Stronger Students, Better Research: Information Literacy in the Women's Studies Classroom

Article excerpt

In 1997, in a Women's Studies Center Curriculum Committee meeting at West Virginia University, our founding director, Dr. Judith Stitzel, observed that the students in the capstone course of the women's studies curriculum were not yet ready to meet the expectations for critical thinking of this final stage of their undergraduate work. For some time I'd been pondering strategies to strengthen the curriculum and contribute to the development of critical thought.

Dr. Stitzel's observation led me to conceive of a two-part solution: (1) creation of a program of integrated, sequential, active learning exercises about research that could be used by interested faculty throughout the curriculum's four years; and (2) development of a three-credit course for advanced undergraduates, addressing the feminist research process in a context of scholarly and non-scholarly communication and dissemination. During the course of a professional development leave, I began to implement that solution by creating a course entitled "Women's Studies Research in the Information Age" (WS 493). Four students successfully completed the requirements of the course this past summer. I hope to offer it again in Spring 2005 to a larger audience.

The new course addresses the power of learning through the research process in women's studies. It aims to be an antidote for "Google overload," brushes with plagiarism, and papers that only skim the surface of a subject. While developing the course, I tried to balance the traditional intellectual foundation of scholarly (and non-scholarly) communication in women's studies with the constant flow of dazzling technological innovations. The course intertwines women's studies information dissemination with the tenets of contemporary information literacy.

In this article I will first set out the problem I saw: Students are often unable to grasp research as an important process because it is rarely, if ever, presented to them in a meaningful way. I will note how this problem connected with some of my own professional frustrations, and how I addressed both matters. Finally, I will share the results of my creative and research process essential to the realization of the course's objectives, as well as an assessment of the initial outcomes for the students and their instructor.

Beyond wishing to strengthen the undergraduate University Libraries' and women's studies curricula, one motivation for my work was my own dissatisfaction with visiting classes once a semester as a guest to talk about research before students start a research project. While the "one-shot" visit is a step in the right direction, it is not enough to ensure that students have rewarding experiences with the research process, or that more effective papers, exhibiting critical thought, result. Furthermore, I have not seen evidence that many faculty colleagues are preparing even their advanced undergraduate students for the realities of serious research. Many seem to assume that students have acquired research skills when in fact they have not. Since, as Mary Catherine Bateson observed, "Lifelong learning is not optional," and since many faculty do not appear to be providing adequate preparation, it is up to academic librarians to teach as many students as possible about in-depth information skills they can use throughout their lives. (1)

Instructional collaboration between librarians and teaching faculty has been widely discussed, and programs to promote information literacy have been implemented on many campuses. (2) In Wisconsin, for example, there are many excellent examples of information literacy initiatives, most notably at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Similar programs exist at the University of Rhode Island, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the State University of New York at Albany. The West Virginia University Libraries sponsor a one-credit course in basic library skills that reaches large numbers of students, many "one-shot" visits to courses in a variety of disciplines, and now my three-credit course for advanced undergraduates in women's studies. …