No Laughing Matters

Today at the library I was doing a one-on-one instruction session with a person who is relatively new to using the computer. He has taken my computer classes and scheduled these additional sessions so as to get some individual instruction to be able to get his resume typed and start applying for jobs. It’s been a slow process as he is used to using an electronic typewriter (still own one, in fact) and some of the typewriter-vs-computer aspects have been harder to grasp. But, even in its labored pace, he has been eager to learn more, practice what I’ve taught him, and do additional reading.

The session we had today was focusing on sending email with attachments. We were making progress, but he was asking me a ton of questions as we go. I encourage people to ask questions when they have them so this is about par for the course as we go along. After a slew of questions, he stops for a moment, looks at me, and says, “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions [about the computer]”.

“It’s what I’m here for,” I replied and smiled.

But in those following moments, there’s a bit of different dialogue in my head. I’ve always prided myself with having patience when it comes to computer instruction. I get compliments on the seemingly infinite time I spend explaining everything when it comes to using the computer. It would seem that the time I spent taking care of an elderly grandmother with dementia and short term memory loss has well prepared me for a litany of sustained, not-always-reasonable, and oft repeated inquiries I have gotten in the past. This is something I know I’m good at and a point in my favor.

However, I got a pang of guilt in the midst of his appreciative statement. As I mentioned earlier, his prior experience exclusively with the electric typewriter has made some of the instruction time…difficult. There are aspects of the typewriter that simply do not translate to the computer and the constant comparison of the two has slowly worn down my nerves. It has made some of the sessions into mental grinds as I simultaneously try to provide him with the answers he is looking for as well as steer him in the right direction within the word processing program. It has left me on more than one occasion with my teeth on edge, crawling back to my office computer so I can recoup my sanity through the viewing of websites full of funny cat pictures.

I know that we are all human and we all have our limits. It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.

In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave. I’m sure we (the royal we, me and anyone reading this) can think about times when they got the answer to the question they asked but felt good or bad about how the answer was given. That makes a difference in how people perceive the value of the library in their lives and community.

For myself, his comment is a great reminder about the virtue of patience. I know he will be back, I will be there, and we will take on the next hurdle. And as much as there will be times that will drive me insane with frustration, I will take solace in knowing that there are internet cats ready to catch me and get me back to fighting shape. I just have to keep it together till then because it matters to the person I’m helping.

Scene Missing

I usually don’t write about my work at the library because a good number of solid personal reasons, but something happened today that really shook me. One portion of my job is computer instruction; I teach all of the computer classes at my branch plus I offer one-on-one sessions by appointment. The latter are for subjects that I don’t teach in the classroom setting since they don’t generate enough interest to warrant reserving the computer lab. Plus it also gives me a chance to provide additional individual attention to someone who needs a little extra time or care. Personally, I think it’s great outreach, advocacy, and instruction all rolled into one, but that’s beside the point of this post.

Today I had a situation in a one-on-one that I’ve never experienced before and, quite frankly, it put a damper on my mood for the rest of the afternoon. It was with an older gentlemen to whom I have taught computer basics. In my relatively short tenure, I’ve encountered people who were reluctant, hesitant, and downright fearful about using the computer. I try to soothe their concerns, addresses their needs, and get them to see the computer as something that can be used by anyone.

But today was different. About halfway through our time, he stopped me and told me that he didn’t want to go on. His memory, he went on, was not there anymore. He understood what I was saying, but he wasn’t remembering it. Furthermore, he could feel himself not retaining it. He was frustrated, a hint of angry, and an underlying feeling of disappointment. With that, he didn’t want to go on with the lesson and he wanted to let go of the idea of using the computer.

It was hard thing to hear. Having experienced life with two grandmothers who had dementia who ability to retain short term memories were all but shot, my heart went out to him. I have seen the face of frustration by someone who is desperately trying to remember what happened moments ago or realizing they have asked the same question multiple times over a short time period. I’ve seen the anger that can unfold when the person knows there is a connection to be made but can’t seem to find the right words, terms, or concept. It’s the ultimate mind betrayal.

On the other hand, as we started, he had demonstrated that he remembered some of what I taught him in the previous lesson. In going over the basics again, he was readily picking up on what I was saying and doing. It was my own frustration this time in knowing that he had remembered some things, but he was either not realizing it or putting it down as insufficient. It might not have been rushing forth, but it was there.

