Yesterday I confronted a childhood terror: I took part in a debate and – to my great relief and even greater surprise – emerged unscathed. I’ve always been anxious about confrontational situations and fearful of verbal dexterity, so when I was invited to take part in a debate organised by CILIP it took me a whole week to get up enough courage to agree.
Far from being some kind of Perry Mason-style ripping-the-witness-to-bleeding-shreds affair, however, it was actually great fun and very friendly! For a start, the topic was ‘This house believes that the role of the librarian should be that of teacher‘, and I was speaking for the motion. Since I spend my time running round saying basically exactly this to everyone I meet professionally (to what is probably a monotonous degree), coming up with a passionate argument in favour of the motion wasn’t going to be a problem : ) I also knew that my partner in advocacy, Geoff Walton, would be able to provide convincing evidence to back up my airy-fairy theoretical wibbling.
— Eleanor Johnston (@elstopbanana) February 10, 2015
Our co-debators, speaking against the motion, were Darren Smart and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, who were both a joy to listen to: thoughtful, enlightened, and insightful. Alka’s background is in school teaching and her research is in the philosophy of education, so her perceptions of how libraries and information collections fit the educational and academic spheres were very interesting. Darren’s passionate belief in public libraries, and his understanding of issues facing them, was totally convincing – as well as deeply poignant given that we were in the stunning, and threatened, Library of Birmingham.
Here’s my bit of talking – partly for the record, and partly because I think it’s interesting to read something that’s been designed to be spoken. I’m accustomed to building my arguments in the measured, circuitous, densely-evidenced manner of academic writing, and it was quite a challenge to work more polemically: I had to really cut down my sentence and clause length and relentlessly rip out all the hedging that’s so dear to the academic mind. I also ended up doing very odd things to the punctuation so that it would give me signals for spoken emphasis (more pregnant pauses than a Pinter play). So when I read this it feels hideously full of unsupported assertions and lousy grammar, although declaiming it to an audience felt fine! Just for fun, too, I’ve left in all my last-minute annotations and the timings from my practice runs.
Another short piece written for the UKSG Newsletter back in September. Thanks to editor Andrew Barker for letting me reproduce it here (and in a downloadable form over here), and for being brave enough to indulge my long-cherished desire to write about ‘the F-word’ : )
Autumn! Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, of Welcome Week and freshers’ flu, of hoarseness and voice loss from back-to-back induction sessions. The opportunity to welcome a new group of learners into the academic community and let them loose on knowledge ought to be joyful and exciting – but somehow the joy gets lost in the pressure to condense Everything You Need to Know About The Library into a single front-loaded session, usually in a lecture theatre, and sometimes into a five-minute ‘introductory’ slot that may be the only timetabled contact you have with a new cohort of students.
Every new academic year I struggle with the ever-present temptation to just focus on the basics, which in a five-minute ‘library slot’ means how to find your stuff. My struggles centre around the verb: as a passionate proponent of what Cottrell and Cohen call “real deal information literacy” (2012), I have issues with the fact that ‘find’ often comes across as the primary verb for what you do with information in an academic context.
It’s fairly frequently noted that in our disintermediated information world finding things is easy: it’s exercising critical evaluation of such a volume of material from such a range of sources that’s hard. In this regard it’s interesting that while classic models of information literacy such as SCONUL, ANZIIL and the original ACRL standards all include the concept of ‘find’ (sometimes as ‘access’ or ‘gather’) as a key action, it’s a verb that scarcely appears in the eight pages of the ANCIL curriculum. Instead, ANCIL uses verbs like ‘distinguish’, ‘critique’, ‘identify’, and ‘reflect’ to model the learner’s relationship with information – all of which involve doing something to, or with, the information found.
In the library world, where much of our focus is naturally on systems for organising and locating information, we can sometimes be fooled into thinking that the learner’s interaction with information is a kind of quest narrative that centres on seeking and culminates when the desired material is found. This is a seductive construction of academic information practice, placing the library and its search tools at the heart of scholarly creativity and incidentally ensuring that our role as gatekeeper retains its hieratic status. Again, this perception of information enshrines ‘find’ as the primary information activity: as Spiranec & Zorica have commented, “within IL standards information is usually treated as an object to be located and used by the individual” (2012).
