Hack Your Program: The University of Texas at Austin School of Information

02/06/2011 § 24 Comments

iSchool philosophy

The above image is the philosophy of information science of the UT iSchool, one that manifests in its approach to curriculum and preparing students to enter the workforce.  I began the program in the fall of 2010 and expect to graduate May of 2012.  My decision to attend the UT iSchool was influenced by in-state tuition (my parents live in Texas), the reputation of the school, and the versatility of the program.  I am kind of in love with the program, though it isn’t without its flaws.  Needless to say, these opinions are strictly my own!

Background

The UT School of Information (colloquially, the iSchool) was founded in 1948 and offered a Masters of Library Science.   The School of Library and Information Science was founded in 1980 as a response to the increased focus on information science as a discipline and profession.   To fully reflect the interdisciplinary focus of the program, in 2000 the school removed its Masters of Library Science and instead only offered a Masters of Information Science, which is what it still offers today.  In 2002, the name of the school officially changed its name to the School of Information.

Programs Available

The UT iSchool offers two degrees: a Master’s of Information Science and a PhD.

The iSchool Master’s program prides itself on an interdisciplinary approach that combines the theoretical with the applicable, which is reflected in its coursework.  The Master’s program requires 40 credit hours to graduate, 24 of which must be in the iSchool.  The core requirements are currently in flux, with the incoming class having a different set of requirements than those already in the program.  For those entering the program, the core courses are: Information in Social and Cultural Context, Perspectives on Information, and Understanding Research.  For those currently in the program, we are subject to a somewhat more involved set of core requirements with 5 courses instead of 3: Understanding and Serving Users, Organizing Information, Managing Information Organizations, Introduction to Research in Information Science, and the nebulous Introduction to Information Science.  Many students, myself included, are unhappy with the core requirements we have to complete: 5 courses is a lot, the focus is wildly different depending on the instructor, and they are often “blow-off” courses.  The new core requirements do a good job of eliminating the more ambiguous courses (ahem, Introduction) and combining similar courses (such as Organizing and Users), but are so theoretical that it will likely take a few years before there is a consistent focus.  In fact, some professors I’ve spoken to are a bit confused about what the courses are meant to be about.  

Beyond the core courses, the only other mandatory course is a Capstone in the final semester.  The Capstone can be an academic paper (either a thesis or a report) or an internship.  Most students choose an internship and the career services coordinator does a wonderful job of advertising positions and helping you search.  We are free to do just about anything for our Capstone so long as we can find a faculty advisor to support the project; in fact, we’re encouraged to find internships that either fulfill an interest we couldn’t otherwise fulfill with courses or supplement courses we’ve loved.  I think the Capstone requirement is crucial for the program, giving students an opportunity to explore the discipline and expand their resumes.

There are three areas of study in the iSchool: Information Architecture, Librarianship, and Preservation and Archives.  While there are no course requirements for these areas of study (though there are suggestions), there are many course offerings aligned with these area.  In addition to those three areas, the iSchool offers 3 specializations which do come with their own set of requirements: a Certificate of Advanced Study (intended for individuals who already have a MIS or for students who want a little more coursework without a PhD), an Endorsement of Specialization (which allows a student to tailor his or her coursework), and a School Librarian Certification (the state of Texas requires all K-12 school librarians to be certified).  Finally, the MIS program offers several dual-degrees with Women’s and Gender Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and a Juris Doctor.

The elective courses vary in subject matter, from reference services to information policy and law to programming.  Everyone is encouraged to take a more “technical” course, with the most popular choices being Database Managment and Usability.  I took digital media collections and web design and loved them both.  There is a definite switch towards information architecture and digital studies in the course offerings which can leave us librarians feeling a bit left out; you just won’t find more “practical” library courses like Metadata and Description in the course guide anymore.

The Master’s program boasts an impressive U.S. News Ranking, rated #8 in Library and Information Studies, #1 in Preservation, #13 in Digital Librarianship, and #3 in Law Librarianship.  Additionally, the program has a bit more competitive admission standard than other programs, admitting only about 50% of applicants in 2009.

Funding

Funding for the iSchool, like many other programs, is difficult to get.  There are a few iSchool scholarships, the applications for which are due about the same time as the application, and Teacher’s Assistanceships, but those are both difficult to obtain.  Because the iSchool is involved with many professional associations (see below), many funding opportunities exist within those organizations; for example, I was awarded a small grant from the Texas Library Association for the 2011-2012 school year.  Because the iSchool is an ALA-accredited program, ALA scholarships are similarly available.   If you are unable to find outside funding or need more help with tuition, the University of Texas offers in-state tuition after one year of residency, making tuition (relatively) affordable.

Professional Associations

The iSchool is home to a few active professional groups: the ALA/TLA Student Chapter, Society of American Archivists, CHIPS, ASIS&T and ArTex, to name a few.

Perks

The iSchool JobWeb is one of the best information-related job search sites in the country (I’ve seen it listed as a resource for many different universities).  In addition to round-the-clock access to the JobWeb, our career services director sends out weekly emails with job and internship opportunities, useful and interesting articles, and words of encouragement.

