A few weeks ago I wrote that I was not too thrilled with the “threshold concept” theory underpinning the new ACRL information literacy framework. And though I hinted at the six threshold concepts put forth by the ACRL, I chose not to criticize them directly. Why? Well, it’s because the six concepts themselves seem like good things for students to learn. Just to recap, the six concepts identified by the ACRL framework are:
- Scholarship is a Conversation
- Research as Inquiry
- Authority is Contextual and Constructed
- Format as a Process
- Searching as Exploration
- Information has Value
Taken at face value, these seem like six important insights; six things we presume information literate persons should be familiar with. Granted, I’m not buying into the threshold concept business, but they seem like they could be what we used to call foundational or core concepts.* That is to say, they’re really important. Maybe even the most important things to understand when becoming information literate (though there are probably others too). And they are the core of the ACRL’s new approach to information literacy. These six concepts–quite independent from the notion of threshold concepts–are going to play a huge role in library instruction, assessment, and so on. Really, in another five years or so we’ll all have these memorized and hearing people say “format as a process” at LOEX will be no big deal (except to the grammar police).
Perhaps the thing that most interests me is that these concepts have gone almost entirely unchallenged. Other than some slight snark on Twitter, I haven’t seen anyone really dig into these core concepts with a critical eye. Basically, I’m reading about a lot of excitement and the occasional “I’ve been teaching this concept for years, thank god the ACRL finally recognizes it” going on. But who’s calling shenanigans? (If, indeed, there are shenanigans to be called.) [EDIT: I just finished writing this when I saw that Jacob Berg called shenanigans on the ethical dimensions of the "Information has Value" TC. Go check out his post. It's a good read.]
Well, shoot, I guess I’ll just have to call them.
Starting with this post, I’ll take a look at each core concept in turn and figure out what to make of it. Again, I do think these are important concepts, but I just don’t like to see important ideas go untested. So, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and poke at the framework in the hopes that I can make sense of it. Don’t think I’m going to be entirely negative here: there are a few threshold concepts I really like. And the ACRL task force should be commended for thinking outside of the box. I just want to poke around in the hopes that any weaknesses in the concepts are addressed prior to formal adoption of the framework. So, that’s what I’ll do. But first, an explanation of how the framework is set up.
Anatomy of a frame
Each of the six “frames” in the new framework follows the same structure:
- A summary overview of the threshold concept
- A bulleted list of “knowledge practices”
- Related “metaliteracy learning objectives”
- Possible assignments
The summary overview is further divided into a short (one sentence) description of the concept followed by a paragraph long explication. The knowledge practices section details the skills that a person will have after acquiring the threshold concept in question. The metaliteracy learning objectives have something to do with social media, collaboration, metacognition, and…um…actually, I have no clue what’s going on here. Moving on, the dispositions section outlines what I assume are meant to be desired intellectual dispositions like curiosity, open-mindedness, self-awareness, and so on. The self-assessments seem to be concrete activities designed to test whether a person has mastered a particular threshold concept, and the possible assignments are simply suggested classroom activities.
Given that I don’t understand the reasoning behind the metaliteracy objectives, I won’t speak to them. And, since the self-assessments and possible assignments seem more like optional curricular suggestions, they don’t seem to be necessary in order to understand the threshold concepts. That leaves just the concept itself, the knowledge practices, and the dispositions as the real meat of the framework. And, since it makes sense to go in the order that the threshold concepts are presented in the framework, let’s start by looking at the first frame…
Scholarship is a Conversation
Let’s take a look at the first threshold concept of the new Framework: scholarship is a conversation. From the draft framework:
Scholarship is a conversation refers to the idea of sustained discourse within a community of scholars or thinkers, with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of competing perspectives and interpretations.
While many questions can be answered by appeal to a single, authoritative source–the capital of a country or the atomic number of an element, for example–scholarly research resists simple answers. Rather, scholarship is discursive practice in which ideas are formulated, debated, and weighed against one another over extended periods of time. Instead of seeking discrete answers to complex problems, scholars understand that a given issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives. Far from a unified body of uncontested knowledge, the scholarly record is better understood in terms of a conversation in which information users and creators come together to negotiate meaning, with the expert adding his or her voice to the conversation. The expert understands that there may not be a single uncontested answer to a query and, hence, is inclined to seek out the many perspectives in a scholarly conversation, not merely the one with which the expert already agrees.
