Is Information Enough?

Tomorrow I’m flying to Orlando to attend ALA Annual. I’m participating on a panel with some brilliant people, and I’m really excited to see some old friends, but I’m also having a hard time reconciling how I feel about the whole endeavor. I know that several of my colleagues requested this conference be relocated in the aftermath of the killing of Trayvon Martin, and more recent responses from ALA and its affiliates addressing still more targeted violence have left me wondering how much I want to be a part of this meeting, at this time, in this place.

The truth is that I want things to change, and in the wake of the shooting at Pulse, I’ve been crushed by the routine. The shock, followed by grief, followed by finger pointing, followed by inaction, and on and on. I don’t have anything insightful to add to the discussion around gun control or racial profiling or hate crimes that hasn’t already been voiced in the news and shared on social media, and I won’t go off on how there are creepy echos of a lot of bad ideas showing up in our national discourse. I’m very frustrated and confused about a lot of things right now, but I’m damn near certain that I’m not going to change anybody’s mind on these topics with a blog, so I’d just as soon not go down that road.

The thing I did want to write about, though, is the role “information” plays in these discussions. If you’ve followed the debate around this shooting, or any of the dozens of other shootings, then you might have noticed how nearly every side is claiming some sort of data or information to substantiate their calls for action (or inaction). And in many cases, the collection of still more information is hailed as the solution, such as the push to allow the CDC to research the effects of gun violence, or for the federal government to develop the database of gun owners that is currently prohibited by law, or to expand the FBI’s program of secret surveillance.

As a person who talks a lot about “information literacy,” this is an interesting situation to observe. There isn’t a shortage of information being exchanged right now, and yet it doesn’t seem like many minds are changing. Which leads me to wonder—is more information really going to improve the situation? I know Congress’s intransigence isn’t the most accurate measurement of the country’s sentiments, but I was still disheartened by the same tired arguments that were voiced as the votes were tallied on Monday. Awash in another round of testimony from the public, things more or less split the way they have for the last two decades, and there was minimal discussion of who was actually targeted in this attack, with “Orlando” being presented as the victim, rather than people of color in the LGBTQIA+ community.

So what can I do as a librarian interested in changing things? As someone who has access to information that can answer my questions, and the means to teach other people about that process, what should I do in these moments?

Most of the time, I’ve learned the importance of shutting up. As I mentioned, this was an attack focused on the Latinx community, and the last thing the world needs is the perspective of another cis-het white guy rambling on about what we should really do. So the role I’ve been happy to play in this, and other tragically similar events, is to listen and amplify. Listen to the people whose lives are threatened, whose existence is questioned, and share their stories with people who otherwise might not hear them. Use my privilege to connect People Like Me with information from outside their bubble. Hope that I can help provide them with a means of finding answers to their questions.

But the past ten days have solidified my suspicion that information is not enough. It’s not like we have many doubts about how many people get shot in this country, and we’re pretty clear on the fact that racism and bigotry are still happening. And yet the outpouring on social media and in public has run into the same ramparts of prejudice and denial.

Frankly, these are some of the same concerns I wrote about a couple of years ago, coming back up again. But this is also a little bit different. In 2014 I wrote in the context of how frustrating it was that our society generally and librarians specifically didn’t have a shared understanding of what counts as “evidence.” This time around, we’re witnessing once again a national conversation around information, with people on all sides using it to support conflicting views of what should come next.

But at this point, we do know what comes next. What comes next is that something like 30,000 information professionals are going to descend on a city where a lot of people were murdered last week. In the middle of a national debate about “getting the facts,” a bunch of us are coming together to talk about organizing and ensuring access to information. The whole country is paying attention and looking for answers, and we’re the people who often help them in that role.

So instead of just talking about how we do our jobs, I want us to talk a lot more about why we do them.

