April 20, 2018

Privilege in the Framework | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne Biven-TatumNow that the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education is finished, I finally got around to reading it. I was often critical of parts of the information literacy standards but haven’t found much to criticize about the Framework, although I know others have. Most of the “threshold concepts” are things I’ve been talking about with students for years, so there’s little in it that seems particularly new, except thinking of such ideas as threshold concepts.

There is one thing that surprised me, though: the recognition of various forms of privilege. It shows a progressive political stance that’s unusual in a committee document from the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and amply contextualized in this blog post on information privilege by Char Booth. Since the committee included it and the ACRL executive board approved it, I assume that’s intentional. I was just surprised at the emphasis placed upon it, and I mean that literally. As it exists online, outside of the headings and the brief introductory paragraphs to each section, the only word in boldface is privilege, from the “Dispositions” section to “Scholarship as Conversation.” “Learners who are developing their information literate abilities, do the following:…Recognize that systems privilege authorities and that not having a fluency in the language and process of a discipline disempowers their ability to participate and engage.” Such recognition is indeed important, and learning to engage in scholarly conversations in the conventions relevant to them is a necessary step if one wants to influence or contribute to those conversations.

The word appears four times in the document, in slightly different contexts. For example, in the section on “Scholarship as Conversation,” the Framework states that even “though novice learners and experts at all levels can take part in the conversation, established power and authority structures may influence their ability to participate and can privilege certain voices and information.” Recognition of that is crucial, especially if it leads to constructive engagement.

What could possibly use more analysis are the different sorts of privilege, because in the context of scholarship we can find (to really simplify things) “good” privilege and “bad” privilege. In the section on “Authority Is Constructed and Contextual,” the Framework states that “Experts understand the need to determine the validity of the information created by different authorities and to acknowledge biases that privilege some sources of authority over others, especially in terms of others’ worldviews, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural orientations.” This emphasizes certain forms of politicized privilege, or rather the lack of it for some people.

However, in the context of scholarship, we should remember that privilege isn’t necessarily something to dislike. It depends on the context. As the rest of the Framework acknowledges, at least implicitly, there are forms of privilege that are appropriate. Expertise is itself a form of privilege, and the evaluation of scholarship inherently privileges some things over others for good reasons, and sometimes the views of people on some topics should be dismissed because of their worldview.

The creationism versus evolution debate provides a good example. As I discussed here, when it comes to speaking scientifically on evolution, Ken Ham should be absolutely dismissed as a serious participant in the discussion, and that’s entirely because of his worldview. “One cannot reason with people who have abandoned reason.” For the purpose of getting along, it’s important to tolerate the worldviews of most people, but it’s not necessary to respect all worldviews within a scholarly context. As the Framework states, it’s important to acknowledge biases but with the added recognition that some biases are necessary and worthwhile. It shouldn’t even be that hard to figure out which ones. If you’re dismissing the work of a female scientist strictly because she’s a woman, you’re a bigot or a fool. If you’re dismissing Ham on evolution because he believes the earth is 6,000 years old, you’re not. However, in dismissing Ham I am still clearly acknowledging my bias.

One other mention of privilege needs a bit more analysis as well. In the “Dispositions” section of “Information Has Value,” we’re informed that “learners who are developing their information literate abilities, do the following: …Are inclined to examine their own information privilege.” I don’t think that’s true, although it should be. We would have to think of professors as information literate, at least in their own fields, and plenty of them seem to have no idea of their information privilege. If they did, then it would never come as a shock to them when libraries cancel high-priced journals, or when they find out what certain journals actually cost. Librarians are usually aware of the monetary value of information and have to be aware of their information privilege or the lack of it. Usually it takes some sort of shock for other people to realize how good they have it or how good they had it before leaving an institution with a good library. I experienced such a shock myself after leaving academia for a year; in fact, it shocked me into library school so I wouldn’t lose access to academic libraries again. So I think of this statement as more aspirational than normative. Most information literate people aren’t inclined to examine their information privilege, but helping them to do so is a good thing.

Of the few things I’ve read regarding the Framework, none have mentioned the emphasis on information privilege that I recall, so I assume it’s uncontroversial among academic librarians, but maybe I’ve missed some conversations. I doubt many librarians will adopt an information literacy approach with the strong emphasis on information privilege that Booth recommends, but it could be a useful addition to one’s pedagogical toolbox. I’ve advocated for a universal library with access to all as the culmination of the Enlightenment in the domain of information, thus giving everyone the ultimate information privilege regarding access. Until the unlikely time that happens, making people more aware of the structures of power, money, and privilege surrounding information can only be a good thing.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. Justin de la Cruz says:

    “We would have to think of professors as information literate, at least in their own fields, and plenty of them seem to have no idea of their information privilege.” — I’m glad you mentioned this. As I read through the Framework, one of the questions I kept asking was, “Are all faculty information literate in all the ways the threshold concepts describe?” Based on anecdotal evidence only, I get the impression that graduate training might instill in up-and-coming faculty many of the topics covered in the Framework, but are they thinking critically about these topics or just being trained in them? Maybe they end up knowing the top journals and researchers in their field, but maybe they haven’t really gone into the realm of thinking about authority as a construct, for example. In the end, I came away from the Framework thinking that it’s a good model for learning because it focuses on fluidity — lifelong learning, continually applying and reapplying these ideas of what it means to be someone who is information literate — and it’s not trying to simply be a checklist that can be done one time and left behind.