The problem with context

“Judging from what you all, say” remarked Aunt Jamesina, “the sum and substance is that you can learn—if you’ve got natural gumption enough—in four years at college what it would take about twenty years of living to teach you. Well, that justifies higher education in my opinion. It’s a matter I was always dubious about before.”

— Anne of the Island (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

Annbook cover with the image of a young man in a brown suit seated on a rock wall, looking at a red-haired woman who is looking away from him, with the title Anne of the Islande of the Island was always my favorite of the Green Gables books, not because (okay, not just because) it’s the one where Anne finally gets it together about Gilbert but also because it’s a college story. And I’ve had romantic fuzzy notions about college for pretty much my whole life. So because I’ve read and reread this book so many times over the years, I’ve been able to pull this quotation out to liven up a lot of reflective writing pieces about the value of education, college, training — you get the picture.

But I’ve been thinking about it lately from the other side. From the perspective of learning that can’t be shortcut, at least not entirely. I was scanning Twitter one day, and saw this tweet from Emily Drabinski, who was live-tweeting a talk about context and information literacy by Andrea Baer.


In my work, I end up talking a lot about evaluation and authentic evaluation. Especially to classroom faculty and teaching librarians. And so much of that is tied up with this idea of context. The tl;dr version is blah blah tools like evaluation checklists suggest that evaluation can be done with a close examination of the thing itself, out of any context, and that’s not how evaluation works. Evaluation is social and tied to how valuable a thing is seen in community, to the rhetorical situation and blah blah ….

Anyway, I’ve been churning on this tweet and my reaction to it for a while. I keep coming back to two relatively recent experiences with authentic evaluation in my own research.

Story 1

My colleague Hannah and I have been talking about curiosity in libraries in some different contexts for quite a while now. We’re trying to write up a piece of that this summer, which is always an interesting experience — to write up a piece of something that is still actively evolving. Both stories come out of this work; this is the more recent. And it’s probably the more typical when you think about why trying to contextualize your thinking in a new field, or why trying to contextualize a piece of information is hard.

So, the more we think about curiosity the more we think about affect. Curiosity and uncertainty can’t be separated — to be curious pretty much inherently means that there are things you don’t know. Not knowing stuff can be fun and exciting! But in terms of research assignments, which are perceived as (and which are for real) fairly high-stakes assignments in a course context, that not knowing can be less exciting than it is scary. So how to encourage students to try new things, use new sources, research unfamiliar topics when they have good reasons to be wary about doing so?

As we spend more time working directly with faculty on these questions, we’ve started to wonder what’s out there about risk taking, emotion and writing pedagogy?  At conferences people have suggested to us that fields like creative writing and creative arts might also be interesting places to look for more. And as I moved through these literatures I came across a creative writer with a huge body of work in writing pedagogy, who engages specifically with the idea of risk: Wendy Bishop.

Now before I started digging into Bishop’s (substantial) body of work, I started doing the additional digging I needed to do to contextualize it. On the one hand, this was a necessary step to understanding it myself. Her work is several years old now, and I don’t have the chronology of the debates in this field at my fingertips. I don’t think you can really understand work like hers without knowing what she was responding to, in her field and in the world. On the other hand, this is also a necessary step to evaluating the work, to put this back into the infolit context raised above.  Because this is a field I am working in, or at least alongside, I need to know how the community understands the work to predict how it will be perceived, questioned, critiqued and accepted before I can decide if and how I want to use it.  And I knew from this article, that the answers to those questions might be complicated.

Rhet/Comp is a field I know a little about, not a lot.  And what knowledge I do have is uneven and idiosyncratically collected, heavily influenced by wonderful people I’ve worked with and know. Still, I didn’t have to start from scratch this time!  So I knew what to ask, I knew some things to look for, and I knew some of the complicating factors.  Long story a little less long — it’s almost 3 weeks later and I’m still working on building this contextual understanding. And this is something I know how to do.

I can use information tools I already know how to use to do it.  I can use reading and thinking and organizing skills I already have to do it well. I am spending most of my time in genres I understand and know how to read. I have a working knowledge of many of the theories in play, and I know how to find out more about those that are less familiar. I can pull books I’ve already read off my shelf. I can call on people who know this scholarship (and who knew this scholar) and just ask my questions.  Okay fine, I also have a full time job and other projects — but that’s pretty much my main barrier. Mostly, making sense of a new context or conversation is something that just takes a lot of work — even after the How and Why learning curve is behind you.

Story 2

Now, this contrasts a lot with this earlier experience with a new body of literature — which in many ways was the thing that sent us in this direction in the first place.  When Hannah and I first started working on curiosity and poking around to see what was there, we did so in a very interdisciplinary, broad-net kind of way.  We found curiosity talked about a little, but not a lot, in many fields. We found lots of definitions of curiosity. We found it talked about in ways both similar and distinct in conversations that didn’t seem to intersect. And most of these mentions, and conversations, studies and definitions neither grew out of nor directly applied to our higher or adult education context.