The conference that is about to begin is our chance to talk about the “why” that lives at the heart of librarianship. If our profession claims to be about equity and inclusivity and justice, then we can’t go into this claiming neutrality or an apolitical position. This isn’t a time to let things play out “naturally.” We need to talk to each other about why we feel frustrated or angry or sick or confused, and then we need to talk about what we’re going to do about it. More than that, we need to listen. We need to listen to our colleagues whose backgrounds our profession has marginalized, and we need to listen to the city and its communities who are hosting us.

I’d like for all of us to look for how each session, each conversation, relates back to what happened at Pulse, and how we can make things better. And if we’re taking part in sessions that we cannot relate back to this event, we need to ask why that is, too. Honestly, I’ve spent the last few days trying to think of a part of librarianship that doesn’t intersect with what happened that night, and I haven’t been able to come up with something—an observation that’s both affirming and challenging. Affirming in that this profession is so ingrained in the culture, and challenging in that we really do need to do something.

For my part, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be “authentic” in the classroom, and how I talk about “authoritative” information. I’m thinking a lot about how I see students, and how I want to do better by them. And mostly, I’m wondering if talking about “information” in the abstract is worth anyone’s time. I’ve been optimistic that more information will help us take better actions, but the last ten days have tested that. Still, I’m hoping that there will be a few more answers in Orlando.

With that, safe travels for those who are making the trip, and happy summer to those who are staying home. This has been a lot to consider, but I’m glad to know I have so many friends in this profession, many of whom I’ll see this week.

Locations and Residents

I wrote this entry as part of the December 15, 2015 CritLib chat about #feelings.

The first time I ever used the #critlib hashtag, I was sitting on a bench in the Park Blocks at Portland State University. It was the second day of Library Instruction West, and I was getting ready to give a presentation that I had been agonizing over for the past year. I had practiced it twice the night before and twice that morning, but was still feeling that gross mixture of excitement and dread that comes to me in the moments leading up to a presentation. So I skipped breakfast and was nervously pacing up and down the street, pausing every few minutes to check my phone and run through my slides.

I think my vulnerability in that moment is why I worked up the nerve to use the hashtag. I know that reads rather absurdly—working up the nerve to tweet something?—but for me, the CritLib chats were something of which I was in awe. I had followed them for a month or two prior to that conference, but I had only lurked. I didn’t feel qualified, or even allowed, to join in. Yes, I cared a lot about the issues they were discussing, and had things I wanted to share, but I felt like I would be crashing a party. Plus, there were people in the chats who had written whole books about some of these issues. Who was I to say something?

But in that moment of anxiety leading up to my presentation, I decided that if I was going to talk about these ideas in front of an audience, and do so in a personal way, I might as well do the same thing online. If it turned out to be a disaster, sobeit, but I wanted to at least try to be part of that conversation, and do it in a way which felt authentic to me.

So I sat down on that bench and tweeted a link to my slides, along with the hashtag. It wasn’t during a chat, and I wasn’t expecting a response, but I figured someone might see it in a few days and maybe take note.

But then, a minute or two later, a funny thing happened. A star appeared on my phone. “Donna Witek favorited your Tweet.”

At that point, I had never met Donna, and mostly knew her through her work on metaliteracy. But she was also in those early CritLib chats, and was one of those “I am in awe of this person” people for me. (She still is.) That star meant that Donna was looking at this thing I had worked on… and if she was looking at it, that meant others would too…

Very quickly, a new layer of excitement and dread came over me.

Although I had published and presented before that day, in a lot of ways that presentation marked my beginning as a critical librarian. I had read some things and thought some things before then, but that presentation was the first time I went on the record and said what I really felt about my work and my profession. I believed in what I was saying, and that somehow made it all the more terrifying.

That was also the day that I realized the work I was doing was connected to the work of other people. Not anonymous names on articles I was citing, but actual people with personalities and feelings and quirks—all of those things that scholarly publishing seems to strip away. That presentation, and the subsequent response from the people in the room, let me know I wasn’t alone in thinking some parts of our profession didn’t add up, and other parts were actively doing harm. That day was when I started to realize that there were other people like me.

