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Service Learning and Elmo Says, “Conscientização”

Posted on Monday, November 1st, 2021

Today's guest post author is Cameron Tuai, Data & Business Librarian at Drake University's Cowles Library. 

For the past seven years, I’ve taught a two-credit information literacy class and as I searched around for some post-virtual inspiration, Paulo Friere's concept of the critical consciousness or conscientização emerged out the ether.  While I had touched upon Friere in past classes, this focus presented two significant challenges, first I had only a passing conception of what critical consciousness was or does.  The second problem was that I did not know how to pronounce the word “conscientização.”  Now normally, as a monolingual person, I will pronounce foreign words by drawing upon my fairly rich library of fake accents -- German being my favorite.  Unfortunately, in this case the shelf was empty as I had no pre-conception of what Portuguese sounds like.  As such, YouTube-Elmo -- who not only kindly pronounces the word, “conscientização,” also, in some uncanny parallel universe, predicts my pedagogical arc for the entire course.  The following collective consciousness moment is sponsored by attribution- copyright, conscientização-Elmo.

Service learning is a tool written by Marxists.  The point of service learning is to expose the critical realization or insight that Capitalism hides its true goals.  The goal of Capitalism is NOT efficient distribution of goods or some nonsense.  The true goal of Capitalism is to benefit the very, very, very few.  Bruno Latour notes that the belief in capitalism is one of binding necessity with no escape and as such the examination of the influence of capitalism on our communities creates an affect of either helplessness or immense enthusiasm.  Students, when asked to reflect upon social injustices such as food insecurity or poverty in general, confirm Latour’s proposition of an affect of helplessness.  The goal of service learning for most students is to have an insight that allows them to recognize this sense of helplessness as a purposeful effect of capitalism.  Some students will never have this insight as their embrace of the false goals of capitalism is bound too tightly to their identity and their construct of a normative reality.  On the other hand, there are also a few students that can not only see the destructive “inevitability” of capitalism but also use service learning to become empowered and to take action.  In working with Seth Johnson of the United Way we summarized this insight as one of “hearts and minds.” 

Teaching service learning as a means for realizing critical information literacy in terms of an “educational movement” is a high risk endeavor.  Service learning is an evangelical belief in providing students with the reflective thinking skills necessary for realizing both an insight and nurturing empowerment to address the social injustices that plague our communities.  Without this belief and to a lesser extent a theoretical/ideological understanding you will quickly be dissuaded from realizing the goals of service learning due to a combination of both external displeasure from students/university and internal failures of confidence.  Strong belief and ideology will not remove the risks associated with service learning, but it does give you the fortitude to push forward.  The use of service learning to teach critical information literacy will cause you to lose a lot of sleep.  Service learning is not easy.

As a pedagogical technique, service learning falls squarely into the Progressive Movement.  Within my pedagogy, I primarily draw upon the Dewey reflective thinking and Friere’s critical consciousness.  The belief in progressive and critical pedagogies is one that views education as a tool for social reform.  For the rest of the blog, I will document my pedagogy, outcomes, challenges and rewards in using service learning as a means for realizing conscientização.

Currently, I am a tenured librarian at Drake University Cowles Library.  For the past seven years I have taught LIBR 046 -- Information Literacy (2 cr).  The class has always emphasized critical information literacy, in particular the ACRL frames of “Authority is Constructed and Contextual” and “Information has Value.”  While I had some success in the initial teaching of this class I quickly realized that without a service learning component most students would never recognize the role of information in supporting the structures that oppress our marginalized communities.  This recognition is confirmed within progressive pedagogies, which emphasize the import of education being tied to lived experiences.  Working with our Office of Community Engaged Learning (Renee Sedlacek Lee) I was partnered with the Director of the OpportUNITY program (Seth Johnson), which is Central Iowa’s grassroots plan to fight poverty.  In discussing how to approach critical literacy and service learning a debate arose between Renee and Seth as to whether the Drake neighborhood was a food desert.  This difference in opinion provided an opportunity for students to research the concept of food deserts then critically reflect upon their effect upon going into the neighborhood to directly find out or have a lived life experience.  With this setup, let’s look at the pedagogy itself.

If the goal is to have students possess the knowledge practices and disposition of being critically information literate, the first question should be “what exactly does this look like?”  This is a wickedly difficult question to ask as while many will opine upon the subject, nary a’ one will actually provide an answer.  The reason for this is that critical pedagogies require reflective thinking, which is highly contextual in nature.  As such, the pedagogies associated with critical literacy need to provide not only a context for a lived experience -- hence service learning, but also take into account the context of the students themselves.  The role of context in critical information literacy means that each student will manifest its knowledge practices and dispositions differently.  Hence the difficulty in defining common characteristics of critical information literacy.  Confounding this challenge further is the fact that we ourselves are not completely convinced that we can apply critical information literacy into our own context to perceive information-based structures of oppression.  Being told of the problems of Elsevier and intellectual freedom is information literacy, not critical information literacy.  The critical aspect comes from an insight into recognizing something not seen before.  You’ll know you’ve had such an insight as it is always followed by a head-rush and euphoria that comes from perceiving something that was hidden in plain sight.  From a critical theory perspective, it is freeing oneself from the binding helplessness of capitalism and its obfuscation of its purposeful goal of creating poverty, hunger and food deserts for the benefit of the few.  Obviously, this insight is impossible to directly communicate to students in the same manner as students are incapable of telling you their insights.  The long and short of this is that you are teaching towards a goal that is idiosyncratic to the individual.  Then how do you assign a grade?  Well, you don’t.

The first practical piece of advice I can give you is that grading and critical information literacy are incompatible.  If all we can do with students is to provide students with a literacy and a service learning experience with the hope of creating student insight, assigning a grade is not where you want to go.  Firstly, students will panic as they don’t know what you want from them and you can’t really explain it.  If left for too, long student panic will turn to revolt and you’ll be dragged in front of the Associate Provost of Academic Affairs and asked to explain what is going on -- author lived experience.  To recognize and address student panic, I tell students that I curve up towards an A and as such 90% of my students receive an A.  By freeing students of a grade, you remove both the carrot and the stick.  As a member of an oppressive structure called the University, which is predominantly white and male un-grading frees us from forcing students to assimilate into this oppressive structure in order to pass.  It’s liberating.  Without fear of the grade, students are free to realize whatever they want, to truly bring in their context without fear of being categorized into good, better, best.  Application of critical information literacy to realize an insight into structural oppression is not subject to the measures associated with grading.  If you can wrap your head around non-grading, you are well on your way to realizing information literacy as an educational moment.

As you are probably becoming more aware, my pedagogy relies upon a Marxist perspective on the evils of neo-liberalism, which I define as an ideological constraint that limits individual values to those congruent with capitalism.  Another way of thinking of this is that neo-liberalism defines our values almost exclusively in terms of individual consumption with little recognition of the common good.  Besides critical theory being defined in terms of recognizing and removing structures of oppression, marxism provides a convenient lens for practicing critical information literacy.  The goal is to develop student’s critical insights, not turning them into marxists… though one can always hope for happy coincidences.  How much marxism do you need to know?  Nothing really, just a popular familiarity.  Critical theory, critical pedagogy, marxism are bottomless, contested terms.  A marxist cliche will get you as far as espousing the benefits of moving beyond dialectical materialism of orthodox marxism.  The power of the evangelical lies in passion, not necessarily knowledge.  Applying marxism allows you to explain the role of capitalism in marginalizing based upon gender, world views, race, ethnicity.  Call it as you see it.  Call out the white male Community.  This sends a clear signal that you are not messing around.  You will always get looks from the students from marginalized communities, especially those within the African American community and women.  Now calling out the white male community is not without risk as you MUST be very careful to clearly state that you are referring to the Community of white males not the white male students in your class.  This is true as you are talking about “structures'' of oppression which are manifested at a community level not at an individual level.  Remember we are interested in the common good, not individual consumption.  That’s marxism.  Communities oppress other communities. White male communities in particular seek to oppress, however consciously or unconsciously. How better for students to have this insight into oppression than for them to go and see it for themselves.  This is service learning.  You can read about it all you want, but until you experience it, you just don’t get it.    If you’re still with me -- let out that subversive.

