Sep 24, 2010

Injecting Information Literacy into Critical Thinking classes

Every semester at Fayetteville State University, I teach at least three Critical Thinking classes.  If I offer an upper-level class (and here, Intro counts as "upper level"), and it actually gets enrollment (nowadays, ten students minimum), then I teach that as well.  If it doesn't make enrollment, then its four CTs that semester.  This semester I have a course release, so three CTs. Next semester, I decided not to even try offering an upper level.  So, four CTs. For a philosopher, used to research and publishing, this teaching regime is potentially mind-numbing.  Remember the movie Groundhog Day, and the period of frustration, then boredom and despair Bill Murray's character Phil went through?  Imagine that, but now with a textbook and underprepared, mainly uninterested Freshmen students (and upperclassmen who flunked the first, second, third time around).

Groundhog Day provides a useful analogy here.  The danger is that of becoming jaded, disengaged, cynical, and thereby both workmanlike and almost useless to one's students.  The repetition of the trivial, disconnected from tangible consequences, seemingly not making any lasting difference has affective and practical consequences.  Or in less jargony terms, the repetition produces emotions, moods, and actions. Give it time (and in the Groundhog Day universe, that's all you've got), and these congeal into habits and palpable attitudes.

Now to putter with another metaphor, when the educational Establishment hands you a bag of lemons and tells you "the bad news is all we've got are lemons; the good news is we've got plenty of 'em," buddy, you better start liking lemonade and researching recipes for different varieties.

Back to Groundhog Day:  What happened to knock Phil out of the endless loop? Ultimately, it was love, though in a suitably mysterious and contingent manner.  Phil falls in love with Andie MacDowell's Rita, and the emotion takes root bit by bit, through the repetition, through his paying attention to little details, eventually through attending to those ephemerally revealed facets of who she is.  The affection gradually takes root in his being, and steers him away from his previous mode of life.

So, what does this have to do with CT and Information Literacy?  My first year at FSU, I focused on my upper-level classes, on publishing articles and writing conference papers, and on applying for other jobs.  CT was just something I had to teach to get paid.  By the end of that first year, after teaching CT to so many students, after going over the same material, and seeing many of the students not get it, I began thinking about why the majority of the students weren't grasping what to me seemed such basic, straightforward topics.  I wondered why they were not noting and making the connections between main concepts they needed to make.  Students were getting to the end of semester, sitting in class, handing in assignments, taking tests, and clearly not grasping basic ideas.

Fayetteville State University stresses faculty and course development through, and they do this in three main ways.  First, there is an Office of Faculty Development (it used to be a full Center for Innovation and Teaching and Learning, but the UNC Board of Governors imprudently ordered that closed to save a little money in the face of the budget shortfall).  The OFD brings in high-profile speakers from outside (and has tapped me for a workshop this semester) to provide workshops on teaching/learning strategies.  

Second, FSU also provides stipends and even fellowships for course redesigns incorporating engaging teaching/learning strategies.  Actually, for the fellowships, it's not FSU as such, but rather other entities within the institution, generally funded by Title III grants.  (Quite honestly, my motives for studying implementing most of the new teaching/learning strategies I use were originally quite mercenary.  In a time of budget cuts, stagnant wages and inflation, those stipends shore up my eroding buying power.)

Third, FSU supports faculty travel to conferences, not only to present research, but even more to learn and bring back new or newly refined pedagogical developments and strategies.

That first year at FSU, my conference-going was solely to present papers on Aristotle, Anselm, MacIntyre, and Lacan.  But I also attended CITL's Saturday Academies on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, Online Course Design, Inquiry-Guided Learning, and Problem-Based Learning. And, I redesigned two courses, one of them my Philosophy of Religion class, incorporating Inquiry-Guided Learning, the other a Critical Thinking class, injecting some Problem-Based Learning.  That class was in a Learning Community focused on African-American History and Literature, so I gave them the problem: "What supportable arguments can be made about the meaning of Barack Obama's election to the Presidency?" My students engaged with the project and to a somewhat greater extent with the class and its content.

I started giving much more thought to what else I might introduce to turn this lemon of a baby-logic, lower-than-Intro, Purgatory of a class (of which I've so far taught 15 sections at FSU) into a class which would engage students, and send them on their way having developed the solid skills in Critical Thinking whose clear need for success in today's workplace is matched by their clear lack when students arrive in our classes.  I've studied and applied other teaching/learning strategies to the CT classes:  CLA (successfully so far); Service Learning (big failure the first time around, trying again next semester); and in particular this semester, Information Literacy.

