discovery and creation and… lies!

I’ve never really understood the whole pirate thing. Talk like a pirate day can come and go without my noticing, and despite the presence of Johnny Depp, I didn’t make it through the whole Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy.

So even if I had seen the mentions of the Last American Pirate hoax on the blogs I read all the time, I’m not sure that I would have bothered to follow the links. But maybe I would have. This story does combine two of my favorite things – scholarly uses of social media and history. Still, amidst holiday preparations and Oregon-style snowapocalypses I totally missed the initial stories on the topic.

Which is relevant in that I’m not a disgruntled blog reader feeling taken in. I was not personally hurt in any way by the deliberate historical hoax created by the students of History 389 at George Mason University last term.

And yet.  I keep thinking about it and I’m not sure I can really articulate why.

So, quick recap.  Professor Mills Kelly of eduwired.org fame taught a class on historical hoaxes last term.  Early in the term, he gave advance notice that his class would be perpetuating their own historical hoax.  The class created a fake story about the search for the Last American Pirate, a guy named Edward Owens.  The search was chronicled by fake student Jane on this fake blog, discussed in these fake interviews on YouTube, and finally reported as fact in this fake Wikipedia article.  Some people were taken in by said hoax, most notably a pop culture blogger at USA Today.  Kelly reportedly pulled the plug on the hoax when some of his real-world colleagues were taken in and the whole thing was revealed in the December 19th  Chronicle of Higher Education in an article only found behind the paywall.

So why do I keep thinking about it?  There has been a fair amount of discussion about it, some I really like.  Some talking about things I really don’t care about.  There are some people that love the experiment.  I’m not really moved by any of those arguments.   They seem to be mostly focused on the idea that kids today can’t get into traditional historical research, so this is a good, creative alternative.

The criticisms i find most compelling are found here, where Michael Feldstein explains why vandalising Wikipedia for the sake of a lesson is uncool and here in the comments on Dr. Kelly’s reveal post.  Commenter Martha, in particular, talks about the impact of this kind of project on trust networks.  Given that trust networks are, I think, a crucial part of meaningful information evaluation on the social web and thus a tool any information literate student should know how to use in this context, an assignment that deliberately devalues and damages those networks strikes me as problematic, even if there is some small benefit on the cautionary tale scale.

But that’s not what I keep thinking about except in a tangential way.  No, what’s got me thinking is what this project means for teaching information literacy and research — first in terms of the evaluation skills that are an overt, intended outcome articulated in the syllabus but also, and more deeply, in terms of research itself – why we do it and why we want students to do it.   These are, I suspect, related, but I’m not sure how.  Maybe if I write about it they’ll come together.  Maybe this will be in two parts.

Dr. Kelly says at the top that he is hoping for an information-literacy, information evaluation benefit to this assignment.

I’m hoping that this will mean that my students dig in and do some excellent historical research. I’m also hoping that they’ll learn a number of technical skills, will learn to work in a group, and will develop greater “information literacy” as we like to call it here. And, of course, I’m hoping they’ll have fun.

Specifically (from the syllabus – opens in PDF):

I do have some specific learning goals for this course. I hope that you’ll improve your research and analytical skills and that you’ll become a much better consumer of historical information. I hope you’ll become more skeptical without becoming too skeptical for your own good. I hope you’ll learn some new skills in the digital realm that can translate to other courses you take or to your eventual career. And, I hope you’ll be at least a little sneakier than you were before you started the course.

So the quick issue I have with this is that I just don’t see where the information literacy skills here translate into what most students need in their real work with online information sources.  Increasingly, I just think that a focus on deliberate hoaxes isn’t a very good way to teach students how to evaluate information.

Now I get that the work done to create the hoax might give the students in this class a greater appreciation for stuff that could make them more information literate, and that knowing specifically what they did to create a fake site might give them some stuff to look for in other sites, but I don’t really see the larger benefit here beyond the reminder that stuff on the Internet can be fake and I honestly don’t think that our students don’t know that full well already.

Because here’s the first thing – helping students learn that there is stuff on the wild, wild web that was put there just to trick them,  to punk them or to prank them – well, there’s not a lot of value in that.  The punker or the pranker will either be really good at it, in which case all of the abstract stuff we might teach them about how to identify bad information won’t help them because the good pranker isn’t going to do any of that stuff.  Or, and this is more likely, the prank won’t be all that good.  And our students – I really think they’re very able to identify the obvious crap that exists online.

