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Baby steps in promoting information literacy

Posted by Editor on April 8, 2010

By Meredith Farkas | March 28, 2010 in Information Wants To Be Free

In the Fall, I wrote a post about my own thoughts on who should teach information literacy in academic libraries. In theory, I don’t care who teaches information literacy as long as it’s taught by someone (faculty member, librarian, etc.). In practice, I still struggle with this in my own mind, mainly because of how hit-or-miss information literacy instruction is in the disciplines I work with. I cringe when upper-division political science students get excited during a library instruction session because they’ve never before heard of Columbia International Affairs Online and are finding a ton on their research topic. I feel sad when I work with a criminal justice major in a senior seminar who needs 20 articles for her major paper and doesn’t even know how to find a library database (much less know which one will retrieve works on her topic). I’m especially bothered because I know that these students have been through research instruction with a faculty member in their discipline. Yes, I know some students let pretty much everything go in one ear and out the other, but I’ve dealt with too many students like this to blow it off as just being the students’ fault. The simple fact is, many instructors aren’t teaching information literacy well, if at all. And they are putting their students at a severe disadvantage compared to classmates who have received better information literacy instruction. How can you expect a student to do scholarly research in their discipline if you’ve never taught them how???

On the other hand, I really don’t want to see information literacy be thought of as “our job.” “Information literacy” is not something that is simply taught to a student in a 50-minute library one-shot; it should be woven throughout a student’s learning experience. They should get basic instruction in their first-year classes (like English 101 or whatever equivalent you have at your school). They should then learn about doing research in their discipline as they ease into their major. Finally, they should learn how to do advanced research when they’re at the Junior or Senior level. And all of it should be tied to the work they’ll be doing in their classes; their skills should grow to match what they’re being asked to do. And yet, based on a survey I did two years ago, plenty of faculty figure what the students get in a library session in English 101 is enough (which is all the more sad since EN 101 faculty are not required to even have a library session).

On Friday, I spoke to my Director about the idea of the University putting together an information literacy committee that is made up of faculty members from each School and representatives from the library and academic computing. There’s a similarly-composed committee to discuss academic technologies, so it makes sense to me for one to exist to plan out the University’s strategy for building student information literacy skills. My Director originally suggested that maybe this is something that could be taken up by the faculty senate library committee, but my response was that this isn’t a library issue, it’s a University-wide issue (and if her first response is to see it as a “library thing” I can only imagine what other faculty members think). We’re going through NEASC Accreditation right now, and it’s not as if information literacy is something that is only asked about in the library section of the report. It’s also a part of Standard 4 (see standard 4.6), which asks about how the University teaches students to find and use resources. It makes sense for this to be thought of as an issue we all need to be focused on.

I know this is stuff that every academic librarian who teaches struggles with. It’s so frustrating sometimes to feel like you’re the only unit on campus who really cares about information literacy beyond accreditation time. And while I know that’s not entirely true, it feels that way sometimes. Every semester, I have discouraging setbacks and promising accomplishments. I’ll get asked to do instruction for a new professor (yay!) only to find that it’s a “babysitting” session with no clear assignment. But then I’ll have one of those zen-like information literacy instruction sessions where the students are involved and engaged and the result ends up exceeding my expectations. Or I’ll go to a faculty meeting in my liaison area and will get a round of applause from faculty members who tell me they really appreciate all I’ve done for them and their students. I’m sure we all have our ups and downs in teaching and promoting information literacy, but it’s important to focus on what we can control than instead of we can’t.

In spite of my moments of frustration and impatience, when I look at what we’ve accomplished in the two years since I took over as Head of Instructional Initiatives, I do feel a strong sense of accomplishment. I and my colleagues have made some real changes in what, how and how much we teach, and we’re always thinking up and trying new things. I feel like as long as we keep making slow progress towards improving the research experience for students, we’re making a difference. I wish we could move faster on this stuff, but Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if Rome was built by a university committee, it probably still wouldn’t be done.

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