How to read if you want to connect the dots

The second essay in Project Information Literacy‘s (PIL) Provocation Series came out last week: “Reading in the Age of Distrust,” by Alison J. Head. I’ve been hearing from professors for years that students “don’t read” — by which they usually mean, don’t read well enough to do the work in a class. Although they might also mean, don’t purchase the egregiously overpriced textbooks, but that’s another topic. I even thought about working on a project to help students become better academic readers a while back, but the leadership I would have had to work with on it felt it wasn’t really the library’s role and also that it would look bad to point out that students struggled with what is considered a fundamental skill.

But to be clear, the issue isn’t often the mechanics of reading (although that can certainly make things even harder for a student). Head starts out by noting that PIL asked students themselves about their reading and found, “In their own words, students struggled with ‘connecting the dots,’ ‘figuring out the hook,’ and ‘discerning what to use’ from course readings and their own selections for writing research papers.” Head notes that recent research shows this doesn’t improve in college, and that these days, reading is made even more complicated by the complex and overwhelming deluge of information and misinformation that people are faced with today. The kind of deeper reading needed to “connect the dots,” and even to discern whether information is worth reading further or is, for example, political or corporate propaganda, is really a form of studying or analyzing, not just reading.

A good bit of the essay then turns to the arguments over who should teach students how to read in the ways necessary to succeed in this world. Professors, she notes, often feel they don’t have time in their syllabi to teach something as basic as reading, and if they talk about reading in their fields, they don’t usually go beyond the kind of reading that is “a performance of a role: How well can you take a seat at this or that disciplinary table and hold a conversation in its language?” Writing and tutoring centers don’t usually teach critical analysis. Librarians often get very little time beyond the information literacy “one shot” visit to a class over the course of a semester is standard on many campuses.

So what can be done? Head has four very concrete and practical suggestions, starting with,”First, educators and instruction librarians must make the invisible activity of reading more visible.” By this she means do what we want students to do, in front of our classes, so they see it in action. Read in class, and comment as you go. For me that would look like saying, “There is a word I want to look up to make sure I get what it means,” or “I wonder why the author isn’t clearer here?” Head also suggests engaging students in asking questions themselves, or even providing questions with assigned reading. Questions that help them examine how well they understand the reading as it fits into what they are reading and learning in class or with their other interests and areas of study. Questions that help them suss out what else they want to know, and what seems unclear or unanswered.

Second, Head suggests situating reading as part of research, a strategy I suggest when I work with students. Reading something a professor provides on your topic, or reading some news or background articles, helps clarify what terms are used to discuss a topic. I also talk with my classes about how background reading can help them relate a topic to the people involved — who is included or left out of what they are reading, and why? Head suggests talking about who are viewed as experts and who are impacted; I’d ask explicitly, are those the same people, and if not, why not? She also recommends research begin with “reading titles and abstracts,” another good way to get a quick overview of how the topic is covered and what is being discussed. I would also add, read works cited lists, not only to trace the claims an author is making, but also to look for authors who write frequently on a topic and read their work.

Head’s third and fourth suggestions are a balm. Third is the notion that less is more: assign less reading, spend more time on it, and create space to really dive into it. She suggests that this pandemic lesson — don’t overwhelm students — should become a new norm, because people in academia have seen that going deeper is just as good, and maybe more engaging, than trying to cover everything.

And fourth, teach empathy as part of reading. Head writes, “Empathy — seeing through the eyes of another — is an outcome of college-level reading, but it usually gets little attention in class discussions.” Wittily and resoundingly shredding an opposing view seems to be our cultural norm, or at least what we’re exposed to across media platforms. Learning to be genuinely curious and open to understanding how and why an opposing view was formed is less valued. But this curiosity, and the effort to look at an issue through someone else’s eyes, can be helpful in determining what’s important.

Head wraps up this thoughtful and provocative essay by concluding that “connecting the dots” requires understanding the information ecosystem as well as the material you are reading. She explains, “In our contentious times, students must learn to critically analyze what topics and voices are amplified and which ones are not. Literacy should not only include analyzing a single assigned reading but a deeper understanding of the technological and social forces shaping the circulation of information in society today.” 

