Critical Information Literacy

The breakout session “Integrating Critical Information Literacy Approaches into Library Instruction,” led by Ian Beilin of New York City College of Technology, produced very lively and productive discussions. The main focus was on how student knowledge, experience and insight can make information literacy instruction more critically reflective for both the instructor and students. Also of concern to most participants was how to use all types of library instruction to increase student awareness of the political and social dimensions of information literacy and research. After a brief introduction in which common definitions of critical information literacy concepts were defined and described, and where City Tech’s three-credit information literacy course was described, participants shared their thoughts about which of these concepts they found most useful in their own instruction and/or reference work. We then suggested various learning goals that a critical IL approach would seek. Discussants also addressed the particular challenges of incorporating critical approaches into library instruction. Toward the end of the session, a debate ensued touching in particular on the question of the purpose of information literacy in general, and what the role of the librarian should be vis-à-vis the student in information literacy instruction.

Ian Beilin’s introduction

James Elmborg (2006) is one of the most-cited articles in Critical Information Literacy.  But it remains a vaguely defined research field. Not everyone who do it necessarily include their scholarship in this area (e.g. Barbara Fister); it’s actually a bigger world than the scholarship in the field, narrowly understood, would have us believe.

An important aspect of CIL is that it emphasizes the point that librarians are educators.  This informs all library instruction, including in 1-shots.  This means that the librarian should be used to the classroom being hers—we have an agenda and a right to this agenda.  Yet we need to respect and work with the instructor’s assignment. How do you work with a professor to integrate this in a way that’s not threatening or taking away from what they want to do? Even with a list of specific demands, you can weave in CIL moments.

Ian Beilin and Anne Leonard’s article (2013) is about a three-credit course called “Research and Documentation for the Information Age.”  Each class tackles a different issue, and students are encouraged to think about how this affects their lives. The course revolved around a blog where students relate not just what they have learned, but how these issues and ideas apply to their own lives. Students talk as much as possible about themselves and making these connections. The instructors always learn more from student perspectives.  But even more, the instructors learn more about information literacy. One example concerns the class difference (usually) between ourselves and our students. This comes out when students talk about their own lives, and how they experience the city, and the library, and the college.  A CIL approach forces the instructors to ask: Maybe I need to learn things that the students are telling the class, maybe these things are important and relevant to what we are trying to teach? CIL puts students at the center of the teaching process. This is, in a sense, a different kind of ‘flipping’ the classroom, and it has risks, especially in a one-shot. There are certainly many differences between the one-shot and the full semester course that require very different approaches.

In addition to the blog, the course includes a research paper taking up six weeks of the semester.  It is a scaffolded assignment including a project proposal, annotated bibliography, outline, rough draft and final paper. Students write about the information issues they have explored, and they are encouraged to explore an issue that will illuminate some aspect of information they are already interested in. For example, one student interested in fitness studied how the exercise industry promotes itself through social media. Through her research the student discovered some political/feminist implications of the topic that she had not at first anticipated.

The final step of the course is an online documentation project in which students work in small groups to create a website that creates a new access opportunity for students. Students are encouraged to think locally about information needs, and to thinking about information that they don’t have access to or can only access with difficulty. They are essentially asked to provide a service to underserved population: themselves. The project becomes a way for them to think about using and creating information to empower themselves.

Many students don’t initially understand the relevance of the class since they are very vocationally oriented but they come to enjoy it and learn to appreciate its value. They also apply many of the issues discussed to their own professional trajectories. For example, several radiology students have become interested in the privacy issues surrounding medical records and the corporatization of the medical profession.

One Response to Critical Information Literacy

  1. Notes Provided by Ian Beilin:

    Group Discussion

    Discussion question 1: What are the most important or useful concepts from CIL for your library instruction?

    – Information systems are based on a series of design decisions in which students are not involved.
    – Valuing existing knowledge. How do you get them to teach the instructor, and their classmates? Engaging w/reading? Making them present or explain it. How do you tap in quickly in a one-shot session?
    – Questioning authority: what privileges one opinion or approach over another? Why? (Students often expect an authority, which is what they’re used to. Whom do I follow? Questioning this is destabilizing).
    – Taking these concepts out of the academy and putting them into students’ own knowledge. Skills make your art better.
    – Questioning “neutrality.” There is no neutrality because that is how power functions: what’s made available, what’s privileged, how students are steered. Students are already cynical. How to address their cynicism?
    – How do students engage? Accepting/rejecting everything. What do we mean by this? Sources that librarians don’t esteem highly may provide a critical angle which is nevertheless useful. For example, the Daily Mail: what are the obvious reasons this is different from the New York Times? Students lack the context here and this makes it difficult for them to map things out. Instructors can’t take anything for granted or assume anything, but need to question their own assumptions.
    – Students need the curiosity to read more articles and to know what questions they should be asking. This has to be part of the curriculum–not just one class. A step along the road to getting the degree rather than time spent developing a complex web.

