Spring Doctoral Seminar: Theories in IS&LT


ISLT 9410 — Theories in Information Science & Learning Technologies

Class Meetings: Tuesdays, 1:00–3:40, 104 Townsend (except where noted)

Course Description

This seminar will present a variety of theoretical constructs that can be employed in the exercise of inquiry in library and information science. Each construct will be examined critically to determine it rationality, it implications for empiricism and practical applications, and its relationship to the other constructs. Discussion will be the essential mode of interaction; every student will participate fully and will be engaged in each class’s conversations.

Course Goal

The principal goal of the course is to provide students with a clear understanding of the ways of thinking about theories that can be applicable to inquiry in library and information science. While these topics do not exhaust the possibilities, they present epistemic strategies that will be beneficial in future research. Among other things, these strategies can help frame questions, conceive of problems, develop plans of action, situate methods and interpret results.

Learning Objectives

  1. Every student will be able to demonstrate comprehension of the major tenets of each theoretical construct.
  2. Everyone in the class will engage in a specifically dialogical critique, presenting claims to the class and subjecting those claims to analysis.
  3. Students will understand both the need for, and the means by which, investigators can transcend limiting assumptions and ideologies.
  4. Each student will show, in substantive form, an ability to extend the articulation of the theories to applications of them.
  5. Everyone in the class will be able to demonstrate the ability to identity and address language-based foundations of, and challenges to, theory.
  6. Each student will be able to point out any existing political and/or economic distortions of, or modifications to, theory.
  7. Every student will demonstrate clearly the means by which theoretical constructs function as informative mechanisms to inquiry.

Course Outline

  1. Session 1, Jan. 22 (online): What Is Theory?
  2. Session 2, Jan. 29 (online): How Are Theories Built?
    Dewey, John. 1909, 2010. How We Think. FQ Books.
    There are actions that are a priori to knowing. Dewey provides, as part of his pragmatic program, ways to conceive of the issues that arise in everyday life, and conceptual tactics to be used in inquiry.
  3. Session 3, Feb. 5: Fundamentals of Cognition and Cognitive Action
    Wheeler, Michael. 2005. Reconstructing the Cognitive World: The Next Step. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    In all kinds of research into human action it is essential to comprehend the processes according which human cognition operates. Behavior generally follows from those operations.
  4. Session 4, Feb. 12: How Are People Informed?
    Illeris, Knud. 2009. Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists… in Their Own Words. London: Routledge.
    Learning is, of course, related to cognition, but it has unique characteristics that are also variable from person to person. To a considerable extent, learning depends upon perception, which also must be explored.
  5. Session 5, Feb. 19: What Is Science?
    Bhaskar, Roy. 2008. A Realist Theory of Science. London: Routledge.
    “Science” is used in a very broad sense here, not merely as a description of the natural world, but also as the manners in which humans are in the natural world and, by our presence, affect the world.
  6. Session 6, Feb. 26: Technology in Imagination and Use
    Brian, Arthur W. 2009. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.
    Humans can also be conceived as homo faber, as makers of things. In this role we must examine what Aristotle referred to as techne, or the creation of tools to assist the development of knowledge.
  7. Session 7, Mar. 5: Economics in Design and Practice
    Binmore, Ken. 2009. Rational Decisions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    Using games as mathematical tools to help make decisions is a relatively new field, but its applications are far-reaching.
  8. Session 8, Mar. 12: Putting Things in Their Places
    Foucault, Michel. 1970, 1994. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage.
    All disciplines can benefit from the multi-disciplinary investigation of classification—not merely of things, but of ideas and actions.
  9. Session 9, Mar. 19: How Do We Read, and Why?
    Littau, Karin. 2006. Theories of Reading: Books, Bodies and Bibliomania. Cambridge: Polity.
    It almost goes without saying that the fields of learning and information depend on understanding the dynamics of reading; reading, though, is not a simple action and has a rich theoretical foundation.
  11. Session 10, Apr. 2: Organizational Theory
    Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books.
    Identity affects human relations that include educational and informational endeavors; in part, identity is manifest in the form of performance.
  12. Session 11, Apr. 9: Critical Theory
    Held, David. 1980. Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas. Berkeley: University of California Press.
    “Critical theory” has particular meaning here. The thought of the “Frankfurt School”—Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and (later) Habermas helped shape theories relating to culture, politics, and other forms of action.
  13. Session 12, Apr. 16: Presentations
  14. Session 13, Apr. 23: Presentations
  15. Session 14, Apr. 30: Presentations
  16. Session 15, May 7: Presentations