The idea of the scholarly conversation has been floating around for a while now: in 2011 Barbara Fister introduced the idea by way of Kenneth Burke,** explaining that “what we’d like students to have is some sense of scholarship as conversation in progress and some tips on how to figure out who’s talking and how to pick up the threads without getting completely lost.” Scholarly articles are not meant to be consumed independently from one another. Indeed, the entire scholarly record is a self-supporting framework of interconnected ideas. So the story goes. Of course, the idea that scholarship is a conversation is nothing new; in addition to Burke, Michael Oakeshott talked about it in “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” and Richard Rorty used the idea quite extensively as he argued for the primacy of hermeneutics over epistemology. It’s also a wildly popular concept among postmodern Christian apologetics. And of course, taken broadly, the discursive nature of learning has been with us since Socrates. So, again, it’s not a new idea: students need to move away from looking for simple answers to complex problems and instead realize that every researcher brings some new insight to the scholarly conversation and new theories or perspectives (not necessarily answers) arise in negotiation. And so it goes: we expose students to the idea that scholarship is a conversation, they have an “A-ha!” moment, and they run off to seek multiple perspectives on challenging issues.
But, there’s a tension in this threshold concept that I can’t seem to find a way around: is the claim “scholarship is a conversation” meant to be taken literally or figuratively? Either way leads to some uncomfortable results for the ACRL’s framework.***
Scholarship is literally a conversation
If the threshold concept is taken literally, then all we have to do to explain scholarship is look to the definition of a conversation. The venerable OED defines a conversation as an “interchange of thoughts and words; familiar discourse or talk”**** and the entry in Wikipedia explains that a conversation is “a form of interactive, spontaneous communication between two or more people who are following rules of etiquette.” Averaging these out, we can say that a conversation consists in three things:
- an exchange of information
- between two or more people
- following a particular etiquette
That last bit about etiquette is actually pretty interesting, and it’s worth stopping to mention Grice’s conversational maxims, simplified as: be as informative as possible, be truthful, be relevant, be clear. I’ll let you go down the rabbit-hole of conversational implicature on your own. But the point is that a conversation follows informal rules that help distinguish it between other exchanges of ideas. For example, in a conversation there is an informal rule of etiquette that all those involved participate. If one person does all the talking, that’s not a conversation, it’s a monologue. There’s also a rule that participants should seek agreement or, at the very least, coherence. If the conversants are trying to prove each other wrong, we call that a debate or an argument, not a conversation. You get the idea.
Anyway, there certainly are some librarians out there who hold a literal version of “scholarship is a conversation.” Dave Lankes of New Librarianship fame comes to mind. And the idea is that when I read your article, cite it in my paper, and then someone cites me later on, there’s a real conversation taking place over time. Amplified throughout the world of scholarly communication, we can say that there is a massive exchange of information between millions of scholars following formal and informal rules (e.g., citations, peer-review, etc.). Hence, scholarship is a real conversation, structurally no different from hanging out with your coworkers around the water cooler.
But, is it really? I don’t think so. I mean, when you think of a conversation, don’t you usually think of something more like that casual water-cooler talk or shooting the shit with your friends or even talking about deep ideas with your peers? “Hey, I was thinking…” “Yeah, sort of like this book I read…” “Cool, reminds me of this blog post…” You get the idea. And though I don’t know how best to illustrate it, I shouldn’t have to: I think we all know what a regular conversation is. But, when we start to take away that real-time exchange and we start to allow that citations months, years, or decades apart count as information exchange (i.e., “ideas are formulated, debated, and weighed against one another over extended periods of time”) or when we extend normal conversational etiquette to include things like peer-review, citation styles, and the like, aren’t we stretching the normal definition of conversation awfully thin? It seems to me that the long timescales, the rigid rules for publication, the choke-points on access, the necessary evils of copyright…all work against the casual exchange of what we normally assume is conversation. Basically, publishing scholarly articles is such a different thing from going back-and-forth on Twitter that it only dilutes the meaning of “conversation” to say that scholarship is literally a conversation. It dilutes it to the point that there’s nothing to be gained by calling scholarship a conversation: if scholarship is just any old exchange of ideas, then everything is a conversation, from debating to delivering a monologue to writing fiction to making movies, to painting a mural. How is that helpful?
It isn’t, because the entire reason we make a distinction between conversation, monologue, debate, scholarship, and so on is because those differences matter.
Scholarship is only figuratively a conversation
But, perhaps this threshold concept isn’t meant to be taken literally. Perhaps it’s just a metaphor; scholarship is like a conversation. This seems more plausible; it allows us to keep a more intuitive definition of what a conversation is. It also allows there to be some differences between scholarship and normal conversation, so long as there are more similarities on balance. So, for example, that thing about the weeks, months, or years between the points and counter-points of the “scholarly conversation” is more palatable: scholarship is just a really slowed-down conversation. And just like conversations involve multiple voices, scholarship requires multiple voices, it isn’t a solitary activity.
