Peer-reviewed Monday post-conference-drive-by

Oh who am I kidding.  It probably won’t be short.  But it might be disjointed.  My good intentions were foiled by intermittent Internet access at the Super Conference, which was not that unexpected.  And by a seriously limited amount of power for my computer, which was totally unexpected except for my expected ability to do boneheaded things like leaving my power adapter at home.

{FYI – the Canadians, they know how to treat their speakers.  It’s been great.}

I do have something to say about peer reviewed research today though – it’s about this 2005 Library Quarterly article by Kimmo Tuominen, Reijo Savolainen and Sanna Talja.

Fair warning, I really liked this article.  I first read something by Savolainen when I was working on an annotated bibliography in library school (I think the topic was genre) and I’ve been something of a fan ever since.  Like AnneMaree Lloyd who was discussed here two weeks ago, these authors argue that we need to expand our definitions of information literacy.  And the expansion they’re arguing for is similar to Lloyd’s.  I find more food for thought here – more connections between the different things I’m thinking about and working on.

Perhaps this is because this is not a research article – these authors are not bound by their own sample, questions, or data.  Perhaps it is because tthey do a better job of placing their vision of information literacy in its theoretial context, or at least of explaining what that context is and why we should care about it.  Or perhaps it is just because their vision is broader.

In any event, their starting point is similar to Lloyd’s -

The predominant view of information literacy tends to conceive of IL as a set of attributes – or personal fluencies – that can be taught, evaluated, and measured independently of the practical tasks and contexts in which they are used.

And they have similar conclusions -

We argue that understanding the interplay between knowledge formation, workplace learning, and information technologies is crucial for the success of IL initiatives.  Needs for information and information skills are embedded in work practice and domain-dependent tasks.

So from here the authors look back at the IL discussion over time. They locate its start in the 1960′s and early 1970′s, trace the initial involvement of professional associations in the 1980′s, touch on the Big 6 model in the 1990′s and then argue that the concept of information literacy began to be associated with the broader concept of lifelong learning in the 1990′s.  They conclude this history section with the argument that since the 1990′s there have been many attempts to define competency standards for information literacy.

From here, they move to talking about challenges to the idea of information literacy.  Interestingly, they place the argument that IL instruction requires cooperation with faculty, integration into the curriculum, and a grounding in content-focused classroom assignments as one such challenge.  Given that that model has been presented to me as the norm (with the separate, credit-course instruction idea as the exception) since I was in library school, this rang a little strange to me.

The authors dismiss the challenges to IL.  They argue that so long as definitions of IL take the individual as subject, and outline a set of generic, transferable skills that individual can master – there is broad agreement as to what the potentially vague concept of “information literacy” means.  They argue that the ACRL IL Standards for Higher Education, for example, define a set of generic skills that are supposed to have relevance across the disciplines and across contexts.

This is very interesting to me, because we spent a long time on my campus defining just that kind of generic, transferable information literacy standards.  We did so in conjunction with faculty across the disciplines – from all of our colleges and who taught all levels of undergraduates.  The thing is this, this was a really invigorating process.  We held focus groups with faculty and had conversations with a lot of programs and units across campus and I’m really, really proud of the document we came up with .  As a model for objectives/ goal-writing, this document is not bad.  Look at the action verbs!

And more than that, the repeated conversations with faculty were really morale-boosting.  Getting faculty to come over to the library and talk, and talk in-depth and really, really intelligently about information literacy wasn’t a challenge – it was easy.  And the faculty had such useful and smart things to say about the stuff we all cared about.  It was a good process.

Since then, we’ve been wondering what to do with the document.  Our campus doesn’t have any instiutution-wide learning goals; we don’t have a structure where our competencies could fit in or be adopted on a campus-wide level.   So that’s an issue.  But even within the library, we’ve struggled with where to go next.

