Tag Archives: authority

The New Information Literacy: Clearing the Fog of “Alternative Facts”

Rosalinda H. Linares (Information Literacy & Special Initiatives Librarian, Oberlin College) and Steve Volk

January 23, 2017

A recent humor piece by Marika Seigel in McSweeney’s lists the “Action Items on Your Radical Professor’s Liberal Agenda.” About a third of the way down, one finds: “Painstakingly write another comment explaining why this particular claim needs to be supported with a credible source and that it needs to include a parenthetical citation formatted — as specified in assignment guidelines — according to APA style…” Another “action item” comes fast on its heels: “Wonder whether supporting ‘claims’ with ‘credible sources’ is even still a ‘thing’ in 2017?”

NPR, in announcing its coverage of the inauguration, noted that it would be “live fact-checking” the inaugural address online.  Was that also an attempt at humor?

Women's March, Washington DC, January 21, 2017. Steve Volk photo

Women’s March, Washington DC, January 21, 2017. Steve Volk photo

Contemplating what it means that a major media outlet is even thinking about live fact-checking an inaugural address is truly dispiriting…but unfortunately necessary. Two days after the inauguration, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to Mr. Trump, argued that the White House had offered “alternative facts” to the media when it stated, untruthfully, that Trump’s swearing-in was witnessed by “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.”

Having been buried under “fake news,” lies, and pants-on-fire distortions for months, we now  witness the distorters not only leveling the same charges at their critics but inhabiting a parallel universe where “alternative facts” bump up against, what?, “real” facts?  It’s enough to make your head spin.

And perhaps that is precisely the purpose.

Politics has always had a fraught relationship with the “truth.” And yet, as many have argued, the challenge which the incoming administration offers to our ability to separate fact from fabrication is significant, and demands a thoughtful and deliberate response from those whose business it is to educate students precisely in the ability to understand information, evaluate arguments, and separate fact and opinion. To do that, we must face up to the reality that this is not actually an easy task, it’s not like distinguishing red from green or one from zero.

Truth and Politics

In “Truth and Politics,” an essay by Hannah Arendt first published in the New Yorker in 1967, the philosopher provides a way to think about what we are up against. She begins by arguing that the “modern age… believes that truth is neither given to nor disclosed to but produced by the human mind.” Truth is not simply what a greater power, either spiritual or temporal, has declared it to be. While she divides “rational truth” (“mathematical, scientific, and philosophical truths”) from “factual truth,” her purpose is to explore “what injury political power is capable of inflicting upon truth,” and, in particular, factual truth.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

“The opposite of a rationally true statement,” she argues, “is either error and ignorance, as in the sciences, or illusion and opinion, as in philosophy.” Einstein, in that sense, didn’t prove Newton to be a fraud, but rather to be in error. (This is something that the general public, not to mention politicians, don’t seem to understand about how science works.) “Deliberate falsehood, the plain lie,” she continues, “plays its role only in the domain of factual statements…” She adds, somewhat depressingly, “Dominion (to speak Hobbes’ language) when it attacks rational truth oversteps, as it were, its domain, while it gives battle on its own ground when it falsifies or lies away facts. The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed…”

Arendt recounts the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a conversation between the former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and a representative of the German Weimar Republic which took place in the 1920s. They were discussing who was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War. “What,” the Frenchman was asked, “in your opinion, will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?” Clemenceau replied, “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.” Unless, of course, as Arendt goes on to point out, histories are written to assert just that.

Unwelcome factual truths, shall we say “inconvenient truths,” are “tolerated in free countries,” Arendt writes, but “they are often, consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions.” Climate warming data, the relationship between vaccines and autism, the success rate of for-profit voucher schools cease to be “factual truths” and become “matters of opinion,” or perhaps (as we’re now observing), an “alternative” set of facts. The cynic’s answer to the assertion that everyone has a right to her own opinions but not to her own facts, is to turn all facts into opinions.  But facts, Arendt argues, have a “despotic character;” they don’t rest on how many people accept them. It’s not a popularity contest. “Unwelcome opinion can be argued with,” Arendt continues, “rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.”

