Stepping on Toes: The Delicate Art of Talking to Faculty about Questionable Assignments

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Working in an academic environment, the majority of my student interactions are based around a specific assignment. Every semester there is at least one assignment that comes across my reference desk that makes me throw my hands up in exasperation (such as: a scavenger hunt that was written before we moved much of our content online or the requirement that the student must have at least one print source, library databases and ebooks do not count). Of course I put on a good face. I’ve been well trained. I don’t make disparaging remarks about the teacher or the assignment. I commiserate if appropriate. And most importantly, I am usually (though not always) able to fill both the underlying information need and the assignment’s specific requirements.

In researching this piece I found that much has been written about librarian/faculty relationships. I found articles on working with faculty to build assignments and even whole courses from the ground up. I found articles on the importance of collaboration and establishing positive relationships. I will not be reiterating those well made arguments.

Instead, I will be asking (and answering): what do you do after that student walks in, assignment in hand that you know just isn’t fair to them? I’m writing not as a veteran, but as a new recruit, someone who, until a few months ago, never even considered the possibility of talking to faculty about their assignments. I had heard of librarians providing assistance in designing library related assignments, but never offering unsolicited feedback.

I remember both the assignment that opened my eyes to this possibility and the one that was my personal tipping point. The eye opening experience occurred at my moonlighting gig at a four year institution. We kept getting students who had the same (admirable) weekly assignment: find and read a newspaper article covering the event they were studying that week. The article (or possibly other primary source document) had to have been written during the time of the event and from the perspective of the people involved. We had been doing fine helping them find historical and foreign papers as needed, until they came to the Ottoman Empire. And it didn’t stop there. The class was a survey of world history. They continued to have topics that simply might not have ever been documented by the people involved, unlikely in newspaper article form, certainly not in English, and may not have ever been translated into English if it did manage to get written down and preserved. African events were also particularly difficult. One of the other reference librarians called the teacher to explain that for many of these events it was going to be exceedingly difficult if not impossible for students to find the required articles. In the end, the faculty member agreed to allow the students to use international English language papers if necessary.

This was a revelation to me. The moxie! The nerve! The courage! Who was she to tell a faculty member there was a problem with her assignment? Course assignments are the purview of the instructor. How did she have the self-assurance to consider it her place? How did she have the skill to affect change and the finesse to do so without offending? And yet when the librarians told me the assignment had been modified they said it as though this were an everyday occurrence, that they discuss assignments with faculty all the time and the faculty are usually responsive. This wasn’t covered in library school and it isn’t common practice at my day job, so I was struck in particular that the librarians did not think this was anything special. To me it seemed incredibly liberating to take action rather than be silently frustrated. The seed was planted.

My personal tipping point happened when a student came in to me at my community college job and needed to have at least one print article. I started with my usual, “the library databases have the same articles and still totally count,” but she interrupted me. No, actually, her teacher had specifically said that those do not count. She had to physically touch the original source. At my college we have almost completely transitioned to online versions for our articles. Luckily it turned out she just needed one print source, it didn’t have to be a journal article, so I was able to help her find a suitable encyclopedia article.

I had encountered the “must have a print source” requirement before, but this was the first time I had a student tell me that the teacher had explicitly said the library databases did not count. My first thought was to assume the requirement was an attempt to force the students into the library. Personally, I was more impressed that the student had already found a number of scholarly articles in our databases. But then I wondered whether this was another case of lumping everything “online” into one category of “to be avoided” and perhaps not realizing that it is the same article regardless of format.

I sent out requests to my librarian friends and asked “How do you talk to teachers about their assignments?” Read on to find out. I’ve amalgamated their responses and organized them around some of the typical problems I’ve encountered to provide you with readily adaptable scripts which you are welcome to use. (Note: You will see some repeated sentiments as many of the arguments can and do overlap.)

The Scavenger Hunt

Scavenger hunt assignments are frustrating for everyone. Looking up trivia is not the same as conducting research and without a meaningful application of the process of using the library anything they learn through the scavenger hunt is less likely to stick.

