Journeying without a map


Journeying without a map leads to … adventures or accidents? A study of drama academics’ approaches to discovering information by  Zoë Johnson and Andrew Walsh

A sunlit path through a wood

(photo by Zoë Johnson)

Our starting point

This chapter uses the voices of twelve drama lecturers and researchers to tell stories about their experiences of information literacy. It is based on a series of semi-structured interviews covering different aspects of information literacy. Although we gave participants a definition of information literacy (in this case the JISC iSKills definition below), we also gave them considerable freedom to discuss issues arising and to go off on tangents they felt were worth exploring.

“The ability to identify, assess, retrieve, evaluate, adapt, organise and communicate information within an iterative context of review and reflection.” JISC iSkills definition (2005).

We approached our research in the belief that definitions such as the one we’ve selected tell only part of the story. “Information literacy” often gets reduced to checklists of skills or competencies that someone must demonstrate to be classed as “information literate”, which we feel misses the point. We’ve taken a more experiential approach to the idea of information literacy in this research: we believe that information literacy looks different depending on the context it occurs in. It always deals with identifying; assessing; retrieving; evaluating; adapting; organising and communicating information ... but this looks different depending on what you are trying to achieve. So, these elements change when we book a holiday (and need to decide where to go; how to find out the best deals; the nicest places to stay in our price range; etc.); or carry out research within drama, like our academics; or put together an exhibition ... they alter depending on the environment in which we work.

In this approach we are heavily influenced by Christine Bruce (Seven Faces of Information Literacy, 1997) and by later research discussing “relational” information literacy. We also anticipated that each of our interviewees would bring their own experience and apply that to the context in which they operate, so we would see different but equally valid ways of being “information literate”, with different routes through the information forest but arriving at the same destination in the end.

We were interested in how drama researchers and lecturers experienced information literacy. How did they act when searching for information? How did they organise, use and evaluate that information for their teaching or research? What lessons could we take from their narratives to help students become information literate within this context?

Our research elicited several different themes which we have grouped into two main approaches, described in the words of the interviewees themselves. These show how the interviewees have been successful (or not) in navigating the information forest,  and the nature of the influences that shaped our interviewees’ information literacy journeys. We then outline how we as librarians could use this information to help us lay trails through the forest for students to follow. Hopefully these will prove to be useful, stone trails the students can build upon and re-use, rather than breadcrumbs prone to disappearing before they can guide the students to their desired destinations.

The group of drama academics interviewed covers a range of backgrounds and specialist areas as well as being of mixed age and experience. Their varying experiences in academia, both as student and as teacher, influenced how they approached their information journey. Their subject focus, whether highly theoretical and conceptual and delivered through lectures and seminars, or practical and improvisational in studios, again shaped their attitude towards engaging with information.

Despite the diversity of experiences and approaches among our participants, two clear routes into the forest emerged. We’ve described these as “Following the paths” and “Exploring the landscape”. These routes aren’t mutually exclusive and there was considerable overlap, but our interviewees tended towards one approach or the other.

Following the paths

The nature of information literacy in this grouping had certain characteristics:

  • A core or safe knowledge base
  • A need to fill the gaps
  • They look for direct quotes or exact connections
  • They “experience” then read
  • Often vague ideas of what you “should have” leads to a convoluted journey to a desired destination

This approach is characterised by a feeling of “I know what I am looking for, just might not be sure of the exact location”, which built on participants’ experience, their subject knowledge, their previous reading or information gathering.  Some referred to it as “boxes” or “concepts” with which to approach information, a context in which to search so they knew what waymarkers to look out for. Participants in this group already knew the language to use and the practitioners or scholars they wanted to read.

 

I tend to start from what I know. I probably use my personal library at home as an extended memory bank. If I haven’t got the knowledge, I might just go and sort of scout around a little bit, in order to develop my thinking.

 

This was a common concept - using the experience which had been gained by having studied for an extended period. This developed into a core knowledge that they tried to find ways of passing on as a safe base for students.

 

It would be knowledge that I have, and then I need to check that I was kind of thinking of it in specific places or hoping that the students can access it from specific places. So it might be in my head thinking, oh, that book’s really useful but I’ll go and check that it is as useful as I thought.

 

In order to pass this core knowledge on, participants in this group were thinking constantly that they need to reference and signpost it clearly for students. They needed to give a reliable route in for their students.

