Selected Resources: “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy”

You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on last year’s lists and write about it here.

Today we’re all about “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy” by Eamon C. Tewell.

Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list as part of that process.

What it’s about

Tewell’s study explores how librarians make critical information literacy part of their instruction, including the themes they teach, the methods they use to teach these themes, the challenges of incorporating CIL into their instruction, and the perceived benefits of teaching CIL.


My relationship to critical IL

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that critical information literacy is a topic I’m somewhat iffy on in terms of how well I understand what it’s about and why it’s important. My research for “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study” did involve a detour into some of the critical IL literature but I still feel like my arguments trying to connect/reconcile the two are pretty weak because there’s something about critical information literacy that just doesn’t speak to me for some reason. I mean, I do touch on some critical information literacy themes in my teaching but in an incidental rather than intentional way.

I wouldn’t call myself a skeptic, exactly. I can see why teaching this way is important and would never argue against any approach to IL instruction that makes it clear that IL is about so much more than library-based research skills. It’s just never been my jam, personally. But I still think Tewell’s article is an important one.


Going beyond the library

From his results, Tewell identified classification, search examples, academic conventions and access, corporate media, and alternative media as the most common themes taught by librarians who incorporate critical information literacy into their teaching. For me as someone whose grasp of critical information literacy is somewhat tenuous, the classification example is the one that has the clearest resonance. I still remember when someone pointed out to me how a list of authors might be separated by “authors” and “female authors” as if male is the default and does not need any further distinction. The same goes for how no one ever feels the need to specify “white authors” or “heterosexual authors.” Once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. It drives me insane to this day.

But what struck me about how the respondents to Tewell’s survey teach this is that they do so by treating library classification systems as texts to be analyzed. On the one hand: cool. Analyzing LC subject headings really can teach students a lot about the values and power structures of a particular society and students deserve to know how that affects their own searches for information. On the other hand: why? I was sort of disappointed to learn that even a critical approach to information literacy is so heavily focused on a library’s way of doing things. Aren’t there other systems for organizing information out there that students can study that make it clear that this matters beyond the library environment?

Luckily, Tewell’s respondents make it clear that some of the other topics do teach students to think beyond the library, as in this quote: “Actively incorporating alternative media into one’s instruction is likely to have the effect of information being taught in a broader sense than that which is found within a library’s holdings and subscriptions” (p. 17). So at least there’s that.


Challenges of teaching critical information literacy

For someone like me who doesn’t teach information literacy this way, knowing more about the relevant topics and some of the activities instructors use to teach those topics was informative. While I still don’t feel quite qualified to discuss how power structures manifest in information organization systems with my students, I now have a better understanding of what it looks like when instructors do teach about that.

Tewell identified further information related to the challenges of teaching critical information literacy, including things like time constraints, trying to work within the one-shot model, student expectations, faculty expectations, teaching the basics, and institutional roadblocks.

While I was reading, I found this information eminently relatable, particularly the information on the challenges that instructors face. I think anyone who teaches information literacy, no matter their approach, would. Which makes me kind of wish that Tewell had included more detail on how these challenges might be different for instructors who teach critical information literacy than they are for anyone else who teaches information literacy. Because I’m willing to bet that even those who feel no need to take their IL instruction beyond a demonstration of library databases would identify these same challenges for their own teaching. What makes these challenges different for someone who takes a critical approach to IL? I would be interested to know more.


“There has to be something more than this” versus “Is this really the role of libraries, library instruction, or information literacy?”

In sharing the benefits of teaching critical information literacy, Tewell talks about the sense of meaning librarians get from teaching this way. If I had printed out a copy of the article, I probably would have written AGREE in the margins next to some of the quotes from librarians who talked about how meaningless information literacy seemed until they discovered this approach. Back when my teaching was very Standards-based, I had the same sense of meaninglessness and disappointment at times. I still feel it sometimes when I’m teaching one-shot sessions. For me, critical information literacy wasn’t the way out—which is probably obvious by now, given how many times I’ve mentioned here that critical IL is decidedly not my thing. Instead, it was the realization that research is contextual in nature, how this is acknowledged in the Framework, and how this opened the door to taking my own thinking and my own instruction beyond the library environment. It’s a beautiful thing.

But is it the wrong thing? What I admire about Tewell’s article more than anything I’ve shared so far is that he includes a section that shows the ways in which some of his survey respondents (presumably those who do not use critical IL in their own teaching) questioned both the theory and practice of critical IL. One respondent advised Tewell to think more about whether it was really the role of librarians to teach in this way. Really, whether it’s our “place.”

This frustrates and confuses me for a number of reasons. The most relevant ones for this discussion are that it seems to suggest that a) we should yield to others when it comes to determining what is within information literacy’s scope (talk about power structures) and b) we should all teach information literacy the same way.

As valuable as Tewell’s article is for exploring what it means to teach critical information literacy, I think the big takeaway for me is that, when it comes to teaching, we should all get to teach in a way that is meaningful not only to our students but to ourselves as well. Demonstrating how to use a library database may fill one instructor with meaning and make another feel empty. Teaching the contextual nature of research is meaningful to me but it might not be to others. I don’t really get critical information literacy but clearly there are those who are inspired by it. Everyone’s mileage may vary.

And that’s okay.



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