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This would probably be better if I knew what I was talking about

I’ve begun to notice a pattern. Apparently I think of information literacy as a branch off of the field of rhetoric rather than science, no matter what the title of my degree says.

In my job talk for my current job (before I really knew anything about being a reference or instruction librarian, or about what my work would look like) I talked about how research allows you to listen in on the other end of the phone conversation — how any one piece of writing is only part of the story, and a fuller picture emerges when you listen to more voices.

My understanding and teaching about citation and attribution always deals with citations as rhetoric, not only because they build bridges between the various parts of the relevant conversation but also because they signal to your readers “See, I have chosen evidence that you will think is really great evidence for this claim, so please think highly of my claim.”

The rubric my colleagues and I have been developing to help us sift through student papers to learn about the students’ habits of mind when it comes to incorporating evidence into their own work is all couched in their rhetoric, since that’s all we have to go on. So we look for how well they make a case for their evidence being the ideal evidence for their goals, and then at how skillfully they weave it into their justification for their claims.

And now I’m reading They Say / I Say, which has gained great traction on our campus, and the first paragraph of the preface starts out:

The core of this book is the premise that good argumentative writing begins not with an act of assertion but an act of listening, of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who think differently from us. […] When writing responds to something that has been said or might be said, it thereby performs the meaningful task of supporting, correcting, or complicating that other view. (xiii)

And I’m thinking “that sounds an awful lot like the way I teach information literacy.” Listening in on what’s been said before and using that activity not just as a way to gather facts but more importantly as an ongoing act of building a framework for your thinking and writing and communicating.

And I’m thinking that maybe I should actually learn something about rhetorical theory since I’m currently basing a whole lot of my work on an area that I really know very little about.

So, rhetorician denizens of the internet, what do you recommend that I read as I reverse-engineer some actual knowledge into this theme of mine?

Graff, Gerald, and Cathy Birkenstein. “They Say / I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Second Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Published inMarginaliaTeaching and Learning


  1. Barbara Fister Barbara Fister

    Mmm…. fun stuff. I am subscribed to but only occasionally read a great list, WPA-L, where this book is being discussed in a lively way right now. You might find The Bedford Bibliography a useful intro to the literature. Then if you’re really, really hungry, you can try searching ComPile, an index to the literature of composition.

    You can also have lunch with Carol and take notes. She’s fabulous!

  2. Thanks! And you’re right about Carol. I’m sure that no small part of my interest in this area has come from conversations and workshops and meetings with her.

  3. Debbie, you’re absolutely right. My colleagues and I talk about information literacy as being one of the interlinked critical literacies (along with quantitative literacy, visual literacy, etc). Since I’m the librarian for languages and literature on my campus, I put a little more emphasis on the language-based literacies, but always with an eye to the other critical literacies as well.

    Thank you very much for those links!

  4. Interesting. I might know more than I think I know. I’m being pointed toward Mikhail Bakhtin (whose work was central to my graduate work in literary studies) and Kenneth Burke (whom I read as part of that program, too), and Wayne Booth (whom I don’t think I’ve ever read). Also John Bean, who visits our campus nearly yearly. Cool! Time to re-study some old friends with an eye to learning new things.

  5. I’m sure Debbie Abilock is right that it’s not wise to assume that all information literacy is based in language. But I think it’s equally unwise to assume that all discussions of or approaches to information literacy need to encompass all the possible facets of information literacy in order to be valid.

    Transliteracy is a useful concept as far as it can widen our horizons and understanding. I think it’s less useful as a single yardstick to measure the validity and efficacy of any given effort to better understand and teach research, writing, and argument.

  6. This conversation is helping me clarify my thinking about two things.

    The first is that I think of rhetoric as not necessarily language/alphabet based. There are rhetorical conventions to art and graphs, too. Maybe this is stretching the definition of rhetoric too far, I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t formally studied this stuff yet.

    The second thing is something that I’ve thought about in other circumstances but hadn’t applied here. When I wrote the post, I think I inadvertently misspoke when I said that IL was “a branch of” rhetoric. Mostly when I think about IL, I think less about defining something that’s a stand-alone thing with clear borders that separate it out from other things. I’m less interested in naming the whole. Rather, I’m interested in how information literacy works in and with other intellectual skills and habits, particularly those that are already important to my academic community. That’s why we haven’t instituted a stand-alone information literacy initiative on campus and have, instead, embedded ourselves into the writing across the curriculum initiative, the quantitative reasoning initiative, the visuality initiative, etc. This isn’t because we think of information literacy as lesser than those things, but rather because we see it as an inherent part of those things — inseparable, vital, and engaging. Whereas information literacy by itself, separated from all purpose, is pretty hollow and hard to get excited about.

    I’m very glad others are taking up the challenge of naming the whole. I’m also very intrigued by seeing what this thing looks like when the borders are a lot fuzzier.

  7. Marcia Thomas Marcia Thomas

    I highly recommend two chapters in Teaching Literary Research: Challenges in a Changing Environment (ed Kathleen Johnson & Steven Harris, pub by ACRL 2009: “‘I Couldn’t Find an Article that Answered my Question’: Teaching the Construction of Meaning in Undergraduate Literary Research” by Bean & Iyer, and “Literary Eavesdropping and the Socially Graceful Critic” by Koppelman. I assume that the author John Bean is the same that you mentioned in your response above?

  8. Thank you, Marcia. I’m so excited that I now have a lovely and respectable list of things to read! The internet is awesome.

    And yes, I’d assume it’s the same John Bean. If you ever get a chance to talk to him in person I highly recommend it. He’s a wonderful, open, humble, enthusiastic guy.

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