photo of Rachel Dolezal at a Spokane rally

Wikimedia Commons. CC SA 4.0

I don’t know how many librarians followed the recent drama swirling around feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, but I think it serves as a valuable object lesson in the complexity of contemporary research into identity. In brief, Hypatia published an article by Dr. Rebecca Tuvel (Philosophy, Rhodes College) entitled “In Defense of Transracialism” (paywalled) in which Tuvel argues that there are logical equivalences between arguments surrounding transgender identities and arguments surrounding transracial identities (e.g., Rachel Dolezal). Tuvel argues that many of the common arguments for accepting transgender identities can be applied mutatis mutandis to accepting transracial identities. What would otherwise be a fairly dry paper on the logic of identity claims set off a firestorm of outrage. An open letter accusing the article of causing harm received hundreds of signatories, the editorial board of Hypatia apologized, the board of directors for Hypatia disavowed that apology, the open letter was rebutted, social media erupted, the paper was called a “discursive transmisogynistic” act of “epistemic violence,”and there have been dozens of think-pieces on the state of feminist philosophy, on “call-out culture,” on the ethics of scholarly communication, on privilege, and so on, and so on. Read the Wikipedia article if you must. (No, really, it’s an academic scandal worth knowing about.)

I’m not going to weigh in with my thoughts on the affair–who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, I want to look narrowly at one aspect of the scandal that seems to speak to information literacy: the role of identity in information evaluation practices.

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I just realized that I haven’t shared my slides from LOEX a few weeks ago. So, scroll to the bottom for the complete slidedeck. Of course, it would help to have some context to understand what was going on. So here are my presentation notes, slightly reworked for this post. Also, there were a couple of caveats I made during the presentation:

  1. I’m focusing on teaching information evaluation during a one-shot library session in a first-year course. The English 101 writing courses that dominate library instruction. Higher-level classes in other subjects get treated differently.
  2. The pedagogical tactics I’m recommending have been thoroughly researched and shown to be effective…just not by librarians. This is stuff coming out of cognitive psychology, education, political science, and other fields. So, while I’m not going to include assessment data, please know that there is a ton of assessment data out there from earlier studies.

Anyways. Let’s begin…

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Hi. This is not an important blog post. It’s really more of a “I’m writing a paper and I think I’ll post notes here for public comment” post. You can skip it if you aren’t interested in philosophical criticism of a ten year old library science article.

You see, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an article related to some things I wrote back in December on post-truth and librarianship, specifically as the concept of truth relates to information literacy. My basic argument is along the lines that the concept of truth has been increasingly devalued or marginalized in our information literacy initiatives, which in turn has lead to problems understanding and articulating the value of libraries in combating so-called “post-truth.”

Put another way: if librarianship is going to take a stand against “post-truth,” then librarianship needs to take a stand on truth.

Anyway, I’m reading what few articles there are on the role of truth in librarianship and I thought I’d quickly address one of the more prominent articles: “The Philosophical Problem of Truth in Librarianship” by Robert Labaree and Ross Scimeca. (JSTOR). Let me briefly try to address their argument and where it goes wrong. Again, this is really just me annotating an article and copy-pasting from Word. It’s fleshed out a bit more than a simple outline, because that’s just how I write. But it seemed bloggable enough.

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Graffiti of the work propaganda written in Greek

Konstantinos Koukopoulos on FLickr, CC BY

I’ve seen a lot of comments saying something to the effect of, “post-truth isn’t anything new; call it what it is: propaganda!” Or, “post-truth is just a bullshit buzzword for disinformation!” While I understand the impetus behind the “post-truth = propaganda” line of thought, as a librarian interested in how people interact with information, I think it’s important to clarify that they do not actually describe the same phenomena.

As a point of reference for future writing on the topic (and to kill a few hours on the reference desk), consider what follows a helpful glossary on post-truth, propaganda, bullshit, and other contemporary terms of art. Some commentary follows.

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Newspaper folded to highlight the word 'truth'

CC0, Public Domain

So there’s this phrase being bandied about: “post-truth.” As in, we live in a “post-truth era.” Popular use of the phrase is over a decade old, but its recent ascendancy lead The Oxford English Dictionary to name it Word of the Year for 2016; here’s the OED definition: relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. I mean, we’re at the point where Trump supporters racists are literally saying that “there’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” Armchair political scientists and ersatz media commentators are having a field day using post-truth politics to explain everything from contemporary political discourse to Brexit to identity politics to the rise of neo-Nazism to the presidential election and everything in between. “We’ve let sentimentality take precedence over facts and look where that got us!” seems to be the rallying cry.