And I think that the factors mentioned in this article may have something to do with it.  We use the course-integrated, there should be an assignment, IL has more meaning with taught in the context of an actual information need model.  And we thought and still think that we *could* define disciplinary or context- specific versions of our competencies (or at least of the examples), but we haven’t done that.  Our one attempt to do so got bogged down in a nightmare mire of granularity.

We want to define a program that integrates the branch campuses, the archives/ special collections, faculty programs and all levels of graduate/undergraduate student instruction and I’m not sure that the competency document is that helpful in doing that.  It was a useful reflective exercise for us, and the process of creating it collaboratively with faculty was very useful.  But beyond that, I’m not sure how to make it useful for us as we try to structure a doing-more-with-less type of instruction program.

And it might be because of what is articulated in this article.  When I think of how to create a document like this for beginning composition, for example, which while multidiscipinary has a clearly articulated goal of introducing students to academic writing and knowledge creation.  And that goal is a context – academic writing provides a context.  Context is even easier to conceptualize in different fields.

The authors argue that these standards-based ideas of IL are based on an assumption of information as something factual and knowable (I think our collaborative process with faculty undercut this in our case).  They also suggest that the standards are too focused on the individual as agent seeking and using information.  This piece I have a little bit of a problem with.  It’s kind of a typical criticism of constructivism – arguing that it’s too individual, too grounded in individual cognitive processes:

Most of the published IL literature draws from constructivist theories of learning stressing that individuals not only absorb the messages carried by information but are also active builders of sense and meaning.

What they’re missing here, or probably not giving the same emphasis that I would give more than ignoring – is Vygotsky.  Kuhlthau, who they acknowledge as influential, deliberately focuses on Vygotsky’s brand of constructivism, which was a deliberate effort to integrate the social and cultural back IN to constructivism.  Still, much as I love Vygotsky, and much as I respect Kuhlthau for going that route — I have to agree that the *image* of the solitary scholar undergirds the picture painted by most IL competency standards.

Beyond this, the authors idea of the social in information literacy is very specific – grounded in this idea of socialtechnical practice.  As they suggest, “the most important aspects of IL may be those that cannot be measured at the level of the individual alone.”   By this, they mean, that it is not the individual but the community that decides what kinds of sources are useful, and valued, and important — which things you have to master to be successful within the community:

Groups and communities read and evaluate texts collaboratively.  Interpretation and evaluation in scientific and other knowledge domains is undertaken in specialized “communities of practice,” or “epistemic communities.”

Which is why I think the “academic writing” context in beginning composition is not too broad as to be useful.  For new or neophyte scholars, the idea that there are practices of communicating knowledge, that there are types of knowledge more avalued than others – these ideas are new enough that they deserve an introduction all their own.  Expecting students to jump into the epistemic community of a discipine before they really understand that there is such a thing as epistemology… that seems unreasonable to me.

The authors here tend to argue that IL is too grounded in school and that it misses the communitie of practice aspect because it’s too grounded in school.  I think I would probably argue (though this just occurred to me and I’m a classic introvert which means I need more processing time and thus must reserve the right to argue the opposite of this later) … anyway … I would probably argue that the problem isn’t that we focus on generic academic writing skills instead of grounding things in context – I would argue that we present generic academic writing skills without really grounding them in their context.  I agree that we have an assumption that these skills, mastered in any context, will be useful and valuable.  That we don’t have to explain their significance across contexts because students will be able to draw those connections.  I’m not sure that’s true unless we specifically, and deliberately, explain the academic context in the first place.

And I really like the idea of grounding those pieces of information literacy – that what you will even be looking for is determined by the discourse, by the practice-standards of a particular discourse community — in the community or the context.  So, to these authors, “sociotechnical practice” means identifying where the community determines what it means to be information literate.    And that’s really, really valuable.

