All blessings to the librarians

My institution just spent five years redesigning its Liberal Arts core curriculum.  I had no small role in this project, but increasingly what I find myself grateful for are the contributions of those colleagues on the committee who weren't primarily classroom instructors.  Most of all, I'm grateful we had our head librarian involved.

She was adamant that information literacy needed to be a key component of undergraduate education. She advocated tirelessly until it became one of the seven outcomes of our core, and she made sure it was addressed across the entire university curriculum in countless assignments and projects. She and her staff also designed, piloted and implemented an embedded librarian program in the first-year seminar and in select courses beyond the first year.  They also provided support and faculty development opportunities.

In an age when some have come to question the cost and even the necessity of university libraries, ours has become more vital to the classroom and more closely allied to delivery of the curriculum.  Indeed, our librarians have helped me to think differently about how and what I teach.

Here's just one example.

In the spring section of Humanities 102, I do a unit on the 18th century debate about progress. Students read Condorcet's On the Future Progress of Mankind, the Third Voyage of Gulliver's Travels and Jefferson's Letter to Roger Weightman.   I also have them watch a Ted Talk of Sherry Turkle on what 24/7 digital connectivity is doing to us. The aim of the unit is to get students to see that the debate over progress is a legacy of the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Progress just wasn't an issue for Dante or Shakespeare like it was for Swift and Jefferson (and still is for us).

I usually have the students vote on who was right: the optimistic Condorcet and Jefferson, or the pessimistic Swift?  But this year, with information literacy on my mind, I tried something new. Instead of simply discussing Condorcet's predictions of increased universal education and gender equality (or Jefferson's prediction of the diminishment of "monkish superstition"), I had students pull out their Smartphones and fact check the claims.  Our reference librarian even provided me with a list of source assessment criteria that could be put on a wallet-sized laminated card:
  • Who is the author? Do they have credentials? Unknown authors should make you question the information.
  • Is there an organization or institution that helps make this information available? Make sure you know the source of the information. Don't blindly accept information because it sounds right. If the info is from a research arm of the federal government, that’s good. If it’s from some guy named Joe Smith who has no credentials or background in this topic, that’s bad.
  • How old is the information?  The more recent the better.  Older information often may be irrelevant since new research may disprove it.
  • Are there signs of heavy bias? The information should be presented neutrally, not with language that is trying to be overly persuasive or emotional.
  • Are there works cited or references? Usually an author or institution will tell you more about their overall work and provide you with other sources to corroborate this information.
  • Why is this information being presented? This ties into bias, but you should know why the information is there in the first place. Authors will not simply give you info out of the kindness of their heart. They want to make a point or strengthen an argument. Make sure the reason it’s there is actually a good one.
In class I asked students to list four 18th century claims about the future in the left-hand margin of a page and then go to work finding reliable sources or current statistics that would prove or disprove the prediction. These they listed on the right-hand margin of the page across from the claim.  Then they had to come to a group consensus and give the authors a score on the accuracy of their predictions. 

What I liked about the exercise was the way the researched information changed students' initial responses.  Most, for example, began in agreement that Condorcet had been right in his prediction of universal education and a more gender equal society.  After 30 minutes of in-class research, their responses became more nuanced. He may have been right in a narrow sense and then only in certain parts of the world.  In a larger sense, he was wrong or at least (in a nod to Martin Luther King) the arc of history is indeed very long.  If it does bend toward justice, that bend is achingly slow. This little in-class exercise, in other words, opened a few eyes and made our staged classroom debate over progress richer and less a matter of uninformed opinion or sentiment. 

Better still, it gave the students a head start on the independent research they needed for the unit synthesis paper in which they were to stake out a position on progress that integrated both 18th century and modern perspectives.  It also gave them another chance to begin thinking about the importance of reliable information for answering relevant questions. I was pleased with how this worked and would love to take credit for it, but the real credit goes to our library staff, who has kindly, patiently and cheerfully made me a better educator.  

Bless them.


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