Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Article Note: On Integrating IL and an English Curriculum

Citation for the article:

Holliday, Wendy and Britt Fagerheim. "Integrating Information Literacy with a Sequenced English Composition Curriculum." portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.2 (2006): 169-184.

I read this via Project Muse.

Warning: this is a long post.

Given that English composition classes are our biggest client in terms of library instruction, anything I can learn about further integrating information literacy in those classes and overall collaboration catches my attention. As I read this article, I found myself making a lot of notes on the margin. One of the things I have been thinking about is writing up a good information literacy plan for our library and campus, which has been sorely lacking, and to be honest, the fact we don't have one has bothered me since I got here. Unfortunately, there are always more pressing things I have to worry about. Nevertheless, I still make notes, read up on items, and do bits and pieces in preparation when I get the time to sit down and write out what I really want. This article gave me a lot to think about, not to mention a possible way to implement some things here. Reading this was timely for me as well since my supervisor recently was asking me about my ideas about information literacy. Her context is her concern that I am teaching too much. While the teaching load does not bother me, I did express the concern that if the library wants to accomplish a few other things, and they want me to do them, the load has to lighten up a bit. I still have not figured out the pesky details of bioengineering to clone myself. If you want an information literacy proposal for the campus, more outreach to departments, and more work with 2.0 technologies as well as continuous work with individual students, I can't be teaching 10 sessions or more a week for weeks on end. And no, I don't want you to hire a second instruction librarian so they can do those other things so you can leave me with the same teaching load while or she does what is perceived as more glamorous. In essence, those in the administration have to pick their priorities. I have told them what needs to be done; it's in their court. However, upon reading this article, I think I may have at least a partial solution if I take advantage of some of the current good relations I enjoy with members of our English Department and the local Writing Center. There may be an answer after all.

Anyhow, I am digressing a little, or at least thinking about the context. In the academic library world debate of having a credit course or instruction integrated with classes, the authors of the article take the latter approach. The article reports on the efforts at Utah State University. As I often do with these notes, I will jot down ideas from the article and throw my thoughts in.

  • "We also see the pedagogical advantages of linking information literacy to disciplinary content and authentic, problem-based learning. We want to develop a more comprehensive solution, however, than spotty one-shot instruction sessions that lack a logical sequence" (170).
This is one of the points I have been trying to make here. Currently, we concentrate on one-shot instruction mostly due to resource constraints and some degree of inertia (it works so far, just go along). One of the things I often observe from one-shot sessions is the restraints of time, which I am sure most librarians who teach, is that we could be teaching more concepts over time if we only had the time. There are tons of opportunities to enhance student research skills. I liked how the authors discuss specific objectives at different levels, which is something we can likely apply to our first and second semester composition classes.

The authors began their process with a needs assessment.

  • "The process at USU began with a needs assessment that used multiple methods to determine instructional goals, content, and strategies. Two main issues were evident at the beginning of the needs assessment process. First and foremost, library instruction did not seem to be meeting the needs of our current students. There was a gap between what librarians were teaching and being asked to teach by English instructors and what students actually needed. Instruction was focused on using tools such as article databases, but students had trouble focusing on a topic, selecting appropriate resources, evaluating information, and other high-order thinking skills. Students also noted that they received the same basic information in English 1010 and 2010. Furthermore, librarians and instructors tried to cover too much in one or two library sessions, contributing to confusion and overload" (170).

That paragraph summarizes our experiences and observations here. The contrast between student needs and content provided is something I often see. How do I know? When the students come and see me for individual consultation a few days later after a a BI session. Now, let me clarify that I want my students to come see me as needed. However, when I often have to do a significant amount of what can be described as "repair work," it becomes clear we need to do some things about the curriculum. In classes, I often switch topics "on the fly" as needed. For instance, lately I have been adding more on the use of Boolean operators to create good search strings in the databases. While I can often pull that stunt, some of my colleagues are not that nimble. I am not saying it to pat my back; it comes from experience in my case.

A needs assessment should be our first step then. Part of the reason we seem to lack a substantial information literacy presence is the fact that not many see a need for it. A needs assessment could help provide the evidence. I think if we ask faculty the right questions, we could get some interesting answers. Faculty are often notorious for complaining about the poor quality of student research. The library can help improve that quality, but it has to be more than professors just bringing them in without any thought of how a library session relates to their overall course goals and objectives. All this would take would be a bit more effort in communication from faculty with the librarian. However, a more systematic assessment would likely give a prompt to make some progress.

The authors mention that resources was another issue. For them, there was an increase in the number of classes. Increased numbers are not as much of an issue here given that enrollment has remained somewhat flat or has fallen. The situation is interesting here. Some aggressive promotion on my part has meant that more instructors have chosen to bring in their classes earlier in the semester. Without running the numbers, my instinct tells me that we did less classes than this time last spring. I should note as well that currently no instructors schedule any second or follow-up sessions for their classes with a librarian. Continuing the promotion efforts (personal contacts, newsletter, the library blog) can be a possibility. Probably some small piece in the newsletter or an extended blog post to raise some awareness.

