Suzanne Westfall, Professor of English

Q: As a professor of English and also someone who’s involved in interdisciplinary programs, how do you define information literacy?

A: The ability to find information and to evaluate it intelligently, to understand how search engines and databases are different, and to know not only what information to look for but also what the appropriate places are for that piece of information. Information literacy is not limited to textual information. In some of my classes, students also need visual information. Information literacy is about lifelong learning and becoming self-reliant. I often tell my students that information literacy is not just about term papers. It’s for everyday personal life all the way through PhD.It enables you to ask specific questions and make intelligent decisions. It’s empowering when you can find information.

Q: You introduce information literacy components at the FYS level and in your upper-level courses. For some of your upper level courses, for example, THTR & ART 377 DADA, you actually include information literacy in the course goals and learning outcomes. Why do you think it is important to teach students information literacy skills at different stages?

A: I teach information literacy in every single class that I offer, partially because I’m a bibliographer and my whole career is about historical and primary research. If I had had a better background in research going to graduate school, I would have been much better off. I try to teach my students that research isn’t magic, it’s all method. As long as they create a strategy, which is where librarians come into play, it’s very calming. It increases the self confidence when they know the steps to find what they need at all levels, whether they’re writing a FYS paper or doing an honors thesis.

At the FYS level, I assign a short paper with a limited number of secondary sources. As I move up to 200 level courses, I start to incorporate primary sources so students can tell the differences between primary and secondary sources. They also begin to assess what they have found. At the 300 level, I ask students to pit sources against one another. For example, I’ll say here’re two different approaches to this question, read and learn how to assess them. Instead of saying this is a John’s Hopkins journal not USA Today, students have to do some analysis of the sources on their own and decide which of the two articles is more useful and explain why.

FYS skills are only a beginning. You can’t expect a three-year old to run a marathon. They have to learn to walk and walk faster before they can even run and not fall down. It’s the same with information literacy skills. How can students do an honors thesis without a more sophisticated understanding of information literacy than they had when they were first year students? Jargon may be incomprehensible to first year students, but it should be comprehensible to seniors. Maybe students won’t go for very theoretical sources in FYSes, but we expect them to be able to handle complexity when they get out of here. That should be the progression.

Q: You require annotated bibliographies for almost all your classes. What are the benefits of assigning an annotated bibliography? What guidance do you provide to help students write evaluative annotations?

A: The annotated bibliography is great for outcome assessment. It’s an important demonstration that students can find information and assess it. A lot of the times, I require physical books not just electronic sources. I also try to make them understand the difference between a book, a book chapter, and an article, and what the academic timeline is like since their definition of “old” is extremely relative. Through the project, students get a more complicated view of what sources are and how they came into being. For students working on a big paper, the annotated bibliography serves as a good guide and saves them labor because three months down the line, they won’t remember what they’ve read and where they located it.

I do have a little trouble with some students taking short cuts though. They copy and paste descriptions from databases without actually examining the source. That’s unacceptable. I give them a list of how to assess. I teach them how to skim a source and to survey it. For example, if a source is published by John’s Hopkins University in 2010, it’s pretty good. If it’s cited in five or six other sources, it’s probably quite respected. I give them models from previous classes: good annotations that answered all the questions and bad ones such as “This is useful because it addresses my topic.” They need to think about why they think a source is good.

Q: In your assignment handout for ENG 339 Revenge and Restoration Drama, you specify that “a bibliography should be useful to your research, don’t throw just anything in there for the sake of the assignment.” What strategies have you employed to make sure that students understand the bibliography is essential to their research and the final product?

A: Many students make the bibliography list without thinking so I ask them specifically to include a sentence in the annotation about how the source will or sometimes will not be useful for their paper. I want to know right up front that they’ve made some judgment of the sources and set up a hierarchy. In the FYS and 200 level classes, students only need to complete only the annotated bibliography. In the 300 level, students use the bibliography as the springboard for their paper. When I tell them it’s a bibliography of five sources, they need to look at ten or fifteen instead of just five. Depending on the class, the number of sources required is different. I require a much bigger bibliography in my 300 level and allow students to include sources they have dismissed as irrelevant.

The other thing I try to make it clear to students is that different disciplines use different methods of acknowledgement. I tell them constantly that the primary purpose of a bibliography is so that their readers can go where they went and find what they found. Don’t make up your form. Just follow the rules. There’re protocols or systems that we follow. You can tell when they copy the citation over from the databases and paste it into their own bibliography. I warn them about that. Students probably won’t write another term paper after graduation but they’ll write their whole lives so I tell them to learn now. That’s the real world writing they need to know. It’s the same as the real world information literacy.

Q: The assignment handout you give to your students includes wealth of information. It outlines all the steps to complete the assignment and covers how to choose a topic and how to assess the quality of a source. It also recommends relevant library databases and suggests that students seek reference librarians for research assistance. What prompted or inspired you to stage the assignment and create a handout with the many details?

A: It’s many years in the making. I started doing this twenty years ago. The first time that I handed it out it was very brief. All I told them was to assess sources, and I got nonsense back. So the next time I added some ways to assess sources. I still got nonsense back. Then I added a model annotation. The assignment gets complicated over the years as I notice when and where they need more information. I resisted writing a detailed assignment at first because I hate overwritten assignments. I would like students to be able to figure this out on their own, but clearly over the last thirty years their skills have gotten worse and worse so I get more and more detailed. Every time if there’s a glaring error a lot of them is making, I revise my assignment for the next year. That’s why it’s so detailed. It’s years and years of revising my own assignment.

I do see the difference after I give them the detailed handout. The assessment of sources is better. I don’t expect students to really integrate the process after one class so I still repeat a lot of it in upper classes with increasing complexity. Especially when dealing with performing arts, students need to know that a source good for academic Shakespeare studies class might not be appropriate for my acting Shakespeare class. By the time that they graduate, they shouldn’t need that piece of paper anymore. But there’s no guarantee that what I teach in my classes will be repeated elsewhere.

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

A: I think it’s absolutely crucial that every department has a W designated methodology course that teaches information literacy with the help of our librarians. We need a place where we know that happens. In the English Department, English 205 is our methodology course in which we teach discipline specific skills, what the discipline is, does, and requires. It’s important to have such a gateway course, but we can’t guarantee that students carry knowledge or remember or understood everything. That’s why I have projects in each of my course. And also students need to take more than one methodology course to learn the specifics of each discipline.

FYS is a good place to start to teach information literacy at the basic level. Librarians have a lot to offer that professors can benefit from. It will be interesting for you to share with us what you have done for 200 and 300 level classes. With the federal credit hour regulations, professors might send their classes to the library when they have to be away at conferences and require students to meet with librarians for their group projects. Professors should be the ones pushing the students to the library. We need to make students understand that this is a community of intellectual work. It’s not just about coming to my class and I’m the only authority, we need to spread it out. There’s a bigger world out there they can draw from.

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An abridged version of this Q&A appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Bytes & Books (Volume 26, no. 2).