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Information Literacy in the Cosmic Order
Posted On February 27, 2018
On Feb. 7, 2018, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made history again. An Innovation Hub, with the ability to daily host 120 app makers, coders, hackers, builders, tinkerers, and others, opened in Abu Dhabi—the first makerspace of its kind and of such scale in the Middle East, according to the Khaleej Times. With major speeches on the importance of education at the World Government Summit in Dubai this month, and the elevation of the Abu Dhabi Education Council into a government department (now known as the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge; ADEK) this past September, the UAE continues to push forward with efforts to train and educate young Emiratis. It is a good time to think about the degree to which information skills are embedded in these innovations at the hub of the Middle East.

Information Literacy Instruction in the UAE

After 3 years of teaching information literacy and research methods at a federal university in the UAE, I came to see information literacy from new angles. The student body at my university was diverse in some ways, despite comprising mostly Emirati nationals. There was a sprinkling of foreign students from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and North Africa and a few older, “nontraditional” students on both the male and female sides of campus. Even within the majority demographic (young, female, first-generation college students), there existed a surprising range of attitudes toward epistemological, cosmological, and political matters—which is to say that some students would let you in after they decided they could trust you as an advisor and educational authority, and they might even let it slip that they had doubts about things that they’re not supposed to doubt.

These students are not so rare among the library clientele, but they are hard to identify because they don’t want to be labeled as freaky or nonbelieving or distrusting of authority in their very tightly knit and communitarian culture. Honor and family reputation are forces that strongly encourage an attitude of normality and fitting in.

When I began there in the summer of the Arab Spring, the dominant tenets of information literacy were a kind of gospel to me—both in the sense that analysis and criticism of information represent a kind of “good news” for all of the world and in the sense that I didn’t spend much time questioning them. I took it for granted and as a matter of fact that information can be evaluated for its accuracy, authority, currency, objectivity, and scope—maybe even objectively so. Maybe you can evaluate by relevance or applicability too, but I thought that this set of half a dozen or so factors was the way that information should be evaluated, and no document was immune to rational analysis. Librarians commonly think about information attributes in variations on these qualities and teach information literacy this way to students of all disciplines. It certainly is a good set of tools, but, as I came to see, this isn’t the only way to think about information.

Analyzing Government Documents in Class

In a typical classroom visit in Dubai, just as in Texas, I taught about appropriate databases for getting to articles that students needed for research assignments. I also taught how to do catalog searches for finding print books and ebooks, and I demonstrated advanced web searches. Often, we’d end up at some article in Wikipedia and talk about its pros and cons as a source, and then we’d talk about the search syntax that might lead the students to a government document—something similar to [marriage “single parent”]. That’s where things got trickier.

For example, is a document from the Federal National Council in Abu Dhabi‎ current? Let’s check the latest page update or the latest policy update. It’s 2 years old—not too bad for our needs. Is it objective? Hmm, that’s a tough one. The document (they’re reading the Arabic one, and I’m reading the English translation) lacks any obvious bias except for its religious and cultural context. The author refrains from inflammatory language, but there are normative statements about the roles of mothers—what they should do and how they should behave in the context of the family. But is it authoritative? Of course. Why? Because an “authority” wrote it: The document is from His Highness Sheikh Khalifa’s government, and his authority is derived from his father of blessed memory, Sheikh Zayed; from the goodwill and consent of the tribes under his protection; from the constitution of the country; and, ultimately, by the blessings and pleasure of the Creator of the Universe. Insha’Allah, Sheikh Khalifa and those that follow will be wise and beneficent rulers. So, yeah, the document is authoritative.

Analyzing a government document to see if it is of useful quality would send a little chill through the classroom. A chatty and vibrant bunch would become suddenly quieter and seemingly unsure of how to proceed. The very notion that such a document could be criticized for any deficits, particularly on account of “authority,” got us way too close to subversion and perhaps even hinted at the possibility of blasphemy. So there is authority, and then there is authority, and it’s not just equivocation. In evaluating a document, it is fair to ask what qualifications and expertise its author has, but when that author is a government official whose policy statements derive from laws that are derived from religious orthodoxy … well, I found myself teaching about these matters gently and with a smile.

Fostering Great Thinkers

In the U.S.—a diverse, secular republic built by people who may come from anywhere on Earth—we have long since found ways to talk about analyzing, synthesizing, and criticizing information even (maybe especially) when we get close to offending the sensibilities of our students and faculty members. No document is immune to rational analysis, not even when such documents are cousins to, or situated adjacent to, sacred texts. Why not have this attitude everywhere we go? We have a duty to stand up and speak for rational evaluation of information wherever we may find ourselves on Earth—whatever expat gig you get, you don’t betray your students by keeping these skills from them, even when you fear that you may be trespassing on sacred ground. We must do it with patience, humor, and goodwill. We may be missionaries of secular humanist sort, but we’re also guests of the Sheikh and his people. The word is respect, and it would be gravely disrespectful not to challenge his students and call for their growth.

These days, when I think about the qualities of a document and how to evaluate them, I think a lot about perspicacity. I think about information qualities as dimensions or spaces, and I think about documents entangled with others along various axes, where some axis X may be a document’s scope in time and Z may be its relative authority. The way we evaluate documents, even those discussing laws derived from holy scriptures, changes as we change. Such a matrix is always cultural, because humans are and so is the information we generate. Information evaluation itself is relative and relational.

May these evaluation spaces be epistemological lamps we can carry forward into a too-often dark and blurry cosmos. May we meet friends and gentle teachers on the way. And may ADEK have every success in bringing forth the next generation of great critical thinkers in the UAE.

Woody Evans (@quarrywork) is a librarian from Mississippi who now lives in Texas. A longtime contributor to NewsBreaks and Information Today, his work has also appeared in JukedMondo 2000, Boing Boing, Motherboard, American Libraries, and others. He is the author of Building Library 3.0 and Information Dynamics in Virtual Worlds, one of which is aging well. For fun and pain he rows and meditates. 

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