By Andrea Belair
When the global pandemic hit, Union College adopted a hybrid approach to instruction. For librarians, however, instruction was fully remote due to issues with capacity. I have been instructing for a Sophomore Research Seminar, or SRS, since soon after I began working here in 2018. The SRS is a requirement for sophomores to have under their belt by the time they graduate, and it is intended for students to intensify and expand their research skills, possibly resulting in a longer paper than they’ve had to write before. Often, the SRSs have required that students use primary sources in their final assignments.
Photograph dated 1945 showing the funeral of a Union College President Dixon Ryan Fox, used in the LibGuide created for the Sophomore Research Seminar “On Death and Dying” during the spring term of 2020. Photograph from the Picture File, SCA-1026, in the Department of Special Collections, Schaffer Library, Union College, Schenectady, New York.
Generally, in pre-pandemic times, I have co-instructed one large SRS session for class sizes of approximately 18 to 22 students. My colleague and I will have a preliminary meeting with the faculty member to discuss the expectations of the SRS, and we will be supplied with the syllabus. If the faculty member agrees to having more than one initial session, we will meet with students individually, in pairs, or small groups after a large class session. Prior to the class session, we put together a Google form to assess the research needs of the class to be sure that we meet their needs and understand their levels of research experience. Active learning experiences in large lecture-style sessions can be challenging. But in this class, I have successfully used an activity that asks students to work together in pairs to identify primary sources related to their topics. Unfortunately, we have not been able to do this activity over the last few terms.
Most of the time, faculty allow me to meet with students individually. This meeting really gives me the opportunity to delve into their topics with them. Together, we can explore what they are curious about, and I usually explain in more detail about the nature of primary sources. Students can meet with me as many times as needed, and we’ve had very interesting discussions. I often engage them by asking questions and having them articulate a thesis statement. I will also encourage them to think of sources for primary sources outside of our institutions’ holdings, especially if we don’t have them readily available. In these individual sessions, I encourage the use of repositories that have digitized primary sources, which has been necessary with the pandemic, since our institution does not have as much content digitized and accessible as large repositories. The student and I will think about search terms and identify those terms which would have been used at the time of an event, which can make their own searching easier.
During the Pandemic
Due to the ongoing pandemic, a co-instructor and I now broadcast a remote presentation to the entire class. We have not had the chance to build many active learning tools into these instruction sessions, so I continue to recommend that students be required to meet with me individually via remote instruction. Individual sessions have almost been a morale boost for the students as much as anything else. Students have often felt isolated and alone, in my experience, and I want them to feel that their intellectual curiosity is welcomed and important. I have had students confide in me, or discuss their frustrations with restrictions of the pandemic, and I listen. I try to ignite that spark of curiosity and get them excited about their topic. During these individual sessions, I have tried to get them to open up to me about their personal interests to see how they can be applied to their work, and I speak to them in a conversational tone. I want them to understand that I will not judge them and let them know they can trust me, and I’ve found that students seem to respond with appreciation during this time that has been such a challenge. I try to show the student that I will engage in the learning process with them, and I am willing to act as a partner in their research.
This time together is, by far, the most fruitful portion of instruction, and students typically show the most original thought in these sessions. I encourage them to think outside of the box about what primary sources can be, such as interviews, photographs, visual art, or musical works. Several students have decided to conduct their own interviews for a primary source. During these one-on-one sessions, I see them generate ideas, become curious, and even get excited about their topic. During these lonely times of COVID-19, it can help a student to have an online connection with a single librarian who can answer their questions, engage them with new ideas, and get them to home in on the process of discovery when it comes to primary source materials.
Andrea Belair is the Archives and Special Collections Librarian at Union College in Schenectady, NY, where she has worked for the past 2.5 years. Before her current position, she worked as the Archivist for the Office of the President at Yale University. She graduated from Rutgers University with her MLIS in 2012, and she co-owns a record store with her husband.