Do Better

Something happened at ACRL in Baltimore last week. A group of people were criticized, but they weren’t immediately aware of that criticism. The reason for that lack of awareness is that this criticism was taking place in a discourse community that these people don’t regularly occupy. They know it’s there–people have told them about it. But to be a part of this community means, in many cases, devoting a large amount of time and effort to learning its conventions. There’s jargon and shorthand language and a lot of “inside baseball” discussions. Even if you’re present, you might miss something because the community is so dense.

For that reason, this community feels very exclusionary. It takes time to break in, to make sense of it. Lots of people quit, or take extended breaks from it, because it can be so exhausting. Sometimes it’s toxic.

There have been lots of accusations hurled at the community in the last week, with special attention being paid to their language and demeanor. Visible members of this group shared their thoughts in a relatively public forum, and others wished they had done it better. I understand completely. There have subsequently been apologies and reconciliations, though there are also continuing discussions of the need to recognize the core issues at work here. Is this really who we are? Is this really the best we can do?

The discourse community I’m writing about is “scholars.” The group that was criticized was “students.”

I’m not going to highlight any specific presentation or event, but there were more than a few problematic sessions I attended in which college students (whom you might recall are adult human beings) were referred to as “kids.” There were some other names used, too. And I noticed presenters who used diminutive language to talk about students also tended to center “scholarly sources” as being the “best” or “right” sources to use. I have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that three years after our profession first began uttering the phrase “authority is constructed and contextual,” there are still instructors presenting formats as absolutes to students, yet here we are. There are issues in librarianship and we need to address them.

Luckily, people spoke up in the rooms when problems presented themselves. April Hathcock took to the microphone during Roxane Gay’s keynote to criticize our profession’s whiteness, and its propensity for filling spaces and centering white people. Zoe Fisher spoke to a panel about how their framing of “millennials” was problematic. Jessica Critten asked presenters if their support of Evidence Based Practice allowed for any critique of that epistemology. There were 3,500 librarians there, and we spent the week talking to each other. Of course there were also conversations taking place on social media during all of this, and many of those interactions have led to even more face-to-face moments that make the conference better.

Don’t believe me? Just look to what was maybe the best part of my week in Baltimore: seeing Sofia Leung, Jenny Ferretti, Annie Tang, and Kat Bell all ask questions of Carla Hayden. Their actions, which were the result of deliberate and effective organization, meant that we didn’t have a repeat of the whiteness that stifled the Roxane Gay Q&A. April’s influence and the subsequent actions of these four people made the conference better for all of us. They let the rest of us see what it looks like to Do The Work.

My point in all of this is that there’s still a lot work to be done when it comes to how academic librarians treat students. We need to raise awareness of problems, then follow through on correcting them. And as our discussions continue, I think we’d do well to follow the example set by April, Sofia, Jenny, Annie, and Kat–they pointed something out, got organized, then did something about it.

We can do better.

Wiretaps and CRAAP

It’s been four months since the election, and the rhetoric around “truth,” “facts,” and “fake news” doesn’t seem to be dissipating. I wrote about this a few months ago, though I’ve continued to be flummoxed when considering how to address these ideas with students in class, or in conversations with friends. Meanwhile the librarian profession has continued to congratulate itself and claim an expertise in addressing so-called “fake news,” which evidenced itself yet again in a recent article from the Huffington Post that discusses the CRAAP test.

For those of us who have been subjected to the absurdity that is one-shot library instruction, CRAAP is a frequently employed mnemonic for source evaluation, dealing with Currency, Relevance​, Accuracy, Authority, and Purpose. It’s a quick and easy checklist with a funny name, so it gets used in undergraduate classes all over the country by librarians who are short on time, but still want to encourage critical thinking around information.

That said, this kind of checklist solution falls so completely short of meeting the needs of our society right now. Why do I think that? Because CRAAP isn’t about critical thinking–it’s about oversimplified binaries. As students go down the list, they put their source into one of two boxes. The information is either “current” or not, “relevant” or not, and on and on until we get to the point of “fact” or not. And while that kind of simplification might help get us through a one-shot, it’s not going to apply in an authentic information seeking situation, where these ideas of “truth,” “fact,” or “reality” are much more nuanced and complicated.

