By Meredith Farkas | June 30, 2012
When I was at Norwich, my focus was often on increasing our instruction stats. My Director wanted to see us doing more instruction and being in at least two classes in every department (in addition to reaching every student through EN 101). Not bad goals at all, but over time, I realized that the focus on quantity was getting in the way of the focus on quality. I was teaching so many history classes that some students saw me a gazillion times in a year. And the quantity of teaching was getting in the way of improving what we were teaching. We ended up making some great changes to our EN 101 program in my last year at Norwich; moving from a lecture model to something more constructivist where we focused only on three basic learning outcomes. Over time, I really started to feel like the quality of what we provided was far more important than the quantity, and that providing one really great information literacy instruction session to a student was better than three mediocre ones.
Now that I’m at a huge institution where we are understaffed, I am again thinking about quality over quantity. We are more than likely never going to be able to reach every student at PSU with an info lit session. And, at the same time, many of us at the library are questioning the efficacy of the one-shot. We do lots and lots of one-shots in an attempt to reach as many students as possible, but is this really going to have the largest impact? But if not that, what? Train the trainer? Learning objects? Co-teaching? What about credit courses?
A faculty member outside of the library gave me the idea of having librarians offer subject-specific credit research classes in the Junior Clusters. The clusters are kind of like distribution requirements. Nearly all Juniors are required to choose a theme and then take classes (offered in various departments) that are part of that theme. The theme may be related to their major and may not. So the library could offer junior-level research-focused classes in gender studies, environmental studies, American studies, etc. that interested students would opt-into. The library could then work with those those students interested in improving their research skills over the course of a quarter, covering far more than we would be able to cover even if we were embedded in several courses in a discipline.
This isn’t something my colleagues would go for because, with our staffing, it would be an either/or proposition; either focus on instruction in your liaison areas or focus on teaching credit classes. Given the strong liaison relationships my colleagues have developed with their departments, it’s a non-starter. And I feel similarly about my own liaison area and wouldn’t want to give up my instructional role within it. Still, I found the concept a very seductive one. What if we focused on providing in-depth research instruction through for-credit classes at the junior-level? Students are at a place where their research assignments are becoming more demanding and are usually receptive to learning how to improve their research skills (they don’t think they’re experts like Freshmen often do). It’s exciting to imagine being able to teach all of our library instruction program learning outcomes in a single course, since most of us don’t even cover all of them in a discipline, and being able to work with students throughout the term. We could deeply benefit those who are interested in benefitting and serve others through instruction at the reference desk, Freshman instruction and learning objects.
I never found the idea of for-credit classes appealing in my last job, but we really could reach every student at Norwich with library instruction through EN 101. At an institution where 2/3 of our students start out as juniors (mostly from community colleges), there is no catchall class. While it’s still important to focus on Freshman instruction to improve retention (at least we hope we are contributing to retention), it can’t be our primary focus like it is at many institutions. There’s no one obvious route for us to ensure that all of the students at PSU are information literate, so we make lots of efforts in lots of different places. And it’s so difficult to build on anything we’ve taught at the lower levels because, for some students, it’s the first time they’ve had library instruction.
I’m wondering if other people struggle with the broad vs. deep question. Do you strive to reach every student even when you know the baseline instruction they are getting is less than what they need to be successful in academia and in life? Or do you focus on providing in-depth instruction to those who choose to receive it, ensuring that those students have the information skills needed to be successful in the 21st century? You won’t reach everyone, but you’ll reach the people who want your help. And isn’t a big part of information literacy (and general success in life) knowing when to seek help? There are no easy answers to these questions; I’m just curious how other people are handling it — especially those at human resource-constrained libraries.