Zen and the Art of Information Literacy

Last month marks two years that I’ve been at my job as an Information Literacy Librarian, and I’ve spent some time recently reflecting on how much has changed. There are certainly more students on campus (as at many colleges and universities), which means more bodies in the library, more classes to teach, more questions at the reference desk. My work on several committees has introduced me to colleagues across the college and helped me settle in. I’m much more experienced now as a librarian and an educator, and my teaching reflects that, even as I keep working to improve each semester.

I think the biggest change is that over the past two years I have become much more zen about doing information literacy. In my first semester at my job I read as much as I could get my hands on about library and information literacy instruction: theories, methods, case studies, you name it. I concentrated on articles and books from the past decade or so, but I also read a few older sources like Breivik and Gee’s Information Literacy: Revolution in the Library (1989). I spent lots of time thinking about the best way to do information literacy at my place of work. Given the particular constraints of my library and college, how can we best reach all students? Which are the best strategies and plans for delivering IL: one-shots, many-shots, intensive collaboration with faculty in other departments, train the trainers, course-integrated, credit-bearing courses?

I still plan and strategize (hey, it’s part of my job), but what’s changed for me is that I’ve come to accept the multiplicity of options for information literacy instruction. Just like in so many situations, there isn’t one best way to do it. Methods for integrating IL into the curriculum will necessarily vary by discipline, course, and even student. On the one hand this can seem somewhat chaotic. I know that information literacy is a critical component of a college education, and the need for IL instruction can feel urgent. How can we use several different approaches at once? Won’t we lose focus? And what about the students? Wouldn’t they all benefit from the exact same kind of information literacy instruction?

But it’s important to be realistic. Students, faculty, and courses are different, and what works at one institution might not be feasible at another. Much in the higher ed, library, and information landscape has changed and will continue to change. With so many moving targets, our information literacy plans must be flexible and we must be willing to shift our strategies. Two years ago this seemed like uncertainty to me, but today it feels like a necessary part of my job, and one that I really enjoy. And isn’t one of the great things about being a librarian that it’s never boring?

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

7 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Information Literacy

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Maura! Never bored, always changing should be the academic library mantra. And my best teaching usually comes when I’m focused on *this* class, *this* group of students as they are *right now*.

  2. I’m glad you wrote this as it reflects on my teaching style as well. I started teaching IL about a year ago and overwhelmed myself with learning about different teaching strategies and styles of learning. Then I tried to cram an entire library course into the 50 minutes that I am usually alloted to teach the undergraduates.
    I have a general outline of what I want to cover, but now, like Marilyn says, I take my cues from the students. I find that focusing on what they need for their particular assignment works best and I have the students participate as much as possible.

  3. As a library school student and soon-to-be instruction librarian, I found your post very helpful (and soothing–good to know some flexibility is required). Would you say that any particular resource was especially useful, though?

  4. Great point, Marilyn and Amy, to focus our teaching on each individual group of students. I too have been guilty of the cramming it all in approach–it can be so difficult to restrain myself when I know that there are so many great resources that our students could be using.

    Megan, for me the resources that I highlight in a particular instruction session are usually determined by what the students in that class are working on. However, I have found that one resource I show in the majority of my sessions is…Wikipedia! I find that showing the one source that *all* students are familiar with tends to put them at ease, and it’s a great way to lead off a discussion about evaluating information and narrowing down research topics.

  5. The teaching mantra from ACRL mmersion:

    Less is more.

    Repeat three times for every hour that you spend preparing a class (OK, so *I* just made up that part!).

    Also, meditate on the fact that human attention span is about 15 minutes. If you don’t change your presentation method, or your focus, or something, you will almost certainly lose people. I find it interesting to keep track of that as I’m teaching (how much time did I spend talking, for instance, before I let them loose on actually *doing* something!). It can be pretty revealing!

    Thanks for a discussion-provoking post, Maura!

  6. AND consider this (which is something of a brag):

    I flew home to Maine from Seattle yesterday, and didn’t get into bed until 2 am EDT. I was awakened this morning by the phone around 10 am and learned that I needed to step into a class at 1 pm this afternoon. Since I hadn’t even done any of my morning get-out-of-bed things, I had WAY fewer than 4 hours to prep for a class. It was a first year English class, and I’d done many of them before, so I had materials and ideas from previous classes, but I still had to put it all together and then do it with very little advance warning and a faculty member with some pretty clear ideas of what was needed.

    Chaotic? Somewhat! Successful? Absolutely. I had my familiar pieces already; I just needed to pull together the most relevant ones and go from there, and give myself permission to vary what I did according to how it all went. Careful crafting had to go by the wayside.

    Trust yourself, trust your learners, trust your faculty. All three constituents want a class to be a success, so we’re all rooting for each other!

  7. That’s a good brag, Marilyn! I’ve been gradually pushing myself to prep less for my library sessions recently, too, esp. for Intro English Comp. Last night I did a class that went very differently from the standard “script” for these sessions and it was one of my most successful this semester. Less is more is a perfect mantra.

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