Bytes & Books, Fall 2014 (Volume 28, no. 2)

Q: What does information literacy mean to you as a scholar and professor in Biology?

A: Information literacy (IL) is much broader than library research skills. It encompasses everything. It is not only about how to find information but how to evaluate it and how best to communicate it. There is a great deal of information out there but not all of that information is necessarily going to lead to greater knowledge. Sometimes it is more valuable to know how to discount sources of information, which requires meaningful evaluation. That is a real skill and it takes practice. It is a muscle like any other that you would exercise. That is where I collaborate with librarians.

In Biology, as in many fields, there are more and more new developments; nobody can stay on top of that. At the same time, you have to be able to look back at the context that has shaped the development. So looking at primary literature will be the first important element of IL that applies to Biology. IL also extends to other disciplines that interface with my primary areas of focus of scholarship and teaching. The resources the library offers enable me to adapt my pedagogy and tailor my classes to the different learning styles and needs of students.

Q: You have worked with Terese Heidenwolf on several of your upper-level classes, including Botany and Biodiversity, Environmental Biology, and Limnology. What common problems do you see in these classes that make you bring the students to the library and work with a librarian?

A: In their first year seminars, students get basic training in IL but they seem timid in transferring these skills into other courses. Of course, it is not just once and done. This is the muscle that has to be practiced. It has to be ongoing. I have relied on Terese’s expertise in my VAST and all my advanced courses. It is really two-fold, to teach students how to find information efficiently and effectively, and then to give them the tools they need to evaluate information. It seems to resonate with students better when an IL expert raises IL related issues. I try to have IL classes very early in the semester. I see that as setting a standard.

The increasingly blurry lines among disciplines and the rapidity and enormity of change within disciplines add another layer of complexity and challenge for both students and faculty. It is terrifying for me as someone who started with some expertise in a very narrow area. In Biology, we used to teach content, and students do need certain level of content. However, the new development in Biology in the last 20 years is huge. If we stay married to content, we will never be able to teach that content. What we need to do is to find the balance between teaching content and the skills which will enable students to find and evaluate information on their own.

Q: All of your research assignments require students to look for primary literature. Why?

A: Primary literature is how scientists talk to other scientists. Students are introduced to primary literature in General Biology but since the nuances are increasingly more subtle, I build more and more primary literature in all my classes depending on the level of the class and background of students. That does not mean I discount other sources of information, for example, in Environmental Biology, students might interview somebody who has worked in a transfer station for recycling and they might read blogs. The primary literature provides them with the scientific background and context but students should be aware of other issues as well.

Q: Some of the topics you cover in your classes could evoke strong emotions in students and have polarizing information on the web and in the news, for example, GMO, reproductive techniques, and stem cells. How do you address such issues?

A: This is a difficult question for me because of my strong emotional bend. I do make some ground rules on what topics are off limit, and I try not to give any attention to the emotional component of some of these issues because I do not want to insult anyone else’s views or feel comfortable or proper to impose my views. If students ask me, I will tell them at the end of the semester if they are still interested.

I use humor as much as possible and I play devil’s advocate when I need to. I often assign students to play a role that is not what they feel or believe, and they have to gather evidence and advocate for their assigned roles. I do that in part because of my background in acting. In theatre, often what you play is the opposite of your action. Using humor but also forcing students to think from a perspective that is not their own often helps to diffuse the emotional part of an issue. In this way, a student can be more rational and think, “If somebody disagrees with me about my views I feel hurt, but if what I am doing is articulating a stand that I do not necessarily subscribe to, I can be more measured and logical.”

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

A: The more we demand of our students to think critically and to evaluate information critically, the more times they are not going to get it right. They need to fail sometimes because if they do not get something wrong and then figure out how to correct it, they will never learn. I talk about the scientific method in every single class I teach. Every biologist will tell you that they cover mitosis and meiosis in virtually every class regardless of the level. IL is identical in that sense and it crosses disciplines. We need to give students repeated opportunities to practice IL and reinforce these skills.

Q: Do you have any advice or words of encouragement to give faculty who are interested in building IL into their classes?

A: Do not try to do it on your own. Everything about learning about our disciplines is done collaboratively. It is the same with IL. Librarians have enormous good will and expertise to share with us. It has been really valuable and enriching to collaborate with Terese and build IL into my classes and I intend to keep doing it. Incorporating IL does not mean content becomes secondary. You just have to be precise and elegant about what content you want to focus on. You can give me most any topic in Ecology and I can give an entertaining and informative hour-long lecture without much preparation, but if I only have 20 minutes, I am going to have to do a lot more work to distill out the content that is really essential. Adding other elements such as IL takes time and attention, but the advantage is that while there may not be the volume of content, you are going to give more attention to its precision and how you deliver that, as well as allow students to discover not just content but how to learn on their own.