Behind the Paywall: Re-Situating Information Poverty

Citation

Link to preprint at the Carolina Digital Repository

Amelia N. Gibson & John D. Martin III.  Re-Situating Information Poverty: Information Marginalization and Parents of Individuals with Disabilities.  JASIST. Preprint. February 11, 2019.  https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.24128

Access Issues

Paywall: Wiley, accessed via Interlibrary Loan

ETA: There is a copy now available at the Carolina Digital Repository. Yay for authors’ rights!

Hoo boy.  So.  First, I couldn’t find this article in our discovery layer, most likely because it’s is an “early view” article and not yet in an official issue.  So I had to search on the journal and browse. But I hit a paywall even though my institutional credentials were showing up, and everything looked like I should have access.  Since I have been around long enough to remember the time when we cut our library science journals to keep from having to cut other fields’ journals, I suspected that that access was pretend, but you never know, things change in journal packages.  I reported the issue to the wonderful people in our E-resources department, who responded within the hour to let me know the real deal, and I placed an ILL request manually. I had the article in my possession within a half of a working day.

Stuff I needed to know to make this work: 1) multiple ways to query the discovery layer; 2) that the volume field in the ILL form will accept any info; 3) to use the Notes field on the ILL form to explain the access issue.

NOW. I feel like it is important to say here that I am not listing these access issues as evidence that we are not doing our jobs in my library.  These are all issues that are inherent to a landscape where you’re dealing with a bunch of different contracts, a bunch of different publishers with their own paywalls and platforms, bundles, consortial partnerships, and those are just one part of the complexity.  No library is going to be playing error-free ball in this information world; what matters is how quickly we are set up to help when these barriers emerge.

TL;DR

I loved loved this article. It applies a critical lens to the information practices of an important population with important needs (moms of children with Downs Syndrome or autism), and the additional theoretical work that the authors have done is sparking thinking about my practice that is super useful, both in an immediate and an extended sense.  Basically, this article uses Chatman’s 1996 model of information poverty, with a particular focus on the intentional, defensive behaviors (including secrecy and deception) that people experiencing information poverty use in risky information-seeking situations. The researchers identify both individual and community-based defensive behaviors and use this data to theorize beyond existing models, which keep their focus on individual behaviors. The authors present a theory of information marginalization, which considers the structural factors and context that create information poverty.

And here we go…

So, one thing off the top – there’s some really useful, clear, definitions in this piece:

  • Information inequity: “the idea that some people have greater difficulty finding, accessing, accepting or using information than others” (1)
  • Information poverty: “a persistent lack of information access as experienced by a group or individual, usually as a result of social factors, embodied by various types of information-related inequalities” (1) (Haider & Bawden, 2007; Yu, 2006)
  • Information marginalization: “the systematic, interactive socio-technical processes that can push and hold certain groups of people at social “margins,” where their needs are persistently ignored or overlooked.” (1)

We start by situating the argument, and this time – it’s within the research discourse on information behavior. Specifically, a reason people point to as moral justification for doing information behavior research in the first place is the existence of information inequity and information poverty.  Most of this research focuses on the behavior(s) of the individual experiencing that inequity or poverty. It doesn’t look at the institutional context, or the structures that create poverty.  “This article pivots away from a focus on the individual toward development of a theory of information marginalization.” (1)

Literature Review

The authors spend some time situating and summarizing a specific article  — Chatman (1996) — which is a key to understanding how information poverty works, and which pushed the existing discourse in its day to deal with the fact that information poverty reflects something deeper than that which can be fixed by simply adding more resources.

Six characteristics that people experiencing information poverty perceive (Chatman 1996):

  1. I lack information sources or access to them.
  2. I am at the lower end of existing class systems.
  3. I need to defensively protect myself when I have to seek info from potentially unsafe people.
  4. Secrecy or deception about my information need is fine if I need it to feel safe.
  5. I have to  weigh the risks of seeking info against the benefits of having it.
  6. I will selectively integrate new information to their info worldview

Now, as important as this particular article was, it didn’t really get into (and the literature it inspired didn’t get into) the structural factors in play.  Neither has the information science literature around disability.

