Tomorrow I’m supposed to stand up in front of a group of faculty, all of whom are considering teaching one of the college’s new curriculum-wide freshman seminars next year, all of which must include some explicit practice developing information literacy. My task: explain information literacy to them in 10 easy minutes so that they can start thinking of ways to build it into their syllabi.
I wish I knew what information literacy is.
My co-workers have heard me say that I’m particularly confused by two things about information literacy: “information” and “literacy.” “Information” can refer to everything from color and smell to poetry to data to formal research articles. And while all of these things could be included in the definition of “information literacy,” for the most part we mean something more specific than that, something more like “facts or approaches or primary sources or secondary sources.” I know, I know, there are exceptions to that. But really, we don’t mean “the amount of the data after data compression” (Shu-Kun), or many of the other meanings proposed by Wikipedians. And “literacy” feels like a remedial skill to me, whereas I tend to think of sophistication in this area as a combination of concrete skills and an omnipresent habit of mind, both of which are useful in and out of the classroom and research contexts.
But this doesn’t really help me with my presentation, so I looked back at a couple of the position documents my department has produced in the last couple of years: Information Literacy in the Liberal Arts and the List of 6 and more. Then my co-workers and I plagiarized the second one, tweaked it a little, and came up with a list of questions that would be useful for first year students. This we developed into a handout for the presentation: Finding, Evaluating, and Ethically Using Information.
For my purposes tomorrow, these questions sketch out the habit of mind that information literate people exhibit. They don’t cover “knowing you need information,” and they don’t cover concrete search skills or strategies, but they are a start.
[edit: I should have linked to Steve's post and didn't, so here are his thoughts on the topic.]
All's Well That Ends Well - National Theatre
A few friends and I have started a Shakespeare Project. We want to read Shakespeare’s plays, starting with the ones we’re least familiar with and moving up to the biggies we all remember from college, taking about two weeks to read each one. (This is kind of a repeat of a project my family undertook when I was in high school. We’d all read a play a week and then sit down on Sundays to watch the BBC versions of the plays. It was a project I mostly resented at the time, but now really want to do.) So every morning I get up, make hot chocolate while feeding the cat, and then spend half an hour or 45 minutes reading a few scenes of Shakespeare. When the cat finishes his breakfast, he jumps up to sit quietly with his front paws planted as near to the left-hand edge of my Complete Works of Shakespeare as possible so that I can run my fingers along his head and shoulders while I read and sip hot chocolate. Pretty idyllic.
Anyway, I was reading All’s Well That Ends Well, which I had just seen beautifully performed by the National Theatre about 10 days ago, and I suddenly realized that there had been whole little scenes of action in the production that simply don’t show up in the dialog on the page. The actors and directors had taken the time to wonder why some of those off-hand lines were there, and to build that world into their production. Left to my own devices, novice that I am, I’m incapable of seeing the world that exists between the lines of dialog on the page, but that world is so much richer and more fascinating than the pure dialog admits.
As I taught a couple classes of freshmen this week and tried to build a picture of college-level research for them, I wondered yet again how to bridge the gap between expert and novice. I see conversations where they see bits of data. I see interconnections between vocabulary and lines of arguement where they see result list after result list that doesn’t contain “sources on my topic” (by which they mean “sources that say what I’m about to argue”). How do I first describe the world between the lines for them, and then help them develop the capacity to imagine it for themselves?
The last couple of mornings I’ve spent time with a couple of different freshman writing seminars getting them ready to tackle the research component of their classes. Both times I tried a technique that I’d done once last year when I co-taught with a colleague of mine. It’s kind of like concept mapping… but with an eye toward building searches.
Here’s how it works:
- Talk about how writing a research paper is like participating in a conversation.
When you enter a conversation at a party, you need to know a) who’s talking, b) what they’re talking about, and c) how they’re talking about it. Parroting back what people say is not a conversation. Actually contributing to the conversation means having a grasp of the topic and the vocabulary that is in use within that conversation. Relevant vocabulary is also important because search is basically vocabulary matching.
- Write a “topic” up on the board.
This should not be a beautifully narrowed topic, both because that makes the exercise harder and because that’s not actually reaching students where they are. In both cases, for me, the students were at the “I want to do something about globalization and agriculture” stage. Yesterday I got a student volunteer to write his topic on the board. Today’s class was a little more structured and twice as long, so I picked a topic that I knew would serve as a robust enough foundation for all the components of the class.
- Invite students to come up and write the answers to two questions: “Who might have studied this topic?” and “What questions might they have asked of the topic?”