“Resentment toward rather than appreciation of library research is the likely result of these assignments. Library assignments are more meaningful if students use the information they find for an authentic task related to the topics covered in the course.” ((From the University of California at Berkeley’s Effective Assignments Using Library and Internet Resources))

Outdated scavenger hunt assignments are even worse. Here’s one way to approach a faculty member with an outdated scavenger hunt assignment:

We had some of your students in the library today working on your scavenger hunt assignment that familiarizes them with library resources. We are excited that you are giving out an assignment like that, but some of the activities in the assignment are a little dated, since the scavenger hunt seems to be from 2004. Some of the paper handouts referred to in the assignment are now online. One of my librarians, [name], said she’d be very happy to get with you to help you update the assignment so it would be a bit more useful for your students. You might also want to look at the Info Game on the library web page. It’s something you could use as well. Library Services tries to get away from the scavenger hunt concept and I think [name] could help you come up with some excellent alternatives. She’s one of our most imaginative young librarians! You can reach [name] at [email] and [phone number]. We are very happy that you are using the library with your students!

In the interest of full disclosure, that email did not get us a reply. Being more comfortable with email myself, it tends to be my default communication method, but most likely a phone call or office visit is the better approach. However, I think the script is still worth sharing. The general tone and sentiment shows appreciation that the faculty member uses the library and lets her know that some of the questions are no longer applicable. It also offers assistance in the updating process. And as one of my respondents told me, “It doesn’t always work.”

“No Online Sources”

This is a nuanced declaration and a number of the headings below touch on some of the different aspects. Setting aside online library resources for a moment: a flat ban on anything found online not only eliminates a large number of incredibly useful sources (census data, CDC info, LOC historical documents, etc.), but it also discourages using and developing critical thinking skills.

In college, we try to focus students on *critically thinking* about authority and appropriateness. We’ve found that limiting students to print resources hurts their ability to find the resources they need, and they are not able to support their research project as well as they could if they were able to use the best sources regardless of format.

Of course there is always the question of what exactly the faculty meant by “no online sources.”

“The Internet” vs. Web Based Academic Resources

Often the student, the faculty, or both don’t differentiate between the free web and resources that the library has purchased, but are available electronically. The argument above about the value of allowing use of the free web notwithstanding, it may be necessary to clarify the instructor’s definition of what constitutes an “online source” and to ask that faculty member to assure his or her students that the library’s electronic resources are allowed.

I was helping one of your students recently who needed a print resource for an assignment and I thought there might have been a misunderstanding over the definition of what constitutes an “online source.” My understanding of the definition you’re using is that you exclude sources found in library subscription databases, not simply those found on web sites through Google or another search engine.

I’d like to assure you that the online articles and ebooks found through library databases are content that the library has purchased and are indeed the exact same content found in the print versions. As you may know, libraries are increasingly receiving journal subscriptions only electronically and discontinuing expensive print subscriptions. Among the many reasons for the current trend towards receiving these articles digitally is that it provides a better value for our students – one purchase makes all of the content available at all of our campuses and extension sites, rather than having to purchase separate print subscriptions for each of them. We are also able to provide access to a vast number of resources that we wouldn’t have physical space to store.

Because of this, students will often find the full text of the article in the database but we will not have a current print subscription of the same periodical title. In addition, as students are learning to evaluate information and sources, they may be confused as to why a scholarly source in a subscription database does not meet the assignment requirements. Finally, there is no easy way to lead students to print-only articles because our databases serve as indexes and many of them contain or link to full-text online.

With all of this in mind, I wondered if you would be willing to expand your definition of an acceptable source to include sources found in library subscription databases.

“I want to be sure they’re using the library” or “I just want them to have the experience”

As more and more resources go online and as libraries push to create virtual branches and online portals, physically coming in to the library becomes less and less necessary to complete a research paper. While my knee jerk reaction is frustration towards holding on to nostalgic perceptions of library as place, in reality, these are exactly the faculty that I should most appreciate. They value libraries and want to pass that on to their students. They’re on our side! Unfortunately, requiring a print source doesn’t necessarily achieve the intended goal. Instead, it often just means grabbing a source, any source, as long as it’s print, after the paper has already been mostly written.