It’s now clear to me that while that day was important for my development as a librarian, I got something wrong. My feeling at the time, which stuck with me for the next year or so, was that CritLib was a group. Not that it had formal membership, but it was definitely a collection of people with roughly similar ideas. The more I interacted with them online, and the more I participated in the chats, the more I thought that I was a part of that group. It was very much a feeling of “these are my people.”

As time has gone on, I’ve come to see things differently. Mostly that if CritLib is a group, that means there’s a price of admission, or some other means of establishing residency. I really don’t like that idea. I want these discussions to be open, but I know my assumptions about people who join the chats—what they think, what they’ve read, what they find funny—make that much more difficult. I need to stop assuming everyone agrees with me, or is comfortable saying these things openly, or is privileged with a situation where they can put them into practice. I fully accept that making these assumptions is my problem, and that I need to do better in the future. I hope my friends will help me through it.

So if CritLib isn’t a group, what is it? That’s the question I’ve mulled for the last few months. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to see this thing we have as a location. It’s an open place we can go to have discussions about topics that we find important and challenging. A place to compare notes, find inspiration, disagree with each other, and figure out how things could get better. Overall, that is a very positive and open idea, and one that I support.

My concern, however, is that this location has occasionally become an echo chamber, where we all talk around each other and feel self-important, but never break through to engage what’s around us. I suspect this situation is what prompted at least of a few of the criticisms that CritLib is exclusive, intimidating, or obnoxious. Many of these critiques have been spot on, and I am so thankful for those who voiced them for knocking me out of my daze. They made me question why I took part in these discussions in the first place, and why I felt so at home with the people who participated.

So why do I do continue to do this? Why am I critical librarian? What am I getting out of these discussions?

I think the answer to all three is that I like to be respectfully challenged by my peers, and to respectfully challenge them back. I increasingly find that disagreements in the discussions bring about much deeper learning for myself, and I hope that sentiment is shared by others. We shouldn’t strive for a unified front or monolithic theory, other than “things need to get better,” and CritLib can be one place for us to talk and disagree about where and how that progress takes place. It also invites those outside of the chats to recognize these ideas and critique them, even if they do so indirectly. I think that helps make us all better.

And at the end of the day, that’s what critical practice is all about, right? Questioning and disagreeing, but still trying to make it better?

Snake People, Dear Reader

I started a new job last month. Making the change has brought with it a lot of fun and a lot of challenges, and while I’m still learning the ropes and figuring out my new role, I wanted to write at least a little bit about the transition and adapting to a new organization. I hope to write more in the next week or two, but I wanted to start with a weird thing I noticed…

As part of my onboarding process in this position, I attended new faculty orientation last week, spending a couple of days with a few dozen of my new peers from across campus, talking about our work and what we can expect of our new university. By and large, it was a really positive experience, and one that reinforced my suspicion that the chaos of uprooting my family and moving across the state has been worth the effort. It was a good move to make, and this new position will give me the chance to have new experiences and challenge a lot of my assumptions about the nature of my work. It is going to be fun.

Still, amidst all of the excitement of orientation discussions and campus initiatives, there was an odd undercurrent in the presentations that I wasn’t expecting. It’s something I’ve encountered in higher education before, but it’s not really a big part of my thinking as a librarian/teacher/person. And yet, there it was, showing up again and again.

“Millennials.”

At this point, at least some of the people reading this think I’m writing about snake people, thanks to this brilliant Chrome extension. For those that aren’t using that extension, I’ll be using the term “millennial” interchangeably with “snake people”- this way we can all join in the fun of realizing the absurdity of generalizations and labels.

I’ll admit, I didn’t fully appreciate the absurdity of that Chrome extension until last week, as I sat in those orientation sessions. The discussions about “people of a certain age” was jarring. What do they expect from faculty? How do they approach their schoolwork? How do they behave in class? What does it mean to teach these millennials? Who are these snake people?

