Evolving Discourse Communities

An article that has been discussed recently on the ILI-L discussion list (sponsored by the Instruction Section of ACRL) is well worth reading. “Librarians as Disciplinary Discourse Mediators: Using Genre Theory to Move Toward Critical Information Literacy” by Michelle Holschuh Simmons (published in portal: Libraries and the Academy, 5.3: 297-311) shifts the focus in information literacy efforts from finding and using information to the interpretive work of understanding both the context of the texts students use and the disciplinary conventions that shape it. Simmons argues that librarians are uniquely situated as mediators among disciplinary discourses and that by helping students understand the rhetorical underpinnings of texts we will help them “see that information is constructed and contested not monolithic and apolitical.” It’s well worth a look, since we frequently stumble when it comes to the aspects of information literacy that involve evaluation and understanding the ethical, economic, and social issues surrounding information called for in the IL Standards. This article is not available free online but can be found in some libraries through Project Muse.

I admit I thought of this article when reading a story in today’s Inside Higher Education. In “Too Much Information?” Scott Jaschik raises the issue of faculty members blogging before they have tenure. In part, this is really a genre question: will scholars take blogging seriously as a form of expression? how do blogs blend otherwise distinct genres – opinion, scholarship, personal narrative? is blogging is invading the space previously owned by journalists and public intellectuals, where speech is limited to those who hold the proper credentials? The more our genres morph and reinvent themselves, and as new kinds of discourse communities arise, the more agile we all need to focus information literacy on the critical work involved.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

3 thoughts on “Evolving Discourse Communities”

  1. What an interesting review. I admit, I’m postmodernist enough to consider knowing to be always an act of interpretation and to believe that none of us is able to know anything absolutely, a condition that bothers me not one whit. On the other hand, I think there are better ways of approaching truth than others and that we’d better do our best to get as close as possible, even if we have to renegotiate what that means from time to time. Science works this way – there are shared notions of what methods work, but what we learn is never completely finished, and we can always learn new and better methods. One of my personal favorites for thinking about scholarly communication is Michael Polanyi’s “Republic of Science”, an essay written long before Derrida became de rigueur.

  2. It’s interesting to see the idea of “discourse communities” raised again, as this was the foundation behind the creation of the IL credit course at Washington State University (Gen Ed 300), i.e., building on the idea of DCs found in Writing Across the Curriculum programs, we saw our IL course as a means of introducing students to the research aspect of DCs. Jim Elmborg built on this idea in his article on the connections between WAC and ILI as a curriculum innovation.

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