Book Review Contributing Editor

Book Review: Critical Approaches to Credit-Bearing Information Literacy Courses (2019)

Matthew Weirick Johnson, LibParlor Contributing Editor, discusses their favorite chapters, the use of critical reflection, and


Critical Approaches to Credit-Bearing Information Literacy Courses (2019), published by ACRL, provides an introduction and 14 chapters detailing, exploring, and reflecting on the experiences of a variety of library practitioners offering credit-bearing information literacy courses at their universities. In their introduction, Pashia and Critten share their hope “that this book will contribute to critical librarianship by focusing on an area (credit-bearing courses) that has not quite benefited as much from the literature” (3). It certainly does that and more. Though the primary audience is individuals interested in offering credit-bearing courses, improving existing courses, or expanding literature in this area, I found that the chapters also offered insight, theory, and assignment and class ideas that could  be implemented beyond the singular context of a credit-bearing class.

While these chapters don’t provide a step-by-step guide to recreating their courses, they provide detailed information about their course assignments, methods for creating learning environments compatible with their critical approaches, and thoughtful reflection on their decisions, the strengths and weaknesses of their courses, and practices they plan to change in the future. Other than in Dineen and McCartin’s chapter, “An Unfinished Journey: Towards a Democratic Information Literacy Classroom,” where the authors provide a rubric created with students and a copy of the “Day One Questionnaire” they refer to, authors in the collection don’t provide specific documentation but rather refer to some of the readings used, overviews of assignments, and explanations of classroom environments. For the most part, each chapter provides rich and unique assignment and course ideas supported by varying theory, context, and approaches from fan studies to the copyleft movement. Throughout the fourteen contributed chapters, the only overlap in assignment and activity ideas that I noticed was using Wikipedia for assignments and conducting reflections. Assignments and activities vary from a research & learning narrative, to a gallery walk, to creating creative works and identifying a Creative Commons license for it.

The majority of the chapters follow a general format of positioning context and theory in the beginning of the chapter, discussing assignments in the middle, and then providing reflections and conclusions towards the end. With the addition of ample signposting from section headings, each chapter, and essentially the entire book, is incredibly skim-able. This is helpful for readers interested in specific topics, contexts, or approaches,  readers looking primarily for assignment and instruction ideas, or for readers interested in identifying further literature in a specific area of study (such as fan studies; see Nancy Foasberg’s chapter). In this sense, finding chapters or sections of interest and returning to relevant passages is simple for a quick but focused reading. On the other hand, I found the book to be an engaging read, balancing theory and practice, that flew by.

About the Editors

Critical Approaches to Credit-Bearing Information Literacy Courses is a collection of chapters written by a variety of authors working in academic libraries ranging from community colleges to 4-year universities, in various geographic locations, with varying degrees and specialties, and in varying contexts and campus climates. The book’s co-editors are Angela Pashia, who also contributes a chapter in addition to the joint introduction, and Jessica Critten. Pashia is an associate professor and librarian at the University of West Georgia, and Critten is the pedagogy and assessment program lead at Auraria Library in Colorado. Each of the editors holds an MA in addition to their Library and Information Science graduate degrees.

These Are a Few of My Favourite Chapters

While I found the entirety of the book to be compelling and rigorous, I particularly enjoyed chapters 6, 8, 12, and 13.

In “An Unfinished Journey: Towards a Democratic Information Literacy Classroom,” Dineen and McCartin share the process and outcomes of conducting a Day One Questionnaire and co-developing an assignment rubric with their students. This was also the only chapter that provided additional documentation in appendices, allowing for easier duplication or implementation of their ideas. In her reflection, McCartin discusses giving up too much power when allowing the students to name one of the rubric categories “you suck.” In creating the democratic learning environment she strived for, she forgot about the importance of her own participation in the dialogue. With respect to the “you suck” category, she mentions the possible repercussions for her as the instructor of the course. I found this to be a particularly compelling reflection that provides guidance for others as they seek to share power in the classroom.

In “Opening to the Margins: Information Literacy and Marginalized Knowledge,” Larson and Vaughan focus on how information is valued and devalued, specifically encouraging students to think about how certain knowledge, knowledge from certain communities, or certain ways of knowing are marginalized or subjugated. The authors noted some difficulties where students didn’t grasp the power dynamics of marginalized communities (for example, pointing to knowledge that was “localized” rather than marginalized). In this process, they share possibilities for future re-orientation.

