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I had the pleasure of visiting the University of Notre Dame for a program sponsored by the writing program and the library. It gave me a chance to talk about the work of Project Information Literacy and the project we’re working on this year. It also challenged me to think about what we can actually do to help students navigate and make sense of information in its current state. I’ve spent over three decades thinking about this, but our information systems keep changing and every year new students arrive needing to negotiate the unfamiliar writing demands of college while we try to prepare them for the kind of writing and thinking tasks they’ll face after graduation. My particular focus for this event was thinking about how to help students connect the kinds of information seeking they do for school with their experience of encountering information in a constant stream via multiple social channels.

I was just one of several participants in the program, organized by John Duffy. Bruce McComiskey spoke about the challenges of teaching rhetoric when its being employed politically in such polarized (and yet, rhetorically speaking, extremely effective) ways. Erin McLaughlin led us through a fascinating workshop using a contested viral image to discuss ways rhetorical analysis can help surface and reconsider our first impressions so we can understand other positions. A panel of writing instructors and a curator/educator at the Snite art museum discussed how they work with students to focus and appreciate words and images while discovering their own ways of seeing and speaking. I particularly loved an assignment for a course (Art 180) that requires students to spend 180 minutes during the term looking at a single work of art. That’s such a wonderful counter-practice to framing our view of the world through our phones, on the lookout for instragramable moments.

By the end, a theme emerged: we need to be able to slow down, to pause and reflect, to pay attention in a way that is counter to the hurry-hurry urgency of the “attention economy.” In my notes I see the phrases “slow the velocity,” “the power of patience,” and “look, describe, think, connect.”

One way to slow down is to simply turn off the devices, engage students in reading texts deeply and closely, and banish the noisy chatter of everyday life from the classroom. While time must be made for that kind of attention, I think it’s a mistake to create a binary: in college we read and write this way, not that way. I’d rather find ways to make the values and virtues of academic thinking, reading, and writing more transparent and give students opportunities to apply them to figuring out the noisy world.

I argued we should bring current events constantly and consciously into the classroom to connect relevant news to disciplinary knowledge and knowledge-making methods, with these suggestions.

  • Expose students to a variety of truth-seeking institutions and their ideal practices: how peer review works in practice, how news editors and reporters strive to tell stories accurately and fairly, how it’s just as important in everyday life as in the practice of history or science or sociology to handle information with care and integrity.
  • Built trust. Students don’t need more practice being cynical. By all means, point out failure points – the retracted science article, the news story that turns out to be horribly wrong – but also take some time to expose the social processes and values underlying good scholarship, good reporting, good and honest writing of all genres.
  • Practice information encountering skills, not just search skills. How do we manage the flow of constant news? How do we curate those information streams? While undergraduates don’t have the disciplinary community ties to build the kinds of up-to-date awareness scholars have of where interesting questions are emerging, focusing only on how to go looking for answers doesn’t help them learn to be attuned to questions, to practice a habit of curiosity, to build their own communities of interest.
  • Practice practical heuristics for assessing information. Mike Caulfield’s latest iteration of his “four moves” for web literacy has just become "Check, Please," available in five adaptable 30-minute lessons. Take what works for you and practice it with students as a way of sifting through the constant flow of information as a skill to pair with the slower, more deliberate close reading of those texts you want students to focus more closely on.

As the next semester begins, are you devising ways to bring the news into your classroom? Are you planning strategies to bring your thoughtful classroom practices to bear on the busy, noisy world? I'd love to hear about it.


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