Saturday, January 29, 2011

National Anthem and Indiana Woman

I want to post about something that may not have anything to do with information literacy, but we could stretch the argument.  I came across this news story a few minutes ago.  Here’s another link at ABC. 

Now, I’m not one to get emotional or misty eyed over patriotic offerings.  I usually think people go a bit far with that kind of stuff.  However, this young Indiana woman’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is beautiful.  I don’t hear any background music, and in my mind that makes singing a song that much harder.  Of course, I’m not a singer (unless I’m very drunk).  Her voice is strong, the song has feeling, and I felt myself on the verge of tears.  I wish I had this young woman’s talent.  And I wish I had her self-esteem when I was in high school. 

The problem is that now there are some people tearing her down because they say she sang the National Anthem in an “untraditional” style.  Considering that everyone who sings a song gives it a different flavor than the original singing (and that’s with any song), how can people complain about this version?  She just sang the song, without any musical accompaniment at all.

The young woman is black, and the complaints come from a small town in Indiana that is mostly white.  So, it’s making it hard for me to believe this isn’t racially motivated, which in this day and age, is crazy, not to mention unpatriotic given that we live in a free democracy.  I understand that people have a lot of built in bias and primitive tribal urges to shun what is different and also are raised in prejudiced environments, but can’t we get over the primitive parts of our brains and bad upbringings and react to the core of issues?   I just get the feeling that if this woman had been a white singer, this wouldn’t be an issue.  And that pisses me off.

I don’t know.  Maybe, I’m simplifying a much more complicated issue.  Maybe, I’m biased by the way the news story is written.  Maybe, I’m a bit touchy about this subject because this young woman doesn’t deserve to be told she can’t sing in her voice and exercise her creative energy.  She has a wonderful voice, and it shouldn’t be diminished.   

I grew up in a very racist, homophobic, misogynist area.  If you aren’t white, Christian (preferably of the Baptist flavor), male, and American born, they don’t want you there.  I watched newcomers to the community get threatened, picked on, and some of them run out.  We had KKK whispers throughout the community.  And sometimes, the prejudice wasn’t overt.  It just pressed in on people until they wanted to snap.  It’s one of the reasons living in this part of the United States can be so depressing and debilitating.

I think if people were exposed to the reasons people develop prejudices in the first place, more people might be able to break free of the problem.  When you understand evolution, biology, history, psychology, etc, it makes it difficult to hold onto negative assumptions and views of your fellow human beings. 

Unless they’re just asses-like the people who complained about this young woman’s version of the anthem.    

Shai, keep singing.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Critical Thinking Example

OK.  I know I’ve posted today.  However, Dr. PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota-Morris, has just posted a wonderful shredding critique of a supposedly scientific article.  He points out all the red flags and eviscerates chastises the author.  Dr. Myers even makes a point of finding out the author’s affiliations and how the paper got published in the first place.  This is a wonderful example of critical thinking when it comes to resources.  It’d be lovely if every undergraduate student could learn from just this one example.

Medical Advice

Librarians and medical advice just don’t mix, unless the librarian also happens to be a practicing medical doctor (but that much cool may not be possible in one person).  Whenever someone asks me for medical advice (whether at a library or elsewhere), I usually suggest that person see a doctor.  I may direct them to some online resources, such as the Mayo Clinic, if it’s just curiosity or databases, such as MedLine or CINAHL, if it’s for research.  But I also caution against self diagnosis and utilizing online medical resources for treatment options. 

I also warn people away from medical chat and discussion boards.  If you need support for a condition, fine.  But don’t ever use one of those for diagnosis.  I’ve had people tell me they use Yahoo! Answers for medical advice.  I never know whether to laugh or cry when I hear this.

This is another place where critical thinking skills and information literacy come in handy.  An information literate person with critical thinking skills is better equipped to recognize the BS in many medical websites.  That person is no better at diagnosing or treating illness than others (unless we’re dealing with a medical professional), but sometimes recognition of bad resources is good enough to avoid a catastrophe.

