2020 Research Agenda Conversation

Andrea Baer

Andrea Baer is a public services librarian at Rowan University. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Washington and a Masters in Information Sciences from the University of Tennessee. Andrea’s work in libraries and education is informed by her prior teaching experience in writing and literature and by her interests in writing studies, critical pedagogy, and reflective practice. She is the author of Information Literacy and Writing Studies in Conversation (2016) and the co-editor of Libraries Promoting Reflective Dialogue in Times of Political Polarization (2019).

1. What was your impetus to move into the area of critical library instruction?

That’s a really interesting question for me, in part because I’ve struggled some with what the term “critical library instruction” means and looks like, both in my own teaching practice and more broadly. Although the terms “critical information literacy” and “critical pedagogy” have become fairly commonplace among instruction librarians, I think they often mean different things to different people and can be difficult to define. That said, the overall philosophies and approaches that I associate with critical pedagogy align with my values and beliefs about teaching and learning: making connections between everyday experience and the worlds that we inhabit; valuing critical reflection and constructive dialogue, problem posing and meaning making; investigating social, political, historical, and structural contexts; and asking how those help to shape our experiences and our worlds. This includes developing greater awareness of our positionalities and social identities and how those influence our experiences, circumstances, relationships, beliefs, and actions.

When I became a librarian, the concept of critical library instruction had just started to gain traction. This was around the same time that the (excellent) book Critical Library Instruction: Theories and Methods (Emily Drabinski, Alana Kumbier, and Maria Accardi, eds., 2010. Sacramento: Library Juice Press) came out. The ideas in this publication really resonated with my earlier experiences teaching comparative literature and English composition (which I had done prior to my library work and while completing a doctorate in comparative literature). Coming across these writings, I was so excited to learn about how many instruction librarians were teaching about information and information practices as socially and politically situated.

Some of my writing in the last few years has looked at the question of what “critical pedagogy” is and how “critical pedagogies” may be a more apt term, since “critical pedagogy” isn’t a clear-cut and single concept. Critical pedagogies continue to greatly inform my teaching and research, at the same time that I think the terms “critical library instruction” and “critical pedagogy” need more unpacking when we use them. For example, I’ve always felt conflicted about some of Paulo Freire’s writing on instilling “critical consciousness” in students. Some of his and other critical pedagogues’ writings seem to imply that the teacher is in some way superior to their students and can show them the correct way to think and act. On the other hand, a different understanding of critical consciousness might be that it is intended to foster a valuing of social difference and social justice, though people will reach different conclusions about how they think about and act (or don’t act) on certain issues. This leaves more room for the teacher to be human and imperfect and learn along with their students (while still bringing a certain subject expertise and a responsibility to foster an inclusive environment). That is something I can get on board with.

Relatedly, I’ve been interested in debates about the possibilities and limitations of critical pedagogies, particularly those from the field of rhetoric and English composition. These debates are especially relevant at this time of intensified political polarization, since they often look at issues like what dialogue and knowledge construction mean and look like in a critical classroom (especially in light of classroom power dynamics in which some students may not share an instructors’ political perspective or concerns).

2. Why is it important for information literacy instructors to understand critical information literacy?

As suggested in my response to the previous question, this is somewhat hard for me to answer because I think the term “critical information literacy” is interpreted in different ways, particularly when it comes to how we teach. But if I think of critical library information literacy as foregrounding the larger contexts in which people create, share, access, and use information and as inviting people to ask and explore questions individually and in community, then critical information literacy reflects what I see as the heart of library instructional work. As Christine Pawley says in Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling, “Information never stands alone—it is always produced and used in ways that represent social relationships. And these representations and relationships are not merely a matter of chance or individual choice but reflect the underlying patterns that structure society” (2003. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 73, no. 4, 433). It’s easy for that context to get lost when you’re focused on navigating a database platform that has been traditionally perceived as “neutral.” I think part of our work as librarians and as educators is helping people to dig into what’s behind the information and information systems that they encounter but that isn’t already immediately apparent. Sometimes what isn’t immediately evident is structures that reinforce the status quo and dominant powers (and that often work against social justice). In looking more critically at the contexts in which information is produced, disseminated, and used, I think we’re better able to consider perspectives and voices that have traditionally been marginalized. (I recognize as I write this that there’s a lot more to “looking critically at contexts” than what I’ve said here.)

3. Your recent work has addressed information literacy education in a time of political polarization. Has the current political climate changed the way you approach classroom teaching?

