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Thoughts and Doubts on Transliteracy

I appear to be a bad blogger, or at least, not a very prolific one.   Hmm. Perhaps I can do better.

There’s a post that I began writing late last semester and never finished, after seeing Lane Wilkinson’s presentation on libraries and transliteracy. It’s a very interesting presentation and I recommend following the link to check it out.

For those who don’t like to follow links, however, I’ll summarize.  Wilkinson gives several definitions and a very clear overview of the concept of transliteracy, which many in the library world have been promoting as a new way of thinking about how students use information. It’s distinct from information literacy because rather than emphasizing the formal organization of information and the steps that one might take in order to use it well, it describes the practice of navigating among several different kinds of media in order to create/access information.  Wilkinson connects this concept to information literacy by arguing that information literacy can give students transferable skills that they can use in whatever medium they are operating. The need to access, evaluate, and integrate information doesn’t go away just because students may be reading an article and integrating what they find into a presentation that they subsequently turn into a video and put online with commentary. Wilkinson suggests that librarians need to focus on the skills that students can use in all of these situations and avoid what is specific to particular types of resources.  Instead, we can show similarities among many kinds of resources.

My reaction to this was simultaneously strong and ambivalent.

I have a bit of a composition background—certainly not as strong as some folks, but I’ve studied enough of its theory to become immediately suspicious whenever I hear the term “transferrable skills.” I encountered it in a department in which we were very carefully taught that writing is a deeply context-dependent activity which depends heavily on understanding the accepted practices of the community in which one operates and the expectations of whatever genre one is attempting. At the same time, we were cautioned that writing is often thought about as a transferrable skill—that there is an unreasonable expectation that we can put students in a first-year composition class and prepare them to write well in business, nursing, sociology, philosophy, whatever.  It doesn’t quite work that way.  Obviously, it does not follow that no skills whatsoever are transferrable, but as I hadn’t thought carefully about whether that might be the case with research and information, I felt very cautious about the assertion that it involves such skills. Research is a different domain, but a related one, and I wanted to think about this.

In my library, we have subject specialists, who liaise with different departments, with the idea that some of us are more familiar with how information in each field is organized, what sorts of keywords one might use, what kinds of resources are most appropriate to particular inquiries, and so on.  This is a fairly common system, and of course it doesn’t always work perfectly—I know that in many libraries, librarians with little expertise in a subject may nevertheless be assigned to it—but the premise is that there are differences in different types of information. My experience suggests that there is truth to this, and actually, it seems to follow naturally from the idea that the writing is different in each of these disciplines, because different types of materials will have different rules and knowing those rules is very helpful when it comes to searching. This is a matter of subject content, of course; does format work the same way?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I know I use different strategies when I am looking for articles than I do when I am looking for books. I look in different places and I use different keywords (broader for books, because books are broader in scope).  I take into account whether I am searching full text or whether there is some kind of indexing.  When I’m searching the Web, I’ve noticed that Google (and perhaps other search engines as well?) actively encourages what I would consider “bad” searches in another context—for instance, searches that use full sentences or ask questions—and they often seem to actually work!  Video searching is very limited and is something I don’t know as much about as I’d like.  So there are different rules when it comes to the technical aspects of searching.  The more conceptual stuff may be different too.  For instance, we know a lot about evaluating sources based on their scholarliness or other closely related attributes—but a student who is doing an intensive multi-media presentation may have other criteria in mind.  Maybe such a student is looking at images and needs them to be visually compelling and available under a Creative Commons license that would allow re-use.  Do we teach that? Do we even think about this sort of thing when we talk with students about evaluating sources?

Wilkinson recommends starting from the similarities and teaching by analogy. This is a really interesting idea, but I think we have to carefully think through what the similarities are and understanding where the analogies break down.  I am wary of teaching students that an unfamiliar kind of research is just like a familiar kind of research, except for X, Y and Z because I fear that it may set up unrealistic expectations and cause frustration down the road—especially since many of them already feel they know more than they really do.

However.  It is interesting and, I think, useful, to see the relationships among different types of research activities. The way you get around the non-transferability of writing which I described above is to help students understand what the landscape is and where the differences come in.  Beginning writers are taught to understand unfamiliar genres by looking for good examples of that genre, to try to understand what the community expects, and in general by becoming good at figuring out what the rules are.  Maybe it would be useful to think about research in a similar way.

So that was my sticking point. The other point that caught my interest, though, had nothing to do with that.   I was astonished and, actually, delighted to hear the description of transliteracy, because I had heard of transliteracy before, but I hadn’t realized that it was actually what I was working on! At the moment, I’m very interested in the rise of e-books and am trying to figure out whether they will be useful, will continue to grow in popularity, and so on.  Currently, I’m trying to see how these different reading media—print books, e-books, online articles, things students print out—all fit into students’ lives and how and when students decide to use one instead of another.  This is one kind of transliteracy, and I’m happy to be able to put a name to it, even if it’s sometimes considered a rather silly one.

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