 

I tend to turn to the names that I know first of all, and go back to those readers and look at what they've already got in there and what they also reference. So I start to go from academics that I know and have some synergy with and faith in, and turn to who they are.  So I go by reputation of those things. 

 

A lot of the interviewees admitted to being experts in a small research field, but also were keen to point out that as teachers they could not retain all the information and needed to point out the key authors or practitioners. Some taught very close to their research area, while others explored the “current topic”, e.g. current trends in applied theatre, or contemporary writing for the theatre. This changed their approach, as they were either refreshing their knowledge or opening up new avenues and looking for ways to extend the knowledge they class as reliable in order to pass it onto students.

 

... the choices that I make are pedagogically driven rather than creatively driven.  It's not a vehicle for me to explore my own aesthetic interest ... I'd love to work on that show.  The measurements have got to be - is it appropriate for first year, second years, third years?  Why?  What are they gaining from what they're learning?  How does it balance with the other possibilities they're being offered at that point?  Those are the choices being made rather than an enthusiasm for the piece itself really. I personally don't sit and watch a piece and say, God, I'd love to do that with it, and then try and find a way of making that happen.  I tend to think, is this appropriate?  And if it is, then work out what I need to research to teach that piece of work.  Because it may be a piece of work that I don't have much interest in or is not something that is naturally something that I would direct or lead, but I can see its value and I can see why that would be useful for students.  So I'm going to have to learn it.

 

 

I tend to use reading for students ... if it's books, to go - you need to do some independent study on this; and not tell them which bits to read, which bits are directly relevant, because it's about widening knowledge and trying to get them to surprise me with something that they've uncovered; rather than knowing exactly what they've read and learnt and assimilated.

 

This group was often torn between recommending restricted guided reading (some gave specific handouts, some summarised key messages) and vaguer pointers towards theorists to encourage creativity. This often changed according to year group, with first-year students having their hands held at the start of their research journeys, and later released “into the wild” by the end of their second year or the beginning of their final year.

 

Let's just get the basics under their belts and the classics under their belts, if you like, of what they need to know; what's safe and steady for those levels.  So I tend to work within what I would know for first year...

 

There was evidence at times of a clash between academics who want students to become independent straight away and others who wanted to ease their transition more gradually.

 

... our students tend to be very, very ‘practical approach’ so it really is, “think of this and actually do it, try it.  Now go back and evaluate and analyse your own work or evaluate and analyse those of others”.  That’s where I ask them to, “okay, go and find something which is going to back up your work and textualise your work”, and that’s where I might send them to papers or quotes or whatever.

 

This reflects our own experience of how many students work. However, they often struggle to back up their practical work in the way the above quote suggests. They have not learnt the language of the field, and therefore cannot search for themselves independently. Instead they often require the connections to be made more obvious: e.g. read this book and you will clearly see the correlation with your practical work.

Interviewees who fell into this group often showed a desire to stay with the safe set of material they know in their field.

 

I’m not very catholic in my tastes, I don’t, I don’t read widely in theatre at all. I stay very much within the field of my interest and teaching. I read widely like in the rest of culture, but not in theatre.

 

When discussing how they saw and/or expected students to approach the research process, this group felt that first years needed to be taught the “boxes”, shown the paths, guided through the wealth of information whilst being encouraged to question and look for what interested, excited or just plain “spoke” to them. This approach took the form of quite a lot of targeted reading either through set weekly readings or simplified summaries of the concepts.

 

So I have to pick apart what all the theorists are saying and then unpick it again so that I can put it together to give to the first years.  Because first years in theory have trouble.  That their head … the gears aren’t meshing yet. 

 

They felt a strong need to give students some guidance as to where they are going in a language in which they understand.

 

They have to structure, they have to have understanding, they have to basic building blocks and they need to know where to find that and they need to be pointed towards it and they have to be told that it’s important. As well as finding out for themselves that it’s important. They also need to go off-piste and then that’s when they’re really soaring, bringing back all of that stuff they’ve found themselves, all these connections they’ve made themselves and apply that on top of those building blocks of knowledge then they’re really beginning to soar.

 

So only once they had the core knowledge could they be trusted to go off the beaten path …

 

[Students] don’t have the conceptual categories, so I think it goes right over their head. They don’t know what to do with it, they know they enjoyed it, and maybe they know that “wow, that surprised me!” and in conversation, you can push them a little bit more to “what did you think happened there?” But they don’t have any boxes to put that in, so I sometimes sort of, I try to, when I’m working with students, I try to find some ways in at the very outset, to establish some boxes that they can start to gather experiences into. And that seems like a similar sort of thing, is how are they going to know what’s important, how are they going to know it when they see it?

