Do you remember when the dot-com bubble burst? How about that time Elián González lost at hide and seek? Or when the Supreme Court gave George Bush the presidency? Remember the premiere of Survivor and how much you hated the dude with the beard? Do you remember when iMacs looked like fishtanks? Did you know that Destiny’s Child was once a quartet? If you do remember any 0f this stuff then good for you! Now you can name a half dozen things that have happened since the ACRL Information Literacy Standards were last changed.
The ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards–the ones that start with “The information literate student…blah blah blah” and then get broken into 22 performance indicators and 87 distinct outcomes–were formally approved on January 18, 2000. Over 13 years ago. For a profession that prides itself on its web-savvy, it seems a bit odd that the document which Steven Bell just described as “one of, if not the most essential document, related to the emergence of information literacy as a recognized learning outcome at many institutions of higher education” harkens back to a time when the most popular method of accessing the Internet involved AOL 5.0 and a dial-up connection.
Thankfully, the ACRL is taking steps to remedy this situation by creating a task force dedicated to writing new information literacy competency standards for higher education. Here’s the charge:
Update the Information literacy competency standards for higher education so that they reflect the current thinking on such things as the creation and dissemination of knowledge, the changing global higher education and learning environment, the shift from information literacy to information fluency, and the expanding definition of information literacy…
I won’t go into all of the messy details about why these standards need to be retired but it suffices to say that at 13 years old they probably need to be revisited. If you want more specific gripes and recommendations regarding the current IL standards, check out the recommendations from last year’s review task force.
Oh yeah…did I mention that I’m on the task force? Yeah…I have no idea why, but I was asked to help write new information literacy standards for the ACRL. The task force has only just started working, so there isn’t much to report yet, but over the next year I plan on sharing what I can here on the blog. And what better way to start than to explain my general take on information literacy and the future of the ACRL standards?
Information literacy as skill
Consider the current standards, which are modeled on the ALA’s 1989 four-part definition of IL as a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” The ACRL standards are monomorphic with the ALA definition: to meet Standard One is to “recognize when information is needed”, to meet Standard Two is to “have the ability to locate…the needed information”, and so on, with the fifth standard standing on its own as an ethical and legal consideration. Within the five overarching standards, we see a further division explicitly based along the lines of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the concept of higher- and lower-order cognitive skills. So, the idea is that the information literate student can fulfill the five standards by demonstrating the ability to carry out certain tasks: II.2.b: “Identifies keywords…”, II.4.c: “Repeats the search using a revised strategy…”, III.1.a: “Reads the text and selects the main ideas”, and so on 87 times. In a nutshell, the current ACRL Standards for IL are based entirely on the notion of information literacy skills.
Now, a skill is simply a “learned capacity or ability” to perform some action, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need skills. With respect to the topic at hand, all of the skills listed in the current ACRL standards are valuable abilities to have. And this focus on skills or learned abilities is unquestionably the paradigmatic approach to information literacy in librarianship. Which sort of makes sense. Skills are relatively straightforward to teach. Skill-based instruction admits of a wide variety of pedagogical tactics and methodologies. Skills are easily measured and assessed. They are easy to categorize and they create nice hierarchies if needed, and we all know how much librarians love to categorize.
The problem with skills
Yet, for as clear-cut and intuitive a skills-based approach to information literacy may be, consider what it really means to have a capacity to act. For example, I have some HTML skills, yet I’m writing this post in the “Visual” editor, rather than the HTML editor. I also have the ability to drive a car, yet I often walk to work. I can play the harmonica fairly well, but I don’t carry one with me. And even though I have the ability to brew my own beer, I’m still going to buy a sixer at the gas station every time. The problem with skills is that even when we have them, we do not always or reliably use them. Importantly, when we choose not to apply a skill, that doesn’t mean we don’t have it. A capacity to act is just that: a capacity. It is not a disposition to act. And so it goes for information literacy skills. We can teach students how to master information literacy skills, but that is a separate issue from getting them to actually employ those skills. And that’s where I see fertile ground for a new conception for the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards. I’ll call this new conception a virtue approach to information literacy.
