Category Archives: Information Literacy

I Can’t Think of Anything to Ask

My family and I have been deep in the health care system these past few weeks, in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices, on the phone scheduling appointments, and in line at pharmacies. Everyone is home, everyone is as fine as can be expected, and long-term plans are being made for maintenance and healing strategies for my family member.

During every interaction with a medical professional, inevitably someone in a coat or scrubs would ask, “Do you have any questions?” or “Is there anything I can answer for you?” or “Do you need anything from me, right now?” In response I always felt like I should have had a list of questions. Occasionally I’d have one or two to tack on to a question a family member already asked, but more often than not I was struck by the feeling of not knowing what to ask. 

Information is my field. I teach students how to ask questions and engage in inquiry in subjects that are new to them. I know that when someone asks me if I have any questions, they genuinely want to give me information, because when I ask my students if they have any questions, I want to answer them. That doesn’t change the fact that

  1. Questions are hard to ask; and
  2. Anxiety, fear, sadness, and exhaustion turn brains to mush; and
  3. It’s hard to ask questions with mush for brains.

Every time I unsuccessfully came up with questions to ask about the future health and well-being of my family member I felt like a failure. It felt like such a high-pressure critical moment, as though I could have drastically changed things by simply asking a question that would get to the *right* piece of information that would unlock this whole health puzzle. I know it’s an illogical thought, but again, Mush. Brains. Brain Mush.

I don’t want to equate families seeking health care information with all library patrons seeking information. I know that most people would argue that we are not necessarily in the same headspace or seeking information of equal importance, but really, how do we know? We don’t know what’s going on with our students, faculty, staff, and community members. Assumptions are poor substitutes for empathy, openness, and understanding.

One thing I wish were possible with health care professionals is the opportunity to email them or text them a question after an appointment or hospital visit. I am so frustrated by having to wait until our next meeting to rattle off my list of questions, the ones I could never come up with on the spot, without adequate time to research and reflect. We, as librarians, have that opportunity of continued interaction with our community. It’s what makes us special. We don’t need someone to have all the questions at one critical moment. We’re open to questions whenever they arise. I feel as though I could do a better job of making sure my own community knows that there isn’t just one right time to ask me a question. Questions are always welcome, and compassion is a needed response.

Conscientious Engagement and the Framework for Information Literacy

In April 2017 an article written by Geographers Carrie Mott and Daniel Cockayne was published in Gender, Place & Culture entitled “Citation matters: mobilizing the politics of citation toward a practice of ‘conscientious engagement’” (  Mott and Cockayne problematized the ways in which certain voices are privileged in scholarly circles. As with many other feminist academic polemics this article drew the ire of many conservative outlets, including the National Review which alerted its readers that “Feminist Geographers Warn Against Citing Too Many White Men in Scholarly Articles”

While yes, technically, the article does talk about moving away from dominant white male voices in Geography; the National Review, and many others, miss the point entirely. Mott and Cockayne investigate what they term the “politics of citation,” which “contributes” to, the authors explain, an “uneven reproduction of academic and disciplinary geographic knowledge.” (Mott and Cockayne 2) As the authors see it, “performativity of citations,” borrowing from Judith Butler and J.L Austin, leads to a place where “well-cited scholars have authority precisely because they are well-cited.” (Mott and Cockayne 13) Certain kinds of scholars, perched upon hegemonic forces, are better represented because of the echo-chamber-like machinations of contemporary scholarship. Mott and Cockayne conclude by suggest that authors “carefully read through and count the citations in their list of references prior to submitting papers as a way to self-consciously draw attention to whose work is being reproduced.”( Mott and Cockayne 13) This has direct ties to how we approach information literacy, and, more directly in the scholarly communication field, how we measure the use and quality of materials.

