Framing Information Literacy: Searching as Strategic Exploration

In February of this year, ACRL filed the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (hereafter, the Framework). Consisting of six frames, the document discusses the core concepts of information literacy, and reformats them from the previously used, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (hereafter, Standards). No longer a detailed, prescriptive list of outcomes, we now have more guiding theoretical principles, and a larger focus on life-long learning. It is less skill-based and more value-based.

I have struggled with wrapping my head around the Framework for a while, not because I dislike it, but rather because the concepts of frames, threshholds concepts, knowledge practices, and dispositions were all completely foreign to me prior to encountering the Framework. I have had formal and informal discussions with colleagues that seem to lead to breakthroughs in one moment, and then confuse again in the next. Perhaps one of the benefits and frustrations of ditching standards for frames is that there are not necessarily hard-and-fast rules for measuring information literacy, and the Framework recognizes how context-specific information searching, finding, analyzing, and sharing is.

The code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules.

-Captain Barbosa, explaining the Framework.

Next month, however, I will be doing a short lightning talk about teaching discovery systems within the context of the new Framework, so I figure I had better start digging in and getting my hands dirty. I am going to start with the frame I have chosen to structure my talk: Searching as Strategic Exploration. Within the Framework, it is explained as follows: “Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.”

What I like about this frame is the characterization of searching as “nonlinear” and “iterative.” When I teach, I often teach students to “develop a search strategy” and understand the research process, and I like this focus on research not being a process that looks like this:

Research Linear

And more of a process that looks like this:

Research Messy

And probably a lot messier than this.

Because the truth is, all parts of the research process influence each other, and all part of a person’s writing process influences that person’s research needs, so to think that we can teach one, linear, “correct” way of doing research is a bit arrogant. And I think the Framework, and this frame in particular, really responds to a more 21st century approach to teaching and research. For me, it has also opened my mind to reject the notion that one can master information literacy and become “information literate.” We’re not working toward the end of that linear process, right? Instead, we’re developing habits of mind, “knowledge practices,” if you will, that reflect increasing awareness of the complexity of what it means to search for information.

The other part of this frame that struck me is the use of the word strategic. Searching is strategic and a good strategist recognizes that the best way to get tripped up to do the exact same thing every time, regardless of the circumstances. To throw in a pop culture reference: in Catching Fire, the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss mistakenly thinks going into the games the second time that she and Peeta will follow the same strategy they used before: ignore the other competitors, trust no one else, and take no allies. But Haymitch realizes that strategy won’t work the second time around, because the circumstances have changed. In his words: “I want you guys to forget everything you think you know about the games. Last year was child’s play. This year, you’re dealing with all experienced killers.” If you’ve read the series, you know that Haymitch is the big thinker, the planner. He’s been around the games long enough, and knows how they work. And he knows that the fastest way to end up dead is to not adapt to the changes in their circumstances. So while Katniss and Peeta understand the kill-or-be-killed strategy of the arena, Haymitch understands the games as a larger, more complex system than simply what happens after the gong sounds. Throughout the books (and the movies….) he is constantly reminding Katniss that this is bigger than her, bigger than District 12, bigger than each individual part of the machine.

This is what we want students to begin to open their minds to. This system of information is bigger than they’ve ever considered. It is not as simple as teaching them how to click through the library website until they get to a database, plug in the “correct” key words, and find a scholarly article. It’s not about the individual steps in the process, it’s about grasping the bigger picture, and beginning to think like Haymitch: responding to the context with the tools you have at your disposal. Part of that may be skills-based, yes, because students have to be aware of the tools available. What this Framework puts into perspective, however, is that knowing how to get to a library database is useless if one does not how to think critically about their research context.

Research is nonlinear. It is iterative. To be successful, students have to be flexible and responsive. It is not enough to jot down some key words and, if unsuccessful, give up and assume there’s nothing out there on their topic. They have to begin to ask themselves: So that one way I approached this problem failed. How can I respond to this to be more successful next time?

Let us all wish each other luck. 🙂

From the writing teacher’s desk . . . Part 1.

*Part one in what should become an ongoing series discussing how my experiences as a writing instructor shape not just my teaching of information literacy, but also how I approach every aspect of my job.*

In my previous life, I taught composition to first-year college students. For three years I lived the unglamorous life of the adjunct instructor, teaching at times across three different colleges and universities. While it was stressful and maddening and at times disheartening, I am grateful now for the experiences I had, the lessons I learned, and the insight it has given me into the intersections of teaching writing and research. And it was the librarians who visited my classes in their one-shot sessions who inspired my transition from teaching faculty to librarian. In the liaison work I do now with teaching faculty and non-academic campus units, I try to always keep in mind what it was like on the other side of these partnerships, and what I wish I knew then.

First, it is not uncommon for teaching faculty or campus units (I am thinking in particular of Residence Life and other large campus constituencies that are not directly integrated into curriculum) to be completely unaware of what the library and librarians can offer. Despite our best efforts at marketing or promoting services, many of the groups we want to reach have so many other demands on their attention, that the library becomes something taken for granted. And I don’t think this is untrue of teaching faculty as well, especially those new to the job. When I first began teaching writing, my colleagues, full- and part-time alike, recommended having a librarian come to my class or taking my class to the library when it came time for research papers. In a few cases, the program required at least one library/librarian visit a semester. But few, if any, could fully articulate why this was important, or what I should expect to come from these sessions. All I knew was that librarians would come to my class and teach my students how to find articles in the databases. I would request sessions, and the librarians would come, and what they did was, for me and my students, completely removed from the context of the class. I did not know enough about information literacy myself to start a conversation about how to better embed the valuable concepts, ideas, and processes into my own curriculum.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school for my MLS that I began to unravel the interwoven nature of the writing and research processes and see how imperative it was for students to learn these two literacies side-by-side. After all, it is impossible to write without having something to say. And in order to have something to say, students have to do research. The biggest problem I see at the intersection of these two literacies is that students see research as a single step in the writing process that goes something like this: 1. Choose a topic. 2. Write a thesis statement. 3. Write an outline (maybe–far too few students use outlines). 4. Write a draft. 5. Find sources to support each paragraph. 6. Add quotes, paraphrases, summaries (when they know how to distinguish between the three and when to use each one). 7. Write a bibliography. 8. Revise (maybe–again, far too few students actually revise beyond correcting grammar and punctuation).

