I recently read this article by Barbara Fisher, and it was as if something jumped off the page at me. I recommend you read it as there’s a tonne of really valuable insight in there about the intricate web of information overload that we’re in in this ‘post-truth’ era. Here are a few key passages that particularly resonated with me as a budding psychologist and information literacy enthusiast. First,

When you’re trying to figure out where you are in this new academic setting, just surviving may take up all your energy. When we talk about “student success” we’re not necessarily talking about lifelong learning…we’re talking about the ability to perform well as a student, to write academic prose, format footnotes, and draw from scholarly sources without getting in trouble for plagiarism. That tends to push loftier goals to the side.  

I can definitely relate to this, as can a lot of other students I know. When you’re in a situation where you’re encountering so much new information, trying to get your head around complex concepts, and feeling buried under a mountain of reading, it can easily devolve into a very reactive existence. If I have an assignment due in a week, my focus understandably narrows to what is being expected of me in that piece of work. When I’ve had overlapping or back-to-back assignments, or when I’ve been on placement focusing on developing new skills, I often feel l I don’t have the time or energy left to be engaging in philosophical or moral debates.

And this is a problem. This kind of reactive response means there’s no guarantee that IL skills will be thought about with any kind of depth either at the generalised or deeper disciplinary specific levels – yes, I may learn to use EndNote and reference correctly, but am I being encouraged to think about why I’m expected to do this beyond that it will improve my grade? Is an opportunity being missed here to engage with why thinking critically about a journal article, and considering who wrote it, has bigger implications beyond my assignment? I think so.

Second:

As [students] learn to think like historians, like scientists, like artists by engaging in the practices and methods of those fields they may learn along the way what makes for honest, rigorous inquiry – and why those values matter. By writing and conducting inquiry in a disciplinary framework they often gain the understanding that knowledge is a thing we make together, ideally learning that they have the agency to be a participant in making the world as we know it, and that they think about it as ethical activity that engages intellectual and moral virtues.

In this passage I realised that, as a student, it is really easy to lose sight of just how powerful information is; how substantial and long-lasting the impact can be of stringing sentences together to form a cogent argument. In the context of psychology, we see this in the vaccinations-cause-autism debacle – even though those findings were redacted, people still choose not to vaccinate their children based on them. And the Momo hoax, which scared a lot of parents into believing that a frightening figure was being inserted into popular YouTube videos and telling children to hurt themselves or others. This was shared across the world, discussed with children in schools, and even discussed as ‘fact’ in one of my classes. It really brings home the power of information, doesn’t it? And shows how easily fact and fiction begin to blur based on how people choose to respond to it.

I’m acutely aware of the power of information as I learn to write psychological reports, which I touched on in my last blog post Learning to write in the psychology discipline. What I’ve noticed is that students can get so focused on the mechanics of writing – this section should go here, I need to include this information under this heading –and the sheer challenge of writing (to be fair, it is hard), that the value, impact and wider implications of what is being written about, and the potential for value judgements and bias to creep in (inadvertently or otherwise), can easily be overlooked.

And third:

We have to offer our students hope and build bridges between a clearer understanding of academic values and how we live in the world so that students are ethically and intellectually equipped to work to make it a better place.  

I just love this closing statement. It is so true! I want to go into the world after all this study an informed, responsible and ethical practitioner who engages in practice with the critical and reflective thinking that IL skills foster. For all the educators out there (both teachers and librarians) please keep this in mind whenever you bring IL skills into the classroom. Ask yourself: what do the students in front of you need to be confident and skilled information consumers? And how can you build connections both within and beyond their area of study so they are encouraged to consider the why behind information literacy skills.

Rose O’Connor

Trainee Child and Family Psychologist, University of Canterbury

Junior Researcher, Massey University