Indeed.

Conspiracy theories, info lit, the fairness doctrine, and SIFT

Project Information Literacy launched a new series of essays a couple of weeks ago with a piece by Barbara Fister, Lizard People in the Library. An adapted version of this appeared on the Atlantic site today as The Librarian War Against QAnon. Fister makes a similar point to danah boyd’s (I’ve written about her work here before): information literacy is no panacea, and can even cement conspiracy theorists’ belief that if they “researched” something and found evidence, they are right. Since there is “evidence” aplenty for nearly any view online, this is dangerous.

Fister notes that the role of information literacy, and the librarians who teach it, should ideally be to help people learn about the way information is created and spreads, and to restore faith in expertise. She notes that the distrust of media and science fanned in recent times by people in power could be countered if people learned that there are professional standards and systems of fact checking and review in media and science and that legitimate experts rely on these standards and systems.

Which is great, except that there are plenty of “news” and “science” organizations that seem legitimate and actually are nothing more than propaganda machines. This week I learned an excellent lesson in this: a database my library subscribes to that is designed to present “sides” of an issue to students, CQ Researcher, has an essay by the president of the National Vaccine Information Center as the “con” argument on the “Vaccine Controversies” page. First of all, the title of the page is clickbaity. There is no controversy: the scientific evidence that vaccines save lives and prevent suffering is well established. As is the evidence that vaccines are incredibly safe. Far fewer people are harmed by vaccines every year than say, guns.

Even more troubling, to me, than the headline, is that the National Vaccine Information Center is a misinformation machine that accepts millions of dollars in antivaxxer donations. Their propaganda ads have raised the ire of several medical and public health associations. Their misleading information is counter to any scientific evidence. And yet there they are, in a database in my library (don’t worry, I am not renewing).

Do you know how many times I have heard faculty say or have seen in assignments “use library materials, not the internet?” People get uncomfortable when I say to a class that it’s not that simple. As recent events have shown, there are media outlets whose entire reason for being is to present a particular set of alternative facts that support the basest false narratives — if you think I’m being cagey it’s because I refuse to include the actual lies here in this post that recently threatened the democratic process in America. And yes you can find these news outlets indexed in databases and find the full text of these counterfactual “reports” at your library. Which is part of Fister’s argument . . . look hard enough (or even not very hard at all, depending on the topic) and you’ll find evidence for whatever you want to find it for.

Today I learned in Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent newsletter that there is a historical reason for this. We had a “Fairness Doctrine” in America, which “required any outlet that held a federal broadcast license to present issues honestly, equitably, and with balance.” During the Reagan administration, the FCC decided this doctrine was not in the public interest.

So, if anyone can pretend to be a source of “information” and send out press releases and ads that masquerade as facts, and if the internet makes the reach of this kind of nonsense endless, and if this problem is magnified by being repeated not only in social media but in other media for reasons we’ll get into in a minute, or in a misguided attempt to present “both sides,” so that people can find evidence for anything, what can be done?

Fister has a few suggestions, starting with “being willing to take a strong stand on behalf of ethical research practices, the voices of qualified experts, and the value of information systems that judiciously vet and validate information, along with a willingness to clearly reject the notion that truth is simply a matter of political allegiance or personal choice.” She also advocates for teaching people about “ethical frameworks and daily practices of truth-seeking institutions such as science, scholarship, and journalism” as opposed to those “firmly grounded in beliefs about individualism, capitalism, and consumerism.”

For Fister that second category is social media companies, but I’d say the problem is more extensive. Any media companies, even those that try to adhere to standards and principles to seek truth, are part of our socioeconomic system, so they are also grounded in capitalism and consumerism. On any given day, the challenge for the average information consumer is figuring out which content at any one company was created with ethical frameworks of truth seeking in mind and which were created with an eye to keeping paying customers (subscribers, viewers, listeners, watchers, advertisers) satisfied. I’ll grant that there are patterns and trends to spot — outlets that are more (or less) dedicated to truth than others. But the information ecosystem is incredibly complicated, and even experienced researchers and journalists have to watch out for bullshit.

