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Month: May 2012

What’s in a name

This week, as I and those I talk with have been mulling over Bibliographic Instruction, Information Literacy, and Transliteracy, I keep circling around to thoughts about the act of naming concepts — particularly concepts that sit at the heart of a group’s raison d’être. Names are powerful things, holding within themselves layer upon layer of articulated and unarticulated meaning, meaning that cannot be consistent from person to person and that cannot stay consistent over the course of time, since cultural context inevitably shifts and changes.

In the messy transitions implied by the introductions of new names that overlap with and build on concepts that came before, what do we gain? What do we lose?

I think we gain opportunities and motivation to examine our practice, to have difficult discussions, to encourage and pull stragglers along, to mollify and reign in renegades, and to shift emphasis from one point to another in the vast matrix of professional goals.

I think we lose a sense of the complexity of our past. New concepts or emphases do not spring fully formed into being, and new pedagogies retain large portions of old pedagogies, but a new name assignes concepts and pedagogies an artificial start date.

To complicate this even further, new names in pedagogical concepts seem usually to have the foundational goal of eradicating ineffective teaching, but the reality is that there will always be ineffective teachers. That’s an entirely separate issue. This goal, then, will never be realized but yet will spur the shifting of the old name’s layers of meaning to emphasize outdatedness, simplicity, lack of imagination, homogeneity.

Names are shorthand, simplified or problematized from moment to moment depending on context.

What’s in a name? People’s hopes, and people’s fears. No small thing.

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Inflammatory Statement: Transliteracy is Information Literacy for latecomers

I’ve been reading and listening to the discussions about Transliteracy, and last week went to a one-day conference on the topic. And I’ve come to a conclusion. “Transliteracy” is what people who’ve been doing Bibliographic Instruction and calling it Information Literacy have started calling Information Literacy now that they’re finally on board with Information Literacy’s goals.

Generalization? Admittedly. But try as I might, I can’t see how aiming for transferable skills is any different from what we’ve been doing for years.

Here’s how I see it. Years ago, library instruction was called “Bibliographic Instruction.” Typically, when people think of Bibliographic Instruction, they think of librarians teaching students “here is how you use an index, and here are the 4 best indexes for your topic, and here is the library catalog and here are the important parts of the library catalog.” Typically, people think of it as being very much about teaching the few, finite ways to find sources.

Then about 20 years ago a bunch of us said “enough of this, let’s do Information Literacy, which is about teaching students how to recognize that they need information, find it, evaluate it, and use it well. And we want them to grapple with the politics of information production and publication, and we want them to be able to apply these skills to all kinds of tasks. We want them learn to be life-long learners!” Now, some people were more on board with this than others, so some people or institutions have really continued to do something much closer to Bibliographic Instruction while adopting the name Information Literacy. Meanwhile, other people have almost entirely dispensed with teaching specific databases and catalogs in favor of teaching concepts and processes. And, of course, there’s everything in between.

Then last year or the year before, some people coined the term Transliteracy, which focuses on transferable skills and (they say) does this rather than teaching tools. I contend, however, that Information Literacy was never primarily about teaching the tools and always about transferable skills. Telling me that I should stop doing that stuffy old Information Literacy, with its emphasis on where exactly to click in which databases, tells me that you never really understood Information Literacy in the first place. It’s not called Database Literacy for a reason, you know.


Librarians: confusing process for product on a regular basis

I was complaining to some friends about a propensity for articles in the scholarly literature of librarianship to include a “literature review” which mostly consists of “A search of x database on the query [insert query here] revealed y results.” As I said to my friends, THIS IS NOT A LITERATURE REVIEW. And one friend responded that this is what you do but should not be what you report. At which point something clicked for me.

A lot of what I find frustrating about some of the expectations that float across our professional lives has to do with confusing process for product. The stereotype of boring library instruction, all about exactly where to click in order to be a good researcher, is one of these. The assumption that good organization equals good customer service is another. And let’s not forget collaboration and curricular integration equalling library success.

