No Such Thing? Information Literacy and Analytical Thinking.Oct 18, 2021
Having worked at multiple universities for more than two decades, I have had the opportunity to discover some immutable truths about such institutions. Among these is that there are certain people who generally are overlooked, yet are absolutely vital to the functioning of the institution. At the top of the proverbial list are administrative assistants. Amidst all the high-powered administrators and tenured faculty, they are the ones who actually have the best idea of what is going on, how things work, and how to get things done at the institution. (In many instances, they have been there longer than the administrators and faculty!) Next on the list are librarians. Like administrative assistants, many serve long tenures. Moreover, they are knowledge experts, often in many fields; they know what is “going on” in terms of recent developments in content knowledge, and how to research it. They help students (and faculty) find information, assess its reliability, and distill it into useful knowledge. Yet they are often overlooked and underutilized resources at universities; in fact, with the advent of the internet, some have wondered whether libraries (and librarians) are needed at all.
You might wonder where I’m going with this. It started with my colleague Manlio Silvestri’s latest post on “Analytical Thinking.” Toward the end of his blog, he commented, “There is no AT [Analytical Thinking] course in this world that can inject analytical thinking into your mind…” I found myself thinking, “well, actually, there is…...”
The reason I was thinking this was the work of professional librarians in recent years to promote the study of Information Literacy (IL). I first became aware of IL when a librarian asked if I would be interested in facilitating an initial effort to implement it in a university’s curriculum. It became something I embedded in almost all my courses. The focus of IL is in the name—to help people become more “literate” in understanding information. Beyond specific applications, such as how to conduct proper research, find credible information, and apply it in writing a paper, IL offers sound principles that can be applied in any context. Most notably, it posits that one should not merely take information at “face value,” but assess it critically, carefully considering its origin, presentation, evidence, language, purpose., etc. before accepting and putting it into practice.
The connection with Manlio’s blog about AT is obvious. This is the sort of approach needed today to cope with the overwhelming tide of information, much of which is misinformation, or outright disinformation. A literate populace is better equipped to cope, to process what they are seeing (or hearing), and reach reasonable conclusions to the benefit of themselves and society.
Yet as Manlio said, having such a populace is “easier said than done.” Based on my experience with IL efforts in classes, it definitely made a difference, as many students became more discerning not only in their research, but their overall information habits. Yet this was certainly not true of all; many made a minimal effort in applying it, and/or reverted to previous bad information habits. (My social media feeds have ample evidence of this.) One of the realities is that any effort is going to have its limits, and not everyone will become fully literate.
Moreover, this is not a quick fix. To Manlio’s point about there being no course, he is right in that no singlecourse will meet the need. In my case, students needed to not merely have an IL element in a single course; they needed to apply it repeatedly for it to “stick.” Of course, this required getting them started with it early in their college careers. In much the same way, cultivating a literate populace requires an early start (earlier than college) and continual reinforcement.
Cultivating a more information literate public is possible, yet in the current context, it is hard to imagine. Public opinion and political tendencies do not favor an approach that promises neither complete nor instant results. The trend now, across the spectrum, is to “double down” on one’s message and approach to the issue(s), even when the evidence is that it is not working. (See my recent blog which noted the dilemma the U.S. CDC now confronts in its narrative relating to the COVID pandemic.)
Yet at some point we will need to take a “longer-term” view of how to better equip the public to deal with information in the realities of the 21st century world. Politicians and the public may well become more open to endeavors to promote IL and AT. Yet the lead may need to be taken by interested parties, such as those in emergency management. As Manlio noted, many in the EM field may not have much interest in political considerations, yet the reality is that they work in a context rife with them, and thus it behooves them to think about how they can shape that context. For one thing, they should be finding policies and practices that will influence this context in a positive manner, and for which they can advocate. To this end, they should look to partner with other interested parties to advocate for and develop the means. This should not be merely working with the “usual suspects,” such as political or educational powers-that-be, but oft overlooked yet influential people, such as librarians, who often are the folk who really know what is happening, and what can (and should) be done.