Jenna Hartel | LJ/ALISE Excellence in Teaching Award Winner 2016

On her website, Jenna Hartel talks of “a different character of LIS”—one rooted in positivity, curiosity, and proactivity. It’s what she calls “the bright side of information,” a focus on the upbeat aspect of library studies that has won Hartel, associate professor on the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto (U of T), a special spot in the hearts of her students and fellow faculty members—and the 2016 Library Journal/ALISE Excellence in Teaching Award, sponsored by ­Rowman & Littlefield.

ljx161102webteachingjennahartelOn her website, Jenna Hartel talks of “a different character of LIS”—one rooted in positivity, curiosity, and proactivity. While the field has a necessary focus on solutions to information issues, she says, not every transaction need be about problem solving. Instead, interactions can also encompass parallel theories of joyful, playful knowledge seeking. It’s what she calls “the bright side of information,” a focus on the upbeat aspect of library studies that has won Hartel, associate professor on the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto (U of T), a special spot in the hearts of her students and fellow faculty members—and the 2016 Library Journal/ALISE Excellence in Teaching Award, sponsored by ­Rowman & Littlefield.

serious leisure

Information and its organization have always fascinated Hartel, she recalls. After receiving her BA in American studies at Colby College, ME, she worked as a researcher and educator at the Children’s Museum of Maine in Portland, then in a series of marketing and consulting firms as an in-house solo librarian and research manager. After a decade in the field, Hartel decided she wanted to take her interests further and ended up at the University of California–Los Angeles (UCLA), where she earned a PhD in information studies. She began teaching in 2008 at U of T—“a world-class LIS program in a world-class university in an amazing large city, a real creative metropolis,” she says—and hasn’t looked back since.

Hartel started out teaching required courses in reference and the foundations of LIS but soon moved in some unconventional pedagogical directions. “My teaching strategies have become increasingly creative and increasingly open to student freedom and student growth,” she tells LJ. Her fields of research—information phenomena in serious leisure, ethnography and visual methods, and the history and theory of information studies—have informed a lively and good-natured approach to teaching. Hartel’s current curriculum includes information ethnography, information behavior, and the liberal arts hobbies. She is also leveraging her joy in outreach with a second term as chair of the U of T Masters of Information Recruiting and Admissions Committee.

“Professor Hartel’s foremost strengths are her natural, unfettered exuberance for library and information science and her deep knowledge of the field’s history and values,” says Faculty of Information dean Wendy Duff. “This combination makes her the ideal spokesperson for our program and the profession.”

Class act

ljx161102webteachingjennahartel3Hartel’s information ethnography has been a particularly popular course. Since its inception in 2009, more than 100 students at the U of T iSchool have learned how ethnographic methods can be applied to information professions, conducted their own field studies, and produced original research. Their work has been published in the university’s student-run journal, Faculty of Information Quarterly, and has been presented at a number of conferences. Well beyond the classroom, Hartel helped launch the UX Research Group, a learning community for information professionals with an interest in ethnography in the greater Toronto area.

Hartel’s creative teaching practice extends to student output as well as classroom content. In addition to conventional essays, she tells LJ, she wants to give students the opportunity to work in alternative media. Her assignments can involve video production, poetry, short stories, animation, and drawing. She offers students a chance to experiment with arts-informed research and visual data sets, she says, which can have real-world applications on the front lines of librarianship when working with users and colleagues calls for creative communication strategies.

Together with classes focusing on more quantitative skills, Hartel’s curriculum helps round out the iSchool program to give students a holistic view of library science. “There’s a wonderful moment of discovery when students see the rich history of LIS,” says Hartel. “It’s a pleasure to introduce students to that history and to see that it registers as a source of inspiration and motivation for them.”

Her enthusiasm is reflected in her students’ responses. “Dr. Hartel is a gem,” reads a recent evaluation. “Her genuine passion, warmth, and sincere love for the field of LIS shine through in her engaging lectures and thought-provoking discussions. She fosters an environment of mutual respect, freedom of speech, and genuine interest in students.... Her love for LIS is contagious.”