Which is why I like Mike Caulfield’s work. On his Infodemic blog, he explains his SIFT method:

“Over the past four years, I have worked with students and faculty to identify the core skills and habits that students and citizens are missing that leave them vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation on the web. We have organized them into a model called SIFT: Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, and Trace claims, quotes and media to the original context. We call these “moves” and we tie each one to a couple simple skills you can usually execute in 30 seconds or less. You can learn all the moves and associated skills in less than an hour, and our work with students indicates that these skills will make a dramatic difference in your ability to sort fact from fiction on the web (and everything in between).”

He starts with Stop. Why? Because media of all kinds, even media created by organizations that claim to adhere to the principles Fister champions, is designed to grab our attention, to elicit an emotional response. If we use the SIFT method, we can check our emotions, consider not only the source, but the competing coverage of the topic at hand, and try to find out more about the claims. It works.

That said it takes time, effort, and as Fister notes, a belief that there is a truth, or, as Fister says (and I know I’m repeating this, but it bears repeating) “a willingness to clearly reject the notion that truth is simply a matter of political allegiance or personal choice.”

The question is do enough people have that? And even if they do, can they resist the powerful psychological manipulation technology companies employ to hook us on online content that is then designed to play on our emotions?

It’s easier if you stop reading this and turn off your device.

What do we do?

I got into a discussion with a friend who knows I left Facebook last summer because of their abysmal response to the civil rights audit that indicates they uphold white supremacy through their inability or unwillingness to stop hate groups and misinformation. She shared a post our mutual friend wrote the day after the domestic terrorist/white supremacist attack on the Capitol this week. She wanted to talk about several things, but one of them was what I thought we should do.

Well, for one, we have to all face what so many commentators noted this week: this IS America. We are a country where black and brown people earn less, where white privilege is encoded in our laws and policies, and where law enforcement supports white supremacy either tacitly or actively, as broadcast around the world on January 6.

We also have to face the fact that as I saw in a Twitter post this weekend, people who embrace untruths in spite of overwhelming evidence are no longer the fringe and seem to be incapable of examining information to discern truth. For example, people who believe Coronavirus conspiracy theories even though millions of people are sick and have died. Or believe election results are inaccurate, even though election officials, judges, and Justice Department personnel (including many, many conservatives) have confirmed that the election was conducted and results tallied fairly and accurately. While some news outlets are quick to point out that a majority of Americans DO trust the election results (around 60% depending on where you look) it’s very important not to overlook that 40% do not.

I’ve written about information pollution, filter bubbles, and information literacy here before. The idea that information literacy can backfire is not new. But we have millions of people who not only can’t seem to evaluate information critically enough to discover untruths, but also embrace misinformation. I strongly believe that some do so knowing they are spreading misinformation — not just foreign actors, but many politicians, public officials, and corporations who callously manipulate public opinion for their own benefit.

But in addition to these bad actors (who have always existed), there are also millions of people who feel confident that the untruths they embrace are true. They believe in their own ability to find truth — mostly online — in the sources they trust. And they believe others’ sources are not trustworthy — as evidenced by the anger, mistrust, and violence directed at the press during the insurrection this week and during the last four years in particular, but more generally over my lifetime as conservatives worked hard to convince their adherents that the media is too biased to believe. Progressives too believe the media is biased, for different reasons, and although that has not manifested in as much vitriol, it’s still undermining our ability as a society to find common ground, because we don’t begin with any sort of shared understanding. Let me be clear: I don’t think people shouldn’t question or hold the media accountable, but I do think wholesale mistrust of the media is unhelpful.

What should we do, my friend asked.

Talk about it, is one thing. And continue to try to teach information literacy carefully, including how information is created as well as how to evaluate it. Call on the government to direct resources towards stopping the state sponsored misinformation that sows discontent and mistrust, and disrupting hate groups’ (including white nationalists’) communications.