ACRL FrameworkSo, where does that leave us? Actually, with a lot of work to do. In previous “Articles of the Week,” we have examined the “post-truth” era and our responsibilities as educators. We want to explore this further today, taking into account the Framework for Information Literacy published in 2015 by the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Let’s begin with Arendt’s comment that “truth is neither given to nor disclosed to but produced by the human mind.” If “truth” is not “given,” then we must understand that it is constructed and contextual, which means that even as it asserts its “facticity,” it is not beyond interrogation. Let’s consider this in the light of the “Student Learning Goals” adopted at Oberlin in  2015. The first goal, deepening understanding in specific fields, recognizes that “A deeper understanding of a specific field of study generates the potential for students to move beyond the skills of analyzing and evaluating information and towards the creation of new knowledge or approaches, or the production of original work.” The second goal, broadening knowledge, states that Learning across established fields of study, both within disciplines and in interdisciplinary approaches, cultivates in students a concrete appreciation for different ways of constructing knowledge and different modes of discernment with which one should be familiar.” And the third goal, analysis based on evidence and context, understands that “To engage in critical analysis is to be aware of the social, political, cultural, historical, and scientific contexts that have shaped the development of knowledge and, therefore, to be humble in face of its limits.” All of these demand that we revise our approach to “information literacy,” so, let’s talk about it.

The Old Information Literacy

First, we’ll have to reckon with a somewhat out-dated, inchoate notion of ‘information literacy’ as a discrete and numerable set of abilities that learners simply employ regardless of context in order to find, evaluate, and use information. Once mastered, such learners were considered “information-literate.” This plug-and-play definition divorces learners from the more transformative, reflective, and discipline-specific metacognitive practices and behavioral dispositions that inform the sound and effective pedagogies delineated in the College’s Learning Goals.

Information Literacy at Oberlin College Libraries

Beyond bolstering students’ abilities to find, evaluate, and use information, in the library we strive through the rich resources and objects in our diverse collections to show students how knowledge is produced and how that creation process differs across disciplines. We also strive to show them that scholarship is a conversation and that those conversations have real value.

We want our students to feel comfortable negotiating collaborative, increasingly digital academic spaces and to develop the knowledge practices and dispositions that will take them not only from a novice to an expert in their specific disciplines while in college, but also transform them into questioning, curious citizens of the world after they leave our campuses.

A New Information Literacy

Entities the world over have articulated information literacy models, standards or rubrics. Here at Oberlin College Libraries, we find the above-mentioned Association of College and Research Libraries Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education to be most in line with the Oberlin College Learning Goals. The ACRL Framework is grounded in the reflective pedagogical practices of metacognition, which includes Thomas Mackey and Trudi Jacobson’s work on redefining information literacy as metaliteracy, as well as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s theories of Understanding by Design. The six theoretical frames, each followed by 6-8 knowledge practices and dispositions are also extensible, inviting librarians and faculty to put theory into intentional practice given the subject and context-specific loci of a particular assignment, learning objective, or course.

Opportunities for Faculty/Librarian Collaborations

Click on the links below for each of the six ACRL Frames to read more about the described knowledge practices and dispositions. Under the links are examples taken from library instruction sessions of how librarians and faculty can help students negotiate an over-saturated and increasingly complex information ecosystem and remove the fog of confusion and misunderstanding produced by our political ecosystem as regards to what information actually is and how to best assess its value, provenance, and impact.


Authority is Constructed and Contextual

Students read and compare the texts of short articles stripped of identifying information (author, affiliation, publishing body, etc.) and consider the voice and perspective portrayed in texts. Then, when the identifying information is introduced, students interrogate the authority of the text based on this newfound context.

Information Creation as a Process

Students are each assigned a periodical and asked to find, access, and report back on not only the purpose and audience, but also authorial credentials, article selection process, content and language, circulation, among other factors.

Information Has Value

Students can explore the philosophy of attribution and its inherent value by creating their own citation styles in groups and providing reflective justification for these styles, given an assigned article, after reviewing the citation style of their specific discipline.

