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.