As libraries look for more opportunities to increase our impact on institutional goals like retention and student success, we can’t overlook the student employees shelving books and working behind the circ desk. I remember a presentation at the 2015 ACRL conference on this topic that had a major impact on me. Jill Markgraf, a librarian from University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, delivered a contributed paper titled, “Unleash Your Library’s HIPster: Transforming Student Library Jobs into High-Impact Practices.”
Markgraf argued that while employment wasn’t identified as one of the ten practices in George Kuh’s original list for the AAC&U in 2008, it had the qualities of high-impact practices. For example, when describing why some activities are more effective than others, Kuh identifies the following qualities:
- Students devote considerable time/effort to purposeful tasks
- Put students in circumstances that demand they interact with faculty and peers about substantive matters, typically over extended periods of time
- Increase likelihood students will experience diversity through contact with people different from themselves
- Get frequent feedback about their performance
- Provide opportunities to see how what they are learning works in different settings, on and off campus
- Deepen learning and brings one’s values and beliefs into awareness, enabling students to better understand themselves in relation to others and the larger world
Employment in the library offers the opportunity to do all of these things. However, fulfilling those opportunities requires intentionality on the part of the supervisor and the organization.
First, the work itself must be purposeful and substantive. Repetitive tasks, like shelving books and checking out materials at a circulation desk, can be purposeful and substantive if the supervisor connects the work to the larger mission of the library and the university. For example, if a book is misshelved, it can be lost for years! It is important to point out explicitly how the work of getting materials back into their proper places and staffing the circulation desk during non-peak and potentially boring hours, is essential for providing access to the knowledge contained in the library. While this might seem to increase the training need because the student employee needs to know both the task at hand and the why behind that task, sharing both makes the work itself more meaningful for the student employee and therefore more easily remembered.
Secondly, the relationship between supervisor and student employee is critical. In addition to the training described above, the supervisor is the one to provide feedback to the student employee and to assign work that enables students to see connections between what they are learning in their classes and in other ways. This is an area where most supervisors will need support from their institutions. Many are not trained to be supervisors and have only peers or their own experiences as reference. Also, to get at the learning about work and diversity referenced in the high-impact practices, thoughtful conversations are needed. While these conversations are not necessarily difficult, they are new territory for many supervisors who don’t see themselves as educators. There are excellent models for training supervisors in holding these conversations in student affairs.
In Part II, we’ll look at an innovative program at the University of Iowa that is putting these practices into action through their GROW (Guided Reflection On Work) program.