Trust me I’m a …

I’ve had this vague feeling ever since I started in the middle school that I’m just not serving my population well on the research side of things. I’ve tried putting my finger on it in the past but the unease has been growing. It started with being dissatisfied with nonfiction and that we’re not doing enough to uncover what research really looks like. I’ve not blogged much this year – partly due to having a lot on my plate with moving schools and school section, but also by choice since there’s just been so much to process and I’m not sure if writing it would be the best option.

It’s now near the end of May and my unease has not abated. A few things are going much better – I’m slowing getting some more collaboration going between the library and the various subjects. Which in some ways leads to more soul searching on how to best serve our students. I think I’m beginning to better understand the problem, not that I’m any closer to a solution. danah boyd gave yet another amazing talk recently and here is the transcript: “Agnotology and Epistemological Fragmentation” – bigger words than I’m accustomed to blogging on, but please indulge me and read the link, as it’s a good, albeit scary read. In particular what struck me was her discussion of the “data void” because that is exactly the description for what I’m experiencing as a middle school librarian.

In primary life was relatively easy – students had their passions – dinosaurs and trucks and kittens and ocean life and their inquiries, the rainforest, energy, etc. and I had a plethora of resources, mainly print books that could explain things in a simple yet clear and age appropriate way.

My latest existential crisis is the result of a rather good collaboration with G8 Biology, where we’re trying to take some biological understanding of cells and make it relevant to your average 13/14 year old in the throes of puberty where everything is more interesting than cellular details. So the idea was to try and help them examine what’s going on at a cellular basis when they indulge in typical teen behaviour – eating, drinking, going to the spa, putting on sunscreen, using makeup, experimenting with alcohol or smoking/vaping, dyeing their hair etc. I’m gathering some basic background information in a Libguide so that they don’t get bogged down in a google blackhole.

But that pulls me into the rabbit hole instead as I try to find scientific information. With the teachers we’d already decided that any books we had were largely irrelevant content detailed and superceded by better online models and information. But what we needed now was good information tailored to the unit.

I started with what I thought would be something relatively simple – deodorants – nothing could be further from the truth. On the one hand you have Dr. Mercola, and his ilk, countless hysterical “health” bloggers; Huffington post and on the other, the 200 page report on the matter from the EU scientific commission. Then there was the Doctor in the Harvard review (via Credo) answering questions posed by her daughter and her daughter’s friends and her mother and neighbour. With some pretty definitive answers, but not a citation or reference to back up her views. I don’t think so. So I had to eliminate that as a potential source – Harvard or not, Doctor or not.

As boyd so perfectly puts it “One of the best ways to seed agnotology is to make sure that doubtful and conspiratorial content is easier to reach than scientific material. YouTube is the primary search engine for people under 25. It’s where high school and college students go to do research. Digital Public Library of America works with many phenomenal partners who are all working to curate and make available their archives. Yet, how much of that work is available on YouTube?

I had a similar problem when I was trying to find some nonfiction books on vaping and e-cigarettes – the books were merely adequate. In particular I was interested in at least one chapter, or even a page that dealt with the science of nicotine / of what’s going on in the lungs, the science. A few good images that didn’t just include pictures of the hardware of vaping! But there isn’t anything.

Where does that leave us as teachers and teacher librarians? Caulfield, who I highly respect for his work on information literacy, has come up with an alternative to CRAAP – SIFT

  • (S)TOP
  • (I)nvestigate the Source
  • (F)ind better coverage
  • (T)race claims, quotes, and media back to the original context

It makes sense, I liked it, but it sat a little uneasily with me, and after reading boyd, I understand why. What happens when you’re going through SIFT and you get to the F and find that there is no better coverage? This can be due to a number of reasons –

  • The gap between what is accessible at your level of understanding / education / language /
  • the preferred mode of access gap (see the comment on YouTube earlier)
  • the void between what I would call the “Goop press” (see this, and this) and science journals.
  • The chasm between what student friendly sources publish and what students are actually researching – anyone find anything really good on micro-plastics recently? – Not in any of the databases my school subscribes to…
  • The fact that even the most intelligent and well meaning teacher in my environment is loath to consider allowing students to use wikipedia (that will be a whole blog post on its own)

You will not achieve an informed public simply by making sure that high quality content is publicly available and presuming that credibility is enough while you wait for people to come find it. You have to understand the networked nature of the information war we’re in, actively be there when people are looking, and blanket the information ecosystem with the information people need to make informed decisions (boyd).

In the mean time, I’m encouraging my teachers and students to use Beers & Probst’s Notice and Note for Nonfiction. At the very least I’m hoping that using it will give them a sense of unease. Of uncertainty, of wondering if what they are reading can be believed, and if not that if not now, at some point they’ll continue to mull over the topic and eventually be able to research it further, and if necessary change their minds or opinions on what they learnt back when they were in G8.

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