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.