Two weeks ago, the Library Loon posted about rigor and diversity in library school. As one might hope from a topic such as that, libraryland twitter erupted in discussion. The Loon’s basic premise–highly simplified here simply because all of you can go read the whole post if so inclined (and I hope you are)–is that too much of a demand for rigor in our programs will perpetuate the white dominance of the profession. There’s definitely a lot to think about here!

the word rigor on a scrabble board intersecting with the word LIS

photo credit DCdotNerd

Let me begin with my initial reaction to the Loon on this subject: I thought her logic was flawed. Premise one: Rigorous admissions standards will tend to exclude non-white, non-wealthy, non-cis applicants. Premise two: rigor in coursework will tend to exclude non-white, non-wealthy, non-cis, etc., applicants. Therefore, rigor will perpetuate the white, female, cis-dominated library profession.

But this isn’t a valid argument. Valid argument: If A, then B. A. Therefore, B.

Premise one may be true. I have no personal knowledge as this premise applies to LIS programs; I suspect that it is very true in most, if not all, academic settings.

Premise two makes no sense. The content of the program should have no effect on the applicants.

And finally, the structure of the argument is flawed.

That was my reaction. While I was thinking this over in the days after the Loon’s post, I tried to Storify the conversations going on in response to it. I found something interesting. There were two other distinct conversations about “rigor” in the twitterverse that day.

One of the other conversations was about rigor in primary education; the other livetweeting and responses to various speakers at the Tufts Fletcher School Ideas Industry conference. Each of these highlighted important questions that we can and should consider when thinking about rigor in LIS education. First:



What does it mean, in LIS education, to be “answering questions the rest of the world cares about”?

And second:



This in response to the Northwest Evaluation Association’s article on Common Core math standards. (I’ve used the scoop.it link here because the article’s headline no longer–if it ever did–uses the word “rigor,” while scoop.it does.) Much of the conversation about rigor in primary and secondary education is about standards, or workload,  or eliminating fun from elementary school. Rigor is not a good goal, according to these positions, very generally speaking.*

I suggest the following. We begin with the notion that admissions standards are not what we’re talking about when we talk about rigor. From there, we ask if our programs are answering (and asking) the right questions. Are we learning the basics that we need in order to be well-rounded librarians? Are we learning how to adapt traditional library theories and functions to an always changing library landscape? Are we learning how to advance the library and information field to serve modern patrons? Are we learning to ask questions, and to ask the right questions? What else would you add to this list?

And finally, we ask if we’re learning these things in an environment that encourages us to reflect, elaborate, discuss, and discover?

What do you think? Do these questions adequately reflect a definition of “rigor”? And are these questions consistent with a goal of a diverse profession? How does your program do against these standards? Is it necessary for all students in the program to treat the program with rigor for the program to be rigorous? I look forward to reading your thoughts on this.

*Interestingly, given the rigor vs. diversity post that started this all, one reaction to an anti-rigor-in-kindergarten article argues that rigor in kindergarten is necessary for diversity.

More food for thought on this subject:

34 replies

  1. Your critique of premise two is missing her point, which is that schools that try to adopt a high level of technological “rigor” in coursework without providing any sort of remediation (which she advocates for later) will disadvantage diverse applicants, who often have less background and experience with technology (hence her invocation of the digital divide). Requiring especially rigorous technology skills courses without accounting for these sorts of structural disadvantages will make it harder to recruit and retain diverse library students.

    Also, her basic point is similar to yours, except framed more negatively: that what most people advocating for as “rigor” is not appropriate to what librarianship needs and does not in any way connect with employment success.


    • Carl, thanks for this feedback. You’re right that I missed the remediation-as-prerequisite-for-rigor (is that a fair restatement?) connection. Thank you for highlighting that for me. I’d like to look at that more, though I still think that rigor does not on its own result in a lack of diversity. (I recognize that I say this as a white, cis, middle- to upper-middle class, highly educated woman who hasn’t needed remediation.)


    • Jason, thanks so much for this recommendation. I will have to watch the video later (at work and on my way to a meeting, but don’t want your comment to go un-responded to. I know that there’s a LOT that I missed in this post, and I regret that, but I also am glad to see that missing things is providing a forum for discussion. So do point out more that should be added to this conversation!


