Tag Archives: authority

DART Recap – Authority is Constructed and Contextual

The format for the latest DART session was an open forum to discuss one of the frames in the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy, Authority is Constructed and Contextual. While there were not specific articles that circulated prior to the meeting, participants were encouraged to explore threads within two related ALA listservs, the ILI-L and the ACRL Frame.

The discussion generated and explored multiple complex, open-ended questions: How do we instruct students in distinguishing between news media and entertainment media? What are strategies for helping students to navigate the tension between innate bias and journalistic ethics and ideals, particularly in the current landscape of distrust for the media? How do we enable students to evaluate peer-review and persuasive research agendas within varying disciplinary frameworks and norms? What is the difference or interplay between expertise and authority? And overall, how do we foster critical thinking skills that transfer beyond the classroom?

Sorry to disappoint, but I will not be providing any tidy answers to these questions within this blog post. I can, however, share some potential ideas for activities and strategies that folks discussed having used or seen in relation to these issues.

  • Media Diet: Have students map out their media diets. What media/information sources do they readily consume? The diet metaphor can be stretched as far as you like (daily intake; splurge sources; holes in your diet; allergies/intolerance). Use the maps to guide or generate class discussion about bias and media literacy.
  • Choose Your Own Adventure: Present students with a real-world problem-solving scenario in which they are evaluating information. Example: You wake up one morning with a horrible rash on your arm. You do not know what it is. What do you do? Discuss student responses and continue to add questions/choices. (The doctor you see wants to amputate your arm, what do you do now?) This activity can provide a different access or entry point for talking about authority and information literacy.
  • Opposing Viewpoints: Have students look for sources that take different stances on an issue. Unpack this experience as a class, and guide a discussion of the who, what, when, why of these viewpoints and the process of uncovering them.
  • Evidence First: When looking at research, encourage and instruct students to focus on the evidence rather than honing in on the conclusion. Is there a clear trajectory from the evidence provided to the conclusion presented?

There are no easy solutions or quick-fixes in this area, and that can be uncomfortable at times, particularly in the role of educator. But it is possible that in some way, the questions here are just as meaningful as the answers, if not more so. It is through the posing of such questions, engaging in the dialogue, and learning how to operate in the uncertainty, that progress is made, both for us as professionals, and for our students.

We do not always have to have clean-cut, black and white answers for our students, and doing so would ultimately do them a disservice anyway, as it misrepresents the gray areas inherent in critical thinking. When a student asks a complicated question about bias or authority, don’t be afraid to shrug, and say “yeah, it’s really tricky, isn’t it?” Or flip the question back to the students, and ask them what they think and why. Be transparent about the challenges and the give and take, and talk about it explicitly. Indeed, scholarship is a conversation after all.

More to check out:

Read: Interesting blog post examining the frame Authority is Constructed and Contextual.

Listen: Circulating Ideas podcast with UT Doctoral Fellow Jeremy Shermack talking about bias, journalism, and the media.


Meszaros, M. (2010). Who’s in Charge Here? Authority, Authoritativeness, and the Undergraduate Researcher. Communications In Information Literacy, 4(1). Retrieved October 13, 2011, from http://www.comminfolit.org/index.php?journal=cil&page=article&op=view&path%5B%5D=Vol4-2010PER1&path%5B%5D=110

Before we discuss the article, a relevant interlude:

  • I don’t have facts to back this up, but I happen to believe that these demonstrations are planned and orchestrated to distract from the failed policies of the Obama administration.” Herman Cain, as presented by the Daily Show
  • “Racism only exists in the eyes of the ignorant.  Don’t people realize that Ghandi Mohandas put an end to rascism in America in the early part of the 18th century?  Obviously not since professors keep qouting him.  I don’t mean to sound holier than thou, but sometimes i think I have a better handle on the cultural constructions of the modern world.” Sh*t My Students Write

Ok, so, I think it’s difficult to argue with the premise that this entire country is suffering from a crisis of authority.  As Meszaros states, “In short, authoritativeness has become conflated with authoritarianism.  The word crisis may at first seem hyperbolic, but when one considers what is at stake — the ability of a citizenry to render reflective judgments, to weigh knowledge claims, to generate evaluations based on something more substantive than mere taste and feeling, the designation is apt.” (9)  If everyone is an expert and everyone’s opinion is valid, then we’re all right, right?  And if we’re all right, then why is this librarian standing in front of me, asking me to figure out who the author of this dumb website is and then badgering me about whether or not the author is credible?

After reading through RHE 306 research summaries and acknowledging the fact that students were, as whole, unable to speak clearly to the credibility of authors, I was interested in finding some additional discussion of undergraduate source evaluation and this issue of authority.  Meszaros references Rebecca Jackson’s work on cognitive development throughout her article and draws upon many of the ideas that we’ve discussed about the dualistic nature of undergraduate critical thinking, with some students moving on to a more multiplistic view where everyone has a right an opinion and “all opinions are equally valid.  Evidence is not necessary; a fervently held opinion is not only enough, it is positively sacred.” (7).  But Meszaros then looks at how undergraduates do and do not regard faculty and librarians as authorities and the implications of these views.

Meszaros introduces the distinction between administrative authority and cognitive authority, drawing on the work of Patrick Wilson. Undergraduates usually attribute administrative authority to faculty as those powerful entities who control their grade, ascribing authority based on position. While administrative authority leads to students following directions and completing assignments, it doesn’t mean that the student, a novice to the course material, recognizes the faculty member as an authority based on expertise in their discipline.  She quotes Susan Ostrov-Weisser: “My intellectual authority as [the student’s] professor is equivalent to a useful fiction, a semi-ironic game she agrees to for a short time for pragmatic reasons, with the understanding that we both know it is faintly ridiculous.” (6-7)  If students don’t regard faculty as experts and lack content knowledge that would aid in evaluation, then how do they approach the issue of determining the authority of a source based on credibility?   Meszaros argues that much of the evaluation takes place through an examination of “surface credibility” based on visual cues (“This website is designed well.”) or through a “sense of fit” based on whether or not what they’re reading makes sense and resonates with their novice knowledge base — hardly the critical examination of sources we hope they’ll engage in and that prompts us to recommend peer-reviewed sources representing disciplinary expertise.  Meszaros writes, “The A word that matters most to the undergraduate research is accessibility, not authoritativeness.” (8)

So what do we do?  Meszaros points to an article by Holschuh Simmons that crosses over with Anna’s recent RIOT on genre theory and suggests that academic librarians are in a unique position to negotiate the space between novice researchers and the expectations faculty have of source choice based on their immense disciplinary expertise.  We can use this crisis as an opportunity to market our services to faculty, invoking the crisis in authority as a reason for restructuring assignments to prompt source evaluation and promote examinations of expertise.  Meszaros suggests that if neither faculty nor librarian is deemed a cognitive authority, than “the crucial question is how all of us can validate the notion of disciplinary cognitive authority so as to help students move beyond the unsophisticated epistemological positions of dualism or multiplicity.  Librarians can best join forces with faculty by focusing less on issues of access and retrieval and more on student attitudes and beliefs about knowledge, especially beliefs about expertise and cognitive authority.” (9)

So as a group, what strategies do we have for embedding this in our teaching?  How do we push students past the idea that everyone’s opinion matters in the environment of the one-shot?  What opportunities do we have to prevent this crisis from getting worse?