I did this myself as a student. I would spend hours, days, weeks, procrastinating on papers because I did not know what to write about, and thought I couldn’t do my research until I had at least a partial draft written. It never occurred to me, and I was never taught, that doing research could be part of the process of discovering what to write about. When I started doing higher level research for graduate school, this began to change, but my old habits persisted. When I started teaching, this mindset shifted more, but I had no idea how to guide my students along this path. And I had no idea that I should—or even that I could—ask librarians for help. I was desperately ignorant and believed that the only thing they would do was come to my class and show them how to point and click in a database. For three years, I grossly underserved my students, and under-recognized the valuable resource librarians were to the process of teaching and learning to write.

Now, I cannot claim that all writing faculty are as ignorant of this as I was. But I can say that in my TA days and in the pool of adjuncts I knew, I was not the only one. Adjuncts and part-time faculty tend to be, by nature of their part-time-ness, less supported by the universities and colleges they serve. I was never asked or required to participate in new faculty orientation. I was never given details of campus resources that might help me or my students. I was given a course number and name, a class time, sometimes a syllabus I had to teach from (with no context), sometimes only the catalog blurb from which to design a course, and a room assignment. Maybe an office in which to meet my students and hold office hours, but in one case I had to provide my own office furniture. And that includes lighting–one didn’t have any overhead lighting and was in a basement. Without dollar store lamps, I would have been conferencing in the dark. I shudder to admit this, but one school where I taught online courses, and I couldn’t have even told my students how to find the physical library in my first semester. I was never on campus to learn. So of course I couldn’t point them to the resources they may need. (Note: They were not distance students–most of them could easily access the main campus library.)

Is it any wonder these teachers are unaware of what the library and what librarians can offer them? I was hardly aware of anything that went on outside of my class times and office hours. I share these details because I think it is important for librarians to not assume that everyone has heard us, that everyone knows what we offer, and that without concerted effort, word will get around to faculty. I currently work with a revolving roster of TAs, and have to remind myself that I am not nagging, repeating, or annoying [everyone, at least]. For each full-time instructor I reach with my presentations, emails, and reminders who has heard it a million times, I am reaching 3-4 TAs or new faculty who haven’t. That’s worth it to me.

Librarian, Teacher, Writer

I thought I’d start the festivities by sharing a bit about myself, what I do, what I like. Some of the stuff you can’t get from a CV or cover letter.

To start, I am a librarian. An instruction librarian, to be more precise. Which means, as I explain to my mother, that I teach people how to do research. I currently work at a university, and I absolutely love it. I knew the day I started college (back in August 2003) that if I could, I would never leave. The first question my mother-in-law asked me when I finished my MLS was, “So what’s your next degree?” We all had a good laugh, but the MLS was my second graduate degree. And if I’m honest, I would love for it to not be my last. For now, though, I am happy to be working at a large university, teaching classes, and working at the reference desk.

But all of that you probably could have surmised from my CV or cover letter. So what else is there? I find it strange that the standard answer to the question, “Who are you?” is to state one’s profession. Is a librarian who I am? Or it is merely what I do? In some cases, for those fortunate enough to do what they love for a living, I can reasonably believe that one’s profession is both who you are what you do. For me, I would argue that the “librarian” label is only part of who am.

So who am I? I’m a walking mess of contradictions, likes and dislikes, and confusing feelings, like most people. I adore my dog above all things (which my husband, bless his heart, can confirm); I love winter and food and my family; I took up cross-stitching in college and still love it. I once won a Scrabble tournament. There’s a Harry Potter poster on my office wall, and my only regret is I don’t have a Hunger Games poster next to it. But I do have an Avengers poster, so my geek label is firmly intact.

Most days, I tell myself I’m a writer, even though I’ve accomplished very little sustained writing in my life. I have as many as five partial novels saved at any point in time, bad teenage poetry in sticker-decorated notebooks, and this is probably the 5th blog I have started in my life time. (I’ll just go ahead and not count my Xanga from HS, okay?)

But, really, who am I? Just a litany of preferences? A summary of all of my experiences? I am not sure I have, or will ever have, an adequate response to that question. But here is the gist of what you may want to know about me and this blog:

I am passionate about education. I believe, with every fiber of whoever I am, that education is vital to individuals and to society. I also believe that education comes in many forms–so know that I am not only talking about a 4-year, college degree. And of the various skills or ideas that people can take away from education, I believe that information literacy is at the top of that list. There are critical habits of thinking and acting that information literate individuals engage in which go far beyond teaching students how to find an article in a database or how to Google more effectively.

With this blog, I plan to write about issues that matter to me. Trends in librarianship, trends in higher education, books that I have read or articles I recommend. There will probably also be entries popping up about things going on in my life, personal and professional, but I will always try to relate things back to my main foci: education and librarianship. Still want to take this crazy ride with me? You have been warned.