Our Chesnutt Library offers a highly competitive one-year fellowship focused on Information Literacy, in which faculty are matched up with librarians, work as teams to redesign their courses to incorporate ACRL information literacy standards and course objectives, then assess, interpret, and report on the results.  It is pretty intense, rewarding for me, but even more importantly beneficial to my students.  And, once we did some needed conceptual work -- I'll say why this was so badly needed in a moment  --  we developed some well-structured, quality course content that will engages our students, imparts some valuable skills to them, and ties in well with the Critical Thinking class.

That's the key, actually, for any teaching/learning strategies -- they have to help you teach the course better.  It's nice if they introduce the students to something new and exciting, but if it doesn't actually tie in in tangible ways and demonstrably improve skills and outcomes central to the course, it's just a pleasant distraction from  class, for both professor and student.

One component of the fellowship has been workshops on Information Literacy skills, provided mainly by librarians from FSU and elsewhere.  The previous cohort of Chesnutt Library Fellows also made presentations to us covering their projects, their conceptions, applications,  and the outcomes.  This was all helpful, but the main topics that the discussions circled round were types of searches for information, library databases and subject guides, distinguishing scholarly from non-scholarly sources, proper documentation, and plagiarism. 

All of these are matters students need to learn about, but none of it is particularly connected with Critical Thinking, where the main stress is on understanding, analyzing, evaluating, and making arguments which support claims, and on evaluating sources of information and claims.

Now, I built in ACRL standards and learning outcomes into my syllabus.  That's easy enough to do -- anyone can promise that they're going to teach students certain skills.  Actually figuring out how those are going to be taught, covered, assessed, exercised. . . well, that's a whole different manner.  That's where we had to put in a lot of thought.  Most classes can incorporate Information Literacy with ease by focusing on teaching students how to better acquire and process information in the field or subject covered by the class.  Critical Thinking is a generic skills class.  so having them research Critical Thinking is not a viable option, since they won't know what to make of the information they're searching for until they've learned the material.

Some outcomes just require me to do what we do anyway in a CT class:
  • Analyze structure and logic of supporting arguments or methods.
  • Recognize prejudice, deception, or manipulation
  • Draw conclusions based on information gathered 
Some are pretty basic Information Literacy skills: Use various search systems to retrieve information in a variety of formats
  • Explore general information to increase familiarity with topics involved in claims and arguments
  • Investigate differing viewpoints encountered in literature
One I admitedly have to put more a lot more thought into, better incorporate within the class, and design learning exercises specifically working on these. 
  • Determine the nature and extent of the information needed in order to assess claims and arguments
One other we focused on in particular, as absolutely essential to (but generally poorly taught in) a CT class.               
  • Examine and compare information from various sources in order to evaluate reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and point of view or bias
That's where our planning and course design centered.  Now, this is a difficult set of skills to define for students.  They are all too used to simple answers, and to thinking in terms of simple answers.  These high-order skills ultimately require cultivated and informed judgement.  And, in my experience, available CT textbooks tend not only to be weak and far too general in these topics, but also to be colored by the authors' ill-concealed ideological biases.

My students had an excellent information literacy presentation today by Jinong Sun, the librarian with whom I've been working.  She focused primarily on how to assess the quality of information in websites.  It was eye-opening for many of them -- when they go away talking with each other about the topic, you know something has stuck --  and hopefully will wean them away from their norm of uncritical reliance on the first sources they happen to google.  I'll be reinforcing that subject in the next several weeks as we go through the chapter discussing information sources, supplemented by a number of handouts.  The students have been putting information literacy to work by completing components of their course papers, the first step in which is actual research on a selected controversial topic in Business Management (these classes are par of a Business Leaders learning community) to find a variety of pieces containing actual arguments, and a later step will be assessing the information sources reporting or providing those arguments, and the sources of the information used in the arguments. 

Next semester, I'm going to continue and refine this emphasis on Information Literacy in CT classes -- and I've got a project dovetailing almost perfectly with that focus:  I'm designing a CT class around Service Learning, focused specifically on issues of food awareness.  Plenty of scope there for further development and application of information literacy skills for the students -- more scope for me to keep thinking about how to actually teach not just about but towards these skills.