And with that, we’re ready to more specifically name the problem(s) and questions. 

Themes: information access, information poverty, and structures of information marginalization.

Research focus: Mothers of people with Down syndrome and autism

Theoretical model and method: Critical Disability: approaching disability as something made up of individual differences AND socially constructed barriers. This study is built out of a “critical, constructivist grounded theory perspective”

“…we acknowledge that we ourselves (as researchers, educators, and in the case of the first author, as the mother of a child with a disability) are positioned within the social contexts described in this article. From the interview through the data analysis process, we acknowledge the research as being co-constructed between the researchers and the participants (Charmaz, 2014).” 

Research Questions:

  • How do participants describe their information practices and information seeking experiences? Do they fit Chatman’s theory?
  • “What contextual factors contribute to defensive info behaviors and knowledge practices as described by participants.? How can we theorize the relationship between contextual factors and information practices customarily described as indications of information poverty?”
  • “What are the implications of focusing primarily on improving contextual factors, rather than changing individual or community information practices?”

The information needs of this particular group of people are big and important, and also quite specific.  These needs differentiate them from other parents, and they also change situationally – as children age, from place to place, etc. 

A note on language: The authors also take a moment to discuss their use of language (people first language to refer to individuals, and identity-first language to refer to communities), and acknowledge that the language around disability is contested. They have chosen to use the language used by study participants, even when that doesn’t reflect current trends. 

So, let’s dig into the concept of information poverty

Overall, the literature in this area continues to reflect an “cultural deficit model” that compares what people deemed information poor DO against mainstream, institutional cultural standards that reflect mainstream, dominant assumptions and standards — white, male, heterosexual, U.S. based, English speaking, etc.

Basically, there are unexamined, uncritical assumptions embedded within this discourse — that there is a “right” way to access information, that there are “right” amounts and types of information, etc.   The value and effectiveness of those existing systems aren’t questioned — neither in general, nor for the specific population being examined.  This orientation extends to disability.

“This narrow focus on individual behaviors, rather than contextual preconditions for those behaviors also frees information science researchers from the obligation to understand how marginalization works. This, in turn, limits our ability to develop information systems (human, and machine) that reflect and respond to the needs of communities at the margins.”

Methods

Population: a “purposive, theoretically driven sample” (Charmaz, 2014) – 24 moms of individuals with Down Syndrome or autism.

Semi-structured interviews, based on the information horizons protocol (Sonnewald, Wildemuth & Harmon, 2001).

Data was coded individually. Researchers met weekly to compare codes, discuss emerging themes and discuss their way through coding conflicts.

Themes were identified using constant comparative analysis, but the researchers didn’t claim or try to start from a tabula rasa point.  Instead, Chatman’s theory provided a starting point for coding. Later rounds of coding focused on “identification of defensive, proactive, or coping behaviors and contextual factors that contributed to those behaviors” (4).

Results

Information marginalization factors were identified and grouped — four main clusters emerged.  For each of these clusters, the authors present a table that includes: 

  • The factor they have identified and named, broken down into specific dimensions.
  • The individual knowledge behaviors and/or defensive behaviors associated with that factor.
  • The community-level practices and/or defensive behaviors associated with that factor.
  • Examples of data that the researchers associated with that factor.

I’m not going to give you all of that information for each one, but if you’re interested and can track down the article, there is way more in here.

First cluster: Perceived information deficits

This included the perception that info couldn’t be trusted or was being withheld. This was especially important when it came to information about rights.

Defensive behaviors include (but are not limited to):

  • Individual behaviors like: seeking info from other parents instead of professionals; intentionally seeking information from inside or outside of the local community, depending on the situation; fighting or advocating; building strategic professional relationships; being visible and present.
  • Community behaviors like: Social media group development or participation; information seeking/distribution by organizations; being visible & active in the local non-disability community.

