of research, addressing interruptions and navigating space, we invite them to understand their own space, with its interruptions, as a space where research happens. And in this way, the unintentional intimacy of our Zoom encounters builds on the very intentional practice of arranging library space to set students at ease. In March 2018, Jennifer Ferretti reported rearranging her office furniture to cultivate a more welcoming environment. In an Instagram post showing her desk arranged with two chairs side by side, she comments, “Switched office furniture so now the principal’s desk is no longer here furthering power inequities in the workplace/libraries. Now I can have meetings with students in particular that removes me from a position of all-knowing.” By inviting students to sit beside her, Ferretti’s carefully arranged office space resists academic power structures and cultivates intimate encounters with research instruction.

As Symphony Bruce argued, “research consultations and reference desk interactions,” such as those that might happen in Ferretti’s office, “are often the most intimate of teaching opportunities for librarians. These moments can be harnessed to cultivate connection and relationship.” While remote instruction sessions with classes of 25 students cannot replicate the personal attention of a one-on-one consultation, the space itself shows both students and faculty at our most vulnerable, in our private spaces. I am, in some very real sense, hosting 25 students in my own home, making my private life visible. When we switched to remote, we did not just invite students to sit next to us. We invited them to see us in our vulnerability, inadvertently creating an environment that resists academic power structures and cultivates an intimacy that we, facing a wall of black boxes, may not even be aware of.

Vicky (again), 10, providing research assistance over chat.

Research happens in time

As Bruce notes, “Librarians should remember that their spaces can send messages and may impact the level of connectedness a student feels.” Today, most of us have limited control over the spaces we share with students, spaces that double as bedrooms, living rooms, playrooms, makeshift homeschools, and cat runs. But we have control over the manner in which we frame such sharing. And we can choose to embrace the opportunity for what Bruce, following Veronica I. Arellano-Douglas, calls “intersubjective mutuality.” Bruce uses the example of a time Arellano-Douglas encountered a student who expressed shame for her procrastination, and Arellano-Douglas opened up with her own stories of procrastination. “This authenticity and vulnerability,” Bruce argues, “creates empathy between the two and makes space for the healing of shame to occur, before attention to the expressed need is provided. The authenticity allowed by a relational-cultural approach when applied to reference work has the power to build deep, healing relationships with students.” Similarly, when we share the interruptions, ruptures, and distractions present in our own spaces of research, we expose our mutual vulnerability. As the responses to my interrupted library instruction session indicate, allowing students to join us in an authentic, vulnerable space, where they can see our joys (cats) and our struggles (also cats), cultivates an environment where students “felt comfortable talking.”

Sharing our spaces in synchronous instruction sessions does more than just show the places where research occurs. It creates an opportunity for students to see our vulnerabilities, and, in responding with care and kindness, come to understand that we understand their vulnerabilities, and come to expect that we, too, will respond with care and kindness.

But we are not just sharing our visible spaces with students during remote instruction sessions. We are also, crucially, sharing our experience of time as it unfolds in space. Students’ reluctance to keep cameras on frequently arises in ethical critiques of surveillance, proctoring software, and “camera-on” policies in remote instruction. But I’d like to consider what the conditions reported in these complaints tell us about how students experience research now. A poll by The Stanford Daily found that students kept their cameras off because “they were self-conscious about being seen in class, weren’t in private spaces and/or didn’t want to show their current living situations.” We are accustomed to thinking about privacy as a spatial consideration, as a distinction between public and private places. But privacy is also a temporal consideration: spaces often become more or less private depending on who we share them with in time. The Stanford study tellingly connects the self-consciousness students feel about their space to the responsibilities students might have in time. Low-income students, the study found, might be particularly reluctant to broadcast their space to their peers, and “they might have existing responsibilities, especially during the crisis.” Like us, our students participate in instruction sessions from spaces that are prone to interruptions beyond their control.

This is, at core, an accessibility issue: some students have more access to time than others. As Jerome Ellis expressed in an interview about his experiences with time limits as a performer with a stutter, we frequently assume that all people have “relatively equal access to time through their speech, which is not true. Stuttering is very unpredictable.” Similarly, I would argue, students in environments that are more prone to unpredictable interruptions have unequal access to time, especially during synchronous sessions.

We cannot give our students access to a space free from interruption. But we can normalize the experience of navigating interruption, and offer a framework for students to incorporate interruption into their understanding of how research is practiced -- and, ultimately, to develop a set of research habits that are personal to their own experience of “temporal inequalities.”