In that ensuing conversation that lasted but a few minutes as we wrapped things up, I felt the walls break down. Here was another human being, a bit scared, looking to indulge his interests but his brain wasn’t there for him. We talked about our family histories (he has relatives who had or have the same kinds of memory issues) and about how the brain works in terms of memory, reasoning, and emotion. I wasn’t the librarian anymore, but someone there trying to make him feel better, encouraging him to talk to a doctor about how he felt, and what was important in life (his family). But, even for all those consoling words, I felt very helpless in that moment. I couldn’t offer or provide a solution.

In the end, he walked away. I left the door open to him and reminded him it was not a waste of my time but my job to be there for people who need help just like him. I hope he comes back. I don’t want to give up.

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid

Every now and again, a library member will approach me at the reference desk and preface their inquiry with the phrase, “I have a stupid question”. My standard response comes from Lewis Black (“I will be the judge of that”) which I sometimes manage not to say out loud. Despite their declaration to the contrary, I’ve never heard a stupid question. I’ve heard ones of genuine curiosity, easily rectified inattentive reasoning, and momentary mind farts, but nothing that arises to the level of thinking, “I question the integrity of the oxygen supply to your brain”.

A few months ago, I remember teaching one of my computer classes . As I was greeting people and checking off registered name, a person entering the computer center leaned in and said in a low voice, “I’m the stupid one.” I made a joke to pass it off, but they were insistent. “No, really, I’m not smart.” Oh man. I haven’t uttered one word of instruction and this person has already charted a course that leads towards a failing outcome. How do you overcome that?

I made a point in telling them that, in seeking help to learn more about computers, they’ve already made one smart move. That there were people who had already given up on themselves without even trying to find someone to teach them. Also that I was also there to help them along, to guide them through, and to answer the questions along the way. They changed their tune, a mixture of being taken aback by my bluntness and embarrassment that I would not let go of the point, and by the time they left the class they thanked me for giving them the confidence to use a computer.

It’s this last key point (confidence) that I work to instill when I’m teaching my computer classes. Although it is not an original discovery in any way, shape, or form, but I find that attitude can be equally if not more important than knowledge in the classroom. I could ramble on about how a computer works, the features of Microsoft Word, or the privacy settings of Facebook for hours on end, but if my students don’t have the courage and confidence to use the mouse or type on the keyboard, it’s wasted breath. So many of my students (nearly all older people) come in frightened that they could press the wrong key or click on the wrong icon and the whole computer will crash, blow up, run off with their spouse, and spend their retirement money in Bora Bora. The main lesson I try to impart is approach this as an adventure, that there aren’t any bad screens only unfamiliar ones, and that everything can be fixed (even if requires a family member or friend to help them out). 

I know I’m going to get pushback on this, but there really isn’t anything that is a stupid question in our business. We are there to provide answers to questions, even if they seem rote, basic, or just plain lazy. There is a keen difference between these behaviors and being completely mentally dull. Given the expansive definition of the term itself, some nuance and context are required to figure out what the real issue is (which, I should note, doesn’t rule out the librarian as being out of line in this equation either).

In that interaction, whether it is in the computer lab or the reference desk or out on the floor, the most important thing that we can give our library members is the confidence to ask the next question. While our answer to their inquiry can be overturned by later data, the attitude of the interaction outcome will leave a longer lasting impression. Overall, when we judge an inquiry as stupid (read: beneath us), it can be a dangerous term in which to frame the people who walk through the door seeking our help.

Teaching Towards Your Blind Side

On my way home this afternoon, I happened to catch American RadioWorks on NPR. This particular piece caught my attention when they talked about “expert blind spots”.

Deep expertise in a field is obviously a critical asset that colleges look for in their professors. Koedinger says it can also be an obstacle to teaching. He says experts often have a blind spot that blocks them from perceiving a problem from a student’s point of view. "If you’re a chess expert, the chessboard looks different" than it does to a beginner, he says. Experts grasp patterns and relationships by second nature. In essence, the expert can’t understand what the student can’t understand.

In designing the OLI courseware, Koedinger and the Carnegie Mellon team work with experts to overcome the "blind spots" and break each piece of knowledge into its building blocks. They deconstruct the patterns so students can rehearse putting the pieces back together. And because the OLI software captures every click of every student’s mouse, massive pools of "clickstream" data help the OLI team tease out what kinds of lessons and exercises lead students to master their subjects most effectively.

"One of the big surprises in this data set for me is when you look at the learning process from task to task, it takes a long time for kids to get better at specific content, whether it’s math or science or language," Koedinger says. "The progress we see is steady, but it’s slow. That’s one of those things about learning we often forget — how much repetition and practice is critical to becoming an expert."

