Selected Resources: “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy”

You may not be aware of this, but every year the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee puts out two lists of Selected Resources, one focused on teaching methods and instructional design and the other focused on assessment. These lists feature articles and other materials that have been published the previous year that are worthy of note. It’s a resource that doesn’t get as much use or attention as it should, so I’ve decided to assign myself the homework of making my way through each item on last year’s lists and write about it here.

Today we’re all about “The Practice and Promise of Critical Information Literacy” by Eamon C. Tewell.

Disclosure: I am currently a member of the ACRL Instruction Section Teaching Methods Committee, which selects and evaluates materials for the Selected Resources lists. I played a role in the selection process and reviewed several of the items that ended up on the final list as part of that process.

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The Ballad of Purdue OWL

There was a conversation recently on one of the library listservs concerning recent changes to Purdue OWL, a commonly-recommended site that in the past has always provided credible and accurate citation guidance as well as some great academic writing advice. Apparently, the site was bought by (or is now in partnership with) Chegg, a company that basically encourages students to use AI to do research and write for them because clearly that’s the best way to actually learn anything.

Apparently this change happened almost a year ago but some of us (including me) are just realizing it now.

The librarians in the e-mail chain had some good alternatives to recommend, including Excelsior OWL and some others. I know we have a pretty good Citation Guide at my own library that’s kept pretty up to date.

Still. I’m in mourning.

There is no user-friendly way to learn about citation. There just isn’t. The actual publication manuals are labyrinthine. The sites that generate citations for the users don’t actually teach them anything about how to cite and are also inaccurate. Purdue OWL was the one resource I could point students to and be able to say, “This is a credible source of citation information that’s relatively easy to understand.”

This was a resource I shared with students at the reference desk, in my classroom, and in my side gig as an online writing tutor. Whenever a student came to me with a question about citation, it was the first place I looked for an answer to recommend.

To be clear, the citation information on the site still seems good. The many advertisements that follow you around (including everyone’s favorite: the autoplaying video) don’t necessarily change that. But now that it’s attached to a site like Chegg, it’s hard to recommend it without at least some reservation. Because students might come for the citation help, but they’ll stay for the promise of homework assistance that looks an awful lot like cheating.

More than that, though, Purdue OWL was my own go-to resource for citation help.

Generally, I use APA to cite because that’s the citation style I’m most familiar with by virtue of being an online writing tutor for a graduate program where APA was the standard. Some library journals use APA, including the first few that I published in. But a lot of the big ones use Chicago style.

I did not take this into account when writing my article “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study.” If you take a look at that article, you’ll see that there are probably around 80 sources cited. Originally, all of those citations were in APA style because the decision to submit it to College & Research Libraries, which uses Chicago style, came later in the process. Before submitting it for review, I had to convert all 80 or so citations to Chicago, a style I had never used before. And I had to do it by hand.

In short, FML.

While the submission guidelines for the journal are helpful in showing what they are looking for in terms of citation, I still stumbled on many questions along the way. Questions that I answered using Purdue OWL.

This is a story I tell students often. First, because it’s hilarious seeing their reactions to the idea of citing 80 sources when they are daunted by idea of citing 3-5. Second, because it shows that I’m recommending them tools that I use myself. And third, because I think it helps them to know that even as someone who’s required to do research and publish as part of my job, I don’t have all of the rules memorized and I probably never will. So it’s okay if they don’t either.

The change at Purdue OWL doesn’t prevent me from still being able to do this, obviously. But it’s just one more asterisk to affix to another on a rapidly diminishing list of learning resources that could be recommended without reservation.


Studies of research: Reporting in the “Post-Truth” Era

I’ve mentioned before that one of the cool things about the study of research is that it’s already out there, in so many forms and in so many fields (not just library and information science!), even if that’s not what the researchers doing this work would necessarily call it. I saw a lot of examples of this at the ACRL 2019 Conference and I wanted to spend some time here taking a closer look at a few of them.

So let’s take a closer look at “Reporting in the ‘Post-Truth’ Era: Uncovering the Research Behaviors of Journalism Students, Practitioners, and Faculty” by Katherine E. Boss et al.

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Why I make changes to what I teach

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Once upon a time, I was invited to speak in front of a small group of librarians in my local area about the un-research project as part of their professional development day. As part of the presentation, I described the structure of the project itself, why I created it, and its various outcomes. At the end, there was plenty of time for questions. I had given this presentation before, so I thought I knew what kind of questions to expect. But the one in which my audience seemed most interested was one I had not anticipated.

I mentioned at the very beginning of the presentation that I am always making changes to what I teach, both big and small. I claimed that I had never taught the same thing the exact same way more than once or twice.

Apparently this was quite a shocking claim.

I think it was shocking for a couple of reasons. The first was a question of time. Like, how much time do you have to have on your hands to constantly be tinkering with what you teach? Interestingly, some recent research I conducted with a group of former colleagues on why academic librarians leave their jobs suggests that librarians tend to be overwhelmed by the number of job duties they are given. Often, whether our job descriptions reflect it or not, we’re asked to do the work of ten people. No wonder spending time on a revision process for a standard information literacy course seems like such a luxury.

To be honest, I have no idea how the demands of my own job compare to that of others, but it might help to know that I usually save the bigger, more sweeping changes I want to make for the summer, when I have a longer period between classes and (theoretically) more time to plan.

The second reason it might have been so shocking is because there’s a lot of risk in change. Not only does it potentially take a lot of time to plan, but there’s no guarantee it will even work. And that could really screw up things like course evaluations (for a credit-bearing course) and assessment data. Plus, once you find something that’s comfortable and that works, why mess with it?

These are legitimate anxieties and certainly I have tried things that didn’t work. But making changes is still worth it to me.

Here are some thoughts on why

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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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Off for the holidays

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

I’m off for the holidays and won’t be posting any new content but I thought I’d pin a thing here highlighting some favorite past posts in case you missed them.

Thanks for reading and see you in the new year!

Teaching evaluating sources from a research-as-subject perspective

In my last post, I talked about how, like most instruction librarians, when I teach students how to evaluate information, I used to rely heavily on tools like the CRAAP test to help students through the process. In some cases, particularly one-shot sessions where there may not be time to teach students the nuances of this process, I still do. If nothing else, they are a handy way to help students learn that they should be thinking about the quality of the sources they are using. And they fit well on a handout.

The CRAAP test and similar tools were (arguably) a good fit for Standards-based teaching, where the evaluation of information was an explicit learning outcome. But even before we traded the Standards for the Framework, a lot of librarians were dissatisfied with these tools because they oversimplified the evaluation process. The CRAAP test in particular seemed to mostly only apply to internet sources, giving students the false impression that these were the only types of sources that needed to be evaluated. Plus, they didn’t stop students from just choosing whatever came up first in their list of search results, regardless of whether it was clearly biased or too old.

These criticisms are particularly true when you take into account the contextual nature of research, as the Framework does. Currency, for example, is important for some research topics, like those based on technology or science, but less so for others, like history and literature. And that’s just within academic and scholarly research. There are also likely to be differences in how information is evaluated in professional, creative, and scientific contexts as well.

While I don’t have much flexibility with one-shot sessions, I wanted to start thinking about how to adapt my usual lessons on evaluating information to also get students to think about the contextual nature of research. It turns out, it didn’t need much tweaking.

Here’s how the lesson works.

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