"Jell-O molds aplenty" by flyheatherfly via Flickr

Anytime I think I’ve gotten closer to defining “information literacy,” I realize how slippery this concept is. It feels a bit like sparring with a bowl of Jell-O.

Now there’s a metaphor for you. I almost said “Jell-O wrestling,” but I caught myself.

Inspired by the recent chatter among my colleagues taking a user experience research methods class this term, let’s play “personas and scenarios” for information literacy.

User 1: Veronica is a new teaching assistant in Rhetoric & Composition for first-year college students. On the first day of class, she gives them an informal survey about their previous experience with writing. In answer to the prompt, “Describe the type of writing you have done most in school,” 60 percent of the class answers, “Book reports.” Veronica quietly despairs. By midterm, she can’t wait to get her students to their 1-hour library session so someone can finally explain to them how to do research before they have to turn in their research papers. She tells her students how important this session is. “You’ll learn how to find good articles!” she says, genuinely excited. On the day of the library session, a third of the class is absent. By the time the final research papers are graded, three students have failed and must re-take the class.

User 2: Jeanine is the associate dean of the library at a large research institution. After 10 years of pilot programs, she’s finally made in roads with the Core Curriculum Committee and the campus is launching its first major information literacy effort. All students in all disciplines will be required to take a 1.5-credit class on “metaliteracy” taught by librarians. Jeanine is thrilled. At the end of the initiative’s first year, she sits down to review survey data from faculty asked to evaluate their students’ research and writing skills. More than half of the faculty say that their students’ ability to find good research articles has improved. However, a third of science and engineering faculty report that their upper-level students are struggling to apply the skills from the literacy class to their disciplines. Their lab reports show no improvement in critical thinking or synthesis, and moreover, the students can’t produce a credibly written or formatted scientific report anymore than before. “Why are librarians teaching this course?” writes one faculty member. “They aren’t trained in my discipline.” Jeanine quietly despairs.

User 3: David is the director of the Writing Center at a state college. For four years, he has team-taught research and writing workshops both at the Writing Center and in the campus library in partnership with librarians. He has been working on developing qualitative assessment metrics for the group of 125 students who have participated in the Writing Center-Library tutoring program for the past four years. He has asked them to keep a “research and writing journal” in which they note their questions, problems, and reflections about the writing process. He has also asked them to rate their emotional states in a special column in the journal that corresponds to their writing and research activities. He will put in an extra 20 hours a week for the next 2 months coding and transcribing the results. Reading one student’s journal late at night, he comes across this line, “Doing research isn’t really any easier than it was last year, but I can tell better when someone’s trying to bullshit me by how they write or talk.” David laughs and laughs, and makes a note to himself: “IL transfer = bullshit detector? Well, it’s a start.”

OK. Clearly these examples are rigged, but I had fun writing them. In imagining these narratives, I’m trying to get at some of the deeply difficult questions surrounding information literacy both as a concept and as a practice we seek to teach others. A few of those difficult questions that stuck with me after our discussion in class:

• What can be taught, and in what time?

Why, in other words, do (some) college curricula (and again, I’m focusing on college settings here given my own professional interests) hold up higher-order thinking and decision-making as the goal — information literacy included — and then allot the same 50 minutes that were needed for the library lecture on bibliography construction 30 years ago?

• If we’re teaching checklists of skills, how are we connecting to larger disciplinary expectations? Most important, how are we connecting to lifelong learning, that oft-cited goal?

I don’t mean to be flip on this point, as that scenario about “Veronica” is more or less about my own first semester as a teaching assistant, and it’s experiences like those — that put me face-to-face with the complexity and even mystery of the processes of knowledge creation, language fluency, and information fluency — that made me want to become a librarian.

Yes! Lifelong learning!

Now, how do we get closer to an integrated approach from K-12 up through college? That’s one of the big questions I think we are tackling in this class.

• Finally, what are the edges of information literacy, in the way we conceive of it both as a profession and in the context of interdisciplinary forces and expectations?

I’m intrigued by the notion of “metaliteracy” — and it dovetails conceptually with my own experiences studying the discipline of rhetoric, itself a hard-to-define interdisciplinary field that also has a big stake in literacy, critical thinking, analysis, discourse, writing, communication, savvy, etc. I often rely on the rhetorician’s view of the world to help formulate my ideas. It’s an organizational system that makes sense to me.

But it’s incredibly difficult to turn something so broad — which is a large part of its impact and power as a discipline, to my mind — into an elevator speech. And aren’t elevator speeches nice to pull out of one’s pocket in a kairotic moment** — especially when asked to prove one’s worth for funding? (**Rhetoric joke, sorry.)

At this point, I have way more questions than answers. Yet, I will risk one more question: What if librarians have to give up their gatekeeper role to “information literacy the brand” — that legacy property in the profession — and work in a broader partnership to integrate information literacy-style skills, habits, and attitudes into discipline-specific curricula?

What would that look like?

And what the hell would we call it?