  • Participation: 50 points
  • Report on Readings: 50 points
  • Presentation and Paper: 100 points

Grading Scale

  • 188-200: A
  • 160-187.75: B
  • 140-159.75: C
  • Below 140: F


A seminar depends on the active exchange of ideas by all members of the class. There will be minimal introductory lecturing in the class; the time will be spent exploring the theoretical constructs presented by the authors. Every student is expected to be completely prepared for each class, which includes having read the book and being ready to comment on the author’s ideas and ask questions about meaning and application. [N.B.: Questions are always legitimate and are particularly important to moving discussions forward; no one should fear asking them or believing that only comments are legitimate contributions].

The evaluation of participation will be based on the preparation that is evident during every class session. The preparation will be demonstrated by means of specific reference to the assigned material, interpretive exercise based on the material, questioning of authorial claims, and similar actions. Active engagement in discussions are required.

Report on Readings

During sessions 3 through 11 students will present critical interpretations of the assigned reading for the session in question. The interpretation must include at least one potential application of the theory (a question or problem to which the theory can be applied, inquire which can be informed by the theory). The report will be 30 minutes long, and each student will draw from at least one additional source (that is, in addition to the assigned reading). That additional source will also be subjected to critical interpretation. The report to the class will be accompanied by an extended abstract of 1,000 words. The abstract will be distributed to the entire class one week prior to the date of the report.

The report will be evaluated on the basis of the organization of the critical interpretation (the report must have a logical flow so that the audience can comprehend what the book’s author intended as primary points). The major points must be detailed with clarity and, where possible, with application. The reporter should interact with the class so as to draw out questions and comments that related to the reporter’s synopsis. The additional source must be integrated into the report in such a way as to supplement, complement, or dispute what the assigned reading has to say.

Presentation and Paper

The last four sessions of the course are reserved for presentations. The presentations can be on themes related to assigned readings, but must transcend the assigned readings, the class discussions, and limitations of treatment in the assigned readings. For example, a presentation may focus on cognition, but it must include elements of theoretical content and/or import that the required reading does not. Note: the presentation is on a topic, not on a single source. For the in-class presentation, limit discussion to no more than five sources (although the paper will inevitably include more).

Evaluation of the presentation will mirror that of the report. An added component will be critical assessment of the resources spoken about. That is, the relative emphases, strengths, weaknesses, or other features of the works must be noted. The perceived contributions of the works included in the presentation must be clearly articulated. Once again, a critical abstract, this time 1,500 words, must accompany the presentation. The abstract is to be distributed to the class at the class meeting prior to the date of the presentation.

The paper is a formal and extended expression of the points raised in the presentation. The paper must be a critical examination of a variety of perspectives on the theory in question. There is set minimum of sources that must be included, but it is difficult to conceive of a thorough examination of a theory using fewer than ten (10) sources. The length of the paper is to be 6,500 to 8,000 words, exclusive of bibliography.

A Note about the Topics and Readings

Of course no single-semester course can cover all possible theoretical constructs, frameworks, and models; also, few can be explored in depth. The course—and the readings included—are exemplars; they represent what is possible within the confines of a few theoretical ideas. It must be noted that the topics themselves not discrete, there are no firm borders. Lines are difficult to discern and are frequently undesirable to impose. Reading and learning can be examined through a phenomenological lens. Self and identity are situated and demonstrable. This course is a step along the path to understanding theory and its uses; take it as such. Students will be required to explore as well, and will bring other, probably more specific, theoretical constructs to the table and will present to the class about these explorations and their fruits.