    • Great video. Without mentioning him by name, I did touch briefly on his rigor-as-standards is bad for kids. Definitely if I were going deeper into the subject he would be a valuable source. Thanks for the introduction.


    • Thanks so much for this addition, Jason; it’s given me a lot to think about. For one, it helps elucidate for me how the term “rigor” itself makes these conversations more difficult because we each mean something slightly different by it.


  2. This is going to be really long just because this topic is really complex and really important. I appreciate your summing up the Loon’s post here. But I was a bit confused as to your discussion of validity – or rather, why the Loon’s argument (based on your reconstruction) is invalid.

    There are some concerns about whether language like “will tend to” should be used deductively, as they are here, but I’m less concerned about the content of the premises than I am about the logical reconstruction of the argument.

    Here’s how I would’ve reconstructed the argument:

    (Rigorous admissions standards) will tend to (exclude non-white, non-wealthy, non-cis applicants).

    Let’s write this as: If A then E; or, A -> E.

    (Rigor in coursework) will tend to (exclude non-white, non-wealthy, non-cis applicants).

    Let’s write this as: If C then E; or, C -> E.

    Therefore, (rigor in the forms of A or C)** will (perpetuate the white, female, cis-dominated library profession).

    Let’s write this as: If either A or C, then P; or, (A v C) -> P

    Now, the argument above includes some suppressed premises in order to show that (A v C) -> P. These premises logically follow, but they’re doing the work for showing how A or C, which lead to E, also lead to P. I’ve included them in brackets so that we can see how the argument works in logical form:

    P1. A > E
    P2. C > E
    [/3. (A v C) > E]
    [P4. E > P]
    /5. (A v C) > P

    This argument isn’t doing anything that would render it invalid. The big question is to ask whether this argument is sound. (We also already need to know that the majority of LIS professionals are white, cis-females who have enough money to afford the MLIS/MLS. But I think we do know this to be true from various studies.)

    **I added this as a qualification because I think it was implied that “rigor” is usually thought of in the ways the Loon described, which we denote with A and C above.

    We may make LIS schools harder to get into (e.g., higher GPAs from undergraduate institutions, the completion of the GRE or higher average results, professional experience, letters of recommendation from LIS professionals or undergraduate institutions only). Or, we may make the courses more demanding (e.g., requiring more background knowledge, giving more work, or more advanced work).

    These new, “more rigorous” standards may be (i) cost-prohibitive due to the costs of testing, remedial courses, applications, transcripts; (ii) unfeasible time-wise because an applicant may not be able to juggle a much-needed PT or FT job _and_ take remedial courses that do not count toward the MLIS/MLS before or during attendance; (iii) unfeasible “skill-wise” because an applicant may not score well enough on the GRE, have a high enough GPA, or may not have prerequisite knowledge of particular topics in the event that remedial education isn’t a possibility at all. All of these (i, ii, iii) may deter applicants from applying at all, or may cause admitted students to spend a lot more time and money on an already expensive degree just to obtain it–and so may be less likely to finish the program.

    While there may be other ways of defining “rigor” and implementing “more rigorous standards” I think the above are the most commmon and so it’s all right to assume that the Loon’s argument is demonstrating why it’s dangerous to beef up “rigor” in library schools.

    As far as possible alternatives that we could label rigorous but which don’t necessarily look anything like A or C — I’m sure there are quite a few that could go a long way with the Loon and others in her camp. But “rigor” is a mask for “arbitrary” in many cases, and I’d rather not leave it up to admissions committees to become “more rigorous” without overhauling the whole system of education (which is the elephant in the room here, anyway).



    • Colleen, you did a much better job with the structure of the argument than I did. (And in retrospect, including that piece in this post was probably not the best choice. Oh well, moving on…)

      However, to address the rest of your comment, I think it’s really important that we look at what we’re looking for when we look for “rigor,” and that answering that question is a prerequisite for deciding whether it’s good or bad for LIS education and diversity.


      • “…answering that question is a prerequisite for deciding whether it’s good or bad for LIS education and diversity.”

