You know, that last Frame review really bummed me out. I mean, “research as inquiry” is a great concept, but it’s hardly unique to information literacy, and now I’m sort of questioning the whole pretense behind the Framework. But, I’m not going to give up. Time for the penultimate frame: Scholarship as Conversation. To sum up where we’ve been:
On to the conversation!
The Draft Framework: Scholarship is a Conversation
Here’s what I originally had to work with:
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.
Let me tell you: I had some serious problems with this one. I mean, I totally get how scholarship is a discursive activity and I’m not denying that it is. It’s been that way forever. Plato wrote in dialogues for [insert preferred deity here]’s sake. No, the problems I had were related to scholarship being explicitly referred to as a “conversation.” If that’s supposed to be taken literally, then we’re in a situation where the definition of conversation has to be stretched so broadly that literally any discursive act is a conversation and the very idea of conversation becomes meaningless as a signifier. If it’s to be taken metaphorically, then we need to step back, read some Lakoff, and come back after we’ve had time to wrap our heads around conceptual metaphors. Is this an actual, generative metaphor that conditions how we understand scholarship or is it just a helpful comparison to use when talking to novices. Or is it something else? It’s like saying “the brain is a computer” is a central organizing concept in neuroscience or “history is a weapon” is a core concept for historians or “sociology is a martial art” is a fundamental part of sociology. My point was simply that metaphors–especially academic ones–tend to mask specific theoretical positions that are usually contested. Metaphors are a way to conceptualize a space, but they do not define it. We can use “scholarship is a conversation” as a metaphor in our pedagogical approach with students because it’s great for novices, but true expertise comes in knowing all the reasons that scholarship is not a conversation. True expertise means being able to tell when scholarship is a conversation and when it is a debate, a discovery, an explanation, an argument, a summary, or any of the other forms scholarship might take.
Let’s see if the official frame has moved past the metaphor…
The Official Framework: Scholarship as Conversation
Scholarship as Conversation
Communities of scholars, researchers, or professionals engage in sustained discourse with new insights and discoveries occurring over time as a result of varied perspectives and interpretations.
Research in scholarly and professional fields is a 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, experts understand that a given issue may be characterized by several competing perspectives as part of an ongoing conversation in which information users and creators come together and negotiate meaning. Experts understand that, while some topics have established answers through this process, a query may not have a single uncontested answer. Experts are therefore inclined to seek out many perspectives, not merely the ones with which they are familiar. These perspectives might be in their own discipline or profession or may be in other fields. While novice learners and experts at all levels can take part in the conversation, established power and authority structures may influence their ability to participate and can privilege certain voices and information. Developing familiarity with the sources of evidence, methods, and modes of discourse in the field assists novice learners to enter the conversation. New forms of scholarly and research conversations provide more avenues in which a wide variety of individuals may have a voice in the conversation. Providing attribution to relevant previous research is also an obligation of participation in the conversation. It enables the conversation to move forward and strengthens one’s voice in the conversation.
Damn it. They’ve doubled down on the metaphor.
The first half is essentially the same as the draft, with only minor rearrangements. Then they add in this other stuff: about how power and authority structures privilege certain voices, about how you need to learn the discursive rules of a discipline before finding a voice there, and about the importance of citation processes. Yes, those are three completely true things. But, what are the authority structures? What are the “sources of evidence, methods and modes of discourse?” How does properly citing sources strengthen one’s voice? And the only way to answer those things is to start examining the ways that scholarship is totally not like a conversation. Those authority structures that control the ability to participate and that privilege voices? Let’s talk about scholarly publishing, open access, peer-review, tenure, sexism on the conference circuit, and so on. Those discursive rules of the game that fields have; their methods and styles of discourse? In many fields, like the hard sciences, those rules and methods are intentionally set up to prevent scholars from “negotiating meaning” through conversation; the methods are aimed at discovery and confirmation, not negotiation. And citing sources, while an important part of research, seems like an odd way to try to “strengthen one’s voice.” This isn’t Facebook where the more people you tag the more likes you get.
Another thing: pushing the conversation metaphor and talking about “negotiating meaning” leads to even more trouble when you notice how the frame equivocates over the concept ‘research.’ When it says “research in scholarly and professional fields is a discursive practice…” it’s talking about research as the act of looking for published information. But the frame also talks about “the sources of evidence, methods, and modes of discourse” in a field, which includes things like empirical research, which is decidedly not the same sort of discursive practice. Research in a library and research in a lab are very different things and this frame seems to want to conflate them. Now, it could be that the frame is just invoking the postmodern science studies that was en vogue in the 1980s and 1990s, where critical theorists argued that empirical research actually is discursive and all science is socially constructed. But, that’s a minority view these days and, what’s more, it reinforces what I said earlier about using a metaphor to mask a contested position.
But, let’s try to be charitable. Let’s kill the conversation metaphor and try to get at what this frame is really trying to say. I think the intent is something like this:
Some issues or subjects have lots of different ways of thinking about them and we should be mindful of that. It’s always a good idea to take other perspectives into consideration in your research because they might lead to new insights. Just be aware that there are external factors affecting which of those perspectives you’ll have access to. And be sure to cite your sources so we have some context for understanding how your ideas developed.
What do you think? I think it captures the spirit of the frame without invoking conversations and negotiating meaning. It also allows for more general application outside of academic environments. Like, students could apply this version after they graduate. But, if this simplified version is fair, then it also lays bare another problem with this frame. Scholarship as Conversation only really makes sense in the context of a first-year composition synthesis essay. You know, when you have to explain that “gun control” is not a research question. Or when you have that student who only thinks in terms of “pro and con” articles. This frame seems to have been constructed with first-year library one-shot issues in mind. Which makes sense because that’s where librarians are typically given their 50 minute one-shot sessions. But now I’m wondering how much of the entire Framework’s approach to information literacy is just a reflection of–and a reaction to–the things encountered in our general education writing courses? I mean, it’s fine if it is, but we can’t then pretend that the Framework is some grand statement of information literacy. Maybe call it the Framework for Information Literacy in First-Year Composition Classes. But this Frame just doesn’t seem to extend much beyond that level: scholarship as a conversation is the novice position; experts understand just how complex and nuanced scholarship really is and treat it as its own unique discursive practice. Not better or worse than conversation…just different.
The more I think about it, the more I’m realizing how much work we really need to do on information literacy. The six frames of the Framework were identified through the lens of threshold concept theory, which means they are basic concepts that form a foundation on which to build information literacy. A student is not information literate simply by grasping all six frames. Even though the ACRL has called a mulligan and now claims that the Framework is merely (and only slightly) influenced by threshold concept theory, that doesn’t change the fact that the identified frames are fairly simple, basic, first-year student level concepts. So what comes next?
I think now is a good time to start building on the Frames and identifying the core concepts of information literacy. Scholarship as Conversation offers a good example of the need. The frame is rather straight-forward and simple and could be a good set-up for introducing more substantive topics (scholarly communications, peer-review, OA, etc.) that could make up the meat of information literacy. We can start working on a real theory of information literacy, rather than just focusing on how to teach students the rudimentary basics.
And just like the last frame I wrote about, this one has got me way off track and thinking about the Framework more generally. I think I’ll give it a rest and save up my energy for the next frame. See you then!1
Overall Grade: F
It’s a metaphor, which means it’s only one out of many ways of presenting the idea of scholarship. And it’s a remedial way at that.
 Oh yeah, the knowledge practices and dispositions! I forgot! Well, it doesn’t matter because unlike the other frames, they didn’t change or remove a single knowledge practice or disposition. They just added new ones that don’t really say anything that isn’t in the frame already itself.