They don’t need help identifying stuff that is fake or wrong just for the sake of being fake or wrong because there’s not a ton of stuff like that out there.  Honestly, our ability to identify stuff that exists for no other reason than to trick us is not a real-world problem that keeps me up at night. Most people who put fake or wrong or misleading information out there on the Internet have an agenda beyond April Fool’s – they’re trying to do more than trick us and what our students need is help identifying those agendas. They need help identifying the information that isn’t flat out lies, but that is a particular kind of truth.

There’s not a lot of historical information TO evaluate on the pieces of this hoax that are available to the public – the blog talks a a lot (I mean, a LOT) about how painful and difficult research in archives and mircofilm collections is – but the details about the sources themselves are pretty light.  Most sources are presented as transcripts  (“once I found the articles, there was no way to get a copy of them, apparently the machine is broken, so I had to transcribe them by hand,” that kind of thing).  The main thing that is presented as a digitized image is a will, not found in any archive or collection that could be investigated further – it is from the private attic-type collection of one of Edward Owens’ “descendants.”

Very clever.

No, what we have to consider here if we are evaluating information is not the quality of the historical sources in question (for the most part).  We don’t have the information to evaluate most of the fake sources, and beyond that – most historical sources in the world aren’t on blogs or YouTube so the skills that would help us evaluate them there wouldn’t necessarily translate to evaluating sources in archives.  What we really have to evaluate here are the classic foci of Internet evaluation: the authority of the scholar/author  herself and the nature of the digital tools used to present that scholarship.  And here is where I think it is useful to return to the criticisms mentioned above  – the tools we need to use to filter the social web are different than the tools of historical scholarship – and this project made those tools less useful for the rest of us.

Yes, we should remember that our trust networks and Wikipedia pages aren’t infallible.  Treating them as if they are is dumb and dangerous, of course.  But not starting from the assumption that someone is willing to do all this work just to fake you out? That’s not unreasonable.  Creating a hoax like this just for its own  sake, after all, is not more fun than the work it takes to do it is not fun.  This one took an entire class of students working for a whole term with the great big huge carrot of the GRADE as motivation, after all.  When someone, or a class of someones, does deliberately put false information out there – and I’m not talking here about the fake historical documents, but the fake blog posts and tweets and comments and pointers – it makes it harder for all of us to use the skills that really do help us navigate and evaluate the social web.

I think it’s pretty significant that outside of the USA Today blogger, most of the people who got excited about this story – excited enough to blog about it – weren’t excited because of the history beyond the “that’s kind of cool” level.  The excitement was about how “Jane” leveraged social media tools to present her research broadly:

This undergraduate took her research to the next level by framing the experience on her blog, full with images and details from her Library of Congress research, video interviews with scholars and her visit to Owens house, her bibliography, along with a link to the Wikipedia page she created for this little known local pirate.

Or stated more directly, after the reveal:

But I want to concentrate on something else. Amidst all the fiction, alternate and virtual realities, hoaxes and pranks, one thing jumps out at me as utterly real, wholly genuine, honest. Read Jim’s post on this when he first came across the project. Here is passion and excitement, a celebration of what a student might be able to achieve with the tools now available, given the right puzzle to work on and a supportive network and intellectual environment.

And I agree with all of this in theory, but in terms of this specific hoax there is still something missing to me, and it’s an important something.  It’s research – and inquiry – and discovery.

I know I am only seeing a tiny portion of what is going on in this classroom – and from the syllabus just the idea that one of the goals of the class is to show that hoaxes can themselves be the topic of serious historical research, just like wars or elections, is something I find fairly awesome.  I have no idea how the process of discovery was inculcated in the other projects the students did.  All I have is the public pieces of the course – the blogs, the videos, and the rest.

And that’s a piece of this discussion that shouldn’t be missed.  By putting this material up on the real web, on the public web, by consciously trying to get people to access and engage with this material the question of what kind of learning experience does this material provide for those of us NOT in the class is a valid one.   Is our learning experience supposed to be related to information literacy as well?  To history? Or is it just a clever, creative prank?

Because here’s the next thing – I don’t think that there is much of a learning experience for the rest of us in this project – at least not in terms of information literacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I value creation and creativity.  I value world-building and imagination.  And I don’t think those things are separate from academic research.  There is definitely creativity and imagination in scholarly inquiry, in looking at sources and seeing what might have been or what could be and re-searching based on that new potential meaning.  Watching a class of students using the social web to extend and communicate such a learning process would itself be valuable in that information literacy context.

