It Doesn’t Matter What Classes We Take: An Experiment in Life Choices

After my first semester of library school I decided that taking useful classes wasn’t for me. Employers don’t appear to care about coursework or grades, there’s a big chunk of working librarians who claim they didn’t learn anything in grad school anyhow, and the Illinois iSchool lets its students do basically whatever we want. So, if no one cares about the content of my education but me, why not just have fun?

I’m now halfway through testing my “what if school, but without the boring parts?” hypothesis, and it’s time for a check-in. What classes have I taken/am I taking, and am I in fact having fun? Since it’s November 2020, I’ve lowered my standard for fun to whether being in a certain class makes me want to die and/or drop out of school and move to Montana.

First Semester

Information Organization and Access: The first of two required classes. Surprisingly fun in my opinion, though most of my classmates disagreed. I’m not sure what I supposed to take away from the course overall, but I enjoyed learning a bit about command line and contemplating the organizational methods of a local specialty grocery.

Introduction to Bibliographic Metadata: An introductory cataloging course. It wasn’t boring or difficult, exactly, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about RDA and it turns out I’m pretty bad at subject headings. I learned a lot, but it’s too early to tell if the suffering was worth it.

Grant Writing for Libraries: The title pretty much says it all. A very straightforward class where I learned how to find and apply for grants. It was definitely useful, and since it was only a half-semester long it counts as fun by my standards.

Second Semester

Libraries, Information, and Society: The second of the required classes at Illinois. Content varies depending on the professor. I don’t remember if I learned anything, but I do remember that it wasn’t a good time.

Library Buildings: The party class! Or it would have been, if it hadn’t been Spring 2020 and all the best field trips hadn’t been cancelled. The basic concept of the class was that the professor would take us to different libraries and point out all the things that were horribly wrong, with a lot of commentary about how architects are terrible people who can’t wait to foist skylights and water features on unsuspecting library directors. Office hours were held at a nearby Chinese buffet. It was great, and I may have actually learned how to manage a library renovation, too.

Information History: Distinct from the History of Information. This was a graduate seminar. It wasn’t fun in the same way that Library Buildings was fun, but it was definitely interesting and I recommend it to everyone. I’ll never look at an accounting ledger or a government ID the same way again.

Third Semester

Bibliography of Africa: This course teaches students how to write a bibliography on a subject relating in some way to Africa. (I chose the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879) The jury’s still out on whether this will qualify as a fun course, and its usefulness is pretty indirect, but it’s already had a big impact on my writing style. Not all learning outcomes are in the syllabus, kids.

AV Materials: A class about AV materials and how to care for them. Look, when a bunch of metadata experts are in charge of naming courses, they don’t leave much to the imagination. I took this class because it was recommended by a friend, and I think in person it would qualify as fun even though AV isn’t one of my stronger interests. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a gnat in online classes and I’m unable to take full advantage of this learning opportunity.

Social Justice in Youth Literature: My favorite class so far this semester, eight weeks of reading kids’ books and discussing them with nice people in video conferencing breakout rooms. This was a last-minute replacement for the History of Children’s Literature, which was turned into a 16-week course when my back was turned. I’m not interested in youth librarianship at all, but it was a pleasant experience and now I have some great new books in my collection.

8-week courses are my favorite, because they’re over before I can get bored with them. I’m tempted to take five 8-week courses next semester, instead of one 8-week and two 16-week. So far, I’ve been successful in my quest for getting maximum enjoyment from my library school experience. Join me for my final article in May, when I reveal whether my unorthodox course selection methods have had any impact on my one true goal: getting a library job.

Emily is a second-year master’s student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She recently decided against getting a PhD because it would interfere with her casual reading. The cover image is of her cat, Cleo, demonstrating how to use a treadmill.

Categories: advice

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10 replies

  1. I love this, and it really helps with the anxiety I’ve been feeling about creating a plan of work in which I choose the electives I want to take for my whole degree (It’s not set in stone, but still).

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  2. My undergrad did 9 week terms, and it was basically perfect. Also, the “take classes that sound fun” was the strategy I used for my undergrad work and now again for my MLIS. It doesn’t always look the most practical on paper, but sometimes you end up traipsing around Berlin twice in two years and mostly avoid the desire to drop out and move to Montana.

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  3. I find 8 week courses really depend on content. I did cataloguing in an 8 week course and it was so fast and jam packed that it was a rollercoaster ride. But I also did an online retrieval course (constructing search queries for academic databases) and the 8 week format fit it perfectly. 16 weeks would have been torture!

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  4. Emily, you’re a hero. I’ve been taking a sort of similar path in choosing electives. My criteria are:
    1. How much do I already know about this topic because then it will be easier
    2. Is the instructor one of the awful ones
    3. How useful will this be to me in the future

    UofA doesn’t offer very many elective options every semester and 5/13 courses are required, with a further 2 being required from a set of 5 IT courses, so I don’t have as much freedom or choice as you but it’s been working well for the most part! I’m 4 semesters in and I’ve managed to have at least 1 of 2 courses every semester that I enjoy haha.

    Liked by 1 person

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