‘Cos otherwise, if I went into the rainforest, and there’s all these...I’d just go “oh, look at all these great animals” I wouldn’t come up with anything, I wouldn’t know what to do with that. I think it’s like that for them. And then I think, it’s about priming them sufficiently without trying to put some sort of theoretical thing before they have the experience ‘cos I wouldn’t want to be told I had to learn categories of bird type before I went and had a good time in the rainforest but, at the same time, if I wanted to come out of it with some knowledge or some retained information about the birds, I think I would need something to enable me to see what I was looking at.

 

And the hope is to encourage them to hold those conceptual “boxes”, as I am calling them, so that when something happens, they know where to put it, they know what it relates to and then you would hope, that then when they go to the literature or whatever else that they can make those connections. Some of it because it’s obvious, “concentration we’ve going on about” and I can look up concentration in the index but I also have to go with them, [thumping the table to emphasise] “nobody is going to have, there’s no book in the library called whatever this thing is” so what are the component parts you might look for? And speak to them quite directly about how are you going to recognise this when you see it, ‘cos they’re not going to do that for you, they’re not going to tell you, Grotowski’s not going to give you any sentences with the words “devising” in them! So how are you going to see where he’s going to speak to your experience?

 

 

This grouping sometimes found searching for information frustrating, as they were looking for things they felt should be there. Their mental model was predicated on gaps in subject material or students’ knowledge , so their time was spent searching for what they felt was the exact information needed to fill those gaps.

 

 

Exploring the landscape

Participants who fell into the second group demonstrated a genuine enjoyment of exploring information, being open to what might be out there, continually seeking out new paths and alternative views, and taking risks.

 

The characteristics of this grouping were:

 

  • Continually taking in information
  • Storing of random ideas and making connections later
  • They want to read and experience simultaneously
  • Knowing what you have leads to quick and rewarding journey

 

 

Instead of maintaining a safe set of material these participants looked for new connections between practice and the material they encountered.

 

I like the browsing experience, and I’m a very whimsical person, I’m not a methodical person. I’m very much a kind of “what grabs me” kind of person ... so with periodicals, I like flicking through them, have a glance at the editorial ... titles ... little abstracts ... look at the pictures.

 

Apart from time limitations (this activity often is saved for the summer months in our interviewees), this seemed a common approach by staff but we feel it is rarely seen in students, until perhaps 3rd year when they start larger independent research and start to get excited about choosing “their own” topic to explore.

 

I generally have a sense that there’s something I don’t know and I try to work out how go and find out about it. Usually it’s that way, but sometimes I trip over something or some practitioner and I go “oh that’s interesting” and I pursue things that way. […] I like research as a creative stimulus. If you find out what somebody did it makes you go “oh great, cool, I’m not going to do that BUT, I’ll tell you what THAT’S really interesting” and I can go off on my own journeys with things.

 

The use of the word “journey” is of particular interest here, and in fact this was a recurring metaphor used by these participants. They expressed themselves in terms of the journey being more important than the destination. They looked for things that interested them and would set them off on a voyage of discovery.

 

Again, it’s just a matter of what captures your interest. Sometimes I need an idea. Like I’m beginning to think now about stuff that I might want to direct next year, or modules that I might want to teach, and so it’s just a change in mindset kind of going: what can I be receptive to? So, I might go to the newspapers a bit more often; or from January on if I’ve got time I might make more of an effort to go and see shows; and if I can I’ll read a bit more fiction or whatever. So, those sorts of things just to kind of open up – have the radio on more consciously – those sorts of things, so that when I have to make a decision about offering a particular show or something I can think: yes, I’d like to do that. But there’s sort of a long gestation period sometimes. It’s about a freshening up and being open to the accidental thing or the thing you don’t know about, which is actually really great.

 

They liked to take a serendipitous approach, allowing for exploration around the information forest, a kind of meandering without necessary purpose.

 

That stimulus to teaching, it makes me think, it kind of opens doors, it lets me mull and muse and stare out the window and wonder, and then go "ah, I wonder if I could try this" but I never use research directly, pedagogically. [...] I'm really interested in research as a way of entering into the minds of people who came before me as a stimulus, in the same way I read a novel or a look at a painting or watch a cow eat grass. It's all a stimulus to possibilities.