Though the iSchool only offers a few distance-learning courses in its offerings, it is a member of WISE (Web-based Information Science Education), a consortium of several top-tier information schools “to provide a collaborative, cost-effective distance education model that will increase the quality, access, and diversity of online education opportunities in Library and Information Science.”  Basically, qualified students are admitted to WISE, which provides the opportunity to take really fantastic courses from member schools around the country for credit.

One of the biggest perks of the UT iSchool is its location.  The Austin area is home to several universities including St. Edward’s University, Texas State University, Southwestern University, and Austin Community College.  In addition to the Austin Public Library, the small town of Georgetown, Cedar Park, and Round Rock are nearby and have their own libraries with volunteer, internship, and employment opportunities.  Finally, the UT campus is home to the world-renowned Harry Ransom Center, the Briscoe Center, the Blanton Museum of Art, and several libraries.  If you’re looking for something in the for-profit world, Austin has Dell, Google, and about a dozen video game studios.  Being in the Capitol isn’t all bad: in addition to having dozens of government employment opportunities, Austin has the Texas Film Commission and Texas State Library and Archives. If you can stand the heat, Austin is a great place to live.

Criticisms

Being an iSchool (as opposed to a library school), often the course offerings feel a little esoteric or unapproachable.  While the faculty is committed to providing a well-rounded information program, students often complain that we leave without any good applicable skills.  Increasingly, the curriculum is moving away from a traditional library curriculum and towards a information architecture one–a move which is understandable given that it is, after all, an iSchool, but frustrating for those of us who want to work in a library setting.   Similarly, because the program is doubling up on core requirements in the Fall (due to half the program having new requirements), there are fewer elective offerings because the instructors are tied up teaching the cores.  The curriculum is undergoing quite an overhaul, though, so time will tell how it evolves.

As the saying goes, it works if you work it.  Course offerings vary  in content, theory, and focus: you will find courses each semester that are challenging and exciting and fun (most of the time, in fact, you’ll have a hard time narrowing it down to a manageable course load).  I’m sure once I’ve completed my degree, I will feel confident and prepared to begin my information career.  Please contact me for more information about UT, the iSchool, or Austin!

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§ 24 Responses to Hack Your Program: The University of Texas at Austin School of Information

  • Nicole Fonsh says:

    Wow- I’m jealous. This sounds like an incredible program and a great location too! The Capstone internship option also just sounds like a fantastic opportunity. And something that more programs should be doing, in my opinion.

  • Carolyn says:

    Very interesting to read a summary of the program. Great post! UT Austin was my second choice, but I ended up at IU Bloomington.

    I would be interested in hearing what incoming students feel about the shift from 5 courses to 3 courses. I have found that at IUB we also struggle with professors knowing what core courses are supposed to be “about”. My favorite is “Evaluation of Resources and Services” in practice it is a research methods class mixed with a little bit of everything you can think of.

  • Annie Pho says:

    I also wanted to go here! I remember looking at the webpage with all the beautiful preservation projects that students did, thinking how awesome it was. I agree with Nicole, I think it’s great that you guys have either a capstone project that forces students to either get practical experience or do a research project of their interest. It can only help students to make them go the extra mile.

  • Sara says:

    I have to disagree with the final assessment about classes being “esoteric”.

    I am a student at UT as well and find that the heaviest emphasis is on archives. Information architecture is increasingly prominent, but our book lab and the opportunities for internships in archives around Austin are still two of our program’s greatest strengths.

    The class offerings are becoming increasingly digital–including the archives offerings–but that makes them more relevant, not more esoteric.

    • Sara, I think that’s a good point. The book lab is an amazing resource and one that unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to take advantage of.

      Perhaps “esoteric” wasn’t the right word–because a lot of the digital courses are still new, the professors are still “sorting them out.” I really enjoyed my courses, but some of the time I have a hard time imagining how those skills will manifest in my future career.

      Thanks for your perspective!

    • This is often an issue that comes up when discussing the differences between an iSchool and a ‘traditional’ MLIS program – students are going into these programs with certain expectations and the school’s strengths may still be developing in one area or another.

      Here’s a question for you, Sara, and one we’ve discussed behind the scenes often: does a digital focus in our coursework start to leave behind those of our peers who are specializing in areas where digital is not pushed so strongly? For instance, one of my friends in the program here at Florida State is doing a YA focus, and while she agrees that digital is valuable, her coursework MUST have an emphasis in Youth Services and development. IA and digital archives wouldn’t be much use to her.

      Thanks for reading, and we always appreciate different points of view. I’d encourage you to write a post on the UT program from your perspective if you blog also. I’d love to read it.

      Thanks!

      Micah V.

      • Sara says:

        The archives program is extremely strong, but based on the course offerings, it seems that YA, public librarianship, and school librarianship is being pushed off to the sides a bit. This year there seems to be a renewed focus on academic libraries at least. In the fall there is Reference and Academic Libraries and spring 2012 will bring Collections management and Instruction.

