A Failure of Questions
As though it were liturgy learned by rote, the students in my library classroom and I exchange well-worn phrases:
“Why do we use academic journals in our research?” I ask.
The students, with a gusto previously unseen, answer out, “More… reliable!”
I will, almost invariably, ask the students what makes these journals ‘reliable’ and they will provide answers they learned somewhere. Defending the reliability of academic sources isn’t forefront in my mind but I accept this discussion of ‘reliable’ so I can move towards the more interesting word in play: ‘more.’ Where there is more, there is less and it is within the less reliable, the less formalized flows of information where I – a librarian – am said to have my greatest worth. Invariably, the World Wide Web takes up a scapegoat performance as ‘the less.’ Classroom instructors ask me to discuss the ‘less reliable’ Web when scheduling a library visit. Students solicit my best advice on their ‘scavenger hunts’ through our stacks: How can we find the best information, the more reliable among the less reliable flows?
As a librarian, I am presumed equipped for answering this question. The leading associations of my profession give advice and pedagogical innovators coin pithy checklists for determining how students should evaluate information. For the first half of my first semester as a teaching librarian, these tools gave me confidence in tackling the question of ‘information quality.’ But somewhere in the mid-term, I could hear myself stalling out as I provided my second-hand advice.
“We have some tools to help us determine if information online is reliable… right?”
“This is… hard work, okay? [long pause] I… even I don’t always know if the information I’m using is… good.”
This sputtering was followed by a litany of questions – arranged in acronyms like ‘CRAAP’ and ‘ABC’ – which I helped students memorize. These questions were ordained for the purpose of finding the ‘more’ in the ‘less’:
“How do we know the author is credible? What are their credentials?”
“Does the author stand to gain something (monetary, political) by convincing me?”
“How up-to-date is this information?”
“Does this information matter for my assignment, for my class, for my life?”
Each evening during my drive home from campus, I listened to our local NPR affiliate. Christine Blasey Ford had recently accused then-not-yet-Supreme Court Justice Jeff Kavanaugh of sexual assault and radio commentators were continually evaluating her statements in much the same way my students were evaluating websites.
“Well, how do we know she is credible? What are her credentials? Has she been known to lie before?”
“What’s in it for her?”
“Why did she wait so long to talk? Isn’t this information too old? Maybe she’s remembering things all wrong.”
“Does it matter?”
Disgusted, my palm would slam into the volume button and shut off the radio. The exact kinds of questions I guided students to ask in the classroom were being asked here. Those same questions were horrifically, heartbreakingly, exasperatingly failing Christine Blasey Ford. Decades earlier, the same sorts of questions – asked in the tones which white people reserve for asking black women disingenuous questions – had failed Anita Hill, too. It seemed everyone wanted some kind of authenticated document descending from a nonpartisan heaven, certifying that the pain and horror these women recounted was real.
It is in no way novel to say that the externalization of memory, the separating of memory from the body, is a foundational quality of ‘hard evidence’ in American culture. Receipts demonstrate when a student checked out a book, and electronic records ‘prove’ the book was returned. D2L and other instructional platforms note the minute activities and inactivities of students and faculty alike. Yet we know that these kinds of externalizations are still open to scrutiny. We pick up our notes later and assemble a memory of the event, which is a different knowledge than the knowledge at-the-time. The record, the video, the note becomes a point where those who are no longer in the event and those who never experienced the event in the first place can meet. We are united in our present ignorance or present distance. Both groups pick up the note, and agree that it somehow stands in for an experience. But precisely what that experience is, and how well that note can represent that experience are anything but certain. One only need look at the varied interpretations of records generated by law enforcement and other government agencies to see that one’s determination of what a record means is contingent on one’s ideas about the presumed guilt or innocence of black people, the supposed neutrality of technology, and the dangers of immigrants. In this way, ‘hard evidence’ turns out to be soft and malleable to the hands examining it. Perhaps no amount of evidence could have convinced some people that the testimonies of Blasey Ford and Hill were true, precisely because those people had already decided that testimony could not be true.
In her 2018 SWSX Edu keynote, danah boyd offers that this kind of disbelief-by-default is the result of an epistemic framework which refuses all challenges to certainty. boyd cites Francesca Tipodi’s research which showed that some Christian conservative communities interpret President Trump’s statements, “using the same epistemological framework as they approached the Bible. Metaphors and constructs matter more than the precision of words.” Growing up Evangelical myself, I can confirm that a kind of tautological literary analysis is used in these communities to loop all events, all feelings, all words back into The Word, into an inscrutable document whose purpose is to distinguish divine fact from satanic deceit. No meaning can escape the authority of the Bible-as-epistemological framework. The literal, immediate, material impacts of Trump’s actions are seen as irrelevant so long as those actions can still be tied back into a Messianic hope. Questioning this logic is almost performative: by asking if these interpretations are true, I mark myself as denying the authority of the Bible and as being part of the ‘problem’ which will be resolved through Trump’s actions. For those within this logic, it is impossible that I might understand what is truly happening in the world because I refuse the tools necessary for understanding (namely the Bible and an Evangelical interpretation of it).
