Full disclosure: I’ve been doing information literacy since 1985 and have taught credit infolit courses for more than 3 decades. I’ve done countless one-shots and have prepared dozens of tutorials. Having written more than 85 Online Searcher columns, several books, and numerous articles, my track record as an information literacy champion seems unassailable.
Thus, my bias is to keep information literacy going regardless of the strikes against it. Need I name the challenges? After the original coining of the information literacy label by Paul Zurkowski in 1974, we should have seen major developments in infolit implementation. But most of us are still doing one-shots and those only at the request of often-reluctant professors. Our average output is one infolit session per student per that student’s entire program. Academia still sees us as peripheral and relatively unimportant. Our literature is in a silo separated from higher-education scholarship.
It wouldn’t be unusual for us to get discouraged. As our information world gets crazier, higher education is not keeping up with the needs of our students to navigate (with skill) the dangerous territory in which they need to function. Doesn’t it pull at your heart when a student says, “I need to find this article,” but it’s a book? Don’t you feel a pang when a student asks how to cite a website that you know is not even pretending to be scholarly? Can’t you feel the pain of families in conflict over conflicting beliefs promoted by disinformation hucksters?
ABORTING THE ENTERPRISE?
Should we give up on information literacy? Just let it go as a good idea that never got off the ground? Here are some reasons why we might consider abandoning the enterprise:
• We can’t get no respect.
This expression comes from an article I published years ago (“Can’t Get No Respect: Helping Faculty to Understand the Educational Power of Information Literacy.” The Reference Librarian, v. 43, no. 89/90: 2005, pp. 63–80). I’m not complaining here that the academic world is not giving us due honor. Honor is overrated. The real problem is that academia views us and our information literacy efforts as more or less irrelevant to the education of students.
Why is this the case? I’ve concluded that it’s because most faculty simply do not believe it is possible to teach students how to handle information well and to do effective research. Even if I’m wrong (I’m not), most students get through their programs without our intervention. So why bother with instruction? Sure, their research is a disappointment, but they somehow continue to pass. This puzzles me, because many of the student papers I see are middling to bad. I can only conclude that academia has dumbed down its expectations so that minimal work gets a B. There, I said it. Faculty expect almost nothing and have convinced themselves to lower the bar. You can’t just fail everyone.
Ask any faculty member, “Overall, how good is student research?” and you will get a frowny face. Faculty know it’s bad, but if no one can teach this stuff, you have to expect inferior work. Librarians know that we can indeed teach this stuff, but we are not being believed.
• We can’t do enough with what we have.
I would never want to denigrate the many of us who spend most of each semester teaching one-shots. We are doing what we can, and there certainly are successes. But we know it’s not enough. We lack the opportunity to spend time with each student in instruction. Even if we were granted the time, there are not enough of us on the ground to do the job. Burning out the whole information literacy instruction workforce is clearly a bad idea.
The ongoing frustration of never having enough time to do the job can be terribly wearing. Are we actually doing any good? Are we really creating better researchers? Maybe we should try to hire an army of librarians and set them on our students, but we don’t have the funding, the librarians, or the permission of faculty to interact with their students in a deeper way.
• Our students really don’t need information literacy instruction.
I hesitate even to respond to this one because it is so tragically wrong. Anecdotally, pretty much all librarians know that students desperately need help. Their information skills are far below what they must be. Scholarly research on students confirms this. (If you want a bibliography, I can send you one.)
• There’s no point beating a dead horse.
If we haven’t advanced much after all these years, maybe the whole idea is dead or at least marginal. Our resources could be diverted elsewhere into more reference service or more research guides and tutorials. There is nothing more tragic than a small group of academics spending their lives doing something that has no value to the rest of academia. Maybe infolit just needs a decent burial.
It isn’t my intention to depress you, but we have to be realistic: Information literacy instruction is not doing nearly as well as most of us hoped it would. That said, I believe that giving up on information literacy is the worst possible way to go. Here are my three reasons:
• Information literacy is the way out of information chaos.
A lot of us are disturbed by the information craziness out there and the ways people buy into bizarre ideas almost effortlessly. What are they thinking? Are they thinking at all? I contend that the problem lies not in the crazy ideas or even with those who believe the crazy ideas. The problem is that many people’s input filter is underdeveloped, and the lock that holds their beliefs captive is overdeveloped.
Let me give you an example. In my region, someone at an anti-vax rally said that they had heard a local hospital was experiencing a rash of stillbirths in mothers who had been vaccinated. A lot of people bought into this and started spreading the “news” everywhere. Even when the hospital released statistics showing that there had been no increase in stillbirths, the belief that there was an increase continued, because it was locked into the minds of its believers. It’s like a valve that offers no resistance to water entering but blocks it from leaving.
Information literacy, if taught broadly as a critical information-handling ability, can build the strength of the information input filter. It teaches people to say, “Wait a minute. Where’s the data on this? How do you know it’s true?” Information literacy is a critical-thinking tool to ensure that we live evidence-based lives. It’s a way of teaching us to seek accuracy over rumor. When students learn how to investigate ideas, seek out the scholarly conversation, and rigorously evaluate evidence, they are far less likely to believe that vaccinations cause stillbirths. They are also more likely to give up false beliefs when the evidence tells them to.
• Information literacy is foundational to education.
The old idea that education is primarily just the acquisition of knowledge came from a time when few people had access to knowledge sources. Universities arose in an era in which information was costly or poorly distributed, so professors were essential broadcasters of the knowledge needed to become an educated person. The rise of the internet and of relatively easy access to scholarly literature via the web has given academia a tremendous opportunity to move beyond mere knowledge dissemination. We see this in examples such as the flipped classroom, which opens up instruction time for discussion of the big issues and challenging controversies.
In this new era, information literacy should be foundational, because it provides students with the tools to enter and thrive in the scholarly discourse. Academia needs to grasp the reality that process issues are foundational. How do I formulate a problem statement that articulates the issue I want to address? How do I design my research to acquire the knowledge I need to use as a tool to resolve my issue? How do I evaluate that information for quality and relevance? How do I use my growing knowledge to weigh the options and make an advance in our collective knowledge?
The fact that academia is not, for the most part, teaching research process skills in a determined way does not mean that information literacy is useless. It means that we need to push information literacy as foundational to the educational enterprise. It is the essence of training in critical thinking. Ultimately, an information-literate student is an educated student. A pot filled with knowledge but no information skills is uneducated.
• Information literacy keeps students in their programs.
A (big, hulking) graduate student appeared at my office door one morning. He looked upset and asked to talk to me, causing me a twinge of anxiety. He sat down and said, “I took your research course last year. If I hadn’t, I would have dropped out by the end of my first semester. Your course saved me.” His eyes suddenly filled with tears. “You tell those first-year students,” he said, “that they need to take your course.”
I know that students drop out for any number of reasons: finances, life experiences, and so on. But I wonder how many of them leave us just because they’ve become overwhelmed by research assignments that they don’t know how to complete, thus deciding that higher ed is not for them. Every course with a paper or project in it becomes one more nail in the coffin of their higher-education aspirations.
Do we want to keep our students? Give them the tools to thrive in our chaotic and challenging information landscape? Help them understand how to move from problem to resolution?
Maybe we should just kill research projects. We could, if there was anything else that so consistently fosters the development of critical thinking using information and evidence. I’m not opposed to other kinds of projects as long as they teach the same skills. But to drop all research requirements in order to keep students enrolled simply produces uneducated students. Instead, we need to give them the skills to be information literate.