I should probably mention at this point that I’m really interested in libraries and epistemology. In particular, I’m interested in advocating for several very specific epistemological stances for librarianship. For example, I’m an externalist and, specifically, a reliabilist. This dovetails with my commitment to analytic social epistemology and the importance of testimonial knowledge. Wrapped up in all of this is another commitment to what is commonly known as virtue epistemology* (specifically of the sort advocated by Ernetst Sosa (1980, 2009)). And it’s this virtue epistemology that I want to briefly describe.
The basic idea behind virtue epistemology is that intellectual virtues play a key role in how we acquire knowledge. The reliabilist type of virtue epistemology I follow holds (roughly) that a true belief becomes knowledge through the exercise of our intellectual virtues and that what makes a particular intellectual trait a virtue is its reliability. At the heart of virtue epistemology is this concept of an intellectual virtue. As John Greco describes, intellectual virtues are simply “characteristics that promote intellectual flourishing” (cf. arete). Linda Zagzebski offers a few examples: sensitivity to detail, intellectual humility, open-mindedness, adaptability, being able to recognize reliable authority, intellectual fairness, and so on (1996, p. 114 [link]). These intellectual virtues can be contrasted with intellectual skills: the ability to read and write, deductive reasoning, the ability to think up insightful analogies, and so on. Basically, what we know and learn is a function of our intellectual virtues over and above our intellectual skills. Of course, that’s not to say that skills and virtues are wholly separate. As Zagzebski explains,”many virtues have correlative skills that allow the virtuous person to be effective in action, and thus, we would normally expect a person with a virtue to develop the associated skills” (p. 116). Sometimes we need specific skills to act in accordance with our virtues, but the important thing is that the virtues are prior. Zagzebski explains,
virtues and skills have numerous connections, but virtues are psychically prior to skills…because the motivational component of a virtue defines it more than external effectiveness does, whereas it is the reverse in the case of skills. Virtues have a broader range of application than do skills, at least typically, whereas skills tend to be more subject specific, context specific, and role specific. The more direct connection of skills with external behavior makes them more easily taught than virtues. (p. 115)
By way of example, think about the Boy and Girl Scouts. One of the first things that comes to mind when we think of Scouting is the merit badge. Learn a square knot: get a badge. Pitch a tent: get a badge. Climb a mountain: get a badge. Watch TV: get a badge. And merit badges are an important part of Scouting. But if you ask any Scout what makes a Scout, you’ll get something other than a list of badges: a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, etc. (for the boys) or honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, etc. (for the girls). Being a scout is a matter of cultivating certain character traits; the skills-based merit badges are secondary. What makes the Scout helping the little old lady cross the road such an enduring image isn’t the traffic-safety merit badge on the kid’s sash, it’s the helpful character the kid displays. Again, skills are important, but virtue and character is the aim.