How about an example? Let’s look at the Trump wiretap case that continues to fester. In his initial tweet, he states:

“Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”

This claim has subsequently been refuted by people in politics, media, and the government, though many others feel that it is a real story, and worth investigating. Which side is right? Who can we believe? To answer that question, let’s see if the tweet holds up to the rigor of CRAAP:

  • Currency: Trump mentions that he “just found out,” so the news is at least current to him. He also situates the event as taking place in 2016, during the campaign, which makes it germane to the current discussion.
  • Relevance: Amidst discussions of executive power overreach and meddling in the presidential election, this is highly relevant. Likewise, this is a primary source, coming directly from one of the people involved in the story.
  • Accuracy: This person receives daily intelligence briefings. Unfortunately these are classified, so we can’t easily corroborate them at this time, but we have to consider that he might very well have accurate information, leaving us with insufficient evidence to judge otherwise.
  • Authority: Beyond the daily intelligence briefings and team of advisors, he’s the President of the United States. His office imbues him with authority.
  • Purpose: He’s informing the public of misconduct executed by his predecessor. The country and the world have been following his election closely, and this revelation has the potential to fundamentally change our understanding of the Obama administration.

Based on this analysis, Trump’s tweet accusing Obama of wiretapping him is a “credible source,” and worth believing. Only thing is… I don’t believe it, and I know I’m not alone. So where does it leave us? What happens when there’s information that CRAAP says is “credible,” but we refuse to believe it?

It’s worth spending some time with that last question, because it calls into question the entire institution of “evaluating sources.” If we insist on oversimplifying, and employing binaries, we’re going to end up in situations where the evaluation says one thing, but we’ll continue to believe the other. I suspect our students end up in that place on a regular basis when we talk about “credibility” these days, though I also suspect these conflicts about information have always been there. And while they aren’t all necessarily politically charged, the current political climate has brought them to the fore.

So what’s next? It’s easy enough to say “don’t use CRAAP,” but how should we talk about these things in class?

For my part, I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about the concept of “authority.” Of all the factors considered within CRAAP, the idea that authority is a binary is especially galling. And with each escalation of Trump’s policies, the reinforcement of that binary becomes more and more dangerous.

Consider this statement from a member of Congress. While lambasting journalists and defending Trump, he says that it’s “[b]etter to get your news directly from the president. In fact, it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.” My interpretation of this sentiment is that the state would like to arbitrate what’s true or factual. They are positioning themselves in a binary in which it’s either coming from the government or else it’s fake. In this situation, librarians saying “anything that ends in .gov is reliable” are now complicit.

Instead of this approach, we need to wade into the messiness. We need to openly acknowledge that what we accept as “authoritative,” and subsequently “true,” is a very personal position. Call it a “bullshit detector” or “critical consciousness” or whatever, but our ability to evaluate information, and explain that process to others, has to involve recognizing that we, and the people with whom we interact, are whole human beings, each of us bringing a set of lived experiences that are unique. And those experiences, as much as anything, are going to drive what we accept as “real.”

All the checklists in the world aren’t going to change that.

The End of 2016

I’m writing this on my last workday of the year, so I thought I would look back on what 2016 meant for me personally and professionally. It’s all very odd–in a year I suspect will carry notoriety for the next several decades, I had a lot of successes. While the headlines seemed to go from bad, to worse, to all-out surreal, life and libraries kept going. I got into a pattern of waking up, reading the news, becoming terrified, then commuting to work and doing my job. I’d teach a class or two, go to some meetings, work on a few projects, then go home and yell or cry at the nightly news. It’s a weird mixture of privilege, numbness, and routine that marked this year, and I’m not quite sure what comes next. Still, I want to look back on the high points.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the nice things that happened in 2016:

  • After a rocky first year, I started to feel like I was making a difference at my job. We were able to move the needle on developing new curriculum, and we’ve begun consulting with faculty across campus to change some of their perceptions of what we can and should be doing as librarians. It’s been so much slower than I could have anticipated when I started here eighteen months ago, but we’re starting to build momentum, helped in no small part by some excellent hiring decisions this year. Next year will see two more faculty hires in my department, and I can’t wait to see what energy and ideas they bring with them.
  • I traveled to a lot of conferences, and was able to see and do remarkable things. I ate cactus with a bunch of critlib friends in Tucson. I gave a keynote presentation in San Francisco, then walked along Ocean Beach in Golden Gate Park. I stayed in a yurt just outside of Moab and showed up at Library Instruction West with red dirt under my fingernails. Then I ended my presentation year with a trip to Orlando, a place that had a huge influence on my teenage years, but that I hadn’t seen in a decade. I never imagined I would have these opportunities as a librarian, and know that years like this one are rare, so I’ve done my best to savor it.
  • I learned from a lot of really, really smart people. In a year full of amazing work, my highlights remain Dave Hudson’s keynote from CLAPS, along with April Hathcock’s blog that came shortly thereafter. I also continue to be in awe of the brilliance of my friend and collaborator Jessica Critten, who said and wrote some stunning things in 2016.
  • Seeing three graduate assistants I’ve supervised get hired as full-time librarians. As I’ve developed as a librarian and begun supervising MLIS students, I’ve tried hard to demystify the job search process and do whatever I can to help them get that first professional job, which I know can be a daunting experience.