And I think there’s room in that picture for fiction as well – in telling a story that you know in your bones to be a kind of truth even though you can’t prove it, at least not in a way that would be recognized as proof, epistemologically speaking.  I think there are truths and stories and voices that can only be captured with fiction.  So it’s not the made up or false part that gives me pause.

But in the case of this project, as it is laid out for us to see — the public pieces of this class project combine to celebrate what a truly information-literate student can do to take control of their own learning – but all the time that information literacy only exists on the surface.

This is why I have problems thinking about the pirate hoax as a great new way to talk about or teach information literacy. Because beyond the fact that I don’t think hoaxes are a great way to teach evaluation, I’m also not sure they are a great way to talk about research and scholarly creativity. At its heart, I think information literacy is inherently linked to inquiry, and discovery.   It’s about the ability to learn from information – not just to find the sources worth learning from but to use that new information to change the way you understand things, and change the way you approach the next question.

“Jane” talks endlessly about the physical pain she feels as a result of days of looking at microfilm:

But, I have no idea how I am functioning right now…I can barely look at the screen without wanting to throw up, my eyes are in so much pain.

And she goes on about how frustrating it is not to find that evidence in the documents that will prove that her pirate existed:

After my failed trip to the town, I was really discouraged. I found out enough information to keep me going, but nothing really substantial. I have not gotten any closer to figuring out a name, and my trips to the library that last four hours at a time to look through the microfilm (I’m convinced I’m causing permanent damage to my eyes), have yielded absolutely no results.

But she never talks about that other kind of pain and frustration that comes with research and learning – one of the big things that makes research hard – feeling stupid, or having to question what you thought you knew before.   That’s what I mean when I say “Jane’s” process is all surface-level.  She never finds anything in her research that leads her in a new direction. She finds additional things she can use on the path she’s already on, but that’s not the same.

In the end, it is a lucky break that brings Jane’s process to a close.  The lucky break isn’t the issue — the real issue is that at the end of the research process described in the blog she finds exactly the single document perfect right source she had been looking for from the start.  The perfect right source she imagined might exist that would answer the narrow question she formulated before she even know much about her topic at all.  That’s not how research usually works.  You could argue that that’s not how good research ever works.

And that’s the last and main thing.  At no point does Jane really engage with something that leads her to change her mind about anything, to reevaluate her process, to go back over the same ground with a new understanding or a new set of questions.  It’s needle in the haystack searching she does – she has to be creative to find different ways into the haystacks but at the same time she’s not going into the haystacks to find out what’s there.  She’s going in to look for that one needle that she thinks/hopes must be there.

And yes, I get that she’s pretend, but the fictional process the real class came up with does suggest that historical research is difficult and tedious and one doesn’t make the great discovery by engaging with sources in an open-minded way.   If the class had been engaged in a discovery-based research process I would hope that that would have come through in their fictional avatar’s narrative.  It doesn’t.  There is no doubt that this group of students were truly engaged – playing with history, creating a new world and the characters to fill it.

I can’t find it now, but when I was reading about this project earlier I was struck by the description of how the topic was selected in the first place – all of the considerations were practical – not too well known, not too likely to inspire a lawsuit if the hoax was discovered, and so on.  The reasons for piracy were practical as well – a topic of broad popular interest, local, not likely to be something anyone would already be an expert on, etc.  They didn’t talk about discovering the space in the historical record for their hoax to exist, they talked about creating it.

And if it’s mainly about creativity, about the class’ engagement around creating this alternate reality, around engaging with each other, and about engaging with others on the social web, then I’m not sure I see the value in making it a hoax.  Except that that was the topic of the rest of the class to which we were not privy.  If the skills they were learning were about creativity and world-building it seems like the resulting project could have taken the form of an ARG or a similar project where those creative muscles could be flexed in the service of creating a world for the rest of us to play in, too.

“Peer reviewed” might not be code for awesome but hey! it’s not code for useless either

So I’ve spent a lot of time in the last year talking about how we need to understand what peer review really is. Most of that time it leads to posts about the limitations of the system. Today, not so much.

I keep going back and forth about whether to write this this morning because while I’ve been thinking about it since reading this post at Information Wants to be Free yesterday, it really isn’t just about that post.

