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Experiencing imposter syndrome when working with upper-class students?

February 21, 2019

One of the areas we are focusing on for assessment during this academic year involves upper-level classes/students. The English department is one of my liaison areas and I’m meeting with that department’s Capstone class three times this semester. Today was the second time the class would be coming to the library. Through discussions with the professor, we had decided that what the students might benefit from most, at this stage in their research, was a one-on-one reference desk appointment with a librarian. I was able to recruit two of my colleagues to help and so we each met with three or four students for about 20 minutes at a time.

As I prepared to meet with these students, I found myself wondering if I was going to be able to understand their topics enough to help them. It’s been over ten years since I’ve taken an English class and even then, I hadn’t read most of the texts these students were using. What if I couldn’t offer the students anything valuable? Would a bad interaction with this class deter their professor from wanting to work with the library again? It feels like there can be an expectation that librarians are walking encyclopedias, able to answer questions on any topic without hesitation. Having met with this class once before and hearing what they intended their research topics to be, I felt like a big imposter. How was I supposed to help someone who already knew more than me?

I was worried that students wouldn’t take me seriously if I admitted that I didn’t know what they were talking about. However, in almost every interaction, I found myself admitting to students up front: “I am not familiar with this text” or “I’ve never heard of genre theory”. This gave students a chance to explain these topics to me and in some cases I think providing an explanation to me helped them clarify their understanding of it. One of my colleagues said she too had this experience and felt that by us admitting we didn’t know something; the students were more comfortable admitting they didn’t know how to search in certain databases or weren’t familiar with the library website.

I found that I really enjoyed these interactions, perhaps more than my normal ref desk interactions, because they turned out to be a conversation between equals: they “experts” on their topic and I an “expert” on how to find information using library resources. They had already tried many of the more basic search strategies and based on that work I found it easier to come up with suggestions for how they could take their searches to the next level: suggesting databases they might not have known about, helping them track down citations, or even assisting with E-Z Borrow and ILL requests.

I met with four students, and each one of them walked away with at least a few new sources that they could explore further. I also think that they walked away with a deeper appreciation of how talking with a librarian could help them during their research. After class I talked with my colleagues and they both indicated that they thought some of the students they met with would be seeking them out for further assistance as their projects progressed. Which I think is great news for the students and for us.

For now, the imposter has been banished and I’m feeling good about my ability to assist all of our student patrons, even the 400-level capstone researchers. Do you have many opportunities to interact with your upper-level students? How do you feel about trying to represent yourself as someone who can help in your liaison areas, even if you aren’t an expert in those subjects?

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2019 11:59 pm

    You got this!

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