Writing and Information: Where do we go from here?

As librarians, Hope and I see the part information plays in all manner of fields and research. We help people make those connections in our daily work in a variety of ways: answering reference questions, providing instruction on researching through the library, teaching courses on information literacy, purchasing books for the library collections, and all sorts of other tasks. When we move into our own writing, we take these experiences with us. It is not lost on us that our relationship with information has altered our own writing. In this issue, we set out to explore the part that information plays in others’ writing and lives, particularly those of us who identify in some way with the Mennonite community. What we have discovered through editing this issue has delighted and surprised us. We delighted in the variety of responses we got to the call for submissions. They spanned the gamut of information, from writing with and about traditional implements, to the stresses of a motherhood informed by a constant flow of criticism, to the impacts the introduction of technology can have upon a previously simple life.

But we also noticed something else from the submissions: we didn’t get many. Honestly, we had anticipated two times more submissions than we actually received. We wondered what had happened. Our question was good, we thought, and very current considering what’s happening in the world in regards to information. Where had we gone wrong? However, lack of information is in itself also information. We started to wonder: what does this absence of submissions mean? What does it tell us about what the Mennonite community is writing about, if they’re not writing about information? And why isn’t the Mennonite community writing about information?

In my work as the Instruction Coordinator for New Mexico State University Library I not only teach instruction sessions for faculty members who want a librarian to talk with their class, but also teach for-credit courses focused on library and research skills. One of those is an upper level course merely called “Information Literacy”, and it is possibly my favorite class to teach in all of my years of teaching thus far. I love teaching this class because my students and I get to tackle tough questions about information on a weekly basis. All of my moments wondering: “But if this is true, what happens next?!” are subjects we grapple with in this course.

Grapple is definitely the word to use here. It isn’t easy to come to terms with issues facing information these days. The prevalence and instant access brought on by modern technology such as computers and smart mobile devices means that we can have access (almost) anywhere and (almost) immediately. It also means that things are getting so complicated. It used to seem so simple: information was in books and in oral history. If you have a question you have merely to read the right book or ask the right person. In reality (as Hope’s introduction covered quite well), it was never this simple. Information is an arena of conflict. We are always duking it out, it is just our weapons that have changed.

This is a difficult cross for many of my students to bear. Through the reading and coursework and class discussions they learn to break down the information they see daily and evaluate it for accuracy and credibility. They learn to be aware of their own personal biases, understanding that this awareness allows them to see their place in the information landscape and their own errors in passing information. Inevitably at some point each of them has a minor existential crisis. “Nothing means anything! Not even Microsoft Word!” a student cried out after reading a particularly sobering chapter in the class text. We all laughed, but it was the catalyst to a great class discussion. From that comment, my students started to wonder where to go next after gaining all of this knowledge. You might think that the discussion in class would have spiraled downwards from there, but the conversation actually took on a flurried, enthusiastic, hopeful, tone. Students had all sorts of solutions to the problem, and the confessions started rolling in.

“I’ve been sharing my reading with my grandmother every weekend when I go home.”

“I’m really careful about posting information on social media without checking to see if there’s good data and research behind it.”

“I made my Dad work with me through the course module on identifying false information in images and video online.”

“I’m the one who comments on Facebook when an article has discrepancies that suggest it’s fake news.” (Snickers here; we’ve all encountered that person and we’ve all been that person).

“I’ve been using what we’ve learned here to choose articles for my other classwork and I think I have been choosing better research and synthesizing it more clearly because I understand what kinds of flaws to watch for and how to put things into context.”

“I’m thinking about how I can take the concepts we’re learning in this class and apply them to my own classroom when I start a teaching position after graduation.”

We do not end the semester the way we began. My students and I leave the semester with so much more awareness, knowledge, and hope implanted in us in the form of the skills we learn from the course and from each other. It sounds truly corny to say this, but I have found it to be a truth in my time teaching this course. And this is what leads me to my own conclusion about writing in the Information Age: that our success in this regard is directly related to the relationships we develop and the ways we collaborate with each other to process the barrage of information thrown at us daily. In this, perhaps, the Mennonite community has an advantage. We wondered why we got so few submissions; what was the Mennonite community writing about instead of information? Perhaps the answer is that they already are writing about it. Perhaps Mennonite writers are tackling information through the lens of their community. Perhaps the answer is that we are writing about community and information and have not yet connected the two together so specifically, so directly, but the exploration is there in the words.

About the Author

Erin Renee Wahl

A graduate of Bluffton University’s English program, Erin Renee Wahl’s work has appeared in Cirque, The MacGuffin, Timber, Spiral Orb, Flash Nonfiction Food Anthology, and others. She has two micro-chapbooks of poetry: Secure the Night (Bitterzoet Press) and Cloud Physics (Ghost City Press). Wahl currently lives in New Mexico where she’s the Instruction Coordinator at the New Mexico State University Library. More of her writing can be found via a specific, well-crafted Google search.