New course addresses social justice and politics of information through engaged humanities

UIC University Library Instructor and Undergraduate Engagement Librarian Teresa Helena Moreno is always brainstorming about how to get students involved or interested in learning about information science and the myriad resources and services the Library has to offer. In fall 2020 Moreno brought a unique new humanities hybrid course to UIC, Social Justice and the Politics of Information. The course gives students a firm foundation in how information science impacts their academic research projects and the knowledge and skills to explore how information is created, used and shared in society and also incorporates a workshop in academic writing. Through interdisciplinary assignments of readings, films and other media produced by a wide range of voices, students apply a social justice framework to examine the social, historical, cultural, economic and corporate political influences on information.

In her role at the Library, Moreno collaborates with the UIC cultural centers to foster student success and is also the librarian liaison to the Department of Black Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. In her capacity as a liaison and undergraduate engagement coordinator, Moreno has been working with Engaged Humanities Initiative (EHI) Program Director Ellen McClure to support the EHI in the library.

Generously funded through a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the Engaged Humanities Initiative is a four-year program which gives undergraduates opportunities to enroll in thought-provoking seminars and develop research projects with guidance from a UIC faculty mentor while “exploring how the humanities can help us imagine new approaches, and even solutions, to the urgent problems facing the world today.” In addition, the students receive financial support for their research efforts and opportunities to hone their leadership skills. Visit ehi.uic.edu for more information about the initiative.

While working with McClure, Moreno had been thinking about how she could encourage students to pursue library and information science as a possible career even though UIC does not offer a formal program in the field and was inspired to create Social Justice and the Politics of Information as part of the Engaged Humanities Initiative. “The engaged humanities asks us to think about our world through a humanities lens on a range of topics with the hope that it can help us meet today’s challenges. This is a great opportunity to encourage more engagement between the humanities and the sciences, especially the information sciences,” says Moreno. “Oftentimes the humanities is stereotypically contextualized as engagement solely with literature and the arts or dismissed as a superfluous endeavor. Humanities scholars and students know this to be a false premise, and the Engaged Humanities Initiative explores just how vital humanities approaches are in analyzing the world’s problems. I firmly believe information science needs to be viewed through humanities and cultural studies lenses. We continue to not examine how it is impacting people’s lives. Figuring out how it is impacting humans and society and how humans impact it is very much in line with engaged humanities.”

Moreno partnered with English 161 teaching assistant Sarah Buchmeier to define two distinct sets of learning objectives that work in unison to challenge the students with assignments that guide them through a research project for the class and provide a foundation for any future scholarly or personal research projects in college and beyond. Moreno’s teaching objectives focus on social justice in library and information science; Buchmeier’s concern academic writing.

“What’s great about teaching writing in this context is that the students are able to develop a conceptual framework in the lectures and then apply that to a research project on a topic they choose,” says Buchmeier. “I think having an individual research project makes those big, complex ideas feel more tangible, as the students learn to recognize how their own projects also participate in the production of information. It has been really rewarding to see the course themes come to life in their writing.”

A central objective of the course is to dispel the common misconception that institutions like libraries and other gatekeepers of information are inherently neutral and serve the public good. More accurately, information is created, categorized and made available by human beings with their own experiences and biases and reflects the dominant culture. Regardless of well-meaning information professionals, there are negative real-world consequences that impact Black and other people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled people and people from other underrepresented groups whose voices are absent from, hidden within or disregarded by information sources.

In the class, Moreno addresses the broad reach and impact of the Library of Congress (LOC) hierarchical classification system used by academic libraries and how information and language reflect and inform society at the same time. One example Moreno cites is the LOC’s use of pejorative and outdated keywords such as “illegal alien” as opposed to “undocumented person” in its subject headings. If a database user does not search for the pejorative term, the information they are looking for remains hidden. If the user searches the pejorative term, results that are not necessarily anti-immigrant may surface, but the harmful language within the subject headings is still associated with undocumented immigrants. But once information systems are demystified, students have the ability to uncover hidden voices and contextualize their searches and ultimately conduct better research. According to Moreno, “It is an extension of a kind of information literacy. If you understand how the systems create knowledge and obfuscate non-dominant narratives, then you are able to assess what you are looking at.”

Through a micro-archive project in which they create their own family histories, students experience what it is like to take on the empowering role of creator of archival information systems instead of the role of information consumer. Students curate the content, consider what is important to include in their micro-archives and why, and what stories the materials tell about their families. They also decide how to organize and label materials to make them accessible to their intended audiences.

Other topics of discussion include neoliberalism and what it means to corporatize information, and how algorithms are construed as neutral. Although many students were surprised to learn that corporations and other entities pay Google to prioritize them in search results, they were very savvy at identifying examples of neoliberalism once Moreno explained the meaning of the term. “The greatest reward in teaching this class is twofold. The first piece is giving students language and a toolkit and then expanding on it. I love that students now have a way of articulating what they experience in the world. The second piece is getting students interested in information. A couple of students told me they were disappointed that we don’t have a formal information studies program at UIC, and I have encouraged them to explore the politics of information through other majors and minors we offer. The beauty of this course—and really the study of information in general—is that the politics of information affects every discipline,” says Moreno.

Moreno hopes to further encourage and support her students’ interests in information science by educating them about the wide variety of career paths in the field. Throughout the semester, various library and information adjacent professionals shared their unique perspectives and experiences with the students. University Library Associate Professor and Information Services Librarian Abigail Goben, who specializes in data management and privacy, spoke with the students about how various corporations in the educational landscape surveil, record and analyze data on student behavior that is then commodified for universities’ use at cost. Also from the University Library, Assistant Professor and Reference Librarian Jeff Wheeler, who is a historian of libraries, presented an overview of how libraries were created, highlighting their political history, their connections to our educational system and the historical framing that libraries have always had a political agenda. Community organizer and independent archivist Erin Glasco spoke to students about archiving social justice movements for the Blackivists, a “collective of trained Black archivists who prioritize Black cultural heritage preservation and memory work.” (Visit blackivists.com to learn more.) R. Efrain Ayala, communications and media director for purpose, diversity and inclusion at Reckitt Benckiser, an international health and hygiene product development company, provided the corporate perspective on how information practices on social media influence consumer behavior.

Social Justice and the Politics of Information culminates with a panel of librarians and other information science professionals collaborating with students to examine the state of information praxis, surveillance and dissemination in order to explore prescriptions for change. “Throughout the course, we have a heavy emphasis on critique of the systems that surround information. It was important to me to make sure to highlight the work people are doing to make the field better and to end with the positive work people are doing to address the issues,” says Moreno.