Questions from ACRL: Critical information literacy and genres of research

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This is a new post in an ongoing series where I’m answering questions that came up during my ACRL presentation “Research is Not a Basic Skill.” Previous posts discussed student proficiency versus student confidence, models for teaching the contextual nature of research, and the difference between “research” and “information literacy.”

One of the harder questions I got was when someone asked me to clarify the tension I saw between critical information literacy and the idea of teaching genres of research. I stumbled a bit in the moment, so let me see if I can provide a clearer answer here.

At some point during the research I was doing into the history of information literacy and in particular responses to the Framework, which was then much newer, I ended up following a thread related to critical information literacy. An article by Ian Beilin on In the Library with the Lead Pipe, which grapples with the Framework from a critical information literacy perspective, particularly stuck in my brain as I was doing my writing.

A main tenet of critical information literacy, according to Beilin, is that “information literacy instruction should resist the tendency to reinforce and reproduce hegemonic knowledge, and instead nurture students’ understandings of how information and knowledge are formed by unequal power relations based on class, race, gender, and sexuality.” In terms of the Framework, this poses a problem because threshold concepts privilege a dominant group’s way of thinking. They suggest that in order to become an expert in a particular field or discipline, you have to first learn the rules. Rules that were created by that dominant group. Beilin takes this a step further by saying, “teaching students how to function with an academic discourse can be perilously close to teaching students how to conform, how to get along, how to succeed.”

Like I said, Beilin was talking about threshold concepts but the same can be said about genres. Genres come with conventions. They come with rules. So if you’re going to talk about research in terms of genres, which is part of my article’s argument, you have to realize that you’re basically talking about teaching students a set of conventions and rules. Those conventions and rules were created within a system that pretty clearly favors the views of a particular group. So by teaching genres of research, you would by implication be teaching that because a bunch of privileged people decided that we should do it this way, this is the way it must be done.

I can see how from a critical information literacy standpoint, that’s a problem, potentially a big one. Since I’m not an expert in critical information literacy myself, I would really be interested in having a conversation with someone who is to hear their take on this. For now, this has me thinking about how genres are really just a tool. Even composition instructors talk about how teaching genre and form is really more of a convenience to the instructor than a reflection of how writing actually works and the same would likely be true of research genres. Their use in a teaching context is more as a frame to help novice writers or researchers start to think about things like the importance of context to the activity.

The question, then, is whether their usefulness as a teaching tool is enough to outweigh the potential risk of upholding a system that was created from an unequal power dynamic. I don’t know that I have a good answer to this. Not without knowing what a good alternative might be–something I would need help thinking through. The closest I’ve come to a solution is based on something Chuck Wendig said in one of his blog posts, which I also quoted during the presentation when I was asked this question. This quote, which hangs on the wall in my office, says that “We learn the rules in order to break them and we break the rules in order to learn why we needed them in the first place.” I’m not sure the second part of that would really be satisfying to someone coming at this from a CIL perspective, but the first part is highly applicable. Learning the rules, in some ways, is the first step toward learning to break the rules in interesting and meaningful ways.

The trick, of course, is actually taking the step to teach students that. That’s a challenge in more ways than one. First, it can be difficult to find room to do this as an educator. Second, even students at the college level may not be developmentally ready to really understand that the rules presented to them by someone in the position of an authority/expert (who is grading their work) can be broken. I’m thinking here of King & Kitchener’s Reflective Judgment Model which, based on the authors’ extensive research, suggests that, out of seven stages, traditional-age undergraduate students tend to be either at a stage 3 or a stage 4. Stage 3 is pre-reflective and thinkers at this stage tend to place a lot of value on “right” answers and what authorities tell them are the “right” answers.  So if you tell them there is a “right” or accepted way of doing things, that’s the way they’ll do it partly because they’re not really ready to apply true critical/reflective thinking yet and partly because they think that’s what will get them a good grade.

Still. It would at least be worth discussing because the whole thing about threshold concepts is that learning is a journey. Even if you can’t get students all the way across that threshold of understanding, you can at least show them that there is a threshold and hope that they’ll find their way across it when they’re ready.

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