This post is by SLL blog coordinator, Anne Marie Gruber, Liaison & Textbook Equity Librarian at University of Northern Iowa's Rod Library.
In an age of challenging political discourse and rampant mis- and disinformation, increasingly librarians collaborate with teaching faculty to help students evaluate, find, and use sources from across the information spectrum. Some non-library faculty may not consider it within librarians' scope to teach research strategies for sources that aren't scholarly (Gruber, 2018). But for service-learning courses and projects, non-scholarly sources can be just as important, if not more important, than scholarly sources. For example, students may need to find Census data to explore poverty or demographic differences in their local geographic area to understand the context of their work and to plan effective community-based projects.
As we consider our current information context internationally, guided by the Framework (ACRL, 2015), librarians are called upon to help students explore and better understand the economic, power, and privilege inequities that are baked into the information ecosystem. This is particularly important in service-learning courses where our initial ideas about community needs and demographics might be less than evidence-based and real harm can be done if misconceptions (even by the well-intentioned) make their way out of the classroom and into the broader community.
It was with these things in mind that I became involved with the inaugural Service-Learning Institute (SLI) for faculty on the University of Northern Iowa campus in 2016. Run by our campus Office of Community Engagement staff with support from our regional Campus Compact, SLI engages faculty in learning and thinking about best practices for incorporating service-learning into a course. They are then tasked with incorporating service-learning into one course. Both faculty and their community partner organization receive compensation. SLI is a unique model because central to the 3-day Institute is an opportunity for faculty and community partners to co-create projects together from the beginning. As liaison librarian for the Office of Community Engagement (a liaison assignment I specifically asked for!), I serve on the SLI planning team and have had a place in the SLI schedule to present to faculty each year it has been held. I provide faculty with information about ways the library can support service-learning projects, from information literacy instruction and archiving final projects to supporting open pedagogy.
We know that information literacy instruction in service-learning courses can help build students critical thinking skills (Kennedy & Gruber, 2020), and I wanted ways to encourage faculty to consider building IL instruction into their courses, beyond just mentioning how to request a session. Because SLI takes place in the summer and some faculty participants haven't collaborated with librarians previously, I found a unique and active way to introduce faculty to the possibilities of information literacy instruction for service-learning: a simulation!
Mirroring what I often do in service-learning information literacy sessions with UNI courses, I split the faculty participants into small groups (except during social distancing in 2021 when they worked solo) and ask them to pretend to be students. Some faculty are hesitant at first but some jump in eagerly; I will always remember chuckling when, after I asked them to play along, one faculty member quickly chimed in, "I'll be Hermione," assuring me they would be a diligent, on-task student during the activity!
Once we transform into a live "class", I introduce myself as the librarian for their class and run the session as I would in a real service-learning course. For purposes of the simulation, the community partner is our local food bank. Using a shared Google Doc, I provide each group of "students" with a list of questions on a food insecurity subtopic (food insecurity & college students, food insecurity & COVID, etc.). I task each group with hand-on online research to explore related information. Because the information landscape is vast and we're starting with Google, I first provide participants with a LibGuide of suggested research tools (primarily government agency websites), along with a very brief lesson in "Google Ninja" strategies such as limiting results by domain name. They are instructed to quote or paraphrase from sources and include source links right in our shared document.
To model service-learning best practices, I then ask the faculty "students" to do the same type of reflection I would ask in a real class. Reflection is a key part of connecting service with learning–critical reflection can be the hyphen between service and learning, as community engagement legend Barbara Holland suggested: “Service-learning is all in the hyphen. It is the enrichment of specific learning goals through structured community service opportunities that respond to community-identified needs and opportunities” (quoted in Kenworthy-U'Ren et al., 2006, p. 121). To that end, the final sets of questions, the same for all groups, are: In the information you gathered, whose voices are represented only minimally or not at all? Why do you think this is the case? How might you gather information representing these other perspectives? Add at least 3 additional questions. What else do you want to know? These questions, inspired by the Framework, provide some fodder for discussion at the conclusion of the activity, when students are asked to share, using the Head, Heart, Hands reflection model, something they are thinking, feeling, and want to do.
Recently, in a return to an in-person, non-distanced SLI, I transitioned away from the simulation since we had several participants who had already attended in previous years. But I look forward to finding more ways to help faculty experience what it might be like to enter the complexities of information-seeking from a student perspective. It's one way to support not only effective pedagogies but help faculty see things from a different view, and even address some of their own preconceptions about our community.
Faculty have responded in varied ways to the simulation. Early SLI participants increased requests for information literacy instruction, and I provided some train-the-trainer support for my librarian colleagues who saw these requests from beyond my liaison areas. For many faculty, it gives a chance to reconsider the common approach of providing demographic data to students in lecture form but rather to expect students to do information exploration as an explicit part of service-learning. As Riddle (2003) suggests, “Knowing something beforehand about the community agency and the particular problems it deals with can help ameliorate the students’ initial shock” that might come as they dive into service-learning projects. The library is well-positioned to help in this regard and this type of instruction fits well with our missions from an inclusion and Framework perspective. Why not help faculty know what to expect from library partnerships by pretending to be students?
Association of College & Research Libraries. (2015). Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework
Gruber, A.M. (2018). Real-world research: A qualitative study of faculty perceptions of the library’s role in service-learning. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 18(4), 671-692. Available from: https://preprint.press.jhu.edu/portal/sites/ajm/files/Gruber.pdf
Kennedy, H. & Gruber, A.M. (2020). Critical thinking in a service-learning course: Impacts of information literacy instruction. Communications in Information Literacy, 14(2). https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/comminfolit/vol14/iss2/3/
Kenworthy-U’Ren, Taylor, A., M. L., & Petri, A. (2006). Components of successful service-learning programs: Notes from Barbara Holland, Director of the U.S. National Service-Learning Clearinghouse. International Journal of Case Method Research and Application, 18(2), 120–129.
Riddle, J. (2003). Where’s the library in service learning?: Models for engaged library instruction. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 29(2), 71-81. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0099-1333(02)00424-x