This week's post comes from Helene Williams, Senior Lecturer at the University of Washington Information School. Learn more about our guest authors on our Featured Authors page.
“We challenge you to be the instructors our students need.” Thus Nicole Cooke and Miriam Sweeney end their edited volume, Implementing Social Justice in the Classroom (2017). That’s a succinct explanation of why I left academic librarianship about a decade ago to teach MLIS students at the University of Washington Information School. In that time, I have worked to systematically change pieces of the LIS curriculum to better prepare incoming librarians, based on the concepts reflected by Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. EDI is a mindset, not a goal or one-off course module.
Social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusiveness are essential elements of the University of Washington’s Information School mission statement, and are becoming more integral to the curriculum. While an “Information and Society” course has been required for many years, we recently formalized a new range of classes on social justice topics — including, among others, “Intellectual Freedom in Libraries,” “Information and Social Justice,” and “Cultural History of Children’s and Young Adult Literature”. The impact of each revamped or new EDI-centered course is visible: student evaluations (though problematic in other senses) and alumni responses are enthusiastic as students see themselves and their patron demographics better reflected in coursework.
It is vital that EDI components pervade the entire program, however, which is where my efforts are focused. My work is greatly aided by the research, writing, and practice of current and previous iSchool MLIS students including Nicola Andrews & Jessica Humphries (2016), Twanna Hodge and Beth Lytle (2015), as well as data available from researchers such as Cooke and Sweeney, and Ana Ndumu and Crystal Betts-Green (2018). They aptly point out where programs are not meeting EDI goals, and create a blueprint of areas that need attention.
Integrating critical engagement and content in the LIS curriculum builds on my years as an information literacy and subject librarian; my hope is that those values and concepts feed back into the work of new academic librarians. My EDI work in the curriculum and in mentoring acknowledges that I will and do make mistakes, that I am always learning, and that I learn tremendously from my students. To do that, I give up a lot of control in my classroom, as the students and I investigate issues and posit solutions together. I acknowledge that ultimately, I am in a position of power, but I share that privilege, and responsibility, with them.
What does that look like on the ground? I provide a framework, and scaffold materials and assignments so that students are prepared to tackle difficult topics, but letting them tell me what they want, and need, to learn provides everyone with a more meaningful experience. Conceptual as well as practical elements of EDI are present in all of my courses and assignments. The syllabi reflect a broad range of writers as well as materials; I’m using fewer scholarly articles and increasingly more blog posts, Twitter threads, and news reports to connect concepts with the on-the-ground reality. Most weeks I have a last-minute-updated section of reading called “What’s on Fire?” to bring in current events, such as the UC system’s decision to walk away from their Elsevier Big Deal. From these headlines, we dive into the issues of equity and representation in scholarly communication, the tenure and promotion system, and ramifications for selectors and liaisons.
In the introductory course “Information Resources, Services, and Collections,” students do in-depth examinations of multiple fee-based databases. For many, this is their first foray into non-Google-type searching, and we spend time examining content, functionality, and provenance (including vendors). The accompanying assignment includes issues of accessibility: can databases hosted by EBSCO operate with screen readers? Is the ProQuest platform functional on mobile devices, for users without other internet connectivity options? How representative or biased are images and is alt-text provided?
One assignment in my Collection Development class has students evaluate selection tools ranging from the traditional — Library Journal, Booklist, Choice, etc. — to newer venues, such as Book Riot and Diverse BookFinder. In all cases these resources are examined with an eye to inclusion. What is the representation of non-mainstream materials? Are resources reflective of multiple perspectives? Are underrepresented voices included, in both the titles reviewed as well as the reviewers? In the Digital Humanities Librarianship course, we examine the feminization of labor involved in DH projects, and how patriarchal infrastructures set up many DH scholars and librarians for failure — and we discuss how to disrupt that system. The major DH project assignment must reflect and amplify underrepresented voices; there’s no mapping of picnics in Jane Austen or visualizations of trees mentioned by Walt Whitman. Rather, students are now creating timelines of LGBTQ+ characters in video games, decolonizing bibliographies in Wikipedia, and mapping dance camps for middle schoolers of color.
For the Directed Fieldwork course, the equivalent of credit-earning internships, students and site supervisors have always created a set of expected learning outcomes to structure the quarter’s activities and goals. I have added a requirement that one of those learning outcomes include a social justice aspect. For students doing fieldwork in traditional library settings, this requirement is simple: they may be cataloging music by women composers, building finding aids for the archives of an immigrant resettlement center, or creating storytimes for non-native English speakers. However, the most surprising result of this requirement has been the uptake by corporate fieldwork host sites. From tech giants to health insurers, the response has been positive, with several sites noting that the social justice focus provides their work with a new perspective. There have been only two sites in the past two years which have refused the requirement, and both were, notably, archives asking for students to help with the papers of deceased, cishet, white men.
Positive student responses to EDI work have helped create momentum programmatically, from increased student representation on the MLIS Program Committee to the design of an alumni network with goals including recruiting and retaining more people of color in the profession. In faculty meetings, we regularly showcase ideas and examples of EDI concepts in our classrooms, office hours, research, and professional development. The process of implementing EDI both in the classroom and throughout the program has not been completely smooth; some students and faculty are uncomfortable with the difficult conversations and other challenges that EDI work encompasses, and we are working to provide context, training, and support. Every time I see a student or colleague have an “aha!” moment due to a reading, discussion, assignment, or chance hallway encounter, however, I know our efforts have been worth it, and that we will be sending out better-prepared information professionals who can continue to create positive change in libraries and society.
Andrews, Nicola, & Humphreys, Jessica. “Negotiating Indigeneity: Fostering Indigenous Knowledge Within LIS Curricula.” IFLA World Library and Information Congress, Columbus, Ohio, 2016. http://library.ifla.org/1440/
Cooke, Nicole A., & Sweeney, Miriam E., eds. Implementing Social Justice in the LIS Classroom. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2017. https://litwinbooks.com/books/teaching-for-justice/
Hodge, Twanna, & Lytle, Beth. “Diversity in LIS Education: Are We Preparing Students for the 21st Century Workplace.” [Poster]. Presented at the University of Washington Information School Capstone Event. Seattle, Washington, May 2015. https://ischool.uw.edu/capstone/projects/2015/diversity-lis-education-are-we-preparing-students-21st-century-workplace
“Mission & Vision.” University of Washington Information School, About Us. https://ischool.uw.edu/about/mission-vision
Ndumu, Ana, & Betts-Green, Crystal. “First Impressions: A Review of Diversity-Related Content on North American LIS Program Websites.” The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion, 2(3): 91-113, 2018.