Gavia Libraria

How library-school curricula change

Previously the Loon listed the elements of library-school curricula as follows:

  • The totality of the coursework on offer (crossed, of course, with the frequency of offerings; a wonderful course taught only every five years is less than wonderful, as most students will have no opportunity to take it)
  • The actual content of that coursework, most commonly accessible via syllabi
  • The shape of degree requirements

When folk talk about changing—or even assessing—the curriculum, they usually mean either the first or the third possibilities. The Loon thinks this a mistake more often than not, for several reasons.

It’s tremendously easier to change the content of an existing course than to add a new course or make a course required (much less invent a required course from whole cloth). The Loon changes her courses’ content every single time she teaches them; she’s in the middle of that process right now, in fact, as she changes her plumage for fall.

The Loon’s classes are a patchwork. She steals topics, readings, and assignments shamelessly from other syllabi she reads (as others are welcome to steal from the BAE‘s), and she asks her network of librarians for ideas and priorities, mashing all of it up with her own (often idiosyncratic) sense of what’s important for students to know and be able to do. Because she knows her own weaknesses, the last step (especially for her intro courses) is a once-over to be sure she hasn’t wholly shortchanged any known or suspected course constituencies, often followed by a loonish grumble and some rearranging.

It’s all in flux. Always. Which makes it easy to affect. Just ask the Loon what she’s teaching about X. Oh! she thinks to herself, no matter what her actual answer is. X is important to people. Good to know. And she scribbles it into the running list of desiderata she keeps for each of her courses, lest she forget by the time syllabus-revision time rolls around. X has a way of making it into her next syllabus revision, somehow. Funny how that happens.

Mind, not everything makes it in. Not everything can. Fifteen weeks (eight, in summer) is an appallingly short time, and some of what people want is… well. Highly specific, occasionally even downright arcane, or so far out of the Loon’s experience (the Loon hardly being an omniscient or omni-experienced bird) that she knows she can’t do it justice. There will never not be gaps in library-school curricula, however one defines “gap” and “curriculum.” Never. Never ever.

The Loon’s syllabus-revision methods, which the Loon assures you are not unique to her, cast a certain pall over a very common research technique into library-school curricula: “count the course numbers.” The underlying assumption behind this research is that library schools only teach a topic if they dedicate an entire course to it. This is, bluntly, arrant nonsense. Library technology is one of the Loon’s bailiwicks. While teaching it, the Loon touches on reference, instruction (K-12, college-level, and the “techie instruction” often found in public libraries), cataloging and other modes of metadata creation and use, archiving (primarily digital, obviously), information-agency management (quite a lot of this, really), outreach, design… the list goes on, but the Loon is so sick of that syllabus just now, having spent one and a half weeks heavily revising it, that she doesn’t want to reopen it and look. Does the Loon’s school have a dedicated course on project management? No. Does that mean we don’t teach project management? Heavens no; the Loon has a positively merciless lecture or two on it, and she makes students use its techniques.

Moreover, “count the course numbers” inevitably underestimates the extent and speed at which novel tools, techniques, and concepts enter library-school curricula. With the Loon, novelty tends to turn up via normal syllabus churn. She added MOOCs to her lib-tech syllabus this fall, and Big Data privacy concerns, among other things. “Count the course numbers” won’t see that. Researchers: please add content analysis of syllabi to “count the course numbers” projects!

Novel topics deserving of semester-long courses don’t get their own course numbers right away. That’s not a library-school artifact, just a function of how curriculum bureaucracy churns in universities. Every library school, like any other academic department, has so-called “topics” courses on the books, usually at several levels within the curriculum, where new courses find their feet and make a case for themselves. At the Loon’s school, a course must be taught at least once and usually twice as a topics course before it can even try to run the red-tape gauntlet to get its own number. That’s two whole academic years, since new topics courses generally won’t make enrollment if taught any more often than once annually!

There is method to this madness. It cuts down on faddishness and foolish course proliferation; a course must prove it has staying power, attraction for students, and a steady supply of instructors before it enters the regular course rotation. It allows low-risk curricular experimentation, without which curricula would stagnate even more than they do (and yes, the Loon acknowledges they can and sometimes do). It allows library schools to capitalize on once-only chances at prominent or otherwise useful adjunct instructors (this is partly how the Loon got her start teaching). Unfortunately, the result when examined from outside is an apparent curricular stagnation that may or may not be the real story. Researchers: please be conscientious about examining the history of topics courses when doing “count the course numbers” projects! Yes, this makes your research harder to conduct, but that’s better than telling implicit untruths.

The Loon encourages would-be change agents with an idea for a new course to approach a school or two (local if possible; otherwise, a school with a distance program) with a syllabus (skeletal is fine) and an offer to teach it as a topics course. Schools will often nibble at the bait! Do a good job teaching it, and the school will notice and try to sort out how to keep the course on the books.