But if the only message we have the chance to communicate to our students is that their relationship with information centres on finding information objects, we’re doing them a major disservice. At some point we need to make clear to learners in higher education that what really matters is what you do with the information once you’ve found it. Too much focus on ‘find’ implicitly communicates to students that their encounter with information is simply a matter of tracking down published artefacts, when in fact that encounter is about “Making meaning within unfamiliar discourse” (Wingate, 2006).
What it comes down to is that in library sessions we have a choice in how we present the concept of information. We can describe a book or a journal article as an artefact, a published and describable entity: you look for it, you find it, you’re done. Or we can describe information in terms of its contribution to knowledge, as a point of view expressed and negotiated within the academic discourse: you find it, you read it, you start answering back to it. The academic community’s relationship with information is not to absorb without question – it’s entirely the opposite. The whole purpose of HE is to develop in students a critical mindset: the weighing, sifting, questioning approach that isn’t cowed by expertise or silenced by authority.
Yet given the active, constructive, negotiated nature of this relationship with information, isn’t it interesting that our ‘induction’ weeks in general chiefly consist of telling our students things? Paradoxically, this first week of student life in higher education has very little to do with being introduced to the values and practices of the academic community, with a view to enabling each individual to negotiate and express an identity within that community. In fact, ‘induction’ is possibly the worst label there could be for an introductory experience that chiefly consists of directional wayfinding and basic know-how – finding the lecture theatre, managing to remember your username and password, learning where to get cheap pizza. This preliminary orientation phase isn’t really designed to foreground advanced intellectual content or knowledge construction: it’s about finding and finding out. Thus it deals chiefly with declarative rather than procedural knowledge – knowing what, rather than knowing how (Ambrose et al., 2010, 18).
Now it’s clearer why focusing on ‘find’ is such an overwhelming temptation in Welcome Week: it makes a good fit with the rest of what’s happening. ‘Find’ sits very well within a basic orientation-and-wayfinding phase; after all, there’s not much you can evaluate, construct or negotiate about either where the lecture theatre is or what you do to look up a book on your reading list. Finding information, in fact, bears the same surface and preliminary relationship to the information encounter that finding the lecture theatre does to attending (and attending to) a lecture. Therefore at some point we need to find a way to clearly signal to students that a shift from ‘find’ to ‘use’ will be necessary in order to engage with academic practices and succeed in their studies.
To do this we need to move away from telling, because although all these things that we tell our students are useful and good to know, in the act of telling itself we construct and subtly impose a transmissive model of learning in which we possess expertise that students must acquire. At some point we ourselves need to model a different relationship both with information and with our learners, to recognise that each is taking part in a fluid and negotiated process of knowledge construction. In short, we need to let them know the information experience doesn’t end with ‘find': that find is where it starts.
As librarians, I believe we can still do more to reframe our thinking away from our search products and from the perception of information as artefact, and more towards alignment with the academic practices of the community we work with and in. Rather than merely demonstrating resources, we need to be able to articulate how use of those resources might support the academic journey as an ongoing process of making sense, constructing meaning, creating conceptual relationships and even negotiating one’s own identity within a community of practice.
The advent of discovery systems has given us a game-changing opportunity to model this realignment in how we talk to students about information. When you can introduce your library’s search tool in under five minutes you have the chance to reclaim interface demonstration time and use it to talk instead about the conventions and values of academic information communication (see e.g. Coonan, 2014). So I’m hoping that even if I spend only one of those five minutes flagging up the shift from finding to using, from transmitting to constructing, from telling to questioning, that I’ll still have managed to help students perceive a different relationship with information and with what it means to ‘be academic.’
Only once the introductions are over does the real practice start; and only when the practice starts does the induction to the community begin. And it’s at this point in the student’s journey that ‘real deal’ information literacy – the making of meaning – replaces ‘find’; and at this point, if we have the chance, that we can stop simply telling our students things and invite them to start constructing meaning for themselves.
ACRL (2000) Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education http://www.ala.org/acrl/sites/ala.org.acrl/files/content/standards/standards.pdf. (This document is now superseded by a threshold concepts approach: see http://acrl.ala.org/ilstandards/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Framework-for-IL-for-HE-Draft-2.pdf)
Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, Calif.: Wiley.