We hear from many professors who are thankfully concerned that their students learn how to use a college library. If you want to be sure that your students use library resources, we have had a lot of success with students creating annotated bibliographies explaining why they chose each source, or alternately writing down the steps they took to find an article online through the library website and what qualities make the article appropriate for their paper for at least 1 of their sources. That way students are forced to think about process and quality of resources.


I am guessing that one reason for requiring print is to encourage students to visit the library in person. I completely understand that you want your students to learn how to use the library and critically think about authority and appropriateness. We do too! However, in many cases we’ve found that requiring a print resource can actually be counterproductive in this regard. Students wind up not being forced to use the critical thinking skills we’re requiring of them. They may use something that doesn’t work very well just to fill the requirement and they aren’t forced to consider authority, appropriateness of content, etc. Also, because most libraries are moving or have already moved to all online journals we’re concerned our students know what to expect now and in the future. We want them to leave here knowing how to use a library, including the subscription databases, and to have a clear understanding of the difference between articles found online through the library and those out on the open web.


It’s so important that students learn how to find authoritative journal articles. We want our students to be prepared for (grad school/work/4-year) and most (four year universities/schools with grad programs/corporations) have moved to all online journals. They may even be getting rid of their print archives and replacing them with online archives! We’re concerned our students know what to expect now and in the future. We want them to leave here knowing how to use a library.

This is also the place to offer an in library instruction session or a specialized assignment to accomplish the goal of getting the students in to the library.

We could also create a brief assignment which would require students to visit the library to find out about the resources and services available.

Sometimes the information just doesn’t exist.

I’ve already mentioned the newspaper articles from the time of an event, from the country where the event took place, when it took place in the distant past and in a country with a different language. Another example would be peer reviewed journal articles on an extremely recent event.

In this situation you can ask the teacher whether they have specific resources in mind. It is always possible that they know of a source that you don’t. Of course it is also possible that the library no longer has access to something the faculty member was accustomed to using in the past, or that a new faculty member simply isn’t familiar with your library’s particular collection yet and is making assumptions based on his or her former institution. This opens the door to discussing collection development and acquiring new resources to help support the curriculum. If neither of those are the case you can fall back on explaining types of information sources and why that information just isn’t readily available. One of the first things I ask students to do when beginning their research is to ask themselves who would have collected the information they’re looking for and how would they have then made it available. This is particularly helpful when trying to find statistics. But it is also helpful here in explaining why we’re not necessarily going to be able to find a newspaper article, in English, from the 1700’s in Turkey talking about a specific war from a specific side.

In the case of the peer reviewed journal article we can explain the peer review process, that it takes time, and that for this topic, perhaps newspaper articles from large papers or government publications could be considered authoritative. I want to leave you with a perspective that particularly struck me:

“The berating of faculty for not being intuitively information literate, or for not taking the time to become information literate is a puzzling attitude – particularly given librarians’ professed mandate to guide users and provide instruction in the use of information resources. … The images of troublesome, arrogant faculty, who have little understanding of librarians’ roles, point to a problem at the core of the relationship issue; that until librarians embrace faculty as clients themselves, deserving of the same level of respect and support afforded undergraduate and graduate students, IL librarians may continue to fight an uphill battle to bring faculty members onside. Why do librarians, for example, assume that faculty should necessarily understand what they have not been taught, or necessarily understand how to use information systems that are not user-friendly? Do librarians ask this of other users?” ((From Julien, Heidi and Lisa M. Given. “Faculty-Librarian Relationships in the Information Literacy Context: A Content Analysis of Librarians’ Expressed Attitudes and Experiences.” <u>The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science</u> 27.3 (2002/2003): 75-87.))

The further reading section contains a number of links to pages that various libraries have created to provide tips for instructors who want to create library related assignments. Some of the wording could be a tad friendlier in places, but the content is good. There are also links to a best practices discussion and a model program.

I hope that librarians who have been frustrated by what they felt was an unfair assignment feel both empowered to contact faculty and prepared with some tools to use. I hope that librarians who have been there and done that will share their stories of what to do and what to avoid in the comments.

Further reading:

Thanks to Liane Luckman and Meghan Sitar for sharing their strategies and to Andrew Shuping and Emily Ford for reviewing and editing.

