Chris Phillips, Assistant Professor of English
Q: How do you define information literacy and why is it important to the study of English?
A: With English, you have to be able to find texts and know what it is that you’re looking at. That can mean a bunch of different things. Is this a Petrarchan or an Elizabethan sonnet? Am I looking at Emily Dickinson’s last or first version of this poem? If I need to find more Dickinson poems or more variants, where would I go to find them? If I’m reading about Dickinson and I find a reference to another poet she’s reading – Emerson or Lydia Sigourney, for example – how can I find information on them? It comes down to identifying what you need, knowing how to find what you need, and being able to prioritize those things. Students need to learn how to think through the research process in logistical as well as epistemological terms. How do I know that I have good kinds of information or that I have what I need for this project?
Q: Your ENG 212: American Literature and Its Backgrounds might not seem like an obvious candidate for an information literacy grant, being a survey course with so much content to cover. Why did you select this course to apply for the grant and how did you find time to fit information literacy in?
A: Surveys are always about coverage, coverage, coverage. You can never get to enough in a survey. You’re always going too fast for the students and not fast enough for yourself. Thinking about this course in terms of information literacy actually liberated me from the pressure around coverage. I decided to emphasize two things in terms of how American literature is mediated. First, how does the library mediate students’ experience? For example, think about classification systems. Why is this book shelved in American literature, not British literature, if the author was born in England and emigrated here? Or how do you access the MLA database and why does the database give you information in one way and not another? Terese [Heidenwolf] was fantastic helping students to navigate MLA. Besides the library, we focused on the anthology. You can’t do a survey without some sort of anthology, but anthologies always mask as much as they give. I really wanted the students to push back. I wanted them to think about the selections for, say, 18th century American literature and wonder why we didn’t read other pieces. Why does the anthology include Common Sense but not poems by women in the Delaware Valley? It was helpful to have information literacy as a conceptual tool as it allowed the students to step back and ask why this is the version of American literature we’ve received. What other versions of American literature could we come up with if we knew where to look? The students start to realize what they don’t know about American literature, which in a survey class might actually be more helpful than being able to rattle off a list of twenty-five names of authors.
Q: Isn’t that pretty similar to doing historical literary criticism?
A: In some ways this is drifting more towards English 206: Literary History, where literary history is an object of study. Ian Smith teaches about the English Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance. What’s involved in calling something a renaissance? Bianca Falbo does a section on Romanticism. Why does Romanticism, according to literary critics, happen at one moment in Britain and at another moment in America? So yes, those are the kinds of questions we tend to ask a lot in the English department, and one of my primary interests is in literary history. The survey is a chance for me to thematize that. It becomes not just a content course but a chance to think about why we even have a survey course. A couple of years ago, the department considered doing away with the survey and bringing in more courses like literary history, but we decided the survey is valuable. It’s important to have the canon and to help students find ways to investigate the canon. Why do we have this canon? What other canons could we have? The students aren’t just absorbing information, they have a chance to figure out what American literature really means. It was funny. After the first time I taught this, I was talking with another professor in the department who had a student in a 300-level class who had taken 212 with me. There was a question that had come up about what’s going on in American literature during a certain time. This student raised her hand and said, “Professor Phillips taught us there is no American literature or American literary tradition.” I think we’re getting somewhere if that student can recognize that there’s a problem with saying there’s an American literary tradition. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say there’s no tradition, but it’s a step in the right direction to recognize that there isn’t a smooth genealogical line between Anne Bradstreet and Ezra Pound.
Q: You assign a lot of non-traditional homework in your courses. In ENG 212, your students worked on an analysis of different editions of the same text; a reception history of critical essays written over various decades on a text; and their own mini-anthology, among other assignments. How do you generate, develop, and refine your assignments?