Definitely. The intensification of political polarization in the US became especially evident to me with the 2016 presidential election (as it did for many others). As the 2016 election came to a close, I was teaching a credit-bearing information literacy course for the first time in a small town in Georgia about an hour from Atlanta. (I’d started a new librarian job at the University of West Georgia earlier that year.) The morning after the election the tension on campus – and in my classroom – became impossible to look away from. I had always thought a lot about the social and political dimensions of information; of teaching and learning; and of information literacy, but they hadn’t felt as personal or as palpable before. To a large extent these issues had been more theoretical before. But in my classroom it was now so evident that people’s sense of self and of social belonging (or dis-belonging) were central to how they were able to engage – or not engage – in learning and with different kinds of information. (For a little more context, this student body is racially diverse and has a large percentage of first-generation students, most of whom are in their late adolescence or early 20s. Students’ political and ideological beliefs vary considerably, and those beliefs often seem to be closely tied to different aspects of their social identities and their social and family backgrounds.)

This experience was a catalyst for me to learn more about pedagogical approaches that foster an inclusive environment, especially in politically pluralistic learning environments. It also prompted me to begin learning more about the roles that social identity and beliefs play in information behaviors. I’m still in the early stages of exploring this area, and I expect that I’ll be learning about these complex issues for as long as I’m teaching.

4. What for you are the most interesting current developments in library information literacy instruction research?

There are so many interesting things happening in our field. There are two research strands that I’m currently most drawn to. Both connect with my everyday professional practice. The first centers on more holistic approaches to information literacy that recognize (and value) learning and information behaviors as social, affective, and cognitive. With the increased focus in our field over the past several years on the affective dimensions of learning and on inclusive education, in combination with attention to the role of beliefs and various biases in information behavior, there’s a lot of momentum developing in this area. I’ve been particularly interested in Maureen Linker’s work on intellectual empathy, which she defines as “the cognitive-affective elements of thinking about identity and social difference” (2014. Intellectual Empathy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 12).

The second strand of research that I’m engaging with more and that I see growing is librarians’ development as educators, particularly as we engage with critical pedagogies and critical reflective practice. (The latter involves in part slowing down and reflecting both individually and collectively on our teaching experiences and in that process investigating the beliefs and assumptions that we bring to our pedagogical work.)

A lot has changed about how librarians think and talk about our instructional roles and approaches since I entered the profession. (Things are changing so quickly.) At the same time, I think we’re in the earlier stages of approaching information literacy education as a truly shared responsibility of all educators and of recognizing the unique expertise and roles we bring to that larger work.

I’m very interested in how librarians develop as teachers and in how we can cultivate in our teaching practices and in our profession a sense of agency, flexibility, and creativity in how we support teaching and learning. I believe having such a frame of mind also helps us to engage with students and other educators more authentically, as it makes it easier to make student learning our focal point and to trust in what we can bring to that work in a collaborative way.

5.  What advice would you give to librarians who are trying to formulate their own research agenda?

Since I think the paths people take to developing a research agenda vary greatly, any advice I’d give is with the qualifier that everyone has their own way and that what works for me may not work for someone else. That said, I think a meaningful research agenda is driven by curiosity and thoughtful questions. A powerful starting point is allowing yourself time to look around at what’s happening in your own work and in related communities and identifying issues and questions that you care about.

I also think it’s important to balance a gentle kind of self-discipline with patience with one’s own process: that is, setting aside time on a regular basis to look for and to explore the questions that interest you (which can happen in so many ways, including through conversations and interactions with others), and at the same time accepting that ideas sometimes need to incubate before you know where you want to go with them.

I offer this advice as I think about my own recent experience of burnout. Recently I felt like I’d never have a new idea or be able to write anything again. Fortunately, I could also remember that this wasn’t the first time I’d felt like this, and that I’d moved past that funk before. This experience reminded me of the importance of self-care and patience, which helped me eventually reconnect with the curiosity and enjoyment that ideally drives our research and our everyday work.

I’d also say that if you’re someone who overidentifies at times with your work (as I sometimes do), it may be helpful to remember that you are not your work. I think this can be easy to forget in a culture that tends to glorify professional achievements. Worrying too much about the need to “produce” stands in the way of doing the work that we find meaningful, enjoyable, and worthwhile. It’s reconnecting with interesting questions and the things around us that I think inspires thoughtful and constructive research and ideas.