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July Update: Discussing Authority and Evidence

I was fortunate to get to attend ALA in Orlando.  When I’m at ALA, I make sure to always attend the ACRL Instruction Section panel.  This year, I was especially interested because the panel took on Authority is Constructed and Contextual, a very rich concept in the Framework that we’ve had many conversations about as we’ve worked on the first module of the test: Evaluating Process and Authority.

The panelists described how they have engaged with the concept of authority in their own teaching and how the Framework has inspired them to think about this concept in new ways.  Though the panel itself raised many interesting questions, a comment from the audience particularly piqued my interest.  Jessica Critten, from West Georgia University, highlighted the gap in librarians’ discourse about what constitutes evidence and how students are taught to understand what they’re doing with the information sources we’re asking them to evaluate.  She clearly identified the implication of the Authority is Constructed and Contextual Frame, which is that we evaluate authority for a purpose and librarians need to engage in more meaningful discussion about those purposes if we are going to do more than leave students with the sense that everything is relative. Jessica has been thinking about these issues for a while.  She co-authored a chapter called “Logical Fallacies and Sleight of Mind: Rhetorical Analysis as a Tool for Teaching Critical Thinking” in Not Just Where to Click: Teaching Students How to Think about Information.

Jessica’s remarks showed me a connection that we need to continue to strengthen between our work in libraries and our colleagues’ work in composition studies and rhetoric.  Especially at a time of increasing polarization in public discourse, the meaning of concepts like authority, facts, and evidence cannot be taken for granted as neutral constructions that we all define the same way.  When I got back from Orlando, I sat down with our Rhetoric and Composition consultant, Richard Hannon, to ask him to elaborate on the connection between the Framework and how he gets students to think critically about facts, evidence, and information sources.


AC: What do you find that students have trouble unlearning about facts as support for their arguments? What is our cultural understanding of the definition of knowledge and how does that influence public discourse about controversies?

RH: The biggest misconception for students is that facts somehow speak for themselves. In other words, students are seeking out information that they feel is inarguable; thus, many college students are at the cognitive stage where they believe that if you can argue by using only credible arguments, then your argument is unassailable. In other words, the person who wins the argument is the person who presents the most credible fact.

This has long been a problem, I think, since scientific positivism centuries ago granted there can be scientific facts that are somehow value-free, that transcend the need for interpretation and evade a relationship to power. These facts, it is believed, stand as universals, outside of academic discourse communities and disciplinary knowledge construction. These are what we as a society start to see as objective reality. As such, the more objective, the more credible the fact. Thus, while students may legitimately quest for neutral facts that can be used to support arguments because they want to be seen as objective, they also seek to avoid the gray area of analysis and interpretation of data. There are two reasons, I think, for this avoidance of the subjective/interpretive: (1) interpretation requires much more knowledge of disciplinary jargon and a technical understanding of the proper methods for interpretation; and (2) not relying upon facts as the main source of argument and analysis also requires that students move to what educational theorists Perry has described as committed relativism –  which means moving past the first two phases of dualism and relativism.

That’s really interesting.  During the panel discussion, Jim Elmborg made a similar connection between Perry’s stages of development and the concept that authority is constructed.  If we’re interested in applying the Framework in our instruction, how can we address this misunderstanding about facts when our students think of it as common sense?

Both problems might be solved by instructors being more careful about what they call facts and knowledge. My preference is to refer to what I call (1) empirical-facts, and (2) knowledge-facts, where empirical-facts are largely agreed upon as universal, and knowledge-facts have been constructed and require you to believe in a deeper warrant as the grounds for a subtle interpretation. A simple example may suffice. Consider the two statements:

  1. In the state of Texas last year, four murderers were executed.
  2. In the state of Texas last year, four people were executed for the crime of murder.

Right away, you can see that statement (2) is prove-ably true or false. There is a test, and the answer will be agreeable since it is an empirical-fact as to whether or not they were executed in the name of this crime. Statement (1) on the other hand requires that you trust that the due process can determine whether or not these people are murderers. In other words, statement (1) requires that you trust the method, and thus the warrant, upon which the knowledge-fact (these people are in fact murderers) has been constructed.

Many of us have seen recent examples of the problem with relying upon so-called facts on our social media sites. And, I do see a relationship between more student desire to use credible facts and the constant production and accumulation of new facts being made readily available daily on the internet.  Students know that they should question what they read, but often this becomes a form of hard-line skepticism that leaves them susceptible to only trusting the sources they already agree to.  Perry’s work and the research it has inspired gives us as educators a way of understanding what it means that authority is constructed and why it is so difficult to instill that understanding in our students, especially in the current information environment most of us live in.

Given your approach to this discussion of “facts,” how do you explain to students what constitutes evidence for their papers?