19 Responses

  1. I’m also a librarian at at community college library, and I wanted to add another issue to the pile: Many instructors are adjuncts, which means they may not be available for in-depth consultation with the librarian and/or may not even be around after one semester’s assignment. I’ve found that this seriously hinders outreach efforts to improve library-related assignments. (Obviously this is not to put the blame on the adjuncts — it’s the system that encourages use of adjuncts rather than full-time faculty.)

  2. Thanks for reminding us of these assignment challenges Ellie. This sort of thing has been going on in academic libraries practically forever – way before the Internet days – but things have certainly gotten more complicated.

    I’d add one more to your list (I’m sure there are others) that I would describe as “Did You Forget They Are Freshman?” I’m always amazed by assignments in freshman courses that appear to be the work of a newly minted PhD who believes every student is prepared to research a complex assignment that involves the use of a higher level research product such as MLA Bibliography or JSTOR. Meanwhile our information literacy outcomes for freshman concentrate on the most basic skills. It can be frustrating for us and the students.

  3. Erika

    We have been known to use reference statistics as evidence. For instance, in analyzing the quarterly reference reports for our school of Psych, we noticed that one course assignment was leading to almost 30% of the questions for that school. I mentioned this to the faculty member, and her team brought us into the course revision process, since the course re-design had just launched. It actually led to an Embedded Librarian pilot, ultimately, since it was a First Course.

  4. Laurel Whisler

    Thanks for starting this helpful conversation. I have usually found the faculty appreciate knowing when there are difficulties with their assignment – they have the students’ best interests at heart.

    The “print only” and the “no internet resources” requirements are tricky. As students arrive at college with less background and context in “traditional” scholarly literature, it can be helpful for them to actually get their hands on print resources to become familiar with what the resource is. It can be difficult to understand differences between scholarly and popular sources when viewing online articles out of context. Sometimes faculty may encourage the print sources to help establish context. I think this is an issue we need to help address – as we move more to online resources, how can we help our students understand the context. OR, is that context meaningful only to scholars “of a certain age?”

  5. Thank you for writing this very helpful post on communicating with campus faculty about library assignments. I particularly appreciate the possible responses that one could send to a faculty member; they are very diplomatic and respectful.

    Our First Year Seminar program directors believe that a library scavenger hunt would be a great tool for introducing the freshmen to the campus library. I think that a well-crafted scavenger hunt might be a good experience for freshmen who have never entered a larger library in their lives.

    Of course, capitalizing on what the Library has would be optimal. For example, some students may not be aware of the student lounge, location/availability of study rooms, computer usage, how to find a book on the shelf, etc.

    My experience has been that students do not appreciate the library tour very much, so they might learn more from a scavenger hunt that they work on with a small group of their peers, especially peers they did not know previously. A First Year Seminar program ought to facilitate networking among students. Perhaps I am digressing, but a (library) scavenger hunt done as a group could help new freshmen get to know someone they might not have. Their instructors know who they pal up with in the class, so they can assign students to groups with individuals other than their pals.

    Anyway, thank you for this discussion. I appreciate how you have mentioned why some library assignments are bad. Sometimes I hear people disparage scavenger hunts in blanket statements, and it makes me hesitate to ask why, because they assume everyone knows why. If we can talk about the reasons why they are taboo/bad, then maybe we can find solutions for improving them.

  6. Cindy

    Laurel brings up a good point regarding context. A while back I read an interesting article in College Teaching (reference below) that talks about how not having the context that previous generations have can make it harder for Millennials to understand the reasons for using databases, etc. Now I always ask the students at the beginning of instruction sessions if they can explain why we want them to learn how to use the databases. If I don’t get a good answer, I ask if anyone can explain the difference between a search engine and a database. If they don’t understand the difference they resent having to learn this more complicated task. I also talk about the importance of knowing which tool is better for the information they need. Sometimes Google is better, sometimes a database or other tool is better; making that decision is part of the research process. And I bring in examples of periodicals and briefly explain the different types they will find in our databases so they know what they’re looking at.

    Fortunately I don’t have any horror stories about faculty assignments. We’ve encountered some assignments that need tweaking because of something minor but nothing too bad. And faculty are receptive to hearing this information.

