Benjamin Cohen, Assistant Professor of Engineering Studies
Q: What does information literacy mean to you as a scholar and as a professor in the field of Engineering Studies?
A: I’ve been thinking of it as a matter of authorship, that the sources we read are written by people with certain ideas and particular backgrounds. It took me a while to figure out the following, but, for instance, when I refer to a reading in class I refer to it by the author’s name. Students, though, never know which reading I’m talking about. To them, it’s “you mean the longer one or the shorter one?” They think of the class readings by size, not author. I was thinking they could learn that a person wrote it, and that that matters. So information literacy is more like helping students realize that sources don’t come from an intellectual or cultural vacuum, that they are based in some context. They can get to Barthes and the death of the author in grad school. But first, I think, they could learn about the life of an author.
Q: What kind of challenges does the interdisciplinary nature of Engineering Studies present to you in helping students achieve information literacy?
A: It means our approach to information and resources cannot be understood in one style—scientific, engineering, social science, or humanities. Students have to be flexible in their reading styles and recognize audience as a salient factor in their writing goals. Because we read across genres and disciplines, the students get a chance to recognize stylistic differences in the sources. This is one necessary thing for them to keep in mind when they then go on to write their own reports and do their own projects. Who are those reports for? What audience will benefit? What do they understand about that audience? Stuff like that is a challenge.
Q: Why did you choose to apply for an information literacy grant for EGRS 451: The Capstone Seminar in Engineering and Society?
A: As a new faculty member, I was re-configuring the course to help build the major’s identity and give the coursework more rigor, though it wasn’t entirely clear how I should do that. Probably selfishly, the IL grant seemed like a good opportunity to get help from the library in helping the students learn how to conduct literature reviews and develop legitimate scholarly bibliographies. And I think more importantly, it seemed like a good way to help the students learn that they are part of a larger professional field of study about engineering and technology in society. There are lots of journals, for example, publishing research that our students should know about and could contribute to. The IL grant helped pave the way for including those lessons in the class.
Q: You devoted two class periods to discussing a scholarly article students had to read. Why did you spend so much time on this? Since most students in this class are seniors, one would assume they already know how to read, critically analyze, and synthesize scholarly articles.?
A: Maybe so, but it’s kind of an Engineering Studies point of pride that our students have stronger communication skills than traditional engineers and I didn’t want the students to think that was a skill that went one way – it’s not just that they can write and speak well, but that they can listen and read well too, they can take in communication from others. So instead of just reading and rehashing an article, I wanted to really dig into it. Who were the authors, what was the journal, what was the argument, who were they arguing against, why were they making that argument, what evidence did they use, how did they cull that evidence, and so on. Those are questions of any kind of scholarship, I’m sure. But you and I, working on the IL part of the class, had the chance to show the students that answering the questions could provide insight into the specific character of understanding the place of engineering in society. I mean, the big picture is that we think this will make an engineer better suited for the challenges of our century. In that sense, two classes wasn’t quite enough for even the one article.
Q: In addition to the annotated bibliography, students also had to complete a multi-perspective paper that was 15% of their final grade. How was the project conceived?
A: This touches on the earlier answer about audience. Here, the project was conceived as a more precise way for the students to see how and why audience matters. I took it that two different kinds of sources talking about the same topic—like electronic waste, for example, or genetically modified food—could show that if you’re writing for a different audience then your argument is structured differently. So we encouraged them to find starkly different kinds of sources, a piece of fiction about pollution and an article from Nature about it, or a documentary about genetic engineering and an op-ed about it, stuff like that. And they explored all the questions from that scholarly analysis exercise that took two classes, but with attention to these two sources. You asked how it went, too, right? Okay, maybe it didn’t actually work as well as I’d hoped. But it was a start. I think next time I’ll have them go through more drafts. Part of what I realized is that the capstone might need to be a two-semester sequence. There’s just so much to do.
Q: What are the advantages of collaborating with a librarian? Do you have plans to build IL into future versions of this course or into other engineering studies courses?
A: Yes, I plan to build info literacy into EGRS courses each year. It was great for the students, but it was more helpful for me. I worked with Lijuan Xu, so this is the part of the interview when I admit that her contributions were the reason the IL part worked. I’m still amazed that librarians, they’ll just up and help you out. You ask them about class projects and assignments and instruction, and they answer and help. It seems so old school, in the good way. I didn’t realize librarians did this kind of in-class work. Now I do.
Q: Last fall, you taught two sections of FYS 18: Ten Ways to Know Nature. Did your IL grant experience influence how you designed your FYS?
A: Almost directly, yes. Basically, the class was that times ten. I used the mindset of multiple perspectives on a single topic and expanded it out to a full semester. We spent a week or two on each perspective on knowing nature, as in, how do we know what nature is, through what means, what does it mean to understand the non-human environment through an artistic lens? What does it mean through a scientific lens? A religious one? Technological? Through food? As a consumer? So the idea for the class came into focus right when you and I were working on that project assignment in 451.
A: It was important for me that students understand themselves as producers of information, not just consumers and interpreters of it. These course projects were one way to confirm that and to do so with attention to audience—by making the projects publicly visible, the students had to think about who they were making the project for and how they were disseminating socially and ethically relevant information. It required them to think more fully about how they crafted their projects so that it wasn’t only for my eyes alone.
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An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 27, no. 1).