Tag Archives: facts

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

Do We Feel Safe?

Steven Volk, December 13, 2015

Time Magazine, May 20, 2013

Much has been written, including in this space, about what I have called a “culture of safety” that seems to have taken root on college and university campuses. As Judith Shulevitz wrote in a much-cited ­ New York Times article, “Safe spaces are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” It has proven considerably easier for many in the media to ridicule students as “coddled” and “self-infantilizing” than to ponder why so many of their grievances are located in the discourse of “safety.”

I have suggested before that we shouldn’t be surprised at the rise of a “safety” narrative in a time of a recognized high-level of sexual violence on campus or at a moment when gun violence, terrorism, and police killing of blacks, among other acts of brutality, are endemic. A lot of triggers are, indeed, being pulled.

I’ve also become more aware, in conversations with students, about how social media, in its most addictive aspects, impacts their feelings of safety. Yik Yak may be the contemporary equivalent of graffiti on the bathroom wall in the 1990s (a practice that is still around, by the way), but now you don’t have to go to the bathroom to read the nastiness and threats; you can just pull out your phone, as students do in compulsive fashion, and this can increase a student’s sense of fear and isolation. Even if the vicious comments are a minority of the posts, the things people say on Yik Yak “are real thoughts,” according to Francesca Tripodi, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia who is completing a dissertation on this particular social media outlet. Students can feel more vulnerable because “[t]here are people on campus with those thoughts.” And one obvious remedy – don’t use the ap – is not a solution for those who either use it to stay “in the loop” or who, like most of us, can’t turn away from a car crash.

A Teacher’s Vulnerability                                 

Dick Vos, "The Teacher," Creative Commons Flickr

Dick Vos, “The Teacher,” Creative Commons Flickr

So perhaps it is not unusual that I would frame my own growing concerns as a teacher within this same discourse of safety. The fact of the matter is that I feel increasingly vulnerable in a country in which a large and vocal minority, many leaders of one of the two major political parties, and some critical media outlets, have all turned their back on history (a subject I deal in) and no longer believe that facts are a way to resolve debates or disagreements (a subject that all of us deal in).

Yes, I worry when some of our students get it wrong and overstep. To invoke a hunger strike to the death over an offensive tweet (as two students did at Claremont McKenna College) suggests a lack of nuance, to say the least. To call for the reestablishment of internment camps as the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, Donald Trump, and retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark did, is an act of stunning ignorance by those who (unlike our undergraduates) are actually in positions of power to act on their beliefs. To rebuff the humanitarian plight of refugees from Syria, a position taken by 34 governors, or to call for them to be placed in “camps” in order to stop “the potential Islamization of Missouri,” as did the Speaker of the House in that state, should be a cause for anxiety. It is deeply troubling for any student of history, not to mention anyone with a shred of compassion. that 53% of the U.S. population favor slamming the door on Syrian refugees, much as the United States previously refused any action to protect European Jews prior to 1944.

But it should be even more disturbing to those of us whose stock-in-trade is education that large parts of the discussions on these and other of our most troubling issues are taking place in a fact-free zone. This campaign season, probably more than any other in the past century, has seen a wholesale slippage from “spin” (casting your opponents’ positions in the worst possible light), to “untruths” (guilt-by-association assertions), to outright, pants-on-fire fabrications (claiming as fact something that simply never occurred). You are probably familiar with the many examples that seem to appear daily; Donald Trump is responsible for a large number of them, as in his assertion that “I watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed. Nope, sorry, never happened. Carly Fiorina, when asked recently as to the difference between politics and business, replied, “Here’s the difference: Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know, as her claims about what she saw on a Planned Parenthood sting video were not actually on the tape, as even the National Review was forced to admit. (“The exact scene, exactly as Fiorina describes it, is not on the videos,” Jonah Goldberg explains before going on to defend her argument anyway. It’s as if, by adding “exact” enough times, you absolve yourself of a need to be…exact.)


Stephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to someone who will claim something is true because he or she just knows it is true; it feels right in their gut. (“I don’t trust books,” Colbert’s on-screen persona proclaims, “they’re all fact and no heart!”) As Colbert later expanded in an interview, “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.” I just wish this were still funny rather than threatening.

