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Information literacy and literary questions.


Tree working partnerships between professors and librarians can make information literacy a part of disciplinary studies. By collaborating on course design and teaching, we can integrate information literacy into introductory courses, helping students become informed and critical participants in academic and professional discourse. This paper demonstrates one way of achieving this integration.


In this paper, we demonstrate how our collaboration on an information literacy initiative informed our approach to teaching an introductory literature course and led to us introducing students to research strategies, discourse analysis, and disciplinary critique. Anne is a reference/instruction librarian at Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and William is an assistant professor of English. Lafayette College is a highly competitive liberal arts school with roughly 2000 students and 185 faculty. Our collaboration began when William received a grant from Lafayette's Skillman Library to work with Anne on introducing information literacy skills to students in English 205: Literary Questions, an intro-level literature course that prepares some students for advanced study in English and that serves as a humanities elective for others.

For students to become intelligent and active participants in their academic and professional communities, they must become aware of the rhetorical and political pressures that shape how discourse is created, disseminated, and stored. Information literacy initiatives can enable such participation, helping students become more conscious of disciplinary conventions, and thus more active in their experiences with disciplinary discourse. These initiatives can promote a new type of collaboration between instructors and librarians, one grounded in equality and shared goals, and one that could affect institutional change.

Information Literacy at Lafayette College

Lafayette College libraries are moving from the bibliographic instruction (task-based library exercises) model to an information literacy program. In the past, library instruction occurred in the context of a fifty-minute class period added on to a regular course. The students were shown how to use a database and then asked to complete a rudimentary exercise to solidify their understanding. Because the sessions were so closely tied to a specific course assignment, students often struggled with transferring those skills to other courses and projects. Information literacy skills (unlike library tools) cannot be learned merely through a brief demonstration in a library session for a class. Bruce offers a comprehensive definition of information literacy (IL), but in the interest of space we will include only her loose definition: "IT]he ability to locate, manage and use information" (Brace, 1998, p. 25). While this definition may sound skills-based, IL establishes a relational approach to learning and processing information, "emphasizing general principles and process of information research that can be transferred from one situation to another" (Zhang, 2001, p. 147).

In moving to the IL paradigm, the librarians noted Zhang's observation that "[to] achieve effective curriculum development in information literacy it is critical for librarians to forge strong partnerships with the teaching faculty of the institution" (Zhang, 2001, p. 141). However, while the job title ("reference/instruction librarian") implies a certain amount of teaching, the librarians have not always been recognized as full partners in the education of the students at Lafayette College. To change this perception, and to begin playing a larger classroom role, the Librarians decided to seek out faculty partners. The Provost generously offered an incentive grant to encourage interested faculty to restructure their classes to include IL as an integral course component through a partnership with a librarian.

Literary Questions

When William was awarded the initiative grant, our challenge was to include IL in the Literary Questions framework. After several conversations, we agreed to integrate fully the IL component into the course, meaning we wanted IL to be as vital to the course as the assigned literary and secondary texts. To explain our reasons for including IL in this way, we offer a close reading of the course description.

The description of English 205: Literary Questions in the Lafayette College course catalogue reads as follows:
 This course provides students with an introduction to the theory
 and methodology of literary study by focusing on three questions:
 What is a literary text? How do we read a literary text? How do
 we write about a literary text? By considering the rhetorical,
 aesthetic, and ideological issues that determine literary value,
 students examine their assumptions about literature. (97)

This description explicitly states the three main activities of the course: defining concepts, reading works of literature, and writing about both from personal and academic perspectives. But in our reading of it, the description makes several implicit statements about the course. The first half implies that the course focuses as much on the processes by which literary studies reproduces themselves as it does on the literary texts. In other words, the course examines the discourse of literary studies for the purpose of helping students to understand how the discourse operates and to participate actively in that discourse. The last sentence of the description implies that students will engage in critical and reflective practices meant to expose "literature" as socially constructed, as something that requires a surrounding discourse in order to exist. We consider these actions as central to the liberal arts mission of the College: to lead students to a better understanding of their own thoughts and actions and ultimately to better strategies for employing those thoughts and actions.

Instructors can meet the more explicit goals of the course by assigning texts that range in genres, forms, and time periods. They can frame these works within the various schools of literary criticism (e.g., reader-response theory, deconstruction, feminism) and ask students to read scholarship that pertains either to the source texts, the theories, or both. Finally, they can ask students to compose different types of texts in response to what they read, such as reaction papers, summaries, and literary analyses. These activities respond to the three central questions of the course, but to reach the implicit goals--to understand the processes of discourse production and to engage them critically and actively--requires more by way of literacy instruction, particularly in what it means to construct knowledge in the field of literary studies.