For me, there are two more things: I’ll try to continue to write to and call local, state, and federal officials to ask them to work on mitigating inequalities, large and small. And to actively seek to dismantle white supremacy. Neither of these is easy or straightforward. Both are pretty tedious and will involve making mistakes and having to apologize and try again. Both require a lens through which everything — including being a librarian — are viewed, to reveal injustices and opportunities to correct them. The justice lens gets dirty sometimes, or slips, or cracks, and has to be cleaned or replaced.

None of us can do this alone. And those of us who are privileged — because of our whiteness or our socioeconomic status or our gender in particular — have to listen to and learn from those whose privilege has been systematically diminished. And then we have to act. As I prepare my library’s budget and consider my database renewals, I want to be sure we are spending our money on sources that not only support teaching and learning, but do so while making an effort to center Black experience and Black voices. For example, I’ve been discussing replacing CQ Researcher with my colleagues, in part because it is not making that effort.

I have no delusions that these actions are enough. But that’s my answer right now to “what should we do?”

Zooma zooma zooma zoom

If you grew up in the 70s you might recognize that back then, Zoom was a PBS show for tweens/teens. Strange that today it is the way many of us work, learn, meet, and even socialize. It’s been a while since I’ve posted because it felt like I had nothing to say about COVID-19 librarianship that wasn’t being said elsewhere. And I was busy zooming, like many of you.

It was a strange summer, and much like other summers in an academic library, many of the projects I hoped to get to did not come to fruition. I wonder if we’ll ever finish weeding? But I did spend a lot of time thinking about how to approach information literacy instruction this fall.

For one thing, I want to be more collaborative, allowing students to co-create sessions with me by sharing their experiences and what they are interested in learning. I’ve worked on this to some extent in person, but man professors expect us to “teach the databases.” On Zoom, no one knows what to expect, so I feel this is chance to experiment more.

Which is great, but, I get “one shot” classes with students, where they may have met me in similar one shots but they know they’re not going to see me again this semester. It’s hard to feel invested quickly in collaborating with a near stranger. To build a little comradery in advance, I tried sending a link to a Padlet yesterday ahead of a class I had today, letting them know it was low stakes – no need to sign their post, no right or wrong answers, ok to say “I’m not sure.” One person responded to my prompt in advance.

If you’re curious, the prompt was, roughly, “Think of a time when you needed information outside of classes. How did you decide where to look for the info? How did you know whether it was accurate? How is your experience different when you have to find info for class?” I answered, so they’d have an example. I looked up when to get a flu shot. I was starting from a New York Times article, I took a link to the CDC, which is our national public health agency and is tasked with overseeing flu shots, so I knew the information between these two sources was a) as official as it comes in our “every man for himself” country and b) edited and fact checked by professional journalists. When I do an assignment, I check first to see what kind of sources are required.

In class I gave them five minutes to answer the prompt, since most people hadn’t yet, and realized many of them didn’t know how to add to a Padlet. I let there be an uncomfortable silence with very little typing. Finally I asked if anyone was wondering how to add to the Padlet. No one spoke. I said into the silence: “In case you ARE wondering, click the plus sign.” And repeated the low stakes spiel I’d put in my announcement ahead of class.

Some responses! Not much discussion. A little, and then I caught myself filling the silence, so I moved on to asking what they’d done so far with the assignment. The professor, likely sensing that Zoom seems to be an unlikely place for people who don’t know a guest speaker to open up, called on a student who she knew had found something interesting. She shared her screen. We talked about why it was interesting — a lobbyist wrote an article for a peer reviewed journal. It passed through peer review, with a conflict of interest statement. Cool — something to talk about!

This gave me an opening to work in another thing I vowed I will bring up in every instruction session this fall: equity. Who controls academic research and publishing? Whose voices are included? Whose are left out? Where is the power (which translates to authority in information literacy terms)? What groups are not studied? I was happy to see many heads nodding when I pointed out the equity issues in research.

So, that’s one class down. Not counting four nursing orientations I did with my coworker the last week. Which were little more than “we’re here for you, get in touch, here’s our website.” Where, by the way, we post photos of our pets.

