Hack Library School welcomes a guest post from Julia Glassman, who has an interesting perspective on the “theory vs. practice” conversation. Julia is finishing her second quarter of library school at UCLA. She’s interested in information literacy, cataloging and metadata, and incorporating alternative media into library collections, and hopes to someday work in an undergraduate library. You can see her other publications at her website.
Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting my sister-in-law at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, where she was working as an apprentice in the Ecological Horticulture program. As a gardener and a sustainable food fan, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was living the perfect life: her mornings were spent in classes, learning the ins and outs of lettuces and strawberries and other tasty things, and in the afternoons, she worked on the program’s 25-acre farm. After a communal dinner in a cabin overlooking the ocean, the apprentices would retire to the large tents that served as living quarters during their six month stay.
I am very jealous of my sister-in-law. (Maybe I’d eventually get tired of the tent thing, but from here in my apartment in L.A., it sounds like heaven.) In addition to being totally romantic, though, CASFS’s apprenticeship program illustrates an important pedagogical issue that’s often talked about, but too seldom implemented: placing a premium on practical experience over classroom learning. The program consists of 300 hours of coursework and 700 hours of experience – a ratio that could provide a interesting model for the MLIS degree.
In 1972, sociologist Howard S. Becker bluntly stated in his essay “A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything In” that although learners in both classrooms and on-the-job training experience problems with their education, the latter “is more likely to produce educational successes” (103). Although coursework has a lot to offer students, and makes up for deficiencies in practical training, students lose out when they have to rely solely on lectures and readings to gain knowledge. (Interesting note: I first read this essay when it was assigned, for our first class session, by one of my professors here in library school.) Luckily for me, I’m attending a program that has a strong internship component – but many programs produce graduates who have little, if any, practical experience. This over-emphasis on classes leads to problems with the quality of students’ education: many courses are so broad (or so easy) that only a fraction of the material will be useful to any one student, and even when the entirety of a course is useful, if we don’t have an immediate chance to put the material to use, we start forgetting particulars as soon as the course ends. It also leads to problems in the real world, when graduates try to find jobs in a glutted market without any experience in a library. (Warning: the link will ruin your day.) Librarians I’ve talked to sigh at applications from candidates with plenty of abstract knowledge, but zero on-the-job training.
I think it’s safe to say that most library schools at the very least assist their students in finding internships and other opportunities (although online students with full-time jobs may not benefit from this assistance). Even so, do these practices go far enough? Right now, internships tend to complement coursework, but what if it was the other way around? What if the ratio of coursework to fieldwork was reversed?
In light of this idea, I’d like to offer a wildly unrealistic proposal for the future of the MLIS – not so much to claim that we should implement this exact model right now, or to pretend that it wouldn’t create its own set of significant problems, but rather to offer a basis from which we might interrogate the structure and purpose of the graduate degree.
Let’s turn the MLIS into an apprenticeship program.
Here’s one way it could work. Graduate programs could coordinate with area libraries, archives, museums, and other organizations, much in the way that internship programs do now, to gauge those organizations’ needs for paid apprentices. Then, the number of students admitted could correspond to the number of apprentice positions available (this might also help to better tailor the number of degrees conferred with the number of jobs out there). Prospective students’ application packets could include applications to the apprenticeships of their choice. While they were working at their apprenticeships, students could gather, say, quarterly for intensive coursework, or meet in the evenings or online. Notice that this model would address two problems at once: students would gain the experience they needed to be marketable (and possibly rise within the ranks where they worked), and they would make a living (albeit not a very cushy one) while attending school.
Like I said, I’m not pretending that new problems wouldn’t arise. There’d be the chaos of coordinating with dozens or even hundreds of area sites, for one thing (although that’s exactly what my program’s internship coordinator does right now, and programs like teacher certifications seem to be handling it okay). Programs would also run the risk of pigeonholing students into job types they either changed their minds about partway through the program or never wanted in the first place, whereas the internship model allows us to dabble to some extent. Entering students might not know enough about different specializations to choose their apprenticeship wisely. Keep in mind that what I’m proposing is an extreme, idealized model.
Still, though, I can’t help but think of the wealth of practical knowledge that my sister-in-law gained on her farm. Why exactly are so many other fields, including library and information science, so dependent on the classroom model? Do we adhere to it because it necessarily has to be this way, or because we haven’t yet imagined something better?