 

In initial stages of creativity it’s really good to be out of your comfort zone or to be in unfamiliar circumstances and surroundings because that‘s where new connections start to happen.  So actually that chaos and uncertainty is a really good place for them to be when they first approach a subject. Although it doesn’t feel necessarily safe place to be, it’s a very useful place to be.

 

So we’re taught to be very observant of everything.  Because you never know when you can use it.  So for me it’s like … you know, “Think about this”, or, “Look at that”.  And so that’s really what’s fuelled me in terms of this … I don’t think I can even call it a need any more, because it’s just so much a part of me.  It just is.  I’m always observing and just taking little bits on board.  And it all becomes the information that feeds into everything I do.  My students ask me, “How do you know so much?”  Well because I pay attention.  I’m curious.  And so that’s really what’s probably driven all that. 

 

Some interviewees actively encouraged this curiosity in their students,  particularly those who focused on practical teaching. These participants wanted the students to “experience” the acting approach or the technique, or to “have a play” with the piece of technical apparatus before researching or reading about it.

Others simply embraced the randomness in which information may come at you in everyday life – seeping themselves in culture, whether literature, television, film or music, and being open to something of interest, of use, whether now or later. They were continually curious and receptive to new ideas or pathways that could lead them to another piece of research or a new avenue for teaching.

There are benefits to having a map (or box of concepts), as used heavily by the following the paths group, in a creative subject such as Drama; however, there is also great appeal in the natural, impulsive discovery of a new idea or pathway, before having to dissect it into its academic parts.

 

Because in the end the only reason I’m interested in research is that I can go into the space and deal with indefinable things. Because performance is indefinable. So I am looking to arm myself with the ability to sculpt unexpected moments with a performer. And all of the research is just for that.

 

When these interviewees talked about what this approach meant for students, they referred to workshops and practical sessions as the safe place to play with ideas and feelings and experiences. They help students make connections with the academic information, to start recognising the language to use to explain the emotional response. They wanted to turn a raw experience into a reflective piece of work, set in an academic context.  They wanted to get students to be excited about the possibility of random connections, to stay aware of their surroundings and how other media might influence their work.

 

But normally I think it is about supplementing their [students’] experiential knowledge with the reading in the practice based modules. Because I don’t do the lecture seminars on the whole, I can come from this practice base and go, “Let’s get you learning. And then in order to get you thinking and writing and analysing what you’re learning and putting this experience into the wider field this is where you need to start reading and thinking”. So, it kind of works that way. My shorthand is, “Let’s do some stuff”. ((Laughs)) I say to them, “We’re going to start by doing some stuff. And then we’ll start talking about it”.

 

And so … because I’m not planning out how each moment is going to go in that … in that room.  Because so much of it is determined by what they do.  I don’t want to get locked into something and them miss a discovery.  Because I said, “Well, no we have to do this now”.  Because acting isn’t an A, B, C thing.  It isn’t linear.  Performance is not something that you … if you do X, Y and Z you will not be a performer.  It can’t happen that way.  You go … you don’t know what’s going to inspire the kid to finally make that leap.  And so I want it to be as open as possible for them to make the discoveries.  And for me to make discoveries.  I’ve learned so much watching these kids.  It’s like “Wow!  That was really cool!  Do you have any idea what you just did?” and they’re like, “Nope”.  “Let me explain …” and so that’s … that’s how I … that’s how I work practically. 

 

Where these academics focussed on the importance of experiencing something before reading the theory, it was seen as making the reading much more relevant and pertinent. The reading couldn’t be set beforehand as they couldn’t pre-define the core, important, safe texts: they needed to emerge from making sense of the practice.

This group of interviewees often had a more joyful and playful approach to being information literate. They took the material they read and applied it to their practice, rather than feeling the need to constantly fill in gaps. Their information journey was therefore often shorter and more rewarding for them. It didn’t need to be sought out for a specific reason or need, but instead could form part of their richer academic life and feed into their practice at a later date.

A key question for us, the authors as librarians, is how we get students to be as creative and playful in the library or on search engines as they are in the studio, workshop or rehearsal space?

Library staff can of course support both the approaches outlined above. They can enthuse and make the “Library” a safe place in which to play and experiment. Rather than getting bogged down with teaching the technology or the terminology of information systems, they can instead facilitate library users to explore the resources themselves. Once interested in a topic, there are few wrong answers - especially if students and staff can indicate the connections they’ve made. Being on hand, like a guide who lurks behind trees or appears at difficult forks in the path like a Cheshire cat on the branch, could also be a useful role for librarians to take, offering directions for those who need a set path and organisational skills for those that want to play and explore.

