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A Thought-Provoking Provocation Essay Series

April 14, 2021

Project Information Literacy, is known for its research reports exploring how students interact with information, both in and outside of their course work. This year, they have launched a new series of essays called the “PIL Provocation Series.” These essays are meant to “spark discussion about pressing issues, ideas, and concerns” related to information literacy.

The first essay in the series, “Lizard People in the Library” by Barbara Fister made the rounds in February; it was even re-printed in The Atlantic. With this essay the author tackled the prevalence of QAnon and other conspiracy theories in our media landscape, asking whether our current information literacy efforts are up to the task of disrupting this trend. She considered our existing mode of teaching students about information, chiefly how to find and evaluate sources for academic coursework; and explored how this strategy may miss much of complex nature information in our society. She also suggested some fundamental ways that information literacy may need to be re-considered going forward.

The second essay in the series came out last week: “Reading in the Age of Distrust” by Alison J. Head. Her work considers whether information literacy instruction in higher education needs to step back and consider a more fundamental skill– reading comprehension. She makes the case the students do not have the experience, or proficiency, to tackle the deep analysis most instructors ask them to undertake with texts assign in their syllabus. Many students also fail to see the value of such a deep dive into the readings, especially in the frame of the cost/benefit analysis they are always calculating – balancing the amount of time in a day and their responsibilities at home, school, and work. Head also asks a question similar to Fister, who is responsible for teaching students these skills, and what more can instructors do to gain student “buy in” (for a lack of a better word) within their course work? Perhaps with better connection to and a reflection of the “real” world beyond academia?

The work of Project Information Literacy has strong ties to the missions and goal of librarians and librarianship. We are often the information professionals at the front lines of these concerns. Does that mean that the tasks outlined by Fister and Head fall onto librarians? Along with the other information literacy skills we are asked to teach, does reading comprehension and synthesis belong on that list? Head asks that question while also pointing out the limits of the “50 minute” time slot that is often all the time we are given to interact with the students. One could argue that 50 minutes is adequate if all we are asked to do is to help students to find a book or learn about a database, but right now it seems that we are being asked to do more. The issues brought up by Fister and Head need champions, and librarians are answering the call, but does our common role of “guest speaker” set us up for success or failure?

So far, the “PIL Provocation Series” has taken information literacy beyond the realm of frameworks and checklists. The authors have questioned the current role that librarians, and other educators, have in this brave new information world and given us a place to reflect and evaluate our current attempts at information literacy. Do they provide all the right answers? Unfortunately, it is not as easy as that. But they are asking the questions that will hopefully take us another step forward. I am excited to see what other essays are published in the coming months, and what other issues the authors tackle.

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