Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Immersion and personal statements

I decided sometime last month to apply for Institute for Information Literacy: Texas Immersion program. To be honest, I always reluctant to ask for funding for myself for things like this (this one is particularly pricey, and I would not even be going out of town). And yet, it is something that I know I can get so much out of in terms of new things I can learn and bring back to my institution, that the opportunity, plus the fact it is local this time around, makes it too hard to pass it up. At any rate, like many of these programs, they ask you to write a personal statement. Sure, I can write something nice and polished, but I often struggle with this because I don't really like talking about myself. Put me in a classroom, and I will play with controlled chaos (is there such a thing?). Ask me to brag about what I have done, and I actually get shy. In part because I think actions speak louder than words. But I understand a resume or a CV is not everything. A tool like that is just a list of facts; a screener needs some context, so that's why they ask for a personal statement, and why I am stuck trying to write one within the deadline. Funny thing about deadlines. When they are far away, you don't worry, but they creep on you. When I sat with my director and supervisor to discuss this possibility, it was a month away. Suddenly, the semester started, and I started teaching (you know? The stuff they hired me to do). It's two weeks or so before the deadline to apply, and I am trying to get a draft going. And now, I am writing this, should I worry a screener will see it and get a glimpse of my anxiety before seeing the actual application? Well, I am not writing anything I don't mind anyone seeing, and if they were to hold this working post against me, maybe I need to apply someplace else. Writing is often a work in progress, a way to make meaning, and that is what I am trying to do now.

So, what do they ask for? If you go to the website, and look for the requirements for Track 1 (The Teacher Track), you will find the questions for the personal statement there. For openers, they want to know about my experience as a teacher and my involvement in information literacy. What could I say? I have been involved in information literacy and education from both sides. I have been a composition teacher in high school and college. I was teaching students how to research and, more importantly, how to make the best use of the information they find, even before I decided to become a librarian. It is really powerful stuff to show a student how to craft an argument, how to find the information they need for it, how to decide it works for them. It is powerful because I have been lucky to often witness thoughts as they came to life. Those "ah-hah" moments teachers love to talk about, they are very true. Being a writing teacher, and I mean that in more than one way, puts you at the forefront of information literacy, if you are any good at what you do. You can't help but deal with it. But that is going further back than the screeners may want. I could make my life easier, and look at my work with the Instruction Unit at Ball State where I managed to deviate from the outlined program to teach classes. Since all composition classes were required to attend a BI session, we had a series of basic lesson templates, with times on it for how long a segment was to take. This works fine for someone with no experience, but what I found is that it does not work as well when a professor wants some very tailored instruction for a particular assignment. What ended up happening is that I often improvised searches right in the middle of a lesson to accomodate some request. Over time, I would tailor my lessons closely. I had the advantage back then that I was working for the English Department (they paid to have one of their graduate assistants do their library instruction over at the library), so I knew most of the faculty, and I could find out what they wanted for their classes because I either talked to them, or I had taught composition myself. Those were pretty good days of library and departmental collaboration. This would be something I would like to explore further if they let me in: collaborating with faculty. Sure, I have done some research on the topic on my own, and I work at it in my institution, but I have a lot of work in this area. So, anything I can learn from people who are in the trenches as well and have experiences to share, I would certainly like to know. And since this experience of immersion is supposed to be collaborative, I will offer in trade some of my classroom tricks.

At this point, I think most of the trick is finding what I would like to emphasize about myself, and then carefully lay it out in a short essay. The four questions combined would be about 1,100 words, but each one is about 200 words minimum, except for the first question I sort of mangled above, which is to be 500 words. And there is some risk. Often, a very short statement has to be very focused. You have to get to the point quickly. Read the question, begin by rephrasing it as part of the answer, the supporting the answer. Short stuff like this is a matter of get in, get out, and move on. And yet, here I am thinking about it and not really following my own advice as a writer. Why? Because in large measure this means a lot to me. I am a teacher librarian. It's my life we are talking about here, and I don't mean to be dramatic about it. This is really what I do. "Teacher librarian," now there is a term you don't hear about. Can I trademark that? By the way, there is a paper or a book waiting to happen. Because there is a difference between the BI that looks more like a corporate training session and the actual act of teaching students not only how to use a database, but how to make meaning of what they find, which often happens in the follow-up. I am sure someone already did, but it is just more than coordinating the program. You have to be actively involved in it. You work with students, meet with them. You work with faculty, gather their assignments when they provide them so you know what the students are doing. I have a bit of an edge being in a smaller setting where I can actually get to know the teachers, so when a student comes in and says, "I am doing this for Dr. Smith," I know who Dr. Smith is and what he is doing in his classes. This takes work. It takes time; it takes dedication. And yet, for all the experience I have gained, some at a hard price, over the years, I still have a lot to learn, and that is what I am hoping to get out of this workshop if I get in.

Anyways, just some food for thought, or some initial ramblings to see what rises to the surface. At any rate, here's a glimpse of what I am working on between teaching classes, consulting with students, and a few other things.

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