I bring this topic up because I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow and because I need to learn to follow my own advice.  I’ve spent the last few days looking online for answers and utilizing symptom checkers.  If I believe what I’ve found online, I should have been dead a few days ago, and I may have two dozen different medical conditions.  It’s enough to make a person a hypochondriac.  My own online search reminded me about the problems of medical information literacy and self diagnosis.  Right now I do know for a fact that I’m suffering from information anxiety and overload (and that is something librarians are qualified to diagnose…sometimes). 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Google Poetry Translation

Google is working on an AI to translate poetry.  My undergrad major was in creative writing-poetry, and I've worked on a couple Spanish/English poetry translations (many many moons ago).  At best, translation is a crazy place full of twists and turns and frustrations.  Throwing poetry into the equation really messes with the mind.  With all the ways just one word can be translated, in addition to cultural and historical usage, it's a wonder we understand one another at all.  The notion that an AI could be capable of translating poetry is just...very sci fi...and really cool.

The 21st century is the neatest place.

Thanks to the Digital Cuttlefish for posting about this.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Info Lit and Critical Thinking-Introduction

So, I thought I’d spend some time discussing information literacy and critical thinking.  We didn’t spend a large amount of time discussing this in class, at least in a direct manner.  We spent time learning how to complete searches and work on reference interviews, and some of that can be used in teaching patrons how to access information.

I think it’s become obvious that Americans lack critical thinking skills, at least in some areas.  It’s like a selective skill set.  People will use info lit and critical thinking skills when it suits them but abandon those skills when they become more difficult.  I think Zipf’s principle of least effort comes into play here.  It’s easier to not use critical thinking skills.  We can see this in everyday life when it comes to gossip or commentary presented as news (it’s obvious that some commentators on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have extreme bias). 

We may believe what our neighbor tells us about the reclusive guy in the house down the street with the odd hair.  Most of this doesn’t affect us in dangerous ways.  We may miss out on some interesting interactions or lose the opportunity to make a new friend based on gossip, but it won’t kill us.  However, what if our neighbor tells us the guy down the street is a sexual predator?  Do we believe our neighbor, shun the guy down the street, and keep our kids from playing outside even in broad daylight?  What if we find out five years down (when we’re steeped in paranoia and our kids are pale as vampires and have vitamin D deficiencies) the road that our neighbor was wrong about the guy down the street?  Wouldn’t it be better to just check the sex offender registry or ask our neighbor where he got his information than to spend years locked in by potentially false information?

This comes down to the fact that people have a built in reticence when it comes to “looking stuff up.”  Sometimes we believe the first thing we hear so we don’t have to put the effort in to research.  Sometimes we’ll even fill in the blanks with conjecture, which is often plainly false, or worse, made up.  This is how rumors and urban legends get going. 

News can also fall into this pattern.  News organizations rush to report stories, to get information on air before other networks.  This can often lead to false information and retractions, if the news organization is honest.  For example, the recent shooting of Congresswoman Giffords had news agencies reporting everything from documented facts to odd conjectures.  Several of the initial stories reported Giffords as dead, when in fact she is responding well to her current treatments.  The lack of facts and loads of misinformation get worse when we move from the news to the commentary.  Commentators are the bread and butter of many news stations anymore.  And viewers may see the commentators as experts on whatever they talk about.  Whether that’s because the commentator is on a news station or is television or is otherwise famous is anyone’s guess. 

I’ve been guilty of believing a news commentator if his or her views happen to match mine.  It’s human to do so.  However, I’ve also made it a point to look up their reported facts for myself.  I do this for several reasons: to practice research and critical thinking skills, to see the data for myself without commentary, to fact check, and to avoid embarrassment in public if I find myself in a discussion on the topic in question.   

So, we know that human beings usually try to take the path of least resistance to information, even if it may be wrong.  We’re also aware from library science research that people have to deal with information overload on a constant basis in this world of online access and 24 hour news cycles.  This can create anxiety and further reinforces taking the path of least resistance.  The fear of not knowing leads us to take quick measures to assuage our anxiety.  How do we overcome this?  How can human beings move beyond the fear of not knowing to better understanding?  Can we turn our information anxiety into curiosity without fear?

