Imagining Multiple Perspectives: Experimenting with “Priority-Based Perspectives”

This year, our school’s annual, 40+ hour, 5-month-long, co-curricular project with our ninth graders took place over six hours during the first week of January.

During this project students work in groups to research and ultimately present about a social issue of their choice to the grade-level parents. While this year’s nine-person faculty team determined that students would still make a brief Flipgrid video on their topic as a final product, I volunteered to design the week-long mini-course in which they would research and present their topics. I then had to decide what I really, really wanted our students to learn. Since our first run, eight years ago, students have consistently been asked to investigate multiple points of view with regard to their topic, and I have just as consistently been struck with how challenging it is for them to imagine what those viewpoints might be. So, I decided to focus on skills related to searching for and identifying multiple points of view. Specifically, our one requirement for the week was that they identify at least three perspectives on their topic.

Before winter break, students had studied Early Modern Islamic Empires in World History, and had submitted connections they saw among the political history of the Safavids, Mughals, and Ottomans and issues of global health and/or justice in the world today. I took these contemporary connections and, based on the topics each student highlighted, assigned them to groups. Since our time was so short, I framed broad research questions for each group based on their expressed interests. Almost every student articulated a pressing engagement with how personal identifiers played into political leaders’ use of power to privilege or repress different people under their influence, across a range of topics from voting rights to vaccine development to rights of women in Muslim countries (see the outcome of this last topic below).

They had their topics. I had my learning objective. Now, I just had to figure out how to teach the skill set of searching for and identifying multiple perspectives … in 40 minutes or less.

Through a day-long debate with my 20-year-old offspring, we formulated the following approach to identifying multiple perspectives. Though I taught it to 64 students at once in a Zoom meeting, I would definitively say my thinking is still in draft form. Please help me kick the tires and see if it holds up! I would be deeply grateful for critiques and feedback.


It always feels helpful to start with a framing activity that helps to ease students into the complexities we will be tackling in a lesson. In this case, I wanted to get them thinking about how the “government’s job” is not a unitary or settled notion. By adapting a few questions from the (wonderful!) World Values Survey and a recent budget survey done by the city in which our school is located, I asked them to answer four questions about what governments should prioritize.



Though I did briefly show them results to demonstrate that, even in the “room,” we had lots of varying opinions, I cared less about their answers and more about the students contemplating competing priorities.

A bar chart recording responses from class survey demonstrate that everyone has different opinions about the role or priorities of government.

Ultimately, we framed the lesson around the notion of “Priority-based perspectives,” the idea that points of view vary because individuals and organizations must sort through conflicting needs, and some must ultimately take precedence. I drafted a list of what some of these categories of priorities might be:

Image of a slide from class, with a stamp on it saying: DRAFT: Some categories of priorities: moral, economic, logistical, public relations/political, allegiance

The big epiphany I had (though it seems obvious in retrospect) was that my students were never thinking beyond the moral concepts that drove their own interest in their topics. They simply don’t have the life experience to suggest another path for investigation. So, we spent some time discussing that, for example, no matter how strongly you consider rest a moral right, the need to feed and house your family might still require a higher priority than time to rest. Similarly, you may morally believe that everyone has the right of equal access to a COVID vaccine, but we have been witnessing the real logistical challenges of efficient and equitable distribution.

One element that turned out to be pivotally helpful was that this construct moved students away from the binary pro/con approach for identifying perspectives (“Who agrees with me? Smart people. Who has a different opinion? Mean people.”) and instead started their research in a fundamentally different place: “What are the economic considerations of vaccine development? What different priorities might be competing? What are the logistical considerations of vaccine development? What different priorities might be competing with regard to logistical issues?” and so on. It removed their thinking from themselves and their closely held beliefs and allowed them space to be curious about what issues and priorities might exist.