Research as Inquiry

Students work in groups on a specific topic and spend time searching in multiple resources (e.g., encyclopedias, subject-specific databases, Google Scholar) and report back on the similarities, differences, tips, tricks, and the overall relevance of each diverse source relative to their topic

Scholarship as Conversation

Students trying to identify scholarly conversation are given topic-specific articles where they are required to trace citations through the bibliographies (both backwards and forwards) in order to create a citation timeline of scholarly thought on a stated topic.

Searching as Strategic Exploration

Students leverage Google to conduct preliminary searches on their topics in order to determine key stakeholders, and use a brainstorming worksheet to develop a search path to consider in order to identify broader, narrower, related, and synonymous keywords for more efficient and effective searching on their topic.

Next Steps in Information Literacy

Humpty-Dumpty and Alice, Through the Looking Glass, John Tenniel, illustrations, 1871. Public Domain

Humpty-Dumpty and Alice, Through the Looking Glass, John Tenniel, illustrations, 1871. Public Domain

We are teetering at the edge of a world where, as Humpty Dumpty told Alice: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”  When Alice questions “whether you can make words mean so many different things,” Humpty reveals the relationship between truth and power: “The question is which is to be master—that’s all.”  Approaching the demands of this new understanding of information literacy must be the work of the entire educational team at Oberlin and elsewhere, particularly librarians and faculty. It is work that needs to be stressed in introductory courses in every discipline, and continue on through higher level courses.

As you work on your class prep and syllabi for the Spring Semester, consider contacting your Liaison Librarian in order to collaborate on incorporating information literacy into your assignments. You can also contact Rosalinda Linares, rlinares@oberlin.edu, directly with further questions or help scheduling a library instruction session for your course or Steve Volk (svolk@oberlin.edu) for further conversations on truth, politics, and pedagogy.

As you develop assignments for the new semester that take advantage of the ACRL Framework, we invite you to send them in to CTIE (svolk@oberlin.edu) where they will be posted for others to learn from. Further, you may want to consult the very useful CORA website: Community of Online Research Assignments, where faculty and librarians have posted a large number of assignments that utilize Framework approaches as well as blog posts on this topic.

Women's March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

Women’s March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom

Sebastiaan Faber, March 14, 2016


Frank Zappa, Tellez, Flickr CC

“My theory is this,” Frank Zappa said in 1984 when he was asked whether he thought of himself as a great guitarist. “I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I have an imagination. And when the time comes up in a song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play or what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it. … And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine. … The real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live.” “So every night then is spontaneous for you?” the interviewer asks. “Absolutely,” Zappa replies. “… Think of it the other way. What if you had to play exactly the same notes every night? Isn’t that like punching a clock? Well—who needs that crap?”

As a teacher I try to live by the Zappa doctrine. I like to think of teaching like playing a live jam session, in which the students are not the audience but your fellow musicians. In principle you know the songs and have the chord progressions down. You even get to make a set list. But you never quite know what kind of night the other players are going to have—and the drummer might decide to change things up at any time.

To put this differently, the key is for the people gathered in a classroom to be willing to take risks. Safety is not an essential part of that equation. Trust, however, is. Every semester, I see it as my job to help my students create an atmosphere in which everyone, including myself, trusts each other enough on a personal level to leave their comfort zone on an intellectual level. The goal of the class is to generate understanding, meaning, sense. Not necessarily to formulate answers, but certainly the sharpest possible questions about issues that matter. This process is creative and collective. Ideas are to share—and to challenge. All positions are tentative. Mistakes are allowed. In fact, they are inevitable and necessary. It’s helpful to assume good faith and be generous with granting the benefit of the doubt.

Building Trust

Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, Dezember 1971, Musikhalle Hamburg. Photo: Heinrich Klaffs, Flickr CC

Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, Dezember 1971, Musikhalle Hamburg. Photo: Heinrich Klaffs, Flickr CC

For this to work, it’s important to talk about roles and expectations. It is also important to acknowledge that not everyone takes a class with the same goal in mind. On the first day I will often ask students to explain to each other how they see this class fitting into their overall trajectory at Oberlin and their lives more generally. Sometimes we spend part of our first day coming up with tropes for the way we want to think about the thirteen weeks ahead. What are we embarking on? A live gig, an adventure, a train ride, a reality soap? Given where everyone is and where they are heading, is this class a cornerstone or a frill? A trial balloon or a step toward a lifelong aspiration? What investment are people willing to make, and why? What can they expect from each other and from me? Having people define their own roles and expectations gives them ownership—but it also holds them accountable.

