This summer I’m revising the library projects in my music history sequence for music majors. Working with an instructional librarian is truly a wonderful experience. A short meeting and series of quick emails later and I found exactly what I needed on my desk: a current version of both the American Library Association’s standards for Information Literacy and the Music Library Association’s instructional objectives for meeting these standards in a music curriculum, as well as an article in the Music Library Association’s journal on weaving sequential library instruction into the music curriculum. Seriously, Instructional Librarians are better than Google!
And this is exactly what the curricular library projects should show students today: information literacy for the Google Age. Google is an incredible resource and I use it all the time to find the nearest Chipotle, the spelling of Dohnanyi, and the hours the campus library is open. But it’s not going to yield the best resources for student research if used in this way.
Library projects should be an entirely transparent experience for students. Introducing the class to various media in the library (scholarly articles, critical editions scores, discographies, etc.) does little to develop a critical research acumen when the objectives are not discussed in current contexts. Today’s students are not going to kick the search engine habit unless our library projects show them the potential pitfalls of passive research.
As Nicholas Carr has argued in his recent book, The Shallows, there is a question of ethics whenever one engages in a new form of technology. To him, the search engine has cultivated high skills in skimming vast quantities of information quickly but has hindered the ability for deep concentration and reflection. This idea reminds me of the findings of the Collegiate Learning Assessment as reported by Arum and Roska in Academically Adrift. Students are neither assigned nor held fully accountable for reading and writing large, complex texts in the college experience. Many pass courses and graduate without them.
This argument is reflected in the library project as well. Requiring students to construct bibliographies and request a source through interlibrary loan for a single assignment has as much benefit for good information literacy habits as Milton Babbitt has for getting non music majors to buy season tickets to the symphony. Students need to see (and fall for) the potential risks of lazy research.
My intent, at this early point in the summer, is to engage my first semester music history class in an information literacy duel. Google teams will be pitted against the wisdom of the instructional librarian in accessing current, authoritative, relevant, and bias sources, to use the CARB technique of evaluating sources. Controversial figures in music history, Hans Pfitzner and Dmitri Shostakovich to name a couple, will demonstrate the fallacy of believing everything in print (both on paper and the screen). Although library stacks also house sources with questionable information, the point will be that good information literacy yields resources vetted by the researcher and not ranked by other factors (i.e. company purchases).
It is not enough that a single designated course and assignment walk students through the motions of accessing and evaluating a variety of sources in the library. We should hold students in all of our courses, especially upper-level courses, accountable. In recent semesters, I’ve begun cringing at the reference slides of student Powerpoint presentations that are littered with URLs of ehow.com and answers.yahoo.com. I wouldn’t be caught dead posing as an expert on a topic with those resources displayed for a room of my peers. When students are confident in attaching their names to that type of research, it’s a serious problem.
It is no surprise that service learning continues to gain momentum in liberal arts curricula, since the outcomes resonate well with many college mission statements. Preparing students for community and global citizenship is and should be a major priority. The new, peer-reviewed “Journal of Service-Learning in Higher Education” illustrates the interdisciplinary conversations of this growing component of the liberal arts in the 21st century. Many majors are building in service learning courses and projects to engage students in relevant applications of theory to practice.
Some traditional liberal arts fields, including my own, however, have left the responsibility of service learning to other departments. But I suspect (and hope) that the growing interest in service learning pedagogy and the success of student writing across the curriculum initiatives will inspire faculty in all disciplines to altruistic pursuits. Music has understandably ignored the pedagogy of service learning for two main reasons: 1) students already give to the community through a variety of concerts, tours, and workshops. Everyone from young children to senior citizens benefit from these offerings. 2) Music students gain knowledge and relevant experience through these performance opportunities. The issue with this model is that there is a disconnect between volunteerism and the actual learning. Students are not expected to reflect and articulate the gifts of music to the cultural vibrancy of their communities.
Any field and subfield can develop a service learning component, but faculty should take a thoughtful and practical approach to designing a successful experience. A deterrent to exploring this possibility is the content course–no surprise! Any attempts to coordinate community partnerships with the schedule of course topics will be a challenge and the result could be a poor educational experience for students and an awkward exchange with the community. It is better to identify relevant needs and pair skills that can meet those needs.
The research paper assigned in my upper-level music history course requires several transferable skills, notably archival research methods and writing. Local libraries and historical societies house unkept artifacts of musical life that, while rarely conforming to course content goals, offer something culturally significant to the community if properly catalogued, interpreted, and shared by the able hands of undergraduate music majors. In the process of working with local collections, student have an opportunity to develop archival research skills while actively engaging with local history. While the exercise may not meet content needs, it certainly meets skill development needs as students have an opportunity demonstrate the relevance of their major and the course through service. Where local organizations find difficulty in managing collections with limited funds, students can help and learn something in the process.