We’ve all had teachers like this. Fierce reputation. Toughest teacher in the school. Or, maybe later, a professor. “You’ll never get an A.” “Will try to intimidate you.” “Very demanding.” These or similar comments were often heard from fellow students.
In graduate school, some of these professors felt it was their duty to “weed” candidates who wanted to join their profession. Yes, this could easily mean a D, or even an F, as they seemed to want to get students to drop their major.
Yet, sometimes it is really worth walking the gauntlet and taking these teacher’s courses. You may have no choice, as they may be teaching a course required for the major. In this case, my contact with Professor West may have been the most important relationship in my career, as we will see.
In the mid 1970s, I went to graduate school at the School of Library and Information Science at San Jose State University (SJSU). Back then, this was all on-campus. Today the School offers everything online.
There was a large common area in the center of the department where students often gathered in-between classes. I was very lucky to have a fabulous class of fellow students and a group of us were gathered around talking about a school related topic. Before I even knew what “networking” was this was really what was going on as we built the relationships that would serve us throughout our careers.
At one point, Professor West approached the group to join in the conversation as I was talking. Instead of falling into silence, I quickly decided to “re-wind” the point I was making and started again from the beginning. Needless to say, I was very pleased when Professor West nodded her head in agreement with what I was saying.
From that point forward, it seemed I now had credible rapport with Professor West. Maintaining my poise and finishing my discussion point seemed to make all the difference. In my second and third semesters of the program I became the Graduate Assistant (GA) for Media. As a GA I had frequent contact with the faculty, including Professor West.
During graduate school we learned about the key skills that enable librarians to do their job. This included original cataloging (now done mostly via an automated and shared online approach), learning about the published works that help answer questions or further the research process, and teaching skills that revolved around helping library users make more effective use of the library and its resources. This was referred to as bibliographic instruction or BI and is more often called information literacy today.
As a long-term photographer and someone who worked with media, my interest went toward using early information technology to help provide this instruction. A popular format back then was a combination of cassette tape and 35mm slides displayed via a device called a Caramate. During graduate school I worked on several BI projects using this audiovisual media.
At that time, a requirement for graduation was to do a thesis. Professor West became my thesis adviser. My thesis included developing a slide-tape presentation based on a 90-minute lecture from one of Professor West’s classes. We did a controlled study of students who attended the lecture vs. those who watched the nine-minute slide-tape. The results showed the students learned and retained about the same information from both approaches.
Professor West also worked with a small consulting company in nearby Los Altos and was able to get me paid assignments working with this group. This included serving as Conference Graphics person and photographer for the local arrangements committee for an industry meeting. But the big break came when the consulting group changed direction and became Information Access Company (IAC).
IAC’s first product was called the “Magazine Index” which used a process called “computer output to microform” (COM). The product introduced using computer technology to create periodical indexes. Professor West asked if I could produce a slide-tape introduction to the “Magazine Index” which would be sent to libraries who were interested in evaluating this new tool.
Although I was already working as a reference librarian at the SJSU Library, I happily said yes to the project and was soon involved in script writing and production with the IAC leadership team. The completed product consisting of a carousel of slides and a cassette tape was sent to the interested libraries. The “Magazine Index” became a big success. Patrons and students lined up to use it while the printed periodical indexes sat unused.
These projects led to my meeting many of the most important library leaders in the San Francisco Bay Area. One such contact led directly to my next job with the Dialog Information Retrieval Service in the emerging online information industry.
Without this association with the “toughest professor” my entire career would have taken a very different direction. There is no question this contact led to the relationships and opportunities that shaped my success. Thank you Professor West!