Australian and New Zealand Information Literacy Framework [ANZIIL], 2nd ed. (2004). http://archive.caul.edu.au/info-literacy/InfoLiteracyFramework.pdf
Coonan, E., ed. (2014) Teaching, not telling: proceedings of the 2nd Information Literacy and Summon Day. http://www.proquest.com/blog/2014/Teaching-not-Telling.html
Cottrell, Janet & Cohen, Sarah Faye (2012) Real deal information literacy: designing and implementing meaningful instruction and assessment. http://www.slideshare.net/infolit_group/cottrell-cohen
SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy: core model for Higher Education (2011) http://www.sconul.ac.uk/sites/default/files/documents/coremodel.pdf
Secker, J., & Coonan, E. (2011) A new curriculum for information literacy [ANCIL]. http://newcurriculum.wordpress.com/using-ancil/
Špiranec, S. & Banek Zorica, M. (2012) ‘Changing anatomies of information literacy at the postgraduate level: refinements of models and shifts in assessment’. Nordic Journal of Information Literacy in Higher Education 4
Wenger-Trayner, E. (n.d.) ‘Communities of practice: a brief introduction’. http://wenger-trayner.com/theory/
Wingate, U. (2006). Doing away with “study skills.” Teaching in Higher Education, 11(4), 457–469. http://embeddingskills.hud.ac.uk/sites/embeddingskills.hud.ac.uk/files/Wingate.pdf
[All URLs accessed 30 September 2014]
I’m amazed – and frankly dead chuffed – at having made it through #AcWriMo. Yes, I set myself a low target (10-12 train rides; no pomodori for me!) and deliberately kept my aims fuzzy (to quote from my plan: “let’s call it ‘expanding each chapter from skeleton to emaciated flesh'”). I have just about enough wisdom, or experience, by now to ensure I do both those things, otherwise I set myself up for full-blown I AM FAIL mode from the start. But I’m still astonished that I managed 11 train rides and did get some flesh on those zombie bones – even though, er, I decided to completely rejig the structure and rewrite the whole aim of the book along the way *kicks table leg sheepishly*
And I’m even more astonished that with November over, I want to keep going. What the what … ? There I sat on the train yesterday looking back at my completed record for the month, relaxing in the glow of having finished something, and then all of a sudden I was writing a plan for December…
… and then I was sketching a literature map …
… and somehow now it’s not that I have to write because I’ve signed up publicly for #AcWriMo, it’s that I have to write because I’m impelled to, because that’s how I make sense of all the things still going round in my head.
I had no idea that the power of Don Diego could be such a force!
— Julieta (@js_delossantos) November 12, 2014
Thank you again to Julieta and Don Diego, @charlottefrost, and the whole #AcWriMo community. If you want to join the December writing bunch, you can sign up on the spreadsheet and tweet your progress using the hashtag #AcWri.
I’ve got to the stage of #AcWriMo immersion where my ideas are in constant motion: spinning around, forming new configurations and endlessly joining up to make new patterns. It’s like being a kaleidoscope. Colette has a great phrase for this: “mes idées sont en salade dans ma tête” (Claudine a l’école). It’s all very exhilarating as well as fairly exhausting, and it reminds me of J.M. Barrie’s description of a child’s mind, “which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time”:
There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs and rakish-looking craft in the offing, and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay, and one very small old lady with a hooked nose. It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, three-pence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still. (Peter and Wendy)
Underlying all the angst produced merely by writing (as if that weren’t enough) is a kind of infinite recursion caused by the fact that I’m trying to enact the processes that usually I just teach. My area of professional expertise is academic information practices – literature searching, critically selecting, reading, notemaking, bouncing off other researchers’ ideas like a springboard … It’s one thing to explore with students various techniques for approaching and enacting these practices, to discuss how encountering new ideas can stretch and unsettle you or challenge your existing mental model. It’s A. Whole. Other. Thing to go through it (again) yourself *grimace* *twitch*
And you don’t want to think too much about the conceptual slippage caused by trying to write about what you do, and simultaneously trying to do what you write about:
Then his mind’s eye looked up and caught his own image and realized where he was and what he was seeing and — I don’t know what really happened — but now the slippage that Phædrus had felt earlier, the internal parting of his mind, suddenly gathered momentum, as do the rocks at the top of a mountain. Before he could stop it, the sudden accumulated mass of awareness began to grow and grow into in avalanche of thought and awareness out of control; with each additional growth of the downward tearing mass loosening hundreds of times its volume, and then that mass uprooting hundreds of times its volume more, and then hundreds of times that; on and on, wider and broader, until there was nothing left to stand. (Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
In all this oscillation between pattern and chaos, however, it’s comforting to find that there’s a tiny part of my kaleidoscope mind that’s constant, that even feels fiercely triumphant. I’ve been arguing for some while now that information literacy – that is, the ‘good’ or appropriate use of information – shouldn’t be seen as a set of standards but in terms of an event: an encounter between a unique individual and a body of knowledge. What I’m experiencing in trying to write this book is precisely that encounter. I’m learning all over again that learning isn’t additive – you don’t just bolt on a new bit of knowledge as an extension to the structure you’ve been building since day one (and when was that anyway? First day of university? of your schooldays? Your first word? Birth?). Learning is transformative, dynamic, constantly in flux. There’s a rippleback effect every time you encounter new knowledge: your whole vision of the field undergoes a tiny shift, and the elements settle into a new pattern.