Which got some smiles, and a tiny glimpse of human connection – the nursing students were on campus and we were off, so we couldn’t see them very well, since they were in a classroom and we were on . . . Zoom. They could see us, projected onto a big screen. I will hang onto those glimpses of eye contact and enthusiasm and try not to sweat the silence and the fear of admitting uncertainty and the worry about whether people are getting what I’m saying or wondering when I’m going to shut up.

Because really, Zoom is not that different than in person “one shot” sessions. It’s not a great way to teach, nor a great way to learn, having an hour or 90 minutes with a group, one time during the semester. I’d like to build relationships, get to know my students, even over technology. Over the summer, one student responded to a post I put in her course, inviting students to ask me for help with their research assignment. We “met” several times over the next two months, and I helped with each paper. I learned, over chat, and one attempt at Zoom, that she is a mom of three young kids, trying to get her associate’s degree while caring for them. By the end of the term, it felt like in some small way, we’d made a connection. I had glimpses of what she was juggling, how hard she was working to keep it all going. And what kind of help was most helpful.

So, can I keep co-creating learning with my students over Zoom, or in person, if I only get one shot at working with them? I can try. Being in their courses as Librarian helps, because I can post announcements with tips and a little bit of humor if possible, a little personality. So they know there is a person beyond the screen, someone who cares about their research success. Who really wants to hear about their experiences finding information — which I hope helps them see they are already competent researchers outside of class, and can easily be in class as well. And who is aware of racism and gender bias in research.

This year will be memorable, I am sure. I’m not going to predict which changes will last and which will be forgotten post COVID. But I’m trying to make the best of things, as we all are, and I think there is always room to learn from my students, even in Zoom, even “one shot” at a time.

Digital equity & digital redlining

Like many of you, I’ve been online a fair bit lately. This is week six of working from home as a community college librarian. We’ve been able to run the library remotely, because we already had services in place to make it easy for students reach out for assistance online, and to use our website as a virtual branch of the library. Yes, we’ve closed off access to our print collections right now, but we are able to help students complete research assignments via our online resources. They can get what they need to succeed.

Right?

Well, that is the theory. And to my college’s credit, our leadership polled students about their technology and internet needs as soon as they decided to make the switch to online only classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, before students had returned from spring break. They are actively working to ensure everyone taking classes can complete their work online. But around the country and the world, COVID-19 is revealing the open secret our society has not faced: digital equity is a long way off. As with so many other kinds of inequity, people who could most benefit from digital inclusion already face other systemic barriers to opportunity. Something I’ve written about before.

I’m sure you’ve read about K-12 students facing technology challenges as their schools have closed; if you haven’t, Klint Finley’s Wired article provides insight into the current problem as well as a thorough look at how we’ve ignored or even, in the past three and a half years, openly undermined, the question of equitable access to broadband. Even as it has become almost impossible to get an education, find a job, access government documents (including benefits and court documents), etc. without internet. (If you’ve been reading Nocturnal Librarian for a long time you know this is one reason public libraries are so important, because they help close the digital divide). Last week I also read a very thought provoking piece by Georgia university system students who highlighted the equity issues of their online-only courses, including the challenges rural students in particular have with internet access.

I have also given what I now see is cursory attention to the problem of algorithms — by which I mean, I’ve read  (and written) about them in terms of teaching information literacy, and worried about them as a social justice issue. But recently, I read an article about digital redlining in the newsletter of the Library Instruction Round Table. I took some of the links in the article and fell into a world of eye-opening ways that housing discrimination, banking, hiring, and other everyday life activities are impacted by the ways that algorithms use data that is informed by already institutionalized racism, xenophobia, and gender inequality and perpetuates it.

And yes, how higher ed is not without its own digital redlining, even, and perhaps especially, according to professors Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik, at community colleges. As they put it, when explaining what digital redlining is, “It may have to do with the growing sense that digital justice isn’t only about who has access but also about what kind of access they have, how it’s regulated, and how good it is.”

