Angelika von Wahl, Associate Professor of International Affairs

Q: What does information literacy mean to you as a scholar and as a professor in the field of International Affairs?

A: Learning is based on information and on accessing and interpreting this information. As a professor I always tell my students that the library is the ‘heart’ of the college. In the age of the web and digital media this has become less obvious to them but it is more true than ever in reality. Information literacy is the gateway to what we do at an institution of higher learning and, as a scholar, my work is similarly tied to the library and its re-/sources as the core access point to knowledge. As a professor in International Affairs, the need better for information literacy is particularly apparent to me and feels especially pressing. We live in an increasingly globally connected world, and there is a great deal riding on our ability to use and successfully manage those connections.

Q: Early on, you ask your FYS (“Overcoming the Wall”) students to use library resources to find varying definitions of Marxism. Why not just give them the definitions yourself?

A: This assignment has two goals: one relates to the content of the course and the other to the issue of information literacy. The class deals with the Cold War era division of Germany into democratic/ capitalist Western and communist Eastern part, so it’s important for the students to understand what the dominant ideology in East Germany was. And, even more importantly, this is a lesson in understanding that different sources garner and present different levels (breadths and depths) of information and knowledge. If 12 students in my FYS come back with 12 different definitions of Marxism, that’s good news to me because a big part of the lesson is that the source matters! I want students to understand that all knowledge is produced or constructed and that there are different levels of quality and different investments and perspectives behind this knowledge. ‘Marxism’ is a great term to use for this exercise because the meaning and interpretations are contested so that the differences among sources become easily apparent.

Q: You put a lot of emphasis on primary sources in your FYS—not just what they are but how to analyze them. Many students go through college without ever learning about primary sources. What kind of primary source materials do you expose your FYS students to and why do you consider them important?

A: The analysis of primary sources is a bit of a lost art, I fear. But I ask that my students engage with primary sources throughout the entire course because I believe these sources effectively accomplish several things. First, the sources introduce a sense of time because they bring back the individual and collective voices of the past in all their urgency and immediacy. Second, they are often more exciting than reading an “all-knowing” textbook that just looks backwards through the lens of time. Third, as an interdisciplinary course, the FYS should introduce students to different methods of research and introducing primary sources allows the humanities to play an important role. And finally, I hope that understanding the “sources of the source,” i.e. the author, context, audience, etc., will help students become more critical readers and ultimately better consumers of information.

Q: International Affairs is an interdisciplinary field. What kind of challenges does this present you in helping your students to become more information literate?

A: Interdisciplinarity in International Affairs (or other fields) does present certain challenges but I find them interesting in themselves and try to communicate that to the class. For example, if we communicate to students that today’s divisions into disciplines are the outcome of a historic and social processes and paradigms through which disciplines and their methods developed, “interdisciplinarity” becomes an exciting way to think outside the box. Because Lafayette is a liberal arts college, the students seem more open to utilizing terms and approaches from different disciplines. Information literacy in such a class like the FYS has to expose students not only to different materials but also to different ways of interpretation.

Q: In your Research Methods course, students have to grapple with the difference between data and statistics and qualitative and quantitative data; where to find reputable sources of statistics; literature reviews; and field research. Are students surprised to discover that “research” is something more robust than what they’ve come to understand in their early college years?

A: I sincerely hope so! This has actually been an interesting finding for me: In the past I have found that if I ask students whether they find the idea of a “methods” course intimidating, it has become clear that the “research” aspect is perceived as equally challenging. In this class each student freely chooses his or her own research topic. This is important for developing their understanding of “research,” because I believe their research projects are something they should be invested in and feel passionate about. This class is not about me or my research interests. So my goal (beyond teaching different methods) is definitely to educate students about the fact that there is a “field” out there with literature and accumulated knowledge on their topic. They need to research what that field is, what the main arguments about it are, and how their project fits into that intellectual discourse. Their research often relies on the considerable assistance they receive from the librarians, who also visit my class and talk about various databases etc. I also invite folks from IT to talk about research software. The individual projects and the hands-on approach is challenging and more time-consuming than in an average class, but it makes for a successful student learning experience. And the papers that take the issue of “research” seriously come out on top!

Q: What more do you think we – professors and librarians – could be doing to help students develop their critical thinking and information literacy skills?

A: Mmmh, that’s a tough one. Since coming to Lafayette College I have been very impressed with the work of our librarians and their efforts to educate students in this regard. I hope that all FYS courses and also many upper level courses build in aspects that develop information literacy and challenge students to practice their critical thinking skills. So curricular development is maybe the most fruitful way to go.

Q: You introduce information literacy components at the FYS level and in your upper-level courses. What do you think students get out of library instruction at these different stages?

A: There are different developmental stages that students pass through and the information literacy aspects presented in each class must fit those stages. So, for example, the insights developed when different sources present different definitions of “Marxism” is an appropriate learning experience for an FYS. For an upper division class, that knowledge should be assumed. However, there are many other aspects to learn about. For example, the “literature review” could be one of those.

Q: Do you have plans to introduce information literacy components into the new courses that you’ve developed in the International Affairs program, “Global Perspectives on Gender and Equality” and “Atrocities, Genocide, and Reparations”?

A: Yes, definitely. There is no deep level of learning if you don’t understand where knowledge comes from, how it is stored, how it can be accessed, how it is reproduced and spread. In cases where students are grappling with extraordinarily complex and important issues such as gender inequality or social injustice it is vital that they are able to navigate sources that are challenging and can apply their critical skills judiciously and effectively. That’s for me what “information literacy” in the classroom is all about.

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An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 26, no. 1).