A: Usually the first question I’ll start with is what would I want to grade? Then I start to think about how I can build that into the goals of the course. Take the different editions exercise, as an example. I’m curious about the differences among reading an Edgar Allen Poe story in an anthology, a little paperback, or one of the magazines it might have originally appeared in. In Skillman, we’ve got some of those original magazines, a bunch of little editions of Poe, as well as tomes of his collected works. What’s interesting about this project is that students wrote about their reading experiences. Sometimes there isn’t more than one variant of a story, but the typeface will change the way you experience it. Whether the book smells old will change the way you experience it. Whether the book is heavy so that you can’t hold it up to your face will change the way that you can read something. Does it have to sit on a table? Can it sit in your lap? Is it something that reads like a novel? There’s an ideal of novel reading that a lot of students will work with. “This felt like reading a novel,” they’ll say, or “this felt like reading a text book." It’s wonderful when they can start to articulate what that means, to pinpoint the signals that get them to think they’re reading a novel. You start to see how the different ways that people interact with books influence the ways they interact with stories. Books are not just neutral vehicles. When we had a chance to talk about this in class, one student noted that a 17th century account felt old in a way that it didn’t in the anthology when he picked up a 1915 edition with pages falling out. All of a sudden it becomes an act of preservation to hold the book together. Those kinds of markers change your visceral reaction, and a lot of literary interpretation ultimately comes from trying to explain, articulate, justify, and make sense of visceral reactions.
Q: You asked your students to keep research journals and to reflect in writing on their own information literacy. What did they write about?
A: The research journals were probably the biggest challenge that Terese and I had, so we’ve revised the assignment to figure out how to get the most out of them. The students tend to record step-by-step what they did. While that is somewhat helpful, we want them to get to a stage where they can reflect on those steps. Why was this particular point hard? Does this relate to anything that you’ve done in other classes? One of the things that struck me with the research journals is that students would treat it as a kind of lab report. They’ll start sounding more like scientists when they’re writing in the journal. They morph into this other kind of writer that they’ve learned to be in their lab courses or out doing field work.
Q: You use Special Collections extensively in your introductory and upper-level courses. In ENG 110, you have students analyze rare books in Special Collections to see what they can learn from a book’s size, design, and typeface. In your FYS 165: Writing History: Stories and Possibilities, your students use our manuscript collections as the basis for creating historical and narrative essays. Some of these materials don’t get used much. What do you think your students gain from interacting with these rare, primary sources?
A: A lot of times Special Collections feels like a club. When I was TAing a survey course as a graduate student at a big university, we had a fantastic Special Collections librarian who put together these moveable feasts for students to look at. One day I held one of my discussion sections in the Special Collections reading room and the librarian was giving us a guided tour of first editions and signed copies. There were lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ and students were very excited. One student got visibly upset so I went over to ask what’s the matter. The student said, “I’m a senior with only one term left in my college career and I never even knew this library existed before today.” When I heard that, I made a commitment to make sure students learn about Special Collections earlier on. It’s really inspiring and empowering for students to see these things as an undergraduate and to say, “I have enough membership in this community that I get to see and work with these materials. I’m part of the club.” You can get into the archives, find out what your department was like fifty or one hundred years ago. You can find out what some of these old books looked or smelled like. You can see what typefaces might have been like or what people’s handwriting looked like, say, in the 19th century. You can be part of the full range of knowledge available on your campus.
Beyond that, it helps students think in different ways about research processes. You can pretend a lot of times that research processes don’t involve other people now. You just log onto a database or walk over to a shelf and pull off a book or journal. As much as we try to tell students they need to work with reference librarians or they’ll miss something, students can sidestep that. Once you step into a Special Collections library, you can’t sidestep anymore. You have to go through someone, but you also have to go into it thinking it’s not a matter of going through someone. Particularly here, the Special Collections staff are not gatekeepers. Diane Shaw, Elaine Stomber, and Pam Murray are so great at listening to students, particularly in my introductory courses, like my FYS. They’ll ask students about their particular interests, then pull items that students would never know to ask for. So there’s this revelation of the social capital involved in library work that isn’t always as apparent if you’re just using other sides of the library. Students also learn to develop their questions because they’re not just plugging keywords into a database. They can talk through questions with a librarian, and the librarian can offer feedback and help students hone their questions. So a student who is working on the travel diaries of Israel Pardee can wind up finding resources about the history of the College that they’ll be able to look at alongside the diaries. They can build a research project out of asking for one book. I don’t know if there are too many other corners of the library where you can do that as effectively as in Special Collections.
