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.

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Creative information-seeking: What I learned from my literature review

Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay

I spent some time recently reviewing some of the literature on creative information-seeking from the library and information science field as part of my project on the role of research in fiction writing. I wanted to understand what our field already knew about how creative populations find and use information as part of the creative process so that I could use that knowledge to inform my own work.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot of interesting things but I also felt a lot of frustration with what I was finding. Sandra Cowan has a great article that captures her own frustrations with research on this topic, many of which echoed my own feelings.(1) If you’re able to access that article, I highly recommend taking the time to read it if you have any interest in research on creative information-seeking. In the meantime, here’s a summary of my own thoughts, which is maybe a little more rant-like than I intended. Oops.

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That time I participated in a Banned Books Read-Out and what I learned

Image by robinsonk26 from Pixabay

This week is Banned Books Week across libraries in the United States and all around the world. Banned Books Week is a fun but somewhat hypocritical tradition where libraries uphold themselves as defenders of intellectual freedom while ignoring parts of our own history that show that while libraries like to talk the talk, they haven’t always walked the walk. Which is to say, I have some mixed feelings around the whole thing but there are usually some programs and activities that take place around this time that I’ve enjoyed in the past.

One of those activities is what’s known as a Banned Books Read-Out. This is where you take a book that’s known to have been banned somewhere for one reason or another, you talk about why it’s been banned, and then you read a passage from that book in front of an audience. I’ve participated in several of these at various times in my career and while picking my own reading has always been fun, I’ve actually discovered some great stuff after hearing about other people’s picks (most notably Philip Larkin’s poetry).

One year, though, while I was at my former institution, this activity got a little personal for me. That was my first year on my campus’s Big Read Committee, which was a committee made up of faculty, staff, and students that reviews and selects whatever the Big Read will be for incoming freshman the next year. This was kind of a big deal at the time because a lot of first year composition and freshman seminar-type classes were planned around the Big Read and the various activities associated with it.

My first year on the committee, we reviewed what must have been dozens of books before settling on our choice: Picking Cotton by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo. In this book, Thompson-Cannino talks about being sexually assaulted at knifepoint in her own apartment while in college. Afterward, she identified Cotton as her rapist only for him to be exonerated by DNA evidence after spending eleven years in prison (during which time he was able to identify the true perpetrator of the crime). The two wrote the book together (with Torneo) in order to examine what had happened and why. The subject matter alone made it seem like a good Big Read choice but what made it even better was that Thompson-Cannino and Cotton often spoke together on college campuses for a relatively reasonable fee, so there was a chance we’d be able to arrange for a visit from the authors as one of our Big Read programs.

The committee submitted our choice to the Provost.

The Provost immediately vetoed our decision and chose Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie, the TOMS shoes guy, instead.

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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.

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The true as the enemy of the good: Creative license and the ethical use of information

Image by Angeles Balaguer from Pixabay

I’ve been thinking a little bit lately about creative license and its implications for the ethical use of information.

Now, when information literacy instructors talk to students about the ethical use of information, we’re usually focusing on citation and plagiarism and academic honesty and issues like that because that’s what’s most relevant to the type of research that students do. Sometimes, in keeping with the “Information Has Value” frame from the ACRL Framework, we might dip into stuff about copyright or open access or Creative Commons. But for the most part we’re talking about giving proper credit to the sources you use for academic research.

Though it doesn’t come up a lot (at least in my teaching), I would think the ethical use of information also means representing the content of a source you’re citing accurately. There may be room for your own interpretation, of course, but in general it’s understood that you shouldn’t cherry pick bits and pieces of information from a source to suit your purposes or misrepresent the original author’s stance by taking a quote out of context or something like that. Because if you do those things, you risk doing real harm to the credibility of your work and your reputation as a scholar.

If cherry picking information would be frowned upon in scholarly, academic, and scientific research, creative license would be basically forbidden. Because creative license takes cherry picking a step further by allowing someone to twist or ignore information in order to suit their creative purposes.

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The Circle and information literacy

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So a while back I had a week off and since there weren’t as many places to go or things to do as there usually would be, I spent a lot of time in front of the television, trying out some shows I wouldn’t normally spend much time on. That’s how I ended up losing three days of my life to Netflix’s The Circle.

If you’ve never heard of it, The Circle is a reality competition series based on a British show of the same name. In this game, the players are isolated from each other until the very end. They communicate only through the show’s social media platform, which as you might suspect is called…the Circle. The trick is that while some players play as themselves, using their own pictures and profiles which basically reflect who they really are, others play as catfish, using pictures and profiles that are not their own. The show is basically nothing but a bunch of people living by themselves in cute little apartments, alternately talking to themselves and shouting at their screens. Which, come to think of it, pretty accurately describes my life right now. Go figure.

If none of this sounds particularly compelling, just know that The Circle is carefully engineered to be as addictive as possible and that engineering very much worked on me, someone who doesn’t watch a lot of reality competition shows. It helped that in the American version the cast was, for the most part, surprisingly likeable and earnest throughout, even the players who posed as other people. (The French version, which I’m about halfway through at the time of this writing is very different in this respect. There are still some likeable players but their approach to the game is, shall we say, much different from the American players. These differences make it all the more interesting to watch.)

So why am I writing about The Circle here?

Because somewhere amidst all the likes, status updates, and group chats, I started thinking that this trashy but fun show might actually have some interesting connections to information literacy. In fact, I think my case here might be even stronger than when I’ve tried to connect pop culture I love (like Newsies and Hedwig) to info lit in the past.

Let me explain.

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Neil Gaiman’s famous quote about libraries: A critique

In a recent writing project I was working on, I had occasion to refer to a quote about libraries from author Neil Gaiman. The quote, which you can find on tons of posters and t-shirts, goes like this:

“Google will bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one.”

The reason I used the quote was that I thought it was a good illustration of how librarians like to think of themselves (and for others to think of them) as research experts. The quote basically says: Librarians—better than Google!

The truth is, though, that I really kind of hate this quote and others like it from celebrities and authors (and celebrity authors) about what they see as the value of libraries. I would go so far as to say that this quote specifically is bad for information literacy.

Let me explain why.

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Hopes and worries for the coming academic year

Image by nile from Pixabay

In some places, the fall semester has already started but here classes don’t begin for another week or so. It’s hard to believe the summer is already over even though it seems like it lasted a million years. Time has definitely gotten weird.

The plan for the fall semester here looks more less like it does on many other college campuses. Some classes will be offered in person, most will be online. Some students will be staying in the residence halls but there will be a lot more restrictions on what dorm life will look like than there has been in the past. A lot of the usual campus activities will either be held virtually or scaled back or cancelled altogether. Needless to say, there are going to be a lot of moving parts to this thing and no one really knows what’s going to happen.

It could be fine. Or it could be a disaster.

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