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For All You Triskaidekaphobes Out There

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Tempting fate by posting on Friday the 13th? Well, it is the first day of the weekend here, and the first chance I’ve had this week to even THINK about pulling my thoughts together enough to tap out a few coherent lines. Since my return from Cairo late last Sunday, I have been at the library every day, trying to make sure that my second round of workshops gets off on a better foot than the first. Whether or not I have succeeded will have to wait until next Monday, when the first of the three sessions gets underway. This past Monday I had scheduled an initial session whose purpose was to draw all of those who are involved in the educational effort here into a discussion about how to proceed. I was anxious to see how people who had more experience in their jobs would respond to the workshop format. Since I had been gone on the Sunday preceding this preliminary workshop, I hadn’t had as much prep time as I could have used, but I thought that my research, readings, and my frequent conversations with the unit’s head would provide me with a good sense of what was expected.

Most mornings lately have dawned hazy and rather damp. That Monday broke with clear skies and a clarity of air unusual for this time of year. A coolish breeze gently lifted the curtains at the sliding glass doors as I enjoyed a cup of tea on the couch, gazing across the balcony while the city began to stir. The humidity had dissipated overnight and the sun’s early rays brilliantly picked out the half dozen cargo ships sitting on the horizon in the roads off the port of Alexandria, about five miles to the northwest. My thermometer, whose reliability is somewhat questionable, showed a temperature of about 62 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought it might be little lower than that, but not by much.

After breakfast, I set off for the library in my usual fashion and arrived in plenty of time to organize my thoughts. Unfortunately, in my rush to get to my appointment on time, I had forgotten my ID and my office key. Typical Monday. So I grabbed another cab and beat it back to the apartment. Asking the driver to wait, I took the elevator up, scooped up my card and keys and was back downstairs before the cabbie had managed to turn the car around. We zipped back down the Corniche and I managed to get to the library just in time for my meeting. Of course, being on time, I was early; most of the librarians had yet to arrive so I chatted with those who were already there until we had a quorum. About twelve or fourteen of the twenty or so people in the information literacy unit eventually showed up, including the outreach librarian and Mohamed al-Gohary, the head of the continuing education unit.

I started the session off by suggesting categories of discussion topics that I had worked out with Amira Hegazy, the head of the instructional unit, in earlier meetings. There were three areas where she thought they needed guidance: planning, design, and organization. Planning we defined as the process of deciding what kinds of courses were needed by which users; design was the process of determining course content and teaching methods; organization was essentially the administrative function: who teaches what, when and how often. We also talked about her unit coordinating with the library’s continuing education unit and how such a collaboration might work.

I was quite pleased that, once I outlined what we were going to try to do that morning, nearly everyone contributed. The conversation was lively and energetic and my function was essentially to bring people back to the main topic on the rare occasions when they strayed too far afield. The main problem, based on what I was hearing, was frustration with the fact that many of those who signed up for the various courses were interested only in acquiring the certificates issued by the library that attested to the attendee’s proficiency in whatever level of information or computer literacy the course was aimed at. Student engagement and commitment, in other words, was sometimes lacking. A certain percentage of those enrolling in the courses did so only so that they could collect a certificate they could show to a prospective employer indicating that they had a certain set of qualifications—whether they actually had them or not. Sounded vaguely familiar as a theme…

One of the difficulties I have encountered repeatedly here is being seen as an authority, a role which I no doubt fill in some sense, but I am reticent to prescribe solutions for this library, and that is what I am frequently asked to do: “What should we do?” “How do you think we should solve that problem?” “What is your recommendation?” I don’t want to give answers; I would prefer to view my role as an advisor or a guide whose purpose is to help the Bibliotheca Alexandrina librarians figure out solutions and answers for themselves. There are cultural and social issues at play with which I am only lightly acquainted with and I feel Egyptian librarians are better positioned to solve them.

I ran into this issue at the end of the collection development workshops; I was asked to complete a collection development policy for one of the collections in the library (I would be able to choose which one I wanted to tackle) as a “model” for the selectors to follow as they completed their respective policies. I declined, but what I did do was to create a policy for one of the areas for which I am responsible at Cowles Library—Latin American and Caribbean Area Studies—taking certain literary liberties with sections of the policy that Cowles’ policy doesn’t have equivalents for. In other words, I made stuff up. However, I was faithful to the intent of the Bibliotheca’s policy and, I think, gave a true representation of what a real policy would look like. The head of collection development was unhappy with my document, but I told her that I thought her librarians should be doing the library’s work, not me.

In the present circumstance, things were slightly different in that the librarians had been at their jobs for a longer time and had much more experience to draw on. And they were eager to find ways to improve their programs. The one problem that kept coming up in our discussion, across all the themes we had laid out, was the matter of engaging students in the material. All the instructors concluded that it was imperative for them to somehow improve the quality of their instruction and consequently the value of the certificates they issued.

After our session, I met again with Amira and we decided that we would use the first workshop as a laboratory for working on an actual course, so we are going to begin next Monday re-tooling the unit’s course on Web 2.0, one of the courses that has the highest demand among library users and one whose certificate is prized by students. We will plan each unit, discuss why that information is being included, how best to present it, and what pedagogical methods might be employed to assure (or at least increase the likelihood) that students will engage with the material. This approach will benefit both the librarian instructors and their students, I think, and will be an opportunity for me to put my own approach to the test. Where, oh WHERE did I put my lucky rabbit’s foot?

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