McDonald, Joseph. "Information Literacy or Literate Information?" Paper presented at Symposium for Academic Librarians 2004, Eastern Michigan University. April 30, 2004.
This is one of my readings in preparation for Immersion. I may post on the other ones, mostly to keep a record for myself. In addition, putting things here means that if the bosses ask if I am doing my homework, I can point and say, "yes, I am."
When I initially read this, I will say that I was not a happy camper. I already wrote the summary I am turning in for the jigsaw presentation, where in essence we have to present one article out of a list of five to other members of a small group. This is the one I got, and as I read it, I kept making notes on the margin asking questions and at times disagreeing with the author. What I am posting here is not what I am presenting, but in a way, I need to get this out of my system and pose, for myself, the various questions the article raised for me. Since we only get 25 minutes, and there are four other group members, that barely leaves five minutes per person. Thus my need to expand someplace else. If some of the other legionaires make it here, fine and dandy, but if not, the world will not end.
Professor McDonald basically comes from a perspective of information literacy that sees information literacy as something unnecessary and redundant. To him, what information literacy supposedly does is already being done by what he labels "excellent teachers." McDonald mostly draws on the work of Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, and given that he draws upon the book so extensively, I may as well go read the actual book. Actually, it turns out my library has it, and it is only 200 or so pages, so I am going to check it out. I may thus add to this later or just make other notes if and when I read the book.
McDonald opens with a provocative and challenging question: "Does college-level education require information literacy and its ally, resource-based learning, or is information literacy the end result of all college learning experiences, which are accomplished in such a way that the expression literate information best describes what students take with them at the end of their undergraduate experience?" He comes in favor of the second part of the question, though I did not find a precise and specific definition of "literate information," at least nothing comparable to the concept of information literacy as defined by ACRL. You have to draw out what literate information is from the reading, and while I have an idea, I am not sure I can phrase in a way better than how it is implied in the question above, as a literacy shaped by context and critical thinking resulting from the various classroom experiences.
A significant portion of the article is dedicated to presenting Bain's arguments. Bain's book is the result of a longitudinal study of teachers considered to be excellent. Bain's evidence is based on two tests. One, the degree of student satisfaction with the teaching and if they were inspired to continue learning. Two, asking what did the students learn within and outside the disciplinary coursework. For the first criterion, I am skeptical about using student satisfaction, which seems to be something fairly subjective. In addition, some of the literature regarding student course evaluations, reflecting the debate of their use for teacher evaluation and, in academia at least for tenure decisions, leads me to question this as well. McDonald conveniently states that a "review of the evidence and the methodology used in the study is beyond the scope of the paper." It sounds like I will have to read the book after all. McDonald does assure us that the study is "a high-order longitudinal investigation into educational praxis and for the purposes of this paper, and in my view is an acceptable research based description of teaching excellence." I was never someone to just take someone's word, especially when they simply say, "yes, this is an important and high level study, but we are not looking at its evidence." It may be just me who wonders about this.
McDonald also questions the idea of requiring students to use specific resources. The key here is that students have too many choices, and it may be preferable to have narrow choices carefully selected by the teacher. It's another form of the gated garden argument that I have seen in discussions of tools like classroom management systems where professors put certain readings on reserve and expect students to only use those readings. McDonald seems to fall within this camp. Drawing on the work of Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, McDonald writes that "a well-designed and written textbook is a carefully selected value added mini-library that, in fact, exposes students to a wide range of information, ideas and concepts." And yet, we often see professors requiring their students to go outside the textbook, to do research, to engage what they find in their textbook. I see that when I meet with professors that come to the library for instruction. Are these professors less than excellent teachers if they provide their students with choices? By the way, we also have Schwartz's book, and I think I am checking out it out too. Am I over-reading for Immersion then if I explore those things? However, I am curious now, and as a teacher librarian, I take that as a good sign. I can always read them afterwards.
The purpose of the paper, according to McDonald is: "to raise some questions, in the context of a symposium of Michigan academic librarians, that could lead to a thorough review and examination of an increasingly ubiquitous library-based set of pedagogical practices, which, in my view, collide with those already in place by good teachers." While this sounds nice, and the paper does raise questions, my problem is an apparent dark undertone in the essay conveying that librarians are not, or possibly, cannot be good teachers. This tone is present throughout most of the essay and seems to be reinforced by various statements I will try to note. He also states the following, which I find pretty idealistic, and I mean that in a good way: "more importantly, in my view, undergraduate learning can be helped significantly by recasting academic librarianship as part of a formal college-wide effort to support and encourage learning skills such as writing." I cannot really disagree with that; I think an academic library and its librarians should provide campus-wide support. I would go so far as to say that, in some classes at least, an embedded librarian model may work. If we take this for a given, then I don't think academic librarianship is in danger of extinction as McDonald seems to hint in a subtle way. It is interesting to note that he also states, "it is beyond the purposes of this paper to discuss the survival of academic librarianship." Again, he drops another line of inquiry after stirring the hornet's nest.
