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Many basic writing and first-year composition courses require students to conduct research and integrate the sources they find into their written work. The research paper poses challenges for instructors for a number of reasons: the changing nature of information literacy, the variety of disciplinary expectations for presenting and citing research, and the complexities of managing summary, paraphrase, and quotation, problems which were highlighted in the work of Rebecca Moore Howard and her colleagues in the Citation Project. In addition, faculty from other disciplines may view research as a generalizable skill set which can and should be covered in English courses; as a result, they expect students to arrive “research-ready” in their introductory and sophomore-level courses.
My college recently selected information literacy and research as our new Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) topic. I was asked to lead plan development and draft a literature review over the summer. While at first reluctant, I have found the work to be directly related to what I am doing in the composition classroom and what I am reading about threshold concepts and teaching for transfer. One resource in particular stands out: The Association of College and Research Libraries’ (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, which was adopted earlier this year.
The Framework approaches information literacy not as a set of discrete skills, but rather as a connected set of threshold concepts which have been identified and refined by experts in the field (similar to the methods employed by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle to determine threshold concepts for writing studies). These fundamental concepts echo and complement writing instruction:
- Authority is constructed and contextual
- Information creation as a process
- Information has value
- Research as inquiry
- Scholarship as conversation
- Searching as strategic exploration
Under each concept, the Framework lists “knowledge practices,” which describe activities to foster development of the concept, and “dispositions,” which characterize emotions and attitudes of students who successfully acquire and apply the concept (the dispositions are similar to the “habits of mind” in the Framework for Success in Post-Secondary Writing).
I believe the Framework can lead to new avenues of collaboration, research, and reflection for first-year composition instructors and their library colleagues. The framework also provides instructors like me with new tools for assessing the effectiveness of our pedagogy. Let me provide one example.
In my composition classes, I require a researched essay. Students begin finding sources early in the semester and build an annotated bibliography throughout the course. This 10-week search for sources is designed to emphasize reading skills, summary writing, and a sense of the on-going conversation connected to the issue chosen by the student. Once the bibliography of ten sources has been accepted, students write the researched essay.
One student, after completing his annotated bibliography this summer, submitted an eight-page paper in which every sentence after the introduction was followed by a parenthetical citation. There were no signal phrases, no discussion of credentials, and no attempt to distinguish between types of sources, which included both scholarly research, online news and periodicals, and a political blog. After reading the paper, I tried to articulate for myself—and for the student—why the paper did not fulfill the expectations of the course.
The ACRL framework provided two answers. First, in integrating his sources, the student did not “assess the fit between an information product’s creation process and a particular information need,” which is a knowledge practice associated with the “information as process” concept. Thus, while well-organized and grammatically sound, when addressing different parts of the research question, the paper did not distinguish between the reflections of a political blogger and the results of an academic study. In addition, the student did not meet the goal of the semester-long project to develop his “own authoritative voice,” which is a practice associated with the concept that “authority is constructed and contextual.”
I must ask if I provided opportunities to develop these knowledge practices. While I focused on the thinking and writing required to integrate multiple sources in a paragraph, and while I spoke about genres and authority as students searched for sources, I did not address these two together. In other words, when we worked on source integration, we didn’t discuss types of information and how to assess whether a particular source was a good fit for the paragraph. In fact, I used the literature review from an article by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue to illustrate how sources could be integrated, without acknowledging that such a literature review draws only from academic research studies. I want to address source integration and student voice differently this fall.
In teaching research, it is very easy to present information literacy as a package of skills that begin with using search engines and end with punctuating an in-text citation appropriately. But a reductionist focus on the skills of information literacy, much like a reductionist focus on skills in writing, may not help students function as consumers and producers of information, even though it allows us to check assessment boxes easily enough. Students should be able to do more than plug terms into a search engine or database; they need to understand the differences between the two and how those differences can influence the outcomes research. The ACRL Framework provides English instructors with an alternative theory of information literacy, one which recognizes the contextual complexities of research.
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