Information literacy as virtue
Hopefully, you can see where this is going: the ACRL information literacy standards are addressed to intellectual skills, not intellectual virtues. And this is what I want to see changed as the Information Literacy Task Force continues its work. I want to see intellectual virtues employed as the framework for how we teach information literacy. There are two ways we could do this. First, we could consider information literacy to be its own intellectual virtue on par with the virtues of open-mindedness, intellectual humility, sensitivity to detail, social justice, etc. Call this approach non-reductionist. Second, we could take a reductionist approach and reframe information literacy as some specific combination of intellectual virtues. For example, we could say that a person is information literate if they approach, engage, and apply information in accordance with the intellectual virtues of open-mindedness, intellectual humility, sensitivity to detail, social justice, etc. For a variety of reasons, I prefer the reductionist approach to information literacy
In either case, a virtue epistemology approach to information literacy is definitely what I would like to see because I want to focus less on discrete skills and more on fostering dispositions. And I’m not just talking about going beyond the “click here” skills.; any library instructor worth her salt already knows that teaching pure database mechanics is the wrong way to foster information literacy. No, I’m thinking of all skills, from the lower to the higher orders. The simple reason is that we can teach research skills until we’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that students are going to give a shit about them. Go ahead and survey the college seniors who came through library instruction as freshmen. They may remember the cognitive skills, but ask if they actually use them. I bet you’ll find that the students we are willing to call “information literate” aren’t deserving of that label because of what skills they can demonstrate, but instead are deserving because they consistently put those skills to work those skills. These are the students for whom information literacy is an intellectual virtue, rather than a requirement for a term paper.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that we should ditch skill-based learning. We absolutely need to teach certain skills. But, those skills should be in the service of fostering information literacy as an intellectual virtue. The skills we teach should be thought of as means, not ends. To give a few examples, I want to see…
- students who value different information sources, rather than who can merely “identify the value and differences of potential resources in a variety of formats” (I.2.c)
- students who identify with investigative methods, rather than merely being able to “identify appropriate investigative methods” (II.1.a)
- students who are motivated by social justice, rather than students who just “demonstrates an understanding of intellectual property, copyright, and fair use” (V.1.d)
- students who are inclined to synthesize and internalize what they read, rather than students who just “restate textual concepts in his/her own words” (III.1.b)
And so on. Actually, if you go through the current ACRL standards, you’ll see that a lot of them are already sort of addressed to intellectual virtues. I want to make that focus explicit and consistent.
Reframing the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards
So, there’s a rough sketch of what I’d like to see. I readily admit that a virtue-based approach to IL is an uphill battle. How do we assess intellectual virtues? What does this mean for the vast body of professional literature that already exists? What about all of those videos and tutorials I’m making? And, sure, it’s harder to assess intellectual virtues. But it isn’t impossible. And, sure, it’s a radical departure from 13 years of research and it calls into question a lot of current practices. But, like I’ve said, we still need to teach IL skills; those aren’t going away. Students still need the ability to locate, assess, evaluate, and so on. My position is that these discrete skills are impotent without the motivation to apply them and they should be reframed in service of fostering information dispositions. What’s more, if you go back and read around, you’ll see that a TON of the existing literature on information literacy is implicitly appealing to something like dispositions, motives, or virtues. Even though we’re still using the language of skill, many library instructors have long been focused on modifying student behavior over and above presenting them with new skills. Yet, if the ACRL Standards are any indicator, to date we’ve been (officially) focusing our information literacy efforts on encouraging the development of certain skills; motivating students to value those skills has been of secondary importance. My suggestion is that we reverse this approach. Instead of focusing on cognitive skills, we should focus our information literacy efforts on cultivating the dispositions to value critical inquiry, to use information ethically, to be intellectually humble and honest and fair; the particular skills involved should, like merit badges, be of secondary importance.
I’m really excited to be taking part in the ACRL task force on information literacy standards. I realize that my proposal won’t be adopted 100%, but I do hope that as we hammer out the details, some elements of intellectual virtue remain. Whatever ends up happening, I can guarantee this: when the task force presents its final document to the Board in May 2014, the new set of Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education will be a radical departure from what we’ve been used to. I can’t wait to see what happens.
Stuff I mentioned on virtue epistemology
Greco, J., 2011, “Virtue Epistemology,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available online at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epistemology-virtue/
Riggs, W., 2009, “Two Problems of Easy Credit,” Synthese, 169: 201–216
Sosa, E., 1980, “The Raft and the Pyramid: Coherence versus Foundations in the Theory of Knowledge,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 5: 3–25.
Sosa, E., 2009, Apt Belief and Reflective Knowledge, Volume 1: Reflective Knowledge, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zagzebski, L. 1996. Virtues of the Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
* If you’re an epistemology nerd, you may be wondering how I can embrace both the importance of testimonial knowledge as well as virtue epistemology, given Jennifer Lackey’s well-known credit-worthiness objection. Well, let’s just say that I would argue that information literacy, when construed as an intellectual virtue, is the means by which we remain credit-worthy. Wayne Riggs suggests something similar, though he doesn’t use the language of information literacy. I’ll write a more detailed IL-based defense of credit another time.