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.

Podcasts, Clickers, and Wi-Fi, Oh My!

Seems there has been more attention on teaching with technology just recently. If you consider the article and colloquy from the recent Chronicle of Higher Education that discussed the Millennial Generation and a new article in this week’s U.S. News & World Report, that’s two high profile pieces on how the needs of learners are changing, and how higher education is experimenting with technology as a means of revolutionizing how students learn. If your campus is like mine, then faculty are likely divided on both issues related to learners and the impact technology has on their learning process. Many are firm advocates and do all they can to push technology to its limits. Others are more suspect and would like to see concrete evidence that technology improves learning. And of course the majority are somewhere in the middle, dabbling with technology and implementing changes to their teaching methods a small step at a time. I’m a firm believer that technology has a place in the classroom, and students are increasingly expecting to find it being used. The divide tends to occur when we debate the extent to which technology should be used, and whether or not it truly helps to enhance student learning. While it’s important to pay attention to changing demographics (e.g., Millennials) and the ways in which technology might better fit changing student expectations, one needs to be cautious about buying the argument that learning needs to change right now and dramatically so. Based on what I’ve learned in the instructional technology courses I’ve taken at my institution, there is an entire spectrum of learning methods and media that we have at our disposal in creating a memorable learning experience for students. Some involve technology and others do not (i.e., lecture and discussion still have their place). Sometimes group learning is best, and at other times individual effort is more effective. The U.S. News article reflects that segment among both faculty and students who believe that technology, when used inappropriately or simply because it is there, can hurt learning more than it may help. We’ve all heard stories on our own campuses about students who will explode if they have to sit through one more set of PowerPoint slides (and you’ve surely seem them printing out endless pages of those slides that are now embedded in course texts and courseware sites). Our role as teaching librarians (or “blended librarians” as I like to say) is to become familiar with all the teaching tools and techniques at our disposal – just as we want our user communities to be aware of all the information databases and retrieval systems at their disposal – and to work at using them wisely to help students achieve learning outcomes. We also need to help our faculty do the same when it comes to library technology. Let’s remember that in addition to podcasts, tablet PCs, discussion boards, smartboards, clickers, and all the rest, that library databases have a place in the universe of classroom learning technologies. You won’t seem them mentioned in most mainstream articles about teaching and learning technologies. It’s our job to make sure students and faculty and integrating them into what happens in the classroom.

Another Take on the Digital Library

The Chronicle has reported that, like Google, Yahoo is in a project to digitize libraries – with a difference. Yahoo is partnering with a number of players in something called the Open Content Alliance, inspired by Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive. Libraries will pay a minimal cost per page to add their volumes to the collection, but they must be either not under copyright or have permission of the copyright holder. The New York Times calls it a “challenge to Google” – for a number of reasons. Results won’t be available only through one search engine, entire texts rather than snippets will be visible, and – gasp! – books will be chosen specifically for the project, rather than entire libraries being scanned wholesale.

First we had Amazon’s Search Inside, then the Google project, now this alliance. All of them are interestingly different takes on making the full text of books searchable online, all of them with a different commercial bent and each with different strengths and weaknesses. One thing that they do reveal, though, is these publicly traded corporations all seem to believe there is a future in making books searchable. And each offers varous challenges to traditional notions of copyright in a digital world.

How Will An Endowed Chair In Information Literacy Help?

Purdue University announced that it will create the first endowed chair in information literacy in the nation, as a result of a generous $2.5 million gift. While I applaud this pioneering development, as it will certainly promote information literacy at Purdue and perhaps raise the profile of information literacy beyond their campus, I have to question it as well. In part, the holder of the chair will lead research projects into information literacy. Nice, but in the last 20 years perhaps 5,000 articles or more have been written about information literacy, not to mention loads of presentations, so why create a research position of this sort. I’d be far more impressed if Purdue announced that it was funding programs to allow faculty members to commit to collaborating with their librarians to take full responsibility for teaching students to become information literate. That’s what we need in higher education – real action to establish faculty-led and librarian supported information literacy – not more research by and for librarians. Perhaps they’ll use some of the funds for programs directed at faculty, which I would encourage and welcome. Who knows, it might result in some resources and techniques that could be replicated elsewhere.

“Opinionated, Humorous, and Scathing”

Library Journal has a piece on blogging in libraries. One interesting comment: “unlike a transaction at the reference desk, blogs needn’t be neutral. In fact, many librarian-authored blogs are personal, opinionated, humorous, and scathing.”

The notion of neutrality came up in one of the Chronicle pieces on tenure that we’ve been talking about here. In arguing that tenure hampers our work, Deborah A. Carver says “librarians are also expected to maintain neutrality with respect to political, moral, or aesthetic views.” So where does that leave our bloggers?

Actually, I think what librarians must do is welcome a wide range of perspectives onto their shelves and through their doors. We shouldn’t provide services or instruction that push a singular perspective. We should be disinterestedly avid in the pursuit of knowledge, but that doesn’t mean we should have nothing to say for ourselves (and therefore no need for academic freedom or tenure).

Nevertheless, this issue is a rich one when it comes to blogging because this truly is a new genre and the authorial voice, whatever its source, is rarely neutral.