Thursday, April 8, 2010

My Ideal Job

As I mentioned earlier, I am not going to be back at the Hebrew Academy for the fall. The administration might have liked what I did, but they decided that they did not have anything to suit my particular skills. While this was going on, as a favor to the school librarian, Gila Suchter, who has been a very dear friend in letting me take over her library as my private office, I have been serving as a semi-official research paper guide for the elementary school students doing projects on the Holocaust. This has mostly consisted of me answering basic questions and gently angling them away from Wikipedia toward internet sources that end in .gov or .edu. If things go really well I try to get the student to open a printed book. While talking over my predicament with Mrs. Suchter, it hit me that this semi-official job would be the perfect official job for me. I could be the school's official research advisor.

To the best of my knowledge this is a job that I am making up, but there has to be someone out there who is already doing this at their own school; the need is just too obvious. Think about it; research projects, usually papers are something that all schools give out, starting at a young grade. All sorts of classes, science, English and history, assign research projects. It is a perfectly reasonable way to get students to apply what they have learned in class to a project of their own choosing and which they have to take responsibility for. The problem with an assignment that is so reasonable that every class would resort to it is that everyone knows that everyone else is doing it so no one feels any responsibility to teach research skills and it falls through the cracks. I am just as guilty as anyone of this; my students have had several months to do their research papers. Every once in a while I have opened the floor to questions about the paper, even allowing the majority of a class period for this, and am always available outside of class, in person, by phone or by e-mail , to talk. That being said, I do not formally teach research skills. Writing a paper is something from outside of class to be grafted on. Time must be made for it, but it is not an integral part of the class and as such it all too easily gets pushed aside in favor of official course material. (The Alfie Kohns of the world would use this to argue against research assignments and they may even have a valid point.) What is needed is someone to take on this job as an official responsibility. It is not enough for research skills to be a side thing that all teachers in theory teach. If no one is actively taking responsibility then it will not get done.

This does not need to be an official class. I could simply be on call a given number of hours a week in the library for students who need me and I could make my rounds to the various classrooms to give ten minute introductions advertising my services to students. This is not a writing center, though it could easily be incorporated into one even if I personally would prefer to work out of the library. In my experience, writing centers are run out of English departments and therefore focus on the technical mechanics of writing. If students ask for help in terms of research ideas, that is secondary. I am a historian; my primary training is not as a writer. Whatever skills I picked up in writing came on the side. (One of my justifications for this blog is that it serves as an ongoing exercise to help me become a better writer.) I can be useful, at a pragmatic level, for helping students formulate a thesis and getting evidence for it. If I actually know something about the topic, I can point you to something specific. Even if it is something that I really know nothing about, I have good enough instincts to usually be able guess where you might want to go with a topic and what some of the potential issues might be. Everyone needs an intelligent person to throw around ideas with, particularly in the beginning stages of research. In my own personal experience, not having someone usually leads to boredom and inefficiency.

This is the perfect job for me. It involves me doing what I love best, jumping around various ideas to see where they lead. It plays to my strengths, while avoiding my weaknesses. I get to be the intelligent, enthusiastic, likable person who actually cares about teaching students, while avoiding having to engage students, maintain classroom discipline and teach a specific course. Most importantly, it gives me an excuse to sit in the library every day and read. With this job, any book interesting enough for me to read is probably going to be something for me to recommend and therefore a necessary part of my job.

The administration loved the idea. They agreed that they could use someone to fill such a position and that I would be the perfect person for it. Unfortunately they do not have the budget to do it. If anyone out there is in a position of influence at an elementary or high school and likes this idea and would like having me on board to put it into practice, feel free to contact me. (Keep in mind that hiring me comes with the bonus of having me running around your school and all the unforeseen consequences that come with it.)


Miss S. said...

This sounds like a librarian. True, I'm not so versatile in semantics.

Izgad said...

In theory, librarians would be one more group of people with this task on their job lists. Librarians at college research libraries will usually have this ability at the top of their qualifications. This is not the case with grade school librarians.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Right. So you're introducing the reference research librarian into elementary school.

Is there enough demand/work? I think it is a role that the primary teacher used to do.

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Anonymous said...

This is something that I was taught by both primary school teachers (grades 3-5, mostly) and the primary school

Sorry to burst your bubble, but anyone with an MSc in Library Science and, specifically, in school library science (sometimes such people also have an MA in education) would be able to teach basic research skills on the elementary school level. (My friends who are elementary school librarians in private schools definitely do this.) Sometimes they don't have time because, as librarian, they have tooany other responsibilities. The economic answer is to get a volunteer to shelve/sort books (or hire a high school student to do it; they are definitely capable), freeing up the trained librarian to teach research skills to eight and nine year olds.

Have you thought about getting an MSc after your PhD and becoming a university or large public library system reference librarian? They usually have an MSc as well as a PhD in a specific subject area. It sounds like something that you would enjoy and be very good at (as opposed to teaching, which sounded like a struggle).

Izgad said...

I am glad to hear that you had someone to teach you writing skills. As schools focus more and more on tests this is going to get lost in the shuffle.

In theory there should be quite a number of people with the training to do this sort of job. As it stands now, from what I see, is that schools want a few people to do this. The problem is that, as often happens with responsibility, if everyone is responsible then no one is. Do elementary school librarians have the training to do this sort of job? I assume many of them do. Are they taking an active role in teaching research and writing skills, particularly since it is not high on their job description list if at all? Of that I have my doubts. This is not a failing on the part of librarians. They are asked to do a lot of things on the assumption that they can do anything and that what they do is not “real” work. Keep in mind that I got into this because the school librarian asked me to handle a job that she did not have the time or the training to deal with.

Getting a library science degree sounds like a good idea. If being an academic historian does not work out for me I might go that route.