Practicum Pause: an interview with Diana DiFrancesco

During the winter 2014 semester, the McGill Library welcomed 5 practicum students from the McGill School of Information Studies (SIS). The SIS website outlines the practicum experience as

a 3 credit academic elective course in which master’s-level students participate in field practice under the guidance of site supervisors. Students benefit from the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge base and learning in a real-world setting, while gaining experience and practicing professional skills. Site supervisors and their workplaces benefit from the energy, knowledge, and skills of an emerging information professional while providing students with a valuable mentorship experience in a real-world setting.

Library Matters took a practicum pause with all five students to talk about their work at the McGill Library and how their experience may help to inform Library units as they move forward with related projects. The final interview features Diana DiFrancesco whose practicum responsibilities included learning about MyArts Research, an information literacy initiative for undergraduate students in the Faculty of Arts, analyzing similar instruction and current best practices at peer institutions, creating an in-depth literature review on literacy instructions, and teaching a MyArts Research seminar to two different groups of undergrads.

LM: How did you become interested in getting an MLIS?

DD: I worked for a few years and before that I did my undergrad here at McGill. I also completed a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. I ended up working in fundraising but the job just wasn’t for me. I started to think about where else I would like to go what else I would like to do. And I thought coming back to do the MLIS was a great way to sort of qualify myself for any number of jobs. I think everybody who goes to library school does it because they love reading and they love to promote reading. But from a more sort of professional standpoint what appealed to me was the variety of settings where you could apply this knowledge and the variety of types of library jobs there were. So that was how I landed on library school specifically.

LM: Tell readers a little bit about your practicum.

DD: My practicum was based on information literacy, which is the ability to find and access information and how to use it effectively. This was something that I had really latched on to in a couple of my courses that I had taken so when I saw the list of possible practicums that were available I jumped at the chance to apply to this one offered at McGill Library. I’ve always enjoyed teaching and helping people find things. I work in circulation at the McGill Library and I am often helping students with the catalogue, helping them to read call numbers, find books on the shelf. I was very excited about the opportunity to go a little bit more in depth with that.

The “meat” of the practicum was the opportunity to teach some of MyArts Research workshops for undergraduate arts students. Everything was building towards this goal. The workshops were offered twice this semester. I audited the first set of workshops. I observed, I facilitated, and helped students catch up when they were doing their hands-on practice. And then in the second set of workshops I actually taught an entire module – two 90 minute workshops. I did it twice. In addition to that, to sort of add some context, I did an environmental scan looking at how information literacy is taught and to whom in other universities in North America. I wrote a couple of blog posts to promote the workshops and I did a literature review where I was just sort of exploring some different themes in information literacy and looking at best practices in instruction for undergraduates. And as far as recommendations, the big takeaway for McGill Library is that the workshops are very valuable. I think McGill is among the few universities in North America where there is a focus on helping undergraduates specifically with research. It’s the kind of thing that gets done a lot for graduate students from medicine and law. I think it’s a very valuable toolset for undergrads who are just getting started on the research process and may be thinking about going to graduate school. These workshops are definitely something that the Library should continue to offer. Hopefully the attendance will grow and grow and grow. The Humanities & Social Sciences Library welcomes a lot of people in the fall, but as awareness spreads, maybe there is the opportunity to offer more of them.

SIS practicum student Diana DiFrancesco

SIS practicum student Diana DiFrancesco

LM: In your presentation to staff, you mentioned that other institutions did information literacy work online. What did your findings show?

DD: A lot of institutions have devoted a lot of time and resources to creating an online alternative. Some schools have very fulsome, “mini course” or “mini workshop” where you read a little bit, and then you have an activity to complete, and then you take a little quiz, and then if you pass, you move on to the next module. Sometimes it’s as simple as putting up a pdf of some slides, or putting a link to the Chicago Manual of Style so that students can work on their citations. My first thought was, “That’s great, if it’s two in the morning and I’m not really sure where I’m going, it might be useful to have that information available 24 hours a day 7 days a week whether the library is open or closed.” But the more I thought about it, I think something really is lost when you’re trying to teach it to yourself. You lose that mediating librarian who can give you some help. And frankly if it’s two in the morning and your paper’s due tomorrow, you probably don’t care the best way to do you research, you probably care about finding one particular thing. So, I wonder how useful having that stuff online is.