        Yes, you’re absolutely right! But the reason I like your post is because it yields valuable information without obscuring the fine details (something that the coarseness of “rigor” does seem to do, however, when we use the term incautiously as though it denotes some set of perfectly self-evident truths). You do a great job for making the case for why question-asking is crucial, and learning to ask the right questions, especially about LIS school and its applicants/students, is even more so.



  3. I was reminded by your post of a framework I saw for evaluating university curriculum. Halualani and Associates analyze classes based on how much students learn & engage with diversity issues. I wonder if the seven levels they suggest could also be thought of as a type of “rigor”. Here they are, from least to most engaging: knowledge-awareness, skills, interaction, advanced analysis, evaluation-critique, social agency & action, and innovative problem solving. The goal of that last stage is to develop new strategies and solutions while thinking from others’ perspectives.


    • I’m about to ramble incoherently here, but this is making me think about something which I didn’t include in my post (but meant to–you know when you think of something when you’re away from your computer and then when you get to your computer you can only remember that you thought of *something*?) but definitely relates to the idea of levels of learning and engaging. I was thinking about whether “rigor”–regardless of definition?–is something that is imposed from the outside (curriculum and the like) or something that is developed from within (LIS education is what you make of it). I see this with my own experiences; when I think that one or another of my courses isn’t “rigorous” enough, I realize that I could engage more and thereby make my education more rigorous. I like the possibility of rigor existing on a spectrum where, perhaps, interaction or advanced analysis would be a baseline goal for a program to achieve with its students while creating structures that would encourage students to go beyond. Lots of food for thought here!


      • I love this follow up comment. Rigor from within, as opposed to rigor oppressively required from the outside. It is always difficult because so much of the educational process is really dependent on the student. While there are obviously things you can do in course design to better support students active engagement with the material, it is still up to them to do so. The question is not only how do we find this intrinsic motivation when it comes to our own education, but how do we ignite that spark in our students as well.
        Daniel @ Work in Progress


  4. oops. I lost some of the post. I just meant to add that the ideas come from “Diversity Learning & Engagement Taxonomy” by Halualani, Haiker, & Lancaster, 2012


  5. I think it’s embarrassingly racist to even suggest that a diverse population can’t handle academic rigor. I think this whole discussion is embarrassing.


    • You’re mischaracterizing (too strongly) any views expressed here if you think anyone was saying something like “x group of people can’t handle rigorous academic standards just on the basis that they are x group of people.” That would be a horrible thing to assert, and no one here has.

      I’m sure the author could talk more at length about why LIS needs more diversity and especially why the digital divide contributes to a lack of diversity (it is worth pointing out that white, female students are less digitally literate than white, male students so this obviously isn’t the only factor or LIS would have a white, male majority).


  6. Becky, I’m glad you brought the Loon’s post to the HLS community’s attention and the question you raised about how we define “rigor” is important. I have to admit, when I first read the Loon’s post, I was taken aback. I can attribute it to a combination of: griping the night before with some of my fav LIS students (all from different programs) on Twitter about this very topic, reflecting on how rigorous our own program at CUA is, and the fact that I couldn’t wade through the Loon’s “heavily-jargonified screed [which was] comprehensible… only to approximately six other people” (her words, not mine). For this comment, I’ll focus on how exactly I define “rigor.”
    To me, rigor isn’t a ton of busy work, reading 100 pages of poorly written and researched articles a week, or memorizing how to encode records in at least three different formats, it’s something much deeper than that. It all comes down to critical thinking, which Becky pinpointed in her questions above. It’s knowing how to adapt traditional library theories and functions to an always changing library landscape. It’s learning to ask the right questions… and then actually asking them, not only of ourselves, but of our fellow students, professionals, institutions, society, and yes, LIS programs too. To crib a question from one of my new favorite people, are we prepared to make exponentially larger impacts? Are we prepared to lead the transformation of the library and information science field? If not, what can LIS educators do better? That’s a great responsibility, and certainly not one that any LIS program can truly meet (although they better try their hardest).
    Based on this definition of “rigor,” critical thinking in preparation for becoming effective leaders of positive change, how do LIS programs do on the rigor front? Hmmm… not so great. I can, of course, only speak of my own experience with my program, but based on the conversations I’ve had and readings I’ve done, I’d say this issue is a problem in LIS education overall. That’s troubling. This is a graduate-level education, shouldn’t we all be capable of actually thinking? I’ll let that question hang, because it’s too sad for me to answer. I will say that yes, LIS programs have a great deal of responsibility, but we do too. So what can we do to better prepare ourselves?
    As you pointed out in your comments to Lindsay, our experience in library school is only as rigorous as we choose to make it. Let’s face it, some students are passed or even pushed through LIS programs. No matter how horribly demoralizing that may be, we shouldn’t let it discourage us. Use that banal assignment as a platform to engage in thought-provoking research (much like Becky’s presentation at the CUA/LIS Symposium). Ask those tough questions of your fellow students, even if your professors are content to let difficult questions go unasked. Seek out opportunities to engage in professional conversations like those that go on right here on HLS. We need to hold ourselves to the standards we set for ourselves, no matter if that’s technological rigor, humanistic rigor, or just killing it on the “being an awesome new professional” rigor (my personal standard). If we don’t, who will?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, and I’m one of those people who put a lot of my feelings forth on Twitter when the post first surfaced, so I will probably leave much out in the interests of staying relatively brief. But, off the top of my head:

