2020 Rockman Award Winner Interview: Amanda L. Folk

Amanda L. Folk won the 2020 Ilene F. Rockman Award for her article, “Reframing Information Literacy as Academic Cultural Capital: A Critical and Equity-Based Foundation for Practice, Assessment, and Scholarship,” published in 2019 by College & Research Libraries. 2019/2020 Rockman Award Committee member, Thomas Weeks, conducted an interview with Amanda after she received her award.

You talk about how librarianship has lacked a critical approach to student success rooted in an equity framework. Why do you think this has been the case?

Although we still have a lot of work to do as a profession, we’ve seen a lot more interest in discussing issues related to diversity, inclusivity, equity, and social justice over the past decade or two. I think that’s especially been true since critical librarianship has gained momentum and visibility. Having said that, I think there is somewhat of a scholar-practitioner divide in librarianship, which is understandable. I think this has resulted in a lack of a theoretical or conceptual component that provides a foundation for our practice, particularly related to student success. The Value of Academic Libraries report (VAL) and the subsequent Academic Library Impact report (which brought LIS scholars and practitioners together) really challenged academic librarians to think about our role in student learning and success. We’re only one decade out from the publication of VAL, and I think we’re starting to gain our footing in that area…both thinking about what our roles are, could be, or should be and then thinking about how we give librarians the basic skills to embark on research related to student success. As we’re maturing in this space, I think it’s important to look at the theories and conceptual frameworks that undergird research about student success more generally and bring those into conversation with our work and values. Higher education researchers have been grappling with issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice, both in scholarship and in practice, for decades. I think that work has remained invisible to many librarians who are focusing primarily on LIS literature, which, again, is understandable.  I think engaging with theoretical and conceptual frameworks that are commonly used in higher education research will really enrich the student success research that we’re developing, deepen our work with students at our institutions, and appeal to our institutional colleagues (because we’re approaching matters of student success from perspectives with which they are familiar).

In addition, I think it’s important to point out that our profession is overwhelmingly white and our professional context primarily operates in white-collar paradigm. While I do believe that many librarians (of all racial and social class backgrounds) have a true to commitment to equity and social justice. For those of us who are not minoritized in the profession, even though we may have positive intentions, we might not give thought to these issues on a regular basis. We may even think that it’s someone else’s responsibility to address these issues, despite being supportive of the goal of achieving equity. I think, in some ways, it’s easier to address diversity and inclusivity in our collections, in our displays, than in our teaching or interactions with our communities. We can often celebrate diversity on a superficial level (though these celebrations are important and have a role in creating a sense of belonging). It’s much harder to interrogate our own (individual) potential contributions to persistent achievement gaps and acknowledge that our own practices might be problematic for particular student populations.

You connect information literacy as a form of cultural capital. What led you to this connection?

This connection is a personal one. I went to a wealthy liberal arts college. Despite being the salutatorian of my high school graduating class (and I went to the “good” high school in my hometown), I felt somewhat adrift academically when I got to college. Although I ultimately did well enough to be competitive for graduate school, my grades were much lower than I was used to and that took a toll on my academic self-esteem. It was like there was something I was missing. I wasn’t a first-generation student; my father graduated from college when I was about 5 (so he was roughly the age I am now as I am typing this). My mother was the office manager in the admissions office at college in my hometown. My family had a lot of college knowledge, but it was more procedural (still very important!). I was really lacking information related to the hidden curriculum, despite my parents’ unwavering commitment to and support for my educational attainment.

Fast forward almost 10 years, and my partner and I were both back in school. He was studying mechanical engineering at the local community college after having been out of school for almost 10 years, and I was in the social and comparative analysis in education track of a PhD program. I noticed that he, like I did, lacked a lot of critical information related to the hidden curriculum. We had a particularly brutal evening when he had finished writing his first research assignment. He had worked so hard on it, and it was a really good paper. He didn’t have any citations in it though. Despite completing the writing course, he didn’t know that he had to cite his sources. This wasn’t his fault; this was an instructional failure. It was assumed that he was taught that somewhere else. At the same time, I was learning about social and cultural capital in my classes, and it all started to click. I realized that a lot of what librarians were attempting to do in our instruction and consultations with students was impart critical academic cultural capital to help students navigate instructors’ expectations for performance that was, at least in part, hidden to many students. I wondered if we could be even more effective if we explicitly acknowledged this goal.

