Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sabbatical 2016: Technology, Identity, & Personhood

In my recent internet travels, I discovered that two years ago Barbara Fister shared publicly her research proposal for a year-long sabbatical. She was subsequently awarded the sabbatical, and during academic year 2014-2015 she immersed herself in her research inquiry and created a series of digital texts that resulted from this work.

I was awarded tenure this year. I had hoped to write a reflection about what this means for me and my work as an academic librarian, and I still may (though it feels kind of overwhelming to try to capture in words all the complex feelings I have about this). But one very concrete thing it means is that I am eligible for a sabbatical during my first year as tenured library faculty, and that year has just started.

Library faculty at my institution are eligible for what is termed a "short-term sabbatical" in our Faculty Handbook, which means we may take sabbatical time during the "off seasons" on our campus: January, June, July, and August. The number of months (four) equal that of a single semester-long sabbatical, but they are broken up. I suspect the reasoning behind this when it was negotiated has to do with ensuring the library is properly staffed during the fall and spring academic semesters. I have a lot of thoughts, questions, and ideas about this, which I may pursue on my campus in my future as a tenured member of the library faculty. 

But for now, being eligible at all for a sabbatical--during which I will be paid my full salary for pursuing in-depth research in my professional discipline--is a privilege I can barely wrap my tired, feeble mind around at this point. I'm sure I won't understand the significance until it is Monday, January 4, 2016, and I don't have to report to the office for my daily library duties, and instead get to crack the pages of bell hooks' Teaching to Transgress for the first time. 

If you haven't guessed by now, my sabbatical was granted, and I will be taking it in January, June, July, and August of 2016. I am incredibly excited about the line of inquiry I plan to pursue during these months, as it brings together in conversation so many areas I have studied and begun to scratch the surface on during my six probationary years on the tenure track. 

On a practical level, my main goal is to use this time to read, read, and read some more, with some writing in there as well, but most of the writing will serve my understanding and processing of the reading. There are some concrete things I hope to show for the experience, including scholarly contributions in appropriate publications, as well as some curricular development and mapping across my campus in the areas I'll be researching. 

But mainly, I plan to read. I want to read all the longform things I haven't been able to fit into my daily 12-month, 40-hours-per-week work schedule. 

I had an idea to possibly share my sabbatical application openly in some way, and coming across Barbara's post from two years ago has inspired me to do so here. 

A few contextual notes: I had to apply for a sabbatical that would take place during academic year 2015-2016 in September 2014. This means I was casting out a year and three months to what I hoped would be a series of worthwhile research activities for the specific months of the sabbatical, which was not an easy feat. Also, I have expanded the publications I plan to target for any process-based writing that results from this research to include In the Library with the Leadpipe, Hybrid Pedagogy, and the Journal of Digital Humanities (or another appropriate DH publication for a particular idea I have in mind) [edited to also add the Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy who just put out a call for submissions I am eyeing...]. 

So, without further ado, here are my own soon to be real "sabbatical dreams":

Technology, Identity, & Personhood:
A critical inquiry into the relationship between who we are
and the information tools we use to learn, process, and communicate

Application for Short-Term Sabbatical Leave
During Intersession 2016 and Summer 2016
 September 15, 2014

Donna Witek, MA, MLIS
Associate Professor &
Public Services Librarian
Weinberg Memorial Library
The University of Scranton
Scranton, PA 18510 ~ 1.570.941.4000

I request a short-term, scholarly research sabbatical leave, to be taken during Intersession 2016 and Summer 2016, to research the intersections between the technologies we use to both interact with and create knowledge and information, and our conceptions of self and embodied personhood in the digital post-modern world.
Information literacy is currently defined by the American Library Association (ALA) and the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) as “a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information,’” a definition first published in 1989 and developed further in 2000, just before the emergence of social media on the Web. ACRL is currently revising its Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education into a Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education to address the technological developments that have occurred these past fourteen years, moving beyond a skills-based understanding of information literacy to an understanding that incorporates dispositional attitudes and conceptual knowledge of the increasingly complex nature and contexts of information in the digital age.
In the June 2014 draft of this new Framework, the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force offers the following as an updated definition of information literacy in our present context:

Information literacy is a repertoire of understandings, practices, and dispositions focused on flexible engagement with the information ecosystem, underpinned by critical self-reflection. The repertoire involves finding, evaluating, interpreting, managing, and using information to answer questions and develop new ones; and creating new knowledge through ethical participation in communities of learning, scholarship, and practice. (p. 2)

As a faculty librarian whose instructional content area centers on information literacy, it is my job to both engage and embody this definition of information literacy in my work, in order to effectively develop it in our students through my teaching and pedagogy. In particular, the definition’s focus on “dispositions,” “critical self-reflection,” and “ethical participation in communities of learning, scholarship, and practice,” opens the door to engaging and understanding information literacy through new theoretical lenses, such as critical, rhetorical, and social theory, as well as Christian anthropology and ethics—particularly when information literacy is taught, learned, and practiced in the Catholic, Jesuit educational context.
            I began this work of understanding information literacy within this increasingly complex technological environment several years before ACRL developed the updated definition shared above. Through my work co-designing and co-teaching the course WRTG 224: Rhetoric & Social Media with Dr. Teresa Grettano, student learning outcomes related to information literacy and developed through the lenses of rhetorical and identity theory, metaliteracy, and Jesuit pedagogy have been taught on our campus since the first run of the course in Spring 2011. As the syllabus tells the students,

We designed this course to engage you “where you are at”—a goal of both Jesuit education and critical pedagogy—by situating traditional instruction in rhetorical theory/practice and information literacy within social networks—specifically on Facebook. The benefit of our doing so is not only your enhanced engagement, but also an opportunity for us to facilitate a critical engagement with the media you use daily. . . . In essence, the course will investigate rhetoric through and the rhetoric of social media. Put simply, we will be examining and practicing how you make meaning with information on Facebook.

