Thursday, April 24, 2008

Info Lit Course: Musings

Coming from a private liberal arts background, I do have to admit that I didn't immediately understand why universities would offer for-credit classes in information literacy. Isn't all that information essentially interwoven through the courses students take? I mean, it's essential for any discipline.

Let's back up. I went to a very small, private, expensive (I will have student loans to bequeath my grandchildren) liberal arts college. You know the sort - kids who drive cars daddy bought practically (if not actually) new, who clerk at daddy's law firm during the summers, and who don't drink beer because frankly, that sort of thing is for state school fraternity boys - Crown and Jack welcome, all others will be booted at the door. On the other hand, it was an extraordinarily rigorous academic atmosphere: if you missed three classes, you automatically failed. Fifteen page papers were the norm. There was no such thing as multiple choice, and we regularly hobnobbed with professors afterhours. Our professors would go to the library and look at the books we had cited to be certain we weren't just making up information and a page number in our citations. (No, really. I swear.) Information literacy may not have been called that as we learned it, but it was woven through our classes and education nonetheless, and our faculty actually enforced its application through rigorous academic training. When I was presented with the concept of info literacy in library school and asked what it was called, I said "Common sense." (Yeah, I was totally that student.)

It comes as no surprise, then, that my alma mater pumps out folks who attend grad school as a matter of course. Now that I'm working in academia at a larger state school where absences go practically unnoticed, professors are overworked and multiple choice is a godsend, and papers rarely exceed 8-10 pages, I have to say I'm a teensy bit appalled at how easily student can slip through the system all the way to graduation and rarely come across anyone who challenges them to rigorously examine the information they use. This has made me reconsider my formerly skeptical stance on offering a for-credit information literacy course.

I mean, we offer a "Freshman Life" course for credit, and that pretty much teaches the kids how to come and go from school without getting hit by a bus, or taking candy from the old man in the van down by the river. It is not a terribly rigorous class, it covers a hodgepodge of basic life-skills topics, and is generally taught by staff members from around the university. If something like this can be touted as something that helps increase retention of out students who come in as borderline, how much better for them a class focusing on information literacy? Not just citation, but why we cite and why there are different ways to do it; not just a one-shot 45 minute instruction session on the difference between popular and scholarly sources, but time to actually delve into the source of information and its production so they become more knowledgeable consumers and users; not just saying "no Wikipedia or Google!" but actual academic assignments exploring the uses and shortcomings of those tools. There are a lot of things that aren't covered in Freshman Comp because technically they don't fall under tis rubric, but that students still need to be exposed to in an academic setting to be successful students.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has a retention problem. We know it, admin knows it, and they're trying to cobble together a strategy that addresses it. having been here a year as a reference and instruction librarian, and seeing the absolutely lost faces begging for salvation during finals, I'm beginning to think that this may be an invaluable tool for these kids. Many of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Others come from low income backgrounds and can't afford to go anywhere but a state school. Some students come in on a HOPE scholarship awarded to high school students who can scrape up a 21 on the ACT and a 3.0 high school GPA. The problem is that college is not high school, and a 3.0 in college is (arguably, I suppose) more difficult to obtain than the work that got them to college in the first place. Unless some of these students, who begin as borderline keepers to begin with, are given some extra tools to firm up their academic endeavors, a good many of them won't make it.

I consider it my job as a librarian not only to find you the information you need, but to make sure I teach you just enough to empower you and find it yourself. hitting students at point of need at the reference desk is wonderful, but they're not in learning mode then. They're in OMGWTFBBQ emergencygimmearticlepaperdueHALP!!111!!11!!!eleven! mode. They're not processing research steps. And the 50-minute one-shot is not enough to teach them how judgment of information is integrated through their entire lives, not just related to their 5 page argumentative essay on the death penalty.

Now, the question is, of course, whether or not a for-credit info lit class has any impact. I've printed out the bibliography of articles I want to read on it (thank you, ili listserv!). I'll have to pitch it and will likely get pushback from it, since we don't have enough library bodies as it is, and other faculty may see it as unnecessary.

Come September, when I can breathe again, I am going to seriously bring this up as a project to my bossladies. I absolutely want to expand our instruction program into upper level courses, and we'll be working on that program plan this summer, among myriad other things. But I'd like to see an info lit course piloted, at least. Maybe I'll make this part of my 3-year plan.

No comments: