Teaching and collaborating

Last weekend, the Folger Institute and the Folger Undergraduate Program held a 3-day workshop on Teaching Book History. 50 librarians and faculty gathered from a wide range of institutions—small liberal arts colleges to regional schools to highly selective research universities—bringing a wide range of perspectives with them on how we might engage undergraduates in book history. Much of the work that we did collectively in the workshop is ongoing, so it’s perhaps premature to issue a report on what we learned and what will come of this experience. But it’s not too early to reflect on the process of creating a space for exploring how we teach. 

When we sat down to think about how we wanted to structure the workshop, one of the first things we realized is that while there needed to be some sessions that we all experienced in common (in other words, the typical sit-and-listen-to-a-speaker session), we also needed to build in spaces for active collaboration. Since teaching should not be a one-way imparting of important information, neither should be our exploration of teaching. And so we designed multiple collaborative sessions, each focused on a different angle of thinking about book history and teaching.

Our second realization was that we couldn’t assume that all participants would want to focus on the same topics, and so we asked participants to select which sessions they were the most interested in and then built the schedule around their preferences. I’ll confess that from an organizing standpoint, this last step was a bit anxiety-producing. We don’t have a lot of gathering spaces at the Library and we hadn’t tried this sort of participant-driven scheduling before. But we had participants use a Google form to rank their top 5 choices and then we organized the sessions into time slots so there’d be as little conflict for participants as possible. We were able to get everyone into their 1st choice session, and nearly everyone into their 2nd and 3rd choices as well, so from that perspective, the risk we took that participants would sort themselves out paid off.

Related to this desire to enable workshop participants to focus on their needs, we decided to hold one time slot in reserve for unconferencing sessions. Drawing on my experiences at various THATCamps, we asked workshop participants to generate ideas for discussion in advance of and during the workshop, posting their proposals to the workshop blog. On the last morning, we all voted on which proposed sessions we wanted to participate in, and then Folger staff organized those sessions into appropriately sized rooms. The key points in the unconference structure is that the agenda is driven by participants, rather than the organizers, and that the sessions themselves are actively collaborative: there’s no leader presenting, but a group pursuing a topic together. In our workshop, one result was that these final sessions were driven by practical concerns: What tools can be used to teach book history if you’re at an institution with minimal resources? How can we shape students’ experiences in special collections to encourage more use of our resources? How does book history fit into larger curricular concerns?

The work we did to enable participants active collaborations paid off just as we hoped. We heard repeated reports that participants were energized and eager to return to classrooms to try out new ideas. There are conversations underway about collaborating on new projects, and continuing to share our syllabuses and exercises with each other. We are, we hope, only beginning to see some of the fruits of this workshop and I hope there will be lots to share with everyone in coming months and years.

In the meantime, you can get a sense of what the workshop involved by browsing our schedule (the bulk of our website is open only to participants; that might change in the future, but for now we wanted to create a space for participants to test new ideas and to build collaborations). You can also check out the twitter stream from the workshop. Many of the sessions were live tweeted, albeit it primarily by myself (@wynkenhimself) and Erin Blake (as @FolgerResearch). We designated a hashtag for the workshop (#FolgerTBH) and all tweets with that hashtag can be browsed at the #FolgerTBH archive. While the hashtag was useful for workshop participants in getting a sense of what was happening in sessions we weren’t at and in providing a forum for immediate responses to ideas, it also allowed us to bring more people in to our conversation. A key ingredient of our success was in limiting the number of participants to a number that was large enough to be diverse but intimate enough to allow participants to get to know each other and give everyone a chance to participate in the conversation. The downside, however, is that we could not accommodate everyone who wanted to attend the workshop. And so Erin and I were delighted to see people chime in on the tweet stream that they were following along from home and I certainly got responses to tweets that broadened the discussion and my sense of what types of teaching activities were possible.

So stay tuned for further developments at the Folger and elsewhere on developing resources for and sharing ideas about teaching book history. It was a delight to brainstorm with so many dedicated teachers and to see so much active collaboration between librarians and faculty. There are a lot of undergrads out there who are going to have the time of their lives!

And on that note, happy holidays to you all. The Collation is going to be taking a break until after the new year. On behalf of all of the Collation authors, thank you for reading and collaborating with us, and we’ll look forward to continuing our conversations with you in 2013!