What makes this kind of collaborative, risk-based teaching both easier and harder in my case is the fact that I don’t often teach in English. For my classes to go well, it is essential that students feel they have the room to express themselves in a language that for many is not the one they grew up speaking—and a language that, in the United States, is not the one associated with intellectual or political power. I didn’t realize what a difference this made until I taught my first class in English, in my fourth year at Oberlin. The class dynamic was entirely different. Much to my surprise, rather than leveling the playing field, using English made it more uneven. Discussions became more gendered; some students began using bigger words than necessary. I suddenly realized that students’ willingness to participate, and how they did it, depended at least as much on their classmates as on me. When we have class in Spanish, there seems to be less room for speaking-to-impress or staying-silent-for-fear-of-embarrassment. Also, everyone thinks more before they speak. Because students have to make do with a smaller rhetorical toolkit, they tend to be more to the point. Discussions are often more productive.

Pablo Picasso, "Composition" (1949); lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Pablo Picasso, “Composition” (1949); lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Another way to think about this is that speaking in a language that’s not your own already involves a significant amount of risk-taking. I sometimes think that everyone’s need to cross this initial threshold helps set the stage for an environment of trust from the outset. Switching languages can help to diminish or sometimes even invert relations of privilege or positions of power in a classroom. From a pedagogical standpoint, too, the move into another language models what the purpose of a class actually is: to break out of your own self, your background, what you see as your identity, and to open yourself to perspectives that will force you to reconsider what you thought of as truth, normality, nature, or necessity. Switching languages, finally, can help separate ideas from the people that express them. Making things too personal is rarely helpful in the process of a discussion—and some ideas need expressing even if no one feels comfortable associating themselves with them. (Ideas are hardly ever one individual’s creation anyway.)

In a sense, of course, every subject or discipline speaks its own language, and the process of developing fluency in that language is part of the students’ learning process. Actually conducting the class in a language other than English brings that point home more explicitly, to the benefit of the class dynamic. It would be interesting to think of ways to bring that same benefit to other parts of the campus. This is actually one of the ideas behind the notion of “languages across the curriculum,” which allows students take courses in history, cinema studies, politics, and other subjects in classes conducted in French, Spanish, or other languages.

José Bedia, "Con Licencia" (1991), Ink on amate paper, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

José Bedia, “Con Licencia” (1991), Ink on amate paper, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Language and “Cultural Appropriation”

I, for one, can’t imagine ever teaching all my classes in English. Still, even at selective liberal arts colleges we constantly have to defend the legitimacy of teaching and writing in other languages. Some colleagues in other fields, for example, have the strange idea that teaching in Spanish is the same as teaching Spanish, when in fact language-instruction classes take up only about half of our courses. In a country like the United States, in particular, it is also easy to forget that not everything worth knowing or reading is available in English—even when it comes to U.S. history and culture. But there are new challenges, too. In the past couple of years I have heard some students wonder out loud whether someone has the right to use, learn, or teach a language they did not grow up speaking. Thinking from the paradigm of postcolonial studies, they feel that languages are a form of cultural identity that, like other aspects of cultural heritage, is vulnerable to forms of appropriation. Cultural imperialism is real—but to apply that notion directly to language learning is tricky. Unless we want to give up on communication altogether, after all, we cannot do without language. Given that situation, declaring languages other than English off-limits to non-native speakers of those languages only re-affirms monolingualism—a sad form of cultural myopia that, as a symptom, is very much of this time and very much of the United States. It also consecrates English—an imperial language if there ever was one—as a supposedly neutral lingua franca. Finally, it puts the burden on non-native-speakers of English to move out of their language in order to participate in the public sphere.