Q: So it seems like you invest a lot of time in the topic development stage of the projects.
A: Absolutely. There are formal proposals that students will write for their research topics in my FYS. In 212, it’s just a one-paragraph email. “I’m thinking about doing something on literature about labor in the 19th century.” “I want to do an anthology about kids in early America.” They have to start saying something out loud either in person or in writing so we can start a dialogue. Sometimes I’ll just say, “Ok, sounds good, take it away.” Other times, I’ll say “This sounds really interesting, you might want to try these starting points.” I encourage students to include questions even with the formal proposals and a paragraph at the end outlining what they’re concerned about. That kind of interpersonal check-in is really important. If students are able to do that both conversationally and in writing, it helps them to articulate what they’re doing. More and more, I find writing to learn, to help you figure something out and not just to communicate, is an important part of what students are doing in my classes. These proposals are a big part of that process.
Q: You obviously had good experiences with libraries, librarians, and Special Collections before coming to Lafayette. Tell me about it.
A: The place where I started getting into research the first time was when I was working a summer job at my college’s library: a tiny library at a school half this size, Westmont College out in California. The head of circulation there was a political scientist who would do his own independent research on the side. During the summer there was a lot of extra time, so I would help him go through lists and do biographical research on the California legislature. I also got to do interlibrary loan work. If there was material at the UC library across town, I would drive out with the circulation librarian and another student and we would just fan out through the library with lists of articles to pull off the shelves and Xerox. There was usually time leftover, so I got used to browsing around stacks as a way of figuring out what there is to know about things, like fish eyes and medieval history. By the time I started graduate school, my part time job was as a page in the Special Collections library. This would involve going to the library early in the morning, picking up a key, and biking a half mile to another facility where most of the material was kept in locked stacks. I would lock myself into a cage with a stack of paging slips and forty-five minutes to pull the stuff out, but it usually didn’t take that long. So after twenty minutes, I was stuck in a cage with an amazing array of books. You’ve got first edition King James Bibles, first editions of just about any Latin work by an English author, fantastic artists’ books, collections of fine bindings, facsimiles of Da Vinci’s notebooks, Blake’s illustrations. All just sitting there! That sense of discovery was formative for me. In the archival section, there are papers from the Stanford family that founded the school. One thing that always creeped me out was an urn in the middle of that collection. I never figured out what the urn was there for. If something particularly interesting was brought out, the rare books librarian and some of the other staff would take it aside and show me. That kind of tutorial really made an impression on me.
I also started doing archival research. My first experience with that was as an undergraduate. I was taking a course on the presidency and the professor had a special incentive for people who wanted to do a certain kind of research project. It turned out that the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library was not far from my house, so I decided to try to figure out how the Reagan administration responded to the Bork nomination. This was an infamous case, the first time that anybody could remember the Senate denying a Supreme Court nominee. There were all kinds of political reasons I’d heard, such as the controversy over Bork’s record, but I wanted to know how the White House actually responded. I’d heard horror stories from my professors about the kinds of ideological litmus tests that were involved in work at the Nixon library or the strings you had to pull to get any help at the Kennedy library. But I walked into this place after making an appointment and an archivist walked up to me and said, “We’ve got this set of four boxes that we think will give you a head start and these other six that you can look at if you have time. There are a couple of other items we can get out for you, too.” I just felt pampered by this whole experience of people delivering boxes to my table. I could Xerox just about anything for ten cents a page, as long as they cleared it ahead of time. By the time I was done, I had a stack of memos that had been bouncing around the Executive Office. At that point, I wasn’t envisioning a life of archival research but just realizing that, if you have questions to ask, there are places where you can find answers. You don’t have to just pull a book off the library shelf and hope that somebody else has already looked at these things for you. You can look yourself.
