Information literacy in the age of disinformation

9 September 2019

Recently, Serena Zabin, professor of history, brought to my attention the Washington Post piece by Karin Wulf titled, “Could footnotes be the key to winning the disinformation wars?” After spending time this summer with Carleton’s reference and instruction librarians exploring how we might assess the development of students’ information literacy skills, I am convinced that this is an area where faculty can do better in being intentional in their instruction and more clearly scaffolding learning about choosing and using sources. Both Wulf’s article and Barbara Fister’s Inside Higher Ed essay “Learning Why, Not How” from early August provide lots of food for thought.

Fister’s article highlights some concerns about how students typically approach citations. I regularly see students get so wrapped up in the rules of formatting citations or so concerned about using citations to avoid charges of plagiarism that they entirely miss the point of citation as a way of engaging ideas to produce an ethical, responsible argument. Although Wulf’s focus is on footnotes, she acknowledges, “[T]he format is not the point: It’s the principle and function behind the reference tool that’s so essential. It allows us to weigh evidence against assertion.” Fister notes that teaching the why of citation requires us to ask students to reflect on the process of finding out and how they decide who or what to trust. And Wulf reminds us that this skill is important for anyone who aims to be a knowledgeable citizen, particularly in the current era of fake news.

For those who are interested in thinking more about how to teach information literacy, the the reference and instruction librarians have compiled relevant readings and resources on the Information Literacy Core Program website. If you are thinking about how to make expectations for information literacy more explicit for students, you might consider adapting the  information literacy rubric developed by the librarians. And I’d encourage faculty members to talk with their liaison librarian to hear about lessons learned from their work assessing information literacy.