In “Examining Structural Oppression as a Component of Information Literacy,” Pashia explores Gusa’s framework of White Institutional Presence in the academy and how this related to information literacy, specifically referencing organizational schemata, hiring practices, and scholarly communication. This chapter provides a useful theoretical framework contributing to critical information literacy, leading up to a discussion of teaching Black Lives Matter. In the end, she notes that white students might be avoiding her course because of her critical approach while recognizing that this allows her to create a safer environment for students of color.

In “Teaching Copyleft as a Critical Approach to ‘Information Has Value,’” Haggerty and Scott employ a novel activity requiring students to create “digital photographs, digitized artwork, song lyrics, other creative writing excerpts, previously submitted papers or class assignments, and other works” and then apply a Creative Commons license (266). In the process, students move from being consumers of information and creative work to being the creators, determining how their work can be used. By engaging students in the process of creation and dissemination, they empower students as active creators and collaborators in a way that they might not be able to connect with scholarly journal articles.

Reflection as Critical Practice

“While our critical reflections can be less formal than published book chapters, the learning that comes from them can be shared with colleagues and peers to work as a community of practice to develop the profession and provide better experiences for our students.”

The incorporation of reflection exercises and practices was important throughout the contributed chapters, both for students and instructors/authors. While asking students to reflect via writing assignments or class discussions isn’t novel, the process of writing their book chapters required that the authors conduct their own critical reflections, representing a self-referential process. McCartin explicitly states that “[w]riting this chapter has been a great experience because it has forced me to reflect further on the activity, my approach, and my interactions with the students. Feedback from the editors forced me to examine how this activity worked, and if it worked at all” (Dineen & McCartin 104). Each chapter serves as a reminder of the importance of critical reflection for both students and teachers as we all work together to learn whether for meeting learning outcomes, improving our own teaching, or contributing to scholarly conversations. While our critical reflections can be less formal than published book chapters, the learning that comes from them can be shared with colleagues and peers to work as a community of practice to develop the profession and provide better experiences for our students.

What’s Critical About Critical Information Literacy?

It shouldn’t be shocking that each of the authors refers to and defines information literacy, and in so doing, references either the Framework or its predecessor, the Standards. After fourteen chapters, these definitions can become redundant. While I think providing a shared definition in the introduction could have been useful, this becomes an important difference between a book of contributed chapters by multiple authors and a book by a singular author: while the chapters build on each other in some ways, they’re written independently, so they aren’t necessarily written with that in mind. Nonetheless, there was some difference in approaches to defining (critical) information literacy, especially with reference to the theoretical frameworks employed by each author in their courses and their chapters. Some readers might find the varying definitions to be intriguing.

“Regarding criticality, I’m curious how the authors employ critical approaches with regard to situations and factors external to their classes that still impact the quality of instruction that students receive on campus.”

Regarding criticality, I’m curious how the authors employ critical approaches with regard to situations and factors external to their classes that still impact the quality of instruction that students receive on campus. For example, Nancy Foasberg mentions being “granted funds for an adjunct to take on some of my other instruction duties” without critiquing the casualization of academic labor through adjunct positions (199). While this might be outside the scope of this book, I’m curious how our critical approaches extend beyond the direct environment of the classroom to practices that have indirect impacts.

Similarly, in discussing “the suppression of marginalized groups or voices” on Wikipedia and in other publications, Foster-Kaufman ironically refers to Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences as “Bowker’s” and incorrectly cites the book, effectively erasing the contribution and co-authorship by Susan Leigh Star (279). Though perhaps a mistake or oversight, it seems to re-inscribe the erasure she identifies.

Challenges & Limitations

While I recommend this book for librarians and other practitioners interested in critical information literacy and specifically for those pursuing credit-bearing courses on critical information literacy, there were two main challenges for me: a lack of instructional assessment and a sense that credit-bearing courses are universally preferable to one-shot instruction (including several pot shots about one-shots).

Regarding instructional assessment, all of the authors mentioned assignments used to assess student learning, but few authors conducted assessment of their own instruction beyond critical reflection. While critical reflection is a useful strategy for self-assessment, it might miss important revelations that could improve the instruction or the course design.

While it might be expected that a book on credit-bearing courses would privilege such courses, few of the authors engage existing literature on pedagogy for the course format, and many include reference to the “luxury” of time, uncritically presenting praise of the credit-bearing course format. The introduction presents several advantages and counters a few possible disadvantages, but otherwise, there’s no attention paid to the advantages and disadvantages of each format or the possibility for formats in-between.


Bowker, Geoffrey C., and Susan Leigh Star. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. MIT Press, 2000.

Pashia, Angela and Jessica Critten, editors. Critical Approaches to Credit-Bearing Information Literacy Courses. Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), 2019.

Featured image by Mahendra Kumar, via Unsplash

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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