Q: Can the rest of us still see the anthologies that your ENG 212 students have created?
A: At this point, unfortunately, no. I’ve been trying to figure out how much I can make these available. A few students chose to submit the anthologies in hard copy because, following on the project with the different editions, they realized layout is really important. They have to decide things such as whether they’re going to have footnotes or endnotes in their anthologies. Do they want to have lots of annotations to guide the reader or leave it absolutely clean or something in between? Are they going to include images? If so, how do the images interact with the text? Students spent a lot of time designing elaborate cover and title pages. One of the questions that we asked a lot is what do you want your readers’ experience to be? So some students wanted that to be a hard-copy experience. Other times, it was fine to submit as a file. At this point, I haven’t asked for permissions to make these available to other people, but it’s something that I’ve considered. It’s something I’ve also considered with my FYS students who have done projects largely based out of Special Collections. The class is on different ways of writing history. The students will take one specific collection, person, or event for their research projects and write an academic style narrative and then a creative narrative based on that. The creative narratives can get kind of goofy at times, but they can also be wonderful things to read. Many of the students will just go back over their same story and tell it again creatively, but the last time I taught it, a student was working on what happened at Lafayette during WWI through the letters and journals of biology professor Beverly Kunkel. The student wrote her academic narrative about Camp Lafayette, when the College turned into a training facility, but for her creative narrative she wrote about Kunkel’s zany teenage daughter, who she kept finding references to. What’s the Kunkel daughter doing climbing trees and bursting into classrooms in the middle of her dad’s classes? It was just wonderful to read, and it came out of these details that the student had picked up along the way and been curious about but didn’t have any room for in the academic narrative. After all, when Lafayette was an all-male campus, there were still women and girls around. She found this great example of that presence and gave voice in the time-honored tradition of novelists and short story writers to this teenage girl.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
A: Yes. There isn’t really anything I can think of to ask librarians to do here that librarians would not find a way to do. Diane and Elaine spent part of their summer before I taught my FYS generating a list of fifteen different collections that students might do research projects on. They wound up getting really into it and, by the time that class was done, they’d already started revising the list for next time. In terms of database work, such as teaching students how to use the MLA database, Terese took care of that. Additionally, she volunteered to do one-on-one meetings with every single student in 212 in order to direct them. Some students needed to know how to find biographical information. Others needed to figure out which edition they were looking at. One student needed to find writing about factories in the 19th century. Terese had to do some homework on these. What makes this such a huge success is that I can ask questions that are big enough and time intensive enough that the students can really get something out of it. If I didn’t have librarians working with me, I wouldn’t have the time, resources, or energy to make these kinds of things happen. I experience a lot of these information literacy projects as a team teaching experience even though the librarians don’t get credit for that kind of collaboration.
I’ve also found that information literacy has become a way of thinking for me. Lijuan [Xu] told me this is what she hoped the grants would do, and in my case it has succeeded. I would say my FYS is a second information literacy course and it’s now moving into more and more of my courses. Next semester I’m doing my advanced poetry seminar, which before has been built around students reading poems out loud and recording themselves. A lot of it’s about performed criticism. But the other big story for me in doing 19th century poetry, which is the focus of the course, is that there’s more that we don’t know about this period than we do because so much is in these obscure works that were never reprinted. Some of it never made it beyond manuscripts. And then you’ve got oral transcriptions of spirituals, slave songs, Native American materials, folk poetry. There’s all this stuff you need to be able to figure out just to get to the point where you can sit down with a microphone and record yourself. I’m now finding myself designing small-scale research projects for this class. I’m setting it up so that students actually have to go and find something out about these authors and share that with the rest of the class. That way, students get exposed to more poets and kinds of poetry in advance of their recordings. The research winds up feeding the recordings project, but now students are able to cast a wider net, to know more about what they’re working on. I think that will only help the interpretive work they’re doing on their recordings. So information literacy continues to shape what I do.
* * *
An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 25, no. 1).