Over the last year or so, I have heard a number of comments that disturbed me. The gist of them was, “Why should we care about undergraduates?” That these comments were made by other librarians came as a shock. It illustrates a divide (in both our profession and in higher education) between subject specialization and basic instruction.
As an undergraduate, I attended a small liberal arts school that emphasized critical thinking, writing and communication. When I first came to work at this large research university, I experienced culture shock as I realized that more emphasis appeared to be placed on faculty and graduate research than on undergraduate instruction. This puzzled me because large public universities educate most of our undergraduates. How can we fulfill our educational mandate effectively if undergraduates are not prioritized?
I was at the ACRL 2011 National Conference this past weekend. One of the programs I attended was an invited paper titled, “The Librarian as Situated Educator” by Char Booth. She made two points that I found important.
1. We as librarians are experiencing a collective identity crisis. We need to identify and clearly demonstrate who we are to ourselves and others.
2. Instruction is not just a “what”. It is also a “how” and a “why”.
I agree with Booth that our central role as librarians is that of educators. I also believe, given the comments I heard asking why we should care about undergraduates, that we need to explain the “why” of instruction not only to faculty but also to our colleagues.
A recurring theme from the programs that I attended at ACRL was that we as librarians have unique skills that enable us to fill in critical gaps in student education. As Karen Nicholson stated at a panel on Embedded Librarianship, librarians do not need to stop being librarians; they need to learn to use their skills more effectively.
So, why should we care about undergraduates and why should most public service librarians be involved in undergraduate instruction?
1. The University of California and other state institutions have a mandate to educate their citizens. This means undergraduates (most people will not go on to graduate school).
2. It may be an oft repeated theme, but today’s undergraduates are our future leaders. We need leaders who can think and communicate well.
3. A quality undergraduate education also supports the health of graduate programs. We need graduate students and faculty who can think, research and teach.
4. Unfortunately, students are not learning sufficient writing, research and information literacy skills in K-12. Detrimental factors include the emphasis on teaching to high-stakes tests, a reduction in the amount and length of writing required, and the elimination of teacher-librarian positions. University librarians need to help fill in the gaps.
5. Many professors feel they don’t have the time to teach critical thinking and research or do not realize that their students lack these skills.
6. Librarians are naturally suited to filling this role.
7. Building relationships and collaborating with faculty to enhance undergraduate education helps prove the library’s value to campus administration.
I confess that when I first started out as a librarian I believed that it was the faculty’s job to teach critical thinking and writing. I now realize that I have an important role to play in this area. It’s time to stop focusing so narrowly on the library and to reach out and help faculty develop a more comprehensive and sophisticated level of information and academic literacy in our students.
References of interest (I didn’t have time to do as much searching as I would have liked):
Booth, C. (March 2011). The Librarian as Situated Educator: Instructional Literacy and Participation in Communities of Practice. Invited paper, ACRL 2011 National Conference, Philadelphia, PA.
Burrow, G., Lockerby, R., Getty, N. & Uyeki, E. C. (March 2011). Engaging Faculty, Creating Allies: A Declaration of Interdependenc. Panel, ACRL 2011 National Conference, Philadelphia, PA.
Colgoni, A., Godfrey, K., & Nicholson, K. (March 2011). Building Relationships through Embedded Librarianship. Panel. ACRL 2011 National Conference, Philadelphia, PA.
McCarthey, S. J. (2008). The Impact of No Child Left Behind on Teachers’ Writing Instruction. Written Communication, 25 (4), 462-505. doi: 10.1177/0741088308322554.
Murphy, S. (2008). Some Consequences of Writing Assessment. In A. Havnes and L. McDowell (Eds.), Balancing Dilemmas in Assessment and Learning in Contemporary Education. New York: Routledge.