Instruction Reading

Critical Reading Partnership Inspired by Project Information Literacy

By Deb Baker, Library Director, Manchester Community College, Manchester New Hampshire

This fall, at an English faculty colleague’s suggestion, I’ve been visiting her Composition I class to collaborate in modeling college reading. We were inspired by Project Information Literacy’s “Provocation” series, especially articles by Barbara Fister (Lizard People in the Library) Alison Head (Reading in the Age of Distrust) and Nicole Cooke (Tell Me Sweet Little Lies: Racism as a Form of Persisting Malinformation). Together we’ve facilitated students through reading, annotating, critiquing and discussing eight articles on a single topic over seven weeks, followed by two weeks of inviting them to apply the skills they learned to the sources they’ve found for their own research topics.

In August, we met to talk about Head’s suggestion that “educators and instruction librarians must make the invisible activity of reading more visible.” In part because of Fister’s article, my colleague suggested QAnon as our topic. She found a series of articles from newspapers, websites, and academic journals that she hoped would help students situate QAnon in the historical, social, and cultural contexts of American satanic panics. Every week we read and annotated the assigned reading ourselves, uploading them to Canvas at least a couple of days ahead of class, and then talked through what we had wondered, looked up, and thought about in a class discussion. She would follow up each class with a Canvas discussion board. We set broad goals – sharing our own reading processes, helping students develop critical reading habits, introducing Cooke’s critical cultural literacy, and connecting critical reading with research.

With this plan in mind, we started class discussions in the third week of the semester. For our first session together, the students were asked to read the assigned article, but not to annotate. We led the discussion. For the next week, they annotated the first part of the article, and we again led the discussion. The idea was that each week, the students would take more of a lead.

It went relatively well, but like all of the best laid classroom plans, also went somewhat differently than we’d envisioned. First, we thought QAnon would be interesting, especially in light of the context provided by the many different articles my colleague chose – everything from a column by Los Angeles Times music critic Mikael Wood about the conservative outcry over Little Nas X’s ‘Montero’ video to a lengthy analysis of QAnon by game designer Reed Berkowitz to scholarly articles by Mary DeYoung and Sarah Hughes about the historical and economic conditions that led to past satanic panics. Some students found the topic engaging, but a few did not and one student wouldn’t participate at all. While it may not have been the topic that caused this, some of her ennui seemed to rub off on classmates at times.

Practically speaking, we observed that students were not necessarily familiar with or conscious of asking questions as they read, and just as Head reports in Reading in the Age of Distrust, weren’t sure how to connect what they read with previous readings. Even after we modeled our own methods, they did not necessarily follow suit, even when given clear directions such as “look up something about the author and the publication.” Eventually, my colleague resorted to a worksheet outlining what students should look for, such as claims and evidence.

Even with clear instructions, we also found that for students raised in a time of standardized testing and five paragraph essays, it was challenging for some to identify an author’s stated purpose. If it wasn’t the last sentence in the opening paragraph, where they have probably been taught to locate a topic sentence or thesis statement, some students missed it. They were for the most part unfamiliar with academic writing, which we were expecting, and seemed to trust the journalist author of the first article we read more than the academic author of the second, which we were not expecting. My colleague began talking about the years of study and research that go into earning a PhD, and the expertise that results. It was also interesting to discover that the most of the class was not really familiar with the role of critics, and saw criticism as “opinion.” Further discussion revealed that many students understood opinions to be less reliable than “facts” and therefore dismissed opinion pieces as bad sources. We validated their concerns that some opinion writing has a tenuous connection to evidence or is propaganda rather than journalism, but that critical reading could help them spot that and also to find quality opinion pieces.

We also confirmed that when it came to critiquing an article, students tended to have a binary view of bias, rather than seeing it as a nuanced and sometimes invisible force. That said, they were very aware of racism and acknowledged its role in satanic panics. Contextualizing other forms of also seemed to come naturally – they were well aware of biases around gender and sexuality, for example. We weren’t sure how critical cultural literacy would go over, given the heightened rhetoric about critical race theory in our state, but none of the students seemed surprised or unfamiliar with considering how racism amplifies and perpetuates misinformation.

In fact, cultural literacy seemed to come more naturally to the class than information literacy. No matter how often I tried to emphasize that the same critical reading skills apply to information found on the internet, some students had strongly held views about the trustworthiness of certain kinds of sources. When the class shared their own research sources, we had a chance to explore some of these oversimplifications. One student had found a “peer-reviewed” article in an open access journal from Omics International, the problematic vanity publisher. At first the consensus was, if it’s peer-reviewed, it’s a good source. I suggested we look together at information about the journal’s peer-review process and the class concluded correctly that it sounded way too vague and unspecific to be legitimate. They seemed surprised to hear me caution that even peer-reviewed information needs critical reading.

Another student analyzed a blog post from an economic think tank. The initial class response is that blogs are not “good” sources, but after looking closely at the author and considering their fellow student’s information need (he was looking for historical analysis related to the current debate about fair wages), they were able to see why the piece provided expert and well-documented background information useful for his paper.

Even though not every student mastered critical reading, they all had the opportunity to see it in action, and we feel like this experiment, modeling and teaching critical reading and connecting that work to students’ own research, provided a foundation for students to build on. Critical reading and critical cultural literacy will be part of Comp I at our college in the future thanks in part to what we learned together. The class got to see how they fit into the scholarly conversation and the intellectual life of the college. Students also got to know me better, rather than just seeing me for a “one-shot” research session or two, which resulted in more students scheduling research consultations.

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