Of course, we reviewed a few key search tips:

1. Pay attention to search terms, which will yield specific POVs:
— For example: Undocumented workers, illegal aliens, birthright citizenship
2. Search for your answer, not your question:
— Think about what you might expect someone to write about a topic and search for that.
— What words might someone use when they are talking about “morals”? How about “economic”? For example: budget, cost, price tag
3. Consider: how might people with the same goals have different priorities that lead to different POVs?
4. Remember to use stepping stone sources:
— Identify expert vocabulary/pertinent search terms that appear in the sources you have read so far. For example: CRISPR, designer babies, genetic engineering
— Who are some stakeholders mentioned in your sources who have points of view on this topic (people, groups, or organizations who care about the issue)? For example:
1.”According to the Department of Justice…”
2. “Emails leaked by the whistleblower”
3. “Professor Arvind Gupta, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma…”

There was one final issue that required addressing in this lesson: what does one do with points of view that do not meet with standards of evidence-based-reasoning? In the past, I have taught finding various political perspectives and a separate lesson on more diverse news consumption generally (finally this year I pointed out to a colleague that selecting sources by left-leaning and right-leaning just left out too many people, and ethnic, religious, and other community news sources needed to be included in any list of sources for reading political news). Yet, I try to balance understanding various perspectives against including harmful or factually incorrect perspectives in the classroom. For example, we do not accept as factual perspectives disproven medical studies (they may be mentioned for influence, but not presented as informational sources). I’ve never quite figured out how to walk that line effectively.

In this lesson, I drew on the World History course theme of historical empathy, and explained that identifying priority-based perspectives is an interstitial step that assists in identifying a range of perspectives; doing so also helps us understand the mechanisms that create structures in our world today, including the persistence of structural inequity. After identifying different priorities, and (potentially) sources that speak from the perspective of those authorities, it is the researcher’s job to evaluate the source (or, as we teach, identify the context and construction of the source’s authority) and determine whether it passes muster in our evidence-based environment.

The faculty for the ninth grade project all agreed that the students’ work this year was quite strong, despite the various emotional challenges everyone faced during our six hours of project time (including the events of January 6, 2021). I was particularly proud of the group that wanted to focus on women in Islam, as they moved themselves beyond a blind critique of the “other” and ended up delving deeply into a complex set of women’s perspectives about being a hijabi.

So, the idea of priority-based perspectives seems to work. Yet, I suspect I am missing (various) pitfalls or have elements lacking clarity. Thoughts?

News databases: Diversity without equity or inclusion

The Problem

Back in September, 2020, I sent out a call for help across AISL and other school librarian-oriented lists in hopes of finding databases that provide “diverse, inclusive, and equitable access to perspectives mirroring the composition of our country in magazines, historical newspapers, and contemporary news.” Generally, database companies sell “core” collections that are positioned as “high quality sources,” comprised almost entirely of white-perspective news outlets. Then they up-sell from a menu of discrete “ethnic” packages to provide “alternate perspectives.” Students deserve better.

Thank you to the many folks who responded hoping to hear of a good database in which to invest. Sadly, the answer is…so far I’ve found no way to buy this unicorn of the database world. Ultimately, I started doing my own diversity audit of our databases and others on the market to try to better articulate the nature of the problem.

I am currently only part way through this process. First semester ended up (happily) being much more crowded with instruction than I had anticipated. Even the terminology I use to think about this set of issues is still in crude form. Here is an update on what I have learned so far, however. To date I have focused on US news, historical and contemporary, and have only been able to compare offerings from two companies. This work has served — at the very least — as evidence that the problem is real and pressing.

Inclusion

In the fall, I had not yet fully realized the insidious nature of the juxtaposition we often attribute to databases: quality sources vs. alternative perspectives. I’ve been sitting with this formulation increasingly in the intervening months, and contemplating how our professional narrative around databases is driven by the marketing efforts of the database companies themselves. Consider the act of marketing a database as “providing researchers access to essential, often overlooked perspectives” that exists because the perspectives have been intentionally overlooked and isolated to sell us another database. So how much does the title list of an intentionally curated “ethnic” database (which mysteriously includes the LGBTQ+ collection, by the way) overlap with a product intended for high school?

ProQuest: Compared title lists for Research Library Prep and Ethnic Newswatch databases.

Please note that the “Overlap (%)” column conveys how many of the “specialized” Ethnic Newswatch titles also appear in “general” Research Library Prep. It does not convey the percentage of Research Library Prep that are/are not white perspective — those numbers would apparently be vanishingly small. 

