A Response to Stanley Wilder’s, “A Reconsideration of Information Literacy”

Recently, I noticed a thread in one of the ALA listservs regarding rebuttals to Stanley Wilder’s infamous 2005 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions.” That article raised the hackles of many librarians. I vaguely remember that article, but that was nine years ago so I figured Wilder may have changed his tune since then. In reading one of the rebuttals, I found a link to a more recent article by Wilder reflecting on the 2005 article. In this recent article appearing in Communications and Information Literacy, Stanley stands by his 2005 beliefs about the teaching of information literacy. He states the following: “… the library research knowledge we impart should spring from the unique discourse of each discipline and be fully integrated down to the class assignment level. As regards the content of our teaching, there is no room for a one-size-fits-all instruction program.”

At the end of the article, Wilder suggests that those who have expertise in content, pedagogy and instructional design are best suited to answer the question of how to reconcile the vertical and horizontal functions of library instruction. (I took vertical to mean Wilder’s solution of discipline-based information literacy and horizontal to mean a one-size-fits all information literacy instruction program.)

Since I am a librarian and an instructional designer, I feel that I can answer that question. The reality is, we need both discipline-based information literacy and general information literacy instruction. Both play a role in the development of information literacy skills in college students.

During the first two years of college, students are just learning how to navigate the practice of academic information literacy. That is why you will see information literacy as a learning outcome in many institutions. Librarians tend to teach information literacy skills as a general set of strategies during those formative years, and information literacy programs targeting freshmen and sophomores are often designed as one size fits all instruction. There is a practical reason for that. First of all, there are too many students for librarians to be able to teach information literacy skills in a discipline-based context (although they do tend to teach those skills within an assignment based context). Secondly, many students have yet to even declare a major during that time period. They are quite literally just learning how to be college students. Thirdly, skills taught during that time need to be couched as general skills because students are using them to generally become better readers and writers of scholarly content.

That being said, as students enter their major fields, discipline-based information literacy instruction is vital. As students enter their major fields, they are just beginning to develop the specific critical thinking and reasoning skills that are unique to their discipline. As a result, discipline-based information literacy instruction is more effective for the student who has already entered his or her disciplinary area. It is the librarian’s job at that time to help students transfer their general schema about information literacy (prior knowledge) into a discipline-based information literacy practice. And the best librarians for that job are those who are well-versed in appropriate instructional strategies for information literacy learning. These librarians may not be subject librarians. Instead, they may be generalist librarians who have the skills to work closely with course instructors.

Information literacy is undoubtedly situational in practice. In fact, when literacy is viewed as a situational practice, all literacy can be viewed within a social, cultural, historical and institutional context. In that light, context is not just discipline-based. It is also institutional-based. And the academic information literacy that is taught to freshman and sophomore students, while general in instructional strategy, is institutional in context (and therefore situational). That is how to reconcile Wilder’s vertical and horizontal functions of library instruction. Both the horizontal and vertical functions of library instruction must be looked at in a social, cultural, historical and institutional context.

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