So amid all the upheaval of my mental furniture there’s a sense that I’m on the right track, that this endless movement and reordering of ideas is actually, paradoxically, a persistent element in knowledge creation.
Who knows, someday there might even be a book about it …
#AcWriMo is genius. Started by the wonderful PhD2Published as an academic variant of #NaNoWriMo, it’s a self-forming, mutually nurturing community of people desperate to write something and not quite getting pen to paper on their own. The key is accountability: you declare your writing goals for the month of November by signing up to a spreadsheet, tweet your progress (or lack thereof), and maybe occasionally blog about how you’re doing.
Others in the same writing boat share tips on getting started and keeping going (my favourite this morning: “Press the bridge of your nose to stay awake” [?!]), pass on useful websites and apps, and tweet encouragement and sympathy as needed. Like this:
— Ellen Spaeth (@ellenspaeth) November 3, 2014
In between the moments of anguish caused by trying to actually write instead of talking to students about how to write, one of the aspects of #AcWriMo that fascinates me is how people declare their goals. Looking at the spreadsheet, there’s a huge amount of Pomodoro going on, along with other variations of time-based measurement. Another popular option is setting a word count. I’ve suggested both of these approaches to students as part of my former class on Academic Reading and Writing, and used to love when students, initially sceptical, would come back with the light of the true convert in their eyes to tell me that one of these strategies worked, just really worked, and was now part of their writing habit. It’s such joy when you witness something crystallising for students like that: you can see their confidence in their ability to actually write this damn thesis take a huge bound forward, along with their word count. Because although both these strategies may sound like productivity gimmicks, what they do – as ThesisWhisperer points out – is give you room to explore who and how you are as a writer without being stifled by the anxiety of perfectionism.
However, obstinate “do it my way” mule that I am, I seem to have decided on a different way to set and measure my writing goals, one that’s neither time- nor length-based. It’s … erm … spatial. Because I have a long train journey every morning, I figured that would be the best time to work: an hour and a half of time already set aside for me by the grace of Greater Anglia, and a surprisingly comfortable workspace (because I start my journey at the terminal station for that route, I’m one of those annoying people who’s already occupying a table seat when you get on further down the line). But when I record what I’ve done, I don’t write the length of time spent. I write the station intervals. Like this:
03 Nov CBG-THF [Cambridge to Thetford]. Slow and sticky.
05 Nov ELY-WMD [Ely to Wymondham – almost the entire journey!]. 4 pages. Not great but something there.
06 Nov ATL-NRW [Attleborough to Norwich]. 2 pp. Unpicking ‘right answers’ [a key theme in my book].
07 Nov ELY-HRD [Ely to Harling Road]. INTRODUCTION!
I didn’t intend to measure my writing in railway stations; it just came out that way. A bit like how I went from ‘slow and sticky’ to ‘INTRODUCTION’ inside the first #AcWriMo week. I didn’t plan it, any of it: it just came out …
And there again is the crystallisation moment: the point when you look back at the pattern formed by your writing record and think: Hello, Muse.