In this exploring, we came across the work of an educational psychologist named Jordan Litman. It wasn’t hard to place his work in its disciplinary context which, to be honest, wasn’t a context we were super interested in. Litman is interested in curiosity as a personality trait. He and his partners develop and validate instruments to measure different types of curiosity, the data from which can then be analyzed next to data measuring other types of traits, states and behaviors.

There is a huge body of discussion around the very idea of personality traits. And honestly, we didn’t want to get into that. Our interest was sparked by this research because it made us think about curiosity, and how curiosity plays out in research assignments, in new and different ways. It helped us see past our own assumptions and our own experience to consider a way of seeing and knowing the issue that we’d been blind to before. On that level, it didn’t really matter if Litman’s approach was the best, if his work was highly respected or marginalized, or if it was basically ignored within his community.  And even there, trying to navigate between the “marginalized because of quality and marginalized because of a less hip topic” possibilities didn’t seem worth it or necessary. Whether these curiosity types behaved just as the research said they did didn’t really matter.  For our purposes, the idea that curiosity can be sparked in many and varied ways was the important thing — much more important than whether or not curiosity types can be definable or measurable or predictable. And so we decided not to do the weeks of background context-building that it would have taken to really understand this work as it was being used by the researcher.

It’s a liberating feeling to decide not to do this — to decide that “this thing is valuable because it’s useful to me.” Being able to do this, however, also means climbing that How and Why contexualization learning curve. It comes from knowing what questions might be asked, and knowing how to justify our choices in our context. And it comes from a position of privilege and control over our practice, and from knowing our expertise is respected by those who share this work with us.

So what?

These cases look different on the surface, but in both we’re drawing on some similar things.  Both of us bring years of experience to this work, experience developed in different disciplines and different professional communities.  Hundreds of papers, presentations, proposals and posters, directed at different audiences and for different purposes, helped us figure out what we need to know to communicate well. We’ve learned — through trial and error, by applying effort and feedback — what we need to know to understand context.

When I was first starting out as a librarian more than ten years ago, I came across the Harvard Writing Project. One of the conclusions of that study that has stuck with me ever since was that feedback — delivered early and often and from many perspectives — was essential for students to learn to write and think. And of course, because students come to college already knowing how to write and think, we know that what this and other studies are really saying is that opportunities to write and get feedback early and often are essential to learning how to write and think in this new and unfamiliar academic context.  

And in the years since, this has been borne out over and over: students who get the chance to write and create for different audiences, with helpful feedback, do just fine. They develop processes for writing, researching, thinking, and organizing that are useful (and well-used).  They figure it out. They learn what they need to know to get the work done by doing the work.

I was talking to a colleague in Comp recently about some topic coming down from administration  — hybrid classes, or maybe Adaptive Learning —  and he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “you know, we know what works.  Small classes, lots of feedback, and lots of opportunities to write different types of things for different types of audiences.  And it seems like all of these things we’re asked to study and adopt and add to the curriculum are just trying to find ways we can avoid investing in that thing we know works.”

We do know what works, but it’s expensive. And this all makes me worry about information literacy instruction. Ironically, not so much about the tools demos as the beyond-the-tools conceptual pieces that we talk about when we talk about infolit. I worry that when I talk about evaluation in a one-shot, I’m inevitably complicit in suggesting that there are generic, context-free ways to do the kind of thinking that we associate with evaluation or creation.  I worry when I argue for context and for teaching these things authentically I am setting up my colleagues to feel inadequate or less than the kind of learning that only experience, and repeated, meaningful experience can enable.  And most of all, at the end of the day, I worry that we’re supporting the institution in an effort to successfully create a world where they can measure “gains” in learning in research and writing and critical thinking without investing in the infrastructure and faculty needed to give students the repeated and meaningful experiences that help people really learn how to do these these things in context, no matter how that context changes.

Which all seems to point to Aunt Jamesina being wrong – that college or college-like experiences can’t substitute for experience.  But that’s not it at all.  I’m not talking about sink or swim, throwing students in at the deep end to see if they can figure it out when I say they need lots and lots of chances to figure it out.  I still think there is a lot we can do to create structured, supported experiences. A lot we can do to reveal the unwritten expectations of the culture and context that new college students need to understand. A lot we can do to encourage the metathinking needed to make sense of those experiences.

And I think that doing so in a way that reveals academic writing as communicating in a rhetorical situation that is culturally specific and not universal – is helpful to people who will have to navigate many such situations in their lives. But I’ll admit, I can’t wrap my head around where to start with the kind of work it takes to meaningfully contextualize in the one-shot, in the LibGuide, in the tutorial. And my brain shies away from the problem altogether. Which may be something to work on.

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