Information Update - Spring 2012

Information Literacy and Facebook in the Classroom

Since as far back as Spring 2008, Rhetoric & Composition instructor Teresa Grettano knew she wanted to someday teach a course that analyzed social media rhetorically. When she was hired in fall 2009 by The University of Scranton's English & Theatre Department, she knew her opportunity to teach this course was finally available to her. During new faculty orientation she learned about the Weinberg Memorial Library's Information Literacy Stipend program, and knew right away that this program would benefit the course even as it was still being developed.
 
As the library instruction liaison for the English & Theatre Department, I found myself assigned to Prof. Grettano's stipend proposal. It was my job to help guide her in embedding Information Literacy into this new course she was designing, which would be called Rhetoric & Social Media and would be offered in spring 2011. Together we used the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000)—a document Prof. Grettano had never encountered until we began working together on the course—to pinpoint ways in which information literacy instruction could be inserted into the course objectives and assignments. Initially (and conventionally) we thought to do this by creating a research assignment about the course content (in this case, social media), for which the students would receive instruction in research skills from me, the librarian. But the more we discussed the course in light of the ACRL Standards, the more we realized we could embed information literacy in a way that would have a more lasting effect on the students taking the course, not to mention ourselves.
 
Prof. Grettano's plan from the beginning was for the social networking website Facebook to be the object of study throughout the course. Assignments included a rhetorical analysis of a Facebook page or profile of the student's choosing; exercises in identifying, describing, and analyzing their own and their peers' Facebook behaviors; a detailed lesson and discussion about privacy on the website and the settings available to them to control what they share and with whom; a weekly user log of their Facebook activity including description and analysis of what they do and why they do it; and the construction of a new Facebook profile, page or group with a specific purpose and audience in mind, accompanied by a detailed process narrative of the decisions they made during that construction. Students also read challenging rhetorical theory (Kenneth Burke, Michel Foucault, and Stuart Selber, to name just a few) as well as popular commentary about the website (from blogs and journalistic publications), and critically applied these readings (both scholarly and popular) to the Facebook behaviors and activities they were observing in themselves and others. facebookProf. Grettano and I both agreed that the most valuable skills that came out of this rigorous analytical work were the development in the students of a critical awareness of why they do what they do, the messages their actions send, and the understanding that they can make a choice to use the tool (Facebook) with purpose and meaning. Furthermore, these skills are all transferrable to the traditional academic research setting, tying the work of the course back to the traditional understanding of information literacy while simultaneously challenging that traditional understanding to evolve in light of social media behaviors and practices.
 
This collaboration has had a strong impact on our understanding of what information literacy is, and our understanding has evolved as a result of co-teaching this course—a decision we made early in the planning process when it became clear that information literacy would play a role in every class meeting, not just one or two. The definition of information literacy as found in the ACRL Standards is:"a set of abilities requiring individuals to 'recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information" (2000). When we applied these information-literate activities to Facebook—which is approaching one billion users this year (Lyons 2012)—we realized that 1) many of these activities are already being performed on the website by users like our students, and 2) the ways in which they are being performed is changing our collective understanding of what it means to find and use information. Our students need to be made aware of this, and the same goes for us, their instructors. Courses like Rhetoric & Social Media, and the deep integration of information literacy into these courses, open up new avenues of understanding and collaboration between students and instructors as well as faculty in differing disciplines, including rhetoric and composition and information literacy and librarianship. And most importantly, this increased critical awareness of our information-seeking behaviors and activities, not just in the classroom but in our everyday lives (on Facebook or otherwise), is a new and important layer in the definition of what it means to be information literate.
 
Notes
Association of College & Research Libraries. Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. American Library Association, 2000. Web. 13 January 2012. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency
 
Lyons, Gregory. "Facebook to Hit a Billion Users in the Summer." icrossing. 11 January 2012. Web. 13 January 2012. http://connect.icrossing.co.uk/facebook-hit-billion-users-summer_7709
Donna Witek