Tuesday, September 29, 2009


A day in the life of a community college librarian:

A student comes up to me at the reference desk and asks if I can help him with a library quiz. I gave a library presentation to his remedial reading class last week, and now the class has to take a ridiculously easy quiz on what I covered. The questions on the quiz are things that I emphasized, again and again and again, verbally, with a PowerPoint, and with two worksheets.

I tell him that I don't think I should be helping him complete a quiz. (I don't know why the instructor made such an easy test a "take-home," but that's a whole other issue.) He says it's okay, he told his instructor he was going to talk to me. I'm still not buying it. "Um, I really don't think I should be giving you the answers. Part of being a college student is taking quizzes on your own."

He's polite and friendly, smiles a lot, but he's persistent. Slides the quiz over to me to take a look. I ask him, "Which questions are you having trouble with?" He can't answer that. He wants me to look over the whole thing. "I'm sorry, but I'm not going to go over the whole thing with you. If there are particular questions you're not sure about, I could maybe give you some hints."

Picking one at random, he points to the last question, which is by far the easiest one on the quiz. It's a throwaway question about what the Reference Librarian does. The first three answers are jokes: "a.) sits at the Reference Desk and looks important; b.) helps your instructor only, c.) writes your papers for you; d.) answer any questions you have about using the library or finding information." Even if you've never had the library orientation (which he had, and I'd emphasized this point about five times), any person with minimal intelligence could figure out the right answer.

I don't even know how to give him a hint. I tell him, "There's really only one serious answer there." He had circled the right one, but why should I have to confirm it?

After a while, he says, "I can tell you're not comfortable with this, so I will go." I reply, "After the test is graded, if you have any questions about ones you got wrong, I'll be happy to sit down with you and discuss them. I just don't think I should be helping you with this right now."

Later, I run into his instructor and tell her about it. I don't identify the student, but she immediately figures out who it was, and says, "He's always trying to pull one over on me." Great, so he lied to me about telling the instructor he was going to see me. I'm glad I didn't help him out.

A few minutes after that, a student comes to the desk with a Russian-English dictionary that she had checked out. She can't figure out how to use it. Thinking that she doesn't understand the difference between cyrillic and transliterated Russian words, I explain to her that she needs to know cyrillic, the Russian alphabet, in order to use it. "You can't just look up the English equivalent of words, you need to know the Russian alphabet first," I explain.

She points to some words in the English section and asks about the pronunciation symbols that follow the word. "Oh, those are just symbols that tell you how to pronounce the word in English. They won't help you with the Russian word. "

She says, "I need to look up the parts of the word for my reading class." Oh, another remedial reading student. It suddenly dawns on me: She's not trying to learn Russian at all! She needs an ENGLISH dictionary. She has no idea what kind of dictionary she picked out.

It turns out one of the clerks had taken her to the English dictionaries and told her to pick out one she wanted. She must have wandered from the English ones through the Germanic section (German, Dutch) and on to the Slavic (Russian, Baltic, Albanian) dictionaries, where she found the Russian-English one. Maybe because it was a pocket version and smaller than the others. How she never noticed that it was a Russian dictionary, even after looking up words, blows my mind.

In addition to these episodes I had a long day that involved countless trips to a student printer that kept jamming, boxing up a large collection of books, and doing two classes at our satellite campus, half an hour further away from home.

As the second class was winding up on this very long day, at 7:30 pm, I was looking forward to my 1.5-hour drive home. The class itself had gone well-- the students were attentive and I was able to go off script and make a few jokes that went over well. I was showing students my very last thing, a list of library databases that deal with lots of specific subjects, like art encyclopedias and business dictionaries and car repair manuals, when one of them focused on a group of cultural encyclopedias titled things like, "The African American Experience" and "The Latino American Experience."

She asked, "Why don't they have the American American experience?" Someone else (in this room full of whites) spoke up, "Yeah, that's racist!"

I sighed. On top of my day full of dishonesty and stupidity, I get to end it with a heaping helping of racism? I pointed to to our link to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online and said, "That's your 'American American' Experience."

I just don't get all these white people who get so bent out of shape when you try to acknowledge other cultures. We've had 400 years of American history written by, for, and about white people. ("American Americans" as my student would say.) It's like a child who has been gorging on food and candy all day (pizza, hamburgers, soda, ice cream, cake) and then bitches when you give the neighbor, a starving little emaciated boy, a piece of chocolate. "Where's my chocolate?!?" the fat little glutton shouts.

Perfect end to a perfect day at a rural Midwestern community college.

No comments: