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Category: Marginalia

Learning to Support Indigenous Studies

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As the librarian for American Studies, I’ve supported a few relatively minor Indigenous Studies projects. Now, though, I’m supporting a class that’s just enough outside of my comfort zone that it’s forcing me to slow down and really think differently about what I’m doing. And I’m realizing that a) my past approaches aren’t going to work with this class, and b) I might have been wrong all along.

Just as a couple of examples, I hadn’t come to grips with the challenges of reconciling the essence of something as simple and work-a-day (for me) as a research guide (with all its implied and overt messages about Proper Research in Academia) with the realities of the harm that colonial epistemologies have done and continue to do. I hadn’t realized or grappled with the importance of foregrounding indigenous voices or ways of knowing, or of not relying on academic sources to legitimize observations and analysis (which is such a reflexive move in Western academia). I hadn’t ever coached students to recognize authority clues in contexts and constructions so far outside of my own background and training.

Of course, I haven’t solved these issues, and I’m sure I haven’t even recognized a whole world of similar issues. And on the one hand, one of my primary roles in the lives of these undergraduates is and should be to mentor them through academic ways of knowing. But on the other hand, I’m hoping to learn ways of doing this that don’t also do harm — ways that promote ethical, respectful, thoughtful approaches to research in general and to cultural research in particular.

As I start grappling with these questions, I’m reading. So far I highly recommend:

There’s so much to say about these readings, but here’s a quote that helped me come to terms with the uncertainties I was feeling.

“Because these culturally based hierarchies of access to certain domains of cultural knowledge are often determined by an individual’s gender, age, ancestry, clan, and status, they are directly in tension with some of the underlying principles of librarianship that place a high value on free and equitable access to information.”

Becvar and Srinivasan, page 422

The simple act of naming these tensions helped me sit more comfortably with the new-to-me epistemologies and their implications for my work, and it helped me begin the process of first recognizing and then integrating unfamiliar epistemologies. (From here, moving on to Christen’s article was quite lovely.)

And one last quote that stuck with me:

Can the imagination and technological prowess that promoted open access publishing, open source software, and Creative Commons licenses exist side-by-side with those alternative systems of knowledge production that rely instead on social relations maintained and forged through negotiated interdependencies, which have as their goal the mutual gain between stakeholders in social, economic, and cultural terms?

Christen, page 2880

Christen thinks this is possible, with work. I’m on board for the work.

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You have caught the tenor of the argument

You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. …  You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (Burke 110-11)

This is Kenneth Burke’s analogy for academic writing, my own version of which I use in most of my classes. Composition instructors like the authors of They Say / I Say focus on the phrase “then you put in your oar” as the turning point (13-14). For me and my profession, the key phrase is “you have caught the tenor of the argument.” Embedded there I see so much about information literacy — what people are talking about, what positions have been covered already, what evidence counts as good evidence in this conversation, what terms will this group use and understand when talking about the topic, whom will you need to acknowledge as you lay out your position… You have caught the tenor of the argument.

Another thing I love about this conversational analogy is that the protagonist is never quite done listening to others and incorporating their ideas into new statements. The research process is not linear.

(Er, I’ve finished the prefaces and introduction to this book now. I promise not to write a blog post for every 5 pages of reading. Really.)

Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941

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


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.


Why Would Undergraduates Need Those Clunky Databases Anyway?

Google Scholar has made great strides in the 6 years I’ve been a librarian. It’s great. I use it all the time. And now interesting new research by Xiaotian Chen shows that Google Scholar contains nearly all of the articles held in several standard library databases, which is also great. Chen’s article finishes with a flourish, declaring, “The conclusion cannot be clearer: libraries can seriously consider cancelling a large number of subscription-based abstracts and indexes since their unique contents and value are rapidly evaporating” (Chen 226).

This would probably be true if the unique content and value of subscription databases were housed solely in the citation, abstract, and potential for full text access, but in fact it misses the point for many researchers. And it misses the point particularly for undergraduates.

Search is all about term matching, and terms are often the hardest thing for undergraduates to harness. So one key value of a database or search engine is the way that it introduces students to helpful information such as terms that might be important to their topics, genres of publication that are relevant to the scholars in the field that study the topic, and ways of judging the source’s relative weight by providing clues about other things the author has written or about how often the source is cited by other sources. These are not things that undergraduates are able to do just by looking at a citation and abstract.

Google Scholar is very forgiving of bad searching. It will nearly always give you something, even if you enter “impact of cell phones on globalization” into the search box. (Two of my big goals for this last term were to get students to stop searching for “impact on” and “globalization.” I was only minimally successful.) Because it’s so forgiving, it can be a great place to start. However, it’s pretty bad at leading you to new search strategies once you’ve found the one article where the author uses your phrase in her abstract.

Disciplinary databases are not nearly as forgiving of bad searching, so they may be pretty intimidating places to start. Where they excel, however, is in foregrounding those elusive, mysterious, and powerful terms that students need so badly if they’re going to revise their searches and gather more disciplinarily relevant material. The vocabulary, controlled and otherwise, is one of the two key advantages of disciplinary databases. These databases also help students make decisions about the relative worth of a source by (usually) giving links to other things by that author, other things published in that journal, citation counts, bibliographies, indications about peer review, and so on. And sure, these aren’t things that students are used to looking at when they enter college. But in my experience, these are tools that students very quickly come to rely on.

For the totally at-sea undergraduate, the most powerful research process will probably look something like this: take a citation found using a messy search in Google Scholar, plunk that citation into a library database, mine the resulting record for terms and other useful information, read a couple of articles “instrumentally,” and then repeat the process as needed with better and better terms each time.

So is Google Scholar a database killer? Like Steve, I think not. I think it’s a great tool that complements our other tools. And hey! It’s free!

Chen, Xiaotian. “Google Scholar’s Dramatic Coverage Improvement Fiver Years after Debut.” Serials Review 36, no. 4 (2010): 221-26. [Available via ScienceDirect]