Second cluster: Class distinctions

This included a lack of access to info or resources because of the level of disability, information that requires a high level of reading skills or education to navigate; barriers put up by racial bias, economic factors, etc.

Defensive behaviors include:

  • Individual behaviors like: waiting/ hoping/ expressing disappointment; making judgments about personal infolit relative to other parents; uncertainty about paying for services; actively seeking racially diverse settings; hiring private consultants.
  • Community behaviors like: pooling resources; perceived variations in access to information (e.g. subject saying “things are okay for me, but wouldn’t be for others”)

Third cluster: Situational relevance assessment. 

Inadequate support for age (particularly the age of the child),  racial and gender subgroups. 

Defensive behaviors include: 

  • Individual behaviors like choosing friend/support group based on these same factors (e.g. age of child). 
  • Community behaviors: development of cliques or micro-communities.

Fourth cluster: Risk assessment/ Selective introduction of information

This section describes the behaviors parents engaged in to protect themselves from perceived threats (direct threats to children, or threats to the parents’ ability to find information) in their environment, and to increase their agency.

Defensive behaviors include:

  • Individual behaviors like: avoiding seeking info from institutions, or using their own, secret, rubric to evaluate what they hear. Emotions like feeling overloaded, feeling bullied.
  • Community behaviors like establishing a social norm of person to person info sharing.

Discussion

Basically, the specific things experienced by these specific individuals navigating these specific situations matter. And the behaviors they feel they need to engage in to navigate these situations safely also matter — to them, and to those of us who share a mission to get them the information they need to do that navigation.

Gibson and Martin, though, are making an argument that theorizes beyond these specifics to name a broader phenomenon: information marginalization. They look at the information behaviors that they observe and explain them not as errors but as rational responses (developed by individuals and by communities) to injustice.  This is really important. Re-framing these behaviors in this way reveals a whole different set of solutions to the problems that these mothers face:

“Although some time, energy, and resources should clearly be dedicated to ensuring that these mothers have the information seeking and literacy skills to successfully find desired information and make quality judgments, equal, if not more, emphasis should be placed on ensuring that the information systems they use are intentionally and thoughtfully designed so they do not prompt mothers to engage in defensive information practices in the first place.” (10)

And a whole different way of looking at our practice:

“If we acknowledge that what we call information poverty is often a result of systemic failure of information systems to meet the needs of marginalized groups of people, we must also acknowledge that the solution lies in the development and improvement of those systems, rather than existentialist statements about those groups of people. This might also demand reassessment of the field’s own constructions of relevance, quality, and authority, and centering of a diverse range of information values, rather than imposition of those currently embraced by the field.” (11)

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Behind the Paywall: Grading, Bias and Class Participation

This article was recommended all over my twitter the other day, and the topic looks pretty interesting.  So let’s launch a new (hopefully) regular feature, Behind the Paywall. 

Citation

Alanna Gillis. “Reconceptualizing Participation Grading as Skill Building.” Teaching Sociology, 47:1, 10-21. January 2019.  DOI: 10.1177/0092055X18798006

The Access Experience

Paywall: Sage, accessed at my library.

I had a lot of trouble loading the PDF, which I blamed on my local wifi for a while. Seriously, for a college town, we have terrible wifi options in Corvallis.  But when the same thing happened a few days later, and everything else around it loaded okay?  I think it was clearly a problem with Sage.

TL;DR

Untangling everything that is wrong with how we measure and reward class participation would take forever. Not only do our dominant methods rely on instructors to be free from bias and have perfect recall, but they rest on assumptions about students’ willingness, ability and preparedness to participate in class that are deeply problematic. By continuing to reward participation in these ways, teachers — even when they do not want to — are replicating and reinforcing inequalities. Reframing class participation as a skill-building opportunity and building in robust opportunities for students to reflect on their performance is a better way to go.

Here we go…

So we start off by situating this paper within the context of teaching and learning in the classroom. We know that students who are engaged and participating in class learn more.  Knowing this, professors have an interest in motivating students to participate, so many of them grade class participation.

I am liking this problem statement in its recognition that the target audience has spent many years in school, knows that participation grading is a thing, and doesn’t need eight different citations showing that to be true.  The author goes on to say, yes, I haven’t done any systematic inquiry to nail down objective participation grading themes, but I also don’t have to pretend we don’t all know what we know.  And based on living in the world as both students and teachers, we know that there are two basic ways that participation grading works:

  • Teacher gives grades based on recall. A few times a term (or once at the end) they remember how many times each student talked, and assign a grade based on that.  
  • Teacher gives grades based on actually counting how many times students talk during the term. More complex applications of this method might count specific types of participation (asking questions, answering questions, etc.).

There are issues with both of these methods. Teachers do not have perfect recall. Teachers are human and subject to bias in all the ways humans are biased. And, finally, more talking does not necessarily mean more learning.

OH. I think this next bit though is why this paper is getting so much love.  It’s because it goes down to the next level and points out that the deeper problem with all of this participation grading is that these method of motivating class participation are built on several problematic assumptions: that all students are equally prepared to speak in class; that students all understand class participation in the same way; that students have all been rewarded (or not) for classroom behaviors in the same way; that all students are bringing the same skill set to the classroom.

There’s truly no reason to believe that those things are true. And there are a lot of good reasons to believe that they are not.

SO.

Gillis has three intersecting goals in this paper:

  1. Unpack the assumptions behind participation grading as it happens most frequently now.
  2. Re-frame participation grading as an opportunity for skill development, and re-focus it on more meaningful goals.
  3. Show the evidence that says this new framework is worth implementing in real classrooms.

Literature Review

Let’s unpack some assumptions.

We know student evals of teachers are super biased.  We acknowledge and understand that that bias works in both directions:  students’ biases affect their evaluations of teachers AND teachers’ biases affect their evaluations  of students.  However, when it comes to participation grading, we have a tendency to acknowledge that bias as a reality without really understanding or unpacking its dynamics.

(I’m going to summarize the lit review pretty significantly, and link to some key sources)

The research documents general biases that affect student evaluation: teachers tend to reward students they like,  squishy factors like attitude affect evaluations, and factors like race, gender, ability, and socioeconomic class definitely affect assessment in many ways.

We also know that we work in a world where teachers don’t always remember their students’ names, so systems that rely on accurate recall are inherently suspect.  But the issues with memory go beyond this.  Teachers are more likely to remember extreme situations (outbursts, falling asleep in class) than mundane normalcy. Teachers tend to remember giving students more chances to participate than students remember getting.  

There is also a ton of research that challenges the idea that all students are equally ready and willing to participate in class.  There are  a ton of things going into how students are socialized to understand their role in the classroom, or what appropriate interactions with teachers look like.  Some come from outside school — parents’ messages to children are shaped by their own experiences with school or authority structures, for example. Some come from the lived experience of being in school. Students bring very different experiences with consequences and rewards when it comes to asking questions, offering opinions, sharing stories, suggesting counternarratives, and classroom behavior.  And all of these dynamics — inside the school and out — are shaped by factors (including race, gender, class, ability, language and more) that create and reinforce inequality, and which also need to be analyzed and understood intersectionally. 

Then, we have one of the most pervasive dynamics in the teaching literature, at least in the literature that focuses on motivation and learning.  There is a lot of work in this area coming from psychology, using lenses that focus inquiry on personality. This shapes the discourse and produces research (and policy) that frames behaviors like class participation as the result of hardwired personality traits — shyness, introversion or extraversion — and not as behaviors that are built out of skills that can be learned. 

Selected Sources:

New Framework, Different from the Old Framework

“Instead, I propose that instructors conceptualize participation grades in undergraduate classrooms as opportunities to incentivize and reward skill building” (13).