With an eye toward students, the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education maintains the distinctions between novice learners and seasoned scholars in its “Scholarship as Conversation” section. It states that students should be able to “contribute to scholarly conversations at an appropriate level, such as local online community, guided discussion, undergraduate research journal…” while acknowledging that “systems privilege authorities and that not having a fluency in the language and process of a discipline disempowers their ability to participate and engage.” (Framework 8) Part of this though plays on the fears that Mott and Cockayne are exploring; namely, that fluency is required to gain access to the academe.  Fluency in what? Acknowledging that students must be fluent in the authorities of fields (somewhat contradictorily) reinforces the barriers that the Framework attempts to disrupt, and echoes discussions in the literary world over canons and canonicity. In some ways, this is how it is, and our part as librarians is to prepare students for the academic worlds they inhabit and the games that have to play. While I do not want to retread old discussions and debates over library neutrality, fluency as a requirement for contribution is not a neutral act as its neutrality reinforces the hegemonic forces that dominate academia.

This is not to say that the Framework is silent on the hegemonic forces behind standardization in academia as it explicitly names biases in the way that authority is constructed and contextual (Framework 4). However, I wonder whether or not “authority” is always somewhat limiting in the way in which we approach new concepts. Authority is nearly always, even in fields traditionally and statistically female like librarianship, heavily skewed toward dominant (male, white, heterosexual, cisgendered, Western) voices. Even if we name authority as contextual or constructed do we not give in to that construction when we teach to the standards and fluency in dominant paradigms?

This hegemonic echo-chamber is even more visible in scholarly communication. As long as the citation is still the lead indicator of influence for tenure track faculty it will represent a have and have-not situation for our newest faculty. The most-cited articles will be the most authoritative and therefore cited more often. On a practical level, this makes things difficult for new or outsider voices to be heard and/or respected. By encouraging “conscientious engagement” with sources and sourcing, we might be able to spread influence beyond the greatest hits of a genre and beyond the old, white, male, heterosexual forces that have defined authority for centuries. In so doing we could work to further include younger faculty and historically disenfranchised faculty in the larger conversations, which could greatly benefit the future of individual fields as well as individual tenure cases on a more pragmatic level.

What should a librarian do who is interested in conscientious engagement? I, for one, am going to start demoing and suggesting sources to my students outside of the cultural hegemony. While these sources may not be the “greatest hits,” this small(ish) action will promote larger engagement with new and challenging ideas. In my own work, I will also strive to cite voices outside of the dominant hegemony, and use my status to promote work that is challenging to the status quo. Is there a way to preserve the hallmarks of a field while encouraging new voices? I believe so.  I think there could be a middle ground, where disciplinary fluency is possible without the parroting of white male voices only. By being conscientious about who we cite and who we read, we can build a larger and more diverse set of authorities.

Given the outcry on the right over the mere suggestion that we cite non-dominant voices in scholarship, it is difficult to see this a quick and easy transition. Yet, if we take Mott and Cockayne’s piece beyond the scope of Geography and let it influence our own approaches to research and information literacy, it will benefit many of our stakeholders. On one hand, it will increase exposure for those faculty on the outside of the cultural hegemony, and, on the other, it will encourage diversity of thought and action for our students. Part of encouraging critical thinking should be encouraging conscientious engagement.

Going to ACRL Immersion 2017: Reflection and more reflection.

First, I do apologize for the late blog, but I wanted some days to collect my thoughts.

A couple of months ago, I found that I had been accepted to the Teacher Track for ACRL Immersion. This program was to take place in Burlington, Vermont. Last Sunday, I arrived and the program concluded last Friday. I have had some days to think about the last week, what I learned, what I need to do, and how I need to do it. There were so many things about Immersion that I could focus on, but instead, I will list what I learned (or didn’t).

