Information literacy and identity negotiations

So while I’ve been on sabbatical, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about writing pedagogy. Most of this has been in the area of creative writing pedagogy but a few of my sources are from the writing studies field more generally or another area like composition. I recently got through Writing and Sense of Self by Robert Edward Brooke, a self-described composition specialist. The book describes the workshop model through the lens of identity negotiations, which was useful for my creative writing-related research but actually made me think more about my information literacy teaching as well.

In short, Brooke thinks the chief advantage of the workshop model over other approaches to writing instruction is that it allows the students to assume the identity of a writer and to negotiate meaning within that role. They learn to think about writing as writers rather than as students and therefore start to use writing as means of communication and understanding rather than as a means through which to please their professor and get a good grade.

In information literacy instruction, we have a similar problem. We want students to think of themselves as users and creators of information. In other words, to identify as researchers. It’s only through this lens that information literacy has any meaning.

But students don’t see themselves as researchers. They see themselves as students. To them, research isn’t a process through which to make meaning. It’s an exercise through which to get a good grade.

This is a problem in and of itself but consider how what we teach and the way we often teach it actually reinforces this view. Information literacy instruction is so often focused on the skills that will help students meet their most immediate information needs. That information need, more often than not, is an academic research paper. So we teach them the conventions of academic research and in our minds we’re doing this so they can become better researchers. In their minds, we’re doing it to help them do well on their assignment.

I’ve seen this even in my own information literacy course. In that course, I include a lesson on common research myths. One of those myths is that research is about looking for the “right” answer to a research question. I tell students that, in fact, research is about exploration and that there often is no “right” answer. Instead, you have to negotiate meaning from the information you find.

To me, it’s just obvious that this is the way research works because I’m both a researcher and someone who studies research. To students, this is utterly baffling. Transgressive, even. They’re so used to thinking of research as something with a grade attached to it that they honestly don’t understand how there can be no “right” answer. If there’s no right answer, then how does the professor decide who gets an A on the assignment and who doesn’t?

If we want to get past this barrier, we need students to stop thinking of themselves as students and start thinking of themselves as researchers. Because they are. Even if they don’t do any sort of formal research again after they leave school, they interact with information and probably share and even create information every day.

So how can we change what we teach to get students thinking this way? For writing, Brooke obviously favors the workshop model. I’m kind of interested in thinking more about whether a workshop model would work in an information literacy class. I think it could be a cool experiment, though I imagine it would be difficult to get students to focus on evaluating each other’s research rather than each other’s writing (in part because the two are often so tightly intertwined). But even with all the faults that come with the workshop model (and the research suggests that there are many, as does my personal experience as a student in some pretty brutal undergraduate creative writing workshops), I think there’s potential in having students listen to their peers comment on, for example, their use of sources and then have to take that feedback on board and decide how and whether to address it in a second draft.

This would certainly help put students in the role of the researcher (and the peer reviewer, come to think of it).

But as usual that’s asking for a lot of change in a field where we’ve had to fight hard for what little space we’ve been given to teach what we do and where many of us, whether through choice or circumstance, are still stuck in modes of teaching that were established under the Standards (which were very much about the student identity rather than the researcher identity).

I think it is important for us to realize, though, just how meaningless information literacy is unless we can get students to actually think of themselves as users and creators of information and recognize that there are a variety of contexts where that’s the case. Too often we gloss over that fact or we take it as a given without realizing that even to students who use and create information on a daily basis, the fact that they are researchers is new, just like the idea that they are writers is new even though they also write every day.

Either way, I think the connections Brooke makes between identity negotiations and the workshop model are really thought-provoking. Even if we don’t use a workshop model in our own teaching, I think this territory could be just as rich for information literacy instructors who want to make their teaching more meaningful to students.

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