Critical Pedagogy, Critical Conversations: Expanding Dialogue about Critical Library Instruction through the Lens of Composition and Rhetoric


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In Brief: As interest among academic librarians in critical pedagogy has grown, discussions about this concept and its implications for librarianship have been richly expanding our ways of conceiving of library instruction and of our (librarians’) instructional roles. At the same time, this concept is still a relatively new one for our field. We may thus benefit from further exploring debates about critical pedagogy that have occurred outside of librarianship. In this article I explore salient themes in debates about and critiques of critical pedagogy– particularly those evident in the field of composition and rhetoric–as a means of opening further inquiry into and dialogue about the possibilities and the challenges of critical pedagogy and, more specifically, critical information literacy instruction. With an appreciation of the value of inquiry and problem posing, I view my goal with this writing as not to suggest definitive answers about how librarians do or ought to teach, but rather to invite further thought, questions, and dialogue about how we teach and how we relate to students and fellow educators within our unique instructional contexts.

by Andrea Baer


As interest among academic librarians in critical pedagogy has grown, discussions about this concept and its implications for librarianship have been richly expanding our (librarians’) ways of conceiving of library instruction and of our instructional roles. This expanding interest is evident in the growing use of the term “critical information literacy,” which librarians Lua Gregory and Shana Higgins (2013) describe as “taking into consideration the social, political, economic, and corporate systems that have power and influence over information production, dissemination, access, and consumption” (4). A critical approach to information literacy instruction invites individuals to explore these highly contextual information practices and processes and how they engage with them, both as individuals and as members of various communities.

At the same time that discussions about “critical information literacy” and “critical pedagogy” have increased exponentially among librarians in recent years, this concept is still a relatively new one for our field. We may thus benefit from further exploring debates about critical pedagogy that have occurred outside of librarianship. As librarian Annie Downey recently noted in an interview about her recently published book Critical Information Literacy: Foundations, Inspiration, and Ideas, a productive new step for librarians interested in critical information literacy is “to look at, work with, and respond to the critiques of critical pedagogy” (Downey 2016a; Downey 2016b). This ability to explore such critiques, Downey comments, is a means of “remak[ing] critical pedagogy for our situations and contexts,” a process that critical pedagogist Paulo Freire described as essential to critical teaching (Downey 2016b).

Debates about critical pedagogy from the field of composition and rhetoric may prove particularly useful for instruction librarians, given the strong links between writing and information literacy instruction, both of which center largely on inquiry, knowledge creation, and critical engagement with information sources. Writing and information literacy education thus often overlap and complement one another, as many compositionists and librarians have been increasingly recognizing. These connections are apparent in a notable amount of library literature on critical information literacy that acknowledges composition and rhetoric’s extended engagement in discussions about critical pedagogy (a topic that became of particular interest to many compositionists around the late 1980s).

Critical pedagogy’s resonance for writing and library educators alike might be explained largely by the fact that both writing and information practices are inextricable from the social and political dimensions of language, discourse, and information creation and circulation. As this suggests, critical approaches to writing and library instruction ideally encourage students to consider how discourse and information sources reflect and are shaped by social, political, and structural contexts and conditions. Information science professor James Elmborg (2003, 2012) and librarian Heidi L.M. Jacobs (2008, 2013) have done significant work to demonstrate how writing pedagogy may help to inform critical information literacy. However, little attention has been given to debates in composition and rhetoric about critical pedagogy and how they may help to inform librarians’ instructional work.

In this article I explore salient themes in debates about and critiques of critical pedagogy– particularly those evident in the field of composition and rhetoric–as a means of opening further inquiry into and dialogue about the possibilities and the challenges of critical pedagogy and, more specifically, critical information literacy instruction. Given the cross-disciplinary relevance of much of critical pedagogy discourse, some of the literature considered in this article originates from other fields, namely education and gender and cultural studies. All of this work has, however, played a significant role in composition and rhetoric’s more discipline-specific discussions of critical pedagogy.