On page 171, the authors list the questions to ask about a curriculum. These are questions we should be asking and answering here as well in my humble opinion. In fact, I am going to try to write out some answers at some point in the near future. What else did the USU librarians do?

  • "We then conducted surveys with USU librarians and English instructors. We also held a debriefing session with librarians, following an initial survey. Through discussion, we reached a consensus on learning goals and refined the results of the librarian survey" (171).
For us, we can certainly start with the literature review. Though given we conduct a campus survey once in a while, there is precedent for surveying the students. I would envision probably doing a survey via the freshman composition classes, which would be similar to an approach I saw at Ball State, where I used to be a graduate assistant, back in the old days.

The authors' discussion of student behavior provides a good summary of what the literature says about student behavior. I need to check if I have read some of them because much of the work sounds familiar to me. For instance, I have read some of this before (ah yes, at least here and here):

  • "While students prefer the Web for its convenience, Barbara Valentine noted that students do try to figure out what the instructor wants in a research paper. They are focused on assignment requirements for the type and number of sources. They are often more focused on these requirements than thinking critically about the 'best' sources to address their research questions" (qtd. in 171).

I do try to teach some of the critical thinking about sources part during my presentations, but there is only so much you can do in fifty minutes. I know some professors may do some of it with their classes, but others do not, which means that exposure to the concept is erratic. As cautionary note, I would also note this article on low-level skills and research competency as it relates to students being confident in their search abilities.

Maybe another thing we should do, all the librarians, or at least the ones involved in teaching would be a review of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I am pretty familiar with them, as it is part of what I do, but a review along with others would not hurt.

The authors discuss the findings from their surveys of librarians and English instructors. From the librarian survey discussion:

  • "In general, librarians thought that English 101o students should be introduced to concepts and skills such as how to identify different types of information and how to evaluate and use information. They should master skills such as defining their information need, searching effectively, and citing sources" (172).

  • "Librarians thought that English 2010 students should review concepts and skills such as determining an information need, effective searching, and citing sources. They should also receive more instruction in information evaluation and use. Complete mastery of many of these skills, however, should be taught in discipline-specific courses in the major, which would build on the basic skills taught in English 1010 and 2010" (172).

In other words, notice the sequential nature, how the process builds up. It then moves from the English classes to specific subject areas. This could work here given the nature of the freshman composition sequence as a basic set of classes (most of them take them) and their bottleneck nature (they are basically an obstacle when they fail to pass them. A great number of our students do repeat these classes two or even three times). In our case, we also need to consider that a lot of our students are transfer students who may not take the freshman composition sequence, or they may only take the second course. On a side question, for me at least, could adding and formalizing this type of sequential planning help in some measure with issues of retention and student success? I think it could, but it is a hunch. I already know that measuring impact is not an easy thing to do.

From the discussion on curriculum development:

  • "The close relationship that existed between the library and the English Department enabled the collaboration that was required to successfully introduce information literacy into the English curriculum. Building a relationship with academic departments is critical to the success of an integrated, sequenced information literacy program. In addition, all English 1010 instructors follow a common curriculum fairly closely. This allowed the librarians to develop set lesson plans, which they could modify as necessary to fit each class" (178-179).
We have a good relationship with the English Department here, so I think there is an opportunity to discuss ideas on further integrating IL into the English curriculum. Philosophically speaking, for me at least, building the relationships with academic departments should be done primarily by the subject librarians, with support from the instruction librarian. The article's authors go on then to summarize the lessons they carried out in the classroom as well as discuss assessing the process. I also liked their idea of a modular curriculum for the advanced class.

I just thought this next line was really cool:

  • "The library instruction curriculum seeks to present libraries as a repository for many voices and as places to extend the conversation further" (179).

I don't think you can say much more to top that. Given that our campus is a place rich in diversity, we should be promoting that concept more.

What was learned:

  • "English instructors realized just how long it takes to teach information literacy skills, and improved student work proved to them that it was worth the time. The process also highlighted the need to build the library into the new English curriculum from the beginning rather than reacting to a completed curriculum" (182).
Do note that at the time, the USU English Department was also working on their curriculum.

  • "While relatively time-intensive, we managed to deliver instruction with our existing staff. We strengthened an existing librarian/faculty relationship rather than facing the political and resource battles of lobbying for a credit course. Students were engaged in authentic assignments that required research and consultation with librarians. The success of the first year enabled us to further integrate library instruction into the writing program, including the sharing of student work for assessment purposes" (182-183).

Maybe this should be our route as well. Work within the departments rather than trying to create a course and fighting the local campus administrative politics.

  • "The primary success of our project, however, was simply making information literacy instruction less invisible in terms of its scope and depth and time required to teach it effectively" (183).

Success at one level can help nurture conversations in other areas. Now, I have a few more things to work out for myself, and then I am going back again to the drawing board.

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