 

Getting to these approaches

How did our interviewees ended up with these approaches? How did they develop their own approaches to information literacy?

When we, the authors, did our first degrees, no material was online, information was seen as sparse rather than overwhelming, and we cannot remember receiving a library induction, let alone any information literacy skills teaching. We asked our interviewees how they “learnt” their information seeking and their research skills. Some could easily define how :

 

Q  ...you said you sort of started in a family that was very information-seeking.  Curious was the word, wasn’t it?  Has anyone ever taught you how to do this? 

R  To be curious?  Or how to …?

Q  … how to interact with information?

R  No.  Not … well … yes, probably.  I would say … I would say that … that my elementary and middle school education was really all about that.  In that respect.  I think they were just really subtle about it. [...]  And so, using a library, and tracking down that information, now that I think about it, they were very sneaky.  They had a project that was kind of an archaeology … you were given clues, and you had to go find the book.  And inside the book would be a clue.  That you had to then use to find the next clue to find the next clue.  And it was the story of … there were several stories that were all interlinked.  But they were these documents.  You were always looking for documents.  And they had gone to the trouble of making it look like old parchment.  And handwritten with ink and quill and all that stuff.  It was amazing.  And it taught us how to research.  How different books tell you different things.  And this was … was I 13?  12?  I was hugely fortunate in terms of the education I received.  Because that taught me how to look for things. How to explore.  Totally forgot about that until today.  That was really cool.  God, that was a really fun project.  It was something to do with the American Revolution, I think.  But, you know, it was like diary entries.  And … and … and little scraps of articles. And newspaper and things.  And all the teachers … as far as I know, it was the Social Studies and the English teacher had created this all between the two of them.  A huge, vast undertaking.  And then the librarians were fine with it.  They were … we were coming in and tearing apart the place trying to find things and going from book to book and asking them questions, and they knew, “Well …” and it was an amazing experience. 

 

Perhaps getting students to consider their approaches and how they learn together with information specialists may help students learn information skills that work for them?

 

I think I followed a model that I followed for creative writing. [...] I think I learnt that model at school through drama. How stories work really. And I’m kind of obsessed with story structure. [...] So we talk about story and plot. I always think of story as all the information we’ve got about anything, the story is everything that we know about it and the plot then is how we arrange that information to tell the story, to give it some significance.

 

This interviewee taught the methodology of creative writing before becoming a drama academic, and he adapted this approach to all his academic creative outputs.  His information literacy was framed by his experience of narrative structures.

 

This is personal history with libraries ... when I was very young, maybe six, I don’t know, my Dad took me and enrolled me into the public library. I remember going in there all day when I was still at primary school for a project and doing research. Finding out about flora and fauna of Australasia or something. I’m not even sure if that was the title but I learnt those words in the process of doing it and looking in the reference library, kind of hunting things. So I learned libraries, finding my way around libraries, at an early age. And I regularly used libraries in my school, my grammar school, we did all our private study periods in the library.

 

This relationship with using information and libraries again started to be formed at an early age and was built upon during later studies.

The end of our journey and start of the next

Most interviewees just found themselves doing what felt natural or right to them, without being aware of the origins of those feelings. They often still questioned their expertise or efficiency in the process:

 

I don’t think anyone has ever taught me anything [laughs] I think it’s just through doing it and responding to circumstance, given circumstances. [...] So I think, it’s just a case of using common sense really, seeing what the task is and seeing how the students respond to something, and seeing what is missing, what is it they need.

 

The question for librarians as educators is how to give enough guidance and suggestions to students in finding the best way for them to approach information literacy, whilst allowing them the freedom and safe environment to explore and find their own methods.

 

My big thing is I want them to all develop their own approaches and they have to have bespoke approaches to the research and have to find out their own ways of doing it. And actually part of our job is to deconstruct what they think and then help them reconstruct it. Particularly in terms of the jump from A level into higher education where they’re increasingly taught how to pass things and how to display and regurgitate the right information. But that’s a very different way of going about things than thinking and making your own connections between bits of material.

 

Going forward, we will be coding and analysing the interviews more formally to enable us to find ways of helping staff and students make sense of the information landscape and find their own ways through it. Whether they want to follow existing pathways or explore the landscape in a more freeform way, we hope to learn more about how librarians can support them in this continual process.