I think that the scholarship/conversation metaphor does have its place as a rhetorical or pedagogical device because, at heart, calling scholarship a conversation is a means of simplifying what is otherwise a rather complex subject area. When I teach first-year students about finding sources, I do use the scholarly conversation metaphor precisely because it allows me to set aside some of the more complicated issues surrounding peer-review, publish-or-perish, open access models, journal subscriptions, and so on. In a weird way, the metaphor allows me to step away from expertise. See, I don’t start from the position of the expert, as the Framework suggests we should. I start from the position of the novice: how do they see scholarship? Well, we know that novice researchers tend to think in binary terms of pro/con, right/wrong, for/against (actual request: “I’m writing about date rape on campus and I found stuff against it, but I’m having trouble finding articles that support it”). and they tend to seek out all and only that evidence that supports their own beliefs (“I need stuff that shows how gays shouldn’t marry”) . They tend to think that if they can form a research topic about something, then there must be scholarship surrounding it (“I need a peer-reviewed article about parking on the UTC campus”). They tend to get hung up on what is and isn’t considered scholarly (“It doesn’t have “Journal” in its title, so it isn’t scholarly”). Hopefully this stuff rings true to library instructors.
Anyway, the conversation metaphor is useful in helping students break out of those bad habits and misconceptions. Helping students see that some research areas actually contain multiple perspectives is a good thing. So is helping students realize that good research means maybe changing your own beliefs. And these are the parts of the threshold concept I think work best; I do this stuff when I teach. For example, one of our visual rhetoric activities for first-year composition has them make the move from research being like this
to research being more like this
And we have the whole conversation about looking for perspectives instead of concrete answers. So, on this point I think the ACRL’s threshold concept is on point. There are some similarities between conversations and scholarly communication and pointing these out is a good pedagogical tactic.
But, here’s the thing: I don’t pull the conversation metaphor with more advanced students. The metaphor is a great way of simplifying scholarship, but once researchers get past the more naive misconceptions it’s the differences between conversations and scholarship that become important. In a sense, the expert researcher needs to know how scholarship is not like a conversation. Here are a few examples of how scholarship is not a conversation:
- Conversations are not mediated; scholarship is. In a traditional conversation, all parties are able to speak freely and without interference other than self-censorship. But, scholarship is mediated through processes like peer-review, which impose filters between an author and her readers. When peer-review works well this is a good thing and one of the foundations of modern scholarship. But there is no analogue in a conversation. Experts need to understand how the scholarly record is mediated.
- Conversations are symmetrical; scholarship is not. Conversations require that familiar back-and-forth. I say A, you respond B, I respond C, etc. Remember, if only one person is talking, it’s only a monologue (NTTAWWT). But, scholarship lacks this conversational symmetry. If I publish a paper and someone cites my work, are they responding to me? Or are they using my ideas to further their argument? Sure, sometimes scholars directly address one another. Those of you interested in information science probably remember the epic exchange between Marcia Bates and Birgir Hjørland in JASIS&T a few years back. Here’s a summary. Heck, even this rinky-dink little blog was involved in a little reciprocal exchange when I criticized an article by John Budd and he addressed my post in the Journal of Documentation. Link here. But, for the most part, scholarship is not about “information users and creators com[ing] together to negotiate meaning” as the ACRL puts it. It’s more asymmetrical, with most scholarship proceeding through accretion of ideas, not negotiation of ideas. Speaking of which…
- Conversations may negotiate meaning; scholarship doesn’t. I’ll grant that in some disciplines–maybe critical theory or history or something else in the humanities–scholars often “negotiate meaning.” Though, to be fair, I’m not too sure what it even means to negotiate meaning in a scholarly context. Is the idea that every single fact, theory, or belief is up for negotiation? That the goal of scholarship is trying to figure out what theories and facts mean? That doesn’t seem right. Look at the millions of scientific papers out there that simply report the findings of empirical study. Sure, sometimes there are competing theories: until recently there were competing schools of thought about whether neanderthals had a carnivorous or an omnivorous diet. So, a bunch of scientists vaporized some caveman turds and found that neanderthals were omnivores. Case closed. And not through negotiation, but through experiment. The vast majority of scientific scholarship isn’t about negotiating answers or new discoveries, it’s about reporting the answers or discoveries found through research. Are we really supposed to teach students that even empirical studies really just boil down to conversational negotiations? [EDIT: Donna Lanclos has pointed out that this isn't exactly how science works, and she's right. I oversimplified. My point is that meaning in science isn't negotiated through the scholarly record the same way it is in a conversation: it's determined via experiment and empirical data. Ideally, the evidence should be what determines what the scientific community believes, not some conversational negotiation. Granted, science, as a human activity, is constantly affected by non-evidential biases and negotiations do occur. But by and large the sciences should be judged by the quality of the evidence, not the coherence of the conversation. Where the scholarly record comes in is at the level of independent confirmation (i.e., replication), pattern recognition, inductive reasoning, and (if needed) debunking via more compelling evidence. The posts I wrote on social constructionism a few years ago may shed some light on my position. Post 1. Post 2.]
