Wednesday, May 26, 2010

SLIS Discussion

There is a really fantastic discussion going on right now about LIS programs, asking about whether schools should still be churning out graduates in a depressed economy with few available jobs. Definitely go read the (still-growing) thread.

The MLS is not useless - it imparts skills and knowledge that I have found a necessary foundation for my career in librarianship. This is not a discussion of what the degree is "worth," and I don't appreciate the arguments made that it is worthless.

Questions in the thread cover questions such as whether huge programs (see SJSU) are problematic, whether programs bear the responsibility for curbing enrollments in a reflection of markets, and whether a SLIS is easier to cut than other program because it doesn't generate grant money or rich alumni.

I suppose where I'd like to come in on the discussion is the fact that other graduate programs are naturally limited in growth. They advertise themselves based on student/faculty ratio, the percentage of faculty with terminal degrees in their fields, and accrediting bodies look at the length to completion and percentage completion of graduates, which is reflected in their rankings.

An English PhD program (or a PoliSci PhD program, or various other fields) has a natural cap. Each student must choose a faculty member to chair their dissertation. Even for those MA students in those fields, the faculty time spent with students for their theses is not inconsiderate, and the quals/comps/whatever-you-want-to-call-the-exam is no mean feat to pass. (I feel I can say this with some authority, as yet another ABD who moved into librarianship.)

On the other hand, in my experience and that of most of my colleagues, that sort of faculty investment in the library science graduate student body is *much* less. In my (admittedly exceesive) experience in other graduate programs, adjuncts do not teach graduate level classes (one noted exception: law classes). Librarianship is different - I very much appreciated taking classes with adjuncts who were practicing librarians, and it was often obvious which librarians had been too long in teaching without practical experience. (I recognize that most LIS teaching faculty would pitch a high holy fit if you required them to work X hours in their university's library as part of their teaching faculty responsibilities, but I think it'd be an excellent idea.) In any case, SLIS students likely receive less one on one mentoring and time spent with faculty.

The question that arises for me in this instance is: what does that mean for the MLS degree? Yes, we all know there are rigor issues. The general wisdom is "don't do the minimum to get by: you need to beef it up yourself for the best experience." On the other hand, the "minimum to get by" in other grad degrees does not result in bored students. You cannot, for instance, be in the Polisci graduate program at Emory University, do the minimum, and blow off the rest of the time. I know, I went there. The rigor is incredible. Is it a problem that LIS programs are different? Not if we want something different out of them.

The MLS is a decidedly different degree than a graduate research degree, even in such fields as PoliSci. I don't know the percentages by program, but given my contacts in LibraryLand, few of us had the sort of rigorous (and required) quantitative methods, qualitative methods, or game theoretic training required by other social science graduate degrees. You may get that if you move on to the LIS PhD, but the MLS is far less research-oriented.

And so, do we just accept as given that the MLS is a different animal? Most folks I've spoken with say yes. And so, if the MLS is a graduate degree but not research-oriented (or intended to train someone in proper and rigorous research), do we leave the real research writing to the LIS PhDs, or continue to have actual library practitioners muddle through? Do we instead look to the rigor of program that think it's fine to take in classes of over 1,000 in a year? What sort of rigor do we judge programs on?

We can't really make judgments on LIS programs until we can articulate what we want out of them. Until we say what we *should* see out of them, how can we possibly judge if places putting out 900+ grads (or 30) a year are doing the job, or just taking hapless students' money?

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