And it really isn’t even about the one snippet of the post that got me worked up. Seriously, the snippet isn’t even about the main point of the post, and it isn’t expressing any sentiment I haven’t heard a million times before, starting in library school and again, and again and again since.

And it feels like piling on to just pull out one throwaway line and write a whole post about it, especially by someone who has been dealing with kidney stones, who I have never met in person, on whose blog I do not regularly comment, and who may have not even meant this just as it sounds. It’s like “nice to meet you, way to totally miss the point.” I did get the point of the post, and I realize this snippet isn’t it. But it’s a snippet from an academic library blog and it is expressing a sentiment that I have heard a million times, and I think it’s a problematic sentiment, especially from academic librarians. And my blog is also a blog and I need to have something to link to to respond to so here we go.

Here’s the snippet:

I don’t write for peer reviewed journals since I’m not tenure-track and I actually want my work to be read. So this doesn’t make me particularly annoyed. To me, it’s just another reminder that peer-reviewed journals are completely irrelevant to me. So many peer-reviewed journals publish absolutely useless studies that were primarily done for the sake of getting the authors tenure. But at least I felt they had some sort of quality standards.

Do you see what I mean? Maybe not. Here’s what I mean – how can we as academic librarians pretend to have any relevance at all when it comes to helping students find, use and create their own scholarship — to helping students be successful in college — when so many of us have absolutely no respect for what it is that scholars actually do?

Now, the first time I wrote that I wrote “for the scholarship in our own discipline” I get that she’s probably talking here about the library literature, not articles in Science or Nature or The William and Mary Quarterly or Physics Review Letters or The Journal of Modern Literature or The American Journal of Sociology, though there’s nothing there to really indicate that distinction. But it really doesn’t matter – I do think this goes deeper than saying the library literature blows.

I mean, there is an issue with the do as I say not as I do thing that must be going on when academic librarians who disdain what is in peer reviewed journals in library science tell students that they should care about the scholarly literature in their own disciplines. But most of the time, even when it is articulated as the library literature isn’t timely enough/ cutting edge enough/ rigorous enough to meet my needs – I don’t think that’s the whole picture. The perception that there is an academic/real world gulf is so ingrained in our culture that it’s okay to state it as kind of a truism. This kind of thing – look at the comments in this piece from the Librarian in Black last summer.

And that’s the deeper issue that I think is there. I think there’s a perception that academic studies not directly and deliberately intended to inform practice can have no relevance for practice. That knowledge for knowledge’s sake has no value or relevance to the real world and that in a field like ours that is dominated by practitioners that means the academic research going on is hopelessly, inherently useless to the vast majority of the field. The work being done in other fields might be valuable to those fields, but only because those fields are academic and not as about practitioners — it’s okay for them to be useless to practice, it’s okay for them to be academic and theoretical. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is useful in those fields because those whole fields are somewhere other than the real world.

Which could be read as librarian self-deprecation or self-hatred – “we’re just not real academics – they’re good and we’re bad.” But I think this cuts deeper than saying the library literature could be better – I tried to parse this snippet this way, and I think the other people being quoted in the post are thinking of the issue that way – but I don’t think this statement can be read to mean the library literature needs to be better. There’s no way that the peer-review model can be the go-to place for practitioners who want cutting edge answers to current problems, who want what they get from blogs and other dynamic information sources – that’s not a matter of better or worse.

The truth of the matter is even if academic research in library science was as cutting-edge, current, and rigorous as any academic research could ever be – a lot of it would still not be intended to inform practice.

When I hear people talking about how useless or stultifying or hard to understand or badly written they find the peer-reviewed literature – there’s a pride there in being a practitioner instead of an academic. There’s a sense that we are doing the real work in a way the academics never can. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of practice, don’t get me wrong – I am absolutely not saying that. It’s the “instead of an academic” piece that I have issues with because theory/practice isn’t a zero-sum thing. There’s no need to do either/or. There is something wrong with cutting yourself off from something that can and does inform practice in ways that nothing else can simply because it wasn’t created specifically to do so.

And there’s especially something wrong with academic librarians cutting themselves off from that because a huge part of our job, from collection building to information literacy, is all about connecting students to scholarship. There’s no way to compartmentalize that to the library literature – there’s no way to say “well, I think the scholarly study in librarianship is useless but in sociology, or social work, it’s totally awesome.”