You mention a few implications for practice with the equity framework, including asset-based approaches and models such as Decoding the Disciplines and Transparency in Learning and Teaching Higher Education. How would you recommend a librarian new to thinking in terms of an equity approach get started?

First, I recommend reading works outside of librarianship that are related to equity work in education, including works that talk about how to dismantle white supremacy, classism, colonization, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc. This can be overwhelming (there are so many unjust systems and structures that need to be dismantled), so perhaps choose an area that you are particularly interested in learning more about to get started. For me, it was learning more about antiracist and anticlassist practices, which I believe prepares me to learn more about the other kinds of marginalization that happens in educational spaces. As mentioned in my article, Dr. Estela Mara Bensimon has been foundational for how I think about infusing equity values into my work. I highly recommend her works that I cited in the article as good starting points, but she also recently co-authored a book with Dr. Tia McNair and Dr. Lindsey Malcolm-Piqueux that I think provides a nice distillation of her previous with concrete, practical examples – From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education. It was helpful for me to think about activities, programs, services, or curricula that were in place in my institution that may have fallen into Bensimon’s deficit or diversity frames, despite positive intent on the part of the institution. Then I moved to the practices of my library and then to my own practice (specifically classroom teaching and reference interactions). Using Bensimon’s work, I reflected on what it would mean or look like to approach this work from an equity standpoint, and what changes I would need to make. Thinking about how I could model that behavior and talk about it with my colleagues. I really feel that I am just at the beginning stages of this work – I still have A LOT more to learn and to do to make change – but I feel that I have to start somewhere, no matter how small.

Another work that I find myself referring to quite frequently right now as I think about how to infuse Bensimon’s equity frame into the work of my department is Michelle Reale’s Inquiry and Research: A Relational Approach in the Classroom. In my opinion, this book is aligned well with librarians serving as discourse mediators…helping to uncover the potentially tacit expectations of instructors for research- and inquiry-based assignments that have implications for student performance (and grades). She encourages librarians to help students develop a thinking strategy and provides practical examples of what that could look like in a one-shot session. We’re using this approach to rethink our former reference service model at my own library.

Finally, I found it helpful to reflect upon and apply the Decoding the Disciplines model to my own interactions with students, especially at the reference desk or in research consultations. Asking myself where students seem to be getting stuck in the research process. This allowed me to think about what kinds of mental tasks (which we could equate with knowledge practices and dispositions in the Framework) students would need to know how to do to move past these sticking points (AKA bottlenecks to learning) and how I could help them to get practice with these mental tasks in a non-threatening, low-stakes way. TILT offers a lot of examples and resources, and we’ve found that it can be helpful to apply the transparent assignment checklist to assignment instruction sheets that we already have, just to get a feel for TILT. They also have great examples assignment instruction sheets, as well as a template for writing transparent assignment instructions. If you have formed a good working relationship with an instructor, one who is open to experimenting with you, you could have conversation about working together on this as a way to pilot this kind of work.

What’s next for you and your research?

Hopefully walking the walk! My colleagues (Katie Blocksidge, Jane Hammons, Chris Manion, and Hanna Primeau) and I have implemented an instructor development workshop series called “Meaningful Inquiry” based on this article, and we’ve offered it twice now to about 23 participants. We have plans to offer it twice in May 2020. We’ve also been given funding from The Ohio State University Libraries to offer a competitive course or assignment-transformation grant for workshop participants, in which they use what they’ve learned about equity work, information literacy, student learning and motivation, Decoding the Disciplines, and TILT to make real changes to their assignments. We have research studies planned for both the workshop and the grant program to investigate the effectiveness of this work.

I’ve also been working with my colleague, Tracey Overbey, on a research study that explores the library experiences of Black and African-American students before and during college. We wrote a paper with preliminary findings that we presented at ACRL 2019, but we’re continuing to do more analysis and hope to have more publications in the next couple of years.

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