Still, underneath all of these, I’ve felt a persistent sense of concern, doubt, frustration, and terror. Part of that lunch in Tucson involved discussing with friends from outside the U.S. an election scenario that seemed impossible at the time, but has now come to pass. The trip to Orlando happened just a couple of weeks after the shooting at Pulse. I’ve been advising MLIS students through a job search process I know to be broken, and I find myself explaining archaic rules and exclusionary policies. Dave, April, Jess, and a hundred other librarians have all written and said things that point to deep flaws within librarianship, and yet the ALA seems to be leading us deeper in a dangerous and wrong direction.

And so I find myself trying to navigate the tension between things that are going well, and the simultaneous reality that things are going to hell. It’s an exhausting exercise. It’s exhausting to hear students express fears in one setting, then hear administrators deny those feelings in meetings a week later. It’s exhausting to meet with campus departments who say “we agree with what you’re trying to do, but we’re not going to help you.” It’s exhausting to hear calls for nuance and critical thinking met with infographic and checklist solutions.

If there’s been a motif for my blog over the last couple of years, it’s the phrase “I’m not sure what comes next,” and that accurately summarizes my sentiments here at the end of the year. I do know that 2017 is coming. I know that a lot of people are going to stand up for what they believe in. I know that a lot of things are going to change.

I also know that we’re not going into this alone. My weird little corner of librarianship includes some of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life, and I know that there are other weird little corners of the world with still more brilliant people. I also know that brilliance isn’t enough. There are power dynamics that were exposed this year that I can’t comprehend, other than to know that they are more powerful than I am.

I hope they’re not more powerful than we are.

Who Benefits?

Ahead of a critlib chat that’s happening today, my friend Lisa Hubbell asked that we take some time to write up how we engage in critical reflection, and how that reflection informs our practice.

For my part, I journaled for my first year or so as an instruction librarian, keeping notes on what worked in class, what didn’t, and how I wanted to improve. That was mostly driven by my feelings of being an impostor, and as I got more confident in the classroom, I journaled about my experiences less and less. I picked it up again once I moved jobs, because those same feelings of being a fraud appeared again, and now I write about work once or twice a week.

Most of that journaling is of the small scale, day-to-day, “here’s what’s going on” variety, and I wouldn’t consider it “critical reflection” (though it’s still very helpful and meaningful to me). No, the larger reflection I engage in, the question I use to interrogate my practice as a librarian, came from the brilliant Donna Witek, and it’s a relatively simple one:

“Who benefits?”

Whenever I’m conflicted about what I should do, whether it involves teaching or not, I ask myself that question. “Who benefits from this?” And if I don’t like the answer, I try to do something about it. I make changes to lesson plans, I speak up in meetings, I do whatever I can to make things better, even if only incrementally.

It’s also the question that’s guided most of my scholarship for the last couple of years. “Who benefits from hardline plagiarism policies?” “Who benefits from disparaging popular media?” “Who benefits from presenting evaluation of information as a binary?” I ask those questions and spend time researching them to see if the answer is “students,” though it almost never is.

And so I speak up at meetings and publish things and give presentations and try to get feedback, because I recognize that there are going to be gaps in my reasoning, and collective reflection gives way to new insights. I want to know if other people see the same issues, and hear what they think about how to fix them.

That’s how I benefit from working at a large library with a bunch of smart people, from participating in critlib chats, from attending conferences. I’ve been able to develop as a librarian and a person because of the ability to ask critical questions and openly discuss the underlying issues with other people. It’s how I’ve been able to grapple with many of the frustrations and disappointments that cast such a pall over 2016, and it’s what still gives me some shred of hope that we’ll manage to get better.

I know that Twitter chats aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, and lots of people don’t feel comfortable sharing things so publicly, which I absolutely respect. But in the interest of supporting my friend Lisa, and in the hopes of preparing us for whatever comes next, I really hope more librarians will critically interrogate their actions, and I hope at least some of that reflection becomes visible. This is a strange time for the world, and librarianship has been responding in strange ways, so I think we could all benefit from asking ourselves how we’ve reached these decisions, and if we really want to continue with them in our practice.