We decided that for Literary Questions to hold true to the liberal arts mission of the College and to its departmental purpose, it needs to challenge students to question their assumptions about literature and to examine the political and social forces that guide those assumptions and influence their understanding of what it means to "learn" literature. Research in discourse analysis provides an important theoretical framework for discussing disciplinary ways of knowing, which are what we wanted to teach alongside the literary texts. Scholarship in information literacy offers valuable insight into how disciplinary knowledge is organized and accessed, as well as the social and political implications of these processes for students and teachers. For our section of Literary Questions, we drew on these areas of study to introduce the critical language and tools necessary for reading literary texts, believing that such knowledge would demystify for students the information mechanisms of literary study and empower them to find their own voices within the larger conversations of the field.

Our Information Literacy Initiative Collaboration

We understand the goals of discourse analysis to be liberatory in nature; that is, it makes individuals more aware of what Bazerman calls "the hidden mechanisms of life" (Bazerman, 1992, p. 62), the processes and systems that affect the ways information is created, disseminated, and understood. Disciplines such as literary studies construct methods for creating arguments, using evidence, addressing audiences, summarizing texts--methods informed by the values and politics of the disciplines. To many outsiders, such as our students, the texts that represent the disciplines, the ones they find in books and journals, appear as pre-existing relics. Geisler explains that students often read such texts as "completely explicit in their content but utterly opaque in their rhetorical construction" (Geisler, 1994, p. 85); that is, the disciplinary ways of knowing that shaped the texts are unknowable to the non-initiated. It is the very rhetorical nature of disciplines that students must recognize to become active and intelligent participants--not experts, necessarily, but self-aware agents in their own learning (cf. Watson for a discussion of disciplinary expertise). Without this recognition, students may be unaware of the extent to which discourse conventions affect their thoughts and actions. Bazerman argues that "Rhetorical analysis [of disciplines] can make visible the complexity of participation by many people to maintain the large projects of the disciplines," thus providing "the means for more informed and thoughtful participation" (Bazerman, 1992 p. 64). This complexity of participation and the systems that regulate it are what we wanted students to recognize and critique as they learned how to read and respond to literary texts.

The IL component offers both a theoretical base and practical strategies for helping students gain access to the disciplinary participation Bazerman, Geisler, and Watson each discuss. This participation is what Ward and Raspa refer to when they write about collaboration as a "meaningful sharing among participants in the academic community" (Ward and Raspa, 1998, p. 436). In Literary Questions we wanted the students to understand that this community, of which they are members, extends far beyond the classroom. To this end we created several information literacy assignments designed to introduce the students to English as a discourse and to encourage them to see themselves as participating in the discipline.

Through many of the class exercises and discussions we paralleled Ward and Raspa's goals for information literacy, "whereby one learns to manage and use information through dialogue and to determine what information is needed, how to obtain, evaluate, and use it" (Ward and Raspa, 1998, p. 437). But we wanted to take this a step further, to where the students learned to analyze the very structures of information dissemination themselves, such as the MLA International Bibliography, as discipline-related texts. We challenged the students to engage not only the scholars who wrote the articles they were citing, but the indexers who created the database that organizes them.

Pulling articles from recent journals not yet indexed, we asked the students to work as indexers and create records for MLA and Humanities Abstracts. Anne shared her experiences as an indexer for Hispanic American Periodicals Index and instructed the students how to index the articles. The students responded by challenging the descriptors chosen for similar articles in these databases and grew to understand the human elements behind the tools they use for their research. This study of indexing processes is a type of rhetorical analysis, a skill, Bazerman contends, that "opens up [the] suppressed issues of the dynamics and evolving knowledge production of the disciplines" (Bazerman, 1992, p. 64). By acting as both indexers and critics, the students moved closer to the kind of active disciplinary participation Bazerman and we endorse.

We designed one of the assignments to help the students see how the larger academic community is formed and how its members carry on conversations. As part of their final research project, the students constructed an annotated bibliography of articles that spanned centuries (1700s to present) and critical theories. After they had gathered approximately one-third of their sources, we asked them to examine and compare the notes and references of the sources they had found. We suggested they look for commonly cited journal titles, authors, and articles in order to find additional materials on their chosen topics. To take their research forward, they performed citation searches (using Arts and Humanities Search) to find authors who cited the articles they had found. Students reported being surprised that authors commented on the critical articles of each other. They also expressed a perhaps healthy dose of cynicism after tracing a given topic, wondering why people cite their own work and if scholars cite the same journal in which they are published as a means to secure their own publications. These musings demonstrated to us that the students were becoming critical readers and were starting to place the information they had gathered in larger disciplinary contexts.

To understand more fully the concepts of discourse conventions and disciplinary knowledge, students needed to collaborate with their peers and their instructors. As Ward and Raspa assert, collaboration occurs when the participants are willing to open themselves up, to make themselves vulnerable (Ward and Raspa, 1998, p. 436). For example, in our discussions of the construction of MLA International Bibliography one student, after looking for articles on popular musicians, asked "Doesn't anyone write about Tom Petty?" This allowed us the opportunities to share our experiences as researchers interested in popular culture and the politics of the larger academy. To the student's question, we responded with disclosures about the realities of the tenure process: such as, not all topics are of interest to the field, and publishing on the works of a rock star may not be seen favorably by promotion committees. Such disclosures, similar in a way to those made by students unsure of a paper topic, work to make the confines of the discipline real to students while also bringing the class together as a community of scholars working within those confines.

Another forum for three-way (student-librarian-professor) collaboration was the research journals. Smith mentions using Blackboard to have public journals for the students (Smith, 2001, p. 24). Believing that the research journals needed to be a safer and more private venue for student expression, we used Blackboard's Group Pages feature so that each journal could only be accessed by its student author, William and Anne. Based on Smith's observations, we encouraged the students to use the space for reflection on the research process itself. Both Anne and William responded to the students' entries and built on each other's comments. Although we had not previously discussed how we would handle it, we naturally fell into a pattern of not segregating the elements of the course. William did not limit his responses to literature issues nor did

Anne solely comment on research procedures. Both instructors drew from their experiences and knowledge bases to establish a dialogue with the students that demonstrated how the traditionally separate elements of the course (library--classroom) were, in fact, seamlessly integrated. By setting an example of inclusion, we blurred the traditional boundaries and created an environment in which IL was simply part of the course content instead of some obstacle the students needed to tackle two days before their papers were due.


The goal of Literary Questions is to introduce students to "the theory and methodology of literary study," and we believe that our collaboration helped us achieve that goal. Students saw the course information not as static collections of texts and terms, but as dynamic conversations that cross time periods and populations. They discussed the power differentials and political restraints alive in these conversations and examined how they affect who speaks and what gets spoken. Perhaps most importantly, the students joined these discussions as informed and active participants, capable of accessing and critically interpreting the myriad forms of information that surround them. Students reported in their research journals that they were able to successfully transfer these skills to assignments in other classes.

As the fields of English studies and library sciences consider how best to proceed in regards to information literacy, we offer several points for institutions and instructors to consider (cf. Zhang for other suggestions for developing an IL program). For IL initiatives to succeed, institutional administrations must demonstrate a true appreciation of the intrinsic value of IL. This administrative support should encourage equal collaboration between instructors and librarians. Equal collaboration means that both groups take active roles in the planning and implementing of course goals and activities. Since most librarians do not have a background in pedagogy, institutions should consider supporting continuing education for the librarian-as-instructor.

Effectively teaching IL skills requires that IL components be woven into the traditional course content, so that they appear not as separate entities but as interrelated bodies of knowledge. The roles of the librarian and the professor should also be intertwined in the course so that students perceive that managing information is not a task reserved for the quiet space of the library, but a process affecting all aspects of their lives (cf. ACRL on literate students as lifelong learners). In order to achieve this partnership, the librarian and the professor must work together in course planning, establishing an appropriate balance among the different aspects of the course. While this manner of teaching and learning requires a significant time commitment by the librarians, professors and students, the rewards for each are abundant.

Works Referenced

Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Chicago: American Library Association.

Bazerman, C. (1992). From Cultural Criticism to Disciplinary Participation: Living with Powerful Words. In Herrington, A. and Moran, C. (Eds), Writing, Teaching, and Learning in the Disciplines. New York, New York: MLA. Pp. 61-68.

Bruce, C. (1998). The Phenomenon of Information Literacy. Higher Education Research and Development, 17 (1), 25-43.

Geisler, C. (1994). Academic Literacy and the Name of Expertise. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Lafayette College. (2001). Lafayette College Catalog 2001-03. Easton, PA: Creasy Printing Services.

Smith, T. (2001). Keeping Track: Librarians, Composition Instructors, and Student Writers Use the Research Journal. Research Strategies, 18, 21-28.

Ward, D. & Raspa, R. (1998). Information Literacy: The Collaborative Imperative. NCA Quarterly, 72 (4), 436-439.

Watson, S. (2000). WAC, WHACK: You're and Expert--Not! In Goggin, M.D. (ed), Inventing a Discipline: Rhetoric Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Young. Urbana, Illinois: NCTE. Pp. 319-333.

Zhang, W. (2001). Building Partnerships in Liberal Arts Education: Library Team Teaching. Reference Services Review, 29 (2), 141-149.
Anne C. Barnhart-Park, Lafayette College, PA
William J. Carpenter, Lafayette College, PA

Anne is a Reference/Instruction librarian. Her research interests include information literacy and popular culture of Latin America. William is assistant professor of English. His teaching-research focus is composition theory and pedagogy.
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Author:Carpenter, William J.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1U2PA
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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