The reason I found it jarring is because, well, I am a millennial. I am a snake person. I am, apparently, some kind of anomaly. I prefer public transportation. I compulsively check my phone. I will likely never own a home. I don’t eat meat. I have the attention span of a hummingbird. There are a million other characteristics which I embody which apparently make me of this time, but I don’t want to dig into that too much. (I’ll leave that to the Beloit List, which… guh…)

Instead, I wanted to reflect on how negative some of the generalizations I heard were. Rather than blanket allegations of narcissism to which I’ve become accustomed (insert joke about selfie sticks), I was told that “kids these days” are cheating and plagiarizing in record numbers. That, for some reason, they require more than rote lectures and scantron assessments. That they are needy in the classroom, “demanding to know what the point of the class is…” (like that’s an outrageous request?!).

I guess I was really thrown by the fact that these generalizations, and the discussions around them, were informed by two false assumptions. The first is that millennials weren’t in the room. (Hi! I’m in the room! Please tell me more about my insufficient academic integrity while you use photos in your slidedeck without attribution!) The second was that our students are all of a specific age. (you know? < barf >“traditional students”< /barf >).

Beyond the falsity of these assumptions, this kind of labeling strikes me as incredibly dangerous when conceptualizing pedagogies and curricula. I say it’s dangerous because it becomes a means through which students are made into “others.” Perceived shifts in student demographics, and the stereotypes attached to the people in those groups, become hurdles that prevent us from perpetuating a “traditional” curriculum. It’s a nostalgia which privileges “the way things used to be,” conflating that with “the way things should be,” and ignoring “the way things are.” More than that, there’s no room to consider “the way things could be.”

In practice, these assumptions lead to the view that snake people are coming in with a deficit, and that this deficit must be filled if they are to be on par with their peers from years past. They are viewed as being “outside,” and it is our job to give them directions for getting over the wall (the wall that we built, by the way). I guess this bugs me so much because I’m genuinely excited about where and when I am right now. There are more people on college campuses bringing with them more unique sets of lived experiences than at any other time in our history. Shouldn’t that be something to embrace, rather than fear? Doesn’t that mean we can have conversations that would have been impossible in the past?

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m a person of intersectional privilege, and I could think of nothing more boring than talking to a bunch of people like me.

I wonder if that’s a snake person trait?

The Conundrum of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.

I rode the bus in elementary school. (Middle school and high school, too, but this is about me in elementary school.) At the end of the day, if the buses were late in arriving, all of the students who rode the bus would be gathered together in a large room and watched over by a couple of teachers. Because putting several dozen elementary schoolers together in a room can get out of hand quickly, the teachers were smart to come up with an activity to keep us focused: trivia. They would break out cards with trivia questions and split us into teams and have us raise our hands to answer questions. It was a lot of fun.

The reason I mention this setting is because it was there that I first learned about Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.

I was in fifth grade, and the teacher asked the question “what started the Great Chicago Fire?” I didn’t know the answer, but I remember someone else in my class answered “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow!” and got the point for their team. I thought it weird that a cow could start a fire, but I went with it and was summarily indoctrinated into the myth of the cow and the fire. From that point on, when asked “what started the Great Chicago Fire?”, I would know that it was “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.”

Fifteen years later, I was having a conversation at work with a friend, and for some reason I can’t remember, the Great Chicago Fire came up. And I thought for a moment about waiting for the bus that day, and how odd it was that the answer was a cow, so I went upstairs and grabbed a book about it (I think it was Robert Cromie’s aptly named The Great Chicago Fire). As I recall, within a few pages, the book made it clear that the story of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow was indeed a fabrication, and that the real cause of the fire was unknown. I mean, there was a bunch of analysis and discussion of likely causes, along with maps and first-hand accounts, but at the end of the day, the book made it pretty clear that it was impossible to say “X started the fire.”

The realization that the cause was unknown was, for me, a revelation. Not because I was particularly invested in the fire or the story of the cow, but because I realized that now, after reading this book, I knew as much about what started the fire as I did when the teacher asked that trivia question in fifth grade. I received information that it was the cow, then received more information that it wasn’t.