So, for example, if the topic is “organic food” students might write “EPA,” or “Behavioral economists,” or “farmers,” or “doctors,” or “sociologists” (these are examples from this morning’s exercise). Some questions included “is organic food more nutritious than conventionally grown food?” and “what motivates people to buy organic food?”
- Talk as a group about what terms might crop up in the articles by the different groups, building searches as you go.
Basically, that black board full of groups and questions serves as the basis for the rest of the class. Searching Google? Show how to limit to .gov sources to hit those EPA people. Searching Academic Search Premier? Talk about differences in disciplinary language and collect subject headings that match the topic at hand. Having trouble with students still typing “effect of pesticides on the production of corn” into search boxes? The blackboard helps you remind students to step outside of their own phrasing of the topic and choose meaningful terms that would have appeared in, for example, a report from the USDA. STILL having trouble? Do it again. And again. And little by little it sinks in.
An added benefit of this technique is that it gets the whole class up and moving near the beginning. I can’t tell you how much this changes the atmosphere of a morning class full of sceptical freshmen. I don’t know why it helps, but I’ll go with it.
It has been an odd but inspiring week at work. It was odd because my department members and I took one entire day to sit down together and write a couple of documents on a very tight deadline. It was inspiring because one of these documents mapped our experiences with last year’s first-year seminars to the goals of our newly devised first-year seminars (which the college is calling “Argument & Inquiry” seminars), forcing us to articulate what it looks like to be an instruction librarian for first-year students at a liberal arts college.
It was doubly inspiring because immediately after drafting that description of instruction librarianship in the liberal arts, I got to go and actually do that work with a 100-level course that is one of my perennial favorites: Linguistics 110.
I love this class because it absolutely embodies one point we made in our document: “Locating discussions of content relevant to the course within the context of library instruction makes explicit the connection between information gathering and knowledge production.” The professor teaches his class, talking about the different cortical pathways used to process kanji and kana (with a healthy dose of the convoluted history of Japanese writing systems and vocabulary). Meanwhile, I jump in every once in a while and show how to find out if the article he’s used as the basis for this lecture is still being cited in the literature and is still thought to be credible (he supplied me with the article information ahead of time), how to use terms from that paper to find more papers on similar topics, and how to evaluate the web site that popped up when he used Google to find images of these cortical pathways. Meanwhile, he riffs off of the papers that we find to talk about how they either confirm or complicate what he already knows, or how they relate to other concepts they’ve covered in class.
This feels so much closer to the way real research happens. It’s not set aside as “library day” when students will step outside of their roles as Students Of Linguistics and step into their roles as Students Who Must Soon Write a Paper. This is thesis development that’s built on class discussion and lecture, sprinkled with “but is this really credible,” encouraging the habit of taking facts and asking “but how would I find out more about that” and “what do I do with what I’ve found,” and always circling everything back around to how the new information informs thesis development and relates to the course content.
This model wouldn’t work for all courses, certainly, but every Fall I look forward to the call that will schedule this particular session.
The dynamics of research in our various liaison areas dictate that most of my co-workers work primarily with upperclassmen, and that I work with more freshmen and sophomores than with juniors and seniors. I used to feel a little left out of the “fun stuff” because of this split — a little jealous that my coworkers had more call to develop highly specialized knowledge and skills while I worked on basic things (like the fact that interlibrary loan exists, and that scholars publish in journals as well as books). But that only lasted as long as my naive assumptions about the complexities of working with first year students. Fall Term two years ago, those naive assumptions vanished, and ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the challenge of getting freshmen up to speed as quickly as possible. And just recently, I’ve learned a whole lot about my the target demographic of my special project.
- Focus groups on our campus suggest that freshmen here don’t see research skills as generalizable across disciplines. Maybe our liaison model feeds this. Maybe our model just caters to it. Either way, that’s my cue to figure out how to make the skills and strategies I teach more explicitly transferable to other classes and research problems.
- Our FYILLAA results were pretty interesting, too, showing that incoming freshmen (prior to having any classes at Carleton) *think* that tasks like citation or determining the scholarly-ness of a source are easy, but that they actually have a great deal of difficulty identifying scholarly sources or distinguishing between book, article, and essay citations.
- And now I learn that first year students have other things on their minds, that they have to adjust to “daily life management” before being able to spend time developing their intellectual muscles.
What a range! Just the new stuff I’ve learned this term spans “transferable skills awareness,” the nitty gritty of getting your hands on stuff and navigating the scholarly literature, and the developmental project of adjusting to life on a college campus.