Manengue, 10, reading Mary Shelley's letters.

Research instruction can be kind

Even before the switch to remote instruction and its attendant chaos, educators committed to what Catherine Denial calls “a pedagogy of kindness” developed policies to extend access to time limits such as deadlines when students’ lives are unexpectedly interrupted. Robin Mitchell includes a “shit happens” clause in her syllabi; students invoke the clause for a no-questions-asked extension. Similarly, Sam Hamilton encourages instructors to incorporate student input into the design of the course as a whole by including them in the recursive, iterative, and collaborative process of “design thinking.” He cautions teachers to resist the impulse to “adapt their approach to fit the technologies, rather than adopt and adapt those technologies that supplement their approach.”

Yet librarians rarely have the opportunity to choose the technologies we use in our instruction. Rather, we are guests in another teacher’s classroom, forced to adapt our pedagogy to their choice of platform and their frequent request that we “just show the databases” to the class. Rachel Elizabeth Scott writes of the tension librarians feel between “accommodating faculty requests and staying true to your pedagogical ideals in the one-shot information literacy session.” This is one reason that  librarians have tended to rely so heavily on semi-scripted instruction sessions and the linear research paths outlined by LibGuides. The research guides traditionally used for asynchronous instruction might be considered “pathfinders” not only for students, but for the library instructors seeking to navigate the various pedagogies and platforms of our academic colleagues. Yet the absence of a clear path now presents us with an opportunity to radically embrace the wayward strayings of research.

The tension between “pathfinder” guides and the librarian’s limited power to guide an instruction session predates the current crisis. But the hastily conceived move to remote that will forever characterize 2020 reveals that tension more starkly than ever. And, as we begin the process of revising our curricula and materials once more, it is imperative that we develop a pedagogy of intimacy and interruption: a pedagogy that acknowledges that research adapts to its surroundings, that interruptions can be generative, and that the paths we find are often happy accidents encountered together.

My own experiences with intimacy and interruption in library instruction have been largely accidental adaptations to the present situation. What might library instruction look like if it deliberately embraced a pedagogy of intimacy and interruption? Although academic librarianship has always involved a degree of emotional labor, the care provided by academic librarians for students tends to be examined as it manifests in the one-on-one research consultation rather than as a pedagogical approach for addressing a full class from our domestic environment. And I would caution against any pedagogical approach that demanded the use of our private spaces and selves in ways that, as Bruce puts it, make us “vulnerable to acts of verbal and emotional harm” -- especially given the unequal ways in which women and librarians of color are called upon to provide and perform care. And as Renee McGarry argues in her reflections on Digital Pedagogy Lab, the oft-repeated demand to “bring your full self” ignores the way that such demands contribute to the further marginalization of already marginalized people. “The only people we think need to have, or develop, full selves are marginalized peoples,” she writes; “others get to have many selves, and the opportunity to express themselves differently depending on context.” So the question becomes: what pedagogical choices can librarians make, in the context of the instruction session, to create opportunities for students to experience research as a process that happens in space and includes the intimacy and interruptions associated with that space and time?

Instruction materials being generated now offer a glimpse into what such pedagogy, when fully realized, might include: cats. In a slide from a recent instruction session, Kelly Wooten provides a list of examples of questions students can ask of librarians, including questions about research, archives, the location of the bathroomsand her cats. (The cats get their own introduction in a later slide.) This slide invites intimacy by sharing a glimpse of Wooten’s life and cultivating a comfortable environment to ask questions, and it includes the physical spaces of research as part of the research process itself -- spaces that include both the library building and the living room, and processes that are interrupted by bathroom breaks and cat loafs.

As our colleagues in academic departments are urged, in the manner of the pandemic mantra, to “Keep Teaching,” Charles Logan reminds us that the phrase requires clarification to be meaningful: who, what, where, when, and how are we teaching? Librarians, likewise, must consider what it means to “Keep Researching.” Keep researching, and keep teaching research, in all the places that research happens, in sites of interruptions and spaces of unexpected collaboration, with intimacies and frustrations and anxieties and silences and black boxes and too many tabs. And keep at it after we have, in the almost unimaginable future, returned to campus and to the places where Research with a capital-R has always happened. I’ll be researching at home then too, with one cat asleep beside me, another loudly grooming nearby, and a third approaching quietly with trouble in his eyes.