  • The theme of the week was transformation and reflection. I had colleagues who had gone to Immersion many years ago and they told me that I needed to be prepared, because it would be a transformative experience. I agree, but my whole self (body and mind) was not completely transformed. Instead, I found myself thinking back and forth about an idea or concept and then being left with either a clear idea or continuing to be baffled. I would reflect about certain things during and outside of Immersion, which brings me to the next point.
  • I found that like Jon Snow, I know nothing.
  • Wait, maybe I do. A lot about what you thought about your teaching will be challenged. You will definitely doubt yourself, but that’s what the week is for. You’re there to doubt, reflect, hopefully transform your ideas, and reflect again (you’ll find that reflection is a huge thing at Immersion).
  • I learned that everyone has a different assessment technique and activity. I found myself pretty excited to take these ideas to American University Library. For those of you who know me, you know that I was not a huge fan of assessment…but I have clearly changed my ways.
  • The activities, exercises, and discussions that we did throughout the week, are meant to not only challenge the way you teach, but to look at things in a different light. For example, I know myself and a couple of other participants were definitely challenged when it came to active learning. Just because you have your students do some type of movement while in class, does not mean that it’s active learning. I know that might be a “duh” for some people, but definitely not for me. It is something I am still reflecting on.
  • I was comforted to know that some people at Immersion share the same insecurities I do. Whether it’s about teaching or being a librarian.
  • Through informal and casual conversations with other librarians at Immersion, I found us discussing some struggles we share or have. Whether it’s struggles with being a librarian, teaching, or other frustrations, it was clearly topics that we simply cannot share with our colleagues back at our own institutions.
  • No one leaves the program suddenly transformed into the “perfect teacher.” I do not believe that is the point of the program. What is the point, is gaining a new set of understanding, comprehension, reflection, and motivation of the topics taught at Immersion.

On a personal note, knowing I was coming to Immersion was exciting because I lived in Burlington when I was a child. It had been 20 years and Immersion gave me the opportunity to come back. I was in awe over how much the town had changed and kept asking myself, “how could my parents ever leave such a beautiful town.” They had their reasons, but it was a delight to have great Immersion faculty, great Immersion participants, and a great space to share ideas, thoughts, doubts, and breakthroughs.

I was also able to have breakfast with my first grade teacher and so that was the cherry on top of a great week. Until next time, Burlington.






Information in the Indignation Age

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Mark Lenker, Teaching & Learning Librarian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

As a librarian, I worry about the ways that emotion, especially anger, influences our interactions with information. So much of our political discourse is intended to arouse indignation, and I’m concerned about indignation’s impact on one’s ability to learn. Higher education needs to become more intentional about preparing students for inflammatory discourse as a potential hazard in the information landscape.

An important Pew study offers a lens for understanding the cyclical relationship between our media habits and the increasing political polarization of the United States. The short version is that media consumers spend more time with media that confirms their political outlook, and that ideological reinforcement makes one less receptive to dissenting views. The degree of outrage and distrust in our political discourse makes this dynamic quite unsettling. A quick perusal of the online comments following any major news story shows that media-driven ideological reinforcement is not leading to higher rates of polite disagreement – AkronKittyLuvver is out for blood.

A subsequent Pew study confirms the tension. Researchers found that Democrats and Republicans tend to associate negative character traits with members of the opposing party. A strong contingent of Democrats say that Republicans are more dishonest compared to other Americans. An even larger percentage of Republicans say that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say that the other side is more closed-minded compared to other Americans. We are all-too-ready to make hostile judgments about those whose perspectives differ from our own. What does this self-righteous antagonism mean for our capacity to learn about complex and evolving issues?

Indignation in both the media and in personal communications is particularly worrisome because it signals to one’s audience that the matter at hand is so grave and so morally charged that there is no room for alternative perspectives. Attempts to present other points of view will be met with resistance or even hostility, so there is little point in sharing a different opinion (unless you take moral offense at the indignant person’s thinking, in which case you can vent your own sense of outrage).

