In and out of context: Musings on information literacy, institutional, and higher ed landscapes

After more than a decade at a private small liberal arts college, my recent transition to a large, public research university has been full of learning opportunities regarding both the content of my work and the culture of this organization. Since arriving, I’ve identified a need for jumpstarting and growing a dormant information literacy program. Developing information literacy initiatives–including course-embedded instruction and faculty development, for example–was a significant focus for me at my previous institution. My experiences and the expertise I developed there certainly apply here. Yet that application requires some translation; my previous work, no surprise, was deeply steeped in that institution’s context.

In my previous position, talking about information literacy by articulating its connections with critical thinking, for example, packed a solid punch for faculty and students. My former institution’s mission statement illustrates the context of our discourse and work, dedicated to the development of “independent critical thinkers who are intellectually agile” and “committed to life-long learning.”

Don’t get me wrong. This kind of language and these values aren’t hard to find at my new institution either. In our general education learning objectives alone, I can point to both explicit and implicit language about information literacy. Telling the story of information literacy in terms of strengthening our abilities to think and learn and live is still compelling. But it doesn’t feel like it goes quite as far a distance here–where I’ve heard gen ed branded as “connecting curiosity and career,” for example–as it did in my previous context.

Surely, it’s not institutional culture alone that explains the difference. The landscape of higher ed altogether has been and continues to be shifting. Yesterday’s joint statement by AAC&U and AAUP, for example, characterizes the trend in this way: “Politicians have proposed linking tuition to the alleged market value of given majors. Students majoring in literature, art, philosophy, and history are routinely considered unemployable in the technology and information economy, despite the fact that employers in that economy strenuously argue that liberal arts majors make great tech-sector workers precisely because they are trained to think critically and creatively, and to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.”

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m against pre-professional training nor that liberal arts will save us. This is not an either/or situation. One of the reasons I sought this type of job at this type of institution was to find a new context, a new learning experience. After so much time at one institution, I wanted to see other ways that higher ed works. But I certainly still subscribe to the maxim that critical thinking is just as important, if not more, as content knowledge for our students’ (and our society’s) future success and that information literacy is an elemental part of those critical thinking habits, attitudes, and skills.

So as I’m thinking about growing our information literacy program here, I’m thinking about our institutional context and higher ed landscape with fresh eyes, too. I’m thinking now about all the ways to make the long reach of information literacy visible beyond the classroom. My thoughts turn first to the application and impact of information literacy skills in students’ internships, a signature experience on my campus. How have you illustrated the power of information literacy for your context(s)? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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