Not About Technology, Not About Teaching

Sometimes things I’m reading via RSS feeds evaporate as soon as I’ve read them. Others linger a while, and sometimes they strike up conversations with each other.

Not long ago, a columnist at AAC&U’s Leap project blog, liberal.eduation nation, complained about the increasing crowd of literacies clamoring for our attention and suggesting that apart from the problem of all the newcomers – digital media literacy, spacial literacy, diaspora literacy – most new kinds of literacy have a short shelf life.

The “literacy” that seems most to vex educators and students alike is the one that takes aim at the moving target of technology. Indeed, the very terms used to name this elusive yet much-coveted literacy—computer literacy, information literacy, technological literacy, digital literacy, etc., etc.—are no more stable than the knowledge, skills, competencies they’re meant to describe.

Er, but . . . this seems to me to confuse information with information technology, learning how to think with learning how to use tools. Sadly, the only reference to an exploration of what we mean when we use the term “information literacy” is Stanley Wilder’s complaint that it is useless and misses the point. (ACRLog included the storm of debate it kicked up as a top story of 2005.) Given that most of us involved in teaching and learning in libraries thought Wilder didn’t actually grasp the concept he was criticizing, it’s kind of sad to see an organization that mostly wants to do what we are trying to do give him the last word.

The other big problem is linking information literacy with technology. Somehow once the techies took on the name “information technology” people forgot that information also resides in technologies that are centuries old. And they lose sight of the fact that it’s not about technology, it’s about what the student does with what he or she encounters. True, we get sucked into explaining how the library works, but the ultimate aim is to get students working in the library so that they can become part of the process of making knowledge, not just absorbing it as a finished product.

This morning I read Robert J. Nash’s essay in Inside Higher Ed, “Resist the Pedagogical Far Right” where he argues (as does AAC&U and as do most libraries serving a student population) that our focus should be on learning, not teaching, and on how the student can learn to as her own questions and solve problems rather than be exposed to a body of core knowledge in the hope some of it sticks. I’m not entirely sure why he characterizes this as a “far right” pedagogy – unless he’s thinking of ACTA, which, among other things, wants to return to basics and defend students from David Horowitz’s dangerous academics.He also seems to be taking a dig at those who feel youth have had their brains stolen by Web 2.0 and turned into ignorant and shallow-minded zombies. Or perhaps he’s thinking of the funding cuts and business strategies that have turned the professoriate into work-for-hire temps paid by the course. Whatever he means, he doesn’t really make a strong case for why this has a left-right dimension. What he says afterward, though, is a good defense of liberal (as in “liberating”) learning that focuses on the student.

The key is to remember that the most important part of the word evaluation is value. The best way to evaluate the outcomes of meaning-making learning is to ask students themselves what the value of their experience has been. According to [Ken] Bain’s research, the best evaluation stresses learning rather than performance. Performance means living up to others’ expectations and requirements. Learning means that students take full responsibility for their own intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, and personal development. Performance is mainly about acquisition, storing information, and taking tests. Learning is developmental and an end in itself. . . .

So much of what I’ve learned about teaching in the academy for over four decades can be summarized in this way: often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a “pedagogy of ironic minimalism.” Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the “endless breadth and depth” of my own “vast wisdom and knowledge,” then my students learn the most. This, dear readers, is why I keep coming back to the classroom — for lo these many years.

I think that’s actually our best argument for academic libraries and for giving students a chance to learn in them. Not learn about them, not learn how to manipulate the tools, but to be actively seeking, sorting, sifting, and making meaning as a central part of their education. If we want to define information literacy, we need to make it clear that practicing it – exploring ideas independently – is a big part of the high-impact practices that we know make learning stick.

And in the meantime, maybe we can also reflect on our own teaching practices. Can we teach less to make more room for learning? Do we do some of the things that Stanley Wilder believes is information literacy (information-seeking training done exclusively by librarians)? Can we put the focus on not just learning how the library works but learning where knowledge comes form and how it’s made? Can we work with faculty to make this happen more often?

Maybe if we can do that, Stanley Wilder will figure out what we mean when we talk about information literacy as a critical habit of mind and the AAC&U will realize it’s not about technology that will change next week.