                  Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central

Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. Most Americans now accept that the climate is changing, but majorities in almost 80% of U.S. counties deny that it is “caused mostly by human activities.” Majorities in 97% of the counties in the United States disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” whereas, in fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.

Jenny McCarthy was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s massively popular show where she repeated (without any Oprah-pushback) the truthiness that vaccines and mercury cause autism. And where does she get her information? “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.” One in four parents believe that vaccines cause autism. (This past week, Ira Flatow, host of Science Friday, spoke with the neuroscientist, Stuart Firestein, the author of Failure: Why Science is So Successful. Most people don’t have any idea how science works, Firestein argued, and think that since it is often revised, it is no better than any layperson’s opinions.)

At least one reason (and there are many) why the public via their elected state legislators has withdrawn its support of higher education, according to Randy Martin’s perceptive study, Under New Management: Universities, Administrative Labor, and the Professional Turn (Temple University Press, 2012), is that “experts” are now everywhere. Why pay for the hard-won knowledge that universities have always provided when Google can tell you what you need to know…right now…for nothing?

Judy Baxter, Creative Commons Flickr

Judy Baxter, Creative Commons Flickr

So why am I frightened? Why does this make me feel vulnerable and unsafe? To answer that, we have to reaffirm what it is that we do here and (hopefully, fingers crossed, please, please) at all institutions of higher education. At Oberlin we’ve just completed a process of identifying the outcomes we want all Arts & Sciences students to have achieved during their time here. Here are the first three in a list of nine:

We want our student to (1) deepen their understanding of specific fields while building their capacity to create new knowledge, approaches or creative work in those areas; (2) to broaden their knowledge of and appreciation for the variety of ways, including but not limited to the scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral, that knowledge is, and has been, constructed; and (3) to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence and an understanding of the context in which evidence is produced.

At the root of all of these learning outcomes (and the others on the full list) is an understanding that, as an educational and intellectual community, we live by rational argument, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties it holds, and we maintain the undeniable significance of evidence in analysis. We will disagree on many points and in many contexts, and those disputes can be painful and heated. But, at the heart of it all, we are committed to engaging in a process whose rules are known to us and which have mattered in intellectual disputes for hundreds of years because we can see their results. To use an example close to the moment, what the Black Lives Matter movement is telling us is not just that “you must recognize our pain,” but that their pain is the product of a history that can and must be examined. It has taken their anger to get many of us to investigate that history, but the history is there to be investigated, it is not made up out of whole cloth.

If I feel unmoored in the world we are entering, it is because I am defenseless, with no conceivable means of engaging those with whom I disagree, in a world where facts do not exist. I have no way to interact with those who say that we will all be safer if everyone carries a weapon even if the limited research shows the opposite. (Speaking of fact-free, the research is limited because the Centers for Disease Control has been prohibited by Congress since 1996 from engaging the topic.) How can I hope to dialogue with those who say that climate change isn’t happening, or isn’t a product of human action, or won’t affect us if no facts can enter the conversation? My replies to those who insist that vaccines cause autism, that all Mexicans are rapists and all Muslims are terrorists are like so much sand to the wind. I do not feel safe in that world.

Know Nothing Party ("Native Americans" in this context are white Protestants)

Know Nothing Party (“Native Americans” in this context are white Protestants)

If this is nothing new in the United States – the “Know Nothing Party” didn’t get its name for nothing – the moment nonetheless should be massively troubling for those of us charged with helping our students know something! As Martin argues, education is at once “central to the social enterprise” and degraded for what it offers; even as the world outside our campuses relies on the knowledge produced by those who have passed through our gates, the very basis of what we do is under attack.

So yes, I feel unsafe, vulnerable, and anxious. But the only way forward is not to abandon what has been core to our values, but to redouble our efforts, to be aware of the world in which we live, and never to lose sight of the critical role we can play in the shaping of the future. We will disagree on many things; hopefully we will agree on the importance of instilling in our students an appreciation for the work that is involved in reaching a complex understanding of a difficult issue, as well as the value that is inherent in compassion and empathetic engagement.

So, I’m anxious, but, as Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, “You have to have anxiety to be courageous. Without anxiety there is no courage.”