Using Literature to Teach in LIS Education: A Very Good Idea

Article excerpt

Reports on the effectiveness of using fiction in graduate education come from a variety of disciplines and professional fields. Perhaps the best known is the writing of Robert Coles, who speaks to the use of literature in educating doctors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers. But LIS education has done little to explore the potential of teaching with literature in our own discipline. Suggesting first a theoretical framework to support the combination of both the cognitive and the affective in higher education, this article goes on to report qualitative and quantitative findings that demonstrate the success of using fiction in LIS education. Finally, specific applications are suggested and described.

Introduction

If you're reading this, chances are good that you are a Reader. Asked what you wish you could do more of, what you regret not doing, and what you hope to spend your time doing in retirement, "reading" will be at the top of your list. Many of us yearn to read - and frequently what we most yearn to read is quality literature.

Why do we love to read? There are many responses to that question, both visceral, if you will, as well as answers grounded in research. Essentially, we read to expand our experience. It may be to escape into other worlds, to meet new people, to travel, or to pretend, but we broaden our horizons when we read. We learn.

In this article, I will argue that as educators of adults, we have a tremendous opportunity to use literature to expand our students' experience. And, I will argue, in library and information science (LIS) education, where our students are ever more likely than the general population to be Readers, we miss the boat when we forget about the power of literature to teach.

The power of narrative itself, not only for teaching1 but also within corporate practice,2 has been well documented. I take a somewhat different approach in this article, however, focusing on fiction and literature rather than on case-study style narrative. I will review theory from education and psychology that demonstrates the effectiveness of using literature for graduate education as well as educational theory that argues for learning through experience. I will describe the results of qualitative and quantitative studies, and I will offer specific examples of LIS courses where literature is an especially effective teaching tool. I will also refer to published accounts from other disciplines where literature is used in professional graduate education.

Background

Reports on the effectiveness of using fiction in graduate education come from a variety of disciplines and professional fields. Perhaps the best known is the writing of Robert Coles,3 who speaks to the use of literature in educating doctors, lawyers, social workers, and teachers. Certainly there is no argument regarding the power of novels such as Willa Cather's My Antonia to teach about the complexity and richness of pioneer life. In undergraduate liberal arts education, literature is often used as a powerful teaching tool, as evidenced in such initiatives as the Great Books curriculum at St. John's College.4 But in The Call of Stories,5 Robert Coles describes the power of fiction in teaching medical students about death from the perspective of human grief, or about illness through the eyes of a terminally ill mother of preschoolers. He also demonstrates the effectiveness of particular stories in teaching law students the finer points of human motivation and the consequences - intended and unintended - of the law. He illustrates the power of story in teaching aspiring professional social workers about a life lived in poverty. It is in teaching these philosophical points - issues of humanity, values, and ethics - as contrasted with the teaching of a profession's clinical tools, where literature is so useful and effective.

In The Call of Stories, Coles builds on the work of his mentor William Carlos Williams, a medical doctor and a celebrated writer, ultimately describing a series of examples of short stories and novels that Coles has found effective in his teaching. …