ACRL 2015, Part 1: Reading in Information Literacy Instruction

I have recently returned from my first ACRL conference, and after spending yesterday and this morning catching up on emails, projects, etc., I have finally settled down to spend some time thinking about the sessions I attended, people I met, and new ideas that have been simmering as a result. So, I present:

Part 1: Reading in Information Literacy Instruction

I attended a contributed papers session by Margy MacMillan and Stephenie Rosenblatt titled, “They’ve Found It. Can They Read It?” that focused on the librarian’s role in teaching students to read and engage with scholarly sources. The topic of freshmen students and scholarly articles has been on my mind a lot lately. A colleague and I are working on a project to investigate why faculty often require first-years students to use scholarly articles to the exclusion of other types of sources. On the surface, the answers seems apparent: They’re in college. They need to use these types of sources. But in many classes, students are told to find scholarly articles and incorporate them into their own writing or presentation (or in the case of many introductory science courses, into their lab assignments), and they are not really taught to how to use them or even, more elementary, what their purpose is. What is the value of a scholarly article over a trade publication? What is the difference between a scholarly article and a blog post by the same author on the same topic? What is the difference between a scholarly article, a trade article, and a newspaper article, written by the same author and on the same topic?

Naturally, I can answer those questions. But I deal with information sources every single day. And I have been working in higher education for 6 years. I should be able to explain this. If pressed, first-year students would probably be able to come up with some basic differences: some are written for a general audience, some for a specialized audience; some are longer; this one has a bibliography. But what can they really assess about the difference between the two when they’re asked to support an argument in a paper? If conversations I have had with faculty or other librarians are any indication, the main difference for students is this: they can actually read and understand the popular articles, some of the trade publications, and almost nothing of the scholarly articles.

Let’s be blunt: first-year students are unprepared to deal with scholarly articles. That’s just a fact. At the presentation, they cited a very important statistic: About 49% of incoming college students cannot read at a college level. Forty-nine percent. Half. Half of our incoming students are unprepared to read their textbooks. (Suppose that explains the continual refrain from professors that students don’t do the reading. They don’t know how.)

I taught a credit-bearing IL course for the first time this past fall semester. Looking back on their major assignment–an annotated bibliography which required at least 2 of the 7 or 8 sources be scholarly–I made a critical mistake in judgement. Eighty percent of my students were first-year students. About half of that 80% had not yet declared a major. Many of them had been put in my class by their advisors who recognized they may need additional support in adapting to reading, writing, and researching for college. And I required those students–the ones who hadn’t even decided on a major–to engage with texts that are incredibly discipline-specific and jargon heavy. Did I spend any time teaching them how to identify, read, and use those articles? Yes. But certainly not enough of it, because there were still bibliographies that were lacking at least one scholarly source, and many annotations that reflected a lack of understanding of the article as a whole.

This presentation was a real eye-opener for me, for the work that I do with my liaison groups, such as Freshmen Composition and First-Year Focus, for the one-shots that I teach, and for the credit course I helped design. I need to do better. We need to do better. And the women from this presentation have offered some great ideas to get started, meet challenges, and find further research. See their website: Adding Reading Strategies to Your IL Toolkit

Stay tuned for more reflections and reactions to a really great, thoughtful, engaging conference that has challenged me to continue to push my own boundaries of what libraries and librarians “can” and “should” do.


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