I guess my point is that the metaphor “scholarship is a conversation” only works if we approach scholarship in a highly simplified way. That works for first-year students…gotta start slow. But, experts know better: the structural realities of contemporary scholarship negate comparison with a conversation.
One last issue with the overview: it seems to equivocate between scholarly communication and the act of researching. Sort of how the word “research” can mean either the act of researching or the product of researching. You see this equivocation clearly as the concept moves from discursive practice (act) to competing perspectives (product) to negotiating meaning (act) to artifacts like books and articles (products). So, is it the act of researching that is a conversation? Or are the products of research the conversation? The overview could be clearer here.
Moving beyond the overview, we get the “knowledge practices” which are the abilities that information literate researchers possess. Overall, I think these are a bit far-fetched. Consider the first three:
- Identify the contribution that particular articles, books, and other scholarly pieces make to disciplinary knowledge.
- Summarize the changes in scholarly perspective over time on a particular topic within a specific discipline.
- Contribute to scholarly conversation at an appropriate level (local online community, guided discussion, undergraduate research journal, conference presentation/poster session).
Identify the contribution that a particular article makes to its field? Summarize changes in scholarly perspective over time in a given field? These seem to require subject mastery, implying that information literacy only applies within a particular discipline and cannot be interdisciplinary or cross-disciplinary. That’s a strong statement for the ACRL to suggest and I can’t agree with it. Contribute to scholarship at the appropriate level? Again, I suppose I’m not information literate in any area outside of library science because I don’t contribute to other disciplinary conversations. These implications are unacceptable because one of the great strengths of information literacy (and one of the reasons librarians push it) has always been that becoming information literate allows us to evaluate information without having to be experts on every topic under the sun. I really hope these knowledge practices get a major overhaul in the next revision
- Seek out conversations that are taking place in their area of research.
- Suspend judgment on the value of a particular piece of scholarship until the larger context for the scholarly conversation is better understood.
- Recognize that scholarly conversations take place in a variety of venues.
- Value user-generated content and critically evaluate contributions made by others.
- See themselves as contributors to scholarship rather than only consumers of it.
- Understand the responsibility that comes with entering the conversation through participatory channels.
Now, I really like the dispositions. Students should absolutely “seek out conversations” taking place in their area of research and they should absolutely suspend judgment until they’ve learned more. I agree with these. Though, the former disposition I may reword as “students should be inquisitive” and the latter is basically the idea that evaluating sources gets easier as you acquire more domain knowledge. Good points, but not necessarily ground-breaking. Same goes for recognizing that scholarship takes place in a range of venues…though I don’t see how that’s a disposition. I suppose the fourth disposition is a bit hard to figure out: what does it mean to “value user-generated content? Value how? Which users? And the fifth disposition might be improved by changing it to “potential contributors to scholarship.” I don’t think you have to publish scholarly work to be information literate. But, overall, I find the dispositions more compelling than the rest of the document. Nice work.
Verdict: Is scholarship a conversation?
There are some choice bits of wisdom in the first frame, but also some rather sweeping simplifications. The beginning, “while many questions can be answered by appeal to a single, authoritative source…scholarly research resists simple answers,” is spot on and valuable. Some research questions can be answered directly, some research questions are more contentious. I’d say the information literate student should be able to recognize the simpler factual research from the more complicated perspectives-based research questions. Another way to say it: the information literate expert is discriminating. But, unfortunately, the ability to discriminate between the various types of research and information needs doesn’t appear in the framework. Perhaps the next draft? I also appreciate that the threshold concept focuses on the inclination “to seek out the many perspectives in a scholarly conversation, not merely the one with which the expert already agrees.” Though, I wish it were clearer that not all perspectives are equally valid. And even if the knowledge practices actively undermine the interdisciplinarity of information literacy, the dispositions are worth holding on to.
In sum, I fell like this threshold concept is more about rhetoric and pedagogy than anything else and I’m definitely going to continue to use the scholarship/conversation metaphor when working with novice researchers. But, the oversimplification only goes so far; scholarship as conversation is a concept that is of minimal value for intermediate and expert researchers. This is a concept you acquire and then move past as you become more knowledgeable about scholarly communication and treating it as a threshold concept just muddies the waters.
What do you think?
* Recall that threshold concepts are supposed to somehow go beyond foundational or core concepts.
** Burke, Kenneth. 1941/1967. The philosophy of literary form: studies in symbolic action. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
*** The same question–literal or figurative–can be asked of other threshold concepts.
**** Actually, that’s the sixth definition. Other definitions abound, but, for example, I don’t think the ACRL is suggesting that scholarship is a conversation in the sense of “sexual intercourse or intimacy.” Though, now that I think about it, that would certainly liven things up in library instruction.