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Professor Q Throws Down the Gauntlet

Friday, June 10, 2011

Professor Q is a friend of the library. Back when the campus had a library advisory committee, he was an active member of it. He asks an instruction librarian to visit his summer research class every year. He’s graciously allowed us over the years to hold rich participatory class discussions with his students on the use of library resources in this particular discipline.  He teaches only graduate students, in a specialized field that doesn’t have a huge research tradition.

So I asked him what he thought of information literacy.

He said he really didn’t know what it was.

I told him that it was, more or less, the ability to recognize when information is needed as well as the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the needed information.[i] I talked a little bit about the ACRL standards, and offered to show him the website with all the detailed information.

Yes…..he said, not sounding too enthusiastic. So I took that as a “No.” But he did think that the definition I’d given him was kind of interesting. Vague, but interesting. Many of his students didn’t have these abilities when they came into his program. What he wanted to know is what librarians do, or could do, to help his students acquire them.

I said that by coming to his research class every year, we taught and encouraged his students to think about searching for (and using) information in more sophisticated ways, and helped to introduce them to the world of academic discourse. But by offering curriculum integrated IL, we could help them even more – students would learn how to search more effectively, write better papers by using better sources, become, in short, better students.

Then we had a short discussion about why his students were different from other groups of students. The material they needed most wasn’t generally in academic databases. Practitioners in this field seldom use peer-reviewed research in their work.

So, I asked Professor Q, why do you have the librarians come to your class at all?

This is graduate school, he said. We are still part of the academy. I have an obligation to teach my students what it means to be a scholar, even if most of them have no interest in it and won’t be doing anything like scholarly research in their jobs. And as for integrating IL into the curriculum, aren’t we already doing that when the librarians come to the research class every summer?

No, I said, because that’s just one professor and just one class. It’s like a remedial session. You yourself said that your students should already have some kind of grasp on this, and every year it’s the same thing – it’s all new to them. As valuable as this session is, we should also be teaching them when they’re in a class that requires a research paper, when they have a practical interest in the subject, and teaching them how to find and use resources for particular assignments.

Then here’s what you can do, Professor Q said. My students have a professional project class, and the first thing they do is to write literature reviews in preparation for their projects. I need you to help them with that. But there’s not enough time in class. So I’ll require that they all come to you when they’re doing their literature reviews.

That’s fine, I said. I can show them how to find existing literature reviews so that they know what they look like, and help them refine their search skills.

No, that’s not what I want you to do, he said. You said you can help with information literacy, and you told me that includes skills in using and analyzing information. They need help putting their lit reviews together. They need help in recognizing what articles are appropriate.

Right, I said. We can do that.

But then Professor Q went on: Where they really need help is in synthesizing the material and applying it to their own projects. These are skills they’re supposed to have when they come to graduate school, and they don’t. I don’t have time to play catch up in class. I want you to help them with that.

That pretty much ended the conversation. I told him I had to think about this. When I say “information literacy,” does that include (for librarians) teaching students how to analyze and synthesize content?  Because it’s right there in Standard 3 as an outcome: “The information literate student synthesizes main ideas to construct new concepts.” Sure, this is something I can do. In fact, it sounds fun. But is this something the library wants to do?

[i]From the ACRL Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education:

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ansumpcre permalink
    Monday, June 13, 2011 4:09 pm

    Oh MY! What an excellent question! I often find myself barely above water and as much as I would love to take on something like this my enthusiasm wanes quickly as I start trying to figure out how to integrate it into my work day. Also, I wonder about other professors. Do they all want us to teach this? Do some of them have different ideas about where students develop these skills? I know a professor who has spent a lot of time working closely with his subject librarian to develop training on the difference between research and information gathering/analysis. Are we all speaking the same language? Thanks for this post. How wonderfully thought provoking!

  2. Elizabeth Jones permalink
    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 6:00 am

    I would love for one of my professors to ask this of me and at the same time it would terrify me. OK the professor is going to require them to come to the library, but to the student this probably means once or one session with the librarian. There is no way you can teach them to synthesize information in that time. You would almost need a set of smaller projects separate from their major assignment in his class.

    As for what the library should be responsible for I’m not sure it is our responsibility to teach students to synthesize information just because it is listed in standard three. I don’t see those standards as mandates for what the library is responsible for. The library is just supposed to lead the university in information literacy, the rest of the campus, especially the professors have a responsibility to be teaching those skills with our help. We are not an information literacy island. I only say I would jump at the chance because of the lack of interaction between professors and librarians her on our campus as compared to some others. I am willing to go way above and beyond to try and help repair/increase this relationship.

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