ACRL Framework: The “Scholarship as Conversation” frame is a problem

I’ve spent the last couple of months working on a book project related to some of my ideas about the contextual nature of research. The basic premise is that context matters in the research process, that information literacy instruction needs to do a better job of incorporating the importance of context into what we teach students, and that the ACRL Framework supports our doing this.

There are lot of ways in which making the case for that last part is easy. True, the Framework is a product of ACRL and therefore its main focus is clearly on academic and scholarly situations. But the word “context” comes up a lot in the Framework. Certainly more than it did in the ACRL Standards. And the Framework goes out of its way to acknowledge that research takes place in a variety of environments, not just academic ones. I’d have to look, but I’m pretty sure the workplace and personal research are both name-checked. Creative research not so much, but no surprise there given that creative research tends to be a big blindspot when it comes to scholarly discussions of information seeking in general. Despite this, I think Nancy Foasberg was right when, in an early comparison of the Framework and the Standards, she said that if the Standards largely ignored the importance of context, the Framework insists on it.

Then there’s the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame.

When you want to talk with other information literacy instructors about how the Framework opens the door to teaching about the contextual nature of research, it seems like the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame is always the big “but” in the conversation. Which is to say, this frame has a lot if important and widely applicable ideas. For example, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of its assertion that research sometimes requires you to negotiate meaning between competing perspectives when talking to students about all types of research. But this widely applicable concept is buried underneath language that’s tied so closely to scholarly discourse that it’s hard not to read it and come out the other side believing that information literacy is only for those who plan to participate in scholarly discourse at some level.

To be fair, the centering of scholarly discourse in the conversation about information literacy isn’t new. It was basically a pillar of the ACRL Standards. The Standards and their close adherence to the conventions of academic research is probably what led to the laser focus information literacy instruction often has on teaching students about peer-reviewed and scholarly sources in the first place. This laser focus might serve students well when it comes to meeting their most immediate academic research needs but it does little to help them become successful researchers in the long run, especially when it comes at the cost of teaching them about other types of sources and other types of information needs.

So taken by itself, the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame fits well with how we’ve thought about information literacy and how we’ve taught it up to this point. But taken as a piece of a larger puzzle, it doesn’t quite fit. The other frames show at least a tentative willingness to unmarry information literacy from the scholarly and academic contexts it’s long been associated with but the “Scholarship as Conversation” frame almost completely undoes that work, chaining information literacy to its perceived nicheness once more.

So what do you do? On the one hand, the Framework is not meant to be prescriptive. As the introduction says, all of the knowledge practices and dispositions can be adapted or ignored as needed. Adapting the ideas in the “Scholarship as Conversation” is possible—like I said, I’ve done it in my own teaching. It’s a lot of work, though, and to many librarians it kind of feels like cheating to ignore the “scholarship” part of a frame where “scholarship” is literally in the title. But it’s not like you can ignore the frame altogether just because it’s inconvenient to the premise of your course or, you know, the book you’re writing.

My hope is that in the long run librarians will become more comfortable with expanding their teaching beyond academic and scholarly contexts so that the true value of information literacy can be fully realized. But it’s hard to know how many will do that if they feel the document that is meant to inform their work is sending mixed messages about whether such an approach is acceptable. The Framework (or whatever document comes after the Framework) needs to be clearer in its message. It’s a puzzle whose pieces need to fit together a little better.

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