By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Each year, the First Year Seminar (FYS) introduces freshmen Grenadiers to the building blocks of academic research.
Information literacy is among the required General Education learning outcomes, embedded in courses COAS-S104 FYS and COAS-S154 Pathways. At IU Southeast, the information literacy component is taught by faculty librarians, led by Maria Accardi, coordinator of library instruction.
Today more than ever, information literacy—the ability to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information, according to the American Library Association—is a critical skill for academic life, but also for responsible citizenship.
So when the IU Southeast transitioned to online education during last-year’s pandemic-induced closure, Accardi and her colleagues rushed to reformulate information literacy content for an online learning environment.
Their efforts not only enabled fellow instructors to continue to deliver critical courses, but provided students with skills that help them assess the merits of the information they consume in the world beyond the campus.
Foundations of success
To address the needs of the moment, Accardi produced three information literacy library assignments and an information literacy module.
The assignments provided an introduction to the use of scholarly materials, exercises to help identify and deconstruct misinformation, and a primer on using information literacy skills to counter hate speech in social media.
In addition to these materials, she co-wrote a chapter on information literacy for the FYS textbook.
Although these tools emerged under the pressure of the pandemic, they are not stopgaps, but wholly formed expressions of Accardi’s vision for information literacy education.
At the end of the day, they contributed to a stronger integration of information literacy in the FYS curriculum, including a more solid commitment from the institution—information literacy is now required, not optional, with the endorsement of the FYS director.
According to Accardi, the impact on campus has already been profound, setting students up to flourish in whatever they may study.
“The FYS course helps students build the foundation for student success, and the information literacy component of FYS is one of the building blocks of that experience,” Accardi said. “Improving and enhancing information literacy instruction in the FYS will have a lasting impact on a student’s experience at IU Southeast.”
The teaching of information literacy takes place within the context of the changing role of the library, and of librarians.
Today’s library is an active participant in the student’s academic life, not just a passive setting where resources are housed.
In the past, learning to use the library meant internalizing the Dewey decimal system. Today, it means learning to engage with information on many levels.
Librarians are instructors, not clerks.
For Accardi, these distinctions represent an evolution in breadth and depth, one that mirrors her own journey.
As a graduate English student bringing her intro class to the library for instruction, she had an epiphany.
“Information literacy clicked for me as a way of working with college students and helping them access the information they need to be successful in personal, academic and other settings,” Accardi said.
She changed directions, earning a Master’s in library and information science.
Along the way, Accardi was strongly influenced by the work of the Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Friere, who saw education as more than the process of depositing knowledge into the student brain—the so-called “banking” model–but as an art of empowering students to liberate themselves and enact social change.
“The banking model is harmful in many ways,” Accardi said. “Not only does it completely dehumanize learners, but it also keeps them in a state of ignorance.”
Students caught in the banking model are trained to accept, internalize and replicate the structures around them, structures that are laden with assumptions about the world and their place in it.
“By merely receiving and storing the knowledge deposited into their heads and lives, students are unlikely to see themselves as active participants in the learning experience and in the world at large,” Accardi said.
Critical pedagogy, on the other hand, is not interested in training acolytes to uphold received knowledge, seeking instead to nurture the students’ inherent curiosity and desire for self-determination.
For Accardi the scholar, the impulses of critical pedagogies led to a more profound exploration of feminist pedagogy in particular, and the identity of the library as an institution.
“Libraries do not exist in a vacuum,” Accardi said, touching on a theme that resonates in her books, including Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction (2013), as well as journal articles and research conference presentations.
As expressions of the dominant culture, libraries play a unique role in framing reality through the collection and organization of knowledge, and the way in which access to that knowledge is shaped.
Feminist pedagogy understands the library as an expression of a world view in tune with established structures of power, including norms of inclusion and exclusion. For Accardi, it is essential that the library, to serve students and not vice versa, be remade to facilitate emancipation and growth.
“The teacher values and cares for the learner as a whole person with dreams and goals and challenges and talents,” Accardi said.
By acknowledging the problematic nature of the library and the learning experience itself, feminist pedagogy is sensitive to the complicated feelings of students trying to situate themselves in relation to a new reality.
“Teachers can validate those feelings, provide reassurance and support and encouragement, and foster environments that are safe spaces for the exploration of new ideas.”
In her “classroom,” be it in person or virtual, Accardi meets students where they live, replacing the banking model with the “midwife” model.
She meets students where they are, lets them lead. This can be a challenge if they have been used to the banking model, as they often are. She encourages the new relationship, but is ready to shift to a more directive approach if that is what the class seems to want. Always in touch with the energy of the room, she is able to speak to the situation as it unfolds.
“By wondering aloud in a genuinely non-judgmental way, I’m creating space for people to share what they’re feeling in the moment, validating that we all have varying preferences for how we like to learn, and demonstrating that I’m interested in how they think and feel about that particular teaching and learning moment,” Accardi said.
It requires sensitivity and acumen to help them birth their own ideas, rather than simply expecting them to store data from an authority figure.
“We librarians are not gatekeepers of knowledge or sources of knowledge,” Accardi said. “We are facilitators of information access and empowerment of a learner’s innate knowledge and gifts.”
In changing both what is taught and the way it is taught, Accardi has fully overhauled the information literacy ecosystem.
And that overhaul has recalibrated the relationship between the students and the library.
“Feminist pedagogy is itself an innovation,” Accardi said of her approach. “It requires critical, honest and authentic reflection, and it prioritizes the students—their voices, experiences and knowledge.”