Here’s the second part of the interview I did on literacy, which focuses on various challenges with teaching information literary, both now, and in the future.
What types of challenges do you face while trying to teach students, faculty, and community members about information literacy?
There’s lots of challenges. With students, once challenge may be the belief that you can find all of the information you’ll ever possibly need on Google when, in fact, most of the information you’ll need to be successful in your work in college isn’t going to be found there. Articulating that in a way that makes sense to students from within their own internal frame of reference is a major obstacle, and something I’m always thinking about. I think the students are pretty good about this though.
A much deeper obstacle is that, now that people have made library databases seem a lot more like Google, it’s easy to think that they function like Google. But, really, they don’t, so that’s another challenge. It’s easy to think that you know how to find a book or an article in the library, but often students may find that when they go do it, it’s actually much harder. I’ve learned that pretty clearly recently by giving students some active learning exercises where I can later look at students’ responses. And since Google teaches you that searching is supposed to be easy, it’s easy to get frustrated. But research is an iterative process that requires you to be resilient. Teaching that is also difficult.
One difficult thing is that information literacy often tends to be something that people think you’re just supposed to know how do – but, really, requires formal instruction. So, for example, if nobody has ever modelled for a student, step by step, how to go from a very generic research topic like “Facebook,” to “How does Facebook usage lead people to have lower self-esteem because Facebook users tend to be constantly comparing themselves to other people?” then it’s not particularly reasonable to expect that students will just be able to do that. But, often, that is the expectation that’s placed on students, and without formal information literacy instruction, they tend to struggle. That, I think, is the number one question I see at the reference desk: students are really struggling with figuring out how to narrow down a topic that’s way too broad, into a sophisticated, college level research question that they can find information on. For this reason, a good deal of my research has focused on pedagogical strategies drawn from philosophy, psychology, and education, which will help students develop this important information literacy skill. This same thing is true for other skills, like evaluating information. Students have typically not been exposed to explicit instruction that addresses these problems in a sophisticated way, and I think they struggle because of that.
I also think that there’s a tendency to teach students research “tricks” instead of deep skills. Showing them to click on the peer-reviewed button in a database is a trick; teaching them the deep structure of evidence helps them think critically. We need to do less of the former and more of the latter across the board.
In terms of working with faculty, I think that a challenge is articulating how the work we do is useful to them, aligns with the things they care about (students doing good research), and demonstrating that we can do more than show students how to click on the peer-reviewed button in a particular database. In my opinion, librarians tend to be their own worst enemies in this regard, so it can be a challenge to be taken seriously as legitimate educators that have something substantive to offer to students. But the best way to demonstrate that you can do good work is to do good work, and that’s what I’ve been trying to do with our information literacy program.
What do you see as your challenge currently regarding information literacy?
This isn’t necessarily information literacy specific, but I think that the major challenges are things like resistance to change, superficial thinking, and conformity more generally. A place like Google or Apple or something recognizes that staying relevant means that you’ve got to be cutting edge, and they therefore place an enormous amount of importance on creativity. I think it’s easy to take the wrong lesson from that, that technology is what makes you cutting edge. That is not true. Thinking of creative ways to do the same stuff we’ve always done – successfully connecting students with information that matters to them and helping them construct an applied epistemology to think critically about information – is what will keep academic librarians relevant.
I think a challenge that will probably always exist is that people have this weird tendency to think that technology is going to solve all of our problems. So like with information literacy, they think that making databases more like Google, or inserting a “Peer-Reviewed Articles” button, or giving students iPads to run around the library with is going to help students think critically about information. These things are superficial solutions to complex problems. I think if librarians are going to stay relevant, it doesn’t have that much to do with technology. Yeah, technology is important, and we definitely need to keep up with it, but it’s just not all that interesting to me in terms of achieving things I think actually matter as an information literacy librarian. It has no intrinsic importance; it’s just sometimes useful for doing things you want to do (like it’s been enormously useful to me to use Qualtrics software to create active learning exercises and do assessment, for example). Since the first day I started thinking about going to library school I heard this narrative that librarianship is all about being tech-savvy now. And, thinking back on it, my reaction was always “Well, I guess.” My attitude on that hasn’t really changed.
Do you see a new challenge ahead of you?
I think that formal information literacy instruction is an extremely new concept. Part of what this means is that there’s not a ton of good research out there on the best methods to deliver this instruction. So a really important challenge is coming up with those methods, and basing them on good empirical evidence. But this challenge is a great opportunity, and it’s something I really like doing. I think the School of Information & Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill really does right by their students by requiring them to do empirically based master’s research as a requirement for graduation; not all library schools have this requirement.
So one challenge within our profession is for librarians to get more education training. Librarians are increasingly called on to teach, and to teach students critical thinking; this requires that library schools prepare students for this adequately, which is something I think that most of them, even the really good ones, aren’t doing in any systematic way.
Do you have aspirations to expand the department, or your reach within the community beyond the CSU, Chico campus?
One thing I would really like to do is expand our program to reach out to promote what you might think of more ordinarily as literacy – to instill a love of reading in students. Something that’s kind of always struck me as bizarre about academic libraries is that they’re so focused on helping students with research, that they don’t spend much time helping students find books that they might like to read for pleasure, or promoting the value of reading more generally. They tend to leave that stuff to public libraries. This is funny to me, especially when you consider that when most people think of what librarians do, they think it’s got to do with books, and a love of reading.
A lot of recent research discusses how reading literary fiction actually teaches people to be more compassionate, empathetic people. In short, reading good books helps people to be better, emotionally intelligent individuals. I would really like it if the information literacy program could play a role with promoting this kind of literature, specifically. I have a few ideas about what to do, but haven’t had the chance to try them out yet. Hopefully this is something I’ll be able to work on in the future – the Dean of our library has been very supportive of this when I’ve mentioned this to her in passing; it’s just about devoting some time and energy to thinking about, and implementing some new ideas, since not much precedent for doing this exists. Now that our information literacy program has started to get off the ground, maybe it’s something I can begin to think about more seriously.
Is there anything else that you feel should be said about information literacy, your role in the program, literacy in general, or the community?
Well, something I would like faculty to know is that information literacy is really something we can collaborate on in a serious way to build right into specific assignments and course planning, and that information literacy librarians are increasingly academics with informational expertise who often have formal training in pedagogy.
Aside from that, I think it’s important that as educators we teach students that research is really just an opportunity to explore something that you’re curious about. That’s all it is. Allowing students the creative freedom of expression to explore their interests within the formal constraints of an academic curriculum is, I think, central to sound pedagogical practice, and should be at the forefront of our thinking about working with students. One of the aims of our program is to model, relative to a particular class assignment, how one can go about the research process in a way that is authentic to who the student really is. The ultimate goal is to teach students to be curious individuals, and I think our information literacy program has much to add to supporting students’ autonomy in this way.