October 20, 2014

All Together Now: Insights from The New Digital Scholar | Peer to Peer Review


Though librarians have a tendency to own information literacy as a cause, it’s something that is taken seriously by faculty across the curriculum, even if they call it by another name. When we librarians try too hard to tick off every one of the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education in our instructional programs, we forget that we’re minority stakeholders in our students’ education. Students learn far more from the faculty in the disciplines than from librarians.

It’s not just because those teachers hold the power of the grade; they simply spend far more time with students, mentoring them as thinkers, readers, writers, and speakers. Even a full-semester credit-bearing information literacy course can’t involve students in the kind of close reading and critical reasoning, apprenticeship in research methods, and informed integration of complex ideas that majors (ideally) provide.

While it’s true that some students manage to wend their way through the course catalog without having to conduct research in the lab, the field, or the library, more students gain a sense of mastery and an identity as a knowledge-creating participant in the world of ideas through their majors and their most challenging upper-division courses than through contact with librarians.

This isn’t to say what we do is unimportant. I believe librarians are well-positioned to help faculty discover the most effective ways of helping students see themselves as people who participate in making knowledge, not as passive consumers of pre-packaged information. We see students as they struggle to find and use sources. We are, like them, generalists needing to gain a foothold in expert territory. We know how technology has both enabled and complicated this work. But information literacy isn’t our job. It’s everyone’s job.

It’s so fundamentally a part of a liberal education that many faculty members forget how important it is and how much time it takes to develop these skills. The most recent Ithaka survey of faculty found that nearly half of respondents felt students have inadequate skills when it comes to locating and evaluating scholarly sources, but they were not sure who should teach those skills. Around 40 percent thought they should teach it; 20 percent thought librarians should. That leaves 40 percent who didn’t think it was their job or something librarians should do. And locating and evaluating sources is only one small part of what it means to be information literate.

A discipline that is particularly thoughtful about how students might approach a variety of research tasks is the field of composition. It’s rather like librarianship, in that it tends to be simultaneously essential and overlooked. Everyone knows students need to become strong writers—but colleges and universities seem content to use labor that is underpaid and contingent to achieve that goal. First year writing courses are sometimes service courses provided in English departments, sometimes by TAs, sometimes by hungry scholars paid by the course. Yet composition and rhetoric is a discipline distinct from literature, and with its own body of literature—one librarians should read. It’s incredibly valuable.

I was fortunate enough to see an advanced draft of The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of Nextgen Students, a terrific new collection of insights into how our students approach research tasks and what we can do to improve their learning. (Reader, I blurbed it.) Now that I have a print copy in my hands, I’m reading it all over again, and I expect it will become one of those books I pull off the shelf frequently, until the pages are dog-eared and rumpled. Most of the authors are in the field of composition, though librarians and technical writers also contributed. It does a fascinating job of examining how students become information literate—and what barriers get in the way.

The first set of essays looks at what we know about our current generation of students and how their approach to finding things out contrasts with the ways we have traditionally introduced them to research. There’s a great history of the research paper in this section, along with an overview of what we know about this generation of students. The second group of essays looks at how students actually approach research tasks—fascinating studies. The third part of the book proposes various pedagogies to improve student learning, and the final section looks at broader programmatic approaches to information literacy. The volume ends with some pithy suggestions that could be perfect discussion prompts for librarians and faculty across the disciplines.

The book gave me lots of ideas. It also occasionally gave me pause. In a few passages, I found myself muttering “I would never tell a student to do it that way.”  Yet even in those cases, it was illuminating to see how the library appears to non-librarians, how complicated trivial things like saving an article or locating a known item can be, how in so many ways the hard work of filtering and sorting and making good choices is confounded by the interfaces we offer and the sheer multitude of options we provide.

It has left me pondering how much the research reported in this volume (and how much of librarians’ instructional energy) is focused on students at the beginning of their college careers. We have a tendency, institutionally, to teach these skills before the students have enough of a knowledge base to make discerning choices among possible information sources, to know what keywords are relevant, to have the confidence they need to take a responsible position, and to do those things before they have much practice reading and writing in a scholarly mode. We front-load this skillset because we fear faculty in the disciplines don’t want to teach it, or don’t know how, but in so many cases, the learning doesn’t actually happen until students know enough context to care.

I worry our rush to dunk students in the Pierian Spring, full immersion baptism-style into something that sort of looks like research, does more harm than good, and wonder if we’d fare better if the first year focused on reading complex texts and writing about them, leaving the more advanced work of generating good questions, constructing a search, and reviewing the literature for later, when it can build on a foundation of knowledge and skill. I find myself wondering if  compositionists and librarians should focus less on teaching first year students how to navigate information and more on helping our faculty colleagues in the disciplines do this work –a proposition that is admittedly fraught with practical and institutional challenges.

All of this is to say that The New Digital Scholar does what good books do: it has made me think.

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Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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