12 May 2009

Information Literacy

A couple of Twitter conversations merged. With @gippopippo I was discussing ink-on-paper v. digital. With @derrallg I was discussing teaching kids the media skills they will need to survive.

@gippopippo bemoaned the loss of the ability of students to read books and newspapers. @derrallg noted how colleges search FaceBook as part of the admissions process, but schools rarely teach this (see @willrich45).

Another issue from that day, if you teach students that they can not blindly "trust" the internet, must you not also teach them that they can not blindly trust textbooks, libraries, books of any kind, newspapers, teachers?

A bit of history: In the lead up to America's invasion of Iraq, The New York Times unleashed a torrent of false information. Fiction spun from the mouth of Dick Cheney as effortlessly as if his wife was writing her soft-core porn. Now, many blogs were telling the truth. But if, thirty years from now, a historian were to go back to "the newspaper of record" from that time, they would find almost nothing true.

Other things The New York Times has gotten wrong? A couple of years ago they repeated a joke from a cartoon on The New Yorker's cover as a front page news story. Just this week they declared a big difference between "practicing" and "non-practicing" Catholics on the issue of President Obama addressing the commencement at the University of Notre Dame. 46% of "practicing Catholics," The Times said, opposed Mr. Obama speaking. 55% of "non-practicing" Catholics favored his giving the address. Now, I'm no math major, but...

In other words, The New York Times can be wrong. Yes. Print can be wrong, despite John Calvin's firm belief in the societal value of fixed text. We all know that information on the "internet" can be wrong, and we warn our students about this. If we are good, we tell them to check authorship, credentials, the source of the website, the motivations, and we ask them to find corroboration and/or dissent. But do we do this as actively when a student pulls a book or newspaper off our school library shelf? What about when a student reads a textbook? What about when a student listens to a teacher?

The technology of communications and the forms of communication are symbiotic. Without the development of charcoal and ink writing would never have taken off. Stone carving being very slow and difficult and writing in the sand is, well, writing in the sand. Without various paper technologies (be it papyrus, sheepskin, or paper), reading would not have taken off, since only so many people can crowd around a single temple reading hieroglyphics.

Similarly, the novel is a development which could only have followed the technology of Gutenberg. Prior to this easing of publication problems, stories had to be in memorable form for oral transmission - thus poetry or song or drama. And without the popularity of the novel, press technology and paper technology would not have advanced to a point where journalism could begin. No Ben Franklin or Thomas Paine without Thomas Malory and Daniel Defoe. And without the growing popularity of journalism there might never have been the call for steam-powered rotary presses and machine-made wood-pulp paper which allowed the "penny newspaper" to become both popular and highly profitable, and thus allow journalism to reach the masses.

In each case, an emerging communication form creates a demand for a new medium or method of publication. The new medium or method of publication, in turn, creates an opportunity for new communication forms. When Samuel Morse introduced the telegraph with "What hath God wrought?" he was using new technology to send an old phrase. But his technology, and the way in which it was paid for, quickly created, "Meet in Phila Tue Noon at Sta Stop" - and how far away are we then from "C U 2nite"

Still, at every point, old forms adapted. When literacy was introduced to Greece Homer's tales were written down. Yes, this changed them. They no longer flexed with the time and place, the armaments described became set at the moment of writing - they are completely inaccurate for the time of the Trojan War - and the vast library of locally associated characters - what my son describes as the 8th Century BC's equivalent of the "How you doing Pittsburgh?" in today's concerts or political speeches - also became locked in. But the stories spread more widely than the original poets ever might have imagined.

All these technologies give and take. Gutenberg's destroyed many European languages, and enforced all sort of evils. But it also spread knowledge and literacy and allowed thought to flow in remarkable ways. We can imagine that post-Gutenberg technologies will do the same.

What has not changed is the key question of cognitive authority. What allows us to begin to trust a source? This is essential for every level of education. But we are handicapped here, especially in northern Europe and the United States. As Protestant societies we have inherited a belief in "the book." Not just the Bible, but "the book" in general. Because Calvinists and Lutherans controlled the printing and distribution of books, it was logical that they would promote the notion of the truth of ink-on-paper. Catholic culture, of course, did something similar where they "reigned," but with a critical difference. Texts in Catholicism were not intended for the masses, and were always considered open to interpretation through localized debate and retelling.

So it is indeed, in the U.S., in Protestant Europe, an "article of faith" that text is true, "If we agree with this premise, (that the Bible is divinely inspired) we must then consider the fact that ‘these writers themselves, with considerable unanimity, agree in ascribing their religious insight to the grace of God’."

Over the half millennia since Gutenberg the imprimatur of authority has expanded from the church to the crown, and then to "crown authorities" - authorized publishers - and then to publishers which carried various forms of perceived authority - whether academic - Cambridge University Press - economic - think Pearson or Bertlesmann AG - or, and here we see the beginnings of our present world - those who have won their authority by being reliable - think The New York Times. The Times did indeed win its authority in a chaotic environment. Turn of the 20th Century print journalism was as wild as the internet seems now, but the giants fell because because they were not very good - consider The New York World and The Journal competing over fabricated Spanish threat stories - and The Times was better (there are those who will argue that the turning point was the sinking of RMS Titanic - only the NYT, of New York dailies - got the story right).

In other words, The Times built its reputation, its authority, as bloggers do today, as members of social networks do. They gave accurate, useful information when more "important" rivals did not. Then they re-inforced that authority, through years and years of "being better than..." But then, because of the nature of that Protestant culture, "we" began to think of them as right not because they were right, but because they were The New York Times. They had that imprimatur.