As boyd laments, we educators are woefully underprepared to teach students across a wide range of epistemological frameworks. If a student in my classroom sees all of Trump’s actions – including his nomination of Kavanaugh – as godly actions, actions needed for the holy future-to-come, how can she not also see Blasey Ford’s testimony as inherently deceitful? Likewise, if a straight white man in my classroom believes – as many conspiracy theorists do – that he and those like him are the real oppressed, the people who are really being deceived by the government, businesses, educators — how can I be anything other than a stand-in for that unnatural deception and suppression? At the crux of boyd’s keynote is the assertion that asking critical thinking questions about information not a way out of these quandaries. Conspiracy theories rely on the axioms of critical thinking at least as much as librarians do. “Who’s giving you this information?” “Why do they want you to believe this?” “What science or logic is the basis for this?” These are not just the questions of astute students – they’re also the questions of flat earthers, incels, white supremacists, climate change deniers, UFOlogists, and ethno-nationalists. Like librarians, the outreach arms of these groups encourage readers to ask about the relationship between media and message, about the goals or investments of authors, about subtexts and underlying assumptions. Each answer found is routed back into a “You see?” reflex. That is to say, each answer becomes evidence of a central assumption to which all knowledge must return. Much like the logic of a Biblical Trump, nothing escapes a conspiracy. The problem isn’t that we’re asking, and teaching students to ask, the ‘wrong questions.’ Rather, it’s that – done incompletely, uncarefully – critical questioning feeds into a circular logic of what must be.
A year after I began to lose faith in the advice of my field, I joined a faculty reading group centered around fake news and conspiracy theories. We discussed the conspiratorial explanations and rumors students brought to the classroom, we read and analyzed information literacy scholarship, and we talked about our own anxieties and feelings of inadequacy. During our meetings, I returned again and again to the idea of uncertainty. Uncertainty brought me to this reading group and dominated my feelings during our meetings: I was not only uncertain about how to guide students through information resources, I was also uncertain about my ability to argue why some information was more reliable, some less. Or, more precisely, I was uncertain that my arguments could hold water. I was uncertain of the quality of those arguments.
Hoping to explore these feelings as a group, I asked my colleagues to watch a short video by Deborah Taveres – a prolific conspiracy theorist convinced that the California droughts are hoaxes. Touting a seemingly-scientific theory and armed with an official-looking diagram, Taveres lectures what appears to be a city council about the water scarcity deceit which she believes is harming Californians and desert residents worldwide. Her speech is a standard white American variety devoid of prescriptive grammatical no-nos or markedly classed pronunciations. This use of language is paired with the appearance of a middle-class white American woman. One of my group mates remarked that, with a careful up-do and demure outfit, Taveres looks like a member of the faculty. (Valid questions about the demographics of our faculty could certainly be asked here.) Taveres is the image of the nice white woman as teacher. She appears like the archetypical woman film, television, and literature tell us is here to help – sincerely, selflessly, innocently. She openly, almost disarmingly, touts her grandma credentials. Even though we could name and trace the racist logics of interpretation at work in our encounter with Taveres’ video, we continued to feel the workings of those logics beyond the reach of language. We found that Taveres’ one-minute speech left us feeling uncertain: uncertain about how much we ourselves knew about hydrology and earth science, uncertain about how nefarious or wrong-headed Taveres’ theory might be, uncertain about how we could discuss a video like this with students, uncertain of whether or not we’ve been deceived in other areas of life without knowing it. Such uncertainty wasn’t unfamiliar to us, but we often direct students away from uncertainty towards research aimed at ‘finding answers.’ We encourage students to believe that answers do exist, must exist, even though we know intimately that is not always the case. Perhaps what we aren’t telling students is that questions are often less a set of directions for getting somewhere, more the possibility of going. Questions are born of uncertainty.
In the library classroom, I encourage students to ask about the quality of information, but I do not share with them that the questions they ask may not have answers – or may not have clear answers. I rush students away from the anxiety of not knowing, of being unsure how to prove or argue something. I want students to feel like they are getting somewhere, accomplishing something, and uncertainty appears to be evidence to the contrary. Yet uncertainty is the thing which distinguishes a circular epistemological framework from one which remains open to being re-shaped and re-focused. Uncertainty requires us to wait, to hesitate. We feel the unsteady floorboards, feel the rhythm of our breath: the stream of experience becomes something upon which I can reflect. How did I get here? Where am I going? Why do I ask the questions I ask? Uncertainty allows us to be unsure of what questions to even ask, but to remain ready to ask.