This is tricky, because Composition instructors are often quite guilty of equating “evidence”, and thus facts, with “support”. And, while Composition texts teach that students need both support and elaboration, there is no discussion of how the method of elaboration is socially constructed by disciplinary methods. Even if students are asked to consider audience, the reality is that the audience is an English teacher.

Perhaps oddly to some, I do not teach that evidence can be found or discovered within a source. The problem is that evidence is largely equated with proof that one’s claim is correct – that a definitive answer can be found. At the college level, I am asking students to work with Level 3 Research Questions, where the answer is contingent, complex, and part of the dialectic of knowledge. As such, the Thesis posits something that is unprovable. So, the test for the quality of my students’ papers is not whether or not they prove their point by pointing to reliable evidence, but rather that they show their ideas fully and clearly through analysis of exhibits.

To show their ideas, students must find the major ideas and themes within the academic texts they are reading; they must find the disciplinary agreements and fights. They create frames out of these ideas, and then analyze exhibits through the frames they create to determine the value of their ideas, and whether their new analysis can add to the conversation. Exhibits might be self-conscious artistic expressions, incidental documents, or both. For example, one of my students was recently asking the question: How do skateboarders, behaving like classic tricksters from mythology and literature, re-interpret public spaces? This student analyzed historical news cases regarding skate parks and crimes, a punk skateboarding video uploaded to YouTube, and skateboarder rhetoric of transgression in Thrasher Magazine articles. To analyze this data, the student referred to roughly ten academic articles, wherein he looked for ideas about what constitutes tricksters and how public space might be transgressed through the art of play. His quest, then, was not to prove that skateboarders are tricksters, but rather to show what it means when they accomplish this disruption of space. As such, the student is not finding evidence, but rather is constructing evidence through interpretation of the exhibit through the frame, or disciplinary jargon.  In this example, the recognition that authority is constructed and contextual is built into the way the students use different sources for different purposes, combining scholarship with sources that are created by and for the community that is the subject of the student’s analysis.

Many librarians are critical of professors who requires lower-division undergraduates to use scholarly sources in their papers, arguing that these students are not yet ready to understand this type of information in order to use it effectively.  Based on your experience teaching lower-division undergraduates in your composition courses and in the library classroom, why do you think professors are asking students to rely on scholarly sources and how to you think they expect students to use these sources?

Working at the reference desk as a librarian, I have seen other librarians try to push what they determine to be unprepared students towards easier sources that are either reference (facts) or Opposing Viewpoints (opinion). There is a problem with both. While I see the need for a reference source at times, it does not provide something to analyze. In the assignments that I give, I ask students to gain background, if they need it, from our course texts or scholarly book chapters, where the facts are characterized towards their discipline. Often times, these definitions come from their texts, and students should be encouraged to use the shared, common language of their discipline, course, and professor.

The problem with pointing students towards basic opinions is that these debates are not framed by the discipline.  For example, consider the student who is writing a research paper for her sociology class about the incarceration rates of minorities, who is pointed towards basic newspaper editorials by a librarian. While I grant that the student may find the location of an argument, this will often not be framed properly through the discipline. In short, these will be opinion pieces, loaded with data-facts (a version of a knowledge-fact that relies on the persuasion of statistics), which the student will cite in her paper – never having to employ the jargon and theories of the course.

In fact, in my role as a librarian, I can say that we may be doing students a disservice here – and undermining the professor – by giving students the impression that their responsibility is only to make sure that they are using credible sources to support their arguments. In reality, their professors often want them to engage with the big ideas of their discipline (i.e., the context in which academic authority is constructed), even in lower-division courses. For this example of research on incarceration rates for a sociology paper perhaps the big ideas include: What do critical race theory and intersectionality have to say? Can Durkheim’s theory of anomie be used to show different relationships to the legal system?

How can students do the work of sociology by looking through opinion rags? More problematic, I think, is that these texts are not constructed using the proper method (which touches on the frame Information Creation as a Process), and thus students are modeling an argument style that has nothing to do with academic research and writing.

I find it to be completely valid in a library one-shot for a sociology professor to ask that I show only scholarly articles from sociology journals. There are certain assumptions that the discipline is allowed to make, and there are certain kinds of questions the discipline is asking. While it is true that students may not entirely understand these sources at first, there are ways to show them how to mine the sources for information: the discussion and conclusion sections, for example, will contain the analysis and ideas.  If your readers are interested in how we can teach students about reading scholarly sources, they can access the work we did on our site:

The bottom line is that this transition to reading academic articles is difficult but necessary. And, professors are more lenient than librarians might know. I find that the professors I work with are often very happy that their students are engaging with the big ideas, even if they cannot always incorporate the information into their texts properly. And, as a writing instructor, I take it as my responsibility to show them how to bring these sources properly into their papers and see librarians as partners with professors in achieving this goal for students.