This framework:

  • Conceptualizes participation as a set of learnable, interconnected skills
  • Recognizes and rewards skills that students already believe reflect their engagement in class (peer editing, prepping with classmates in study groups, active listening, coming to office ours) but which are usually not captured by “class participation” grades.
  • Encourages students to work in different skills simultaneously, and to start to understand these skills as interconnected.

Application (Methods)

This is how the author applied the framework in class.

  • 2 sociology classes. 1 400-level and 1 100-level.
  • 45 students per class.
  • Class participation is broken into 5 dimensions:Attendance and tardiness
    • Preparation for each class meeting
    • Participation in small group discussions
    • Participation in full class discussions
    • Participation in other ways (office hours, writing center visits, study groups, and more)
  • Evaluation is conducted using a “self-reporting goal-centered approach.”

Start of the term:

  • Students use a 5 point Likert scale to self-rate along each of the 5 dimensions: How well do you usually do in classes like this with this behavior.  They also write 1 sentence justifying their numerical rating.
  • Students identify 3 concrete, measurable goals for themselves during the term and write out a plan to achieve these goals.
  • Teacher reads and gives feedback on the goals and plan.

During the term:

  • Periodic, informal check-ins.
  • At least one formal self-reflection.  Students re-rate themselves along each dimension and submit a reflection justifying their rating, reporting on progress twoards goals, and adjusting goals/plan as needed.
  • Instructor gives feedback on goals and plan, and if there is a disconnect between the students’ self-rating and the instructor’s perception, meets to calibrate this.

End of the term: 

  • Student submits a self-report that is similar to the mid-term report, but in which they assign themselves a participation grade and justify it.
  • Instructor reviews the reflective material from throughout the term, and the students’ progress towards goals, assigns a grade, and explains it with written feedback.

The instructor reports that there was rarely a disconnect between the students self-reported grade and the instructor’s perception.

(Note, I would expect from my experience that there would be a group of students who would grade themselves too harshly, describing similar activities and evidence to other students but assigning themselves a lower grade than I would, or than those other students would. I wonder if that happened.  It would be pretty easy to re-calibrate at midterm).

Goals/benefits of this approach:

  • Reward a fuller range of behaviors.
  • Reward something more than quantity.

Analysis:

  • Did math with their numerical evaluations and counted how many achieved goals
  • Also inductively distilled themes from the written reflections.

Results

Skill building: Students came to see speaking in class as a skill.  Related to this — they were able to articulate progress even when they were still feeling nervous about participation, or still identified as “shy” or “introverted.”

Starting is the hard part, and then it gets easier.

(Note: most students focused on participating more, but some students worked on skills around participating less, or participating intentionally. These themes cut across both of these goals.)

Connections: The five dimensions of participation are interconnected.

Transfer: Some students reported that they practiced their participation skills in other classes too.

Discussion

I am going to skip most of the discussion because this is super long, and I feel like many of the insights are grounded really well in the rest of the paper.  But I will tell you what the author identified as limitations:

  • Having to rely of self-reporting.  This is the big one.  They tried some forms of triangulation, but most came up short for obvious reasons, like, “I am trying to evaluate things that happen both inside and outside the classroom.”   So far, in the rare cases when there was a significant teacher/student mismatch, course correcting at the midterm check in addressed the problem.
  • The experience so far demonstrates the need to do more, intentionally and formally, to train students how to participate in class.

Final thought

“Sociologists must take issues of inequality as seriously in our grading as we do in our instructional content, and moving toward a skill development participation assessment system is a good step in that direction.” (20)

 

Blogging like it’s 2005

wordpress-265132_640I’m not a resolutions person.  I never really have been.  In fact, I have a contrarian streak that actually makes me less likely to start a new, good habit on January 1.  Like, I would want nothing more than to join a book group or take up a new sport and the possibility that it would look like a New Year’s resolution would probably be enough to put me off. I think that’s a character flaw.