It really resonated with me because of the computer classes I teach. It has taken months to develop some of the simplified or layman explanations and examples that I give in class to talk about things that are generally taken for granted in a modern technology skill set. I’ve had to adjust my terminology and approach to bring computer skills down to a level where people feel comfortable and confident. I’ve been using computers for over twenty five years; it’s a good reminder of how recent the development of the personal computer is when you are teaching people who have never used one in their life. 

Whether you teach computer classes in the public library like me or in an academic setting from elementary to college, please take the time to listen to this particular episode. It’s pretty damn amazing in looking at a potential of computer assisted education as well as the continued development of online courses.

If you’re someone in the classroom (regardless if that is at a college, high school, grade school, or public library), what kinds of technology assisted instruction have you used or seen?

Why Your Library Should Do One on One Appointments

After my post about teaching computer basics, one of the comments reminded me of another service that I offer at my library that I love to do: one on one assistance. Initially, it started as something specifically for people needing help with their unemployment and job hunting. Whether it was writing a resume or brainstorming new search strategies, I would sit down with a patron for thirty to sixty minutes and focus on the help that they needed. Over time, I extended to computer help and now I offer assistance with anything. (Ok, nearly anything within knowledge and reason, but I’m not topic limited anymore.)

The good thing about one-on-one style help is that it is nothing new to libraries nor is it limited by library types. Research consultations at the academic level and individualized instruction at the school level already embrace the benefits of one on one sessions. But if you are working at a library that doesn’t do one on one or considers it unfeasible, I have some reasons for you to consider (or reconsider) offering it.

  • Time (and Staffing) Went Spent

For one on one sessions, it works at any library size level. Even if your library is small enough not to offer group computer classes, all you need is a single computer and two chairs. In accepting appointments, you can block off time so you can adjust staffing and coverage accordingly. In a pinch, that person can be asked to help out with a major issue or deal with a problem. The bottom line is that it can work within staff schedules and not tie them up for undue periods of time.

  • Personal Tailored Sessions

In setting up the appointment, staff can determine what help they need and what their skill level is. In prepping for the session (if any is required), they can try to meet those needs as well as presenting it in a manner that is appropriate for the patron. In focusing on the individual, a topic can be presented in the most approachable way. As the session progresses, changes can be made on the fly to accommodate questions and/or further needs.

In addition, it puts a staff member in a more casual context with the patron where they can open up about the topic. Unlike the group setting, people will be more frank about their questions or issues in the one on one setting. This further deepens the connection and allows me to teach towards their strengths and issues.

  • Increases the Number of Computer Topics Offered for Instruction

For groups, I teach a basic computer class, an email one, an internet searching, and a Facebook class at the moment. (I’m going to offer Google Plus in the fall.) For the individual, I offer the same topics as well as teaching Twitter, LinkedIn, Microsoft Office, and other internet odds and ends. I could offer these other topics as group classes, but I haven’t had much interest from my community to sustain it as a regular group offering. In offering it as a one-on-one session, I keep all the preparation that I did for those classes and be able to say that it is one of the topics we offer instruction on at the library.

  • Just Plain Good Customer Service

To me, it is advocacy and marketing all rolled into one as a hidden layer to the session. It allows me to put a face on the library for the patron, to make one more slightly deeper connection in the community, and gives me chances to mention other materials and services as they apply to the session. It’s a very soft sell style, for certain, but it lets me throw out something they might not know about. Furthermore, the one on one sessions offer something that is heavily advertised in parts of the retail world: personalized attention. With all of the automation and technology out there, the one on one sessions take it in the other direction by giving someone your full effort. In a world where a common complaint is how impersonal it is, it really makes a difference.

  • It Is What You Make It

While I call it one on one help, I’ve helped people in pairs (friends, business partners) and even a trio (a group of local YA authors). The key strength and ultimate selling point is the flexibility of the classes. It can accommodate tough schedules, little or no budget, and any level of computer skill or need. It allows me to take a request for help, fit it into my duties and scheduling, and meet the need. I don’t simply tell people I don’t have time to help them at the computer when they ask for something that is complicated; I tell them that I don’t have time right now to do so and ask them if they would be interested in an appointment. It becomes a personal challenge to see if I can help them with their topic or get them to make an appointment.


One on one appointments work because they offer individual and tailored attention, expand the number of instruction topics, and create the opportunity to make a deeper connection with a library patron.

If your library doesn’t offer these sessions, I would encourage them to do so and I’d be willing to help answer any questions or concerns as it relates to this service. You can leave a comment here or contact me through Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus as found on the right sidebar of this blog.

That’s right. I’m offering a one on one session about one on one sessions. Because I believe anyone can do it.