Critical Information Literacy for First-Generation College Students

Last week, I re-read James Elmborg’s seminal article “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice” as part of a homework assignment for an upcoming ACRL Immersion workshop. Every time I read it I engage with the text from a different perspective, and I always learn something new. It had been over a year since my last reading—during which I completed my first year as a reference and instruction librarian—and critical librarianship feels less theoretical and more intuitive to me now. In other words, as I read the article through the lens of my first year experiences, I reflected on the practical applications of critical information literacy in the classroom, behind the reference desk, and in the development of asynchronous materials.

After reading the article, I thought about all of the times I have messed up during an instruction session—not pushing back on instructors who insist that a librarian’s “job” is to present a laundry list of skills-based concepts during a thirty-minute one-shot session, making assumptions about students, and neglecting to discuss the lack of alternative ideas in the traditional peer-review process. But I also reflected on the aspects of critical information literacy that inherently have been part of my philosophy since day one, such as focusing on student-centered learning, admitting (and explicitly stating) to students that I am not an expert, and telling students “I don’t know, maybe we can find an answer together” when stumped by a question. Most important, this reading of Elmborg’s article spurred me to think more pedagogically about my work with first-generation college students (FGCS).

Critical lens. If we perceive education as a “profoundly political activity” and value librarianship as guided by a “student-centered educational philosophy,” then thinking critically about who our students are is arguably one of the most important parts of our jobs (p. 193). At my institution, approximately fifteen percent of the student body consists of FGCS, which equates to approximately 6,000 students. Expecting FGCS to seamlessly assimilate into the traditionally white elite sociocultural environment of a large private university (like mine) is negligent at best. There are many campus stakeholders who understand this and work with FGCS from the beginning of orientation week to them help navigate the social, cultural, political, and financial waters of my institution. But, there is still so much work to be done, especially within the realm of library instruction.

One of my favorite quotes from Elmborg’s article underscores the barriers that schools (and the libraries within them) need to overcome when reaching out to FGCS:

“Rather than define these students (those outside of an idealized student body) as ‘deficient,’ we might ask whether schools and curriculums themselves are a large part of the problem, especially when they become conservative protectors of traditional, authoritative knowledge and cease to respect students as people capable of agency and meaning-making in their own right. Indeed one of the primary challenges for contemporary education is to find ways to make it possible for all students to succeed, not just those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

So what does this mean for library instruction, which is the primary way that many students at my institution connect to the library? We must first assert our roles as educators. This not only helps us to gain more trust and authority from disciplinary faculty, but it grounds our fundamental purpose. As an educator, my most vital missions are bridging the gap between student and teacher, and breaking down the traditional role of educators as authoritative figures that perpetuate the banking cycle of neoliberal education. And for students whose parents or guardians did not attend or did not complete college, this endeavor becomes even more pressing.

I make my first attempt at chipping away from these traditional roles by telling students that the classroom facilitates a conversation, not a lecture. I also tell students to call me by my first name (sometimes students become visibly uncomfortable with this prospect), and do NOT introduce myself as some sort of expert – because I am not. Yes, those letters behind my email signature represent Master of Library and Information Science, meaning that I completed the necessary coursework to gain the degree. But I explain that they probably know more than I do about many types of information, such as social media, and they bring unique sets of experiences to the table. If I am an expert, then they are, too.

I also try to do my very, very best not to frame one information source as “better” than the other. Rather, I frame the discussion around the purpose of the information, and the power structures inherent in information privilege. These ideas help all students feel comfortable in the classroom, not only “those socially preselected for academic success” (p. 194).

Critical literacy and academic discourse. Elmborg posits that literacy events take many forms in higher education – lectures, debates, essays, etc. – and range from formal to informal (p. 196). These events function, on one hand, as a method of imparting standards in the community and, on the other, as a way of academic exclusion, i.e. they determine “who belongs in college and who does not” (p. 197). The stakes are high for all students, but especially for FGCS, whose families and friends may never have taken part in the tacit and explicit political and academic underpinnings of the college.

Many of my institution’s FGCS student task force’s conversations have revolved around this point. Office hours are a primary point of contention among our FGCS. If you do not have a family member or peer to initiate you in the structure of college, how do you know office hours are important and, in many cases, crucial for academic success? You do not. Similarly, several FGCS have expressed discomfort, at the least, and embarrassment at most, at the suggestion of going to the Writing Center or contacting a librarian for research help. These are institutionalized processes inherent in the politics of student success in the academy. Critical information literacy means that I, as an educator, take one-shot sessions as an opportunity to underscore the importance of office hours. I explain what the Writing Center does and encourage students to reach out if they need further assistance. If a student is reluctant or grappling with a particularly tricky research question, I remember their name and follow up with them after class. This provides no quick solution to the issue, but it starts the conversation. Critical information literacy means reflecting, challenging, and changing traditional academic models (tenure processes, peer-review, etc.) But what else can librarians do as educators to challenge academic exclusion?

Critically examine what we ask students to do and how we ask them to do it. Elmborg recently participated in a panel at the American Library Association Annual Conference panel Authority Is Constructed and Contextual: A Critical View. I live tweeted much of the presentation and continue to reflect on what Elmborg said about thesis statements.

CritLib copy

Thesis statements are so, so hard for me; often, I do not know what I am really trying to say until I have worked out some of the mechanics behind the argument. I do not have any real solution here for how to teach such complex work, but applying critical information literacy means being cognizant of the tremendous tasks we are asking students to do. Thesis statements *are* hard!

One of my favorite critical information literacy articles is Michelle Reale’s “Critical Pedagogy in the Classroom: Library Instruction that Gives Voice to Students and Builds a Community of Scholars”. During a library instruction session in a course titled English 299: Interpreting Literature, Reale engaged students in an activity to help them develop and interpret topics through a critical lens. Reale role-played the exercise with the course instructor to demonstrate how asking simple questions about feeling, meaning, and subtext lays the groundwork for employing critical theory to student’s assigned texts. Students who were working with the same text were paired together and then began replicating the exercise, conceptualizing their partner’s text to develop topics and possible keywords for database searches on critical theory (pp. 84-85). This preliminary exercise could lay the foundation for helping students develop thesis statements. Talking about their ideas with a peer yielded much more success than merely lecturing on thesis statements alone. Such an exercise helps transform the traditional power dynamic from teacher to student, to student to student and student to teacher. The exercise made critical theory more accessible.

We need to break stereotypes and back off of our own assumptions about this group. FCGS should not be synonymous with the word poor – all FGCS do not come from low-income families. Three out of five FCGS do not complete a degree within six years. More than a quarter of FGCS leave school after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher income second-generation students. Even knocking down a common definition for FGCS is contentious. Lots of work remains to be done, but a commitment to critical information literacy for FGCS is an important first step.

None of these ideas are revolutionary, and I am far from the first person to write about their own reflections of Elmborg’s article (many of those reflections are cited in Eamon Tewell’s article titled “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy: A Review of the Literature”) or critical information literacy. But critical information literacy is crucial not just for FGCS – it is for everyone. The onus is on librarians to completely re-examine our purpose – are we educators? Is our professional identity tethered to being considered “experts”? Are we committed to agency – both our institutional agency and our student’s (especially marginalized groups) agency in the academy? How can we effectively operate in the tension between theory and practice in our daily work? In the ten years since Elmborg published the article, are we any closer to answering these questions?


Elmborg, J. (2006). Critical information literacy: Implications for instructional practice. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(2), 192-199.

Reale, M. (2012). Critical pedagogy in the classroom: Library instruction that gives voice to students and builds a community of scholars. Journal of Library Innovation, 3(2), 80-88.

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