An issue that struck me immediately as I got started was that scholarly journals comprise, by far, the largest mass of content in Ethnic Newswatch that is also available in Research Library Prep. These sources differ distinctly from newspapers or popular magazines; academic discourse may well be quite removed from the community it studies. That is, a large percentage of the authorial and editorial work is carried out within a realm of authority modeled on European institutions and constructed in our academic halls of privilege. To put it plainly: the perspectives appearing in the University of Pennsylvania Press’ Hispanic Review may not reflect community voices in the same way that those appearing in La Prensa Texas newspaper do. Both source types provide important points of view; their creation does not serve the same purpose.

Important as it is to have a diversity of voices in our scholarly works, they provide fundamentally different types of evidence from newspapers. Not to mention, they are not accessible to most K-12 students.

Gale: General OneFile, In Context: High School, OneFile: High School Edition, OneFile: News, In Context: US History

It has been challenging to figure out how to do a diversity audit, but since many database companies seem to start monetizing diversity with Black American newspapers, I decided to work from lists of existing and historical Black papers, including: National Newspaper Publishers Association Current Members and Princeton University Library – African-American Newspapers (1829-present). I used titles from these lists to search within Gale’s title lists, and found:

Checking Black American newspaper titles against Gale title lists yielded vanishingly few overlaps.

In the process of looking at the titles that are listed, the Atlanta Daily World and the Chicago Defender — historically both very important publications in the 20th Century United States — only had coverage from 2014-present, with exceptions from 2015/16 to the present. Meaning, in fact, they only have a handful of issues of each paper.

Once again, these databases provide news sources that almost entirely reside within historically white readerships.

Equity

In another sense, it does not functionally matter if a database includes sources from diverse sets of communities. When the algorithm privileges white perspective publications, searchers may never encounter other points of view.

Spot checks of ProQuest’s ranking of newspaper results in Research Library Prep confirmed that their methods for ranking heavily favored specific titles. Specifically, the New York Times dominated results, with a smattering of hits from the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, US Fed News Service and Targeted News Service

I ran a series of searches, noting how many unique titles were returned for each search, as well as those titles’ spreads across the top 100 results. In essence, how many pages would I need to scroll through to access more than a few titles? I searched for [ the ] — as a word that appears universally in English-language newspapers — and also for words like [ miami ], [ skagit ], and [governor] — each of which strongly suggest local news. In every case, the results looked something like the results for [ the ]:

  • Returned 81 unique titles
  • Top 100 results:
    • 95 results from the NYT
    • Other titles ranked: #37, 41, 71, 91, 95
    • Other publications in the top 100 results: Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Targeted News Service 

Progress!

However, there is good news. A Gale sales rep who is on one or more school library lists began wondering about this issue themselves, and carried out an independent audit that they then presented to their acquisitions department. As a result, when I last checked in this past November, Gale publisher relations personnel have identified:

  • Licensed periodicals where the issues aren’t current
    • Updates are in various states of progress 
  • Important periodicals with lapsed agreements 
    • Updates are in various states of progress  
  • Over 140 new periodicals from the following communities:  “African Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanic Americans/ Latinx, Native Americans, Ability Diverse, LGBTQ+, Women, & more”
    • Requests have been sent to publisher relations to pursue license agreements

Though not within the scope of my current work, Gale has also taken a look at their reference overviews and biographies and have made efforts to offer more coverage, as well.

The solution?

Does this issue interest you? Would you like to join me in fighting for single databases that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive? Whether you would like to audit a database you have, suggest a consistent method for auditing, share findings at your state conference, or talk to your database companies once we have a clear report — kindly reach out. If the idea is that we are better together, let’s unite and make a difference!

I am deeply grateful to my director, Jole Seroff, for being so invested in and supportive of this exploration, and colleague Sara Kelley-Mudie for helping me focus my thinking.

Distinguishing evidence from analysis: A student’s perspective on the first step in source evaluation

Sara Zoroufy is a junior and the Research Teaching Assistant for the Castilleja School library. Inspired by Nora Murphy’s work on source literacy, Sara chose to spend this year observing research lessons and unpacking how she and other students think about sources. Her work helps inform lesson planning. Here, she shares an idea she has been contemplating recently.

