In moments like the reaction to Brown’s death, we need more engagement, not less, and each of us has something to offer. –#FergusonSyllabus by David M. Perry
Last week, on November 24th, the grand jury of St Louis County announced their decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the August 9th murder of Michael Brown. A flurry of conversation and protest started. People began tweeting and media outlets started covering multiple cities across the nation (and the world) that were protesting in solidarity with Ferguson. London, Atlanta, Boston, New York, and Chicago were just a few that participated.
Amidst the tweets expressing outrage and shock about the decision, a conversation began about education, pedagogy, and the nation’s youth. Marcia Chatelain, an Assistant History Professor at Georgetown, had already started the conversation in late August with #FergusonSyllabus. But the decision not to indict revitalized the conversation. More educators—of any level, from elementary school teachers to college professors—added suggestions under the hashtag. Moreover, blogs and media outlets started to curate the resources being shared and interview other educators about best practices for starting the Ferguson conversation.
A passage from Dissent illustrates the complexity and magnitude of the effort:
“A middle school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin had students review the grand jury evidence. Meanwhile, I had my students in Washington, D.C. connect the Ferguson decision to Rosa Parks’s activism in seeking trials for black women raped by white men in the South. Volunteers in Ferguson read books from #FergusonSyllabus to children—unexpectedly out of school again—at the local public library.”
Some of the most profound teaching recommendations (I think) came from instructors that were utilizing inquiry-based teaching models. By encouraging students to construct their own meaning and giving them a space to do, these instructors stimulated critical thinking, metacognition, and deep self-reflection in their students. One such example, from an instructor named Melissa, was featured in the New York Times Blog. Here are some of the insightful, open-ended questions she posed to her students:
- What is justice?
- How can we enforce it?
- Who should enforce it?
- What factors stand in the way of justice?
- Do we need police? If so, what should be their job?
- What role does/should the media play?
- How did the media frame Michael Brown’s shooting and why? (Looking at various media outlets, including the New York Times obituary, which surprised me…)
- Why do humans hold prejudices and how can we acknowledge them and move on?
The variety of topics introduced range from racism, housing inequality, and militarization of the police to international human rights. This movement has even gone beyond the humanities. PBS reported that science teachers were also challenging their students with issues surrounding Ferguson. One example included an instructor asking his students to learn more about tear gas and its effects on the human body.
Yet, the conversation—at least publically—on education and Ferguson has been almost silent in the library world. Some of the incredible #critlib folks mentioned it in passing in regards to critical pedagogy, but otherwise it is difficult to find other conversations. Many have rightfully acknowledged the Ferguson Public Library and their instrumental support of the community. But there still seems to be a gap in librarians’ conversation and sharing of resources, specifically among those of us that do instruction and work directly with students on information literacy.
And there is a need for our voices! The same PBS transcript featured the following conversation:
Jeffery Brown: You know, Liz Collins, you just said something a minute ago about determining the truth. When information is coming at us so quickly, especially in social media, there’s misinformation, right? How do you — how have you dealt with that?
Liz Collins: That’s so tricky and something that teenagers deal with all the time, because they love Twitter, and Facebook, and Instagram, and the information moves faster than the fact-checking. So, I think that’s an important lesson for them to learn across the board. Just because you’re getting this information, who’s the source? How trustworthy is it? What’s that person or organization’s bias? What do they want you to think and why?And I think teaching them to challenge that and think about that goes beyond this issue, but also gives them a lens with which to approach this issue as more and more facts come out. And every day, we’re learning more and more about what happened and having to sift through all those facts. And I think teaching that skill is valuable in any subject and easily transferable.
If this isn’t information literacy, folks, I don’t know what is. It might be a coincidence that ACRL released the third version of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education exactly two weeks prior to the grand jury’s decision, but I think that we should see it as an opportunity.
Several pieces of the new Framework challenge us to teach students these exact skills. The issues in Ferguson can be a current, relevant, and important vehicle for students to explore their information literacy skills in. Here is an introductory list of the more salient examples in the newest document that could reflect issues specific to Ferguson as well as questions/ starting points librarians might use to form learning outcomes and activities:
Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations (lines 160-164)
- What type and/ or medium of information is privileged? What are some structural reasons for this?
- How might you be an active member of the information ecosystem in combatting this privilege? What specific forms of communication might you use?
- What modes of communication lend themselves to bias? How can you detect bias about current events like the issues in Ferguson?
Recognize that authoritative content may be packaged formally or informally and may include audio, visual, and other nonprint sources (lines 185-186)
- Find an example of authoritative, visual content about Ferguson. What type of source is this (primary or secondary)? Why do you consider it authoritative?
- Compare a tweet, blog post, and news source about Ferguson. Which one(s) are authoritative and why? Does authority always correlate with medium?
Understand the increasingly social nature of the information ecosystem where authorities actively connect with one another and sources develop over time (lines 191-192)
- Find one conversation on Twitter that includes more than two people and has more than ten tweets. How were opinions changed? Were beliefs confirmed or challenged? Was anything cited and if so what impact did that have?
Understand how and why some individuals or groups of individuals may be underrepresented or systematically marginalized within the systems that produce and disseminate information (lines 276-278)
- Find one source where a protester is interviewed (not just photographed). How difficult was it? How is the protestor portrayed? How does this portrayal relate to the medium and/or the article’s author’s affiliation?
Employ critical skills to evaluate information; effectively resolve conflicting information; monitor gathered information and assess for gaps or weaknesses (lines 319-321)
- Find two sources that express conflicting information about what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Where are gaps present in either? What sources do they have (eye witnesses, forensic evidence, etc.)? What conclusions did you reach and why?
This work is hard, especially if you only have one-shot sessions. But it’s still important. For those of us that would rather stick with looking at peer review or studying the information cycle, David B. Cohen has some wise words to offer. He challenges us to think about this singular time in history as well as what we want and expect our students, the future leaders of this country, to be able to do:
And for some students who will most certainly remember this time, we’ll have to explain why this particular event—and the tragic pattern in which it fits—that mattered so much to them was not worth our time, not considered educationally relevant (emphasis mine)
We must remind our students that both stories and information are not one-sided but instead very complex and contextual. Despite some technical flaws I (and others) might see in the Framework, it is clear our profession is moving in this direction. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie articulates what happens when people engage with only one story or perspective:
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar- “The Danger of a Single Story”
As librarians, we must still continually remember that failing to teach students to be perceptive, empathetic critical thinkers has immense consequences for our entire society.
Note: It would be impossible for me to cover all of the brilliant blogs, tweets, and summaries of teaching material covering Michael Brown’s death within this forum. This is in no way an exhaustive list. Please feel free to explore more sources on your own and tailor the pedagogical conversation to your area of expertise.
Likewise, the ideas generated from passages in the Framework are merely starting points intended to start conversation. They are not meant to be prescriptive or exhaustive. Librarians should adapt these ideas (and other parts of the Framework) to best accommodate their teaching constraints and style.