Because here’s another thing – when I hear people talking about how useless or stultifying or hard to understand or badly written they find the peer-reviewed literature, they sound just like year after year of students I’ve heard complaining about their classroom reading. Classroom reading not found by a keyword search in Library Literature, but carefully selected and assigned by experts in the field who are saying “this, this is an important thing you need to understand to understand what knowledge is in our discipline.” Yes, a lot of what is in the peer-reviewed literature, in all fields, is not well written. A lot of it is not well researched. A lot of it is published only because it needed to be for the author’s tenure hit. This isn’t just true for us – it’s true across the board. It might be more true for some fields and less true for others but it’s true on some level for all of them. And not recognizing that it is not ALL like that, that sometimes the language is hard because the concepts are hard, sometimes you have to read it three, four or five times not because it’s badly written but because it’s talking about really complex things that take three, four or five readings to understand means closing yourself off from a type of knowledge and a way of understanding that can absolutely inform practice — not understanding that will keep a student from being successful in college. More than that, I think not understanding that hurts the practitioner as well.

Most of our students are going to be practitioners, not academics. We can’t just assume that they will magically understand the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake because they start taking 400 level classes. It takes a particular skill set to apply theory to practice – it takes practice to apply theory to practice. Our students don’t come to us knowing how to do those things. They need help understanding not just how to find scholarly sources – but how to read and use them. One of our writing faculty was telling me the other day that the students in her class, when they are required to find “speaker sources” – sources that take a stand on issues – almost never use academic sources even though they are required to cite them somewhere in the paper. They use the academic sources as background sources instead of speaker sources. See, the point is that they don’t have the skills or the knowledge yet to see the academic sources as speakers. They can easily identify a policy agenda, but they don’t know yet how to identify the scholarly argument, agenda or point of view. Just like we can easily identify a practical problem that needs solving, but we think that academic problems are pointless.

Our students will be better at what they do – whether that is working, voting, or heck, even dieting, if they have the skills to be informed by what the research says, what the science says – even though that research will almost never have been created simply to inform them. But I don’t know that they can learn that skill set or gain that understanding from librarians who don’t have it, or at least who don’t use or practice it, themselves.

The peer-reviewed literature is what it is. It can be a whole lot better – but that doesn’t mean more obviously and immediately practical. As someone who spends an awful lot of time going on and on and on and on about the problems with the library literature, I still have to say if you can’t find any research in that literature to inform your practice, you aren’t trying very hard.

Will you find stuff on “how can I troubleshoot this problem I’m having today?” Probably not. Can you find stuff on “how can I deal with this issue in a really cutting-edge and awesomely new way?” Probably definitely not. Can you find stuff that gets you thinking about how to frame the problem in a new way, how to understand potential solutions in a new way, how to understand the root of the problem in a new way? I would certainly hope so.

See, here’s my last thing – sometimes the questions that scholars are interested in ARE different than the questions that arise out of daily practice. Sometimes the problems that they are passionate about solving are not the same problems that keep practitioners up at night. But the questions they ask and the answers they come up with are still valuable to practitioners if those practitioners are willing to accept the research for what it is instead of focusing entirely on what it is not.

There’s going to be a little feature in an OSU publication about undergraduate information literacy instruction at my library and I was looking at the most recent draft just before I went to read my feeds. The author came to watch one of my instruction sessions to get a feel for what that kind of teaching was like – and she told me that she saw my interactions with the students more as interactions between peers than traditional teacher/student. I thought about that and realized that what she was seeing was that, to me, the purpose of most undergraduate instruction — across the disciplines but especially in the library — is to bring these new college students into an existing community of scholars, and giving them the skills, concepts, data and sharing the knowledge that will let them find their own place within that community.

To do that, we don’t all need to be scholars ourselves in same way – we are practitioners and for most of us that is one of the wonderful things about librarianship. But we need to respect, value and celebrate those who are and what they do.

critically thinking about comment threads

So this study, the one from Science suggesting that gender isn’t such a useful variable when trying to predict if an individual will be good or math at not – is all over my feeds and my del.icio.us network. And it’s got me thinking about critical thinking, perception, and the really big thing we’re trying to support with our talk and our teaching about information literacy.

So the study in question basically looked at NCLB data from a lot of states, looking at how students performed on the math sections by gender. The differences they found were statistically insignificant at every level, from primary to secondary grades. They concluded that,

for grades 2 to 11, the general population no longer shows a gender difference in math skills….There is evidence of slightly greater male variability in scores, although the causes remain unexplained. Gender differences in math performance, even among high scorers, are insufficient to explain lopsided gender patterns in participation in some STEM fields.