LM: What skills, lessons or learning moments did you take from this practicum?

DD: I had never given a presentation longer than 10 or 15 minutes. So, for me it was a big “a-ha!” moment, midway through the first, when I passed that 15 minute mark and I just had to keep going. That I didn’t completely meltdown, that I was prepared and that I had answers to all their questions, and that I could explain things in a way that would give students a new way of looking at things, or a new skill that they hadn’t had before was a big sort of validating, wonderful moment for me. Nothing really went badly.

If I had known then what I know now, I probably would’ve fretted less about how I was going to do. I was very daunted initially, when my supervisor Robin Canuel said, “Well you can’t just teach it once, you have to do it twice.” His rationalization for that was very sound. But when he said it, my heart jumped into my throat. What if I do so badly the first time?  Then I have to do it again. But that’s sort of the point of doing it twice.  It really was interesting to have the opportunity to have a do over and work on some things I wasn’t happy with or things that I had spent too much time on the first time around. It was nice to have that second chance.

I think the other thing that was really interesting for me was having the opportunity to see three other librarians teach essentially the same content. Everyone has a different style and emphasizes different things. They would talks about the same thing in a different way and relate to students in a different way. And that was very illuminating especially when I observed module one for the first time because it was taught twice, on the same day, with two different librarians.  The content was fresh enough in my head that I could focus on the differences between how they had talked versus what they had talked about.

LM: Did you discover something new? Was there something very specific in the literature review that blew your mind?

DD:  I read this very long systematic review of hundreds of information literacy instruction experiments or studies where researchers had investigated different ways of teaching. I kept reading that, “Any instruction is better than no instruction,” and “Students feel more prepared to do research after instruction than they do before.” So I expected my own literature review to be like that – to be more positive. But I found this interesting under current of people saying, “We can’t expect this to do too much for students. We can’t assume that one hour of sitting in a computer lab with someone delivering instructions is going to turn these students into fantastic researchers overnight.” It seems obvious in retrospect but at the time it seemed almost revolutionary to think of it that way to me anyway because my reading up to that point had been fairly surface level in my courses. So that was an interesting argument to bear in mind while I was teaching. The workshop I was teaching wasn’t their only chance to learn this. It was more about getting students familiar with the resources. Let’s make them aware of what is available to them on the library website and how databases work in general. Hopefully when it’s time for them to do their next research project, they don’t feel as daunted.

The other thing that I read a lot about was increasing student engagement by incorporating analogies to social media tools that students probably use all the time. And now I’m working on a theory where any kind of research or library skill can be compared to something that you do on Facebook. I’ve seen a lot of examples like you can compare hashtags on twitter to subject headings. I read an article that went even further than that. I think Facebook is more widespread than Twitter. I feel like there are more opportunities for me to make that connection.

LM: Your most memorable moment?

DD: Definitely teaching. I had a really receptive group of students both times. They were told right off the bat that I was in library school and this was a practicum work experience for me. They didn’t seem to feel like they had been given the short stick. They were very kind to me and had some really nice feedback for me afterwards.

There were a few moments where I would look out at them when they would be typing away, taking notes furiously nodding along, and that moment of realization I felt that the information had gotten through and d now they know something that they didn’t know before. I am the one who taught them that. That was a really wonderful moment. It sort of reinforced what I felt already about how much I enjoy teaching and kind of confirmed that whatever I end up doing I would like teaching and information literacy instruction to be a part of that job.

LM: Which brings me to my last question, what’s next?

DD: I have a couple of contracts coming up at the Toronto International Film Festival. I am going to be working there through the summer at the press industry library. It is a very database heavy work. They have a very complex database that controls and inventories a lot of different things. Because I’m working in submissions, I think there will also be an element of coaching as well. After that, who knows? I am going to spend the summer trying to answer that question myself.

MyArts Research is once again being offered this fall in October. For more information click here.

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