Santa, The Easter Bunny And The Information Literacy Class

Here’s my quiz question for you. What do Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and an information literacy class all have in common? That’s right. They are all a figment of your imagination.

If you still believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny, well go right ahead. I don’t see any harm in it. But let me argue that there is no such thing as an information literacy class, and that futhermore, we do ourselves a disservice when using that terminology. “Information literacy class” implies that when students walk out the door they are information literate. After all, the students just sat through an academic librarian’s 50 to 90 minutes of information literacy instruction, so therefore they must now be information literate. Sounds kind of ridiculous doesn’t it. So why are so many academic librarians referring to their instruction time with students as information literacy classes? Does it sound more authoritative? Will it fool the accreditors? I just don’t get it, and this is about more than quibbling over semantics.

Here’s the disservice part. No student becomes information literate in a single class or a few classes or even a semester of exposure to information literacy classes. When we promote what is really a single instruction event to faculty as an information literacy class we perpetuate the myth that students can become information literate in a single class. It’s then no surprise to hear faculty asking why librarians need to come to the sophomore writing courses. “But you gave them your information literacy class when they took the freshman introduction to writing seminar. They’re information literate now, right.”

Wrong. Information literacy is a program or initiative created and implemented by a team of academic librarians in collaboration with faculty and administrators. Whether you design it to be compartmentalized or distributed, it is intended to be tiered and delivered across the curriculum. There should be stated outcomes and a plan for assessing whether those outcomes are achieved. And information literacy should be designed to create long-term change in the affective domain. That is the learning domain where values are shaped over many years. Value systems are unchanged in the short term, and certainly not in a single class. Learning experts tell us that creating a shift in a student’s value system is a long-term proposition. Veteran information literacy librarians know it can take years for undergraduates to internalize those qualities that define being information literate. So let’s not delude ourselves or anyone on our campuses that there is such a thing as an information literacy class.

Call those classes what they are – library instruction sessions – research instruction sessions – or research skills sessions. But do make it clear to your faculty and administrators that the sessions are where the rubber of your information literacy initiative meets the road. It is within those sessions that specific articulated objectives, each connected in some small way to a much larger outcome, help students develop the research skills and values that over time and in a cumulative fashion will have them leaving your institution as information literate lifelong learners.

The information literacy class? It’s time we get a grip on reality and realize it doesn’t exist.

14 thoughts on “Santa, The Easter Bunny And The Information Literacy Class”

  1. Your point about information literacy being a process rather than a toolbox is a valid one. However, claiming that there is no such thing as an information literacy class is, well, fairly silly. I’m fairly sure that no faculty member who teaches a class called “Shakespeare” expects his or her students to finish the semester and expert in all of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and all of the theory around his works. Universities include classes called “Western civilization” or “Calculus”, and neither are those classes intended to do anything more than introduce students to the ideas of the field, and get them started learning how to find out more.

    If you’d like to change the whole naming scheme of university classes, you could probably find some advocates. After all, plenty of undergraduates think they are experts in “Western civilization” just because they took the survey class. But there is nothing unique about information literacy here.

  2. i understand your point, steven, but like deborah, i disagree.

    each year, for fifteen straight weeks, i teach “intro to media studies” but when the semester is over i am not under the impression that my students, mostly first years, understand the history of media, its political economy, social aspects, cultural dimensions, etc.

    what about naming the sessions “towards information literacy”?

  3. Ouch. Though I follow your argument to a point, and understand that we don’t churn out information literate students in a few brief sessions, there is the attempt to instill the concept and idea of information literacy.

    Perhaps we get too attached to naming conventions? In my 1-unit “Information Literacy” class, I am fairly certain that students are meeting my student learning outcomes (which don’t mention information literacy by name).

    Thanks for the post Steven.

  4. Strangely enough, in my library we still call them “BIs” – though not with faculty outside our department. With them we usually say “library session” or “library workshop” – more naming the place than the outcome.

  5. I see two basic possibilities here. On the one hand, we may have an audience that doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about what, exactly, we do in library instruction sessions. On the other hand there may be librarians implying something more to the sessions than what they actually are. The reality probably falls somewhere in between.

    In both cases, there is a failure (or, to be more positive, an and facult”opportunity”) on our part to properly calibrate our audience about what to expect. If they don’t understand, then we need to explain. If they don’t care, then we should be making them care. If we overstate the outcomes, then we should dial it back.

    Still, where I lose the plot is the focus on the terminology: I find it hard to make the case that the words are at fault – whether its “information literacy” or “library instruction,” it’s what we market to the users that matters.

  6. I see the point to some of the critical comments above. However, Deborah’s analogy of a professor teaching “Shakespeare,” with the realization that students do not exit that class with all the knowledge of Shakespeare, is a bit mis-directed. I think that a lot of professors think that the library is merely a repository of information, and that concepts taught in the library are relatively simple: I do realize that not every professor thinks this way. I also get the impression, from the syllabi that I have seen from undergraduate classes, that instructors view the library as ‘simple’ to use. This generally comes from the perspective of tenured faculty who have been using the same resources for the past 20 years.