Against Simplicity

Earlier this semester I was in an assessment meeting with a bunch of people from my department, going through student work samples and evaluating them with a rubric. The specific assignment had involved students comparing two articles–one from The Atlantic and another from a scholarly journal–and asked them to compare things like style of writing, the amount of research that went into each, and the intended audience. It’s a pretty standard first year assignment, and I’ve been doing some version of it for as long as I’ve been a librarian.

Now, just to be clear, the assignment is worded in such a way to point out that both articles are useful. As you might already know, I’m not a fan of denigrating popular media in library instruction sessions, and we wanted the in-class discussion to focus on how different formats apply in different contexts. And while some of the student responses got to that point, several also took a really hard line against the magazine article, essentially describing the reporting as sensational or otherwise not credible.

In reading those responses and talking about it with the librarians who were assembled, we started to guess why that was. The article in question was a great example of well-researched, longform journalism that focused on a fairly innocuous topic, and yet students were really tearing into it, while at the same time praising the scholarly article as being “reliable” and therefore “better.”

As we went around the table, it was my colleague and friend Zoe Fisher who said something to the effect of “They’re writing that because that’s what librarians have been telling them.” From there we started comparing stories of lesson plans or research guides we had seen that essentially trashed popular media in an effort to highlight the usefulness of academic research, and how now we were seeing that reflected in student work. Zoe then added “You do realize we’re going to spend the rest of our careers trying to correct all of the stuff that librarians have been telling students for the last fifteen or twenty years?”

It’s that last point that’s been on my mind as we move forward into the weirdness of life after the election. There have been discussions around “post-truth,” and now “fake news” is the story of the week. The response from many instruction librarians in this atmosphere has been “Job security!” or otherwise “See? We’ve been telling you!” But I’m not so sure this is a time for exuberance, mostly because I don’t think we have the best track record in this area.

Looking back at how information literacy programs demonized popular media for so long, is it really so surprising students have a cynical view of newspapers and magazines? And while we’re on that subject, why did we do that in the first place? And why are so many librarians still doing it? (I’m not going to link to specific examples, but there are plenty of LibGuides that still say things like “journalists don’t do research and have no expertise.”)

I likewise think about guides and assignments that include phrases like “Don’t use Wikipedia!” or even “Don’t use web sources!” And when we have talked about evaluating websites, a big part of our approach relied on looking at domains, with librarians saying things like “.gov is good and .com is bad.” I’m assuming we adopted these tactics in the interest of saving time (because at some point in time we agreed that we can teach everything about research in an hour?), but we’ve also come to internalize a lot of these gross over simplifications and false binaries, and repeat them reflexively in our scholarly communication and learning objects.

My point is that this time calls for critical thinking around information, and while I think it’s something librarians could do, we historically haven’t done it very well, and instead settled for simplicity. For example, the last week has seen plenty of criticism of students, sparked by a study from researchers at Stanford, but as Eamon Tewell and Barbara Fister both pointed out yesterday, this problem is likely not localized to students. My feeling is that adults (even librarians!) are as susceptible as anyone to be duped by the information we encounter, and the response on library listservs hasn’t exactly filled me with confidence regarding our ability to discuss the nuance and complexity of what is happening in the world.

Instead of reflecting on our practice and thinking about how we’ve made mistakes in the past, we seem to be falling into our old roles. I’ve seen lists of “good” and “bad” sources making the rounds, as well as documents with checklists for evaluation, including encouraging people to make sure they review a website’s domain to make sure it’s credible. I get that we’re confused, but this doesn’t seem like the time to reprise our role as gatekeepers, and adjudicated bibliography is inherently reactionary and insufficient. (I get that people want to do something, but I just don’t think another LibGuide is the solution.)

No, I’m fairly certain that this situation is going to call for a discussion of bigger concepts, which leads me to (cynically) assume that a significant portion of the profession is going to oppose it on its face as being divorced from practice and overly complicated. To that, all I can say is that simplified instruction didn’t work, so maybe it’s time to try out something else? I’m not wholly sure what that “something” is, but I think the conversation is now shifting, as evidenced by what Lane Wilkinson posted yesterday. I hope to write more in response to Lane soon, but in the meantime I appreciate his admission that what we’ve done as information literacy instructors hasn’t always been concerned with “truth,” so perhaps we shouldn’t position ourselves as the solution to the “post-truth” that surrounds us.

I’d really like to end on a positive note here, but it’s been a rough few weeks. I suppose I should write that I still love my profession, I just wish we would embrace complexity a bit more, especially in the face of such dauntingly complicated events.