Teaching Literary Research, Chapter 1: Information Literacy as Situated Literacy

About Timothy Hackman

Librarian for English & Linguistics, University of Maryland Libraries. Member of LES since 2006.

[This is the first post in a series of chapter-by-chapter discussions of the book ‘Teaching Literary Research: Challenges in a Changing Environment,’ edited by Kathleen Johnson and Steven Harris. ACRL Publications in Librarianship #60, 2009.]

So I’ve finished about half of the book and, despite taking some Teaching Literary Researchslack for posting it in my “Currently Reading” queue on Facebook, I am enjoying it so far. I particularly appreciate the perspectives of literature and rhet/comp faculty members on reshaping the way we teach literary research for a new generation of students.

Van Hillard, the director of the College Writing Program at Davidson College, begins the first chapter by discussing the ACRL Information Literacy Standards, which he finds to be useful guidelines but also problematic in several ways. First, they are “autonomous,” i.e., they are independent of any context for their use. Instead he argues for a “situated” view of information literacy, one in which “literate practices shape and are shaped by social, cultural, political and economic forces such that literacy events–a particular search for information, a specific occasion for composing an argument, a certain classification of a tradition of inquiry, the cataloguing of a monograph, the use and definition of a key term in writing–are understood as context-specific within the universe of social activities of knowledge production and reproduction.” Another problem comes with the very term “information literacy” itself:  while it is clear that librarians think in terms of “locating information,” those who teach and practice academic writing think in terms of evidence, analysis and argument, which “are typically not understood as predominantly informational in nature.” (13)

More to the point, Hillard sees in ACRL’s standards a set of skills the student is expected to acquire for the purpose of becoming a fully independent researcher. They stress efficiency in finding information, not critical skill at evaluating or incorporating it into the body of one’s argument, thus ignoring the fact that literacy is both social and “situated” in nature. By “situated information literacy,” Hillard means literacy that is made up of “events,” specific interactions between a user and the research tools designed to answer a specific question at a specific point in time. It is not a context-free skill, but one that is very much determined by the social/political/cultural context in which the researcher’s question is asked and answered. The context determines how and what information is created, acquired, organized and accessed; it is therefore impossible to ignore and offers opportunities for inquiry. Likewise, literacy is social because of those interactions, not just between the researcher and the text, but between the researcher and his fellow researchers (past, present and future), librarians, etc. who are also a part of the process. I found his description of the library as a social sphere especially inspiring:

“One starting place for such recovery comes with thinking of the library not as some vast storehouse of data, but rather as an elaborate argument, a site where users activate and reactivate conversations and disagreements across space and time… Every time a student enters the library (physically or virtually) she, in effect, involves herself in a vast community of participants whose exchanges represent traditions of inquiry, public controversies, disciplinary disputes, and schools of thought.” (16)

It’s a beautiful depiction of humanities research, in which the researcher joins a conversation that is already in progress. (Later in the book, Kate Koppelman’s chapter on “Literary Eavesdropping and the Socially Graceful Critic” elaborates on (and points out additional difficulties with) this same idea, but I’ll wait to discuss that.) Hillard’s point is that librarians and faculty should work together to “treat research not simply as contact with information, but as participation within the professional culture we call the library” (19). He concludes by giving some general suggestions for how this can be accomplished, but admits that “This is a project that undoubtedly will require time, energy, and resources.” The questions he asks about information literacy and the research culture have no easy answers, but I’m glad that someone is asking them.

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