The course has been taught three times since its creation, and each time Teresa and I update the content and assignments to address the changes in social media that have occurred since the last iteration; for instance, for the third run of the course, the platforms studied were expanded to include Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest, in addition to Facebook, inviting critical engagement with an increasingly diverse set of participatory information tools which students use on a daily basis. Teresa and I have published on our work (Witek & Grettano, 2012; Witek & Grettano, 2014), and the course will be offered again in Spring 2015 after another substantial revision to account for further changes in both the theory and practice of rhetoric and information literacy on social media.
            Amid the above instructional work with Teresa, I completed my MA in Theology here at the University, and wrote my thesis on worship and liturgy as they relate to knowledge and experience of God (Witek, 2013). While at first a connection between this work and my work with Teresa might not seem obvious, I found myself using the liturgical theology I was engaging for my thesis as a tool to critique the digital contexts I was studying and working in with Teresa and the students in Rhetoric & Social Media. More specifically, the implications of an incarnational, embodied understanding of what it means to know (and love) God—and by extension, what it means to be in community and know (and love) others—when considered alongside theories of constructed knowledge and identity as they play out in participatory and virtual environments and spaces, are considerable and require further study. What are the differences between identity (understood to be constructed) and personhood (understood as the Imago Dei in us)? How do these differences play out in our relationships with both the technologies we interact with on a daily basis and those persons with whom we seek to be in community, often facilitated by these technologies? How might Christian anthropology offer a lens through which to both use ethically and critique these technologies? And how can we use the answers to these questions to inform our pedagogy?
            There are several needs for this type of inquiry at this moment in time, and situated on our particular campus. Issues of privacy, surveillance, and monetization of personal data are playing out in both government legislation and in the national discourse surrounding the Internet, including the “free” platforms we use on a daily basis to both learn and communicate—platforms like the ones we study in Rhetoric & Social Media which are, in fact, businesses that understand users and their data as the product they sell to their actual customers: advertisers. It is critical that our students develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions, as well as the moral and ethical compass necessary to both navigate this future (which has already arrived) and thrive within it as men and women for [and with] others.
In 2013, a film titled Her was released in which a near future containing artificially intelligent software is depicted. Ironically (and tellingly), the film is first and foremost a love story, where the protagonist Theodore falls in love with his computer’s (disembodied) operating system, named Samantha; the film’s function as dystopian commentary is secondary to this relationship-based romance. As fanciful as this premise sounds, the information systems we currently interact with on a daily basis are learning our preferences with every click, swipe, and keystroke we make—much as Samantha does for Theodore in the film—through the use of powerful algorithms designed to offer us the personalized experience those in power would have us believe we crave. And with wearable technology like glasses and watches that are also mini-computers whose function is to collect personal data about our very selves, in order to augment the way we interact with the world around us, the question of how to both critically and meaningfully thrive in this world as persons of dignity and worth is more pressing than ever. Furthermore, such an inquiry will put in constructive dialogue the humanities and information literacy, a conversation that will infuse and benefit multiple areas of the curriculum on our campus and, through our transformed pedagogy, result in the formation of our students into critical yet empathetic persons and professionals upon leaving the University.
This TIME cover appeared in my Twitter feed 
as I wrote this application (Moore, 2014).
            I plan to participate in the Ignatian Pedagogy Seminar on our campus the summer prior to the sabbatical (Summer 2015 [my recently posted follow-up report]), with an eye towards identifying ways that Ignatian pedagogy can both critique and provide meaning to the use of technology in our classrooms and in our lives. My primary activity during the proposed sabbatical will be to immerse myself in the literature focused on information science, social media, identity, personhood, ethics, and Christian anthropology, as well as the focused study of critical, rhetorical, and social theory as they relate to both technology and pedagogy. As I do so, I will map connections between these discourses, identifying areas of overlap and complement, as well as any conflict between modes of thinking and being articulated in them. In many ways, finding these anticipated points of conflict and incompatibility is a primary goal of this project, as these points will provide an opportunity to critique both the technologies themselves and our relationship with them, while yet offering (perhaps) a way forward for thinking, learning, and being, with dignity and discernment, in the digital post-modern world we find ourselves in.
During and after this focused period of research, and still within the period of the proposed sabbatical, I plan to develop learning outcomes in three modes—cognitive (knowledge), behavioral (skills), and dispositional (attitudes/habits)—related to my findings as I compare and synthesize this material. These outcomes, while situated within the curricular goals of the Weinberg Memorial Library (WML) Information Literacy Program, will have resonance for other programs on campus, and so will serve as a resource for further integrating information literacy into the campus-wide curriculum. To this end, I will map these developed learning outcomes to the following documents: the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, the WML Information Literacy Program Assessment Plan, and institutional and program goals at the University. Finally, I will begin the preliminary design of learning activities (i.e., assignments and assessments), through which these learning outcomes might be developed in students both inside and outside the classroom, for intended use by the WML Information Literacy Program in collaboration with other curricular programs on campus.
            In addition to developing learning outcomes related to my sabbatical research, as well as documents mapping these outcomes to the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, the WML Information Literacy Program Assessment Plan, the Institutional Learning Outcomes for the University, and other relevant curricular programs on campus (i.e., General Education, Eloquentia Perfecta, etc.), I plan to report on the process, findings, and classroom implementation of my sabbatical research activity, targeting the following peer-reviewed venues: Jesuit Higher Education: A Journal ; SIMILE: Studies In Media & Information Literacy Education ; Composition Forum ; Journal of Technology, Theology, & Religion ; and, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.
ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force. (2014). Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, Draft 2, June 2014. ACRL. Retrieved from:

American Library Association & Association of College and Research Libraries. (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. ALA and ACRL. Retrieved from:

Moore, T. [TimMoore]. (2014, September 10). How #WearableTech is changing your life - like it or not. @TIME [Tweet]. Retrieved from

Witek, D. (2013). “‘Now lay aside all earthly cares’: Knowledge of God through Christian Worship.” MA thesis. The University of Scranton. Retrieved from:

Witek, D., & Grettano, T. (2012). “Information literacy on Facebook: an analysis.” Reference Services Review, 40(2), 242-257.

Witek, D., & Grettano, T. (2014). “Teaching metaliteracy: a new paradigm in action.” Reference Services Review, 42(2), 188-208. 

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