Beyond this, I think we need to start deliberately teaching our students how to figure out what those community standards are.  Not teaching them what they are – but how to figure that out.  I wondered the other day if students are using search engines to figure out how to enter the scholarly discourse even if they aren’t taught specifically what “peer reviewed” means, or anything like that.  Looking at my referral logs, I don’t think they are.  That kind of bothers me – they should know how to go looking for the how-to information they need.  And I suspect we should start teaching it.

Kimmo Tuominen, Reijo Savolainen, Sanna Talja (2005). Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Practice The Library Quarterly, 75 (3), 329-345 DOI: 10.1086/497311

2 thoughts on “Peer-reviewed Monday post-conference-drive-by

  1. Thanks for reminding me of this article.

    In some ways, what they’re talking about isn’t all that rarified – even students who wouldn’t get the idea of discourse communities defined by different standards of what counts as information or evidence or a legitimate research question do understand the rhetorical concept of audience. They know that how they express themselves on facebook is not the way they would express themselves when writing a paper for an English course. That the explanation they would give to friends about why they were running late to a concert is different in terms of evidence and argument than the one they’d give the cop who pulled them over.

    Lately I’ve been thinking we actually spend too much time introducing students to the specifics of disciplinary discourse. I’ve been pleased when upper division students understand those differences but resist them by finding common ground between something they read in a philosophy course and a pop culture phenomenon or a psychology experiment they read about in the paper. Writing well in a generic sense to me is a greater (at least more useful) accomplishment than writing that competently mimics the style of a particular academic discipline. And I suspect learning to apply inquiry skills to cross-disciplinary (and non-academic) pursuits is undermined when we focus too much on a process that is too much focused on the steps you go through to complete a school assignment.

    For example, in “real life” I almost never start research by “determining the extent of information needed.” I start by encountering something that makes me curious or angry or excited. “Determining the extent of information needed” sounds suspiciously like “ten pages and at least six sources.”

    In some ways, I think we teach our students community standards but forget to mention they are merely the standards of a particular community. But they know that, and shelve what hey learn in the library as “how to get through college assignments” without ever planning to take it out and use it in other contexts.

    It doesn’t help that so much of what they spend time learning is bound to a particular library, that the tools they spend time learning are not available once they leave school and have no research library providing subscriptions. Unplanned obsolescence?

  2. Thanks Barbara – I’ve been prepping for stuff I had to do all week with this buzzing in the back of my head – “must talk to Barbara more about information, context and audience.” I think you’re spot on to pull out the connection to audience, and spot on to suggest that the audience thing is only part of the picture.

    I’ve been thinking about the Peer Review talk again over the last month, which I know you have not seen, but part of my struggle with these concepts is precisely with the idea that audience is maybe not the right way to approach this concept because it is so grasp-able. But what I worry about is that the student will take from that “scholarship is important when I am writing for scholars, but once I am out of school I will not write for scholars anymore so I can just ignore it.”

    Your last point is so, so, important – they won’t have access to the ticky boxes that “limit to scholarly sources” and the tools anymore. But they will have access to scholarship – I can’t contemplate working hard for Open Access on the one hand and accepting that scholarship only has value in school on the other. We got the question the last time we did the peer review talk – how should we deal with the fact that most of them will be locked out of the ticky box tools and licensed content when they leave. And my knee jerk answer was that there is so much quality, research-based work available out there that my main concern is not that students will leave and will not be able to find it – my main concern is that they will leave and they will not be motivated to do so.

    The Lloyd article last week gets at this a bit – talking about how it is important to us to do that text-based, what it’s like in our knowledge community (whether we’re talking procedural manuals for firefighters or the scholarly literature in sociology) reading and learning at one phase, but that to be really information literate you also have to learn how to learn beyond that – to learn how to get the info you need to function when the ideal, controlled-conditions environment isn’t your working environment, which it never is.

    Man, I think this might have blown up into another post :-) And I didn’t even get into all of the thoughts I have about the tacit information literacy skills that good students have.

    Cheers – amd

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