Speaking our truths: honouring diverse learners within models of information literacy

Dr Alison E Hicks
Dr Alison E Hicks

In this blog post, Alison Hicks, the CILIP Information Literacy Group rep for Higher Education and LIS, talks about an article she inadvertently found that she related to both personally and professionally and her thoughts on how diverse learners are represented within models of information literacy.

During my sabbatical this spring, I read an article that examined how people who have the same medical condition that I do engage with and use information. I had come across the article in a fan girl moment when I was feverishly trying to download a newly discovered author’s entire publication history to date. I was clicking with abandon, pleased to have discovered so many new articles to read, until, without warning or precedent, this particular article popped up. I paused; my forefinger poised over the mouse button. Half of me was elated – this was the first article I had seen linking these two aspects of my identity and it moved me to be ‘seen’ in this way. The other half of me, however, was tellingly cautious of how the article would play out, including how I would be perceived, represented, and judged within the research study. 

It’s a strange feeling reading research about something that you are living with or through so intensely. The first time this happened, I was an international student studying for my Masters in the United States. As I have documented elsewhere, I was horrified to hear that people in my situation were regularly described as unprepared for studying, whether this was because we possessed inappropriate information skills, or were unable to think critically. It was particularly galling to read these things as I saw how my fellow international students and I became almost hypervigilant within these culturally unfamiliar settings, employing an enormously wide range of information strategies to sort through and pick up on relevant cues. The second time it happened was when I was a PhD student, reading about how my peers and I were, (surprise!), not ‘ready’ for working with information at a graduate level. Thankfully, there were fewer egregious studies this time (and even a few insightful ones) but it still rankled to see very little recognition of the pressures and structures that might impact information seeking and use in the transition from student to academic. 

Obviously, the fact that there have only been a handful of times when I have felt discomfort in being studied demonstrates my huge privilege – as Virginia Eubanks (2018) points out, being profiled and policed is a constant in the experiences of many marginalised communities. I was also eventually able to channel the anger that I felt in the above situations into my own socioculturally-focused research work. However, to my mind, these episodes highlight various ethical questions about the power that information literacy models and documents have to shape how we honour diverse learners. The joy that I felt at being represented in the literature, for example, illustrates the potential that information literacy guidelines have to draw attention to the wider social pressures that constrain and enable a specific community’s interaction within an information environment. At the same time, the sense of indignation that I felt when my peers’ and my actions were derided and dismissed provides a glimpse of the violence that these documents can do to people’s identities when we centre normative assumptions about appropriate information activities. 

For those of you who may still be wondering, I did click on that article, which, thankfully, made me feel affirmed rather than disrespected; legitimised rather than erased. However, other experiences demonstrate that this is not always the case and that we have much work to do if we are to respect and honour different forms of agency and action within our understandings of information literacy. As Tom Peach (personal communication, August 19, 2021) put in an email to me, how do we move to “info lit from within communities, rather than frameworks done to them?” In effect, if we are serious about positioning information literacy as transformational then we must ensure that the care that the author of the article I read accorded to me is offered to all of the learners that we work with. 

Eubanks, V. (2019). Automating inequality: How high-tech tools profile, police, and punish the poor. New York: Picador.

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