McDonald's essay is based on three propositions, which I noted on the outline I will provide for the presentation. These are:
- "Highly effective teachers, by their practices and the expectations they have of students create information, i.e., knowledge literate students and lifelong learners."
- "Information literacy as a second curriculum is too vague and too empty to be a significant set of learning experiences in higher education. It also duplicates what good teachers already do." This is an idea I may be willing to entertain, at least the part about the curriculum. As for the duplication bit, I think that is open to debate.
- "The term generic information literacy is a misnomer. The so-called generic information literacy skills can only be developed in context with something, and that something is the discipline or knowledge area and its intellectual processes, including reading and writing." We already talk about this in current information literacy practices. A common statement for an academic librarian is the need for any instruction provided to be connected to a specific class assignment or task. McDonald is not saying anything revolutionary here, though he makes it sound like librarians have no idea about this.
- ""Effective teachers are about the business of creating conditions in which students realize their potential to learn. Effective teaching is not primarily transmitting knowledge nor is it teaching as telling. It is not just a matter of technique. It is struggling with the meaning of learning within the various disciplines and how best to cultivate and recognize it."
McDonald cites Bain again in stating that "people can change, and those changes--not just the accumulation of information--represent true learning." I just thought that was a neat line. In fact, the article does contain a good share of cool lines. It is very true, and when teachers are there to see the moment when a change takes place, it is a special moment. In terms of teacher expectations, McDonald asks two questions: "what are the reasoning abilities students will need to answer the questions the discipline raises?" and "How can teachers cultivate the habits of mind that will lead to constant use of intellectual skills?" I need to check, but I think I have recently read something on the concept of getting students to think in terms of their discipline, to ask the questions that would go with their discipline. It may have been a conversation I had with a professor, but I think it is an article. It's moments like this that I get a bit annoyed at myself, knowing I read something, but not being able to recall it right away. Since I need to move on, it will have to wait.
Another point I questioned:
- "Excellent teachers choose discussion questions and select common readings very carefully. Their reading assignments are sequenced to allow students to build analytical skills. Instead of simply listing reading assignments, they ask questions and present assignments as ways for students to answer those questions. And, very importantly, the best teachers teach their students how to read the materials they assign."
I recommend that readers interested in the article look over the other teaching principles that McDonald presents, mostly drawing on Bain's work. I suppose if you are not reading the book, the article makes a good summary of Bain's key ideas. McDonald goes on to discuss other authors and their work on information literacy models, which by the way seem to all share the trait of having seven components. The snark in me wonders if there is some significance to the number 7 for things like these, after all, it worked for Stephen Covey. One of the models discussed is Christine Bruce's work Seven Faces of Information Literacy (apparently she also has a more recent Power Point presentation on the topic here). The point for McDonald is that the three models he presents can be understood in various ways and that they overlap.
One idea I found intriguing and worth investigating is the concept of hyperliteracy as proposed by Cushla Kapitzke. This comes in where McDonald starts getting very theoretical about modernism and post-structuralism. The bottom line is that the students, along with the teacher, add a critical element to their information literacy and to the pedagogy. This has a ring of Freire in there someplace, but at the moment, I can't quite place it. Maybe I need to look over that Freire book I read a while back again. He cites some questions from another expert, Kapitzke, to illustrate the critical practice. One sample question that bothered me a bit was this one: "what alternative expositions might have eventuated if resources from a more eclectic knowledge space were accessed?" So, are we saying the library is not an eclectic space? What other place can bring some many diverse resources in one place, and even make many of those accessible outside of the library?
There were a couple of other things I wanted to ponder, but I find that I am spending a bit too much time thinking about this article. I think what made me think is that it questioned my competency as a teacher librarian, as if a librarian was not good enough to take part of the educational enterprise. Given that I am in a setting where some members of the faculty, who shall remain nameless, think of librarians as less than competent, I don't think I needed McDonald to come along and basically say that we don't need to carry out our work any longer because those excellent teachers, whoever they are, are already doing it and doing it better. While I know that not all librarians are called, or have the inclination, to teach, the fact is that many librarians that do teach, whether as formal instruction librarians, or just the occasional class, more often than not can give some of those classroom teachers a run for their money. So, at the end of the day, why is this article important? I think because it forces us to ask questions. It makes us look at ourselves lest we take what we do for granted. It gives us other ideas to consider, even if the tone is not the most favorable to librarians, and more ideas is fine by me. Questioning them with a critical eye is part of the process as well.