During my professional life, I’ve agreed to teach graduate courses just about every five years. I joke that it takes that long for the memories to fade sufficiently for me to agree to try again. Mostly I’ve taught cataloging courses at Syracuse (my alma mater and the closest program to where I live), though my last effort was a team thing with my Cornell colleague Marty Kurth, where we substituted for Dave Lankes (who was on sabbatic leave) and taught his Information Architecture course. This was about five years ago, so as per my usual schedule I agreed to accept an invitation to develop and teach an online “Intro to RDA” course for the University of Washington iSchool.

I have a few theories about why I’ve never really gotten comfortable teaching “regular” courses. It’s not that I don’t like teaching (I do)—I just seem to like it better when it’s not quite so extended, a bit more in sync with my increasingly short attention span. I particularly like doing half-day or even full-day workshops for groups of practicing librarians—these are my “peeps” and I think I understand them well enough to do a good job getting them enthusiastic about some of the stuff coming down the pike for all of us. I also do a fair number of conference presentations, which tend to be much shorter, sometimes too short for me to get more than a few points across.

Frankly, there hasn’t always been a good fit between me and the grad students I’ve ended up teaching over the years as an adjunct faculty member. I’m not quite sure whether it’s age, style, or exactly what dynamic or chemistry thing is going on there, particularly because with those five year intervals, each class has been so totally different that I’ve found it impossible to come to any firm conclusions. I remember in particular one class I taught about 10 or 15 years ago, where I had a group that was fairly evenly mixed between normal grad student age folks and older, second career students. This was an advanced cataloging class that I was doing for the first time, and I freely admit that in my impatience with normal pedagogical methods (not to mention my general ignorance of same) I managed to annoy the grad-student-agers in the class and they returned the favor by complaining to the school about me and how I was conducting the class. (They particularly didn’t like the fact that I gave them readings and assignments THEN lectured on the topic, rather than the other way around.) The older students, on the other hand, really seemed to like the course and were far more open to trying things out that were totally new to them. The class evaluations were absolutely split down the middle—half were extremely negative and the rest were very positive, no middle ground whatsoever. I got the impression that the school didn’t quite know what the heck was going on, and interestingly, never asked me about it.

So here I go again, this time teaching students about a new cataloging standard that is not only uncooked at present, but has divided opinion in the library community to an extent that reminds me of the current war on health care reform. My approach to RDA emphasizes the data aspects of the effort, and I’m pretty sure that nobody else is doing anything like this. Most sensible people, including most teachers, like to wait until things settle down before trying to set up a course to teach actual paying students about it. As usual I’ve decided to live a little more dangerously, and I certainly hope the students can sign on for the class recognizing the adventure, rather than focusing on the chaotic quality of the world of RDA at present. Just to keep things interesting, this is an online course, and I’ve never done one of those before, though I’m fairly comfortable in the online world generally.

The nice thing about the experience so far is that the UW iSchool has been really supportive as I’ve been attempting to develop this course, and are making a big effort to make sure that the course will be successful for the students, and for me. They’ve got a nice infrastructure (with tools!) set up for adjunct faculty and special help for those of us teaching virtually. There are grad students to help us set up our web presence and templates to make it easy and reasonably complete for the students deciding where to spend their time and bucks. So far I’m impressed, and optimistic that this will be a different experience to add to all those quinquennial teaching gigs of the past.

Part of the adventure, from my point of view, will be delving into what’s flying by at the moment, and putting it in context, given the long and winding road of RDA development. Of course, I have a dog in this fight, and will be clear about disclosing that (and my many other biases) to the students. The data is my thing, not the guidance text, and that’s part of the course description—those students who want a walk through the “new rules” would be wise to pass this course by. I’ve asked to set up a blog for this course, and will be encouraging students to post there. I’ll post there, and here, about the experience, as I can, and as there’s something to offer the wider conversation—including those who think they’d like to try going out on this limb themselves.

The final student projects will ask the class to envision themselves as a librarian with a director who’s just come back from a meeting where someone has convinced him/her that RDA will bankrupt the library’s cataloging operation, and s/he wants a briefing on this scary standard. Now, how many of you have been in that kind of situation? All of you? Amazing!

The class starts at the end of this month and lasts for 10 weeks, so stay tuned …

By Diane Hillmann, March 19, 2010, 7:53 am (UTC-5)

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Currently 7 comments

  1. Comment by Christine Schwartz

    My reaction is similar to Jonathan’s. When I was in graduate school my professors always assigned readings before lectures (in the ye old 1980’s).

  2. Comment by Cheryl Tarsala

    I’m happy to hear some people are moving ahead with RDA teaching, too. I started transforming my descriptive units into RDA last Fall and I love how RDA-awareness allows me to explain stuff about AACR2 that have always seemed inexplicable. By next fall I will have FRBRized everything. Reading your entry though makes me think that RDA teaching for now is “describing the elephant.” In my classes at Illinois it’s all about applying the conceptual models and neither the rules nor the data seem as essential. Of course, this is a basic course and it serves as grounding for a library generalists as well as future catalogers/metadata professionals.

  3. Comment by Amanda Sprochi

    Hi Diane:
    I’d be really interested in how it’s going. I teach cataloging as an adjunct at the University of Missouri (my real job is as a medical/veterinary cataloger) and I’ve been trying to come up with strategies for incorporating RDA into my class in the fall. I’d like to see what you incorporate and how, and how the students take it. Good luck!

  4. Comment by Diane Hillmann


    It really surprised me that the students reacted so negatively about my strategy. Given the diversity of preparation of the students, I was trying to ferret out the gaps they had (or didn’t, in some cases) in hopes of addressing them effectively. Really, I would have expected the older students to be more freaked–in general they were less well prepared–but they tended to wade in and take their chances in hopes of learning something. The younger cohort really seemed to want their learning approached the way they’d always done it, and the fact that I wasn’t wedded to that method really offended them. It was almost like they thought I was trying to make them fail.

    When I think about it now, it strikes me that, of course, this flew against expectations–wouldn’t we normally suspect the older students to be less flexible? I have to say that, since that time, I’ve seen many other examples of similar expectations turned on their heads, and as a sixty-something, I like it!

  5. Comment by Jonathan Rochkind

    (Well, okay, READINGS before lectures is the way it should be. I can see how assignments before lectures would scare some people, but, come on, it’s supposed to be a graduate program.)

  6. Comment by Jonathan Rochkind

    “They particularly didn’t like the fact that I gave them readings and assignments THEN lectured on the topic, rather than the other way around.”

    WHAT? What lazy students. That is perfectly appropriate, even optimal, for a graduate course. (If not an undergrad course too, really). I am not particularly impressed with most ML(I)S school’s coddling of lazy students and lack of serious expectations for them.

    It sounds like the iSchool has improved their support for adjunct “distance” faculty since I attended there a few years ago; at least I hope your initial impressions of good support hold out as you actually teach the course!

  7. Comment by Shawne Miksa

    Hi Diane–glad to hear you are working on teaching an RDA course. I taught a 5-week experimental course last Summer and it went very well. I didn’t use an overly structured syllabus and most of the students had taken both the beginning and advanced cataloging courses so they were pretty familiar with AACR2 and MARC. Overall, they were quite pleased with RDA and in some cases found it easier to use than AACR2. I’m offering it again this Summer term and am hoping to delve more deeply into it.

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