Hartel clearly gets as much from her students as they do from her teaching. A thrill for her every year is seeing that “at the end of the information ethnography course, students, in a matter of three months, emerge as original researchers,” she says. “They’ve essentially gained the toolkit to design a study of a population, to go out there and engage them through inter­views and photography and field notes, to gather the original data they need, and then to be able to analyze it and write it up into a compelling short statement. That reliably happens…and it’s always a pleasure to see that ­transformation.”

mindful approach

One unique aspect of Hartel’s classroom is her incorporation of mindfulness meditation. Each of her classes begins with one to three minutes of audio meditation focusing attention on the breath, thoughts, and affirmations—a few moments, she says, when students don’t need to worry about their assignments, job search, or careers.

The meditation began as a “positive intervention” to address rampant student stress levels, says Hartel. “Graduate school is intense,” she explains. “Our students are having to be really creative and persistent in landing jobs and finding jobs. I’m well aware that these combined issues generate a lot of stress.” She has also seen how the affirmations help buoy students, some of whom struggle with maintaining a solid sense of self-worth amid the rigors of graduate school.

They, in turn, appreciate her concern for their psychological well-being. In one evaluation, a student wrote, “Professor Hartel looks not just at our intellectual needs, but she treats us as people with emotions that have to be addressed if we are to have a balanced and successful school/life.”

mentor and mentee

Hartel’s faith in her students has been consistently rewarded with success. Danielle Cooper began her graduate career with Hartel’s introduction to reference and information ethnography courses and completed a master’s thesis on grassroots information organizations under Hartel’s supervision. Cooper went on to earn a PhD in women’s studies and now serves as an analyst in the libraries and scholarly communication department of academic research nonprofit Ithaka S+R, where she works with concepts she first explored in Hartel’s classes. “Qualitative research informed by ethnography is uniquely positioned to provide holistic insight into the key issues libraries are grappling with today, ranging from physical space planning to designing digital interfaces,” Cooper says. “Jenna was an early visionary of the importance of ethnography for doing this kind of work.”

Leslie Thomson enrolled in Hartel’s information experience in context course in 2009, and the following year Hartel served as primary advisor on Thomson’s master’s thesis. Now a PhD student at the University of North Carolina with a focus on information behavior, Thomson notes, “I can confidently say that it was the knowledge, enthusiasm, and fresh perspective brought by Professor Hartel that initiated and sustained my engagement.”

Not only were class materials and lectures thoughtfully prepared and memorable, Thomson adds, but Hartel “encouraged students to move beyond their perceived limitations by designing and carrying out an original independent research project—part of her constant reminder…to ‘always look for the red thread of information in people’s lives.’ ”

Upon Thomson’s graduation, she recalls, Hartel immediately involved her in joint research projects. The two have jointly presented at conferences and meet often to brainstorm and discuss new ideas. Now launching her own teaching career, Thomson has taken cues from Hartel’s classroom structure and delivery and assigns Hartel’s published pieces as readings. “My evaluations have been ‘Excellent,’ ” says Thomson, “and I know that this owes much to her influence.”

Hartel is a strong mentor, in part, because she absorbed those lessons as a mentee. “I am the product of such great mentors,” she tells LJ fondly. “I spent hundreds of hours with people like Marcia Bates, Christine Borgman, and Jonathan Furner in long, long conversations about libraries, how they work, information and its nature…and how people browse and search and save information. I really just was indulged.”

“Giving them the tools”

Citing the adage of teaching a man to fish rather than just giving him one, Hartel wants to give her students what they will need to go out into a profession that is very much in flux. “We don’t know the direction that libraries are headed,” she says. “I can’t really teach students the perfect formula of what’s going to get them the job. But if I can teach them how to learn and conduct research and engage the users of their libraries, I’m giving them the tools that they need to be successful in a somewhat less prescriptive way.”

That combination—of giving students a diverse and versatile toolkit, of considering their well-being as well as their scholarship, and above all reinforcing a message of positivity about the profession—makes Jenna Hartel a model LIS professor and a deserving recipient of the 2016 LJ/ALISE Excellence in Teaching Award. “I think they respond very well to my energy—toward the field, toward the profession, toward the institution of the library,” she says of her students. “And I hope they adopt it, too.”


LJ would like to thank this year’s judges and ALISE representatives: John T.F. Burgess, Assistant Professor/DE Coordinator, School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alabama; Rachel A. Fleming-May, Associate Professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Tennessee; LJ Editorial Director Rebecca T. Miller; Patricia K. Galloway, Professor, School of Information, University of Texas–Austin, and winner of the 2015 Teaching Award; and Charles Harmon, Executive Editor of award sponsor Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group

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