Addressing Bias in Research Instruction

While considering research material, students need to talk about whose voices are not at the table and think critically about how sources came to be.

  The current moment in our country demands thoughtful re-examination of our practices. This summer, as all educators have been working to consider institutional and personal racial bias, librarians have been addressing racial bias in programming and collection development—and with good reason. However, there is a crucial library educational issue that is often left out of the bias conversation: addressing bias in research instruction.

For clarity, I will use the term “bias” to refer to the conscious or unconscious tendency of researchers to value certain criteria on a spectrum of “good” or “bad” when evaluating authority, and I will use “point of view” to refer to an author’s perspective. This article will not address evaluating sources for validity: Conversations about misinformation are necessary, but they derail conversations about bias, and often cement bias more firmly in place by demanding that researchers adhere to those “good” criteria.

Why address bias in research instruction? Bias permeates research instruction from our youngest students to our oldest—with examples ranging from limiting biographical projects based on which subjects appear in mainstream encyclopedias to prioritizing “canonical” texts (which are primarily written by white men) particular to each discipline, and requiring that students use peer-reviewed academic articles. In 2018 article, “#CommunicationSoWhite,” authors Paula Chakravartty, Rachel Kuo, Victoria Grubbs, and Charlton McIlwain illuminated the significant underrepresentation of non-white scholars in all aspects of academic publishing, including editorial boards, acceptances, citations, and subject matter. This is layered on top of a system that already functions on privilege— graduate schools and the academic job market. When librarians and teachers name academic publishing as the only reliable source of information, we are furthering systemic racism (and sexism, ableism, homophobia, and classism).

How, then, do we proceed? We need our students to learn how to find reliable information, both so they can succeed in school and become critical consumers of information as adults. How do we train our students to evaluate while also addressing bias?

READ: Six Strategies To Keep Homebound Students’ Research on Track

Value-neutral evaluation

The first crucial step librarians need to take is throwing out any framework or instruction that does not adhere to a value-neutral philosophy. Students need to learn that there is no absolute value in a source in and of itself; rather, its value lies in its usefulness in research.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) states as a core principle in its Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education that “authority is constructed and contextual,” yet the American Association for School Librarians (AASL) has no corollary in its standards for considering authority beyond collecting diverse viewpoints and assessing validity. Indeed, the ACRL principle is one that needs to be taught K–12, and constantly reinforced. Students need to learn at a young age that there is more than one type of authority, that societal frameworks for authority need to be examined, and that valid and useful information can come in lots of formats. Librarians and teachers should be transparent about this principle, and it should be included in all research instruction. Your silence otherwise leads students to assume that you think authority in source evaluation is absolute and based solely in hierarchical structures.

Consider a new evaluation framework

The CRAAP test isn’t the only game in town anymore. Two new rigorous source evaluation frameworks have entered the classrooms and are useful for librarians seeking to incorporate contextual/constructed authority conversations into source evaluation.

The ACT UP framework, created by Dawn Stahura, research and instruction librarian at Salem (MA) State University, explicitly addresses privilege in publishing and requires students to investigate the privilege of the author. Additionally, Stahura frames the authorial investigation as simply investigating the background of the author without stating what “authoritative” means, leaving room for the researcher to assess the author’s credentials within the context of the source.

The WHY method, developed by librarians Mary C. Thill, associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University; Frank Lambert, assistant professor at Middle Tennessee State University, and James W. Rosenzweig, associate professor at Eastern Washington University, is a scaled version of their “Know Your Sources” taxonomy targeted to middle and high school students. Like their taxonomy for college students, this framework is value-neutral and places an additional focus on the editing process, a layer that is missing from many frameworks.

These frameworks can actually be nested effectively to include both conversations. Students need to talk about whose voices are not at the table, and they also need to think critically about how sources came to be.

Reassurance for those concerned that removing authority absolutes will open the floodgates for unvetted and questionable information: Addressing editing and representation actually makes for a more rigorous evaluation, because students need to critically examine the source from more angles than before. By simply stating components of the source without scoring it, students are able to come to their own conclusions and assess whether or not the authorship, currency, or editing process of a specific source is useful and relevant for their information needs, identifying their own context.

Your students are never too young!

While many lessons on source evaluation begin with substantial research projects, discussions of authority can and should begin as early as possible. Though the WHY framework was developed for middle school and up, Rosenzweig recommends using the three components as large boxes for discussion with elementary students as well.

Each source for a class project or read-aloud can be discussed with students in terms of, “How did this book come to be?” Elementary students, Thill adds, are taught the parts of a book and the roles of author/illustrator very early in school, and she advocates adding the editor to that routine. Young children are also introduced early to the idea of editing their own work in writing workshops, and that work can be tied in with exploring what editing means in their favorite books.

The simple tweak of introducing editing teaches children that information goes through a process beyond what they have considered— and can help them gradually understand how different editing processes can impact a source. As these students grow up, conversations can evolve into more nuanced discussions of commercial and academic publishing, with transparency about the bias in these industries. Thinking about editing critically can be a huge cognitive leap for high school students, so introduce it slowly, simply by asking students to examine why and how a source got to them. As you discuss it further, you will be able to layer on the more complex delineations in Thill, Lambert & Rosenzweig’s taxonomy.

Expand Your sources

Before we teach students to evaluate sources, we often provide them with selected reference sources for projects, especially in elementary and early middle school. However, when we are bound to these same encyclopedias and websites, we limit the scope of our students’ research. Currently, those resources (while rapidly improving) often skew towards Eurocentrism, with a specific narrative of Black historywith a limited scope of civil rights that falls into our national mythwoven throughout when it is included.

By using these reference sources, we are also displaying our own biases. Elementary school students looking to know more about the Black Panther Party are frustrated. Middle school students looking to study the Age of Revolution are greeted with a glut of sources on France, but more limited information about Haiti. Our loyalty to our sources is preventing our students from discovering wonderful information.

Do a test run in your digital and print reference sources to see what your students may be missing, and get free trials to see what else is out there. There are a vast number of reference sources available—choose ones that are the most expansive, and push back on them. Have conversations with your digital reps about the people and events you want to see.

READ: The Key To Teaching College-Level Research

For high school, expanding your sources means doing everything above, with the added level of examining the list of individual journals (and their covered dates) included in each of your databases. This collection bias on the part of the database administrators will impact the topics your students are able to research, and more subtly, the information they are finding on those topics. If your databases don’t subscribe to top journals on race, ethnicity, and gender studies (with fairly current dates), then your students will often find a limited and skewed set of information. Given the biases in publishing, articles can lack the perspective of how each topic impacts and is impacted upon by race.

Above all, be candid with your students about your learning process, the changes you’re making, and why you are making those changes, as you continue the work in your library to ensure that programming, collections, spaces, and instruction are more inclusive. Transparency allows for students to have a bit of insight into your pedagogical process, and it lets them know that you’re open to learning and growing. Things may be messy while you test out new sources, frameworks, and methods—but if your students are in on the process, they will be happy to give you feedback and will be patient with you. Just think of it as a living model of inquiry thinking!

Susannah Goldstein is a school librarian at the Brearley School in New York City and has worked with students in all grade levels, in both public schools and independent schools.

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