As for degree requirements, which encompass the so-called “core curriculum”… these change rarely and en masse because of daunting bureaucratic hurdles to changing them, both within and outside the library school itself. They are the worst possible place for a would-be change agent to start! Even good suggestions will have to wait years for implementation! Leave these alone. “The core” is shrinking anyway.

ALA accreditation, curiously, has less impact on library-school curricula than one might think. Accreditors are less “you must teach foo, bar, baz, and quux” dogmatic than “do you teach what you claim you’re teaching, and do you do so to an acceptable standard of quality?” pragmatic. The Loon thinks that’s wise, on the whole. Curricular experimentation needs to happen Darwinianly across schools, as well as within individual schools, and a heavy hand from ALA would largely prevent that. So complaining to ALA will be less helpful than change agents would wish.

Before tying up this fearfully lengthy post, the Loon wishes to offer two mild suggestions for would-be change agents. The first is to ditch the “core curriculum” mentality in favor of helping courses necessary to a given professional specialty earn permanent numbers and regular spots in course rotations, such that any student going through a program who needs that content has a reasonable opportunity to take a course on it. It’s a fight both more effective and easier to win.

The second is to agitate for better LIS advising. The Loon says this somewhat shamefacedly, as advising is the hardest work she does and she knows she isn’t as good at it as she’d like to be. Nothing reduces the voluble and opinionated Loon to open-beaked silence more effectively than a complex advising issue.

Library school advising easily falls victim to its own variant on union-card syndrome. We advisors have been accustomed to thinking that it doesn’t matter that much what mix of courses a student takes; they’ll still have the degree, and that’s what matters. The Loon is here to say it matters, and it’s very easy for students to make poor choices unguided.

Students don’t come in knowing the details of library job markets (e.g. “want to work in an academic library? without another advanced degree and a research-methods course, you’re disadvantaged”). They haven’t read the three-bajillion job ads we have. They sometimes have weirdly distorted ideas of “library stuff” or “archive stuff” that leads them to bypass courses they need to double down on coursework in odd and unuseful (relative to their specific goals) corners of the curriculum—and it must be said that some of the frothing agitation in the literature over library-school curricula (especially core curricula) leads them astray.

Even with the best possible advising, students will miss courses they should take and take courses they shouldn’t. They do have free will, changes of heart, schedule conflicts, union-card mentalities, and areas of ignorance or stubborn apathy. (The Loon is still kicking herself about not taking research methods, but her advisor isn’t to blame.) From what she hears from students and recently-graduated professionals, however, the state of LIS advising generally is quite poor—or at the very least has pockets of dire badness.

Agitating to change that, the Loon believes, will help many more students than whacking futilely at the “core curriculum.”

6 thoughts on “How library-school curricula change

  1. Lisa Hinchliffe

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that syllabi more than course descriptions tell the story of what is being taught (we’ll leave aside the question of what is being learned for the moment). So, perhaps one of your future posts can ask what it would take for LIS faculty to post their syllabi online and open. I’ve tried to do such a syllabi analysis but was stymied by faculty who would not share their syllabi – and I wasn’t even asking for it to be posted openly online, just for a copy to use in analysis.

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Oh, dear. This is indeed a problem.

      The Loon will ponder such a post. Thank you for the suggestion!

      1. Philip

        Sadly consistent with the rest of the profession, e.g. all of the library faculty who don’t archive their articles.

        1. LibraryLoon Post author

          Where “library faculty” includes both library-school faculty and librarians, yes.

  2. Steve Lawson

    I assume that for critics, researchers, and students (admitted and prospective), much of the frustration comes from a combination of Lisa Hinchliffe’s main point (faculty don’t share syllabuses) and the Loon’s main point (syllabuses change all the time for reasons practical and idiosyncratic). It’s hard to say anything for certain about a given school’s program if the faculty response amounts to “you can’t judge our program without seeing the syllabuses which we aren’t interested in sharing and which will be completely revised the next time we teach the course anyway.”

    It’s great that the Loon’s classes address reference, instruction, cataloging, etc. as a means of connecting technology to students’ interests. I think that’s vital. But one assumes that the Loon is not suggesting that a little reference and instruction here and there in a few courses is a reasonable replacement for an entire course on the subject? Or is she?

    1. LibraryLoon Post author

      Excellent question. Please forgive the Loon’s extremely rambly answer.

      Sometimes, especially early on in the life of a particular emerging specialty, a little here and there has to be enough. When the Loon first proposed a data-curation course, the school’s director bluntly and immediately asked her, “Where are the jobs?” At the time, they were there, but they were decidedly few. So the best the Loon could do was expose the topic in lib-tech. (She did succeed in launching the course—as a topics course, of course—a year after. With luck, it will at last get its number this academic year. The jobs are assuredly there now!)

