What is a LIS degree? This question is a favourite concern to me as director of a postgraduate LIS programme (#citylis). Surrounded by rocketing costs for the professional masters, piled on top of hiked-up undergraduate fees and set in the midst of global economic uncertainty, there is the very real question of why anyone would choose to enrol on a face-to-face taught course instead of learning on the job.
Leaving aside for the moment, the choice of which subjects should be presented in the classroom, our slant at #citylis has always been on an academic focus, emphasizing the theoretical principles underlying professional practice.
Unsurprisingly, we face the occasional suggestion that it might be better to teach more about what people actually do in the workplace. This latter approach has always seemed short sighted to me. Skills I used in the workplace 5 years ago are already sliding from dinner party conversation (command line searching anyone?) and I am constantly being reminded that what employers value most are those harder-to-quantify skills, which start with ‘excellent oral and written communication’ and run through to the pinnacle of ‘flexible thinker’.
Whilst it is difficult to find an agreed upon definition of ‘flexible thinking’, let alone ensure its presence in the curriculum, it is unlikely to emerge from a purely vocational based course. Our belief is that thinking skills develop from academic study. That is to say, if you want to learn to think, practice thinking.
But there is more to a successful career than being able to pronounce on theory. It is important to show how theoretical principles can be used to deliver results in the workplace. Here again, practice is the key, and to this end we augment our research based content with practical examples delivered by leading practitioners. This blended approach has received two welcome validations recently. The first by Andrew Preater (@preater) comes in his concise blog posting Reflections on the LIS Professional Qualification where he writes:
Personally I do not think the LIS masters should be vocational training to provide specific practical knowledge to do library work.
Rather I see the value in masters-level education of providing enough theory and knowledge of general principles that a library worker can bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical understanding developed in our professional practice.
The second comes from Diane Pennington, speaking at a Symposium organized by McGill University’s iSchool, (reported in InsideASIS&T Oct/Nov 2013, 40(1) p 16) who argued against divisions in the curriculum between those intent on a vocational career, and those aiming for PhD study.
All of this should be obvious, but the situation often seems a little hopeless to those of us who are constantly called upon to justify the existence of our cross-disciplinary, academic curriculum in terms of immediate job skills and learning outcomes. It is good to stand back and remind ourselves of the bigger picture. In our academic approach, we are laying the foundations of resilience and adaptability that will support a life-long career, rather than just a first position.