“I need a reference for this paper that is due by the end of the day!” or “How do I cite this about.com article?” Have you ever helped a student with one of these situations and cringed a little bit? When you are an idealistic librarian it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that not all students share the same passion for research that you have. The concept of Pragmatism vs. Idealism in the academic library was introduced by Mary Thill in a study released last year as part of the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project. Thill’s chapter in the book contained information that is especially relevant to two-year librarians.
Thill defines Pragmatism as an attitude where student motivation to learn is based on economics and vocations. Pragmatic students want to expend enough effort to get the necessary grade, but not go much beyond that. On the other hand, Idealism is an attitude where the motivation to learn is a genuine love of the learning process. These students want to explore and discover all available resources (Thill, 2012). It probably comes as no surprise that many librarians identify more with the idealists whereas our students tend toward the pragmatic. Given this disparity, we could benefit from meeting our students where they are at by finding a balance between the way we wish students would research and the students’ desire to find the information as quickly as possible.
The first step to better helping students is to recognize that the goal of two-year students is not necessarily the same as that of a traditional four-year college student and this affects how they seek and use information. Many two-year college students are non-traditional students who have come back to school to learn a specific vocation or skill in hopes of obtaining upward mobility. Other students are first generation college students who are also seeking specific skills to gain upward mobility. These pragmatic students need to know how to connect information seeking to real world context. As librarians we all know that information literacy is a skill with many real world applications, but are we effectively sharing this information with students? Many two-year college students will not write another research paper once they graduate and they know this. They are not preparing for a life in academia, but for a life in the workforce.
Since librarianship requires a Master’s Degree, many librarians (myself included) approach research from an academic perspective. It can be difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our students, but this is what we must do. As librarians we need to ask ourselves how we can adjust the way we provide services to make sure that our students are getting the help that THEY need rather than the help that WE THINK they should have. Thill points out that “if we quietly hope to convert all students to the liberal ideals of higher education, we may miss opportunities to connect with a pragmatic student body.” (Thill, 2012) Some of the things I do to reach out to pragmatic students include:
- Explain that finding high quality information doesn’t always take longer. For our Nursing students I explain that searching for a condition on MedlinePlus doesn’t take any longer than doing a Google search but that the information you get back will be more trustworthy
- Highlight ways to use databases and resources beyond writing papers. I’ve showed students how to use the business databases to find information on potential employers.
- Engage in conversation. I try to talk to the students about information whenever I can. If a student tells me he doesn’t understand why he can’t just “Google It” for the assignment, I use it as a teachable moment.
I would love to hear what you think. How can we find ways to respect the pragmatism of students while also promoting the core standards of information literacy?
Thill, M. (2012). Pragmatism and Idealism in the Academic Library: An Analysis of Faculty and Librarian Expectations and Values. In Asher, A.D. & Duke, L.M. (Eds.), College Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know (15-30). Chicago: American Library Association.
For Further Reading
Kolowich, S. (2011, August 22). What Students Don’t Know. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/08/22/erial_study_of_student_research_habits_at_illinois_university_libraries_reveals_alarmingly_poor_information_literacy_and_skills
Head, A. (2012). Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace. (Project Information Literacy Research Report). Retrieved from Project Information Literacy website: http://projectinfolit.org/pdfs/PIL_fall2012_workplaceStudy_FullReport.pdf