Here is how the class looks in operation.  The key is Dewey’s reflective thinking, which focuses on remaining perplexed, puzzled or confused.  What we are asking for is not self-evident to anyone.  Your job as instructor is to believe that the necessary insight is within the student.  To do this you provide them with the tools of critical information literacy, food deserts/social injustice and service learning.  Put on your marxist lens and go.  I always ask my students on week 3, if they are thinking, “I don’t know what we’re doing?” or worse, “I don’t think the prof. knows what he’s doing?”  You will get a lot of heads nodding.  This is why you need to move away from grading.  Students don’t need to understand anything to get an A.  I should note that the grade structure in general falls around:   Engagement (80-90%);  Assignment (10-20%) and; Quizzes (10-15%).   Engagement, the majority of the grade is awarded by simply remaining in a perplexed state.  The quizzes are curved to 90%, which simply incentivise the students to do the readings and also to serve as comfort blanket.  The assignment is more for them than me.  It generally will have a journaling component, a pre-, contemporaneous-, and post- reflection on the service engagement.  In particular, I want the students to focus on affect, how did they feel?  In other words, I want them to reflectively think about their experience.  What does it say about themselves that they saw and felt what they did?  What would Marx say?  They also produce some sort of artifact - for example, a 1-2 page advocacy page for addressing the problem of food deserts.  Remain perplexed, get an A.  Removing the grade allows everyone to focus on realizing critical information literacy.

Here is my first lived experience of critical consciousness within the context of teaching information literacy.  It was the last day of class in my 2nd year of teaching LIBR 046.  I was focusing on the ACRL Frame - Authority is Constructed and Contextual and the lecture tried to drive this home by using Beyonce’s video Formation.  I was hoping for a miracle and it happened.  After explaining Beyonce’s authority through the lens of Authority is Constructed and Contextual, an African American woman, who had not participated the entire semester, raised her hand.  She explained to me that I was incorrect in my interpretation of Beyonce and the video.  Right On!  She explained what it meant, and I repeated back what I thought she was saying.  She corrected me three times -- why is so much labour of social injustice borne by African American women?  Finally, I had my insight.  We couldn’t communicate because I did not have the language of the oppression of African Americans or women.  As the oppressor, as a member of the Academy I did not possess the literacy necessary for hearing the language of oppression.  It was revelatory. 

Libraries are community instruments for social justice.  As William Allen White says, “there is no contact so privileged as that of the librarian.”  Library values are expressed through critical information literacy, the key to unlocking the critical insight of that literacy is found within the lived insight of service learning.  For the students, it’s going into the field with beliefs and reconciling those beliefs against the lived experience.  For the instructor, it is going into the classroom with pedagogical beliefs and reconciling those beliefs against the lived experience of instruction. 

So do you see?  This blog is how my lectures work.  They aren’t designed to make sense.  They ramble and move with the perceived context.  As you read through this paper, what stuck out?  What link did you click? What did you find perplexing?  And, what does this tell you about yourself?  Everyone who got to this point realized something different.  Your negotiation of this instructional piece says something about you.  If you remain perplexed and think long and hard enough; about this blog, your lived experience or service learning in teaching critical information literacy, it will begin to make sense.  That’s the point of reflective thinking and critical pedagogies.  Focus on that then push it out to your students.   Welcome aboard


Post Script -- I’ve graded the first assignments and some are clearly engaged and some not.  Here is a link to my LIBR 046 -- Information Literacy Material course materials.  (attribution copyright).