On 10(ish) years of info lit instruction

At my institution, there’s a one-credit information literacy course taught through the library called UNL 205. Most everyone in my department has taught this course at one time or another but as the information literacy requirement here on campus moved into the majors, there has been less and less demand for it. I’m wrapping up a section of the course now, the only one being offered this semester, and this will likely be the last time I’ll be teaching UNL 205.

That’s not to say that I won’t be teaching a credit-bearing IL course at all or that UNL 205 won’t be taught anymore. Due to some shuffling of department responsibilities, I’ll be teaching a different information literacy course geared toward students in the humanities and particularly philosophy majors. UNL 205 may still get taught every now when then, but most likely it won’t be by me.

I first taught UNL 205 ten years ago, back in the course’s heyday, when it was a required course for every student on campus. Back then, it wasn’t unusual for librarians in my department to teach 3 or even 4 8-week sections in a semester. I was a graduate student, working in a student position for what was then the User Education department (now the Information Literacy department), and the whole reason I got recruited to teach UNL 205 that first time was because there were so many sections of it that the department needed the extra help. I had no real plan at that point to go into information literacy as a career but I thought some teaching experience would look good on my CV when I ventured onto the job market that spring, so I agreed to teach it. I got to be the instructor of record and everything.

The problem was, I didn’t know anything about information literacy, much less how to teach it. By then, I’d been working with the User Education department for three semesters, mostly helping to create online and print materials that were very much geared toward helping students understand how to use the library (another thing I didn’t know how to do when I first started). And even though the person I was working for was Trudi Jacobson, someone who is quite well-known in the field, I didn’t have a clear sense of what information literacy actually even was.

To help with that, I’d shadowed another graduate student working in the department when she taught the course the semester before so I would have some idea of how the course was typically structured and what topics were taught. I also studied the syllabi of the other instructors in the department and my first time out basically emulated what others were doing at the time, which was very Standards-based and focused on skills related to how to use the library’s catalog and databases. More bibliographic instruction rather than information literacy, though I wouldn’t start to understand that until much later.

I remember almost nothing about that first time teaching other than the feeling of utter terror I would get every week on the day of class, convinced that the students would see through me and know that I had no idea what I was doing. Which they did, kind of. But because I was so close to them in age at the time (though not as close as some of them thought), they more or less forgave me for being such a complete newbie at this whole teaching thing.

At least until it came to grading. When I received my first student complaint about a course grade, I literally cried. I was convinced I had done something terribly wrong and that I was going to get in horrible trouble for it. But when I went to my more experienced colleagues for advice, they helped me understand that complaints like these were common and often (though not always) without merit. I hadn’t done anything wrong.

The course I teach now is much different from the one I taught then. For one thing, it’s fully online rather than in-person. For another, after writing numerous published works about information literacy, I’m pretty confident in my own expertise in the area (though peer reviewers sometimes disagree with me on that). And the focus on bibliographic instruction is basically gone. Now I teach students how to think about academic research as just one of many different types of research, with its own rules and conventions that don’t necessarily carry over into the research contexts students will be engaged in throughout their post-academic lives. This approach has been working pretty well.

Which is why I’m a little sad that I won’t have more time to keep refining it. I mean, the course I’ll be teaching now isn’t that different from the one I’ve been teaching in the sense that I’ll still, as far as I know, have quite a bit of autonomy over what I teach and how I teach it. But now there will be pressure to teach information literacy through a particular lens—one focused on philosophy and the humanities—in order to meet the needs of students majoring in these subjects as well as the departments that treat UNL 207 as a required(ish) course. Because I’m so interested in the contextual nature of research and because my own academic background is in the humanities (with some studying in philosophy, though I was never a major), I’m looking forward to the challenge of shaping what I teach to meet these needs. But I’ll also miss the more complete sense of freedom I had before.

That said, the instructor I’m inheriting UNL 207 from tells me good things about the students who take that course and their level of engagement compared to those in the more general course I’ve been teaching. If this pans out, it will admittedly be a nice change. In terms of engagement, UNL 205 has always been a bit of a crapshoot. Some semesters, like last spring, the students I teach are wonderfully active and enthusiastic. Other semesters, like the course I’m wrapping up now, students are noticeably less inclined to do more than the bare minimum (and at the last possible minute).

So while I wish my time with UNL 205 was going out in a blaze of glory, it’s been more like a wet fart, which is kind of a bummer.(1) But I’ve learned a lot teaching this course: about information literacy, about teaching, about myself as an information literacy expert and teacher. The me of ten years ago would be pretty amazed at how far I’ve come. Especially the fact that I no longer cry when students complain about their grades.

Here’s to new adventures and challenges to come.


(1) This is not meant as an insult to my current students and their contributions to the course, which at times are very good. I think they would readily admit that even if they’re finding what they’re learning more interesting than they expected, the course isn’t really a priority for them. Which is fine, but it doesn’t make the teaching experience any less of a bummer for me.

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