A Dear John Letter to the Standards

Dear Standards,

I will never forget the day we met, in one of my favorite library school classes.  You were a little standoffish, a little cold.  It took some time to really get to know you, but once I did, I loved you.

Remember my library instruction practicum?  I would write out lesson plans so carefully, and you would help me develop student learning outcomes that made sense for each class.  You gave me confidence as I faced those first classes, still a student myself, and taught them about research.  You helped me realize how important it was to give students quality, intentional information literacy instruction.  You helped me choose this as my life’s work.

When I started my first library job, you challenged me.  I had freedom to be creative in the classroom, so I tried to develop instruction that kept students active and encouraged them to envision themselves as capable researchers.  You were there for me, reminding me to ground my creative methods in student learning outcomes that I could assess and use to show the worth of my classroom practices.  I think that is what I loved most about you, that you were always so focused on the students.  You truly wanted them to be information literate, and you were so thorough in the ways you thought about skills that would help them get there.

There was always something new to discover about you.  On the surface, you seemed so no-nonsense, so straightforward, but underneath there was so much more.  You cared about the social implications of information use, and you wanted to explore ways of thinking, researching, and creating that went beyond what’s traditionally accepted in academia.

But it seemed like there was never enough time.  You were so intent on skills, and so intent on order.  I felt like you were holding me back.  I felt like your insistence on skills-based instruction made it hard for subject faculty to see me as a real teacher or want to collaborate.  I felt like the language you used to describe information literacy instruction put extreme limits on my ability to make any kind of meaningful impact on student learning and curriculum development.  And it was so frustrating, because I knew that deep down, you cared about more than just skills.

Despite all of that, I thought we could still make it work, even though I knew things would never be perfect.  Reading about critical information literacy helped me see how I could actually use your shortcomings to strengthen and invigorate my teaching.  I started engaging in conversations about feminist and critical pedagogies in library instruction.  I developed classroom methods that destabilized the power relationship between me as a teacher and my students.  I taught in ways that foregrounded students’ voices and experiences, encouraging them to recognize the value of what they already knew and apply it to the new realm of academic conversations.  I asked students to engage with social justice topics and create new information for a broad online audience.

When I was teaching like this, I was so happy.  I could see students light up in ways I never had before.  But you were always there, telling me to be neutral.  Telling me I shouldn’t do anything more than show students where to point and click.  And it was the way you told me these things that was so crippling.  You wouldn’t actually say it yourself, you would have others say it for you.  Subject faculty, administrators, even other librarians.  Subject faculty would say it for you with the types of class requests they made.  Or with the round of lackluster applause they led at the end of class, clammy claps telling me I was a performer, not a teacher.  Administrators would say it for you with red tape around proposals for credit-bearing IL classes, or with weak justifications for a low salary.  But when you had other librarians say it, that was the worst.  You know what they said, I don’t have to repeat it.

This went on for a long time.  You made me question the worth of my chosen profession, you made me doubt myself as an educator.  You made me wonder if I should bail before it was too late.  I don’t deserve to feel like this.

So what I want to tell you, Standards, is that we’re through.  I’ve found something new.  It’s called the Framework.

I’m leaving you for the Framework because it’s flexible.  It doesn’t insist on teaching information literacy as a linear series of steps.  It realizes that learners enter the process of research at different points, depending on their past experiences and the type of questions they’re asking.  And it leaves room for change and growth, both in terms of emerging technologies and student needs.  You wanted so badly for everything to stay the same.

The Framework isn’t afraid to shout from the rooftops that it is absolutely imperative to engage with information that’s produced collaboratively in online spaces–information that refuses to mirror traditional academic sources.  This is the type of information that students have been using and creating in their everyday lives for awhile now, and there is so much power in helping them see an academic application for it.  I never understood why it was so hard for you to see that.

The Framework imagines teaching information literacy as leading students through a doorway.  That sounds a lot nicer than the assembly line you had them on.  I bet this really stings, too, because you were so concerned with student learning.  The big difference with the Framework is that once students cross the threshold, they can never go back.  They’ve learned a big concept, like how scholarship is like a conversation, or how the authority of a source is always different based on what they’re going to use it for.  That’s a lot more valuable than teaching students to revere the authority of an academic journal article, or showing them the steps to go through to locate an article citation from a bibliography.  Students still have to learn specific skills, of course, but these skills are much more likely to be remembered and practiced when they’re learned in the context of thinking critically about a meaningful concept.

I know things won’t be perfect with the Framework, either.  I know things won’t change overnight.  But I also know that things will be a lot better, because the Framework inspires me.  It’s been a really long time since I was inspired by you, Standards.  Most of all, the Framework gives me language to express the potential for information literacy instruction to subject faculty, administrators, and my fellow librarians–language I hope will help me make a positive, large-scale impact on student learning throughout my career.

I will think of you often, Standards.  I will remember the ways you inspired me and built my confidence when I was just starting out.  I will use innovative teaching methods forged through my frustration with you.  I might hear your whispers when I develop learning outcomes geared toward the unique attributes of students where I teach.  But I will not go back.

Love always,