    I am glad that you linked this to early childhood education, Becky, because I think the crux of the matter is that the librarian pipeline – whether a matter of interest or of “achievement” – is affected by inequality in education (and, let’s be real, every kind of structural inequality) from day one. This isn’t something that starts at grad school admissions. It starts the moment we begin failing our children and their families. Instead of just paying lip service to the idea that “humanistic rigor” excludes minorities, we’ve got to engage very purposefully in the hard and dirty work of producing humanistic research that problematizes the exclusionary canon AND social science and political advocacy work that targets systemic inequality. Coughing up some scholarships and some feel-good policies is. not. enough.

    Which brings me to my second pet peeve – the pervasive conflation of race and class in these types of discussions. Of course, due to aforementioned systemic inequality, they are often correlated, and offering more financial support to more students is always a worthy goal. But relying so heavily on the diversity scholarship model

    a) reeks of noblesse oblige and implies that ethnic minorities (the form of minority typically eligible for such programs) are necessarily charity cases;

    b) ignores various intersectionalities of minority and privilege;

    c) pretends that money is the only thing that makes the academy unappealing and unwelcoming to minorities [Edit: for one compelling example, here’s some recent research revealing bias in faculty-student relationships]; and

    d) makes us feel like we’re doing something while totally failing to address underlying structural problems.

    Finally, while I would love to see more theory in LIS coursework and while I absolutely do not believe that this would damage “diversity,” (see remarks above about the canon), I would like to echo everything that Liz said above about the rigor of critical thinking. This is not something that is necessarily limited to persons of a certain background or perceived level of achievement, nor do any of the typical gate-keeping mechanisms adequately predict for it. [I had never heard of Foucault until grad school 1.0, but I nevertheless managed last year to write a Foucauldian analysis of Google so dense that my professor didn’t even read it.] This form of rigor has nothing to do with admissions and everything to do with curricula. Ensuring that thoughtful, engaged students can rise to the top and be rewarded relative to unengaged students will, in my opinion, actually level the playing field for a broader range of students to succeed as professionals.

    [Edit]: After reading Mark Sample’s “Difficult Thinking About the Digital Humanities” and the Hybrid Pedagogy piece that Becky links at the end of her post, I come to the conclusion that what I am advocating for here is “difficult thinking about library and information science” which is evidently not what other people mean by “rigor.” Here, Sample discusses difficult thinking as something slightly different from critical thinking (and something that Michael S. Roth might find less sophistic and thus more palatable) entailing the combination of evidence-based reasoning and multiplicity of perspectives to achieve what he calls “rational empathy.” To me, the focus on admissions standards is a red herring to draw attention away from the fact that students who do enter the program are too rarely challenged to do difficult thinking. Turning to “difficult thinking” as a lodestar rather than “rigor” or even “critical thinking” might be more compatible with the human(e)ist goals of progressive education, as per Alfie Cohen, and might lead us more swiftly to, as you say, Becky, ask the right questions.