With an appreciation of the value of inquiry and problem posing, I view my goal with this writing as not to suggest definitive answers about how we, as librarians, do or ought to teach, but rather to invite further thought, questions, and dialogue about how we teach and how we relate to students and fellow educators within our unique contexts. I begin with a brief discussion of critical pedagogy as a concept and identify ideas and characteristics commonly associated with it. I then provide an overview of the general context in which debates about critical pedagogy emerged within the field of composition and rhetoric. This background serves as a foundation for exploring varying conceptions of and debates about critical pedagogy that have occurred within–and sometimes beyond–composition and rhetoric. Given the scope and focus of this article, I have not included a fuller discussion of critical pedagogy within the context of librarianship. Helpful introductions to this topic include James Elmborg’s “Critical Information Literacy: Definitions and Challenges” (2012) and Eamon Tewell’s “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy” (2015). ((Elmborg (2012) acknowledges the difficulty of defining terms like “information literacy” and suggests that it might be viewed “as a complicated set of interwoven practices” and as something that “exists in relationships between people and information rather than as an identifiable thing in its own right” (77). Tewell (2015), reviewing the library literature on critical information literacy over the past decade, gives particular attention to limitations of mechanical and skills-based conceptions of information literacy. He similarly advocates for alternative ways of understanding information literacy as contextual and socially situated. Many of the themes explored in Elmborg’s and Tewell’s articles–namely Elmborg’s emphasis on literacy education and Elmborg and Tewell’s challenge to procedural approaches to information literacy–are evident in composition and rhetoric discussions on writing pedagogy in general and on critical pedagogy in particular.))

What Is Critical Pedagogy?

While impossible to reduce to any single definition, critical pedagogy might be briefly described as a pedagogical philosophy that challenges the traditional content-centered “banking” model of education. Critical pedagogy instead favors a more democratic classroom in which the teacher and students interact and construct new knowledge as co-learners. ((In the “banking” model of education that Paulo Freire describes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the teacher “deposits” knowledge into students’ brains. Within this “banking” model the teacher is considered the all-knowing authority and purveyor of truth.)) In the critical classroom, individuals engage in reflection, dialogue, and “problem posing” in order to collectively explore “real-world” problems that have a personal relevance to students and to the larger social, political, and structural contexts in which they live. The ultimate goal of critical pedagogy, according to most critical pedagogists, is cultivating social awareness and a desire to work toward social justice (often referred to as “critical consciousness”). Critical pedagogy has its roots in the social critical theories of the Frankfurt School, as well as in educator Paulo Freire’s work, in particular his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1984) (which is commonly viewed as this educational approach’s beginning). ((The Frankfurt School’s philosophers and theorists held the view that human liberation and social change are possible through a process of enlightenment that involves identifying and questioning dominant and oppressive ideologies that function to uphold the status quo while marginalizing those who present a challenge to it. According to this critical social theory, it is largely through uncovering hegemonic conditions and structures commonly perceived of as “natural” that social change and liberation become possible.))

While the general characteristics described above are commonly associated with the term critical pedagogy, people’s varying understandings of the concept and of what it looks like in the classroom make clear that critical pedagogy has no single, universal definition. Differing conceptions of critical pedagogy are reflected in debates about it, including those that developed out of the field of composition and rhetoric.

Critical Pedagogy Discourse and Debates within Composition & Rhetoric

Interest in critical pedagogy among composition and rhetoric scholars began to grow significantly in the late 1980s and became a prominent topic of discussion and debate by the 1990s. The enthusiasm for critical pedagogy among many in this field is perhaps unsurprising, given that many if not most compositionists have long appreciated inquiry-based learning, as well as the ways in which language and discourse are greatly shaped by social, political, and structural contexts and conditions.

While critical pedagogy prompted writing instructors to rethink their teaching approaches in fresh ways, many also found some students to be resistant to it. Such resistance is generally described in the writing studies literature in relation to two main themes: 1) students’ own learning goals, which are often described as more skills-focused and “instrumentalist” (particularly in the cases of many working class students who come to college with the hopes of better positioning themselves for great employment opportunities and social mobility) and 2) student pushback against course content that examines social privilege and related issues such as class, race, and gender (content that some students react to defensively or may perceive of as pushing a political agenda). ((See, for example, Smith (1997), Durst (1999), