More transliteracy talk: metaphors and metonyms

December 20th, 2010 § 11 comments § permalink

The discussion surrounding the definition of transliteracy has been sending waves throughout the internets this morning. David Rothman took the concept to task in yesterday’s post, “Commensurable Nonesense (Transliteracy),” responding partially to a post by Lane Wilkinson.* David brings up a few good points about transliteracy, most notably:

  1. its lack of a definition
  2. its unoriginality

The first of these has been dealt with extensively, so I won’t do into it here. The lack of a concise definition is certainly problematic and, until one such is developed, it will difficult to bring the concept into the academic arena, much more so to the desks of administrators and policy makers. The second point, I think, deserves more attention. The ideas that make up the amorphous concept of transliteracy may not be anything that hasn’t already been discussed, but they may be beneficial to libraries and their users if the ways in which they are discussed (either conceptually or practically or as a methodology) provide unique perspectives.

So does transliteracy give us a unique perspective? Rotham asks this and essentially concludes that the levels of discourse that transliteracy provides can already be attained through discussion of information literacy. He also compares attempted definitions of transliteracy to more established definitions of other literacies.

We’ve come to a point in the discourse where the term “literacy” is used in far too many ways. One can be information literate, health literate, financially literate, digitally literate, statistically literate, or emotionally literate. How do all of these relate to the broader concept of literacy? As I was reading over these, I started thinking about this and discovered two predominant approaches: metaphorical and metonymical.

Let’s begin with a literal approach to the definition. The OED defines literate as “acquainted with letters or literature; educated, instructed, learned; a liberally educated or learned person; one who can read and write.” Webster’s Third defines it as “characterized by or possessed of learning; able to read and write; well executed or technically proficient.” Literacy is defined as the characteristic of possessing any of these traits. So a strict definition focuses on either “learning” or “reading” and this is generally how the term is used in everyday conversation. A somewhat broader definition implies understanding and comprehension, not just the ability to read and write but the ability to do it well. From here, the splintering of definitions takes off.

Literacy is then extended metaphorically to mean an understanding or comprehension of other subjects beyond written text (most of which require reading and writing): being health literate  is the ability to understand health issues and read medical documents; being financially literate is the ability to understand markets, economies, and fiscal concerns.  These “other” literacies require many of the same skills (ability to read and write, most notably, but also the ability to seek and retrieve documents) but do so in entirely different contexts. They require a specific domain knowledge which adds value to the understanding gained through simple reading comprehension.

Literacy can also be extended metonymically to mean any of the skills related to or comprising the ability to understand information. This use of the word tends to play on the various meaning of “reading” and “writing” to included activities such as choosing the right font for a business letter, evaluating a website or editorial for bias, or deconstructing body language. One is digitally literate if they have the skills necessary to navigate online or use electronic databases. One is orally literate if they have the ability to interpret the subtleties of human communication or understand the complexities of storytelling. While domain knowledge still plays a significant part, the focus here is on the ability to “read” signs (e.g. verbal, written, performed) and “write” effectively (e.g. compose, format, design)

Transliteracy seems to straddle the fence between these two uses (hence, its prefix kinda works in this regard). It attempts to encompass both the skills necessary for understanding “texts” in a [mostly digital] environment (metonymical) and the understanding of how different contexts require different domains of knowledge (metaphorical). Herein lies the problem: Which connotation of literacy are we using when we say someone is “transliterate?” Is it problematic to imply both?  And most importantly: if we imply both, how is that different from the all-inclusive term “literacy” defined in a less-than-strict way, i.e. the ability to understand and comprehend “texts” and to do it well?

Perhaps the answers to these questions could be the foundation for further development of a definition of transliteracy. Or they could be its negation. Whatever the outcome, the discussion will continue into the near future and it will be defined by its ability to add value to our understanding of how individuals interact with the world around them, one which is increasingly becoming more digital.

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*As a side note, I didn’t find Lane’s post to be either inaccessible or “needlessly” linguistically elite, as David suggested. It is academically sterile, perhaps, but I don’t think anyone should be faulted for trying to use language specifically and intentionally, in a way that suggests the style of scholarly communication. It deserves its place just as much as the more casual or snarky language that comprises most of internet. But then, I’m biased given that I spend most of my day in an academic library.

Using Flickr to build critical thinking skills

July 7th, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink

Pen with tags attached

photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg

I’m currently taking a course on Library Instruction as part of my MLIS work. The following is an exercise I developed for one of my assignments: using tagging to help students think critically about information organization and retrieval. The idea is based on a similar lesson developed by Maggio, Bresnahan, Flynn & Harzbecker (2009) in which they use the concept of tagging to illustrate MeSH. As a premise, both lessons attempt to capitalize on knowledge that students may already possess before the session begins. What do you think? Have you used similar lessons in your instruction sessions? How do you teach students about subject headings?

Introduction

Grassian & Kaplowitz (2009) suggest that librarians should teach two types of critical thinking: (1) critical thinking about information researching tools and (2) critical thinking about materials received. The following exercise attempts to address the first of these by asking students to reflect upon how information is organized in both formal and informal systems using the popular photo sharing website Flickr and academic databases such as Proquest and Academic OneFile. Maggio, Bresnahan, Flynn & Harzbecker, in their 2009 study, used the concept of social tagging to illustrate the benefits of controlled vocabulary in the MEDLINE database. Based on pre-class and post-class evaluations, the students’ ability to recognize and select MeSH related to a specified article increased from 9.2% to 78.2%. The exercise below is adapted from this case study and utilizes social tagging to improve students’ ability to think critically about database searching and subject classification.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the instruction session, students should understand how subject headings affect the organization and retrieval of information. Specifically, the following two ACRL Information Literacy Standards apply:

3.2.d: Recognizes the cultural, physical, or other context within which the information was created and understands the impact of context on interpreting the information

2.2.c: Selects controlled vocabulary specific to the discipline or information retrieval source
Students will demonstrate learning through their ability to discuss the social, political, and/or contextual implications of tagging and controlled vocabulary. They will also be able to locate and evaluate subject thesauri in specific databases and compare subject headings between various databases.

Instruction and Activities

Pre-class Prep: Select a number of photos from Flickr that could generate interesting discussions about classification (images from current events, popular landmarks, famous individuals, etc.). Print two copies of each of these images so that there are enough for the expected number of students. Images could also be saved to PC desktops or flash-drives if that is more convenient. Assign two databases to each image that students will use for searching later in the session. Include either a link or a step-by-step guide to navigating to the database homepage.

Social Tagging in Flickr (20 min): Begin the session by briefly discussing the concept of tagging (in case anyone is unfamiliar with the practice) and showing the benefits of searching by assigned tags rather than searching by keyword. Hand out the images printed before class to the students and ask them to assign 3-5 tags to the photo. Have the students find the other person who has their same image and ask them to discuss the tags they chose. Did they choose the same tags? Different ones? Ask 1-2 of the groups to present their findings and, as a class, discuss any biases or assumptions made when assigning certain tags (e.g. perspective, focus, gender, cognitive domain, synonymy).

Locating Database Thesauri (20 min): While still in pairs, have the students find subject headings similar to the tags they assigned using the two databases indicated on their handouts. Ask the students to compare how similar concepts are described in the two different databases (e.g. “Exxon Valdez disaster” vs. “Exxon Valdez oil spill”) and present their findings to the class. Use this time to discuss the biases and assumptions made in assigning subject headings.

Conclusion (10 min): Using Flickr’s website, locate the images that you used for their assignments and show them the actual tags assigned to each image. Discuss any lingering questions about the benefits and drawbacks of using controlled vocabulary to search for articles.

References

ALA. ACRL. (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved June 18, 2010, from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency.cfm

Grassian, E.S. & Kaplowitz, J.R. (2009). Information literacy instruction: theory and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Maggio, L.A., Besnahan, M., Flynn, D.B., & Harzbecker, J. (2009). A case study: using social tagging to engage students in learning Medical Subject Headings. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 97(2), 77-83.

Critical thinking resources

April 21st, 2010 § Comments Off § permalink

picture of coffee mug with thinking logo

photo credit: wadem

I’ve sidetracked my usual information literacy research to spend some time examining how critical thinking relates to what librarians do. Still being somewhat green-thumbed in all this, I had never considered critical thinking skills in their own light, outside of IL instruction and assessment; indeed, as ITLWTLP explained not too long ago, the two are closely related. So I wanted to share some of the resources I’ve come across recently, both online and in print. While not all of these resources are specific to academic libraries, they provide provoking ways for thinking about CT.

  • Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills report : this particular report outlines the role of libraries and museums in promoting “21st century skills” and provides a number of case studies and tools for assessing or developing CT practices.
  • Critical Literacy? Information! : the post I mentioned above from a truly spectacular blog, In the Library With the Lead Pipe. This post discusses the relationship between information literacy and CT.
  • The Elements of Reasoning and Intellectual Standards : an interactive guide to the “elements of thought” (e.g. point-of-view, assumptions, purpose, etc.) and CT standards (e.g. clarity, logic, fairness, etc.). Very useful for students and educators alike to quickly assess CT. This site is a co-operative effort between the Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique and the Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Critical Thinking for College and University Students : also from criticathinking.org, this is a useful guide for students that explores the basics of CT and its importance. It provides an overview, glossary, standards, study tips, close reading tutorials and more.
  • Partnership for 21st Century Skills : provides a very brief overview of critical thinking and a list of additional resources

I’ve also picked up the following three publications:

Budd, J. (2009). Framing Library Instruction. Chicago : Association of College and Research Libraries.

There is a chapter entitled “Cognition and clear thinking” which discusses various cognitive models for understanding how people learn and process information.

Nosich, G.M. (2009). Learning to Think Things Through : a guide to critical thinking across the curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Pearson Prentice Hall.

Provides a concise and rich introduction to CT for instructors.

Leicester, M. (2010). Teaching Critical Thinking Skills. New York : Continuum.

I was particular excited to have come across this book while looking for something else. Each page presents a single critical thinking aspect, followed up with questions and ideas for reflection. The work is geared toward instructors but the format provides a useful mechanism for evaluating one’s own CT skills.

I’ll be posting my thoughts as I work through these materials. If you have any critical thinking resources that you  recommend, please share them in the comments!