As you’ve probably noticed, librarians are all over post-truth. Librarians are adamant that information literacy can help combat the post-truth world of fake news. School librarians have been singled out as key players in combating post-truth. School Library Journal is advocating for news literacy toolkits. The Annoyed Librarian wrote something or other. And the hot-takes on Twitter are all over the place. “The post-truth era needs information literacy and that means librarians need to step up!” seems to be the rallying cry.

There’s only one problem with that: information literacy has never been about truth.

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by mattbuck, CC-BY-SA 3.0

by mattbuck, CC-BY-SA 3.0

So, I’ve been trying to come up with a research agenda. I mean, I can’t be the “Framework is stupid” guy forever;1 I don’t want to get pigeonholed.

Anyway, it’s Sunday night and I’m thinking that if I’m going to turn my back on whatever the ACRL comes up with, I’ve still got to have a working concept of “information literacy” (or something to that effect.) Well, I’ve had this idea rattling around for over a year and the other day I finally thought I’d pursue it. So I fired up the LISTA database and started searching for something I figured some librarians somewhere had already researched thoroughly: Bayesian interpretations of information literacy.

Nothing. Not a single article. I checked a few of the major journals. Nada. Google Scholar? Just one 2002 article by Carol Gordon (formerly of Rutgers and clearly on to something). I headed over to Twitter and asked where the rest of the research was? Crickets. From what I can tell, no librarians are applying Bayesian theory to information literacy. Shoot, the impression I’m getting is that most information literacy librarians have never even heard of Bayesian inference. So that’s going to be it. My research agenda will be to introduce a Bayesian approach to information literacy.

But what does that even mean? Here’s a brief overview:

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Name tag that says 'Hello my name is meta'

by findyoursearch CC BY-SA


On my most recent post about the ACRL-Document-That-Must-Not-Be-Named, @valibrarian asked what I thought about metaliteracy. I’ve written so much about threshold concepts in the You-Know-What but I’ve never really tackled that other strange idea. True, I wrote a short “what’s the deal with metaliteracy?” post more than five years ago on the transliteracy blog.

Oh, yeah, transliteracy. I wrote some stuff about that back in the day. Don’t judge.

Anyway, @valibrarian asked:

Excellent thoughts on the current ideas floating in the ethereal digital thinking world on the topic of information literacy. You ponder, “Now, it could be that the frame is just invoking the postmodern ….” in reference to that time of “deconstruction of everything” as part of the quest for meaning. (Glad that is over and we are now in metamodernism which is more hopeful.)

Nomenclature, once again, and choice of phrasing is imperative to understanding, yet continues to be a paradox of ever-changing words. As a former blogger on the Libraries and Transliteracy Project, I am wondering if you embrace the term metaliteracy? I keep colliding with the two terms (metaliteracy and metamodernism) and am working on a paper to defend them as currently useful to identify literacy in global digital participatory culture- where we now live and learn.

To which I responded:

Every presentation I ever gave on transliteracy began with me telling the audience that ‘transliteracy’ was just a silly little buzzword…BUT the issues that motivated people to grab on to that buzzword were (and are) real and substantive. It’s the same way with metaliteracy; I think it’s a largely meaningless buzzword. Honestly, the concept just seems simple and somewhat shallow to me. Literally everything discussed under the aegis of metaliteracy has been studied at great length elsewhere (mass comm, epistemology, psychology, information theory, rhetoric, critical thinking, etc.). Calling it “postmodern” and slapping some Bourdieu and Lyotard quotes on it doesn’t make metaliteracy any more meaningful.

BUT the issues that motivated people to create the buzzword ‘metaliteracy’ are worth looking at. The effects of social media and digital environments on cognition and communication are certainly worth studying and worth considering carefully. I just find the literature in other disciplines more robust and compelling. As to metamodernism, I haven’t heard that one yet. Sounds like post-post modernism.

I guess this is the way scholarship works now: find a popular concept, claim it no longer applies to our “changing world”, slap on a new prefix, and publish the shit out of it for the 2-3 years that people pay attention. Transliteracy, metaliteracy, hyperliteracy, post-literacy, neoliteracy, metamodern, ultramodern, neomodern…which one will be next do you think? Sorry if I seem cynical, I just think we get too hung up on naming and constructing theories and we end up forgetting about the real issues that motivated us in the first place.

And that, dear readers, is what I think of metaliteracy.