For the future of library education, watch today’s “topics” courses
I’m celebrating this week: after three years of teaching it, my Digital Curation course has at last graduated to the dignity of its very own course number! Welcome to the world, LIS 668!
When I first suggested the course to the formidable Louise Robbins, then director of SLIS at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she immediately shot back, “Where are the jobs, Dorothea?” Louise always has had a pragmatic sense of mission! It wasn’t nearly as easy to find apropos job listings then as it is now, but I dug up a few, so Louise agreed to let me pilot the course in spring 2011 under one of SLIS’s generic “topics” numbers. Two more years of repetitions, an SLIS Curriculum Committee meeting, and a great deal of non-SLIS red tape later, the course is now an accepted, expected part of our curriculum.
This is not an unusual story, not at all. Scratch a library school—any library school—and you’ll find a curriculum committee and a whole lot of “topics” numbers under which new courses get their start in life. Most schools will tell you, correctly, that this system is imposed upon them from above; the red tape involved in changing so much as a course name in the larger institution’s course catalog is intimidating indeed. That’s not the whole story, though. There is method in this madness.
Think back to the year 2007, when Second Life hype was at its height. Hey, what a great time to put a course about virtual reality (VR) librarianship on the books, right?
Well, perhaps not. How silly would a library school with a VR librarianship course on the permanent books look now, with Second Life a moribund husk of its former self? To some extent, the red tape around curriculum change reins in faddishness, as well it should, selecting for courses with staying power. Topics courses change all the time—that’s what they’re for—so library schools that might have taken a flyer on a topics course in VR librarianship around 2008 could merely stop teaching it a year or two later, probably in response to lack of student demand.
Louise’s question to me was also a useful corrective, of course. With the ongoing diversification of the information professions, packing enough knowledge into two short years to graduate students with realistic job market hopes is already a tricky balancing act. We haven’t the luxury of adding permanent courses “just for fun,” much less on the off chance that jobs will materialize, or a given skill will turn up in job ads. Louise forced me to practice evidence-based curriculum change, and I’m grateful for it as I continue to think up and build new courses. This does mean that SLIS’s curriculum can’t lead the job market, but, on the whole, I prefer this compromise to wasting student time and money on crystal ball, job market predictions that don’t pan out.
Pragmatic logistics issues play into curriculum decisions, as they must. Digital Curation wouldn’t have gone up for its own number if I hadn’t joined SLIS permanently in 2011; it’s risky and difficult to have a permanent course on the books that’s mostly or always taught by adjuncts. (Not that it doesn’t happen, especially in schools with small faculties! It’s not even a bad thing—practitioners often make wonderful instructors, as their real-world experience informs their teaching—but it’s still logistically taxing.) Enrollment and budget constraints also govern what courses are on offer. The best course in the world can’t sustainably be offered if only three students ever sign up for it, though cooperative efforts like the WISE Consortium do help to aggregate scattered demand. Core courses aside, curricula also bend to take advantage of the existing interests, often research interests, of permanent faculty and staff. Insofar as different LIS schools specialize, this is how and why: playing to local strengths.
The biggest problem with the topics course system from my perspective as an LIS instructor is poor public relations: it makes curricular innovation (and the processes underlying it) invisible to most practitioners and LIS researchers. Looking at a library school’s website, or the formal course catalog, provides only a partial, highly conservative sense of the courses actually offered in that moment. (Until this very week, UW-Madison’s course catalog gave the false impression that SLIS doesn’t offer any coursework in research-data management or digital preservation!) This, in turn, fuels the omnipresent complaint about the obsolescence of LIS curricula.
I don’t have a simple solution to this. I do wish that LIS journals and their peer-reviewers would refuse to publish coursework surveys whose authors limit themselves to passively reading websites and course catalogs, as this method recalls the old joke about looking for a lost watch under a streetlight because it’s bright there, even though the watch was lost half a block away. (One such survey using this method missed what is now LIS 668 altogether.) Not only does it overlook topics courses and WISE Consortium courses, it assumes that the three-credit course is the only unit of instruction, such that an LIS school without a dedicated course in something does not teach it at all.
This is a long way from the truth. SLIS didn’t have a dedicated project-management course until this year, but I learned its basics back in 2005 from Ed Cortez’s systems analysis course, and I’ve been teaching it and making students apply its techniques in two of my courses for some time. SLIS still doesn’t have a course dedicated to linked data, but I teach about it in the core organization of information course, my introductory technology course, and the database design course (where I introduce the SPARQL query language by demonstrating its similarity to SQL). I will inherit SLIS’s hands-on XML course next spring, and I anticipate adding extensive linked data work to that as well.
We in library schools could certainly do a better job of drawing attention to our kaleidoscope of topics courses. Keeping and updating lists is assuredly work, but I think our public relations problem around apparent curricular obsolescence is severe enough to justify that work. Professional bodies like ALISE or the American Library Association’s Committee on Accreditation, survey-based research projects like the multiyear WILIS, or publications like Library Journal could goose us into action by asking questions about recent topics courses. Indeed, I would call topics course churn a vitally important indicator of the health and currency of a library school’s curriculum. Accreditors and other LIS education watchdogs should pay attention to it!
Until then, I ask practitioners and researchers not to jump to conclusions about LIS curricula based on hopelessly incomplete information. Want to know if we’re teaching something? Whether we’re going where the jobs are? Please ask us!
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