Put another way, my knowledge of the subject could be graphed like a hill: I came in with no knowledge of the cause, then ascended to know it was the cow, then descended to once again have no knowledge of the cause. It was a case of more information leading to no discernible gain in understanding.

Line graph of knowledge increasing, then decreasing, with more information.

I know this is a silly example, but it gets to the core of epistemology and my work as a teaching librarian. A big part of my job is meeting and speaking with students who are new to college, trying to help them feel “at home” within a higher education system that isn’t always welcoming. That often means introducing students to concepts they’ve not previously encountered. And as I do that work, I find that I’m put in a spot where I pitch things as “the truth” when I know them not to be entirely true. Not because I’m purposefully lying to students, but rather, I feel like I should introduce these cultural touchstones, these “myths,” so students have a better understanding of what’s going on. So they feel at least a bit more comfortable at school. In the back of my mind, though, I also know that these myths need to be dismantled. But how? And when?

Here’s a library example…

“Peer-Reviewed Literature.” “Scholarly Sources.” “Academic Discourse”. Whatever you want to call it, a big part of research in the context of higher education relies on this kind of information. Regardless of academic discipline, students will more than likely run into scholarly research on several occasions. What’s more, the vast majority of students have not interacted with this kind of information prior to arriving at college. For that reason, I think it’s my job to help them along with understanding what this research is, how it’s made, and why it’s valued in the academy.

Over the course of those discussions, I have found myself saying things like “this research is written by and for experts within their field…” and “peer-review is meant to guarantee that this research is accurate and reliable…” As a new teacher, I spouted off those lines as a form of mimicry. It’s what I was told as a student, and now I’m passing it along to them. In the last couple of years, though, I’ve come to recognize that I am, instead, perpetuating a myth. I know that peer-review has its flaws. I understand the limitations of academic research. I recognize how slow, and biased, and purposefully inaccessible it is. And yet, I still talk about it with first-year students in a largely positive light.

Why would I do that?

For me, it goes back to the cow. You have to know what the myth is in order to know that it’s wrong. Likewise, I feel like students need to be aware of these concepts, like the reverence for peer-review, before they are in a position to be critical of them. Put another way, they need to learn the rules before they can break them. To catch them in their first year and say outright “these are scholarly sources- they’re just as flawed as everything else…” doesn’t seem to me like it would really be in the students’ best interest.

Still, I struggle with this. When should we broach that subject? I mean, doesn’t it make sense to do it when they’re new to school? Should we really spend time perpetuating myths we know to be false? I’ve often wonder what I’m accomplishing if my desired outcome is for them to learn this thing, then unlearn it. Don’t they still end up at the bottom of the knowledge axis? What’s the point?

My best guess is that while “more information” does not always equal “more knowledge,” it can lead to “more confidence.” I don’t know what the least biased sources are. I don’t know what the “best” information looks like. But I am confident in my ignorance. I know enough to know that I don’t know what’s right. I do, however, know enough to know what’s wrong.

Line graph of confidence increasing with information, even as knowledge decreases.

I suppose that’s at the core of a critical consciousness. We have to have confidence before we can become critical, even if that confidence is tied to our ignorance. I would never want to tell first-year students “by the time you graduate, you won’t know anything more than you do right now,” but I am also fraught with anxiety that that might very well be the case. Information, and learning, are not always tied to knowledge. Moreover, “what we know” is subject to change and revision. Maybe cliches like “the more you learn, the less you know” will take care of that for me?

The real question is, at what point should we try to steer the discussion towards dismantling the myths of “academic research”? Again, I ask, should it be at the beginning? In the case of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow, I didn’t need to wait fifteen years to learn it was a lie, but I feel like I did need to live some more of my life and have some more experiences before I was prepared to say, with confidence, “I have no idea what started the fire…” Mostly because I needed to be ready to follow that declaration with “What started the fire isn’t important. What is important is what happened after that.” Likewise, it isn’t enough for students to be ready to say “Scholarly sources are good or bad sources of information.” They need to be ready to follow that with a “because…” They need to be ready to address all of the reasons that scholarly discourse is still useful, and all of the ways that it’s flawed. But they can only develop that context after they’ve been introduced to it, and applied it, and reflected on those experiences for themselves.