    The excerpt from the Julien/Given article at the end of this post is interesting. I haven’t encountered that attitude too much, so far anyway. I would never expect a faculty member to know everything about the library. If they knew it all, why would they need us to present instruction on library resources to their classes? I expect them to have some knowledge about the library from doing research in their field but it is not their area of expertise. That’s what librarians are for. We provide sessions for faculty individually and in groups just as we do for students. And many faculty have told me they learn something new every time they bring their classes in for instruction.

    Jenson, Jill D. “IT’S THE INFORMATION AGE, SO WHERE’S THE INFORMATION?.” College Teaching 52.3 (Summer2004 2004): 107-112.

  7. Ellie, you bring up many great points. All of this is making me think about the following question that I haven’t seen asked yet: what can we do to educate professors and other instructors BEFORE they assign these difficult tasks to their students? Is there a library instruction course anywhere geared explicitly to professors at the beginning of the school year? Is there a mandatory “how to teach using the library’s resources” orientation for new grad students at big universities? I think that proactive courses and programs like this might really curtail some of these problems, AND provide the needed information literacy skills to instructors.

  8. Olivia – Excellent point! Working with adjuncts certainly adds another layer of nuance to the process.

    Steven – Thanks. I agree. I definitely feel for the intro level students that are required to have a peer reviewed article. I remember how much I struggled with comprehending them in grad school!

    Erika – What a fantastic example! Thanks for sharing! Do you always keep such detailed statistics, or did you switch it up based on observing a trend? Most of the places I’ve worked have a pretty simple tick mark statistics sheet that wouldn’t track a specific assignment, but one place I work is trying a pilot of a more detail form.

    Laurel – This is absolutely something I wonder about (but don’t have my answer yet). It seems to me that I should be able to give meaningful instruction for current information literacy without going into a history lesson. It’s easy to look at the cover of Time and The Journal of Counseling Psychology and have an idea of what you’re in for, but my students won’t have that cue in our databases, so why waste their time showing them an arbitrary artifact of a dying way of publishing?

    Spencer – Thanks so much for such a thoughtful response. I completely agree with you. I was thinking of the trivia based treasure hunts which tend towards frustrating searches with nothing to attach to, but questions more like, “Find the student lounge, then find the Reference Librarian and ask what day and time you’ll find free donuts and coffee in there.” are excellent treasure hunt exercises. :) I particularly like adding in the student networking factor. At my small one room, 1/4 of a floor library, I can forget that getting acquainted with a full sized University library might be a bigger undertaking. Thank you for the reminder and the excellent activity as an alternative to the traditional tour.

    Cindy – Thanks for the article. I really like that approach to asking them why they’re learning these things. I will have to incorporate that. As for the final quote, I know I have found myself having much higher expectations of faculty and the reminder that those expectations were perhaps unfounded was a good reminder that I wanted to share.

    Emily – I see a potential post topic for you there Emily ;) There are a bunch of really great articles out there covering some successful programs geared towards working with faculty – the Mosley article in my further reading section being a particularly good one.

  9. Renee

    You raise a good point, Laurel about having students get their hands on print resources. When I do an instruction session, I bring in a few different scholarly journals so that the students can see what we are referring to when we talk about journals. I also explain that databases are made up of thousands of these journals – the concept of a database is also a fuzzy one.

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  11. This is a great post, Ellie. I’ll never forget the first time I encountered a questionable assignment while I was interning at a college library during my time in library school (only a couple of years ago). The librarian I was working with at the time had a great attitude that I’ve tried to imitate in my own work: this sort of assignment provides a perfect opportunity for faculty outreach. Crafting those emails to contact faculty can be tricky — thanks for the suggestions in your post.