So what does this have to do with critical thinking? The study itself isn’t really what I’m interested in here so much as the reaction to it. Because one of the things critical thinking is about is how we react when we come across information that challenges what we thought to be true. And for every math teacher that reacted to this study with a “duh” there are a lot of people around there who have some ingrained assumptions about how boys are better at math and girls are better at reading.

One of the most common narratives about boys and girls and math goes like this – boys and girls show similar aptitude so long as the math is easy. But when it gets complex, boys are better. That’s the line that used to explain why girls stopped taking math in high school, and now it’s used to explain why they don’t do math as much in college. So it’s not like I was surprised to see that that a whole bunch of commenters go Right There.

But the thing is – the study’s authors deal with this. They talk about the complexity question (they used a different data set to get at that) and they talk about the SAT scores thing. It’s not buried – it’s a whole section with a heading and everything.

And we can’t blame bad science reporting or Science’s paywall on this – the posts or linked stories mention the complexity question because the authors didn’t just mention it in the study – they emphasized it. This is a super-short article, and they spend some of their very limited time to say that our NCLB tests kind of suck – they don’t test for much, at least not for what they should be testing for. I mean really – that topic is their big finish, the last line –

An unexpected finding was that state assessments designed to meet NCLB requirements fail to test complex problem-solving of the kind needed for success in STEM careers, a lacuna that should be fixed.

Now I’m not saying that these commenters should automatically buy the analysis presented, but they should notice it. They should engage with it. Not to do so suggests, well, a lack of a disposition to think critically.

In the very late 80’s the APA engaged in a Delphi project to define critical thinking in a way that would be useful for higher education and for educational assessment. A panel of experts on critical thinking instruction, assessment and theory was convened and together they developed an influential consensus* of an ideal critical thinker as –

1. Someone who can think critically, has a set of skills, including : interpretation, analysis, evaluation, inference, explanation and self-evaluation. This skill dimension is an essential part of critical thinking.

2. Someone with the disposition to use those skills, to learn. Critical thinkers are sensitive about their own biases. They are open-minded. They are inquisitive, questioning people. They have an eagerness for knowledge and learning.

(An aside – the Delphi Method of research that grounded this project is pretty cool itself if you’re geeky like me)

Some definitive examples of lacking the disposition to think critically can be found at ABC News’ coverage of the gender/math study (ETA – in the comments, not ABC’s report) — there’s this:

The fact remains, boys tend to do better in math than girls. And there’s no shame in that. Just like girls tend to do better in languages.I wonder who skewed these figures?

And there’s this:

That doesn’t make any sense. There is no rational reason for this gap to disappear. It is a fact that men are better then women at certain tasks and worse then them at others. I think that the disappearance of this gap speaks more to our educators doing a better job of “teaching the tests” then to students actually understanding the material better.

In other words, “I read this thing. It contradicts what I believe. So I will simply restate my previously held beliefs and perhaps suggest a conspiracy.”

Now, these people obviously aren’t worth engaging with – I mean, they’re commenting on a story at ABC News dot com, and they’re not doing so especially well. But the thing is – I’ve read things just like this from my students before.
We have them write a bunch of stuff about the things they encounter in their early exploratory research stages and so we get a lot of information about how they’re reacting to the ideas they encounter. Sometimes their reaction is exactly this – “this article says X which is wrong because I believe Y.”

And that’s not a slam on my students – learning how to think critically, and developing the disposition to think critically is something that we should expect people to do in the college years. But that aspect of it – that willingness to examine your own biases and to accept new information that challenges your absolute world view as potentially valid – that’s the critical thinking big leagues. It’s not easy stuff. Not for anyone.

And what the many, many online discussions of this study have got me thinking about is how many different ways that one can resist thinking critically – the discussions on Slashdot and at the Chronicle, for example, are at an obviously higher level than the one at ABC News – they’re discussions, for one. And the arguments raised are more complex, and mostly subtler than “nuh uh.” But I think there’s still a lot of knee-jerk refusals to consider information that challenges worldviews, mental models, belief structures or whatever you want to call all of that cognitive and affective and mental baggage we bring along with us when we encounter new information going on in those comment threads.

