Librarian in a Strange Land

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and I’m teaching an introductory STEM class using a lesson plan that I’ve used approximately one billion times before, asking students to located a scientific study based on reporting in the popular media (shoutout to my awesome colleague Cynthia Cohen for first introducing me to this idea). Each quarter, I switch up the article so that it’s current; this time, I choose one about how consuming chili peppers can potentially help you live longer. In this class, we looked at two reported pieces: one from The New York Times that was a bit light on details, and one from The Olive Oil Times that included a surprising amount of evidence from the study. I’m hoping to complicate the idea that source type is a foolproof heuristic for quality, expecting that the students will claim that the NYT is a better source because…it’s the freaking New York Times.

We begin our discussion by looking at the NYT piece. “What do we know about this publication?” I ask.

“It’s not reliable,” one student says. “You have to be careful because it can be biased.”

This catches me by surprise. I ask the rest of the class, “Do you think the New York Times is a reliable source?” The majority shake their heads. I’m taken by surprise (not only because we’re specifically talking about peppers here): In every instruction session that I’ve ever led, sources like the New York Times are held up as gold-standard sources, basically the next-best thing you could get to a peer-reviewed scientific study. And, today, suddenly, it’s not.

In the days leading up to the inauguration, with “fake news” becoming an everyday part of our cultural lexicon, Danah Boyd publishes a piece called “Did Media Literacy Backfire?“, where she posits that, as a culture, we have done too good a job of encouraging people to question information, especially information that does not jive with their personal experiences and networks. Boyd writes, “Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving. People are. Unfortunately, that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another.”

I read this piece, and it feels right: My social networks are echo chambers, and when I see postings from the other end of the political spectrum, I doubt them more and more quickly than those that implicitly align with my worldview, ultimately true or not. I hear and participate in conversations about how social media is so distressing these days, and my corner of the Internet gets more and more homogeneous as those people who don’t agree either fall silent or unfriend. The echoes amplify, but I barely notice, and I have trouble imagining that there could be an inverse version of my world, but of course there is.

I appreciate the irony that I am validating the conclusions of this post on my own experiences.

One way to understand information (and media) literacy’s goal is to create wary consumers of information. In some ways, this project seems to have been a resounding success; in others, not, as this skepticism tends to come out more in certain contexts, and not at all in others. The project of information literacy feels like success in small ways (e.g., “My students can find peer-reviewed articles!”), but feels like failure once writ large. What happened?

My hypothesis is that we all took the concept of “evidence” (and, consequently, “good” information being rooted in evidence) for granted. And now, thanks to world events, we discover that a concept that we implicitly thought everyone understood the same way… well, we didn’t. And now we have to face that.

So what do we do now? In an analogy that seems more and more apt by the day, librarians and educators must be Vergils, leading learners through an informational hellscape. And to do that, we can’t rely on our old tricks, like CRAAP, because they presume an agreement about meanings of terms like “reliability.” We’ll have to break down these concepts, and build them up together toward a shared meaning. This is going to require empathy, and collaboration with our educator colleagues because this can’t be done in a 50-minute one-shot–it’ll have to happen over years, with consistent reinforcement, and librarians can’t own it alone. It’s going to need us to advocate for spending our efforts on more challenging material, like why someone might want to find a peer-reviewed study in the first place. If we live in a world where people question everything (or everything that doesn’t align with their worldview),then let’s help them think about the questions they’ll need to ask to interpret those sources.

Every morning, I wake up and am not sure how I will find the world. I question things I thought I knew (Sure, CNN is sensationalist, but is it really “fake news”?). I wonder if the work I’m doing will have any impact. I don’t presume to know how learners will respond to questions now. This new world requires humility.



Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Library Instruction, Posts by Dani Brecher

10 responses to “Librarian in a Strange Land

  1. Hi Dani 🙂 Thanks for your piece!! In my work with new engineering students, we do some things very explicitly – we briefly talk about confirmation bias (neuroscience & psychology) & share stories of our own or confirmation biases or that we have experienced from others. Some people know about confirmation bias, many don’t & some like to share stories of other peoples’ biases rather than their own. When students are studying later on in their undergrad degrees, we start to talk about identifying any assumptions that are brought into the topic/question/problem with which we are working. These are discipline based so that’s a time when the librarian-academic partnership kicks in. I talk readily about my own experiences of confirmation bias & how it limited my understanding of a question or how I understood a piece of work & students really respond well – especially when I have an anecdote from my own undergrad days. Sometimes I even discover that people, who have done a session or used a related online resource, are challenging & sharing their new understandings & experiences of confirmation bias with their class mates and with family & friends. With postgrad students, we get some really nice debates going & sometimes students ask if we can keep the session going so they can continue the debate to a satisfying conclusion. The people who can’t stay express genuine disappointment. Even though I don’t have any real discipline knowledge, I can still be part of these debates. Confirmation bias in understanding/limiting the scope of the problem, choosing the sources, developing search strategies, reading the literature, etc always creates fabulously engaging sessions. I’ve been particularly pleased to see students from cultures where arguing/challenging/debating in class isn’t acceptable all of a sudden find that they can no longer hold back & get fully involved. It’s so inspiring – watching & listening to the students think & learn in this kind of environment. Best wishes, Sandra

    • Dani B. Cook

      Hi Sandra,

      Thanks so much for sharing your great idea about using confirmation bias as a starting point for conversation. That seems like a productive way to bring up these issues, using a concept that most people as familiar with (“bias” if not “confirmation bias”). I think I’ll have to try that–just need to find the right class for it.

      Thanks for commenting (and reading!),

  2. Pingback: Evaluating information | A Librarian's Reflections

  3. This is great, Dani. I too was recently faced with a classroom full of poli sci undergrads who regarding every news article as inherently biased and therefore “unusable” or “not helpful.” Although I was initially taken aback, I think it opened up the class to a deeper discussion of what we mean by “biased” and how different types of information are produced. I really liked this statement from your post:

    “It’s going to need us to advocate for spending our efforts on more challenging material, like why someone might want to find a peer-reviewed study in the first place.”

    I think those discussions about format and their accompanying creation process are SO important, and I’ve been trying to incorporate them into more of my classes. Kevin Seeber’s process cards have been a great activity for sparking discussion. I’d love to hear if you have any suggestions!

    • Dani B. Cook

      Thanks for your comment, Veronica! I wasn’t familiar with the process card activity, but I think I’ll have to try that out. Recently, I’ve been spending half of my sessions (or more) on having students do a quick-and-dirty content analysis of Google searches versus Academic Search Premier, with some guiding questions about what they see/don’t see, and why that might be. I introduce the session by having them think about their research paper topic, and what kind of evidence they would need to find in order to make their argument stand up to an expert in the field. It’s something I threw together basically overnight, so it’s not pretty, but I’m going to refine it and write it up here by the end of the quarter, so maybe that will be helpful…even though it doesn’t quite feel complete to me.

  4. Lisa Hubbell

    Hi Dani, I haven’t had an instruction session since the election. But I’m not surprised to hear that students would question the bias of any news source these days, for a wide range of reasons. Annie Downey brings up some great examples of ways different librarians teach critical source evaluation in Chapter 5 of Critical Information Literacy (Library Juice Press, 2016).

  5. Hi Lisa, Thanks for sharing the reference – I’m definitely going to have a look 🙂

    Hi Dani & Veronica, I’m really interested to know what learning objective/s you were addressing in your sessions, how you planned for the learning to evolve through your pedagogy (though I realise that you would have planned knowing that you might have to through some of it out the window to address the session according to it actually panned out when the learners got involved) & how you analysed the learner presage when you developed your plan. I ask because I’ve never thought to teach source evaluation this way & I would have expected the response (in Australia, we have been constantly exposed to your presidency-related antics running up to the election & since the new fella got the job) from students that I teach, even before all of this started. I think that this is increasingly important as the echo-chamber is increasingly being discussed in the media – it’s one thing to be skeptical about newspapers & the influence that their owners & editors etc have on them, it’s not the quite same when people are faced with the views of their influential & powerful friends & colleagues.

    I am loving this little conversation about information evaluation 🙂 I especially like the way that it’s founded in a knowledge building & knowledge sharing perspective. For me, librarianship is about people not about information. My very best to your both & anyone who joins the conversation 🙂 Sandra

  6. Pingback: More evaluating information to follow up | A Librarian's Reflections

  7. I think the main problem is that people don’t do research anymore before posting anything. They take the lazy way by repeating what other people say instead of looking up things themselves.

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