But is indignation necessarily the enemy of open-mindedness and open discussion? In True to Our Feelings, philosopher Robert Solomon presents a more nuanced view of anger and indignation. According to Solomon, anger arises when we have been hurt or offended in some way, and it manifests itself as an impulse to level blame against the offender. While anger can operate on a strictly personal level (“his loud talking is distracting me and it’s making me mad”), indignation implies that the offense oversteps important considerations of justice and morality (“his loud talking in the quiet area of the library is rude and unfair”). The sense of transgression involved with indignation can make a difference in the level of vehemence with which indignation is felt or expressed. Indignation involves more than simply being offended – it is being offended and having justice on your side (or at least feeling that way).

Because indignation is wrapped up with one’s understanding of justice and morality, it is not the sort of emotion that one can get over easily. Moving past indignation may require a revised estimation of the line between justice and injustice, and that sort of reexamination is hard to undertake in today’s polarized environment. The indignant mind presents fertile ground for confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and other obstacles to learning.

But Solomon also points out that anger and indignation have their value. For one thing, the ability to experience and express these emotions is essential to maintaining our personal dignity, to stand up for ourselves or to stand against unfairness. As Solomon puts it, “[T]here are times when one is a fool not to get angry, not only because the situation calls for it but because otherwise one degrades oneself as less than a fully functioning human being.” Indignation puts energy and backbone behind our convictions.

Furthermore, for Solomon (and for Aristotle), anger is not inherently irrational. Instead, anger is rational when it fits the occasion, when it is directed at the right parties, and when it is proportional to the offense (neither an overreaction nor an underreaction). Forward-looking considerations are also crucial for assessing anger’s reasonableness. Solomon emphasizes the strategic qualities of emotions, especially their impact on how we relate with others. Does one’s style of anger fit with one’s long-term interests, or is it better to revise (or even abandon) one’s current strategy?

Considering indignation in this strategic light, I find a theoretical home for my worries. For example, indignation is irrational if its heat and hostility get in the way of negotiating to address the conditions that inspired indignation in the first place. Indignation is also irrational if it entrenches the indignant person in righteousness to such a degree that they cannot consider other points of view or continue to learn about the circumstances of the offending injustice (which, in the case of political disputes, are probably quite complicated).

Can indignation foster learning? A sense of outrage might lend urgency to one’s investigation of an injustice, driving one to learn more quickly or more deeply than an investigator without the same sense of passion. Amia Srinivasan points out that anger is part of really understanding oppression, a matter of viscerally apprehending the gulf between the way things are and the way they should be. A vital educational message for these polarized times is that learning is a crucial lens for reflecting on the reasonableness of one’s indignation.

Rational indignation cannot become so all-encompassing that it crowds out dispositions to learn. Indignation motivates learning when it is combined with intellectual courage (a willingness to face ugly situations squarely, without rationalizing them away or exaggerating their severity) and with epistemic humility (a clarity about the limits of one’s perspective and a consistent recognition that one can always learn more).

Media-inspired indignation is an information problem, a potential pitfall that higher education should help students prepare for by exploring a range of important questions:

  • How do partisan media, indignation, and intellectual autonomy relate to one another? Does media-inspired indignation stimulate or stifle curiosity about politics?
  • How does indignation over political matters define one’s relationships with one’s peers? With other groups?
  • When political leaders and campaigns use rhetoric to inspire indignation, how does that work to their advantage?
  • Is indignation worth the costs? Political discussions in the media typically address exceedingly complex conditions that impact vast, diverse groups of people. Given the uncertainty involved in policy making, when we weigh the likelihood of achieving a satisfying political resolution against the consequences of being angry at our neighbors, is the antagonism associated with indignation justifiable? If not, what attitudes are more appropriate?

To be clear, my concern is not ideological. If one’s beliefs place them in the far reaches of the ideological spectrum, that may be perfectly legitimate, as long as those beliefs stem from the careful, iterative consideration of the best evidence available. But when I look at the polarization data from Pew, I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I worry that indignation contributes to a cycle that drives us ever further from the ideal of informed political participation. Our students need to reflect on this dynamic – they need to demand better of their politicians, their news sources, and themselves.