So this is where I am right now: trying to develop a pedagogy to introduce concepts, and hold them in esteem, while at the same time leaving enough room for these concepts to be reduced at a later point. And, while we’re at it, doing so in a way where the students’ won’t look back and ask why I lied to them.

In other words, the more I learn about teaching, the less I know about how to do it.

I love that.

M’aidez

The last six weeks have been a bit of a blur. Between ACRL, LOEX, and wrapping up the semester, I’ve mostly been focused on what was immediately in front of me, and haven’t had a chance to slow down and look around. Now that the academic year and my two big presentations are behind me, however, I’m starting to take stock on what worked, what didn’t, and where I want to go from here. I’m also thinking a lot about the profession, and likewise considering what’s working, what’s not, and what I hope might be coming next.

I have to admit, I’m more or less out to sea on the Framework. At the Critlib Unconference and ACRL, it seemed like it was everywhere- presentations, roundtables, conversations in the halls. We were all comparing notes on the frames and talking about next steps. To be sure, there was a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism, but it all seemed energetic. As I’ve struggled to find some common threads from my week in Portland, “energy” is one that became apparent early on. People were speaking passionately about things that mattered to them, and others were responding in kind.

The biggest question that I’ve had since then is “where did all of that energy go?” In the month-and-a-half since Portland, where all of these big ideas were addressed, it seems the ensuing response has been much more mechanistic. There has been an increasing push for “concrete examples” of what we should be doing in our practice, and I think a lot of what happened at LOEX reflected that sentiment. Several of the conversations dealt with either how the Framework could be directly implemented and assessed, or faulted the Framework for not including those guidelines in the first place.

To me, both of these developments are concerning. As I’ve written before, I firmly support the Framework for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it specifically does not prescribe what we should be doing in class. It challenges each of us to take from it what we will, and use that to shape our own practices. While I have spent the last year reworking my instruction program and rethinking my assessment plan, until recently I’ve been hesitant to share those specific with others because, frankly, what works for me on my campus likely won’t work for you on yours. Teaching and learning are relative endeavors, and I didn’t want to see the Framework concretized into standard activities that would be used all over the place.

What the last six weeks, especially the conversations at LOEX, made clear to me is how shortsighted I’ve been. Expecting individual librarians to change course and rework their classroom sessions is one thing, but when it comes to our programs, our campuses, and establishment higher education, there’s much more rigidity in play. It takes time to move them. A phrase that came up at the Critlib Unconference in connection with the Framework was “comfort with ambiguity”- the document requires us to be comfortable with there not always being “correct” answers. The more I’ve thought about it and worked through it, the more apparent it’s become that while individuals might be comfortable with ambiguity, our institutions are much less likely to embrace that approach.

So, with that in mind, I’m reframing (pun intended) my work and starting to think about how we could use the Framework to improve standardized practice. Not because I think practice should be standardized, but because the standardization is already taking place, and I’d much rather see these developments driven by thoughtful librarians than by vendors. We’ll need to not only take the Framework out and test it, but tell as many people as we can what we’ve found. Doing so will make us better in our classrooms, which is the important part, but it’ll also reveal to our institutions whether the Framework deserves the legitimacy to replace the Standards.

In all of this, though, I’m hoping that the work of implementing the Framework will carry with it the same energy I saw on display in Portland. Whether people support the document or have reservations, they at least care about what they’re doing, and that can’t be a bad thing. What I’m more concerned about is the possibility that we’ll claim we’ve incorporated these “big ideas” and improved our pedagogy, but in practice continue falling into the same tropes of one-shot sessions about “why scholarly sources are the best” or “what search skills are going to prepare you for the real world.” There needs to be a concerted effort to move our institutions forward, and that can only happen if we move our practice forward as well.