  12. Thanks so much Maura! I’m glad you found it helpful. And I feel the same way about my first experience and trying to imitate her attitude :)

  13. Mark

    I have a question about the example you give of an assignment requiring students to find a newspaper article or other contemporary source related to eighteenth-century conflicts involving the Ottoman Empire. What was the conflict? Eighteenth-century British newspapers regularly covered military and political affairs involving the Ottoman-Habsburg conflicts in the Balkans. They often reprinted letters purporting to be from merchants, sailors, etc. returning from the area as well as reprinting official (or allegedly official) government communications from other European courts involving those conflicts. Digital surrogates of several such newspapers are available online for free, though learning how to search the interfaces can take a little work. But isn’t that the kind of thing you’re there to teach? What about, for example, the online version of the London Gazette archives, found at http://www.gazettes-online.co.uk/search? (Yes, I know, the London Gazette was the official government paper at the time and maybe the professor wanted the students to find something from an opposition paper, but those sources are available too if one looks carefully.) Or was the problem that the professor expected the students to find an eighteenth-century Turkish newspaper? In any case, I wonder whether you chose a good example for an “impossible” assignment. It’s hard to tell given the limited information you provide about it in your post. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but anyone with even a cursory knowledge of eighteenth-century newspapers would realize that foreign news and overseas war news formed an important part of the content of those early periodicals.

  14. Thanks for reading my article and thanks for your question. As I recall, this was an intro level survey course in which the assignment was repeated every week with a new topic (including a new country, language, time period, etc.). Before the librarians spoke with the faculty member, no British newspapers would have been considered acceptable sources. So, in the instance I cited, only an eighteenth-century Turkish newspaper would have satisfied the assignment’s requirements.

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  16. Polly M. Poppers

    It might be worth bearing in mind that at some institutions, decisions are made to withdraw or alter library resources without the knowledge of relevant faculty. This can happen either because a librarian decides certain resources are not being used “enough” or because several disciplines use a single electronic resource (e.g. JSTOR) but only the department who fund the resource and decide to cease funding it are aware of the change.

    In an example of the first sort, the first the faculty knew of the decision to withdraw certain books due to “lack of use” was finding them on sale in Oxfam. One of the faculty ended up buying back all the books from Oxfam and returning them to the library, pointing out that in many cases the librarian had removed the only copy of a book available and that some of the books were more likely to be used for reference than borrowing (so lack of recent “check-outs” did not constitute evidence that the books were not being used). This occurred at a major university which certainly sees itself as playing in the major research league.

    In the second sort of case, it is now really common for electronic journals from various subjects to be bought in bundles. So if department X is buying a bundle which includes journals used by department Y, it is easy for faculty in department Y to be unaware that a journal is no longer available. Even if department X keeps funding the bundle, the publishers sometimes alter the contents of different bundles so an electronic journal can “disappear” without warning.

    And it isn’t just adjuncts who may lack time to get to know library resources. The problem also affects visiting and temporary faculty, though perhaps to a lesser extent. If you teach at four different institutions in four years, for example, it can be something of a nightmare to check out all the relevant resources and adapt syllabi to ensure that they don’t require students to read articles which aren’t available in your current library.

    It also isn’t always as clear as it could be what’s available only from on-campus and what’s available off-campus and off-campus access methods seem to be different everywhere – and sometimes, they seem to different for different resources at the same institution, too.

    Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to suggest librarians are responsible for these problems (except in the case of the librarian who gave half the subject’s books to Oxfam) but electronic resources have made life much more complicated for everybody, even if they have brought many advantages, too. Many of these complications are the responsibility of the publishers, of course. Crippling costs; bundling; closed-source, accessibility-hostile and proprietary formats; and user-hostile database interfaces seem to be par for the course.

    I apologise, but the name and email given will be fake. I don’t feel comfortable posting this in my own name but I also don’t wish to less than honest about that. If the site detects fakes, this comment will disappear into the ether – and perhaps that will not be altogether a bad thing.

  17. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. In an ideal world there would always be perfect communication between librarians and faculty. Sadly for each faculty member who doesn’t reply to a librarian’s request for feedback about the collection, there is a librarian who doesn’t ask in the first place.

    In response to the visiting and temporary faculty syllabi situation, most librarians would be willing to – at the minimum – do a quick check to let the faculty member know whether their library has those specific articles. Many would also be happy to help provide alternative suggestions and some even have departments to help obtain articles and set up course reserves.

    Sadly you are all too right about the lack of clarity for access to online resources. If it’s any consolation, it frustrates us as much as it does you and we do our best to both clarify and work with vendors to simplify what we can.

    Our comment policy only requires civility and topicality which you’ve done superbly. I do hope you stop back to see my reply and that you continue sharing alternative perspectives. We need them!