Tag Archives: information ethics

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’” (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0966369X.2017.1339022?journalCode=cgpc20)  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 suggesting 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.

Exploring artifacts of students’ learning trajectories, or The view from here

I’ve been serving on the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at my institution for a little over a year now. If you’re not familiar with the purpose and scope of an IRB, it’s generally the group’s charge to review, approve, and monitor research conducted with human subjects. It’s the IRB’s responsibility to ensure that researchers are taking steps to protect the safety, welfare, rights, and privacy of subjects.

A majority of the applications I’ve reviewed in the past year have been submitted by undergraduate student researchers. At my undergraduate-only institution, it’s not unusual for students to propose and conduct studies. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to see students’ research from this perspective. While I often consult with students working on research projects, it’s usually from my vantage point as a reference/instruction-type librarian. I confer with students as they identify topics of interest, explore the literature, identify gaps, develop searching and organizational strategies, and so on. My position as a member of the IRB offers me a different view of their work. In their IRB applications, students describe: their research aims and procedures, the characteristics of their intended subject population, how they will recruit subjects, how they will protect the privacy and anonymity of their subjects and obtain informed consent from them, how they will safeguard the data they collect, the risks involved in their proposed research, and how they will reduce those risks.

Each student’s application is unique, of course, but my colleagues and I have noticed a few challenges that seem to come up more often than not. Most common among these problem areas is the informed consent form. Northwestern University’s IRB describes the importance of informed consent well: “Obtaining informed consent is a basic ethical obligation and a legal requirement for researchers. This requirement is founded on the principle of respect for persons … [which] requires that individuals be treated as autonomous agents and that the rights and welfare of persons with diminished autonomy be appropriately protected. Potential participants must be provided with information about the research project that is understandable and that permits them to make an informed and voluntary decision about whether or not to participate. The amount of information and the manner of presentation will vary depending on the complexity and risk involved in the research study. Informed consent is an ongoing educational interaction between the investigator and the research participant that continues throughout the study.”

The informed consent form, then, is an important method of communication between researcher and potential subject. In my recent sample of applications, I’ve noticed students struggling to effectively convey their projects’ goals, benefits, and risks to potential subjects. Students sometimes leave out important information about what subjects will be asked to do in the studies. Students also often use very technical or formal language that is not only unfamiliar, but likely inaccessible, to people new to their study or discipline. Of course, we all struggle with this. Once we’re inside a research project or, for that matter, a topic or a process of any kind, it can be hard to step outside and see it from a beginner’s perspective.

It’s interesting, though, to perhaps consider the disconnects visible in the forms students have drafted as artifacts of their transitions from research newcomers to insiders. The students, as they work to research and design their own studies, become increasingly steeped in and comfortable with the methods, language, and conventions of the discipline. They may begin to take pleasure in their growing fluency even. Their facility and satisfaction is visible in the informed consent forms they design. They may not yet, however, have the metacognitive awareness to look past–or perhaps back on–their own trajectories to consider how to communicate effectively with their potential subjects, newcomers to their work. Of course, it’s possible that I’m overreaching a bit with this analysis.

Still, the connections between this work and information literacy teaching and learning seem rather notable to me, especially around the concepts of information ethics and audience. When I began this post, exploring these ideas and accompanying opportunities for teaching was my original purpose. What I find more useful at this moment, though, is this reminder about the journey from newcomer to insider and the viewpoints that journey affords, but also sometimes occludes. Despite my best intentions, where and how have I, by virtue of my sightlines, obscured the potential for others’ understanding or blocked their entry? I’ve written before about how librarians are uniquely positioned as translators, which I consider as one of our profession’s core strengths, opportunities, and responsibilities. I’m grateful for these reminders to pause and reconsider my own position, journey, and viewpoints and how that facilitates or hinders my interactions with my students, as well as my colleagues.

Two perspective triangles, with their perspective axis and center” by Jujutacular is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.