Teaching a Credit-Bearing Class

Authorize this

Our zine “textbook”

This semester I’ve been co-teaching a credit-bearing class called The Politics of Information.  The class is about how gender, race, class, and other subject positions relate to information, and we’ve been talking a lot about the idea of authority–what authorizes someone to access, use, or create information?

I’m teaching the class with my fellow instruction librarian, Andrew Battista, and we themed each week around a different issue: social media and political activism, the digital divide, the cycle of power/publication in academia, government surveillance, and more.  It’s been a great experience so far–we have complete creative freedom with the course, it’s helped us engage that elusive fifth ACRL IL Standard, and I’ve found that the ongoing discussion in this class has informed and enhanced my traditional library instruction.

Creative Freedom, or, Sneaking in the Back Door

In order to get this class on the books, we had to teach it as a one-credit 300-level honors course.  There was nowhere else where the weirdo librarians would fit!  Because of this, we didn’t get many students–a lot of students don’t want to take a one credit course, we have a pretty hefty gen ed curriculum that limits non-major electives, and we were limited to a small pool of honors students.  But, now that we’re in the door, it might lead to bigger things.  My institution is in the process of revising its gen ed curriculum, and they created a new category where an IL course (and other random things like exercise-based kinesiology classes and personal finance classes) would fit.  To me it’s not ideal that we’re in the “random” category  (they’re calling it “life skills”), but hey–A) what’s in a name, and B) Gen Ed is power.  Like we’ve been talking about in class, sometimes there’s power in sneaking into the mainstream (And then subverting it.  And then starting the revolution).  Now we have an example we can point to when it comes time to put IL classes on the books in future semesters.

I’m glad that we’re developing a class that isn’t your classic “research skills” credit-bearing class.  While students are practicing research skills using both library and non-library resources, they are first and foremost critically engaging with what it means to create and access information in society today.

The Elusive Fifth ACRL IL Standard and Connections to Traditional Library Instruction

When I develop SLOs for my traditional one- or two-shot library instruction sessions, I’m more likely to engage ACRL Standards 1, 2, and 3.  These are the Standards that relate to the type of “just in time” course-integrated instruction that I design to support a specific research assignment.  They address finding background information, developing an effective search, and evaluating sources.  They’re doable in the 50 or 75 minute chunks of time I get with students.  I always think of Standard 4 as something that comes more from the process of integrating research with original thought to write a paper or design a presentation–but Standard 5!  It’s the most exciting one, and there is never, ever time to address it in a one-shot, at least not in a way where students truly engage with economic, legal, or social issues related to information.  A lecture on plagiarism just doesn’t count.

In this class, though, we’re spending the entire semester talking about how social issues relate to information.  Students have written about current net neutrality issues, the state of K-12 education, and how their peers are using social media to effect local change.  I can’t wait to see what discussions we have during the rest of the semester.

So while I’m teaching this class once a week with Andrew, I’m also keeping up with my normal library instruction sessions.  But I’m finding that I feel a little differently about them.  For example, earlier this semester during a discussion of how to evaluate web sources, I was having English 101 students list ways they tell if a site is quality.  One of the students said something along the lines of “if it shows up high on the list in a Google search, it’s good.”  Normally I might have responded with something about Google’s complex algorithm and how a site’s ranking on a Google list isn’t the end-all be-all.  But this time I had a fun story about how Google made Rap Genius Disappear, because I had just run across the article on Twitter and added it to our syllabus.  It was a much more concrete and engaging example of Google’s power to control website visibility than talking about math voodoo.

Teaching this class is also making me think about ways traditional IL instruction could look different.  Last week was one of our designated days for the students to pick the topic and the readings, and our class leaders chose to talk about the K-12 education system and issues of education as “information dump” vs. education for critical thinking skills.  One of the articles they selected was on digital natives, and we had a great discussion in class on what skills they thought they had (or didn’t have) and what it meant to be called (or assumed to be) digital natives.  We talked a lot about whether “digital natives” have an innate ability to evaluate online information.

I often have students in English Composition IL instruction classes make a list of strategies they already use to evaluate information online.  Sometimes I’ll have them apply that list to a website, or we’ll talk about how some of those criteria can be applied to academic journal articles.  It’s usually a successful activity, but talking about digital natives with my class made me think, what if I had English Comp students read a short piece about digital natives in class and then do the website evaluation strategy list?  Instead of being just a list, it would connect to issues that matter in higher education and (potentially) to the identity of the students.  I’m going to try this out with an English 102 class on Thursday.


@DigitalCarrie asked me on the Twitterzzz how non-library faculty were responding to the course, which is something I hadn’t thought to consider.  As the weeks go on, I’m finding that the “usual suspects” are interested in how it’s going–profs who are already heavily involved with the library and our IL program on campus.  Which is great!  It’s been nice to have discussions with them about teaching.  But I think we’re not on the radar of many profs, probably because of the “back door” aspect of the course that I discussed earlier.  But that’s fine.  I think this course has momentum.

The other aspect I’ll be keeping my eye on is our student response.  So far it’s been pretty good, but I do get the impression that they think we’re doing something weird–which we are!  We’re trying to!  One of the most surprising aspects for them so far, I think, has been our personas as instructors.  I’ve told some stories about myself in class, we made a zine to use as a “textbook,” and I’ve written some righteous rants on the course blog about gender, power, academia, and information, and I don’t think they’re used to professors being so…raw.  But it’s all been for a reason.  We’re using feminist pedagogy–decentering power in the classroom, encouraging students to talk about their experience, discussing issues of gender, race, and class, and using a multiplicity of viewpoints for our class texts.  So it should feel a little different for students.  We’ll see how it goes!