I am not entirely empowered to solve digital equity issues like broadband access and redlining. None of us are, single-handedly. And I am fortunate to work somewhere where diversity, equity, and inclusion are values we aspire to live by, not just talk about, so I know we are working on some of these issues. That said, I feel a renewed sense of responsibility to make sure my elected officials know we need a better national solution to broadband inequality. And I am going to try to use what I’ve learned to reconsider the student experience at our library from a digital equity perspective, especially now as our we live through COVID-19 physical distancing.

Another reason libraries are vital

I finished reading one of my Christmas gifts, Educated, on Friday evening. You can read my thoughts on this memoir by Tara Westover over at bookconscious. This morning I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End of Normal” and it got me thinking about why Educated has resonated so strongly with readers of all kinds (I’ve had more people recommend this book to me than any other I can think of). And why Educated illustrates the importance of libraries, even though Westover doesn’t necessarily say so (although she mentions several libraries in the book).

I watched a brief interview Westover did with Bill Gates, where she talks a little bit about divisions in our world and describes the potential of education as “this great mechanism of connecting and equalizing.” She also describes the way some schools become “an instrument of that division” because of the way “we self-segregate, and schools become reflections of people’s homogeneity.” In other words, depending on where a child grows up, they may or may not learn the same history as a child who grows up somewhere else, even in the same city or town.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should learn one official version of history. We need what Viet Thanh Nguyen calls “narrative plenitude” — where the many threads of being human in America and the world are included in the overall fabric of the history we learn, instead of the majority controlling the narrative. And education, ideally, should present that plenitude, instead of whatever the dominant narrative is. And what Westover was discussing with Gates is that if we really meant what we say about providing a good education for all, we might actually have less division. Because if you know someone’s stories, they become familiar, and you begin to see how they are also like your stories, and how they are different, and since we are born curious, you also start to wonder why.

This morning, I read Michiko Kakutani’s essay “The 2010s Were the End Of Normal” and I think one reason Educated is so powerful is that Westover’s experience, while extreme, explains the divisions we currently face. Knowing only one version of the story of humanity, particularly one that justifies fears in the face of a changing world, leads to what Kakutani quotes Richard Hofstadter as calling “the paranoid style” that Westover’s father embodies. If people then reinforce their views by limiting the scope of information they take in to what they agree with, as Kakutani notes that many people whose world views rely on “alternative facts” do, you can end up with extremes.

Westover provides some hope that anyone who can read and think (potentially, most people) can discover for themselves what has happened in human history and is happening in the world now. So people who are insulated from reality can potentially learn that their “truth” has been mediated and their accepted narrative controlled – but the scary flip side is that if enough people don’t ever learn that we end up where we are now with nationalism on the rise all over.  You probably know where I’m going with this if you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian before: libraries and librarians can help counter division because we help make it possible for people to expand their views and embrace narrative plenitude.

Information literacy, the skills and habits that allow people to find, evaluate, and use information to answer a question or solve a problem, is at the core of what academic libraries do. We teach students to consider the ways information is mediated, what mechanisms are in place to safeguard facts while still presenting persuasive arguments in journalism and academic writing, and how to recognize and critically assess those. Public libraries also foster information literacy, and they act (when they are at their best) as some of the last egalitarian public spaces, where all citizens regardless of where they live or go to school have access to the same resources. Libraries of all kinds support lifelong learning, and collect and preserve all kinds of narratives that are part of our shared human story. They can also promote civil discourse either explicitly through programming or implicitly through their collections.

So, if you want to live in a less divided, more civil world where people know how to recognize and counter “alternative facts,” support your library!

New semester, same challenges

We’re about to enter week two of the fall semester, and even though a new term always provides some of that fresh start feeling, some things never change. For example, printers are always surprised that students are back and generally respond by jamming, making print jobs disappear, or otherwise malfunctioning. Students are sometimes surprised to realize they have no idea what their login information is to get into the various systems that can tell them what time their classes are and in which rooms, who their professors are, and what they need to know about their classes, either because they forgot their logins over the summer or they are new and aren’t even sure they know what it is or where to login yet. Ditto on how to get into or find their college email.

