Monday, July 25, 2011

Learning the Library

Hi, I'm Laura. I'm not a librarian yet, but I will be!

In September I'll be starting my MLIS at McGill University. Since this blog will chart my growth as a library professional through the two year program, I thought it would be appropriate for my first entry to introduce my career background, my professional interests, and my aspirations. So welcome, and happy reading. I hope you enjoy my story.

In 2006 I finished my MA in English Literature and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. After graduation I felt a bit lost. I wasn't exactly sure where to go or what to do with myself. A friend from my MA, Katherine, had enrolled in McGill's MLIS program. Hearing about the topics she was studying and the sort of work that she hoped to do was exciting to me; I thought I might like to do something similar. I began to talk to other librarians, asking them about their fields and what their lives were like day to day. The more I heard about their jobs, the more enthusiastic I became about a possible career in librarianship. I wasn't sure what kind of librarianship I'd like to be involved in (I had an interest in archives but didn't know what it entailed) but imagined that I'd sort it out once I was in the program.

However, at that point I did not feel ready to go back to school. I'd been a student my entire life, which I'd enjoyed, but I wanted to have a wider range of experiences before I did another degree. More than anything, I wanted to travel. When the the opportunity came up to work as an ESL instructor at a teachers' college in South Korea, I accepted it enthusiastically. I didn't really think of it as a career move at the time. It was simply going to be a challenging and exciting gap year, and afterward I'd come back to Canada and start my "real life".

I'm so glad things didn't work out according to my original plan! Within three days of arriving in South Korea, the country had gotten under my skin and I knew that I wanted to stay more than a year. I spent the next few months getting to know my students, adapting to teaching, and learning about Korean life and culture. There were many challenges. The Korean school system operates very, very differently than its Western counterpart. In Western schools, asking questions is encouraged, as it demonstrates the student's investment in their learning. In Korea, asking a question is a disrespectful act because it implies that the teacher, who is supposed to be the authority on the subject, has not adequately explained the topic. So of course, when I encouraged my students to ask questions, they were very reluctant to do so because they feared offending me.

The other issue that I ran into repeatedly was the Korean school system's emphasis on memorization over application. Korean students are expected to memorize facts, formulas, grammatical structures, etc., which they can do with astounding accuracy. Many of my students could recite the definitions of English words such as "pallinode" or "temerity", words that would stump native English speakers. However, they were rarely able to apply this knowledge in any meaningful way. When they spoke English, they relied on memorized phrases (which had often been taught incorrectly). Here are the classics:

"Hello how are you I am fine thanks and you?" (Said in one breath without waiting for a response.)

"In my family I have mother, father, younger brother."

"You are very beautiful!" My personal favourite. ;)

But when you said something to them that deviated from the script they were expecting, they had no idea how to respond. Very few of them felt comfortable making what linguists call "spontaneous utterances", ie. talking without having to think about it.

A way to meet both these challenges was to form a rapport with the students. Speaking English with a native speaking foreigner was a terrifying prospect for many of them, so I tried to do things that would help them to feel comfortable. I met them for coffee, went to movies with them, held office hours, and encouraged them over and over again to ask me questions. Instead of revisiting the more formal, businesslike English common in Korea's English textbooks, I tried to teach them English they could actually use. (After one lesson on the expression "That sucks", one student e-mailed me to say that she'd heard it on Grey's Anatomy and finally knew what it meant. That felt pretty good!)

I loved what I was doing and realized that I could easily make a career out of it. Not only was I being paid to teach, an activity I enjoyed, I was being paid to travel. All around me, I was surrounded by ex-pats who weren't just doing this for a year, but were making their lives of it. Maybe I didn't want to be a librarian after all. Maybe I wanted to be a teacher.

Still, I felt that I had it in me to be a more effective instructor, something the conditions at my job prevented me from doing. For one thing, I was spread too thin. Every week three hundred students went through my classroom. I taught the same lesson twenty-two times a week. I couldn't give them any homework because there was no way I could grade three hundred papers. Lesson planning was next to impossible because the students who were almost fluent in English were lumped in with the students who could barely introduce themselves. I only saw each class eight times a semester - not enough to make any real difference. As long as I remained in the Korean university system, it would be hard to be anything but a human tape recorder. I wanted to do more than that.

So when my contract was up, I began to apply for jobs at international schools in Korea. These were private schools that were run in a Western style with the intention of putting their graduates into Western universities. Ultimately, I was hired by Gyeonggi Suwon International School in Suwon, which came out of an American educational tradition and employed teachers from all over the world. There I began teaching 9th and 10th grade English Lit, Drama, Writing, and public speaking. I was to teach my students in a Western style, which meant I would expect them to ask questions, collaborate with one another, participate in discussions, debate, perform, and reflect.

That was a challenge at first. Over 95% of GSIS' students were ethnically Korean, and because it was a new school most of them had just come out of the Korean school system. So there was a lot of adjustment as we all got accustomed to learning in a new way. But as the years passed and the students got the hang of it, they grew in confidence and their English academic abilities improved. I began to get more creative in my teaching and formed really close ties with my students.

With Alice, the March Hare, and the Mad Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the play I co-directed last spring for 6th-12th grade students.

And all this time the debate raged in my head: Did I still want to be a librarian? Or did I want to keep teaching? The answer came to me in the classroom.

We tend to think that because teenagers have grown up with access to the Internet, they automatically know how to make best use of it. That is one of the primary arguments for cutting funding to school libraries - why do students need books when they can just jump on their laptops? The experience of teaching research skills to my students, however, soon made me realize that trained library professionals are more crucial than ever.

These were smart kids, but they struggled with the research from the beginning. I taught them how to choose appropriate keywords for their Google searches, how to tell good websites from bad, how to use the library databases, and how to keep their sources organized once they'd found them. All the while I was thinking to myself, If I was a librarian, I'd be better at this.

But here's the thing. In our Web 2.0 world, a librarian is always a teacher. Forcing myself to choose between two narrow categories suddenly seemed silly. I knew then that I wanted to find a place for myself as a teaching librarian. After all, I love teaching, I love connecting students with resources, and as a teaching librarian I can do both!

Although it was never my original plan to spend four years in South Korea instead of one, I'm so glad I did. My time there was so much more than "just" a gap year; it launched my career. Not only did I get to meet fantastic people, learn about other cultures, and save a bit of money, I also gained some incredible teaching experience and found the niche I want to pursue in librarianship.

Now I'm excited for the next phase of my career. Maybe I'll become a teacher-librarian in a high school. Maybe I'll become an academic liaison librarian in a university. Or maybe I'll end up pursuing an option I'm not even aware of yet. It just seems like there are so many possibilities out there in the library field! I can't wait to get started.