Still, as someone who spends a lot of time in her head, the inherently reflective nature of the calendar turning over affects me no matter what I choose to do with that information. And one of the things I was reflecting on this year was a conversation that Meredith tapped into about blogging, reading and social media platforms.

I told Meredith at the time that one of the biggest barriers I have to writing in this space — this space right here — is the lack of reading.  And what her post made realize was that I wasn’t talking so much about reading time and space, but the lack of a network of other digital writing to read.  Back when this was the only real platform for sharing that now happens in a much more fragmented way, it was a rare week where I found nothing to think about in my networks.

(Or maybe it’s just because Google murdered Reader. I blame that for a lot of things).

But back then, when the writing was longer form, and my scanning happened once or twice a day on Google Reader (or del.icio.us) I made more choices about which rabbit holes I was going to go down.  And I had more information to make those choices. My To Read pile was still out of control, and I was never caught up. Let’s not pretend it was different than it was.  Still.

If there’s one thing Twitter is good for it’s pushing All the Things written by and recommended by All the Brilliant People right by my eyes and I have been feeling a kind of desperate desire to read all of those things for the last two years at least — a desperation that is really keeping me from sticking with anything long enough to do the reading I need to do.

So I think I need to slow down.  To make some choices.  To take a breath or two.  When I say blogging like it’s 2005, that’s kind of what I mean.  Be intentional about  here, don’t write here, but mostly write here without trying to keep up with the conversations an the thoughts and the torrent of ideas that is going on elsewhere.  I think sharing some of those choices here will let me feel more connected to them – and less like I should push them aside for the next thing and the next thing and the next.  Here’s what I am going to try and focus on for the next few weeks:

These are directly related to stuff I am doing and working on.

  • The Art of Effective Facilitation – edited by Lisa Landreman. Ideally, I will start and finish this one this week, because it’s going to provide some grounding for a training I’m heading in to.  Realistically …. we’ll see.
  • Intersectionality by Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge. I have been stalled out 2/3 of the way through this for a while, and since the pieces I have already read are already making their way into stuff I am writing, I think I need to buckle down. Ideally, I will have this one done by the end of the month.
  • Transformative Civic Engagement through Community Organizing by Maria Avila. This was recommended at a workshop/retreat I went to in November, by another one of the participants and I got my hands on it right away and loved it immediately. But I am still only ten pages in.  Honestly, it’s really fast and really short – I could probably finish this in an afternoon.  But I’m going to give myself an end of the month deadline for this as well.

And in the less directly connected but still important category — I made a public commitment to read this on twitter, and didn’t finish.  So let’s see if I can get through the rest:  The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how much better I do with regular writing time.  I’ve never been a “write for an hour every morning at five” type of person, and  I have never successfully kept up a journal.  Honestly, I’m pretty lousy in general at writing on a schedule.  But I do better when I write regularly.  My daughter has a sticker on her laptop that says “Write until the world makes sense” and for real, that’s what I’m missing when I don’t write — the chance to make sense of things.

I’ve tried a bunch of different ways to build that in to my regular work, and honestly, I’m not too happy with any of them.  I don’t have a well-defined set of reasons why.  But some of this has to do with public/private thinking.

Some of that sense making I need to do will honestly never be for public consumption, because that’s not the kind of work I need to do.  Some of the sense making I need to do will only make more sense if I talk about it with others.  I’m realizing that no matter what the platform, I don’t really want to the stuff in the first category in the cloud — in fact, most of that work isn’t even stuff I do well digitally.

But the stuff in the second category – I get some learning and thinking and sense making value when I write for an audience that I don’t get when I write for myself, or when I tweet, or when I bring up the same idea in four different meetings because it’s on my brain and needs to get out.

So that’s what I’m thinking.  And that is what I am thinking of trying.  I’m not resolving to do it, though, so let’s not call it a resolution.