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.”
- Another discourse change
- LIS and openness