Subjective Digital Literacy?

It’s been nearly a week after Bryan Alexander’s invigorating tour through a “week of Digital Literacy” in our Open Learning cMOOC. Among many other things, the week helped me appreciate how fun and difficult it can be to stay abreast of a free-wheeling Twitter chat, how delightful it is to meet new people and work on shared intellectual concerns collaboratively, and how much I have to learn — not just about digital literacy, but but about learning itself.

The latter connects powerfully to the crisis of knowledge and knowing that has engulfed most communication channels since the new administration’s war on the media began under the banner of “Fake News.”  Like many others, I have spent many hours searching my soul, reading (and reading), and talking with people seeking understanding — not just of how we got to what still feels like a surreal moment, but what can and must be done to move us forward — or maybe it’s backward — to a time when dissembling, manipulating, and simply lying about what happened or what one said might not have been unheard of, but wasn’t projected at a national level as an acceptable, indeed expected mode of engagement.

I hoped to find refuge and even salvation in The American College of Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which was our focal text for the week, (see two annotation streams here and here).  As a historian trained on the cusp of the analog / digital divide, I’m pretty comfortable with my competency in the information literacy realm.  But I am not  a librarian, so looking at how research librarians see information literacy as part of an educational reform movement that capitalizes on the changing landscape of higher education and the new information ecosystem seems essential.

I found all six of the frameworks (and even more importantly, the “knowledge practices” and “dispositions” that articulate their implementation) compelling.  And what I most  liked was the synergy and integration among them.  It seems as though we are (finally) getting past a linear conception of the research process (id topic, compile sources, read sources, write about topic) to something more dynamic — a process of knowledge production that understands information creation as a process, sees scholarship and research as interactive conversations, and appreciates the constructed and contextual nature of authority.

[It is a bit odd that the frameworks don’t engage the networked digital ecosystem and and Open Learning more explicitly. I think we all saw connections there and wondered if they were so extensive that we took them for granted? Fodder for another post, perhaps.]

The rubber still hits the road, however, when the frameworks (for knowing) engage the content (of what we know). Our discussions of digital literacy focused on cultivating habits of mind and method among students. Skills. But underneath the desiderata of digital literacy practices and mindsets another set of questions lurked: How do we know what we know? How do we discern “truth” from fiction, real news from fake news? Why do we persist in believing things that are demonstrably wrong or at a minimum not supported by statistical evidence, scientific consensus or any other hallmark of accuracy? (i.e. owning a gun makes your safer, vaccines cause autism, humans are not major players in climate change.)

In “Fake News: Not Your Main Problem”  Maha Bali suggests that focusing on digital literacy per se lets the main culprit off the hook:

The problem isn’t the fake news itself, as much as the historical consciousness that allows so many to willingly believe it with no skepticism.

And what is that historical consciousness? It is one where the emotional and psychological dimensions of knowing play powerful yet elusive roles. Emotion and personal belief. Those are the keys.  Thus, Maha suggests, that promoting digital literacy alone will not win the war on Fake News.  Literacy  – digital or otherwise – is about much more than cognition. We need to address the moral and socio-emotional dimensions of the consciousness our students develop as they make their way through the world — by learning about it.

Maha further proposes, and I think this is crucial, that “expanding and redirecting our inner compass toward social justice and understanding” will be essential, rightly noting that exposure to and appreciation of difference comprise foundational elements of self-awareness and understanding. A combination of experience, guidance, and curiosity can support the development of critically engaged attitudes, but nurturing these things (in ourselves and others) takes time.

Maha’s highlighting of the emotional and psychological aspects of  critical thinking really resonated with me, as one of those “hiding in plain sight” kind of moments.  We know we aren’t really / only rational beings, yet our work with students tends to emphasize the rational, logical, and the empirical — even as we (think we) are encouraging the development of subjectivity, cross-cultural awareness, and insight. Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent article in the New Yorker,  “Why Facts Don’t Change our Mind,” has some interesting things to say about why this is so.

