Feral “Information Literacy”

I’m putting information literacy in quotes because what I’ll be talking about does not speak to being information literate in the traditional, five-standard-ACRL way. This is its opposite.

Outside of fiction’s fancies, feral animals tend to be hunted and despised. They kill stock and ruin crops, menace children and pets, spread disease between the domesticated world and the wild. And yet by wit and appetite, spirit and invention, the feral creature survives in an environment that is neither of its own making nor entirely familiar to its habits of perception.

There’s something more to this feral quality than the savor we find in stories. For what are we in the midst of networked, global, postmodern culture, all of us, but feral creatures of a kind? I’ve long been dissatisfied with the idea of the “digital native”; I’m not convinced that anything can properly be “native” to a habitat that changes so rapidly and thoroughly as networked culture. And the whole notion of nativity, after all, seems tainted with the romanticism of the Wild (a new state of nature is still the State of Nature). The qualities of the feral, by contrast, answer to a particular way of thriving amidst the vast clamor of the online world. The nameless maps onto the pseudonymity and anonymity of digital culture; cunning catches the furtive ways of memes; denying herself the full panoply social cues, the online imagination subsists in an uncanny solitude.

-Matthew Battles, The Call of the Feral.

Digital native is a fantasy invented by the fans of silicon valley to pigeonhole a generation for the sake of selling technology, but the truth is far less convenient.  Not only the digital natives, but many people take on a feral state in their interactions with the internet, as it constantly shifts its boundaries, its cities and deserts. Likewise, the library is a place where we ought to allow for the feral. The ACRL information literacy standards are only useful to the domesticated to promote their efficient and purposeful use of the library. The truth is that most people do not experience the library as a city, but rather as a wilderness on the edge of civilization. Complex systems intermingle, sometimes fluidly, sometimes not. Some things happen like clockwork and others are highly irregular. Walking through all this highly unstable environment step by step on one’s way to standard five is less desirable not because it is difficult, but because it is quite boring. Designing information literacy instruction without understanding that feral place where many library users reside is about as effective as taming a wolf. We can do it, but what good does that do for the wolf?

There are always hints of dissatisfaction that surround domestication, and it sometimes comes close to romanticizing the “good old days.” A 21st century teacher’s lament:

When I was in high school, we sat in a chair and took notes. We talked about books in English, studied historical events, did labs in science, and did tons of problems in math. We learned and we went off to college and did well. We had almost no support programs in the building.

Now, as teachers, we differentiate, do projects, have students doing online enrichment work, have social workers, psychologists, tutoring and mentoring programs. Yet, students are apparently failing.

We have “improved” education, yet we are “failing”. I don’t get it. We do all this “reform” yet nothing is changing.

It just boggles my mind how we have some many support systems, great teachers, incredible lessons and resources, and yet we are “failing.”

Can anyone explain it?

-David Andrade, Wondering — Why is education suddenly “Failing”?

Maybe high school students were more feral back then? Maybe now that we have so many ways monitor, track, and correct students in the school environment, (but as the author laments, not their parents) it is easier to find and correct those feral students who don’t meet the standards. Is it that there are not more feral students, but that we find them more? Or is it that by investing so much in controls that we value that over other ways of being? There is nothing more frightening to those in control than someone who doesn’t need them. As librarians, we suffer from the same problem. The feral is not for everyone, but a better understanding of it will help us meet our patrons and students where they are, not where we expect them to be.