  7. Let me respond to what I thought were some apples to oranges comparisons. Granted that we don’t expect students to be experts at anything in a single course, I think you take my points out of context when you compare a 15 week course to a 50-minute instruction class. First, some of those courses will serve as the foundation for students who take a sequence of similar courses, be it Intros to Shakespeare or Mass Media. Second, I think you’d agree that even a single course is likely to have more impact on a student’s education than a single session. Again the point is what the concept of the “information literacy class” implies. Also, most of the IL classes are taught as awkward appendages to other course content – they aren’t even a part of some larger general education curriculum as are courses on Western Civilization or quantitative reasoning.

    What also concerns me, and I didn’t touch on this in the post, is that you often find academic libraries using “information literacy class” terminology in the complete absence of an information literacy initiative. That is, there is no IL plan, no collaboration with faculty, no outcomes, etc. – it’s basically bibliographic instruction being sold as information literacy. So not only is it false advertising, but that’s a perfect case of a non-existant information literacy initiative. But even when there is an initiative, an information literacy class still doesn’t make any sense – you can’t achieve information literacy in a class.

    Finally, what you call things can make a difference. It can communicate something important to people. And it can be used to fool people as well. Here’s an example: (from a NYT article from June 13, 2007) Mario Batali scattered organ meat across the menu and presaged the lardo pizza he would serve at Otto with lardo bruschetta, though he didn’t have the nerve to call it that. He told diners that the toasted bread was covered in prosciutto bianco, or white prosciutto, a nonsense term he coined to disguise the truth. “I knew that they wouldn’t eat it if I just said, ‘This is the fat of a pig melted onto toast,’ said Batali. So if you call something an “information literacy class” some people may actually believe that a student who sits through it will be information literate.

  8. To my ear, “information literacy” sounds like the same kind of pseudo-techno-prosciutto-bianco coinage as “bibliographic instruction.” What does either term mean to students?

    Why not call a class visit, “Help with Your Research Paper.” While giving that help, the visiting librarian will certainly be promoting info lit values (evaluating sources and so on).

    But StevenB’s larger point that information literacy cannot be taught in a single session, is really helpful to keep in mind: it’s salutary for librarians and for students.

  9. While agreeing with your concern about the implications, I feel that your overall rhetoric is both disparaging to library efforts to integrate with curricula, and written largely for effect. You’ve claimed, for instance, that comparing 50-minute sessions with a full semester course is apples-to-oranges, as the full-length course often serves as foundation to a more extensive education. In fact, *any* single session, any course, any text – even a library’s worth of text on a topic, cannot hope to be comprehensive. The scope of a resource of any kind is defined (one would hope) by its author.

    I feel that the real issue is one of definition (as provided by the teaching librarian) and education: educators should learn about components of information literacy and integrate them into coursework. This is hardly news to librarians.

    It is correct to call a single session a ‘class’ in whatever the topic of instruction might be. We may differentiate between skill levels (e.g., ‘Beginning PubMed,’ ‘Intermediate Knitting’) or carve out meaning by identifying particular applications (e.g., ‘Pubmed for Laypeople,’ ‘Library Databases for LIS Doctoral-Level Research’) and yet, each could potentially find its place in a far larger universe of knowledge… It is the responsibility of the educator for each to clearly delineate the class objectives. There is not a single, generic ‘Information Literacy’ class – therefore, it is not logical for you to make claims about their intent.

    When you say:

    ‘When we promote what is really a single instruction event to faculty as an information literacy class we perpetuate the myth that students can become information literate in a single class.’

    you’ve skipped handily over all the work that’s been done to connect to educators who did not formerly (and often, still do not) see the need for such training at all.

  10. StevenB, I would never call one of my classes an information literacy class. It would be like saying that after one class on learning to write you are good at writing. Like writing, information literacy is a process that is not linear but recursive and it does take time to acquire many of the skills we associate with information literacy. Normally I refer to my classes as “library instruction sessions” or “workshops.” I really dislike “bibliographic instruction” because it is too library-centric and outdated. Of course, given the amount of content one sees in the ACRL standards, it would be silly to think we could teach all that in a one-shot session. It’s hard enough to do it in a 1-3 credit class devoted to information literacy.

  11. StevenB, I love your blog entry. One of the skills requirements to be taught in all Gen. Ed. courses at our university is “To locate, evaluate, and use information effectively.” I am a member of our Gen. Ed. Subcommittee, and I just sent a copy of your blog entry to all the other members with a note that says: “I think it is a good explanation of why information literacy is a Gen. Ed. skills objective.” I was on the Subcommittee when we fought to get this skill included. It needed a lot of defense then (in 1999) but needs little now. We have an information literacy initiative via Gen. Ed., and it is assessed. It is not taught only by the librarians, since we don’t have enough of them, but I would say it is led by the librarians. It’s not a perfect program, but it’s better than it was, and we’re still working on it. Your blog entry, however, came through loud and clear to me.

  12. Познавательная тема, продолжайте. Иногда нахожу ответы, которые получить самому просто не хватает времени. Спасибо!

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