    Sample’s emphasis on multiplicity as part of difficult thinking brings me to Josh Ranger’s post from today, “Seeking Diversity and a Unified Field,” which crystallizes many of the points that were circulating very nebulously in my April 2014 MARAC panel, “Describing Difference.” In planning that discussion, an unspoken tension arose between panelists who were interested in “diversity” in the affirmative-action, “who is doing this work” sense, and panelists who were interested in “diversifying” in the sense of “what is the work that we are doing.” I found Josh’s post very thought-provoking as I consider how those two concerns are, in fact, two sides of the same coin, and that diversifying the work that we archivists do may in fact lead to greater diversity as we work beyond some inhibiting stereotypes and more successfully appeal to a broader range of applicants.


  8. I find this conversation extremely fascinating, mostly because the Loon’s blog post has brought forth lots of interesting discussion, but also because there’s something missing from our debate: the minority LIS student. I’m not big on labels, but for the sake of argument, let it be known that I’m a Latina LIS student, however I am but one student in a program that is very diverse in socio-economic class, gender identity, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We’ve all seen awesome writers and contributors on this blog who share those attributes so anyone really can have a stake on how and what we define “rigor” and whether that affects us or not, based on those attributes. I’ve read the original blog post and I’m still mentally unpacking it, but what I will state is this. Colleen made an excellent point, the issue with what is considered “rigorous” comes down to the current LIS educational model and the sense that I feel it has become a student factory where individuals are pushed in and pushed out of programs, quickly given a degree and arguably without much effort. Should every LIS program carry an ALA requirement of a mandatory thesis? In my opinion yes, do they currently no. Is this more “rigorous” than our current curricula? It’s graduate level coursework and if other graduate level degrees are asking their students to create a thesis, why aren’t we? Now I can see the argument that the librarian profession is different, we aren’t all going into the academic field or getting PhDs, but so what, stepping up our standard increases the credibility of the profession. Now, rigor and diversity…here’s my two cents and I understand that we all share varied points of view, but it’s really a double-edge sword. I agree that the best kind of rigor comes from intrinsic motivation as pointed out by Daniel and Becky. There’s nothing better than pushing yourself and raising your own academic bar. We’ve all experienced coursework that left us unchallenged and that can become a very detrimental reality in LIS school. However, external rigor plays a key role as well. When I was six I spoke Spanish, I didn’t understand a lick of English, I went from speaking Spanish in the classroom, to relocating many miles away from my original home and plopped into a first grade classroom where all the students spoke English. I was challenged to learn a new language. The teacher did not change her curriculum to suit my needs. In the second grade, I went to an ESOL program during the first half of the year, but my standards for success remained the same as my English-speaking peers. As I grew older, I continued to challenge myself and was also challenged by the educational institutions I attended. Rigor for me made me a successful student, regardless of my minority status. Anna-Sophia mentioned the diversity scholarship model, and I will attest that in my undergrad, I did benefit from that in terms of funding for school. Did it feel that money was thrown at me, no, do I agree that there are better ways of addressing this by improving underlying structural problems? Abso-freaking-lutely. But, I will say that I received more aid for my socio-economic status, than for my ethnic background (and not wanting to risk a serious debate on this particular discussion of diversity) I mention this to provide a different point of view only. Full disclaimer, the amount of money I’m receiving in LIS school based on my diverse background: $0. The amount I’m getting based on my need in the form of loans: $Lots of zeros. What concerns me the most, is the assumption that including a more “rigorous” standard (however we choose to define it) for admissions or curriculum in an LIS program seems to insinuate that minorities are now in trouble of getting into library schools. Sincerely speaking, I don’t believe that’s the case. Not every minority is in need of remedial coursework, just like not every Caucasian counterpart is exempt from remedial coursework. If we could take a step back from already placing a dividing line in the sand about incorporating the term “rigor” and assuming that a group or population is already being sub-standardized and instead, look at our LIS programs to see how else can we present challenging coursework to benefit ALL students as a whole, I think we are setting up a better trajectory of improving a profession we all care about. That being said, thank you Becky for bringing this up. I would love if we could grow this discussion into an online panel via Twitter, because there’s SO MUCH that could be said from your blog and Library Loons. Awesome topic! Now I need to get back to the books and study XML. 🙂


    • Aidy, thanks so much for your perspective here. My experience is based on class and LGBT things, which are (by and large) pretty invisible and I know skews my perspective. (Which is not to say that we disagree; I don’t think we do; just that we arrive there from different places).

