The Independent Study: Making Your Own Course

by Paul Lai

An independent study is a valuable option for customizing your learning during library school. In an independent study, you essentially create your own course on a topic of your devising, working in concert with a faculty mentor. In format, the independent study is like the tutorial system used by some British universities for undergraduate education; you meet individually with the faculty member on a regular basis and discuss a set of readings as well as writing assignments.

You must bring a lot to the table with each meeting, but the benefits include one-on-one attention, more focused exploration of a topic that interests you, and more flexible scheduling. Some programs even allow two or three students to do an independent study together if you prefer.

Professors will differ in the way they conduct the meetings, but most faculty expect students to take the lead in discussions. They will ask questions in order to help students clarify what they are thinking and what kinds of issues they want to discuss. Don’t think of the situation as an exam where the professor has the knowledge and you are there to be tested on how much of it you have absorbed. Think of it, instead, as a chance to talk to a library researcher about a shared interest in librarianship. An independent study is also a great chance to learn differently than might be the established culture of teaching methods in your library school.

Ideally, an independent study supplements and complements what your program’s curriculum already offers. However, some schools also let you use an independent study to cover a topic that doesn’t fit your schedule timing-wise (some courses may only be offered every other year or even less frequently).

Planning the independent study

Start thinking early about what you might want to study. The scope of an independent study can be broad or deep, but the extent of your engagement with the topic should be of sufficient amount to equal a standard course. Consult with faculty and academic advisors about potential topics to make sure that what you want to study isn’t already covered by a course on the books.

You will want to start thinking at least a semester in advance so that you can find a suitable faculty mentor whose expertise matches your topic. You will generally have to write up a proposal, which can include the proposed study topic, a rationale for the focus, a preliminary reading list, and a description of the learning documents that you will produce. These documents have traditionally been informal and formal papers, but be creative! You might do a poster presentation to submit to an ALA conference. You might compile an annotated bibliography. You might create a service learning project with a local organization. You might create a website. You might make video tutorials for a library’s online resources.

Things to consider

As the name implies, an independent study puts much of the responsibility for learning on your shoulders. Don’t wait around for your faculty mentor to tell you what to do. Do seek her or his advice, though. If you find yourself lost in the material or at a loss for how to proceed, don’t be afraid to say so.

Make sure you have good rapport with your chosen faculty mentor. You don’t want to suffer through a semester of awkward or difficult meetings!

Ask around to see what independent studies your classmates might have done (on what topics and with which professors). The department office might also allow you to look at proposals others have submitted in the past.

Also be aware that your professors generally take on independent studies above and beyond their usual teaching, research, and service obligations, and they may or may not be compensated for the extra work.

Possible benefits

You will get a chance to learn what you want to learn.

You can demonstrate your ability to work independently and proactively, something your future employers will surely love.

You can tackle in depth that really interesting topic you started thinking about for a previous class’s final research paper.

You can get a head start on exploring the literature for a topic you would like to write about for your master’s essay.

You can study something that is too new or too cutting-edge to have made it into your program’s curriculum. It takes time for courses to make their way through the bureaucracy of schools, and given the rapid pace of change in the field of librarianship, it is inevitable that there will be topics relevant in today’s libraries (and the libraries of tomorrow) that have yet to find expression in the offered courses.

In the spirit of HackLibSchool, I’ll end with another suggestion: think about how you might use an independent study to sync your learning with a library student at another program. Perhaps you could develop an independent study together and incorporate conference calls with each other and faculty mentors as part of the semester’s meetings, or you could use a shared email listserv to carry on a discussion virtually across programs. (The Declassified series offers a look at how useful it is to think across programs in terms of particular classes.)