With some others, Paul Facione (the guy who wrote the executive summary for the Delphi project) talks more thoroughly about the disposition to think critically** and in particular this article talks about what we might expect from new college students. There’s a lot of good stuff here but I’m going to engage in some super-simplistic summary and say that the authors show that college students are positively disposed to think critically in many ways – but the one that hangs them up some is this “truth-seeking” aspect.

I’m not in love with the phrase “truth-seeking” here but I’m fine with what they mean by that phrase – someone with a positive disposition towards truth seeking is “eager to seek the best knowledge in a given context, courageous about asking questions and honest and objective about pursuing inquiry if the findings do not support one’s self-interests or one’s preconceived opinions.”

Just as interesting is the related finding – that, for the most part, these students were rewarded more in their first year of college for showing positive dispositions along other scales (most notably “analyticity” or the ability to evaluate and create reasoned arguments) than for truth-seeking. That piece feels true to me, at least so far as my experiences with argument papers and comm 111 speeches extends.

While we encourage students to choose a topic they want to learn about, not just one they feel strongly about (and in this our composition faculty are taking a different tack than the one in most of the books I’ve seen)m many students still choose to write on topics they “already know.” Sometimes it is clear from the start that they feel so strongly about their chosen topic that they will not be able to learn from their research process. And, of course, some of them can craft beautifully-reasoned arguments without ever really engaging with sources in a way that leaves them open to changing their minds on a topic. I know I’ve done it.

We do focus on their argument-building ability more than their truth-seeking, and perhaps that isn’t where they need the most help to become critical thinkers. Over the years, we have added some dimensions of the latter into their work, asking them to reflect on their own biases and preconceptions, for example, but I suspect we could do more. Something to think about – hopefully critically and open-mindedly.

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*Facione, Peter A. (1990). Executive Summary, “The Delphi Report” (opens in PDF

**Facione, P.A., Sanchez (Giancarlo), C.A., Facione, N.C. & Gainen, J. (1995) The disposition toward critical thinking. Journal of General Education, 44:1, 1-25.

liberation and library instruction – part 1 of ?

WorldCat recordI would really like to respond to this call for papers, and since abstracts aren’t due for several weeks I’m using it as  a reason to do some reading and re-reading.  Right now, it’s A Pedagogy for Liberation, a dialogue between Ira Shor and Paulo Freire.  This isn’t the most famous Freire, that’s undoubtedly Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but it’s one of my favorites because it is a dialogue — and they talk about the benefits of that format in language that’s very compelling – all about co-creating meaning:

Dialogue belongs to the nature of human beings, as beings of communication.  Dialogue seals the act of knowing, which is never individual, even though it has its individual dimension (p. 3-4).

And since I initially described this space as a place where I might do some pre-writing, and that concept is entirely tied up in the idea that doing that pre-writing in a place that is not my own head might be useful and valuable in a way that internal reflection is not — I’m going to indulge in putting some of the ideas this re-read is sparking down here.

I got through the first two chapters last night (and for the record, this book is very short, and very readable).  And I have mostly been thinking since about the question of motivation and what it means for libraries.  Freire and Shor agree that motivation has to be located in the here and the now of learning – not in some future benefit or some future activity.  Freire says, “I never, never could understand the process of motivation outside of practice, before practice (5).”  Shor echoes this with, “I’d emphasize that motivation has to be inside the action of study itself, inside the students’ recognition of the importance of knowing to them (6).”

I find this really compelling.  I also think is something I need to think about a lot more in terms of library instruction because much of the motivation we provide to students in library instruction sessions is “learn this and you’ll see the benefits at some later time.”  We deal with that in a limited and imperfect way by requiring that students have a research assignment that we can teach to, but that just moves the point at which the motivation kicks in a little closer.  It doesn’t actually put it in the here and now.

There’s a scene in Dazed and Confused where my favorite character Cynthia says “God, don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?”  That line is why Cynthia is my favorite character and that line is what Freire and Shor are talking about here.  And that line really describes some of my anxiety about library instruction sessions, particularly those of the one-shot variety in basic skills courses that are themselves presented to students as disconnected from the “real” work they will be doing in the disciplines.

This puts the motivation two steps away, right?  Learn these basic skills so that you can perform well in later classes and you want to perform well in those later classes so that you can get a good job. Can we really blame students for feeling like nothing they do in school matters now, and can we blame them for resisting when they can’t see a direct line between the thing you’re teaching and that elusive “good job” goal down the line?  We need to give them something better, and I’m not sure what.