      For some topics and techniques, sufficient repetition throughout the curriculum (and yes, “sufficient” is a weasel word) can take the place of a course. The Loon isn’t averse to the idea of a dedicated project-management course, for example, but she thinks it can be just as good to inculcate project-management techniques through ordinary group-project coursework, which every library school in creation has more than a sufficiency of. (One pro tip on this, which the Loon learned by initially messing it up: tell students that’s what they’re learning! They don’t necessarily know ab initio.)

      The Loon has found it a good idea to think in a highly meta fashion about building assignments around necessary techniques as well as necessary topics. She never assigns that musty relic of academia, the twenty-page research paper; even future academic librarians (who may legitimately need to write like that) will get plenty of those in other courses. She prefers to assign from the vigorous, sometimes messy communication forms of daily professional life: the job ad, the phone interview, the memo, the project plan (and all its component parts), the lesson plan, the data-curation profile, the book review, the pecha kucha (shorthand for job talks and other professional presentations). Insofar as certain professional practices reduce to these forms of communication, they can perhaps live without dedicated coursework (though admittedly, coverage can be spotty and remediation where it’s needed can be a severe problem).

      For irksome budgetary and scheduling reasons, it’s easier to launch and sustain a course when it has several student constituencies. Take management, for example. Different in public and academic and special libraries? Absolutely! Different enough that the topic could easily fracture into separate courses along those lines? Absolutely! Would three management courses, or even two, make it in most library schools? Absolutely not, especially in smaller schools. Dicey enrollment would result in immense scheduling headaches and unpredictability of offerings. Students would legitimately be frustrated at how seldom their management course could be offered. Many who would want their management course wouldn’t be able to take it, and would hate the other management course. The school wouldn’t be overjoyed either, as the courses would be automatically low-enrollment and so very expensive per student.

      So what you typically get instead are compromises like the Loon’s lib-tech course, that try to be a little bit of everything to almost everyone. Everyone will be interested some weeks, mildly (the Loon hopes) bored others. Now, such portmanteau courses can indeed fracture, if rising centrality to the profession, enrollment, and student clamor justify it. Instruction courses may be well on the way to that in some schools (not the Loon’s, not yet; that pesky enrollment problem again, such that the academic librarians need to share curriculum space with the school-media specialists, or we can’t afford to teach the course at all).

      The Loon keeps coming back around to advising with respect to that. If advisors know that instruction is turning up over and over again in public-service positions in academic libraries, they can light enough of a fire under their advisees to get the course the enrollment it needs to fracture successfully. If advisors know.

      The last variable the Loon wishes to mention is the range of skills and interests among permanent faculty and instructional staff. While short-term adjunct instructors are utterly vital to healthy, adaptable library schools, it’s worrisome and sometimes even sketchy to rely too much on them for numbered (rather than topics) courses. The Loon’s school probably wouldn’t have a data-curation course if it didn’t happen to have the Loon, and the course certainly wouldn’t be up for a permanent number if the Loon weren’t permanent staff. This is a curricular-change retardant—sometimes too much of one, especially in current reduced budgetary circumstances. As in any environment, the accumulation of deadwood among permanent (especially tenured) faculty and staff can be horribly prejudicial to a curriculum… and such deadwood, in the Loon’s opinion, is a wholly legitimate topic of challenge and inquiry from the information professions!

      The Loon is a Renaissance bird (or, less charitably, a magpie) as library-school instructors go, which all things considered probably increases her value to her environment. Only the very largest schools can afford to have every course on their books taught by a specialist in the subject. (If the Loon has a Potteresque boggart, it’s the spectre of running out of new, interesting, feasible teaching possibilities and becoming deadwood. Fortunately, she’s nowhere near that yet; if anything, she keeps stumbling over course ideas she has no time for!) What this means for those who want a particular course is that the easiest way to achieve it (especially in the absence of an available adjunct) may be poking around the permanent faculty/staff for someone with transferable skills or interests, and pitching the course to them. If nobody on the permanent staff has those skills or interests… the course is not likely to exist.

      (The Loon would utterly love a data visualization course on her school’s books. The Loon can’t teach data visualization. Neither can anybody else on the permanent faculty/staff. Therefore there won’t be one. QED. That’s partly why the Loon is looking at that data-science MOOC.)

      So the dance between changes in the profession and changes in curricula is… complex and hard to navigate. (How does one even design a course aimed at the Emerging Technology Librarian, for example? If anyone figures that one out, do please let the Loon know.) Constraints are tough to work around, as are entrenched chunks of curriculum representing entrenched people. The Loon’s hope is that the better she can explain the constraints, the procedures (including red tape!), and the possibilities, the more productive conversations around curricula will become.