Students don’t always arrive on campus digitally literate, or in other words, able to use the technology we expect them to in college (which is often some of the same technology we all had to learn at work, never by osmosis). Just because they can text and use apps doesn’t mean they can navigate various portals and systems that contain the vital information every department on campus thinks they should immediately take in. They may have limited experience with email and word processing and other productivity tools, and they’ve mostly, at least at my community college, never seen a learning management system before (like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle).

But the default in higher education is to assume they can master all this at the same time they are adjusting generally to the freedom and responsibility of college. Some of our students are fresh from twelve years of public school where they had very little freedom and nearly no personal responsibility other than to show up and follow directions. Others may have worked and have some experience making sure they get where they need to be on time and manage their tasks independently, but even these more worldly new students are often in the same boat as recent high school graduates when it comes to digital literacy — they may know a few more tools, but not those specific to higher education, and possibly they worked at places where they had limited access to technology outside their very specific responsibilities.

The library and learning commons staff find ourselves helping students who’ve been told on the first day of class to print a module or syllabus without really knowing what that means — not where to find those, not what they are, not how to print the on the mysterious campus printing system. I’ve been thinking about this digital literacy gap ever since hearing Ben Remillard, a doctoral candidate at UNH who also teaches at a community college and has experience working in student success programs in learning commons settings, speak about it at LAANE last fall. His point was that simply expecting students to grasp what we’re talking about when we tell them to start using their “EasyLogin” to get into multiple systems and tools doesn’t work. We wouldn’t onboard someone into a workplace that way, so why do we expect students to just start using everything at once without any training?

This is closely related to another perennial back-to-school struggle for librarians: convincing faculty to wait to schedule information literacy instruction until a few weeks into the semester, once students have had a chance to get familiar with all the digital tools and systems we throw at them, and they have a research assignment to work on. I always get requests to come on the first day of class or sometime in the first 2-3 weeks to “teach databases.” My gentle response is always that it might work better for students — resulting in better work for their faculty to assess — if we schedule information literacy instruction for later.

And that we don’t really “teach databases,” but instead teach students to seek, find, assess, and use information to answer a question or solve a problem. Because if we start by talking about databases when they don’t even know what that means yet, we’ve lost them. They’ll think using the library is too hard. I hear it often: a student will say that all this info lit stuff is fine for other people, but they can never find what they need that way so they “just Google.” I suspect no one has ever taken the time to help them see that the same skills they use to “just Google” can be honed until they are able to use them to successfully tap into the many collections of information — which is all Google is, really — they now have access to in college. And it’s hard to teach people to identify their information need before they have one, so tying this kind of work to an actual assignment is much more meaningful.

I am not one to let the perfect get in the way of the good; if it’s not possible can’t get on the schedule to work with a class unless it happens in week one, I’m there. At least letting students know who I am, how to find me and my library and learning commons colleagues and how to get in touch with us, and a teeny bit about our resources is better than never getting a chance to meet students and reveal the wonders of the library website to them! But I do think that until students have a chance to get comfortable with all the digital tools afforded to them as college students, they won’t be able to fully absorb everything we librarians have to say about information literacy. And until we help them see what they can already do with technology and how it relates to the new tools they’re expected to use, we can’t close the digital literacy gap and help them succeed.

Information pollution

I’ve been trying to be more active on Twitter, in part because a lot of open education people and librarians share experiences and thoughts there. This morning I saw a thread that a librarian I follow had retweeted, originally posted by @Viveka, that got me thinking about something that came across my desk from the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries in their newsletter Read for Later a couple of weeks ago. The Twitter thread was about a bot tweet that was making its way around Twitter, trying to drum up outrage about the way Disney has cast the forthcoming live action Little Mermaid movie. I won’t go into detail because I don’t want to grant this message any more attention but the gist is that it’s written to divide people and drum up racial strife while saying on the surface that it’s not about race. Which sounds like something a human might actually do — claim not to be racist but then make a point that attempts to divide people over race. But Viveka notes in the thread, “we know it’s a bot because it behaves unlike any human” and then goes on to explain the tells that make this so.

