Apprenticeships: a Model For Library School?

10/03/2011 § 21 Comments

Hack Library School welcomes a guest post from Julia Glassman, who has an interesting perspective on the “theory vs. practice” conversation. Julia is finishing her second quarter of library school at UCLA. She’s interested in information literacy, cataloging and metadata, and incorporating alternative media into library collections, and hopes to someday work in an undergraduate library. You can see her other publications at her website.

Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting my sister-in-law at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, where she was working as an apprentice in the Ecological Horticulture program. As a gardener and a sustainable food fan, I couldn’t help but wonder if she was living the perfect life: her mornings were spent in classes, learning the ins and outs of lettuces and strawberries and other tasty things, and in the afternoons, she worked on the program’s 25-acre farm. After a communal dinner in a cabin overlooking the ocean, the apprentices would retire to the large tents that served as living quarters during their six month stay.

I am very jealous of my sister-in-law. (Maybe I’d eventually get tired of the tent thing, but from here in my apartment in L.A., it sounds like heaven.) In addition to being totally romantic, though, CASFS’s apprenticeship program illustrates an important pedagogical issue that’s often talked about, but too seldom implemented: placing a premium on practical experience over classroom learning. The program consists of 300 hours of coursework and 700 hours of experience – a ratio that could provide a interesting model for the MLIS degree.

In 1972, sociologist Howard S. Becker bluntly stated in his essay “A School is a Lousy Place to Learn Anything In” that although learners in both classrooms and on-the-job training experience problems with their education, the latter “is more likely to produce educational successes” (103). Although coursework has a lot to offer students, and makes up for deficiencies in practical training, students lose out when they have to rely solely on lectures and readings to gain knowledge. (Interesting note: I first read this essay when it was assigned, for our first class session, by one of my professors here in library school.) Luckily for me, I’m attending a program that has a strong internship component – but many programs produce graduates who have little, if any, practical experience. This over-emphasis on classes leads to problems with the quality of students’ education: many courses are so broad (or so easy) that only a fraction of the material will be useful to any one student, and even when the entirety of a course is useful, if we don’t have an immediate chance to put the material to use, we start forgetting particulars as soon as the course ends. It also leads to problems in the real world, when graduates try to find jobs in a glutted market without any experience in a library. (Warning: the link will ruin your day.) Librarians I’ve talked to sigh at applications from candidates with plenty of abstract knowledge, but zero on-the-job training.

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