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.
Note: This post contains spoilers for the American, Brazilian, and French versions of The Circle on Netflix because somehow I’m still talking about that show even though everyone else either doesn’t seem to know it exists or is long since over it.
Until recently, there was an exercise that I liked to use in my credit-bearing information literacy course where I asked students to read a news article about an incident that occurred in 2010: a fourth grade history textbook that was being used in Virginia classroom was found to contain egregious historical errors. Interestingly, the big headline at the time wasn’t about how different students in different states might learn completely different stories about the history of their country. Instead, they all focused on criticizing the textbook’s author (who was not a historian) for using the internet as her main source of information.
Specifically, the textbook stated that many slaves fought on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War, a piece of information that is not supported by historical evidence but is promoted by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who created one of the internet sources that the author cites.
As part of the activity, I asked students to weigh in on who they thought bore the most responsibility for what happened: the textbook’s author for citing an inaccurate source, the publisher for publishing a book with inaccurate information, the school system for not properly vetting the book, or the Sons of Confederate Veterans for creating the misleading source in the first place. They were required to rank the choices from “most guilty” to “least guilty.”
The answers about who bears the most guilt changed a lot over time. For the first few years I taught this lesson, students generally placed the most blame on the author for doing her research on the internet. As doing your research on the internet become more acceptable, students shifted the blame to the school system for not properly vetting the book. Almost no one blames the publisher or the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
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.
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.
Between working from home and an upcoming sabbatical in the fall, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.
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.
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.
My sabbatical is only about a month away and my plans for it are starting to come more into focus. Of course, when I submitted my proposal a year ago, I had no way of knowing how much the world was going to change between then and now. So even as my overall plan has stayed the same, my vision of what my sabbatical will look like has had to change quite a bit and my feelings about it are a little more mixed than they might have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened or if the United States had gotten it under better control by now.
The truth is, this sabbatical was always going to bring with it things to be excited about and things that would be challenging. But there are a couple of items in each category that have been on my mind as the start date approaches.(1)
In writing recently about how to define research, I had a weird thought. For the purposes of my work, I like to describe research as a formal or informal process conducted in order to fill a gap in knowledge, build on existing knowledge, or create new knowledge.
The thought I had was about that “gap in knowledge” part. I actually thought this came from the ACRL Standards but it turns out that was a misconception of my part. The Standards skip over identifying the need for information altogether and instead locate the start of the research process as determining the extent of information needed. Which I guess makes sense since the Standards were mostly concerned with academic research, where an information need almost always comes in the form of a research assignment.
Wherever I originally got it from, I noticed recently that “knowledge gap” is something that comes up a lot in the scholarly literature on curiosity. Basically, curiosity is when you feel compelled to fill a gap in your knowledge with information. The question among curiosity researchers seems to be how big the gap needs to be or how great the desire for knowledge needs to be before someone will actually go to the trouble of seeking information to fill it.
What’s interesting about this is curiosity researchers are pretty clear that “knowledge gap” refers to your own personal knowledge. There’s something you don’t know that you want to know, so you seek information about it. This is also what I was thinking of when I inserted the language about filling a gap in knowledge in my definition of research and it’s a big part of what makes me think that curiosity plays an important role in the research process that we don’t often talk about in information literacy.
But in information literacy, we do talk about gaps in knowledge. What I’ve started wondering lately is what gaps in knowledge we’re talking about: gaps in personal knowledge or gaps in fields of knowledge?
I always thought it was the first one but that might be another misconception on my part. Maybe this whole time we’ve been talking about gaps in a field of knowledge. Rather, gaps in the literature in a field of knowledge.
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.