 Thank you to everyone involved in #AcWriMo – and keep writing!
 I’ve used a bit of poetic licence in the title of this post. While I could in theory ‘write from Attleborough to Wymondham’ it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment, since that leg of the journey only takes about seven minutes : ) But it’s the closest I can get to ‘from A to Z’!
Last week I tweeted about my joy at being back in reading mode and, as a consequence, having an excuse to indulge in stationery.
I was entertained that my tweet got favourited, suggesting that I’m not alone in seeing study and stationery as mutually fulfilling partners. I also got a request for a peek at my research diary, which I’m very happy to comply with because it reminded me how much I love seeing how other people lay out their “vehicle for ordered creativity” (Schatzman & Strauss, 1973). What I mean by ‘research diary’ is not the neatly-written lab report designed to be shared and perhaps assessed, but the scruffy, tatty notebook we carry around and scribble in privately. In my kind of research diary we don’t write for anyone else’s eyes. It’s a force of nature, a place where our thoughts rampage unfiltered by academic proprieties. And it’s really not very tidy – because as I may have said a few times before, the process of knowledge creation is by its nature a messy affair. Above is my newly-started research diary along with the odds and sods that make up my study kit – pens and highlighters of various colours, post-its of various sizes, and a nifty little book of tear-out pages that acts as my mobile To Do list. I find that there’s always a degree of self-consciousness about plunging into a new notebook, a desire to make the inside as neat and pretty as the outside. But only two pages in to this new one, the mess and the overflow have already started! That torn scrap with the orange post-it stuck on it is a bit of thinking from another time and place that needs to sit alongside what I’m doing now. It will float around in this perilous, unanchored state for who knows how long, until I find the right place in the new diary to glue or staple it in (which of course, along with all the other similar thought scraps, will end up contorting and bending the outside so it does, in effect, match the inside – just not in any way that could be called ‘neat’). Here’s my previous notebook. It’s less of a ‘pure’ research diary and even more of a mongrel planning-thinking-writing tool, as alongside research notes it contains lesson planning for work, bits of writing towards articles and a book, and random thoughts inspired by the Fen landscapes. In fact it’s such a patchwork of various facets of my life that I went back through it and post-it’d it so I could find my way around all the bits that are still ‘live’. Post-its are also my go-to notemaking strategy when I’m in a flailing-round-trying-to-orientate-myself phase such as starting a research project, or entering a new field (as I am at the moment). Orientating yourself in a new field often demands that you read classic monographs and textbooks rather than articles and papers, which means that you have no hope of buying, printing or copying everything you need – which in turn means you can’t interact with or answer back to the text by annotating it directly. For me this is a real problem. (Please don’t be shocked: of course I write in my books. Books are knowledge tools, not decorative artefacts. As I A Richards said in 1924, “A book is a machine to think with”.) When you can’t write in books because they’re not yours, but you’re not yet at the stage where you can mash up what a writer is saying with other stuff you’ve read and with your own thoughts – which is what the research diary is for – I find the post-it strategy is perfect. Although it’s not in the same league of bibliographic criminality as marginal annotations, I know some libraries aren’t crazy about people putting (even slightly) sticky things (even temporarily) in their books. However, I’m resigned by now to the fact that I’m a bad librarian … and active reading is fundamentally necessary in order to locate yourself in your field, to find a standpoint, and to join the dialogue. Being able to ‘talk back’ to the literature is the foundation stone of a contribution to knowledge. Here’s another form of answering back (and another page from my old diary): the ‘double entry notemaking’ idea, where every time you copy or paraphrase something from the original, you also write your reason for grabbing that quote or idea, your response to it, or both. I love the emphasis this places on the reader’s context and reasons for reading. In practical terms it’s a great way of futureproofing the work that goes into reading and notemaking, but it goes further than that: as you capture your response to the text you start developing your own thoughts and making connections between concepts. And when there’s this much stuff chasing chaotically around in your mind, keeping hold of those connections needs all the help it can get!