And this thing with the literature review is incredibly tied in with issues I’ve been working through in my teaching, where “teach students about literature reviews” is partially about locating and accessing sources but a lot more about understanding why you’re even doing that in the first place and then constructing a claim that’s grounded in those sources but reaches beyond them. Quantifying results is only one of many many evaluative actions, and it’s only good for certain kinds of arguments, and even then it’s usually the least interesting and least informative option.


ENGL 395: Latin@Bodies on the (Poetry) Line [session 1]

Last year I had my first experience being pretty fully integrated into an American Studies advanced seminar that was explicitly preparing juniors for the experience of writing a senior thesis while also tackling a particular topic within the field of American Studies. It worked fantastically, from my perspective. I’d never had as productive and collaborative a working relationship with a set of thesis students as I did with the students from that seminar. So this year I jumped at the chance to repeat that experiment with an advanced seminar in English.

By the end of the term, we will have met 4 times, sometimes for as little as 10 or 15 minutes, and sometimes for as long as the full class period. And in every case, what I’ll work with them on is simultaneously part of an advanced information literacy “curriculum” of sorts as well as timed to help the students accomplish an upcoming assignment.

Here’s the overview:

  1. Presearch — identifying and preparing to join scholarly conversations (Your are here)
  2. Bibliography as an intellectual product
  3. The Literature Review — mapping your scholarly conversation
  4. Creativity in Constraint

Session 1: Presearch

Session one went for 50 minutes, which is about half the class period for a Tuesday/Thursday class like this one, and it was almost entirely discussion-based and, after a brief introduction from the professor and from me, started with a discussion of genre. The professor had previously primed them with a quick look at MLA International Bibliography and with repeated references to and discussions about the concept of the scholarly conversation.

Key points from the introduction:

The importance of participating in a conversation according to conventional rules of conversations (i.e. not simply repeating your interlocutors, not bringing in totally off-topic ideas without bracketing them out somehow, non-verbals that all interlocutors understand, etc). Conversations are a genre of communication, and interlocutors are expected to follow the genre’s conventions or incur the displeasure of their interlocutors (and possibly being snubbed).


The course is about Latino/a poetry. How would you describe that genre? What is it trying to do? Who are its audiences? What kinds of evidence does it use to accomplish its goals? What rhetorical moves does it make? (As we discussed this genre, the professor and I kept track of key characteristics on the blackboard.)

The other major genre you’ll be dealing with in this course is the thesis-driven paper — specifically a piece of literary criticism — and in this case you’ll be asked to produce this genre. So what job is this genre doing? Who are its audiences? What kinds of evidence does it employ? What rhetorical moves does it make? (Again, we kept track of key features on the blackboard.)

One more genre, and pre-search:

Probably unbeknownst to you, you’ll also be working with a third genre in this course: the database. (Did a quick search to reveal a result list from MLA International Bibliography.) At this point in the circular research process, when you’re choosing a topic, you have to do a lot of listening in on the scholarly conversations that are happening in order to decide which to join yourself. This will involve doing many probing searches in databases and catalogs, “reading” the result lists and maybe the full records of results that look particularly interesting, slowly building up a map of the conversations you find, learning to vocabulary of those conversations and the key players, and then using all of this to build future searches and further refine your map of the scholarly conversation(s). Thinking of the database as a genre can help you “read” result lists in this concept-mapping way, and to think of searches as expeditions on the mapping quest rather than as end-points.

So, if a result list is a genre, what meaning does a list as a whole convey? Who is the audience? What “evidence” is it using to help its audience reach conclusions? What are the rhetorical moves it makes (think of layout and privileging of certain information as a rhetorical move).

Given all of this, what might finding “nothing on my topic” mean? Are there intellectual/rhetorical moves you can make in that situation (given that you’re talking about very contemporary poetry, it’s likely that you won’t find anything on your particular poem, after all)? [We discussed making arguments from analogy, using work from another poet/poem to illuminate your topic, and we discussed creating a theoretical base on which to ground your own work.] How might you recognize an “interesting question” to pursue? What kinds of things should you keep track of in your research notes that will help you map out the various conversations you find (I provide some templates under “Keeping Useful Notes” here)?

All too soon, our time was up.

Next time: Bibliographies as Intellectual Products.