• Anne Pemberton

Bust a Move

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Dear Interwebs,

We are coming to the end of what has been one of the most bizarre, challenging, and anxiety provoking years in the 45 I have lived so far: 2020. I want to DO something to prevent 2021 from being the same or worse for all of us. "DO" in BOLD, ALL CAPS. Yet I am not sure exactly what I can do.

The two questions that have set my soul on fire are: 1) What can I do to help dismantle systemic racism?

2) How can I help cure information ignorance?* *See the Glossary or to get a good sense of what I mean, “The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape” by Whitney Phillips paints the picture.

When I initially formed these questions, I felt hopeless and overwhelmed. I now feel hopeful, driven, and focused. Addressing the second question feels less overwhelming than the first question. So I am starting there hoping that anything I can do related to question two will help address question one.

It helps me (and you?) to understand my wheelhouse: I have been an academic librarian for over 20 years with a deep curiosity for why people do what they do (which led to an undergraduate degree in psychology). I am an advocate for practicing mindfulness. I am a middle-aged white woman working on getting a clue about my role in racial injustice. I love being a librarian and I really feel like the work we do is valuable even if other people do not see that. I have awesome colleagues in my library and university and I am grateful that we share many of the same values.

The term "infodemic" has been used to characterize the flood of information about the pandemic and the ensuing actions or inactions taken by individuals or groups based on that information. The inability to distinguish between credible and reliable sources of information and "crap" is creating additional stress. That stress perpetuates the problem: People read something on Facebook that in some part is inaccurate (or totally false) but is also inflammatory. Naturally the reader gets fired up and then reposts the information with a "hell yeah" or "this is horseshit" to clarify their position. It seems to soothe those feelings of stress and uncertainty and help solidify one's identity. It is a very sick and unhelpful cycle and something needs to change. We all need to change. I deleted my Facebook account several years ago because I was engaging in this very pattern.

I worry that many people see themselves as savvy consumers of information as well as independent thinkers who can "call bullshit" when someone is "lying." But I think collectively we are the polar opposite: we are a collective of clumsy, unskilled consumers and creators of information, spreading unhelpful if not harmful information to others day in and day out. I think there are few people who have any independent thoughts and/or are aware of their own biases (like confirmation bias) or understand how "Search" takes away our independence through algorithms and advertising.

From where I sit at the table in higher education (the kid's table for sure), until we, as educators, can collectively identify and coherently label both the problems and solutions we are faced with related to information ignorance, we are contributing to the problem. I know that I need to actively investigate what students are being taught in K-12 in relation to these issues. I really do not know and that is not cool. How can I really understand these issues without knowing what the college students I work with have been taught prior? I know that there are varying standards for states for K-12 curriculum. I also need to understand what community colleges teach.

There is a long-held, deep misperception that students already have the critical thinking and information literacy skills they need because they have grown up with technology. I have heard faculty say this, “they already know this stuff.” That is a dangerous misperception and one that leaves us all at risk of repeating 2020. The ability to turn on my computer, use my phone to send a text, or click on a link are akin to knowing how to plug in the toaster, jump a car battery, or bang on the wall of a snack machine to get my chips to come out. We have got to accept that there is more to seeking, locating, evaluating, and using information than just the mechanics involved in clicking and scrolling.

Are you, Interwebs, reflecting on this? I think many of us are and I am glad to see so much being written about these challenges. But I fear a far greater number of people do not give their information seeking behaviors or the impact these behaviors have on society, a second thought. This is why educators are so crucial to change. It seems (this is anecdotal) that most people outside of professions that focus on information, do not show restraint, reflection, pause, questioning, or critical evaluation as they click here, click there, click everywhere. And why should they? At this point they likely do not make any direct connection to their participation in the information ecosystem and larger societal outcomes. Most people assume they do not even have a role in the first place.

But each word, each image, each video, each social media post we view adds to one's cumulative understanding (or lack of understanding) of the world. And if I were a person not open to learning anything new because I did not see the need? Then why would I do anything differently? I see this disposition in many students and it troubles me, in part, because I am sure I was the same way as an undergraduate student. Well, I was a nerd and my father was a professor, so I was probably more engaged and curious than some but still. I know I had a similar attitude.

Librarians hear these statements often:

  • "I already wrote the paper. I just need to cite something."

  • "This person is arguing my point perfectly so I just need this one source."

  • "This was the first result so I clicked on it. I have three research papers due this week and I do not have time to actually do the research."

  • "My parents believe in X so of course that is what I believe so that is what I am going to write about and I just need something to back that up."

  • "I am here to get my degree to get a job. I do not have time for X (insert any research project or intellectual curiosity)."

I want to believe that as humans we can evolve and recognize how these habits of mind are deeply impacting the world. Surely, most people can acknowledge that the stream of conscious thoughts as well as misinformation and disinformation posted by Donald Trump via Tweeter has had SOME impact on us. Some view it as a positive impact and others see it has detrimental. But can people see see what *their* role is?

We have to collectively move away from what seems like the prevailing mentality these days: "I believe THIS and I need to find information to confirm THIS and if I do THIS is a FACT then." I would like to believe that as educators we can help students develop a curiosity about other ideas and perhaps develop enough curiosity and restraint that creates a pause between a thought and a search for information so that students have the time and space to consider where they are searching, how they are searching, whose voices are not heard, how another person might view the information, whether the information was reviewed and/or edited, how a search engine's algorithm might affect the results, and on and on and on. Students (all humans!) might then become critical of the information they consume and ultimately then, careful and intentional creators of new information for others to consider just as critically. And then we will be getting somewhere!

Who is with me?

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