  • Franny Gaede says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m going to be starting here in the fall– I know orientation is around the corner, but this is important, too. Are you currently in Austin? I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brain. :)

  • Jenna says:

    Thank you so much for your post! I’m applying to the iSchool for fall of 2012 (I’m allowing myself the extra time to ensure that I have time to apply for scholarships). I was wondering–how difficult it is to get into the iSchool? Also, were Teacher Assistant positions difficult for first-year grad students to obtain?

  • Gotta disagree... says:

    Like the other UT student above, I disagree that course offerings are skewed towards information architecture. Honestly, as an information architecture student, I feel beaten over the head with constant library and archives activities, organizations, and courses- I find that most of our professors assume we’re going to be working in libraries and archives, and often forget to account for the fact that some of us won’t be. Take another look at the course catalog- there are only a handful of classes specifically for IA.

    If anything, I think the courses are moving towards being about knowledge and information in general, rather than specific job skills. But like you said, it works if you work it- I feel like I’m building a lot of valuable skills.

    • rebeccakatharine says:

      Thanks for your perspective! Your take on the course offerings are really influenced by your professional interests. I agree that there are not a lot of student groups or outside activities for IA students–student life is definitely oriented towards archives and libraries.

    • Counterpoint! – Do you think IA should be taught in a different department, or through a different program? I wonder if/when the library schools will start to fragment into really separate tracks, more so than now, and if that will be a positive move or not. The focus on knowledge and information management seems true to me also, but how does that play out in the profession? Just playing devils advocate here!

      • s. says:

        In what other department are you envisioning IA fitting? Comp. sci lacks the user-centered paradigm (all their students come to our dept to take usability), design lacks the tech skills and knowledge management… I don’t know where we’d go. IA is inherently interdisciplinary, so I think we’ll be a bit like step-children anywhere you put us.

        Personally, I’m happy being a part of the iSchool, and I think this student body is closer to being my people than another department would be. I like to think I gain something from being in classes with librarians and archivists, just as I hope they get something from me (aside from CSS tutoring).

        Isn’t LIFE becoming a little more about information management? I don’t consider myself part of “the profession” per se, so I can’t comment there.

  • Brian says:

    Excellent series! Will anyone be writing on the Univ. of Michigan?

    • Brian, no specific plans for U Michigan post yet. You know anyone who’d be interested?

      • Anne says:

        Brian & Micah – I could definitely answer questions/write a post. But I’m really more of an archives person (the tracks at U of M are fairly separate). I could also probably track down a LIS person for a post if that would be of interest.

  • Anon says:

    I love this series as well – is every ALA-accredited list expected to be written about? Or the posts just dependent on who wants to write about their program? I ask, because I’d like to write about the program I am finishing… :)

    • Anon,

      The idea was first just to have our editors write about their programs and see how it went. We would love to have posts from other schools, and want to continue to work together toward “the transparent library school” as mentioned in the post that kicked off this series. Email me if you’d like to propose a post.

  • Madigan says:

    I graduated from UT’s ischool in 2006, and I’d say this report is right on target.

  • [...] University of Texas at Austin Course Title: INF 384C Introduction to Information Resources and Services Professor Instructor: [...]

  • [...] My information science program does not specifically offer any information ethics courses. There are a few courses in children’s librarianship but since I haven’t taken them yet, I don’t know if they address privacy/censorship/ethical concerns. There are a handful of courses that likely do address some issues of privacy and ethics, but they aren’t geared towards a particular branch of librarianship and they aren’t required.  Shouldn’t LIS education be talking about this sort of thing? Is it just too complicated, too case-by-case to offer a general course? Other than the ALA’s guidelines and whatever policies are in place at your particular information center, what else can LIS education offer us in terms of developing some intuition about how to tackle these sorts of interactions?  To start with, programs should require a course in ethics that investigate privacy for young people, distribution of information, and conflicting needs.  It would also enhance reference courses to discuss situations where advocacy and service are at odds. [...]

  • [...] My information science program does not specifically offer any information ethics courses. There are a few courses in children’s librarianship but since I haven’t taken them yet, I don’t know if they address privacy/censorship/ethical concerns. There are a handful of courses that likely do address some issues of privacy and ethics, but they aren’t geared towards a particular branch of librarianship and they aren’t required.  I know that my school isn’t the only one without these courses.  Shouldn’t LIS education be talking about this sort of thing? Is it just too complicated, too case-by-case to offer a general course? Other than the ALA’s guidelines and whatever policies are in place at your particular information center, what else can LIS education offer us in terms of developing some intuition about how to tackle these sorts of interactions?  to start with, programs should require a course in ethics that investigate privacy for young people, distribution of information, and conflicting needs.  it would also enhance reference courses to discuss situations where advocacy and service are at odds. [...]

  • Grover3000 says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post. It was very helpful to me in gaining some insight into whether UT-Austin was a possible fit for me. I turned in my application for next fall so we’ll see what happens now I guess!

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