Lest anyone think I might be pushing the connection between studying and stationery a bit far, it’s worth bearing in mind that according to constructivist thinking, learning takes place through individual sensemaking: through perceiving and building patterns, relationships and hierarchies for yourself rather than assimilating someone else’s conceptual model. John Holt says this beautifully and resonantly:
I doubt very much if it is possible to teach anyone to understand anything, that is to say, to see how various parts of it relate to all the other parts, to have a model of the structure in one’s mind. We can give other people names, and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must build their own. (1982, 145).
(This is one of the quotations on the double-entry notemaking page, above. My response is pretty concise: it says “YES!!” in large letters : ) ) If we accept the constructivist approach to learning, it follows naturally that how we organise our knowledge influences both how we learn and how we apply what we know (Ambrose et al., 2010). I think this is one of the most important principles of both learning and research, and yet we rarely talk about it explicitly or devote much time to reflecting on the practices we use to organise and make sense of knowledge, and how they interact with the practices of our academic discipline as well as our own desire or need to learn. When I do get to talk about how we organise knowledge, usually in my information skills classes, I always come away feeling inspired. Our tools for recording, ordering and juxtaposing knowledge scraps are hugely various and reflect our individual, unique approaches to learning. They can be analogue or digital, can range from the hi-tech to the humble. But perhaps what I find most endearing is that even the unassuming post-it can play a part in making connections and, ultimately, making a contribution to the dialogue.
Researchers (and anyone else) feeling the #stationerylove, please do look at these other lovely posts on creative uses of notebooks and stationery:
Here’s an expanded write-up of my part of the presentation on ANCIL at the recent Association of Learning Developers in Higher Education conference, one of whose key themes was ‘Who owns learning development?’. In response to this theme Jane, Maria and I talked about moving from theory to practice in the development of a shared academic skills curriculum that embraces information literacy, digital literacies, learning development and graduate identites. They spoke about the practical work they’re doing at LSE; I got to play with the concepts!
When Jane and I carried out the ANCIL research in 2011 one of the first things we did was to map out the landscape of information literacy and how we saw it overlapping with related areas.
Our representation situates information literacy as the central concept, overlapping with areas of specific information application (new learning literacies), practices involving a specific type of information (digital literacies), and information in use in a particular context or community (academic and media literacies). The graphic was designed to show that we perceive information literacy as interwoven with all these areas – but it also suggests visually that information literacy is a grand narrative: the overarching, ‘master’ concept that relates and makes meaningful all the others.
It’s fair to say that both Jane and I perceived this landscape through the lens of information literacy, as that’s the conceptual matrix in which our approach developed. However, we soon began to see an equal degree of complexity in other areas, in particular recognising the strength of the claim that learning development constitutes a legitimate, epistemologically autonomous, and empirically grounded field of inquiry (see this wonderful article by Lillis and Scott). In other words, learning development could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including digital and information literacies.
Similarly, digital literacy has gained a good deal of both recognition and traction in the UK higher education arena, where information literacy has notably failed to gain either. As a result, what Jane and I refer to as ‘information literacy’ is now often seen as being subsumed within the larger concept of ‘digital literacy’, in direct contrast to the ANCIL perception imaged above. In other words, digital literacy could equally validly claim to occupy the central, relational role in our diagram, as a lens through which to see and connect the other areas – including academic and information literacies.
Is this a deadlock, a stand-off? Not at all. Enter the wonderful matryoshka metaphor conceived by Florence Dujardin …
Mulling over the relationship between information and digital literacy at an SRHE event, Florence said (as nearly as I can remember): “In HE we’re always trying to put one concept inside another so that we can see our preferred one as the biggest idea. It’s like Russian dolls … and everyone’s dolls stack up differently.”
Over the past decade or so, in each of the areas of learning development, information literacy, and digital literacy there has been a radical shift in thinking away from a simplistic, functional and normative approach and towards recognising and honouring the complexity of learning outside the curriculum and the agency of those doing the learning. So here’s a thought: maybe we’re at the point now that it doesn’t actually matter which doll is the biggest, the outward, most visible one. Because of the way our thinking in all these areas has developed, maybe we’ve reached a point where although we’re coming from different specialties and start points, we’re all converging on the same goal: to provide opportunities for our students to construct and sensemake the academic landscape for themselves.
