Critical Pedagogy, Information Literacy, and Tech Instruction

I recently attended the 2014 LACUNY Institute: “Information Literacy to Empower: Theory and Practice.” Usually I just tweet a lot at conferences as a form of personal notetaking, but this time the amazing keynote (from librarian-hero Barbara Fister) and super-smart presentations have lingered longer than expected. The conference, as a whole, was tons of fun, full of invigorating thoughts from smart, engaged, and passionate practitioners who take their theory seriously.

A Teacher Talks to Her Students in a Classroom at Cathedral Senior High School in New Ulm, Minnesota circa 1975. From the U.S. National Archives Photostream on Flickr. (Photographer: David Stroble)

During a break, I was chatting with another librarian who asked why I was there. Was I an instruction librarian? Did I actually teach as part of my job?

The answer, of course, was no. But until that question came up, I hadn’t considered my presence suspect. I mean, I consider information literacy and critical pedagogy to be intertwined areas of library science that concern all librarians. My conception of librarianship is deeply indebted to Jesse Shera and John Dewey, with the understanding that librarians are first and foremost educators. Even if your particular role in a library doesn’t include interacting with the public/students/faculty, the idea that libraries are for the public good kind of necessitates that your endgame is to make people more educated, at some level.

Some of you might be asking what is critical pedagogy, and what does it have to do with libraries? At which point I’m going to just refer you to this outstanding compilation from Library Juice Press. Years ago I attended a presentation by Ira Shor aimed at teaching principles of critical pedagogy to instruction librarians. I came away with an appreciation of a constructivist approach to teaching in whatever classroom setting we are provided with and the idea that there are simple steps we can take to shift authority away from the professor and teach students to trust in their own critical thinking skills. It’s also been helpful as a student in an interdisciplinary program when I see the different styles of teaching in action and can identify what works with the material and what doesn’t. I can recognize the distinction between teachers who fish for a pre-determined answer, and those who bounce answers through 3-4 students (and genuinely listen to and lead off of the responses) before contributing their own thoughts. So thinking about these ideas wasn’t entirely new to me.

But that short chat about what I was doing at LACUNY had me wondering how I could apply these concepts to my real-life situation. And much of what I think about/experience these days as a librarian and student in the digital humanities is learning technology. I’ve attended countless workshops, usually consisting of an instructor walking the class through some powerpoint slides (which we all get copies of), followed by some “hands-on” exercises to get us acquainted with the program we’re learning.

So, to ask a somewhat obvious question: how do we teach technology in a way that develops a critical understanding of the tool itself? How do we bring the principles of critical pedagogy to bear on tech instruction? Granted, some information literacy instruction can veer into technology training when the focus is showing students how to navigate a database, so some of this discussion of how to make it more critical is already happening in those circles. There is probably also some overlap with the instructional technology and digital pedagogy conversations (and I admit that I am woefully unaware of much of it), but my sense is that those tend to look at how to teach X concept using Y technology. What I’m looking for has to do with teaching Y technology such that we develop students’ critical stance towards the technology itself. Not the pedagogical application of tools, but the pedagogy of the technology workshop.

One thought I’ve had lately goes back to libraries and the growing focus on usability and user-centered design. Couldn’t we repurpose techniques we use in teaching usability to unravel the design choices of, say, Open Refine, to talk about the assumptions embedded in those choices? Can we combine a hands-on, constructivist approach to learning that not only explains how to manipulate a program/tool/technology service for research purposes but also reveals the biases that are built into it? Can we talk about Dropbox’s DCMA takedowns when we’re demonstrating how to use it in archival research workflows?

I know, I know. Having a group of students of varying capabilities, who are probably seeking no more than a working proficiency, for only a couple of hours at a time is a big challenge. Remember that presentation from Ira Shor that I saw? The librarians present were enthusiastic but mostly asked, “How can I possibly do that in my 1-shot session?”

I recently saw a talk by Miriam Posner (which is now a video lesson!) in which she provided a framework to critically evaluate digital humanities projects. The session wasn’t too much longer than an hour, but it managed to be both interactive and instructive; at the time, I commented that it was like an info lit session for digital projects and that librarians should be taking up this work. If information literacy librarians are concerned with teaching students to “locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information,” digital humanities librarians need to engage with how to perform these activities when the “information package” is a digital project (you know, those things that probably lack the traditional signifiers of peer review and are generally not indexed in scholarly databases). Taking this further, while libraries are still trying to figure out the role of subject specialists in digital humanities librarianship, it seems clear to me that consulting with students and faculty on locating, evaluating, and using technology tools — not just information packages — is going to be a part of it. So while we talk about project-based learning in the digital humanities, does anyone consider Freire’s problem-posing methodology as it relates to technology instruction? I know I’m not the first to consider these questions, but it would be great to pool resources on how we might accomplish these teaching goals. How about instead of collecting and sharing syllabuses, we share teaching exercises?

I guess what I’m really asking is, given our limited time and space constraints, how can librarians move beyond training and rote instruction in technology workshops for digital scholarship and cross over into really teaching?

« Academia and “The Business of Evaluation”
Reproducing the Academy: Librarians and the Question of Service in the Digital Humanities »