The other day, I got an e-mail from a reader of my blog: “You mentioned in one of your more recent posts that you’ve learned what works and what doesn’t in “selling” information literacy to faculty. Could you elaborate? I suspect that I will have to be doing a lot of that in the near future.”

Your timing really couldn’t be better in asking that question. After almost a year in my job trying to sell information literacy to the online graduate faculty and administrators, I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere. This week I met with two separate program directors and we actually went through their curriculum — syllabus by syllabus, assignment by assignment — and picked out where information literacy modules could be integrated into the curriculum and how some assignments could be tweaked to assess what students had learned in the module. I’ve had other positive conversations about information literacy with faculty who were vehemently against it just months ago. Over the past month, I’ve really started to feel like I’ve broken through some invisible wall. But it took a whole lot of trial and error (mostly error) to get to this point. I sure am happy to have made such progress!

My library hadn’t done much with information literacy before I got there beyond the occasional English 101 class (which rarely tied information literacy instruction to an assignment) and a few other classes that had interested professors. The big thing my director mentioned when I was interviewing for the job was the importance of integrating information literacy into the curricula of the online graduate programs. When I started my job, I never got training, mentoring or advice from my colleagues or superiors. I hadn’t even taken a class on instruction in grad school. So I really jumped into this “blind”, which makes me feel less badly about the rookie mistakes I made along the way. I still really wish I had an “information literacy mentor” who could teach me how to better market information literacy and teach it in the online medium.

Here are some observations I’ve made regarding selling information literacy to faculty. Keep in mind that I am working with distance learning graduate programs, so it’s a pretty unique population, and that my school may be unique in some respects as well.

  1. Be around. It’s much easier to sell something in person than via e-mail or the phone. Therefore, the more you’re around faculty and administrators, the more likely it is that they will be receptive to your ideas. The graduate program is actually clear on the other side of town, so I don’t often run into distance faculty on campus. The biggest mistake I made initially was not regularly attending their twice monthly meetings, because they so often forgot about the library when making decisions and didn’t think about how I could help them with certain projects. Since I started attending the twice-monthly graduate school meetings, communications with the graduate programs has markedly improved. It’s great, because as I hear about issues in the programs at meetings, I can make suggestions on how the library can help them with those problems. It also keeps me on their radar and makes them think of me as part of the team.
  2. Be relentless. Similar to being around is not giving up. I have had so many experiences that have made me want to bang my head against the wall. I have created tutorials for programs that have asked me for them, only to have them make the tutorials non-required and buried in WebCT (yeah, that’s useful!). I had a faculty member argue with me over the whole idea of information literacy saying that “failure is the best motivator” for students. I have not let it stop me. When one approach doesn’t work, I try something new. There are people I talked to about information literacy instruction almost a year ago who were totally against the idea, but now they’ve totally changed their tune. Sometimes it just takes time or new approaches. Beware that there is a fine line between being relentless and being just plain annoying. You don’t want to sound like a broken record or seem like a stalker.
  3. Find a “hook.” Each person you work with will respond to your marketing approaches differently. Each person has their own biases about information literacy instruction. I did a survey of distance faculty and found that many faculty members were concerned about information literacy instruction taking up too much time in a program that was already overpacked with content. Others worried about losing control over some of their curriculum and didn’t want some librarian teaching anything in their class. Like I said previously, there are some people who just don’t think we should teach this stuff at all and/or that failure will motivate students to do better research (ummm… yeah… ok). On the other hand, you have some faculty members and administrators who are heavy users or the library or are really concerned about the research skills of their students. For some people, information literacy is an easy sell. The trick is getting to know faculty and administrators well enough to figure out what will work to “sell” information literacy to them. For a lot of people, explaining to them that information literacy instruction need not be intrusive in their class and can be tied to an already existing assignment is all they need to be convinced. Other people want to be actively involved in determining what the tutorial will look like and how it will be integrated into the course. Some people need to see hard evidence that their students are struggling or concrete examples of successful online tutorials. For some people, the only thing that will convince them is letting them know that our academic accreditation body requires information literacy to be taught and assessed. Get to know the faculty you want to work with so you will know how to cultivate a collaborative relationship with them. There is definitely no one-size-fits-all approach.
  4. Focus on the “easy” folks. There are likely already some faculty members who are very concerned about the research skills of their students and are open to working with the library for the benefit their students. These people can be your “in” into working with a department. I first started working with one program after the program director told me how surprised he was that none of his graduate-level students knew what a “peer-reviewed article” was. I parlayed that into a discussion about the possibility of the library developing instructional online tutorials for his program. Then I used what I’d created for his program to show other program directors and faculty members what was possible. Sometimes it just takes one person to really get things going. Figure out which people would be “easy sells” and focus your energies on them initially.
  5. Use concrete evidence and good examples. There’s nothing like being faced with empirical evidence to change a person’s mind. When I did a survey of graduate school faculty, I found evidence that a very small percentage of faculty teach research skills, but that almost all faculty members assume that students should already have sufficient research skills to succeed in graduate school. I provided that evidence and other related findings to the graduate program administrators, many of whom were surprised by the findings and wanted to do something about it. I can say what I’ve noticed anecdotally until the cows come home, but empirical evidence is harder to argue with. Recently, I sent a director of one of the graduate programs the text of an e-mail I had sent a student in response to her research question about how to use the online library resources to find articles on a specific topic. Along with the e-mail text, I explained to him that I answer questions like this all the time, and it would make much more sense to have research instruction integrated into the curriculum rather than hoping to reach each student individually by waiting for them to ask a reference question. A few minutes after sending this, I received an e-mail from him, agreeing that a tutorial would be very helpful to his students. This was someone who had been always been lukewarm about information literacy (and even having his students use library databases) all along, so my evidence prompted a huge reversal. Another way to sell information literacy is to show faculty members the instructional materials you’ve created for other programs and to also show any related data (satisfaction surveys, use data, grade data, etc.) that might show the materials to have been beneficial.
  6. Know what the information literate graduate should look like in each program. This may be more necessary when dealing with graduate programs than when dealing with undergrads, who probably should all be taught certain basic research skills. I work with a wide variety of masters-level programs; from practical programs like MBA, Civil Engineering, and Nursing to more scholarly programs like Diplomacy and Military History. Clearly, the sort of research that one would do in an MBA program is very different from the sort of research one would do in a military history program. It’s important when discussing information literacy with faculty that you understand what sort of research skills a successful student should have by the end of their program. Skills an MBA should have include the ability to do market research and the ability to easily find relevant company and industry information. They probably don’t need to be taught about how to do scholarly research and how to choose a research topic as one would in a military history program. So you need to come into a discussion with faculty members with a clear understanding of the curriculum and what sort of research students in the program do. Your approach really needs to be tailored to the curriculum. Read the syllabi of their courses and understand the program requirements. The more you know about the program, the more credibility you will have with the faculty.

So I think I’m in a good place now as far as selling information literacy goes. The Dean of the School of Graduate Studies strongly supports information literacy instruction. Some faculty are really interested in working with me on instructional materials. But I’ve still got a long way to go. “Selling” information literacy is only part one of the process. After that you’ve still got to figure out how to integrate information literacy into the curriculum and how to develop effective tutorials (which is obviously an iterative process). But when I look back on how little I knew one year ago, I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot.

Clearly, there are more “to do’s” and “don’t do’s” that I could add to this list, but I’d love to see some more experienced folks add their two-cents on how to sell information literacy to faculty and administrators. Comment away! 🙂