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The elephant in the room

Friday, June 17, 2011

Image courtesy Briarpress.orgMy colleague Lynn Yeager, Coordinator of Education and Outreach at the Schusterman Library, is taking the lead in developing the library’s plan to integrate information literacy into the curriculum. She was inspired by her experience at ACRL’s Immersion Program, which she attended two years ago. The Program Track at Immersion is for librarians who are interested in “developing, integrating, and managing institutional and programmatic information literacy programs.”

I asked her if she had a vision of what she wanted our instruction program to look like. She said she did, but she also told me about some of the roadblocks standing in the way of the vision.

For example, there are faculty perceptions of the library. Many of them still think in terms of bibliographic instruction, which to their mind requires only an easy checklist that the librarians can hand to the students on the first day of class:

  • Library website – check.
  • Tour of the building – check.
  • Library scavenger hunt – check.
  • Article magically in hand and job done.

It’s like trying to understand an elephant by listing its body parts. Feet. Ears. Tail. Tusks. Got it.

Lynn also knows from experience that even some of our incoming graduate students have low information literacy skills. But faculty often assume that the students come with those skills.

I’ve spoken with professors who say, “We don’t need to go over the definition of peer-review because our students will already know this.” But when Lynn or I go into a class and ask the students if they know what we mean when we say “peer-reviewed journal,” many of them will say they do not. In fact, the notion that there are specific literatures for different disciplines, each with their own standards and conventions, or that these literatures are products of the university’s function as a creator of new knowledge through research, is news to them. They’re just seeing a bunch of articles on their screen with no apparent context. As far as they’re concerned, one is as good as another. So they pick the first five that pop up, and the professor wonders why the students have based their arguments on such poor sources.

In her vision of the program, Lynn sees us as having a much stronger presence in research courses, and having our own semester-long elective IL course. We get there by collaborating with university leaders and administrators, starting with individual professors and their department heads, and going all the way up to the deans and the president. The process includes training the faculty as well as the students. She envisions half-day librarian/faculty retreats in which we teach and learn the best ways to incorporate information literacy into individual courses. This is doable, she says, because we have a strong tradition on our young campus in collaboration.

The students are not seeing the whole elephant, so to speak – just the feet, or the ears, apparently unconnected to anything else. But professors keep referring to the elephant, which confuses the students, who are only seeing parts of it. To continue this ridiculous metaphor, you could say that information literacy is the ability to recognize that there’s an elephant in the room. And that the instruction librarian’s job is to introduce the student to the elephant.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Friday, June 24, 2011 8:10 am

    Great post, Toni!

    I like to introduce myself during instruction sessions by saying that I’m a librarian- then asking the students just what they think I do for a living (besides shushing). Often I get blank stares. I make this point because I have also experienced upper level students not understanding terms like “peer reviewed journal” and the like. I often wonder if I was prepared for graduate level research (I tend to doubt it).

    I think that seeking progressively ranked council is an excellent idea- we need to make our mission clear in order to do better for the students.

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