Being Bounded. Being a Discipline. Owning Information Literacy by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

I have written several times on this blog about ACRL’s draft Information Literacy Framework that is set to replace the Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education. The new Framework has generally been well-received, and the Task Force is working diligently to address questions and concerns expressed by members’ responses to previous drafts. (As I have noted in the past, I am a member of this Task Force but I do not speak on behalf of the Task Force here.)

The new Framework is built upon a set of threshold concepts that define a continuum between novice and experienced researchers. Threshold concepts were developed by Meyer and Land and introduced to information literacy by Lori Townsend, Korey Burnetti, and Amy R. Hofer (see Townsend, L., Brunetti, K., & Hofer, A. R. (2011). Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11, 3, 853-869).

Most of the feedback submitted regarding the use of threshold concepts to reconceptualize and rethink how we approach the teaching of information literacy has been very positive. However, there has been one critique that I feel is significant, but misses the mark. Thus, I wanted to offer these thoughts.

The critique goes something like this:  The new Framework defines thresholds that are transformative, irreversible, and integrative, but the new Framework fails to meet the criteria of being bounded. Basically, the new Framework fails to meet the definition of a threshold concept as defined by the literature. Those making the critique note that information literacy threshold concepts can’t possibly be bounded because information literacy is developed within other disciplines. The critique states that information literacy and librarianship are not disciplines, and therefore, the dispositions of information literate individuals grow and develop across a range of disciplines (especially for undergraduates). Thus, information literacy cannot be bounded.

I disagree with this critique. I think that the new Framework defines a set of threshold concepts that are as bounded as concepts within other disciplines. The meaning of “boundedness” does not necessarily revolve around course prefixes, numbers of classes, academic journals, or scholarly societies. Threshold concepts define a “conceptual terrain.” This conceptualization is defined around an area of scholarship or practice.

Let’s consider what threshold concepts might look like in another discipline. We could define a set of threshold concepts for psychology, and these concepts would surely cross into sociology, philosophy, education, and many other disciplinary terrains. Psychological concepts are not only taught by psychologists in psychology classes. They will surely touch other areas of study, but, practitioners within those other areas of study may or may not care that they are teaching threshold concepts from an outside discipline. Threshold concepts in psychology only have meaning within a learning context for practitioners seeking to understand how knowledge develops within that bounded area of scholarship. I reject the notion that a domain of knowledge (as defined by a set of threshold concepts) is somehow not bounded because other instructors advance students forward on the continuum of learning. This notion fails to account for the interconnectedness of all disciplines of knowledge.

swansonphotoTo me, the new Framework is a statement for librarians in higher education that helps to define information science as our discipline and information literacy as our pedagogical (andragogical) approach. This does not mean that it is our goal to make students into librarians just like it is not the goal of psychology faculty to necessarily turn all of their students into psychologists. However, aren’t we working to inject our “abilities, practices, and dispositions” into the curriculum? Isn’t that our goal?  For quite a while, librarians have been saying that information literacy is not exclusively ours because we have wanted to push it into the larger agenda of higher education and to use it to foster partnerships. While these should remain our tasks, instruction librarians “on the ground” working directly with faculty members know that instructors are really focused on the learning outcomes of their courses (a sentiment Meridith Farkas echoes here). They are not as concerned with standards, and they are often less concerned with definitions of information literacy. They are focused on the nitty-gritty of keeping ahead of their students each week, and if librarians are able to engage in the instructional design process in meaningful ways, then faculty are often open to collaboration. The new Framework gets us out of the business of defining information literacy for everyone else and provides librarians with deeper understandings of the ways that information literacy connects to the curriculum. It provides definitions and knowledge practices but lets librarians define learning outcomes that are appropriate for their context.

I am ready to say that the threshold concepts as defined within the new Framework are bounded and by saying this, accept that we are a discipline. We should own information literacy. We should value our knowledge, our skills, and our impact on the curriculum as much as educators in other disciplines. But by owning information literacy, this does not mean that librarians exclusively teach it just as faculty in other disciplines do not exclusively teach ideas within their domains. By owning information literacy, we acknowledge our expertise, we can further define a scholarly practice, and we can set a research agenda that explores student learning around information literacy.

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the co-editor of the upcoming book from ACRL, Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think About Information. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

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3 thoughts on “Being Bounded. Being a Discipline. Owning Information Literacy by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson”

  1. I really appreciate the opportunity to hear more of your thinking. In many ways, the boundedness issue is a distraction to me – especially since the boundedness isn’t really a requirement according to the TC theory (though one wonders then why it is in the list that is always given!) …

    I am most taken with this statement you made: “However, aren’t we working to inject our “abilities, practices, and dispositions” into the curriculum? Isn’t that our goal?”

    It seems you believe the answer is an obvious “yes.” I’m not convinced of that. It seems to me that our goal is to advance students in the “abilities, practices, and dispositions” of the field(s) that they are studying. Only a very few are studying LS/IS. Isn’t it more important, for example, that the psychology student develop the information abilities, practices, and dispositions of psychologists than those of librarians? Isn’t the goal for them to join their chosen community of practice, not ours? (Again, excepting the LS/IS students.)

    I don’t at all disagree on the need to focus on integrating into the curriculum but am increasingly uncomfortable with the approach of doing so by defining a separate set of concepts that we label “our.”

  2. This post is a beautifully articulated deconstruction of the old chestnut that states that “disciplinary faculty are equally equipped to teach information literacy,” or the even more problematic axiom that “librarians should be mindful not to recreate in students ‘mini me’ librarians.” The 2012 Portal article and recent presentation in Vegas by Brunetti, Hofer, and Townsend, in combination with the new Framework, will finally provide teaching librarians everywhere with the imprimatur that only a credible academic movement can be provide. The importance of such “intellectual cover” cannot be underestimated. After all, as Mr. Swanson asks in his post, “aren’t we working to inject our ‘abilities, practices, and dispositions’ into the curriculum? Isn’t that our goal?” Owning our own disciplinary expertise (including our expertise in disciplines outside information science!) is an important initial step in engaging students more deeply around questions related to the extraordinarily complex information landscape of the twenty-first century.

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