Jane’s and my attempt to map the place of information literacy was the start of a growing recognition on our part of how nuanced each of these specialist areas is, how shifting and negotiated this academic information landscape is, and likewise how fluid are our own practitioner identities as ‘belonging’ to one or more of these areas. As a teaching librarian, I move across and between the arenas of academic literacies, critical information use, digital literacy and graduate identity. I can’t separate them, even if I thought there were any mileage in trying. And I can situate my practice and my professional identity as comfortably in the context and discourse of Beetham and Sharpe’s digital literacy framework, Hinchliffe and Jolly’s VIPER model of graduate identity and employability, or Lillis and Scott’s epistemology of academic literacies, as I can within Bruce’s six frames of information literacy. It’s not that I ‘wear different hats’ in each different sphere: I do the same thing in the same relationship with students, aiming always at the same goal - to help them to realise a critical and reflective relationship with the information that shapes, filters and mediates our lived experience.
Image by Lachlan Fearney, CC BY-SA 3.0
I’m going to come out and say it: I love commuting. There, you weren’t expecting that, were you? And no more was I. Last November and December, when I knew that in the new year I’d be working in Norwich and living in Cambridge, trickles of apprehension would regularly visit my spine at the thought of spending three hours a day on a train.
And now I struggle to remember why I was afraid. The sense of public exposure? Fellow-commuters’ pinstriped elbows and noisy music? Eating my season ticket in a moment of stress? In fact I suspect it was chiefly timetable fear: the anxiety of being bound by public transport, of living under the rule of Greater Anglia. The soggy dread of missing the school bus.
Yet here I am: sitting with my feet up (shoes off, of course) in a moving picture of fenland greys and greens. I have a table and a double seat all to myself. I can read, doze, watch for wildlife. Some mornings there are attention-seeking, tiger-striped sunrises; on other days the black groundrow of the trees has a gentler, dove-coloured backcloth. Branches are ornamented with cutouts of sleeping birds. Occasionally I astonish myself and do some work, in my special train notebook – but that’s a bonus, not a base-line.
Working to a timetable, bowing to someone else’s routine, is surprisingly pleasant: it relieves you of having to make timekeeping decisions yourself. It reminds me of the time I got stuck in the Tower lift at the UL. Lifts have always scared me, and being caught in a broken-down one was a favourite nightmare – so the first few minutes were spent warding off a panic attack and wondering when the emergency system would stop talking at me in a repetitive metallic voice and finally connect me with a human. After that, though, I felt a totally unexpected sensation of peace. I sat cross-legged on the lift floor, trying to remember all the verses of The Lady of Shalott, and occasionally being cheered by colleagues shouting reassurance and updates down the lift shaft. I felt vacant, relieved of all responsibilities. Nobody could blame me for not doing something, because there was literally nothing I could do: I was outside time, poised between floors, all agency suspended. And it felt wonderful.
Commuting, for me, brings the same sensations: a feeling of being still while the world outside moves; the space regained in the joints that comes when you stand up after a yoga session. Nothing is expected; it’s the fallow season. Which is precisely what’s needed in order to be productive.
Things I have learned from my commute:
Getting up at 6 a.m. is nothing that espresso can’t fix.
Every Fen dawn is beautiful, even the misty ones. (Maybe especially the misty ones.).
And no-one ever gets on or off at Spooner Row.