I might liken this to Sigmund Freud’s story of a woman who finds money on a street . Earlier in the day, she hoped to buy an inexpensive piece of jewelry in a shop but found her funds short of the price of the hat. The woman left the shop and, on her way back home, finds money laying on the street. Why, Freud asks, does this woman – and not any of the other passersby – discover the money on the ground? Freud posits it’s because the woman’s unconscious was ‘preoccupied’ with wanting to find a way to buy the piece of jewelry. Other people surely passed the money on the street and the light reflecting from the bills glanced up into their eyes all the same. Yet it was the woman’s unconscious state of mind which made her more likely to take note of that reflection, to recognize it as money. I might suggest that being ready to ask, not yet knowing the question, is a similar state. We may not yet know what we want to ask, of whom, when or where. Yet we remain unconsciously open to receiving the impressions which we will formulate into our next question. In the meanwhile, we consciously acknowledge and accept that we are uncertain.
Some would argue that uncertainty leads to inaction, but this is not the case when uncertainty is articulated in terms of ‘yet.’ “I am uncertain, yet I choose to take action A,” or “I am uncertain, yet I choose to believe person B.” ‘Yet’ is both a conjunction and adverb here. ‘Yet’ allows us to say “I am uncertain, but…” and “I am uncertain for now…” Saying, “I am uncertain,” reminds us to remain open. The declaration “I am uncertain” reiterates that the world is still taking shape and the actions of individuals, groups, systems, and institutions – and the meanings of those actions – are not predetermined. “I am uncertain” keeps us engaged – seeking both answers and new questions. At the same time, the phrase affirms that we choose to take action based on our principles and best intuitions and become responsible for that action. We are not forced by evidence, but actively choose: We choose to accept or reject a potential research source. We choose to consider accept or reject the science of climate change. We choose to believe or disbelieve Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford. These are the choices we make.
An Uncertain Semester
My third semester of teaching as a librarian is beginning as I begin to draft this last section. I’m wondering: How do I bring students into this conversation about uncertainty? Naturally, comedically, I’m uncertain – yet … I offer unclear impressions of ways I might go.
To start, I might share with students the uncertainty lurking in those seemingly certain ‘scholarly’ texts. Rather than ‘poking holes’ in the author’s argument, this might take the form of demonstrating where in the text an author hedges their bets, steps back from a claim, narrows the scope of their argument. For students beginning their academic careers, it is difficult to identify these pragmatics of scholarship and interpret such pragmatics as symptomatic of our uncertainty. Simultaneously, I can affirm that the narrow arguments which emerge from uncertainty are not a sign of failure but a sign of a researcher who does not take the world and its meanings as givens, a researcher who is deeply engaged and willing to change as they learn. This approach breaks the binaristic comparison between the more reliable academic journal and the less reliable website, and points out that both texts are constructed through an uncertainty which should be legible, if we read carefully. Rather than looking for a crushing weight of evidence, we can look for signs that the author leaves us open to impressions from elsewhere.
I might also encourage students to attune themselves to uncertainty, recognize it and stay with it – particularly when browsing available materials. In my day-to-day work with non-traditional students, single parent students, full-time-job-having students, I have noticed they are often rushed and hurried in their information seeking. This isn’t their fault. Colleges are pushing students to graduate faster, more efficiently. Instructors are required to cram more course material, more assessments, more ‘outcomes’ into courses, translating into less time for students to complete work. All the while, the promise of a better life post-college seems to recede further and further away. I am uncertain I can reasonably impart to students the value of uncertainty’s slowness, yet I want to try. Within the context of browsing – especially browsing articles and other resources online – I can perhaps lead students away from making rash yes/no determinations about a document’s usefulness, importance, or relevance. I can ask them to glance through text and images without attempting to consciously formulate a summary of what they’re seeing. Go beyond the first five pages of search results and see that the machine is no less uncertain than you are. In the openness of uncertainty, students may spot topics, arguments, ideas, wishes, desires that – when first confronted with an assignment or a task – could not emerge. How can serendipity or creativity function when all the terms are already defined, the path already set, the outcome already known?
As a text, this essay is a statement of openness towards ideas or observations which might (but which are not promised to) come around the bend. I am uncertain I’m not just spinning my wheels, yet I want to stay with uncertainty as an experience because my own feelings of uncertainty will not abate. I want to stay with uncertainty because the certainty of the misogynists, the transphobes, the anti-vaxxers, the creationists results in a flattening, a mapping of all knowledge into a fixed range of coordinates. There can be no play, and moreover no death – no questions left unanswered. Certainty, at least in this context, becomes a damaging expansion of life at the expense of living in our uncertain senses.
 Sigmund Freud, “Symptomatic and Chance Actions,” in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Alan Tyson (trans.) and James Stratchey (ed.), (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965): 208-209.