Monday, April 16, 2012

Schoolin' My Community, or, Outreach and Cultural Literacy

If you've got me circled, friended, or followed, you've probably seen me blather on and on about the cultural literacy series I started at my college. The blathering is due to how successful it's been. In response to my excited posts on social networks, a few people have asked me to share more details. I figured it was about time that I do so.

How did an academic librarian come to found a cultural literacy series? Well, it all started over a year ago when I read "Tea, Shortbread, and 3 Things Worth Knowing," by Shawkat M. Toorawa, in The Chronicle of Higher Ed. In it, Toorawa lamented his students' lack of background knowledge. They didn't know about things like the Sex Pistols or Keats or Garrison Keillor, things that Toorawa thought were part of our common cultural vocabulary. Please forgive the cliché, but wow did this ring a bell for me. I've run into this problem too many times. As an example, I'll never forget the time I was trying to get a class to talk about "The Little Match Girl," by Hans Christian Andersen. I wanted them to discuss the differences and similarities between Andersen's story and Mark the Match Boy (Horatio Alger, Jr.'s version of the story). We were inside, with all the windows closed, and I could have sworn I heard crickets.

Because of my experiences, I wanted to create something like Toorawa's program. However, turning the idea into something real was more complicated and took longer than I imagined. The event that really got things moving was finding the right combination of campus partners. I told them about my idea of running something similar to the program discussed in the article; they suggested people to invite and helped me plan specifics. For our test run, we wanted something "sexy," so I asked a popular biology professor to talk about zombies. He took "zombies" and turned it into "the early religious, scientific, philosophical, and literature foundations of modern concepts of zombies." It was fascinating, engaging, and, best of all, educational. The second session, given by a communication professor about '80s teen movies, went in a similar direction: she started talking about tropes and teen movie conventions but ended by discussing the way teen movies these days ignore abortion as a possibility.

Figuring out the logistics of the program was another part of the process. After discussing other options, the planning group decided to hold the talks every other week (weekly seems like too much, but monthly is too little), at lunch time (most members of the community are on campus at that time of day), in our student center (the dining hall is L O U D), with free pizza and soda. Finally, the talks are limited to 30 minutes.

We're calling it "Three Things You Ought to Know About..." and it's been wildly successful so far. People from almost every aspect of our campus community (faculty, students, staff, administrators) have attended. I've been approached by other professors who want to do a session. Students are asking when the next one will be. I can't imagine how it could have gone better than it has. This is programming librarian heaven.

So now it's your turn. Have you tried anything like this at your library? How did it go? If you've never run a program like this, do you think it would work for your community? Why/why not? Also, feel free to ask me questions about the program we're running.

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