Rather than questioning the desire to teach and learn languages, my own position has long been the opposite. To me, the struggle against cultural imperialism in the United States begins with breaking down the hegemony of English. This means pushing for a multilingual public sphere—and a truly multilingual campus with a multilingual staff, leadership, and classrooms. Imagine how unseating English from its hegemonic status just a little bit would change an institution like ours, even on the level of power relations.

Suspending Authority

Jarne.Beyls, "Risk Taking," Flickr CC

Jarne.Beyls, “Risk Taking,” Flickr CC

For a risk-based pedagogy to work, the playing field should not just be level among the students. A pedagogical approach in which everyone makes themselves vulnerable also requires something like a suspension of authority on the teacher’s part. The class won’t work if everyone believes that the person leading the class will always know more than the rest. We have to assume that expertise and experience are always relative, always up for questioning. The fact that everyone is conditioned by their particular position in the world is a given. The double attempt to come to terms with that limitation and escape it, is the thrilling, grueling, and risk-riddled process we call learning. Which, in the end, is a form—maybe the only form—of changing the world.

Suspending authority can be tricky for a teacher, in part because it means resisting the urge to intervene in a discussion, or to directly monopolize it. I often think the best role for me to assume is that of the model student: I listen, respond, ask follow-up questions, defer to others. (In my field, it helps that most of us began our teaching career in communicative language classes in which even grammar explanations were taboo. Our entire goal was for our students to speak and for us to shut up. Extended teacher-centered monologues—what in other fields is considered lecturing—were never an option.) And if it’s difficult for a teacher to suspend authority, it can also be difficult for students to assume it. Often it’s easier to defer to the person in charge for answers or explanations. It is also important to realize that the teacher, from her role as institutionally assumed authority—she is, after all, the one taking roll and assigning grades—has to actively give that authority up for students to be able to share in it. She also has to know when to take charge again to keep things on the rails.

It helps that, in the humanities, expertise and authority are relative almost by definition. A poem, novel, film, or painting always allows for more than one interpretation. Students often discover valuable things that I never thought of. “I’m fascinated with the bass clarinet,” a student once said in a discussion about Julio Medem’s wonderfully crazy film Vacas, which deals with violence in the Basque country. “What bass clarinet?” I asked. “The one in the soundtrack,” the student replied—“It always announces something eery.” I’d seen the film a dozen times but had never bothered to notice the clarinet. (The student, predictably, was a double-degree double bassist.) What an experience like this underscores is that, when it comes to generating knowledge or insight about art or literature, the difference between the expert and novice can be amazingly—and refreshingly—small. (If anything, what distinguishes the two is the expert’s ability to judge how new or original that knowledge or insight actually is.)

Still, suspending authority is a constant struggle. And I’ve noticed it doesn’t get easier with age. The gap between my students and me widens every year, not just in terms of frames of reference—an increasing chunk of my historical memory is no longer theirs—but also in terms of sheer factual knowledge. It’s easy to forget that I have had almost thirty years more time to learn stuff. For this reason, I often wonder whether experience actually makes for better teachers. Haven’t we veterans lost the energy and creativity of our younger colleagues? Have we forgotten what it felt like to learn as a novice? To be risk-takers in our own learning?

Gigging with Zappa

Fortunately, there are ways to counteract the mental stiffness that can come with age, and to thoroughly undermine one’s authority as the single expert in the room. One simple solution is sharing the stage: opening your classroom and syllabus up to colleagues. Some of my best classes at Oberlin have been team-taught.

Zappa-37, blazeriffic dog, Flickr CC

Zappa-37, blazeriffic dog, Flickr CC

Team-teaching, when done well, is not less work, to the contrary. It’s also twice as scary—it’s one thing to screw up before your students, and quite another to embarrass yourself in front of a colleague. But what compensates for all of that is the added depth to the classroom dynamic. As team teachers you can reinforce each other, nuance each other’s positions, or flat out disagree. Especially if the team is interdisciplinary, you get to perform your particular scholarly perspective much more clearly than if you’re the only one teaching. At the same time, you are little more than a novice on your fellow teacher’s turf, learning along with the students. And of course team teaching is also one of the few chances that we teachers get to see our awesome, risk-taking colleagues in action. And that can feel like sharing a solo with Zappa.