“CNN reports that the Justice Department found the following statistics…”

During a presentation in our tenth grade government class, this phrase caught my attention. Why would a speaker attribute a statistic to two different sources? I have been thinking about this turn of phrase for a long time, trying to understand precisely why it troubled me. Recently, I realized that students struggle to distinguish factual evidence from a source’s analysis of that evidence. In the example above, the student was having trouble determining what type of information she was citing and which source was responsible for the creation of that information. Without separating evidence from analysis, we can neither evaluate nor properly cite a source. I tried to draw a visual to help myself understand how a source breaks down into these components, which culminated in this flowchart:

Mapping these concepts in this way helped me identify a number of key points in the process of evaluating a source. I began to think that the essential questions that students should initially ask when faced with a particular source are: what is the evidence that is presented, what is the corresponding analysis, and what sources shaped each component?

Asking these questions is the first step in unpacking a source, and the answers are not always immediately clear when students encounter unfamiliar genres of writing. This year, my grade was presented with an excerpt from a Pulitzer prize winning piece of investigative journalism about the diagnosis of black lung in coal miners. We were asked to identify the sources of the statistics in the article. No one was able to locate this information because journalistic convention dictates integrating the names of sources into the text, as opposed to employing parenthetical citations that students use in their own writing. For example, just prior to starting a bullet pointed list of statistical evidence, the article said, “The Center [for Public Integrity] recorded key information about these cases, analyzed [the medical expert’s] reports and testimony, consulted medical literature and interviewed leading doctors.”[1]  Since the students weren’t accustomed to this particular form of citation, many of us responded that no sources were given.

Students had been instructed to pinpoint the evidence in the article and label it with an “E” and to identify and label its sources with an “S.” As I sat with Tasha Bergson-Michelson, our instructional librarian, and considered my flowchart in relation to the lesson, we realized that the instruction had skipped over several crucial steps in the process of identifying the evidence. This experience made it clear that identifying the sources of evidence can be confusing, and that simply telling students to exercise that skill was not effective. Rather, the development of this skill requires explicit instruction and opportunities to focus on practicing it.

Once we’ve identified the source’s evidence and where it came from, we are able to further evaluate it. Depending on the type of evidence, we can investigate its quality and veracity in different ways–reading the methodology behind a study or poll, for example, or comparing the details of anecdotal evidence across various sources. Another factor to take into consideration is the original publication venue of the evidence itself. Recognizing the background of the publication adds to our understanding of the ethos of the evidence, as well as the sponsor’s motivation for collecting the evidence.

After examining the evidence, we can begin to consider the analysis of that evidence. The analysis reflects the perspective of the author and the publication in which it appears. Often, students stop their investigation into a source once they have determined its bias or perspective, but that is only the beginning. The real importance lies in the source’s purpose–why and how that perspective is being argued. Our history department uses the acronym SOAPA–Subject, Occasion, Author, Purpose, and Audience–to remind us to critically evaluate each aspect of a source.[2] This strategy has been particularly helpful in reminding us to think about the author’s purpose and how it shapes the analysis of their evidence.

I find it useful to think of every source, be it a journal article or a photograph, as an essay that selects and interprets evidence to support its thesis, but that comparison is not necessarily intuitive. This idea that all sources make an argument is easily overlooked, especially when we students are presented with historical documents which we sometimes subconsciously perceive as pure fact. In our 8th grade science classes, students first encounter the idea that nonfiction can be analyzed like literature. The lesson teaches students to consider the language of a source to determine what argument the author is making and what they want the audience to think, feel, or do.

Differentiating between evidence and analysis is the first step in considering the three essential questions: what is the evidence that is presented, what is the corresponding analysis, and what sources shaped each component? Answering these questions helps us understand:

  • Sources make arguments using evidence and analysis.
  • Evidence tells us what the source is using to make its argument.
  • Evaluating the origin and quality of the evidence contributes to our understanding of the strength of the argument.
  • Critically evaluating the publication venue of the source itself helps us recognize the perspective the analysis will try to validate.
  • Doing a close reading of the analysis in the source gives us insight into the author’s intention in making the argument.

In the case of the quote that started this whole journey, knowing that the evidence came from the Department of Justice and the analysis from CNN allows students to draw on any credibility offered by the DOJ’s statisticians and CNN’s popularity as a source of reporting. The students themselves attain credibility by demonstrating that their thinking is based upon rigorous sources.

