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Ryan P. Randall

Instruction & Outreach Librarian at the College of Western Idaho ∴ Literary, media & cultural studies ∴ Web Editor at In the Library with the Lead Pipe ∴ Sous les pavés, la plage ∴ We are, as always, stubborn, stoked, and petrified - GY!BE

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This post is for Week Three of #rhizo15: “The Myth of Content.” Even though I’m writing this during Week Five, I’m trying to put my thoughts out a little quicker than usual in this post, in keeping with my post from Week One.

For Week Three, Dave asked:

So what happens when we peek under the word ‘content’ to see what lives there? What does it mean for a course to ‘contain’ information? What choices are being made… what power is being used? or Content is people. Discuss.

I’d say that in order to avoid routinely reifying “content,” the healthiest approach is to assume that content is always just what a particular system can capture. Most of what can be “contained” in a course are documents or bibliographies, and the beauty of a course is that participants then interrogate, alter, and perhaps incorporate aspects of what they think as a result of meeting these documents into their own ways of knowing. Perhaps they change their ways of knowing?

An adjacent question would be what course management software can “contain,” and what we think we’re doing when we observe its use. Some of the newer systems allow instructors to see how often students interact with different portions of the course content within the management system. What I worry about is how often professors might overlook this last clause—within the management system—and forget that students might have their own ways of managing their information.

Dropbox, email, iBooks, Box, Spider Oak, Google Drive/Google Keep/Google Whatever They’ve Recently Introduced and Will Likely Sunset in a Few Years—observant knowledge management professionals know that users will continue to rely on the tools that are most comfortable to them and already most well-integrated into their lives, not the “official” ones that best serve administrative purposes.

To chase a tangential set of thoughts, this week’s prompt reminds me of Barbara Fister’s excellent article “Teaching the Rhetorical Dimensions of Research”, in which she discusses the fact that “most of our systems don’t retrieve information, they retrieve texts.” What we hope as instructors or (critical) information literacy librarians isn’t for students to magically be able to find information as a thing divorced from human processes (of rhetoric, persuasion, interpretation, etc.), but instead for students to be able to perform actions that showcase critical thinking skills and increasingly sophisticated approaches to the information that lies in these documents. How did these documents come about? What structures might inhere in them, perhaps hidden even to the authors? How might these things distort the information or require us to reconsider how we contextualize it within other relevant structures?

So yes, Virginia Dave, content is people. More specifically, course content is the outcome of people’s actions, the inadequate ways that these actions can be captured by and appear within processes of composition, behavior tracking in learning management software systems, or planning of a course syllabus. Extending good faith toward our students and patrons will help us understand that there might be (desired) behaviors beyond what we can observe through learning management systems, website analytics, even assignments and term papers. Continually attempting to challenge reification—attending to the discontents that might accompany the observable content—should help us to take a more critical, potentially Freirean approach to learning and education.


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