Or maybe I should say I’m not sure how.  I do think I have a sense of the what. I think we all have a sense of the what.  We teach this stuff because we find it intrinsically fulfilling, after all.   I talked about this briefly in the gaming post the other day, and I also talked around this concept today over at ⌘f — there is motivation to be found in research and learning.  Those processes are compelling and even fun.  But I don’t feel like I get there very often in my interactions with students – they may get there by themselves later because of something we did, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Freire and Shor argue that part of the process of finding this here and now motivation is not trying to do it alone.  In other words, by watching and listening to students and seeing what they are really doing, what they are really interested in, and what they are really motivated by, you can co-create a learning experience that will be compelling and motivating to all of the learners in the room – students and teachers alike.  I think there’s something in that for library intructors.

This means creating environments where students feel comfortable enough to act authentically and to show their true motivations.  The one-shot library session?  Probably not.  Maybe in the hands of a better or a different teacher than I am it could be, but I’ve never mastered the art of immediate (within 50 minutes anyway) relationship-building that would require.  But as librarians, we’re not limited to the classroom – we also have our libraries. And out in the library, I think, we might get some of the answers we need, if we’re willing to listen.

edupunk — positive, negative, vitriol or faith, what does punk mean?

I actually have no idea what the answer to that question is. I already mentioned the essay about the Clash which was about corporate rock, politics, and the reality of growing up in Canby, Oregon.

But there’s also this short movie that the Willamette Valley Film Collective made last year to compete in the International Documentary Challenge.  The Willamette Valley Film Collective membership varies, but the IDC competition has been a regular feature of hte WVFC’s schedule every year.

Last year we looked at an exhibit of punk rock art at the library at Western Oregon University.  Shaun has put a couple of versions of the final product up on his channel at Blip-TV.

We edited this video between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am.  And there’s a lot about the process I don’t remember that well.  But what I do remember, and what I think is fairly tightly connected to the edupunk ideas that have been so well-discussed online over the last few days is in the description of the DIY aesthetic.  As you can tell, that was a strong theme throughout the discussion of the meaning of punk, and of the meaning of punk rock art.  And I think, *think* – it gets at some of the reason this term is resonating with people, at least a certain subgroup of people, around the web.

Visual Vitriol – Quicktime version

Visual Vitriol — Flash (lower quality) version

More news meta…

…still thinking about last week’s conversation about the corporate media and what that means for information literacy instruction and the broader idea of library users as informed citizens. A couple of things have come across my screen that seem to fit into this conversation.

First, continuing the theme of cool and awesome visualizations is Muckety, with the tagline “exploring the paths of power and influence.” The site is a simple blog like presentation of news stories, focusing on the connections between people, corporate entities, topics and more. But the stories are accompanied by these interactive maps that let you explore those connections on your own. I like how easy and responsive it is – do a search, choose a result and generate a map around that result. The visualizations seem to be based on an in-house database, so it’s not as easy as it could be to follow the sources and explore the relationships further.

The first thing I thought of was using this tool to look at some of the corporate relationships I talked about last week – someone’s already done it. And that’s great because the resulting map is a bit chaotic and crazy and probably took forever to put together –

Big 8 + Sony Muckety Map

And in a nice bit of synchonicity – today’s top story on Muckety is the other thing I was going to talk about here. Jason Mittell and Barbara Fister both talked about this yesterday and got me thinking about the connections between all of these conversations. Barbara got a comment when she cross-posted the story on ACRLog that suggested the commenter saw the story as an attack on the Bush administration and nothing more.

I think the commenter was primed to see things that way and wouldn’t have been open to any other interpretation, but I also think Mittell’s JustTV post raises another important issue that has particular significance for us when we’re trying to think about the question of how to teach information literacy – the kind of information literacy that supports informed citizenry and lifelong learning:

The biggest gap in Barstow’s article is an explanation for why the media allows its “experts” to hold forth unchecked, whether due to conflicts of interest, ethical lapses, or demonstrated ineptitude for actually displaying expertise. The end of the article tries to address this, but the networks stonewall Barstow in a range of ways, from ABC saying it’s the responsibility of analysts to report their own conflicts of interest, to Fox’s outright refusal to participate in the article. Of course looking too closely at these issues would force the Times to justify why it publishes its own discredited “expert,” William Kristol, despite nearly every claim he’s made for the last 7 years having been proven wrong.

So yay for the Times for pulling back the curtain – but to some extent this little glimpse just shows how much more pushing at the curtain still needs to be done.