Practicing Critical Information Literacy by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

This is an interview I did with Brian Mathews originally posted on  his blog The Ubiquitous Librarian which is part of the Chronicle Higher Education blog network.   His blog (which has been awesome for many years) will soon end as the Chronicle ends its blog network, so Brian gave me permission to also post the interview here. I am appreciative of the good and honest thinking Brian has provided our profession over the years.

BM: You have stated that librarians have long been champions of intellectual freedom and that you see critical information literacy as an extension of this value. Could you tell me more about that?

TS: I have always felt that the value of critical information literacy(applying critical pedagogy to information literacy) is as a lens through which to view the cycle of information production within society. Information products (whether online or in a physical container) are not apolitical. They are produced through systems that carry biases, barriers to access, and interest in maintaining existing power structures. A critical information literacy approach provides an opportunity to examine the power structures that underpin the information production process.

As you note, librarians have long been champions of intellectual freedom, and I see critical information literacy as an extension of this value. It is a way for us to consider what “freedom” means within the context of the information ecosystem. Some voices are privileged over others. In higher education, we often privilege some forms of publication over others. Sometimes we privilege the voice of the expert over that of the novice. In other cases, those with means have the ability to produces information where those without means do not. Critical information literacy can act as mechanism to hold conversations about this system and evaluate the reasons for this privilege.

BM: Can you provide an example of this in practice?

TS: One of the best examples that I have been part of was an examination of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in a modern world history class. The history instructor and I had students conduct research utilizing news coverage from the time and contrasting with the interpretations of historians. The students worked to layout the course of events, while also looking at what was actually reported as the horrific events unfolded. We asked the students to try to understand why there were significant holes in the reporting and why the Western world (especially the US) did not act.  The students came to very complex understandings that moved beyond pointing fingers and toward reflection on the goals of the players involved.

The goal was not to say that the media was bad or that the US should have taken specific actions, but to recognize the power relations, worldviews, and political factors that enabled or prevented action. In terms of information literacy, the students recognized the ways that historians worked to outline events, they examined the choices made by media at the time when it came to reporting, they examined the remarks made by world leaders, and they reflected on their own values in terms of the US acting in the world.

This example follows a critical perspective, because the instructor and I did not impose our worldviews in the process. We set up the direction, but we did not offer judgment. We allowed our students to define the relationships and create their own understandings. Obviously, critical pedagogy is not the only way to create assignments like this, but this was the avenue we used.

BM: You wrote one of the early articles about critical theory and library instruction. Any thoughts on that effort ten years later? How have your thoughts about the topic evolved? And do you see momentum around the ideas now?

TS: I am very excited by the energy around critical information literacy. There’s a new generation of librarians really exploring the topic and giving it new life. The ways that it has been extended to connect with feminist pedagogy and other areas of learning theory have great promise. I have participated in some of the #CritLib chats on Twitter. They are amazing, and I can’t help but think back to 2002 and 2003 when there were only a handful of folks thinking about critical pedagogy and information literacy.

BM: Do you have any concerns about the direction of critical information literacy?

TS: One fear or concern that I have with some adaptations of critical pedagogy to information literacy is this can become an opportunity to jump up on a political soapbox. Clearly, the examination of the power structures at work within information systems is an inherently political act. But if we are not careful, this can sometimes take on a very judgmental tone. This can be judgmental of students and of colleagues. I worry that students who enter our institutions with different beliefs will not engage in true dialog. I have written about some of these concerns in the Accardi, Drabinski, andKumbier book on critical information literacy.

BM: You recently co-edited a new collection with Heather Jagman(DePaul University) called Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think about Information. Tell me about the book? How does this relate to critical information literacy?  

TS: This book is not specifically focused on critical pedagogy, although some contributors do utilize the approach. I have been very interested in how we teach students about information literacy. This was one of my interests that brought me to critical pedagogy, but I have also been interested in cognitive authority in a broader sense.

  • Why do we trust some sources over others?
  • How do our beliefs, values, and worldviews inform our information sources?
  • How do we get students to reflect on the impact that their own beliefs have on their interactions with sources?

I definitely did not have the answers to these questions, so I asked Heather Jagman to help me find some people who did (or at least people who were trying to work toward answers). The contributors are fantastic, and the chapters range from very theoretical to very practical.

BM: Anything you want to share about the ACRL Information Literacy Framework?

TS: I was very honored to be part of the ACRL Task Force. We really worked to make the writing process open and as responsive as possible. It is great to see how the Framework is moving forward as more librarians and educators take it and apply it to their local settings. In terms of critical pedagogy, some librarians have criticized the Framework because it is institutional in nature, and therefore, part of a larger power structure. This disqualifies the Framework right away for some practitioners because they say it is too removed from critical practice in a living world.  On the other hand, I hear from others who say that the Framework is too loose and fails by not setting firm standards that everyone can follow.

Troy SwansonThe intention of the Task Force was to offer something that moved away from standards. The Framework is intended to be applied locally and calls from local campuses to write their own learning outcomes while still offering a big picture (framework) that connected the diversity of higher education institutions. The Framework is more inline with critical practice than most other definitions of information literacy.

Generally, I think that the Framework’s real contribution is that it moves away from the purely mechanical aspects of information literacy toward a more conceptual approach. The previousInformation Literacy Standards had many conceptual aspects to them and the Framework takes a further step. Time will tell how the concepts need to evolve and grow.

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