Sunday, March 27, 2005

Joined at the Hip

As I've mentioned, I'm part of the campus academic computing organization. Our seemingly natural partners are the Library. They are the primary "information resource provider" while we are the primary information technology provider. Both of us are under assault because of the budget morass - members of the community are asking more aggressively whether they are getting their money's worth from the services we provide. My sense is that the campus wants to see us cooperate. And both of us are large hierarchical, yet distributed organizations. These provide some commonality of purpose and hence something of a common point of view. Here, however, I want to focus on the image of the siamese twins who are attached in body, but who retain two separate spirits.

In particular I want to consider information literacy and its importance in the curriculum. As a teacher, I have to say that "old fashioned" literacy is more important to me. I'm of the mind that many of my students don't get the meaning from a New York Times story. I've tested that proposition on occasion with articles I've picked and assigned to the class, either from the Business section or the Magazine. I don't talk about this issue much if at all (except with a particular colleague who teaches Natural Resource Economics who agrees with me fully on this proposition). And I haven't seen it discussed, but it seems to me to be at the heart of the matter.

Students need a well trained "voice in their head" which argues propositions, including what they read. They need to disagree with things when they don't add up, but they need to be able to "get it" without undo difficulty when the meaning is straightforward. It is a reasonable expectation (in the normative sense) that students have these abilities when they enter college. But, I fear, all too many of the students falter here. Because these kids are bright, I'm going to say the culprit is they don't read enough and so this habit of arguing with the voice in their head is not well cultivated. This is a real problem. I don't have a great solution for it, other than that the kids need to develop the habit of reading and to think of reading as internal argument.

Now let's turn to the other type of literacy, the information kind, the kind that the Librarians care so much about and the kind that makes them the enemy of Google. The argument, baldy put, is that students are too trusting of content that is on the Web. The students don't care enough about the truth of that content and the expertise behind the production of that content. This makes librarians something of a latter day P.T. Barnum, except the Librarians aren't after the students' money. Instead they are after the students' attention. They want the students to use them as consultants - experts at finding the right information.

But this is too artificial and a direct approach to achieve this end is almost certainly doomed for failure. As long as students view the assignments they must complete as hurdles only, not as avenues for their own self-expression, they have little reason to care about the credibility of the sources they cite. Indeed, they have little reason to actually read the sources they cite. And, of course, we know the concern about student plagiarism is great, which is indicative that this is just the way students do view their assignments.

Now ask the question a different way. If an instructor were redesigning a course with the aim of producing intense student engagement (and hence greater learning) would the instructor want to partner with a Librarian? I found myself in that position about a year ago when I taught the freshman honors course. And what I found was that since I was doing a number of "experiments" with the approach I wanted to do them the way I conceived them without having to negotiate the approach with somebody else. There were places where I might have benefited from the counsel of a Librarian and the students might have done so as well. But really, finding credible information wasn't too hard. I was able to show my students JSTOR and some particular publications which would work for the students. Part of the issue with Economics journals is that most of them are over the head of layman, in the sense that the language is unabashedly technical. So the trick is finding pieces that are both authoritative but also readible.
I have to believe I'm more disposed than most of my colleagues to talk with Librarians about my teaching, because of my administrative position. If I'm reluctant to do so, how will the rest of them feel? So what might Librarians do to counteract that natural tendency? I don't ask this as an idle question. My sense is that there are some faculty, of course, who make extensive use of Librarians and for whom Librarians will produce extensive "course guides" or subject guides. But the issue is whether that carries over to the more reluctant instructors and further whether it is a good approach to address the information literacy issues. The blunt answer is: I don't know.

But this I can say. It would be easier for me, and I assume most faculty, to have an ongoing relationship with a Librarian so these issues can be discussed over time and a relationship can be developed around the teaching approach and the role of the Library in supporting that. I don't believe, however, that when faculty consider redesigning their instruction that it is customary to consult a Librarian. So this will take some acculturation.

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