Critical library instruction: theories and methods (2010) (review)
By now, library school students must be accustomed to seeing gainfully employed graduates coming back to campus to dispense advice on handling a tough job market. At Simmons College, presenters at these forums seem inevitably to return to the same point: Instruction experience can be a deciding factor when trying to land a job in academic libraries. This is ironic considering that not every library school offers a user instruction class. In fact, one study of LIS curricula found that it was just ten years ago when the number of ALA-accredited library schools with courses on user instruction finally passed the half-way mark (Westbrook, 1999). Those junior librarians who never had the coursework in library school will be entering the job market today without knowing what the dominant trends are in user instruction. Even for those who did take a course in the subject, chances are they never learned much about critical library instruction, one of the exciting counter-trends in the field.
To risk greatly oversimplifying the matter, current trends in information literacy instruction (the term is synonymous with user instruction) display two main themes. The first is that in spite of a growing interest in developing semester-long credit-bearing information literacy courses for undergraduate students, the fifty- or ninety-minute "one-shot" session still remains the preferred format for library instruction. Grassian and Kaplowitz (2009) suggest that part of the reason for the popularity of one-shots in academic libraries is that they "emulate a familiar model in academia — [the] guest [lecture] session" (p. 13). Since librarians teaching one-shots only have a limited time-frame to work with, instruction tends to consist of librarians showing students how to use an electronic database or other library resource. The teacher explains; the students sit and listen.
The other distinctive trend is the growing interest in assessment, i.e., measuring the outcomes of instruction. "Assessment lends credibility not only to the program but also to the library, especially if the [instructional] programs can be shown to support institutional, organizational, or governmental goals and mandates" (Grassian & Kaplowitz, 2009, p. 200). In a harsh economic climate, academic librarians may be tempted to plan information literacy instruction that will produce measurable results in order to win over skeptical college administrators. Assessment tools (typically multiple choice tests and surveys) are often employed as a means of measuring how well the students – and the librarians who teach them – measure up to the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.
Outcomes and standards are all well and good. But as library students on the verge of becoming junior librarians, we should be aware of how the current trends are being challenged. Some of the more sustained criticism in recent years has come from those who are in favor of a teaching model that encourages critical engagement with information systems, rather than one that merely transfers the skills needed to use information systems. For Elmborg (2006), this means library instructors must stop teaching the "library-as-subject" and instead become "specialists in coaching intellectual growth and critical development" (Elmborg, 2006, p. 198). The popularity of this critical model of library instruction has so far been limited to academic librarians like Emily Drabinski, who has been one of its clearest and most persistent proponents. Drabinski, who recently became the first library educator ever elected to the board of Radical Teacher magazine, co-organized a well-attended workshop on critical library instruction at Brooklyn College last May. The event was the first of its kind and probably not the last, considering all the ideas on the subject just published in an anthology edited by Drabinski and two of her colleagues — Maria T. Accardi and Alana Kumbier. All three authors work as instructional librarians at small colleges and universities.
Containing almost two dozen chapters written by practitioners from a range of professional backgrounds and theoretical perspectives, this anthology, Critical Library Instruction: Theories & Methods, has a little something for everyone. The editorial aim of the book is to gather together a body of work on library instruction that might serve as a counterpoint to the dominant trends outlined above. The editors were also motivated by an urgent, almost existential question: "Would ideas that didn't always lead directly to outcomes find a home in our profession?" (p. x).
What does it mean to make library instruction critical? To answer this question, several of the contributors to this volume draw on the critical pedagogy of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (1921 - 1997). Freire's chief contribution to educational philosophy was in opposing the traditional, hierarchical method of education with a model more focused on promoting dialogue, freedom, and development of students' critical capacities. In the traditional model, which Freire dubbed "banking education," the teacher recites the contents of the lesson while the students passively sit and absorb the information "deposits" that they receive in class. What Freire called problem-posing education, as opposed to banking education, works towards eliminating the contradiction between the all-knowing teacher and the ignorant student. Hence, students become "critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher" (Freire, 2000, p. 81). Moreover, students and teachers take as their object of study "problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world" and therefore avoid the alienation of studying some object far removed from their lived experiences (Freire, 2000, p. 81).
How would one apply critical pedagogy out in the real world of library instruction? In their chapter, "Re-Visioning the Library Seminar Through a Lens of Critical Pedagogy," Caroline Sinkinson and Mary Caton Lingold provide an up-close look at how trial-and-error transformed a traditional one-shot session for composition students into a dialogue-driven seminar founded on Freirean principles. Instead of having a librarian at the front of the class narrating the content to be learned (e.g., database idiosyncrasies), a library seminar "re-visioned" from a Freirean perspective would have the students "guide the conversation through an analysis of their own findings, thus dismantling the teacher-student hierarchy" (p. 85, emphasis in the original). In a nutshell, what Sinkinson and Lingold are saying is that the key to securing student engagement is to validate students' personal strivings and accomplishments.
Troy Swanson's chapter, "Information Is Personal: Critical Information Literacy and Personal Epistemology," picks up on this notion of respecting students’ personalities as it addresses the reality of student preference for the banking method. A problem-posing, student-driven approach in the classroom, Swanson reports, will often elicit student objections along the lines of, "But you're the teacher! You tell us the answer!" One way to undercut such resistance, he suggests, is by engaging students' emotions. Library educators can get there by asking questions like "How do you know what you know?" or "What causes you to disagree with a piece of information?" (p. 272).
