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Info Lit without Librarians?

A few years ago, while attending ACRL’s Immersion Program, an instructor held up an Ease-Impact matrix, a visual tool we could use to prioritize our IL program’s efforts. As this drawing illustrates, effort is measured against impact:

Image Source: Dave Gray/Youtube

In our class discussion, we decided, for example, one-shot sessions would fit in the lower-right quadrant of the matrix since they are “easy” in terms of effort, but “low” in terms of impact. One-shots are not a waste of our time, but, on their own, they are not going to make information literacy happen for our students. Yet, for most IL instruction programs, one-shots remain the primary mode of delivery. So why do we spend time promoting and delivering one-shot instruction when it has such limited impact on our students learning of IL?

Of course, I am not the only librarian to ask this question. Embedded librarianship exists precisely for this reason. But I wonder: What if the best thing librarians can do to improve students’ learning of IL is to not teach—at least, not one-shots? What if instead they redirected their efforts to focus on higher impact practices, for instance, creating PDs for faculty that focus on designing better research assignments, or, better yet, teaching faculty to teach IL?

Again, I am not the first librarian to ask this question. As early as 1997, librarians Risë Smith and Karl Mundt were arguing for a “train the trainer” approach. In their ACRL paper, “Philosophical Shift: Teach the Faculty to Teach Information Literacy,” they reason,

[F]aculty control the learning environment and are in a better position than library faculty to create situations which allow students to see information seeking as an essential part of problem-solving in a discipline. The time has come to shift our focus from the students to the faculty—to teach the faculty to teach information literacy.

Teaching faculty to teach IL might not only be a better use of librarians’ time but also a more effective mode of IL delivery. In Teaching Research Process: The Faculty Role in the Development of Skilled Student Researchers, Bill Badke argues that in order to truly invite students to the scholarly conversation, faculty must share ownership of IL instruction. Students need to understand the information habits and practices specific to their discipline, and only those in the discipline can provide them with this insider’s insight. With only librarians leading the IL charge, students learn, at best, how to imitate the scholarly conversation. They don’t learn how to participate in it.

Badke’s argument resonates with my own experience as an undergraduate. As a double-major in English and philosophy, my coursework drilled the mechanics of academic writing: thesis, evidence, citation. I worked hard and was an “A” student. But I was also a first-generation college student, so I had little understanding of scholarly communication or how it works. I studied hard because I wanted to learn, and I wanted A’s, and I wanted my teachers’ approval. The learning, the grade, and the approval were all ends in themselves. It never occurred to me to question why my teachers asked me to write 10-15 page research papers in the first place.

Then, toward the end of my senior year, my philosophy professor suggested I submit one of my papers to an undergraduate research journal. “So you can I could get a ‘publication’ on your application if you decide to go to grad school,” she said. I was flattered but also confused by her suggestion. I thought, people read newspapers and magazines, not philosophy journals: “Why would I want to publish in a journal no one reads?”

In other words, I had learned how to “imitate” scholarly discourse very well. But, with limited, superficial awareness of the philosophical discourse, I wasn’t really participating in it.

Reflecting on all of these experiences has led me to the conclusion that I can serve my students best by being selective about when and what I teach. After ten years of teaching IL, I am tired of requests for database instruction. Especially in this “Misinformation Age,” I’d much rather teach students about information types and how authority is created so that they can better evaluate the information they encounter every day. Besides, faculty, as disciplinary experts, should be able to teach students how to use the databases appropriate to their disciplines. And if they can’t, we really should be helping them.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say. My school’s founding documents specify that information literacy skills ought to be built in the context of students’ courses (p. 25). Also, considering that they are employed at a community college, most of our disciplinary faculty embrace their teaching role and so are receptive to teaching IL.

It also doesn’t hurt that my colleague, Alexandra Hamlett, and I have created a “toolkit” of IL lessons and assignments for faculty to use in their instruction. It’s a lot easier to convince faculty to embrace their IL teaching role when you can make their class preparation and teaching easier for them.

We published the toolkit in early 2017 after mapping IL outcomes to the first-year curriculum (we are still working on program-level mapping for our five majors). Specifically, we reviewed syllabi from the required first-year curriculum and looked for areas (course level outcomes or assignments) where IL was either identified or presumed. In this way, we could create IL lessons and handouts that would complement the first year curriculum.

The lessons themselves are framed on the ACRL Threshold Concepts and so attempt to contextualize IL skills so that students can see how IL relates to the “big picture,” that is, to their own lives, so that they can better transfer their knowledge to different settings (other classes, jobs, etc.). We promote the toolkit to faculty during weekly House Meetings (similar to department meetings), on faculty listservs before the start of each semester, and through standalone PDs for full and part-time faculty. We have also experimented, through grant funding, with offering faculty a small stipend for participating in a “how to” PD on IL instruction and revising their course syllabus to better embed IL into their instruction.

But other librarians, feeling strapped for ideas or time to prepare new lessons, could easily use this toolkit for their instruction, too. Check it out at: https://guttman-cuny.libguides.com/facultytoolkit 

In addition to our own, I am also a fan of the Library 101 Toolkit, created by librarians at Duke University, and this toolkit of lessons created by librarians at the University of Northern Colorado. Built upon a critical pedagogy framework, these lessons emphasize student voice, personal narrative, and collaborative learning.

I do not think that teaching faculty will ever replace librarians’ IL expertise. I do not worry that by teaching faculty to teach IL I am somehow putting myself out of a job. Rather, I feel like I am better managing my instruction responsibilities. By being selective about when and what I teach, by pushing back (a little!),  I now have more time  to dedicate to one-on-one research consultations with students, faculty PDs, and other high-impact practices.




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