How teaching research context can help students who lack information privilege

So last month I spent some time working on a program proposal for the upcoming ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. The proposal I came up with was centered on the same topic as my soon-to-be-published book, Using Context in Information Literacy Instruction, which makes an argument for incorporating conversations about context into research and IL instruction and includes some practical suggestions for how to do so in various teaching situations (#shamelessplug). Though the book is being published by ALA Editions, I don’t know how good of a chance it has at being accepted as a program but it seemed worth a try and something on the proposal application got me thinking about how teaching students about the importance of context to the research process might benefit those who have perhaps lacked access to some of the same resources as their more privileged peers prior to coming to college.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about any connections between my topic and ideas about diversity, equity, and inclusion before. As a privileged white person, I admittedly tend to be a bit blind to these issues until someone nudges me to think about them. I know that sucks. It’s something I need to change.

In this case, the nudge I needed came from the rubric used to evaluate program proposals. As I worked on mine, I did my best to make sure the proposal hit as many of the criteria the evaluators would be looking for as possible. One of those criteria had to do with the program’s connection to DEI.

After thinking about it for a while, I thought of a potentially interesting connection to information privilege and lack of it.

One of the most important aspects of teaching students about the contextual nature of research, I think, is that it’s an approach that treats the skills they already have as valuable. Too often as information literacy instructors, we teach (or are asked to teach) students that searching Google or social media for information is somehow “wrong,” a behavior that needs to be corrected. While it’s true that this approach to information-seeking may not be entirely appropriate for most academic research, it’s perfectly appropriate to other types of research students might do, including creative, personal, and even professional research. The trick isn’t “correcting” an improper behavior but instead learning that different contexts come with different expectations. You don’t need an academic database for everything, even if you do have access to them.

This is a point I’ve made before but usually when I make it, it’s to make a case that, by learning about the importance of context to the research process, students who are overconfident in their research skills might realize that, though their skills are valuable, there’s still more to learn. Therefore it’s worth listening to the instruction they’re about to be given.

But there’s another perspective here too. Not every student is overconfident. Some are downright anxious about college research. But they may not want to admit it because everyone else seems to know what they’re doing.

This feeling can happen in anyone, but I imagine it’s a bit more common in students who have perhaps lacked access to certain information resources in their previous education. While some students went to high schools that could pay for academic databases and robust library collections, others might not even have had reliable access to the internet or a school library or a public library.

But even without that access, those students have developed skills related to finding, evaluating, and using information. Skills that have worked for them in the various contexts, both formal and informal, in which they have sought information throughout their lives.

No matter how different those skills and experiences might be from the conventions of college-level research, they are still valuable. These students are not starting from nothing, though they may feel like it when comparing themselves to their more privileged peers.

Even more importantly, teaching students about context teaches those who may be underconfident or underprepared that they are not the only ones with more to learn. That it’s possible to be an expert in one research context but a complete novice in another and that everyone has to learn how to navigate research contexts that are new to them.

I don’t know if that argument, which I had to make in all of three sentences in my proposal, will resonate with those who are evaluating the proposal or, in the frankly unlikely event that the program is accepted, with people in the audience. It’s definitely something I want to give more thought to and another reason why I want to promote my ideas in wider venues like ALA so that I can more voices involved and learn from those with different perspectives.

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