If you are not as observant as Viveka or just accept the content at face value without interrogating this tweet too carefully — and let’s face it, that’s mostly how the majority of tweets are read, quickly and without much thought — you might miss it. Viveka points out, “It has the right hashtags, the petition link works, call to action is clear.” Which might make it seem real enough that in the seconds it takes to skim it, most people would either ignore it, engage with it, or feel moved enough to click the petition.  But it’s been posted “about every ten minutes, as a reply to other tweets mentioning the movie or the actess” (@Viveka).

A bot can do that, a human can’t. Which is why I went back and re-read the New York Times article by Cade Metz & Scott Blumenthal that appeared in Read for Later, “How AI Could Be Weaponized to Spread Disinformation.” Metz and Blumenthal write about two AI companies that are making fake news generators that are getting better and better at mimicking human writing openly available — so that researchers know what we’re up against, as more and more content like the thread above proliferates. Why does it matter what people think about the casting of a Disney film? It doesn’t, but the humans behind this bot creation probably have an interest in dividing Americans over cultural issues. Perhaps so we will vote emotionally, or so we’ll be busy arguing while our government cages children, or tries to start a war somewhere, or . . . you get the idea. And AI makes it more likely that we’ll have trouble identifying what’s bot generated and what’s not.

So why is this a library issue? Libraries of all sorts encourage information literacy, or in the case of school and academic libraries, teach it. Information literacy is a set of skills and habits of mind that allow people to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly. Will we be able to keep doing this work if, as Metz and Blumenthal quote OpenAI researcher Alec Radford, “The level of information pollution that could happen with systems like this a few years from now could just get bizarre.”

I’m not sure. Yes, we can keep teaching people to examine and consider information carefully but we have to be careful not to go so far as to convince them to trust nothing, as danah boyd cautions in her article “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” which I re-read every few months to remind myself how hard this work is. Will the media be susceptible to information pollution in the same way social media is? Is it already, in the “balance bias” of its coverage of major issues like climate change?

There are no easy answers. I believe information literacy is a help, but knowing how to do something doesn’t mean someone will do it. Ultimately the fight against information pollution is a matter of will — we have to spend more than a few seconds scanning something online before deciding whether it’s valid or not. I’d like to think libraries have a role in encouraging that, but in the end, it’s probably up to each of us to be smart information consumers.

Research methods and networks

I was delighted to be selected as a 2019 Institute for Research Design in Librarianship scholar. IRDL “is designed to bring together a diverse group of academic and research librarians who are motivated and enthusiastic about conducting research but need additional training and/or other support to perform the steps successfully.” At the week long institute at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I met the other 22 scholars and spent each day learning research methods, having consultations with qualitative and quantitative research experts and the two project directors, and basically geeking out over libraries and library research. I learned so much about research methods; I feel confident in my research design and methodology and equipped to carry out my work, which is to create and study a program in which peer Learning Success Mentors share information literacy and learning science tips with new students at my community college.

But the most important thing I gained is a research network. I would have taken a research methods class (although not in a week and not in such a beautiful place). But getting to know other people who are interested in which design will best answer a research question, how to write an in-depth interview guide and develop a codebook to analyze the transcripts, when to use regression theory, and why this matters to librarianship is not an experience I could every have had without IRDL. Knowing I can call on my fellow IRDLers and starting in July, my mentor, an experienced research librarian who will support me through the year’s work, is also pretty awesome.

The coming year will be difficult — I’ll be working harder than I ever have, trying things I’ve never done, working to deadlines, all on a project with a lot of moving parts that may not turn out as I hope. It’s pretty daunting. But so was getting on a plane to LA, being away for nine days, worrying about whether I’d be able to hold my own at the Institute. And in the coming year, the best part is that each of my fellow IRDL scholars will be doing what I am doing — holding ourselves to getting the work done, and standing with each other as we prioritize our research among all the other demands on our time. They are an amazingly talented group. I feel like I upped my game just being with them all for a week. Plus, I earned some pretty cool badges (yes, literal ones, not virtual).

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It’s great to be home, and I am excited to be on this research journey in such good company.