identity, information literacy and professors as celebrities

So, in the infamous checklists we tell students “make sure you can tell who the author is, check their credentials, are they expert, are they scholarly?” as a necessary part of scholarly information evaluation, right?  Well, wouldn’t you say that an assistant professor of history at Southern Baptist University would be well-qualified to talk about the historical implications of the current President?

Apparently, someone thought so, and a lot of other someones thought so enough that they started forwarding emails based on that assumption.  Via Historiann, in today’s Inside Higher Ed, professor of history Tim Wood tells the story of how his name was attached to a document with a clear political agenda, with which he did not agree — and how the professional identity that he had built was clearly lending credibility to the essay in question.

Wood also tells the story of what  he did, and what others might do, to prevent and contain similar situations.  This line really jumped out at me –

Moreover, this incident has led me to reconsider my somewhat adversarial relationship with technology. (I’m the guy who still refuses to buy a cell phone.) But one of the greatest difficulties I encountered in all of this was finding a platform from which to launch a rebuttal.

He suggests that actively building, policing and maintaining an online professional identity is a good way to protect that identity.  This, I think is an important information literacy skill – and one we don’t talk about a lot.  In Wood’s case, his university gave him a space to post a rebuttal, that could be then pointed to and linked to expose the lies.

Using that space, Wood directly links this back to the information literacy skills we do talk about a lot as well –

To navigate those potential pitfalls, historians check facts and look for other documents that conform (or contradict) the information found in our source. We seek to identify the author and understand his or her motives for writing. We try to understand the larger historical and cultural context surrounding a document. By doing our homework, we’re better able to judge when something or someone deserves to be “taken at their word.”

This episode has taught me that these skills have an important place even outside this history classroom.

I’ve said before that I don’t think we should focus our evaluation teaching on those situations where someone is actively trying to trick us, but that doesn’t mean that we should pretend that possibility doesn’t happen either.  The checklist doesn’t get us where we need to go when it comes to information evaluation – at best it gets us to where we need to be to start doing our real evaluation.  When you figure out what the author’s agenda is, you’re not done evaluating, right?  When you figure out if it’s peer-reviewed, that just tells you what you need to be looking for as you evaluate, right?

(Full disclosure, I haven’t read the essay in question, so I’m not sure how aligned the content is with the scholarly research of the professor in question, but I do think that for most students brand-new to thinking about what academic expertise means “professor of history” would probably be enough to establish credibility)

And in this case, when you figure out who the author is, you’re not done evaluating either.  Does the work match other work by the author – does it fit within their normal research agenda – is it part of a scholarly/expert consensus, or is the interpretation more on the whacked-out side?  That’s what this story has me thinking about – how to get students from “professor of history” to “there’s something seriously wrong here.”

ETA – apparently, Professor Wood isn’t the only one to be dealing with this.

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