But now we have other choices. We need to know, for example, that when the government speaks, we still should have doubts. When our most "authoritative" newspapers speak, we still should have doubts. Say, the London Metropolitan Police declare that a man has died of a heart-attack during a G20 protest. Say, that is reported as true by The Times of London, The Telegraph, even The Guardian. Now, line that up against the word of one anonymous American businessman. Yes, an American businessman who decides to communicate through the left-wing newspaper.

According to all our traditional understandings of cognitive authority, Ian Tomlinson died of a heart attack. Except, of course, he did not. He was killed in a random, unprovoked, police assault.

And non-traditional "citizen-journalists," and less authoritative sources, proved that. This is vital. If you fully subscribed to the traditional, the taught-in-school" understanding of cognitive authority - that is that reputations are won through approval of those who already hold authority (the PhD system, as an example), Ian Tomlinson would have died of a heart attack and The New York Post of Alexander Hamilton would be New York City's dominant information source - no matter who might manage to own that brand.

So what do students need to know? They need to know that cognitive authority does not come with a job title, or a publisher's mark. Just as they need to know that the actor wearing the white coat in a TV commercial may not be a medical authority. They need to be able to discover, in the non-linear form of real life (and the web) how to assess information - no matter the source. You can start in your classroom. If you aren't lying to your students, give them laptops or mobiles and let them look up what you tell them. True? Sometimes true? Debatable? Biased? Help them make the arguments.

You can do this with books, even novels. What can they discover about the world in which Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby? Why would he have described himself as "a member of the lost generation"? Why did he write a novel proving both the allure, and the fallacy, of what we call "The American Dream"? What did other writers of the time say? Was Fitzgerald particularly popular? A best selling author? Were English teachers requiring this novel in 1927 classrooms? Why not?

Need to build Fitzgerald's authority? Perhaps do this via his short stories. Build up his "street cred" for your students, just as he built it up with America's literati of the 1920s. No, let your students build up his reputation, by giving different stories to different students and letting them recommend them around the room. Don't think of this as "chaos." It is not. It is how humans construct both knowledge and society outside of imposed hierarchies.

You can do this with newspapers. Why would a story about the same thing read differently in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New York Post, The Daily Mail? Why might a search with Google's blog search produce differing things? How might they decide what's accurate? Listen, if you are not training this kind of information literacy, all your talk of an "educated citizenry" rings hollow. Without these skills, your students are in trouble.

Along the way, of course, you get to introduce your students to the wide world of literary forms. Every one has its purposes, its truths, its fictions, its powers, and its flaws. Why did Homer create the poetry he did? Who was he serving? Why? What counter narratives might exist? Aeschylus? Virgil? Ovid? Scott? Dickens? (Dickens, of course, was a blogger when it comes down to it). Who publishes Toni Morrison? And why? Why would that same company sell you Tom Clancy's books? Why would they hide that fact from you by using a different name?

And certainly, who is writing right now? And how? Can they find new fiction on line that they love? Can they share it? Why do they like it? Is it being "sold" to them in a variety of ways? Or are they discovering it? Novel, history, textbook, newspaper, blog... what motivates the author, the publisher? And what does that mean to them as readers, as consumers?

What this all means is that we're honest with our students, and that by being honest we create better readers, more engaged readers, more critical readers, and readers more appreciative of the best work of the writer's art. They'll know why, faced with same series of events, one writes poetry, another a novel, a third a news story, and how those all contribute to our knowing.

And I think they just might learn to love them all.

- Ira Socol


Sarah Hanawald said...

Ira, this is brilliant. You've made me think about so many different things in just this one piece. I'm going to need to mull it over for a while.

Thank you!

PS--Lynne Cheney, who knew?

Megan said...

Very, very interesting post. I enjoy learning about different view points and this makes sense to me. =) I've just started a blog, but feel free to check it out.

Derrall said...

You bring up many good reasons as to why we need to teach our students to question the veracity of what they are reading no matter what the source. Hopefully we can help them to see the distinction between information which is inaccurately reported and information which is purposely altered or misrepresented. I think we do need to help them understand historically this shift of authority from a small group of experts, be they religious or political to a network of multiple viewpoints and degrees of accuracy. I did come away from your article reminded of that feeling I have when reading a more accurate representation of some historical event after having held some viewpoint for some long period of having the rug pulled out from under me, of the foundation being chipped away. And this is what we need to reinforce in our students that the foundations and beliefs by which we view the world must be continuously updated and reevaluated, something I did not do when I was growing up. I accepted much of what I learned or was told until my late teens when I began accessing alternative viewpoints from the mainstream. I hope in the future with the exponential growth of information sources and government’s and mainstream media’s spin on information that there will now always be multiple perspectives on any given topic which hopefully will continue to be accessible. This alone is reason enough for the web to continue to be open and not administered and regulated by any one governing body or group.

I myself feel somewhat a drift in all these multiple sources of information and need to learn to filter and construct my own methodology for authority. I’m not feeling capable of teaching what I myself don’t completely grasp myself. Hopefully the network of readers and writers who constitute my personal learning network will help me access the most accurate information and become the filter.

So in a nutshell what do we teach our students beginning at a young age, seek out multiple sources for any given fact using accurate search techniques, determine who the intended audience is for the information, and what is the purpose that the author or publishers had for presenting the information no matter if it is from print or the internet.

Anonymous said...

Great article! For a lot of learners who have special learning needs the texts only approach will destory their ability to achieve a higher level of understanding. The history part behind this article really got me to change some ideas about how a text might affect a whole society. It was very insightful thanks