How my side hustle as a writing tutor informed my information literacy instruction

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

So my first job out of library school wasn’t actually a library job. It was a job working as an online writing tutor for a graduate program at a public institution in another state.(1) As my library career progressed, I held onto the writing tutor job as a side hustle for eight years, finally giving it up when I got tenure.

Thinking back on this job recently, I realized that because writing and research are so often intertwined, my work as a writing tutor actually informed my information literacy instruction in a number of interesting ways.

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Newsies is secretly about the value of information

So every now and then when I’m consuming a piece of pop culture, I find myself thinking of the information literacy implications of the story I’m watching. For example, I firmly believe that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, underneath it all, an excellent story about copyright and the ethical use of information (and also just excellent).

Meanwhile, Newsies is an excellent lesson in a number of IL-related themes, including the “Information Has Value” frame.

Since not everyone spent their freshman year of college living down the hall from a group of fans obsessed with Newsies, constantly being blasted by the soundtrack, let me attempt to explain what Newsies is. It started life as a live-action Disney movie starring Christian Bale in 1992.(1) The story involves a group of young “newsies” who are basically the bottom rung of the newspaper business in 1899. They’re the ones who sell the newspapers to readers for the publishers but when those publishers raise the distribution price to increase their own profits and take money away from the newsies, the newsies form a union and go on strike against them. There is much singing and dancing. The story is inspired by true events. But probably not the singing and dancing part.

The movie bombed when it first came out. Roger Ebert’s review from the time (one and a half stars) will tell you a lot about what the reaction was back then. But then it became something of a cult hit on home video, enough so that in 2011, Disney decided to make a stage musical version of it using a combination of old and new songs. It was a big hit.

In 2017, Disney a filmed a live performance of the stage musical version of Newsies starring Jeremy Jordan in the lead role. This was then released in movie theaters as a “one night only” deal that was popular enough that they were still doing in-theater encores of it even after it became available to stream.

I’ve seen both the original movie version and the filmed stage musical version (I’ve never had the chance to see it live). For me, the movie is just okay but the filmed stage version, well. I saw it in the theater three times, including once after I’d already bought a digital version of the thing on Amazon.

I kind of love it is what I’m saying.

How is any of this relevant to information literacy?

Let me tell you.

I don’t remember exactly what happens in the movie version, but in the stage version the newsies’ strike is a big enough deal that it ends up on the front page of a local newspaper before the story gets buried by Joseph Pulitzer, the publisher whose business decisions they’re rebelling against.

First, I feel the need to point out what seems like a hole in the plot: The newsies are extremely excited to be on the front page of the newspaper. So much so that there’s a whole song at the top of the second act called “King of New York” (humorously) detailing what they plan to do with their new fame. But the whole point of the strike is to disrupt the public’s access to newspapers and therefore interfere with Pulitzer’s profit. So they’re excited about being on the front page of a newspaper nobody can actually buy because there are no newsies selling the damn paper to anyone.

If you set that aside, though, the story has interesting things to say about what stories get told and by who. That front page story happens to slip through because the publication it lands in is (presumably) not one owned by Pulitzer.(2) But then Pulitzer threatens to blacklist any reporters who continue to cover the story, so that’s the end of news coverage about the strike.

It’s not that Pulitzer has a problem with unions or strikes. In fact, the play starts with the newsies despairing that the main headline is about a workers’ strike affecting the trolley system for the umpteenth day in a row because such an unsexy repeat headline will be difficult for them to sell.

No, Pulitzer has a problem with covering this specific strike because it makes him look bad and is affecting his bottom line. So he punishes his workers (because the newsies are technically his employees) by making sure the story doesn’t get covered.

The newsies find a way around this obstacle by locating an old, unused printing press (…in Pulitzer’s basement because why not) and using it to print their own independent newspaper that explains who they are and what they’re fighting for, which they distribute themselves. This move gets the attention of Governor Roosevelt. He intervenes and helps the newsies prevail over Pulitzer in the end. Mostly because the prolonged strike is also embarrassing and inconvenient for him.(3)

Is this not an IL theme? Pulitzer is a gatekeeper who’s deciding what information reaches the public. In order for their story to be heard, the newsies have to find a way around the gatekeeper. The “Information Has Value” frame certainly alludes to this by making it clear that the systems through which information is produced and disseminated have the power to marginalize certain voices. In 1899, if a big newspaper made the choice not to publish a particular news story, the voices behind that story were effectively being silenced.

I’m not saying that Newsies should be used as a teaching tool for this particular frame. I mean, it would be a lot of fun if you did but all I’m saying here is that sometimes when you teach something long enough, you start to see the world through the lens of that thing and this is how I, as an IL instructor, see Newsies.

*

(1) Who was only seventeen years old at the time and was not told that the movie was going to require him to both sing and dance until it was too late to get out of doing it. Needless to say, Christian Bale has not spoken kindly of his experience filming this movie, to put it mildly. (And honestly, given the circumstances, it’s hard to blame him.)

(2) Honestly, even then it takes a large amount of integrity and boldness for this paper to put the newsies on their front page considering they are also likely to be affected by the strike since Pulitzer’s newsies aren’t the only ones causing a stir. It’s like Amazon or Instacart putting information about their recent worker strikes on their respective homepages. It wouldn’t happen.

(3) You’ll be happy to know that the historical strike was also successful in achieving its goals.

On NYT’s textbook story and the Our Virginia incident

Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay

This week, the New York Times published an article called “Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories”  exploring how textbooks in the state of Texas tell the story of United States history versus how textbooks from the state of California do it. If you know anything about the politics in either of those states, there are some predictable differences.

As the article mentions, this isn’t a new thing. In fact, until very recently, I used the controversy surrounding a fourth grade textbook in Virginia as a case study in my information literacy courses. In that case, the textbook in question (which was called Our Virginia) included a number of egregious historical errors, like one about how slaves fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, something that’s not supported by historical evidence. When asked about the errors, the textbook author, who was not a historian, said that she based her writing on information she found on the internet. Information authored by a group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

This was 2010, so the main reaction at the time was basically everyone laughing at this author for basing the research for her book on something she found on the internet. No one seemed to consider the possibility that the issue might be more complicated than that.

As an information literacy case study, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this example by asking students who they feel is most to blame for what happened: the textbook author, the publisher, the Board of Education that approved the book, or the Sons of Confederate Veterans for promoting a view of history that’s not supported by evidence. Their answers are revealing. Of course, a lot blame the author herself for not doing proper research. Others blame the publisher for not fact-checking thoroughly enough. Others feel that the Board of Education should have done more to vet the book before allowing it to be taught in classrooms.

Almost none blame the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Actually, that’s not true. One student did.

Here’s the story.

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