I don’t think it’ll ever be a hundred percent.  Humans have evolved too many instinctual and primitive reactions to completely remove the fear of the unknown and information anxiety.  We can, however, redirect these energies and tame that part of us that wants a quick answer regardless of the cost.  (For an interesting look at our inner beast and living with it, go to this video-but keep in mind that philhellenes is a commentator on YouTube)

Teaching information literacy and critical thinking skills throughout life (starting as early as possible) can help reinforce the notion that it’s ok to not know.  It’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”  It won’t kill us to take more time to find a correct answer.  It may in fact save our lives and our sanity.  Beyond just encouraging curiosity and the desire for the correct information, it is also important to teach these skills on other levels.  Recently, test scores and performance in several subject areas, including math and science, have fallen compared to other nations.  We’ve also seen a reduction in science and education funding and attempts to promote woo in American classrooms.  This makes it difficult for us to compete on an international level and can eventually hurt our status as an innovative and inventive country, which in turn can hurt our economic standing even more.  The New York Times had a post on this topic in September of 2010.  It looks at government reports from 2005 and 2010 on the subjects of science, technology, and global economic competitiveness.

One of the best ways to introduce students to critical thinking and reinforce it in more experienced students is to force students to look at how they seek information.  What patterns do they follow?  What are their strengths?  Weaknesses?  Are they applying critical thinking to some subjects but not others?  Or do they not apply critical thinking to any subject?  One way I have found is to introduce this topic with a research assignment-to combine information literacy and critical thinking.  When I taught at a local community college, I would ask students to research a topic (for example, plagiarism).  In the first assignment I had students use a search engine they’re familiar with, like Google or yahoo, and research the topic.  They had to provide citations and summarize what they found in at least three sources.  In the second assignment I had them do the search again but use scholarly databases in the college library.  Again, they had to provide citations and summaries for at least three sources.  For the third assignment, the students had to write a short paper comparing and contrasting the search methods, what they found, and how they searched.  They also had to tell me which method was better for college research and why.  The fourth assignment in this series was a discussion.  And, yes, I’m one of those silly teachers that like the desks in a circle.  It puts everyone on equal terms in a physical sense.  During the discussion, I used Socratic questioning and grilled them on every little thing.  I liked playing “devil’s advocate” during these conversations.  It forced them into self reflection and also forced them to verbalize their thoughts in a public forum.  You’d be amazed how fast students progress when this is done on a weekly, or even bi-weekly, basis. 

OK.  I’ve droned on long enough for one posting.  I’ll be back in a few days to discuss more about critical thinking and information literacy.  Hopefully, I’ll be a little more focused.  I tend to feel like I’m rambling when I blog.      

Monday, January 3, 2011

History of Writing and Libraries

I'm finally posting again after the holiday rush.  :)

I decided to start with a review of my LIS 604 course, which focused on the history of writing and libraries.  We spent most of our time covering libraries and books in the Western world, focusing on Europe and the United States after looking at ancient civilizations (Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Roman, Greek, etc.).  Here is a summary from my midterm.

Books used in course:  History of Libraries in the Western World by Michael H. Harris & Dahl's History of the Book by Bill Katz

One glaring omission in both books we read had to do with the Americas before Columbus.  The lack of information on writing and books from the native tribes of the Americas really bothered me.  So much so that I decided to write my final research page on the topic.  I ran out of time, so I didn't get to cover North America.  However, I did do an overview of South and Central America before Columbus.  Here is the paper.  Let's hope I did that link correctly.  I'm still learning this whole blogging thing. 

The most interesting bit, at least to me, is the part focusing on the Inca of South America.  For years it's been assumed that they did not have a writing system.  This makes them a rarity in successful civilizations.  Their use of quipas was likened to the use of abacuses/abaci in other civilizations.  However, modern research is starting to suggest the quipas may have been more, but there's nothing conclusive that I've found as of yet.

The papers I've posted are on Google Documents.  You may have to sign in to view them.