    Discussion question 2: What are three specific learning goals that your CIL approach would seek to achieve?

    – Spending the one-shot developing a process. How to think about a topic, what steps to go through, and reflecting on the context and discussing the process. Replicating this for other needs. We want to give them a seed that will grow or a tool they can use later.
    – Having the confidence to question authority. For example, using Artemis to look for articles about death in Tolstoy. Which one is the best fit? You are here to choose — you are the agent. You are choosing. You are assessing its value (not the librarian or the class professor).
    – Making sure people understand how databases, vendors, articles affect your research. Databases give a false sense of security and there are other ways to do research. Students should know who vendors are, what they provide, and that the libraries (the students) pay but don’t own. They might also be aware of what their college has and what a college/university like NYU has.
    – Inviting frustration/anger could be helpful in some cases. The librarian can ask: why is this happening? And they can encourage students not to give up or become cynical.
    – Giving students the confidence to take control of their searches. Going outside what they’re used to and learning to overcome obstacles.

    Discussion question 3: Give an example of one means to achieve your CIL goals in one-shots, longer format settinga (1 credit, 2 credit, 3 credit, other), reference conversations, or other contexts.

    – Pointing out ideological moments
    – Talking about how databases are corporate products sold to us in a particular way. They are like cell phones.
    – Using citation searching and searching Google: getting the abstract but not getting the full text. Pointing out why things aren’t available.
    – NYPL is available when they’re no longer students. But they don’t want to wait for ILL or go to NYPL. How to fight this malaise? Students just stop, as do faculty.
    – Google site searching, tips and tricks: students are getting better and better.
    – How do you make the decision, that these things are good? What kinds of comparisons are they making? Behavior is reinforced if it happens once.
    – Point out the virtues of Wikipedia. It’s findable and free and can Show how to outline a topic. There are many ways to use it.
    – Use Google Scholar as a bridge to databases.
    – Use EasyBib to find the bias of the source. What does this mean??
    – Topics are not monolithic. People use different words for the same things; students need to find the most appropriate terms. Just because the professor gave them a topic term, an alternative might still be a good one.
    – Dealing with the bias in the assignments. One needs to be diplomatic about it. Students need to look at alternative sources that might contradict the professor’s implicit bias. There is another perspective. Trying to find alternative source or to get them to ask questions that they/the professor haven’t asked yet. Introduce elements of critical doubt or skepticism.
    – Using sources not just “to back up your argument” and using sources that don’t back up your argument — talking about it like it’s a conversation. That helps students not just with finding sources but being flexible and changing their minds.
    – Finding a way to talk about plagiarism, as taking someone else’s conversation as your own.
    – Emphasizing that the relationship between you and sources is not so clear-cut.
    – Everything needs to be flexible at the beginning.
    – When teaching a credit course, you have to model your own research. (For example, “The homeless problem” in libraries.) Looking at the literature on a topic can change your position on an issue (it can make you radicalized as in this example). Research can change you as a person.

    Discussion question 4: What are two specific challenges facing the librarian who wants to incorporate CIL strategies in the library classroom?

    A lively debate was sparked by one participant asking this question:
    – Is this my job? Students are sophisticated already and understand these structures & barriers. Is it my job to get them to break the system that they want to be a part of? I’m thinking about what they need to accomplish their goals. My job is to make you more efficient and not waste your time. Some responses:
    – Would I be happy to enable students only to work within the system? I might not be happy with myself then. As an educator, it’s my role to shake things up.
    – Some students are both career driven and socially conscious – these are not mutually exclusive.

    – It’s not always easy to teach around assignments and incorporate CIL: this is one of the constraints of the one-shot. But you can still incorporate your CIL goals.
    – Privilege & information. We have to be true to our values as librarians. These include universal and free access to information.
    – Reference interactions & doing social good can go together. This includes giving of ourselves and being patient.
    – Maybe the student has a specific need, but they might come to need these skills to question what they’re doing later.
    – There are too many students!
    – I need to know what do students most need/want from me?

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