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 “Not About Technology, Not About Teaching”

  1. I’m afraid we’re going to have to add Barbara’s post to the list of things that I have tried dutifully to understand, and failed. I’m grateful to her, however, for having alerted me to David Tritelli’s fine post, “Limitless Lists of Literacies.” One of Tritelli’s insightful comments feels particularly apropos:

    …the odds don’t favor the opposition in a dispute over anything described as a literacy. Sadly, the proponents of computer literacy have won the high ground by virtue of the term itself. Who would argue with literacy? . . . Literacy, like motherhood and apple pie in the America of my youth, is unassailable.

    When a word develops such clout, intellectual laziness invariably creeps in, such that in the end, we no longer bother to establish a premise and argue persuasively in its defense. It’s enough that our opponents (me, I gather) fail to see the light.

    I am as always a passionate defender of library instruction, but I hasten to add that information literacy is only one approach to instruction, not the thing itself. As such, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask whether information literacy is better or worse than any other approach we might imagine. The proper metric, in my mind, would have us determine which approach leads to better class work: better writing, better participation, better learning.

    Barbara was kind enough to cite my Chronicle piece of 2005, but my most recent (and more nuanced) publication relating to information literacy can be found here:

  2. I think (if the Cliff’s Notes version will do) that I’m arguing we do what you think we should do – make libraries places for reading and thinking and composing meaning and not places where you’re trained by librarians obsessed with making people like them and focused on the latest gadgetry. (This is why confusing information literacy with information technology literacy bothers me.) But I also think what I call (for wont of a better phrase – and I really wish we had a different phrase, for the reasons Tritelli points out and more) “information literacy” is achieved by creating conditions where students can successfully engage in reading and thinking and composing meaning, and it’s something that librarians do not do, it’s something students do if the curriculum and the institutional culture (including the library) encourages it.

    I don’t see you as an opponent of information literacy who “fails to see the light,” by the way; I only object that what you call information literacy does not at all resemble what I call information literacy, which is mostly owned by faculty in the disciplines, supported by librarians and others.

    I think I’m vertically inclined in seeing library knowhow as being firmly embedded in the disciplines rather than as a discipline unto itself if I understand your newer article, but I’m not sure I do. (It has been a long day and I have a stack of papers yet to mark because I am a faculty member and only an administrator when it can’t be avoided.)

    Thanks for commenting and I’ll return to your article when I have more time to absorb it.

  3. Okay, having had some coffee (and only five more papers to mark) let me add one thing, since I seem to have made no sense. I’m not against library instruction. I do it often. Students need a bit of help getting familiar with a large library and the way we organize it. And I talk to students about reading and writing in their disciplines, as you suggest we should. But information literacy isn’t the property of the library or librarians. Information literacy (inelegant and silly phrase that it is) is the ability to employ reading and critical thinking in the process of developing a voice in the conversation of scholarship as well as a facility finding and using information and ideas to build your understanding. It goes beyond “here’s a text; read it and analyze it” to “here’s a world of texts. How can you articulate meaningful questions and find, in the world of texts, information and ideas that can help you arrive at an understanding that you can add to the world of texts.”

    My problem with your original critique of information literacy is that you identified it with practices that I don’t believe are useful or are definitive of information literacy as I and many others understand it. You described it as an attempt by librarians to use the “threat” of the Internet as an opportunity to commandeer all information as our domain and attempt to make students into librarians. I don’t do that, and I think the whole point of information literacy (as opposed to library instruction, full stop) is to back off the “here’s how to use our stuff by behaving like us” and think more holistically of what using information critically is about.

    This involves the faculty in the disciplines at least as much as librarians, and I know from working with faculty they care as much about it as I do, even if they don’t call it information literacy. So my problem is with your defining information literacy as a program to widen our domain and train students to act like librarians. And my problem with this AAC&U column identifying information literacy with information technology is the same: their definition is wrong.

    On one point you and I agree. In your 2005 piece you say “the most important thing libraries can do to educate students is not technological in nature.”

    Right. And that’s why information literacy isn’t about tools or technology or how a particular library works. It’s about gaining both the ability and the disposition to be able to find and understand information as part of being a free human being who has a role to play in the world (which is the point of liberal learning.)

    It’s nice to help them become good at reading and writing in “their chosen disciplines” but honestly – I hope for more than that (and so do their professors). Most students majors are not chosen for life. They’re learning to drill deep into a subject which some will pursue for life, but most won’t. What they learn as they drill should be applicable to what they do later – gaining the ability to drill wherever they need to go, being able to make sense of things. So I don’t want to stop with “here’s how our library works” and “here’s how you can write a paper for your course and sound like someone in this discpline” and say that’s what my life’s work is about and what academic libraries are for.

    Call me a romantic.

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