Image: 'Fen sunrise' by meg_nicol, flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Conceptualising our practice: the library service spectrum (and who gets to decide where you stand on it)
Here’s a short piece I wrote for the UKSG Newsletter recently, reproduced here with permission. There’s a downloadable version over here if you prefer. At a recent ARLG event on ‘Librarians as Teachers’ I invited the audience to consider the idea of a spectrum or continuum of library service provision. At one extreme end of this continuum is a vision that revolves around the provision of quality materials; at the other, a focus on supporting learning and knowledge creation. These poles could be described in terms of an orientation towards collection development and learning development respectively; more loosely, they can be seen as a focus on ‘stuff’ on one hand, and on ‘the people who use the stuff’ on the other. These positions are deliberately represented as the extreme ends of a continuum or axis rather than as an either/or dichotomy, because most library staff will find themselves falling somewhere along the line between the two rather than wholly at one end. It’s an interesting, and revealing, activity to reflect on how much of what we do in our daily work lies towards each end of the continuum. For instance, at the material-facing pole will fall ‘traditional’ library processes like selection, organisation, acquisition, description and circulation – and indeed also promotion of the selected material; at the learner-facing pole we would find activities like facilitation, scaffolding, reflective dialogue and collaborative question-framing, as well as some formal teaching interventions. As suggested above, the work of many library staff will include elements of both types of provision: the interesting thing is to consider the proportion or ratio between them, and where this places you on the scale. The first question, then, is: Where do you stand on this spectrum? How much of your professional time is spent organising knowledge that’s already out there – published material, scholarly communications, information artefacts – and how much in supporting and developing what’s going on in the crucible of the mind, where knowledge is still taking shape? This is a particularly interesting question for teaching librarians. Few would dispute that libraries, and in particular academic libraries, have a part to play in helping students develop their higher-level information handling abilities. These abilities include critical thinking and evaluation, interrogating and synthesising variant points of view, and developing an informed and reflective approach to encountering information – what Neil Postman called “the art of crap-detection” (1969). The issue lies in how we approach this remit of scaffolding students’ critical and academic development. Should we seek to fulfil this role by ensuring that the library offers reliable, authoritative material of academic quality, selected by subject experts to be useful and relevant? Or should we aim to support students in learning to select material themselves for its use and relevancy to the particular task at hand? Champions of the former standpoint are likely to see their role in terms of weaning students away from uncritical Googling and towards a thoughtful use of scholarly information sources. Advocates of the latter, on the other hand, will probably endorse William Badke’s assertion that “An information literacy approach … might not even in every case take the student to a library” (2010). Our own beliefs and values along this axis will influence how we perceive the relationship between the library and information. Thus a materials-focused approach is likely to conceive of the library as being the gateway to all appropriate information. In this relationship ‘library’ is the dominant concept and contains the concept of ‘information’, towards which it acts as a gateway or quality filter. In contrast, an approach that aims to support students in developing the ability to evaluate information for themselves is likely to conceive of this relationship the other way around, with the library forming part of a much larger information landscape with which our students engage. Sarah Cohen draws a sharp distinction between these two approaches, arguing that the former revolves around instruction in library resources, whereas “information-centric instruction” takes in the whole information landscape including, but not limited to, the library. Regrettably for theoretical precision, the term ‘information literacy’ is so elastic that it can – and does – accommodate both approaches: however, mapping them to the material-learner spectrum enables us to see how divergent they really are. Where information literacy instruction deals exclusively with promoting and demonstrating library resources, it falls very close to the ‘materials’ end of the spectrum, despite the fact that, as a teaching intervention, the vehicle of delivery appears to be learner-focused. At the opposite pole, teaching will concentrate not on resources or products but on processes involved in learning – sense-making, question-framing, synthesis and knowledge construction. Why does this matter? It matters because where we stand on the spectrum has significant implications for how we construct our idea of the library and its mission, purpose and value in the lives of our learners. This in turn will determine how we present the library to our students and affect how they perceive what we can offer to support them in their learning journey. Yet this is nothing like the whole story. Beyond the interest, or the reflective impact, of determining your own standpoint on the provision continuum lies a far bigger question:
Where does your library stand on this spectrum?
What proportion of overall staff time is spent on materials-facing work relative to learning-facing provision? Which kind of workflow is better established and supported in the organisation’s culture? How many sections or departments on the organisational chart are named after materials-facing processes, and how many after teaching and learning activities? (I would suggest, perhaps controversially, that ‘Reader Services’ in many libraries actually falls towards the materials-facing end of the spectrum, since it often focuses on what readers do in the library building and with the library’s collections – i.e., the stuff.) Yet beyond where your library stands on the spectrum is a wider context again: that of the student’s encounters with the whole institution, from application through admission to assessment and finally (we hope) into employability. All our interactions with learners – whether formal teaching interventions or ad hoc one-to-ones at the inquiry desk – take place within this wider institutional framework; and this framework has always already influenced our students’ learning experiences by way of prior encounters or touchpoints and the values that are perceived to underlie them. So the final question to consider is:
Where does your institution think that your library, and you, should stand on this scale?
Because ultimately, that factor is likely to be the greatest determinant of how our students perceive the role, mission, and value of the library. Time to start working on that elevator pitch for the Vice-Chancellor?