________________

  1. Chris Hamby, Brian Ross, and Matthew Mosk, “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from black lung, buried by law and medicine,” The Center for Public Integrity, last modified October 30, 2013, accessed March 2, 2017. https://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/10/30/13637/johns-hopkins-medical-unit-rarely-finds-black-lung-helping-coal-industry-defeat.
  2. The College Board recommends a similar version, SOAPSTone, for its history APs.

 

Reading News across the Political Spectrum

Last spring, I had to confront a gaping hole in my professional knowledge. But that is jumping ahead. Let’s start at the beginning, with our students.

It began with a project in the 10th grade American Political Systems class. Working in pairs, students were to select two articles with differing viewpoints about a contemporary issue, then lead a current events discussion. Last spring was the first time I had the opportunity to meet with students about their article choices. Inspired by Nora Murphy’s work on source literacy, I asked students to talk to me about what types of source they were looking at, and why they felt each article was sufficiently authoritative.

Repeatedly, I found myself facing students’ inability to distinguish between what felt good and what was good quality. Generally falling along a political spectrum, articles that aligned with what students already believed earned a rating of “reliable” … and the other sources were all considered equally foreign and indigestible. Certainly, they were applying no particular standards to finding authoritative expressions of the opposite viewpoint, beyond maybe a shrugged: “Well, it was in the library databases,” as if that assured authority, or “It was ranked high in my search results.” In these discussions, students generally knew how to think about the authority of authors, but it was clear that it did not occur to most of them to consider how the identity of the publisher shaped a piece. As their research skills educator, I found myself demanding, again and again, that there were standards of rigor to which we must hold every publication, which provided a way to identify quality sources at many points along the political spectrum.

The first step we covered was simply learning a bit more about what possible points along the political spectrum were, and identifying where a particular publication situated itself. Wikipedia was invaluable in these investigations. In many cases, the first few sentences of entries on a specific media outlet provided a lot of vocabulary (progressive, libertarian, neoconservative, paleoconservative) that gave us good talking points for getting started. Sections on editorial staff, board members, funding, and past controversies were also helpful, if not taken in isolation. “About” pages could sometimes be useful, but were often so full of obfuscating language as to be impossible to parse (we first addressed this difference in readability in 9th grade, when students tried to decode what Sputnik News was). However, a publication’s media kit for advertisers and their submission guidelines for writers were often much clearer indicators. These tools helped us build a crucial understanding about the nature of the source we were encountering. It did less to help us understand rigor.

One trouble is that the standards of rigor remain, well, elusive. One high school student and I spent the entire subsequent summer debating how to define those qualities in a manner that would be findable and useful: If we cannot find out about editorial process, what is a reasonable way to measure the same thing? What role does the size and demographic of readership play in our understanding of a publication? How does it matter if a publication was “born digital?” If most people view media by clicking through from social networks, what weight do we give to how clickbait-y their headlines feel? What does the publication articulate as its own claim to authority? But we barely scratched the surface.

Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload better helped me frame my thinking. It identified four forms that “news” reporting might take. Two, in particular, caught my eye. “Journalism of verification” requires journalists to examine evidence relating to a question to determine what conclusions to draw, whereas “journalism of affirmation” is “a new political media that builds loyalty less on accuracy, completeness, or verification than on affirming the beliefs of its audiences, and so tends to cherry-pick information that serves that purpose” (34). While I wanted my students to be selecting sources that followed the model of verification, they tended to encounter and be attracted to sources that were rooted in affirmation. Reading journalism of affirmation is rewarding; it articulates the reader’s feelings clearly, makes her feel smart, and is widely available. So not making a practice of identifying a source’s model — verification, affirmation, or other — is how we end up with a gulf between what feels good and good quality.

As a result of these conversations, this fall I had the opportunity to have an hour with the now-11th graders to help them set up news feeds. My assignment was to make sure every student was regularly following some kind of news. After thinking long and hard, I turned back to Blur and decided to break the lesson into two parts: 1. Practicing how to identify sources and evidence in journalistic writing, and 2. Giving every student an opportunity to identify a method for following news on a regular basis. It was a first time through this topic; the lesson plans linked to above have a great deal of room for growth. The lesson culminated in a plea that students commit to reading a variety of good quality sources that could help them experience a range of perspectives.

