A Competence Ladder Odyssey

For my entire adult life, I’ve lived in cities where cars would have been more of a hindrance than a help, so, I’d never owned a motor vehicle.  But, this past month, I landed my first librarian job in (as I was soon to learn) the land where James Bond learned how to drive and public transit is a distinct afterthought, so I needed a car.   As I was about to leave the dealership with my car, the salesperson sat in the passenger seat and spent about 15 minutes going over all of the lights and gears and where the windshield wipers were.   I tuned him out because I figured I knew all of that already and anyway, how hard could it be?

And that was fine until it was time to fill the gas tank for the first time.  I knew what side of the car the tank was on, but I could not figure out how to open the door.  Pressing buttons I could see opened the hood and the trunk.  Good librarian that I am, I opened the user manual, flipped to the index, and opened it to the page illustrating the gas tank door release lever.  But I found the diagram incomprehensible.  So I took the manual to the gas station attendant, who laughed at me but couldn’t figure out the diagram either and wasn’t willing to come take a look.  Finally, I remembered where the release was on my parents’ car (a similar model) and looked there where, lo and behold, it was.

So, what’s the moral? Because all good stories have a moral.

I was, in competence learning model parlance, an unconsciously incompetent car owner.   Not only did I not know all of the details of car operation and maintenance, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

As I begin working and interacting with patrons, I see some of the same tendencies.  As librarians, our research skills tend to be at the unconscious competence stage—that is, we know how to research so well that it’s become second nature to us.  After one or two graduate degrees, the process, and the problem solving that goes along with it, just makes sense.  We know how the court system works, how an index works, and how to optimize a catalog search.  Many of our students, and especially pro se patrons, are often at the same stage I was at learning how to take care of a car.    They don’t know what they don’t know, often don’t even realize the lack of knowledge is systemic, and haven’t learned how to problem-solve their way through the gaps in their knowledge.

Modeling good problem-solving behavior from a place of unconscious competence is very difficult.  We’ve forgotten how we learned the material and so we think we’re teaching when we’re really just—to the hapless student in front of us—doing magic.  I just had this experience when I helped a faculty member set up a course book wiki for his course for next semester.  I thought I was going through the project slowly step-by-step and it wasn’t until I watched him try to replicate the process himself that I realized that my step-by-step skipped steps and relied on the magic known as keyboard shortcuts.

Because of this I find myself, as I learn Florida legal resources and NSU’s library system, modeling problem-solving behavior on the reference desk and working to try and move patrons up the competence ladder.  I think this is one of the best things that we can do for current and future practitioners.  This means that I spend a lot of time saying things like:

“Well, I’m not sure because I’m new here, but let’s start with the catalog…”

“What have you tried so far?”

“Let me just ask someone with more expertise in that area…”

And, the current favorite of a co-worker:

“That’s the best kind of reference question: you learned something, I learned something.”

I have Hermione tendencies and don’t like to admit that I don’t know the answer, so this is far from an easy task.  It can also be confusing to patrons: after all, if I’m behind the reference desk, I must know what I’m talking about. It also requires thinking a lot about why I take a certain route in the research process. But it is helpful when you see patrons actually start down the decision tree as they work towards the answer and realize when they need to ask for help.

Law adds another dimension to this that I am struggling with and will, no doubt, continue to struggle with.  It would be useful to move pro se patrons at least to conscious incompetence, to give them an understanding of how the system works, if not an understanding of how to do their research.  This might lead to more use of attorneys, perhaps more civilly engaged patrons, better use of the court system, and certainly more interesting reference questions.  (Yeah, I know, I’m overly optimistic.) But, and this is a big but, the line between legal information and legal advice seems to lie between Scylla and Charybdis except that, unlike Odysseus’s men, we need to clear the wax from our ears.

So, how do you teach problem-solving and move patrons up the competence ladder?  Any advice on the amount of wax?  I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

This entry was posted in Legal Research Instruction, Reference Services and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s