Looking at three books advancing new research in cognitive science — all written before the November 2016 elections, Kolbert revisits the paradox of human irrationality (i.e. our lingering attachment to the assumption that humans are rational creatures in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary ).  In the first book, The Enigma of Reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber situate reason in evolutionary context, proposing that reason developed as a way to handle the challenges of living socially.  We might call ourselves Homo Sapiens, but solving abstract problems emerged as a byproduct of our need to address the challenges of living cooperatively in groups.

This perspective on reason as an adaptive trait helps explain the phenomenon of “confirmation bias” — that tendency to accept input that conforms to or supports what we already believe. As Kolbert puts it: “If reason is designed to generate sound judgements, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias.” On the other hand, if reason evolved to help us win arguments and maintain standing in our communities, then confirmation bias (Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “my-side bias) could be seen as an advantage rather than a handicap.

Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet
Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

In The Knowledge Illusion. Why We Never Think Alone, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach examine another dimension of the interface between cognition and social behavior, namely the collaborative way we produce and share knowledge.  Sloman and Fernbach note that the way we learn from and with each other has some under-appreciated implications. We routinely rely on the knowledge of others.  Indeed we collaborate and divide cognitive labor so well that we often don’t recognize the boundaries of our own knowledge from those of our associates. And we think we know more than we do because we rely on what others know (or what we assume they know). Shared understanding can, of course, be enormously productive, but it also facilitates something Sloman and Fernbach call ” the illusion of explanatory depth.” This comes into play when we rely on a source or individual for expertise or validation without ascertaining how expert they actually are or learning about the problem ourselves.  We generally agree with John so we ask him what he thinks about issue X. We assume he knows what he’s talking about and since we agree with him we think we know what we’re talking about as well. Confirmation bias will lead us to find support for our feelings about a particular principle or issue, but it will not push us to verify that those sources of support are credible or more knowledgeable than we are.  Just because lots of people agree with you doesn’t mean you are right.

In the spring of 2014, many Americans had strong opinions about how the US should respond to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.  It turned out, though, that the more people favored some kind of military intervention, the less likely they were to be able to find Ukraine on a map (the median guess was off by nearly 2,000 miles!).  That’s alarming on many levels, of course, but I think what’s significant for our purposes is not so much the ignorance of basic geography (don’t get me wrong, I do think that’s a problem), as the fact that people relied on an inaccurate shared understanding of where Ukraine is and didn’t self-correct when given the chance to do so.

So, while I am used to seeing social learning as a huge plus, this book suggests that the “illusion of explanatory depth” can be powerful in ways that are not at all conducive to critical thinking.  This gives me cause to revisit how I approach critical thinking and literacy in my teaching.  I will definitely be asking students (and myself) to engage in more framing / metacognitive work around the idea of authority. This fits with the ACRL Framework’s emphasis on the constructed and contested nature of authority and credibility.

I will also be looking for ways to engage the emotional side of cognition rather than ignoring it or trying to overwhelm it with reason, evidence and critical thinking. Pascal’s affirmation of the co-dependency of the intuitive and the analytical mind should be helpful here. As should strategies that nurture what Paul Silvia calls the “knowledge emotions” — surprise, interest, confusion and awe. (Thank you, Gardner Campbell for directing me to this article.) These are emotions that motivate us to engage with new things — to explore, learn and reflect, to update our understanding of how things work and why they are the way they are. These emotions also support the development of relationships via collaborative problem solving.  So, perhaps the challenge is to identify ways to focus specifically on the positives of social learning? I also come back to the role of subjectivity  in all of these literacy initiatives.  To understand the self as a unique, socially-situated, contested and constructed entity — one that is both coherent and under-construction requires the engagement of critical faculties and an receptivity to dialogue, difference and change. I’m not sure exactly how to proceed but will thinking about this a lot in the coming weeks. Thoughts?


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