      I am really interested in the example you bring up here of your ESOL classes and the necessity of external standards. I think this can – and- be done, ideally, in healthy challenging ways that are different from the oppresive, soulless standardization that Alfie Kohn speaks to (above); and this is where I feel that LIS programs are failing.

      My program has been better than most (from what I gather of talking to other students), and there have definitely been individual professors and assignments that were wonderful and valuable; I don’t want to imply otherwise; but it has been exhausting to constantly figure out what more I could do to learn and engage. It would be nice to have more of that built in and supported in our programs and to feel like they have a stake in ensuring that we’re the best we can be.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. 1) So-called minorities are not abandoning LIS because LIS programs are too rigorous; rather, few are entering LIS in the first place, for reasons that have little to do with the rigor or non-rigor of any particular graduate program. 2) Most of us can agree that the MLS is designed to pass anybody who tries. I have perfect final grades in all my LIS grad classes. I wince at the thought of telling my history MA friends, who have to write a 100-page original thesis using archival research, how easy an MLIS is to achieve by comparison. This is a problem for the quality of our profession and the value of the degree. Sure, I individually go above and beyond with reading and extracurriculars, but a Master’s degree should challenge at least enough to engage. 3) Has anyone done comparative research on diversity, rigor, and professions with tracks and functions parallel to LIS? Social work, education, etc.?

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thanks for the links, Anna-Sophia! “Factors Influencing the Career Choices of African American Collegians” (collegians? really?) strongly speaks to what I had in mind for Part 1 of my initial comment. In my experience, diverse populations (whatever that means) tend to follow one of two tracks: 1) they pursue a career that is truly meaningful to them personally, or 2) they pursue a remunerative and respected career that they perceive will bring them socioeconomic security. (Not that these two categories are mutually exclusive, of course.) People from privileged backgrounds may not be as concerned about security, as they often have financially stable family members or partners to serve as a safety net (see Jack Kerouac or Henry David Thoreau relying financially on their aunts). LIS students are mostly white and middle-class, so with the exception of folks like Aidy, the choice to pursue an LIS degree in and of itself can be symptomatic of privilege given the low salaries and brutal job market. Yet this choice can also be a symptom of passion–a quality that the best librarians have in abundance.


  11. I’m really glad that this has generated so much thoughtful (dare I say “rigorous”?) discussion. I think that I should have addressed the issue of diversity more in my original post. To touch on Rory’s and Lucille’s comments above, I absolutely do not think that minorities cannot handle “rigorous” coursework, whatever that means. I hope that was clear from the beginning!


    • I think it’s clear that this isn’t *your* opinion, Becky, but it was a pretty strong whiff that came off of the Loon’s original post, in my reading. I avoided the follow-ups to the post TBH, so I’m not sure if she addressed/clarified her meaning elsewhere.


      • Just in case it wasn’t clear, I’ll say now that my first comment was an attempt at being charitable to the Loon and trying to work out some clarifications mostly for my own understanding. I don’t have a worked out, informed-enough-to-be-comfortable opinion on this topic to do much more than qualify what I thought could be seen as overstatements by some based on very different notions of what it means to be “rigorous.” I interpreted the Loon to have a definition of “rigor” as one that is artificially and arbitrarily imposed by academic committees which tend to measure a candidate’s aptitude by bizarre (to use an opaque term) metrics (e.g., not considering a candidate who has a 3.2 GPA because your institution requires a 3.3). And that this is harmful in general and may prove to be harmful in library schools should they take the above tack.

        This is totally not my way of supporting this position across every detail, but I can appreciate the call to really thinking critically about what we mean by rigorous, and similarly what adcoms might mean by it! (Hence Becky’s post! :] ) I think that was the consensus here, and so I think R.’s comment was unwarranted.

        tl;dr I used rigor in scare quotes a few times in my initial comment on purpose.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s