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Information Literacy and Foreign Language Curricula

Earlier this week I was invited by the language faculty at my school to attend a lunch presentation they had organized. They had asked a faculty member from the German department of Wayne State to come talk to them about the importance of information literacy in foreign language curricula.

It’s always informative to hear professors talk about info lit, and it was good to hear from somebody who has thought a lot about how and why it’s important for language professors to squeeze even more into their curricula. For instance, she explained that even though languages classes are jam packed with grammar, vocabulary, culture, and literature, without information literacy their students will just become really good tourists, and language departments will continue to struggle under the perception that they are “service departments” on their campuses. Information literacy is what gives students access to the deeper cultures of their chosen languages. Without it, students may not realize that one issue can be viewed very differently in different cultures, or that there are alternate argument structures, or that these alternate structures are fundamental to people of other nations and cultures. This deeper level of understanding, this advanced fluency, is not accessible via grammar alone.

She also emphasized that information literacy is not something students learn in freshman comp in the English department. It was good to hear somebody else saying that this isn’t like a vaccine; you can’t get a good shot of it once in your freshman year and then be good to go for the remainder of your college career.

It was also good to hear that this is something that faculty members can easily work into their classes. I’ve said time and again that if everyone relies only on librarians to get every student up to speed, the librarians will burn out and the students will never get as rich an experience as they would if these concepts were worked into most if not all of their classes.

But I was surprised at how much I squirmed as I listened to the presenter give examples from her classes and argue for better inclusion of “my” field of expertise into language classes. It reminded me that I’d failed to adequately convey to my faculty exactly what I can do, or exactly what I can teach them to do, for our students. Did they realize as we sat there that I love to explain the disciplinary conventions of citation and how it is one expression of the interpretive communities their students are trying to enter? Did they know that I, too, have worked with students to understand the value of book reviews? Did they realize that evaluating web sources and figuring out what kinds of sources will be acceptable for specific topics and interpretive communities is what I walk students through every single day? And did they or the presenter know that I’m good for more than identifying and training students on appropriate databases?

Unfortunately, I think not. And that’s entirely my fault. I’ve got a lot of great excuses (I’m new the field, new the campus, and I’m figuring out all this stuff as I go… the list goes on and on), but in the end, I worry that they’ll copy the examples this other professor (which were wonderful, by the way) rather than working with me to figure out how to get the same benefit within our curriculum and with our students.

And then I slap myself in the forehead and remind myself that this is a wonderful thing. My faculty are actively engaging the question of how to develop their students’ higher reasoning skills, and they’ve latched onto info lit as one of the methods for accomplishing this. And this isn’t actually “my” turf. It’s our turf.

I just wish I knew the most effective way follow up after this experience. I want to be more than tech support for bibliographic databases.

5 thoughts on “Information Literacy and Foreign Language Curricula

  1. “…that there are alternate argument structures,…,” what is this alternate argument structure of which you speak, Pegasus? ;)

    All kidding aside, this was wonderfully written! I can smell a Carnival coming….

    AS for reaching that other stage, maybe you’ll have to join me in learning to market ourselves (gah!). We don’t have to sell ourselves, only those things which we are good at and love, and which can help others. Deal? I know I’ll need additional motivation.

  2. Iris, I don’t know how close you are with your faculty, but it seems like one way to follow-up the lecture would be for you to put together a draft info-lit document and discuss it with the faculty. This document could be very practical with specific “competencies” for grade levels or whatever. I did this with faculty in my last job, and while not everyone got into it, there were a few profs who did and had their own ideas to add. It really got a useful conversation started. It’s also a way to communicate what it is that you are already doing.

  3. Oh goodness, I do apologize for taking so long to respond to these comments!

    Mark, I think you’re right. I, we, all of us need to figure out ways to let people know what we can do. I just haven’t quite figured it out for myself yet, so that makes things hard. But I’ve had an idea. We’ve tried setting standards with other departments on campus (we had a Mellon grant to do just that with a few departments on campus), and we found that it worked very well for one of the departments reasonably well for a few, but actually kind of fell apart in the others. A few of the departments simply reinforced what they thought we wanted to hear (students should be able to search databases and catalogs, students should have an appreciation of the printed word… etc>). The language department is also made up of a whole bunch of mini-departments, so the task of working with them as a group is difficult logistically, and the task of working with each mini-department individually would take 6 of me a year or two to complete. I also have a personal aversion to “competencies” … but I think admitting that disqualifies me from librarianship, so that’s all I’ll say about that. :P

    BUT, I’ve been ruminating on the experience and on both of your comments and I’ve come to a happy medium. I’ll follow up with an email thanking them for inviting me and highlighting a couple of main points from the experience that I thought were particularly useful and where I have something to contribute, providing examples of things I’ve done with my other departments so that they have concrete examples of how this might look on our campus. Then, when I send out my annual fall letter to all my faculty, I’ll include a list of the classes and projects I most enjoyed participating in last year. That will not only let me highlight where I served as more than tech support for databases, but it’ll also give each of my departments a peek into the best-of-the-best ideas from other departments or from other professors in their departments.

    It’s a small step, but I hope it works over time. And I’ll keep looking out for other ideas. Thanks for your ideas! They helped me start to get over myself and think constructively.

  4. Here’s what I ended up writing to the division:
    I just wanted to thank you for inviting me to the Techno-lunch with Lisa Hock. It was so good to hear somebody else’s take on topics such as the challenges of entering an interpretive community, the kinds of knowledge you can glean from different types of sources, and the value of learning what kinds of arguments and evidence will resonate with your interpretive community. These are the kinds of topics I live and breathe.

    I’ve had great fun working with students in the English department to dig into book reviews in order to learn what is important to a field of study — what topics, phrases, methodologies, and evidence are significant in those interpretive communities. I’ve also worked with American Studies to learn similar things from citation conventions so that those interdisciplinary students could quickly scan bibliographies and learn whether the authors they studied were likely to favor more literary evidence or more scientific evidence, and to help them understand the disciplinary conventions that they were bridging. One American Studies professor worked with me to include questions related to information literacy in her weekly journaling assignments so that students were made to evaluate what they read and to think about how and why their readings had been published in the places they’d been published, or why authors referenced each other or not depending on their rhetorical motives.

    I wish I could have been there for the workshop the next day, but I hope all went well. And I hope your spring terms are going well.

    Best,
    Iris

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