Layering Knowledge: Information Literacy as Critical Thinking in the Literature Classroom
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Layering Knowledge:
Information Literacy as Critical Thinking in the Literature Classroom

The Workshop

In June 2004, the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, sponsored an information literacy workshop for literature faculty. The workshop, attended by faculty, librarians, and instructional technologists from several of the private liberal arts colleges in the ACM consortium, provided a collegial setting for discussing best practices for information literacy instruction. Specifically, the group worked together to develop assignments that teach information literacy and literature in mutually reinforcing ways, assignments that move beyond the research paper so that information literacy forms a symbiotic relationship with the literature we teach. We discussed ways to use information literacy instruction not merely to train students in the skill set of locating relevant information for the purposes of literary studies but rather to foster in them better thinking and reading habits of mind. The assignments we present below developed out of this workshop. They reflect our commitment to approaching information literacy as a mode of critical thinking and thereby to encouraging its practice as a habit of active learning.

Information Literacy and Liberal Education

In 1989 the American Library Association's Presidential Committee on Information Literacy defined information literacy broadly as the ability to identify [End Page 435] when information is needed, where to find information, and how to evaluate and use it. It stipulated that information-literate people "have learned how to learn. They know how to learn because they know how knowledge is organized, how to find information, and how to use information in such a way that others can learn from them."

But today's postindustrial society poses significant challenges to the teaching of such effective and productive habits of critical engagement with information. "The sum total of humankind's knowledge doubled from 1750–1900," estimates James Appleberry (Breivik and Jones 1993: 24), president emeritus of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, before drawing this striking contrast: "It has been further projected that by the year 2020, knowledge will double every 73 days!" In this setting, how does one familiarize oneself with an issue, then limit, reflect upon, and contribute to viable perspectives upon it in a fair-minded yet efficient manner? If only faster broadband or improved interfaces with this exponentially growing mass of information were the sum total of the solution!

Along with the sheer growth of available information, the multiplicity of interfaces and media through which information becomes available makes its processing even more difficult. In the programmatic document Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education, the Association of College and Research Libraries (2000: 2) points out that "increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability. In addition, information is available through multiple media, including graphical, aural, and textual, and these pose new challenges for individuals in evaluating and understanding it."

Education and psychological research has shown that information overload is likely to result in feelings of frustration and anxiety, or else in omission and arbitrary filtering of information. The medical profession has recognized a sickness resulting from the stress of the perceived gap between what we know and what we think we should know—information fatigue syndrome (Wilson 2001: 1). Clearly such overpowering stress and the concomitant alienation of learners in a saturated information environment have detrimental psychological effects. The economic repercussions of this phenomenon for individuals are equally dire. As Cerise Oberman (1991: 200), an internationally recognized expert in information literacy, notes, "Students unable to cope with the overwhelming number of choices available to them will be further disenfranchised from the information superstructure." Knowledge alone no longer suffices in the information age; successful professionals and even paraprofessionals also need to have a reliable grasp of the way [End Page 436] knowledge is structured and disseminated in order to make effective information choices and contribute responsibly to specific fields of knowledge.

The challenging corollaries of the information boom are hardly restricted to the problems of individuals. Quantitative changes of this magnitude have led to systemic changes in social structures and relationships. As early as 1980, social...