Another educational goal within the Freirean framework, concientización, or critical consciousness, stands out in Bryan M. Kopp and Kim Olson-Kopp's chapter, "Depositories of Knowledge: Library Instruction and the Development of Critical Consciousness." For Freire, problem-posing education develops a critical consciousness which serves subversively as a "test of reality. The more one becomes critically conscious, the more one unveils reality ..." (Freire & Bondy, 1973, p. 33). Once unveiled, the students and teacher can begin to see that they themselves are co-creators of knowledge. According to this approach, reality is not static, but living, growing and hence changeable if the students decide to re-orient their actions in the direction of social change. In order to encourage the development of critical consciousness in their students, Kopp and Olson-Kopp use a problem-based approach to information literacy instruction. After a short lecture aimed at introducing students to library resources, students then form groups where they spend the rest of class time applying their skills to concrete, real-world situations.
A similar group-study method appears in Elizabeth Peterson's chapter, "Problem-Based Learning as Teaching Strategy." Peterson, a humanities librarian at the University of Oregon, has her students work in groups to focus on case studies& of the kind more commonly used in medical schools. Because of the limited amount of time that they have with their students in the classroom, Peterson doubts that librarians would ever be able to achieve the kinds of outcomes envisioned by Freire. Hence she finds it more worthwhile to take a modest approach, albeit one which still retains some critical pedagogical elements.
Aside from the chapters authored by followers of Freire, the book’s discussion of how to use "unconventional texts" in information literacy instruction offers additional insights on how to enact a critical pedagogy in the library classroom. In "Posing the Wikipedia ‘Problem’: Information Literacy and the Praxis of Problem-Solving in Library Instruction," Heidi L.M. Jacobs discusses her method of modeling good critical thinking skills by "teaching the conflict" over Wikipedia (p. 186). She writes that having students think critically about Wikipedia "opens a door to asking other probing questions about other information sources" like the more reputable Dictionary of National Biography (p. 188). While Jacobs shows how the library classroom can become open and accepting of Wikipedia, one of the more frequently maligned information resources in academia, other authors also try to bring useful texts out from the margins and into a central role in library instruction. One of the more unique contributions to this effort comes from Damian Duffy, a Ph.D student in LIS at the University of Illinois, who has written his chapter in the form of a comic strip. In "Out of the margins ... into the panels: Toward a theory of comics as a medium of critical pedagogy in library instruction," Duffy argues that comics' history of cultural marginalization makes them complementary to the aims of critical pedagogy.
If the discussions of Freire and unconventional texts could be considered a response to the questions, What is critical library instruction? and How is it done?, contributors to the book’s "Conceptual Toolkit" section try to explain why library instruction needs to become critical. In her chapter, "Grand Narratives and the Information Cycle in the Library Instruction Classroom," Sara Franks argues that librarians need a way to teach that fosters critical analysis of the grand narratives which students are sure to encounter in their respective disciplines. In teaching students how to use reference sources, for example, librarians can call attention to the question of "what gets left out of such work ... in order to search for unanswered questions, for minor players that might not be fully represented" (p. 51, emphasis in the original). She suggests that such an approach arms students with the critical skills needed to become full participants in academic life.
Similarly, critical outcomes are expected to follow from Elisabeth Pankl and Jason Coleman's approach. In their chapter, "'There's Nothing on my Topic!' Using the Theories of Oscar Wilde and Henry Giroux to Develop Critical Pedagogy for Library Instruction," they suggest that librarians use that common student complaint as a springboard into a discussion aimed at helping students redefine themselves as question-posers rather than answer-finders. Students will thus "be more likely to experience themselves as active producers of knowledge" as opposed to "passive consumers/ observers" (p. 11).
Echoing Pankl and Coleman's empowerment theme, Sharon Ladenson's chapter explores how traditional library instruction tends to reproduce hierarchical classroom structures and patriarchal modes of thought. In "Paradigm Shift: Utilizing Critical Feminist Pedagogy in Library Instruction," Ladenson gives readers a concrete example of what a feminist library pedagogy looks like by walking them through a lesson — light on lecture, steeped in what she calls "collective sharing" — that she regularly teaches at Michigan State University libraries.
Ladenson's chapter, along with so many others in this book, highlights how an effort to resist oppression lies at the core of critical library instruction. Using the Freirean approach discussed above, such resistance may take the form of unveiling and then critiquing oppressive social structures. For Ladenson, Pankl and Coleman, and others, resisting oppression is a simply a matter of creating a non-oppressive classroom environment in which students could better learn to think critically about information. While all the chapters will not be of equal interest to each reader, the book should stimulate long-overdue conversations at library schools and among librarians about the limits of standards-based instruction and the promise of problem-posing education. This book is best used as a wedge to create an opening in the conservative confines of the library classroom and is highly recommended to those who teach and learn in library schools.
Seth Kershner did his undergraduate work in philosophy at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. His research interests include critical pedagogy, liberation theology, and the dimensions and dilemmas of U.S. militarism. Seth's articles and reviews have appeared in the pages of Fellowship, Z Magazine, Counterpoise, and other journals. He is the author (with Scott Harding) of "'Just Say No': Organizing Against Militarism in Public Schools," which will appear this summer in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. For the past several years, he and Harding have been among a handful of researchers investigating the counter-recruitment movement.
Seth graduates in May and looks forward to attending the Social Sciences Librarians Boot Camp at Tufts University over the summer.
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