(Though perhaps, not too indignantly.)

A Revised Model for First Year Seminar IL Integration

In December I wrote about possible changes to our librarians’ involvement in our college’s first year and transfer liberal arts seminar. As victims of our success, our instruction model has become unsustainable. Teaching and support of this course leaves us with little mental energy for our other teaching and librarian responsibilities, which is problematic when those of us who teach have multiple liaison departments to support, not to mention our own research interests and library projects. We could, of course, teach this seminar and nothing else, but there is so much opportunity for course-integrated instruction and embedded librarianship at the major/minor level of study, that focusing only on the first year/transfer seminar would be a huge disservice to students and the college curriculum.

We’re in a transition period. I’m planning to take a sabbatical in August, the faculty member overseeing the seminar program is changing, and we may have a visiting librarian working with us in the fall. We’ve also been working much more closely with our colleagues in the Writing Center this year, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for years now, as they are, in a word, AWESOME. It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new with our seminar involvement, and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.

Instead of assigning librarian liaisons to each of the seminars, who then teach a minimum of two classes per seminar, we’re adopting the “train the trainer” approach that our colleagues in the Writing Center were wise enough to push through last year. We’re leading workshops for both faculty and seminar peer mentors (upperclass students who take the class and provide academic and social support to new students). And we’re doing this jointly, with the Writing Center, which I am so glad is finally happening. I think it makes a lot of sense, and will hopefully encourage faculty to better interconnect our college’s four core liberal arts skills–writing, oral expression, information literacy, critical thinking–rather than viewing them as discrete concepts. Our hope is that with these workshops, and a supporting Seminar Toolkit (in a libguide, of course), faculty and peer mentors will have a better understanding of writing and information literacy as a developmental process rather than a checklist. The toolkit will contain learning activities, sample assignments, and lesson plans from the librarians, Writing Center faculty, and faculty who have taught seminar in past years. There is so much overlap between teaching writing and teaching information literacy, and I’m glad that we’re finding ways to approach our faculty peers together.

I’m particularly excited about teaching and working with the seminar peer mentors. They’re bright, engaged students who the first year and transfer students really look up to and respect. They have a lot of social capital that we aren’t using to maximum benefit, and better still, they have a relationship with the seminar students. Peer teaching and learning was a major theme of my ACRL 2017 conference, and I was able to find some well-developed examples of peer learning programs in practice.

  • Danielle Salomon, Casey Shapiro, Reed Buck, Annie Pho, and Marc Levis-Fitzgerald have an excellent conference paper on the Embedded Peer Specialists program at UCLA, which, in their words, “combines the academic context of academic librarianship with the scalability of peer learning services.”
  • Rachel Gammons, Alexander Carroll, and Lindsay Inge wrote about the Research and Teaching Fellowship at the University of Maryland, a 3-semester teacher training program for MLIS students in which fellows in their third semester provide mentorship and training to incoming junior fellows.
  • Rosan Mitola, John Watts, and Erin Rinto presented alongside student Peer Research Coaches Kameron Joyner, Jason Meza, and Katia Uriarte about the peer-assisted learning program at the UNLV Libraries and extensive Peer Research Coach training program.

One thing these presenters and writers all seemed to stress (which is something I’ll need to keep in mind) is that this peer-assisted learning/ train the trainer approach won’t really mean less work. It takes a lot of time, planning, and emotional / mental energy to empower student-teachers (because really, that’s what they are) and ensure their continued development and growth. But all of the librarians involved in these programs seem to agree that the benefits–a more empowered student cohort, wider educational reach, meaningful interaction with smaller groups of students–are substantial. I am feeling very much indebted to these colleagues who presented at ACRL 2017 and hope that I’ll be able to share successes and failures from my own attempts at figuring out a new way to involve the library in our first year and transfer seminar program.