Which brings us back to the gaping hole in my professional knowledge that I mentioned at the outset. Because the truth was that last spring, while I was urging students to pick sources based on rigor rather than emotions, I found myself limited in the rigorous sources I knew to recommend. Let me be more honest: because I had not cultivated my own knowledge of good quality conservative sources, I knew of only three. Three sources that I kept pointing to, again and again. Frankly, I had to struggle continually with my own snap judgments. My knowledge proved completely insufficient, and I barely sounded convincing, even to myself. How could I stand for a rule of rigor across the spectrum if I was unable to point students to acceptable options?

So, I decided I had to educate myself, which is what I was trying to do when I attended my first AISL conference in Los Angeles last year. Many of you kindly allowed me to question you about your collections, and your thoughts on a variety of news sources.

Slowly, my list of sources from around the spectrum began to grow. It is still smaller than I would like. But I am fortunate to have three learners in my life who are particularly committed to notions of source literacy, reading broadly, and engaging with multiple narratives. One student and I had conversations about how floods of articles from two or three favorite news sources started to feel like seeing the same stories over and over again; it was taking 90 minutes a day to weed through and find new ideas or events. We determined that it was better to select a small number of media outlets representing differing perspectives, so that each article would offer a new point of view, even if the topic repeated. Another argued that there were more varieties of narratives than just international and political; sources from various US geographic regions and affinity groups (news from ethnic, religious, and other groups) went on my list. Work with each of those students — including my Research TA, who chose to focus on source literacy — is messy and ongoing, and would be a post unto itself. Each of them did, however, respond to the questions I was asking of myself with a passion and commitment that transformed my curiosity into something I actually needed to live up to. They made me do more than just make lists — they made me expand my reading.

The final element of the 11th graders’ lesson this fall looked at what it might mean to access multiple perspectives through news. Given the fractious environment at the time, I decided simply to share a selected list from the sources I was following (at the time, I was testing close to 150 different news sources) and let students explore for themselves. I am grateful to colleague Connie Williams for making me realize that the list I shared with students is not founded on consistent standards. For example, my list of international sources includes many options that fall under what Murphy would term “necessary bias,” aimed at assuring exposure to various narratives being promoted around the world. My affinity group media options similarly look to expand my own ability to access and hear the multiplicity of narratives experienced by the United States’ diverse population, while my regional newspapers attempt to balance that same need with a sense of editorial rigor. My political spectrum is where I look most critically at the use of sources, evidence, and careful argumentation. It seems that, in the process of writing these words, I have discovered the next stage of work I have to do on my own thinking.

Nevertheless, I am gaining something deeply important from both investigating potential sources and reading those I selected on a somewhat regular basis. It is a time-consuming process, and it can be quite unsettling to encounter religious, political, or ethnic viewpoints to which I have not really been exposed before. Yet I also find it immensely enlightening to read about an issue in an expressly paleoconservative, African-American, or Catholic leaning publication, or any publication outside my regular media diet. Seeing a reasoned argument proceeding from a different set of values or experiences often provides me with crucial details that are lost when filtered through more familiar media. Often, I encounter statements that make a lightbulb go off for me — I’ve found myself reading and re-reading a portion of the Constitution, until I can finally figure out what someone else is seeing in the words.

Ultimately, it comes down to a real question of what my professional values — and my human values — really are. Just as journalistic ethics require not neutrality but that conclusions should arise from fact-based evidence, every time I work with students I drill into them that research is not about starting with something you believe to be true and cherry-picking evidence to prove it. Rather, we look at a range of rigorously supported viewpoints and draw evidence-based conclusions. Our library teaches students to use close reading and a knowledge of logical fallacies to unpack how word choice and argumentation impact readers’ emotional responses to nonfiction. In our program, those are becoming core source evaluation skills. If I actually stand by all parts of this curriculum, then it seems reasonable to me to expect that I should be accessing multiple, rigorous, and diverse viewpoints in my own reading of news, before drawing conclusions. When I hold myself to those standards, I can do more than just telling students to avoid fake news; I can offer them a positive range of news options on which to draw. When I do that, I model for students that I live by what I teach.

NOTE: I should have asked this initially, but I would love for anyone to share ideas for sources with me. I hope to build a much more rigorous list over time.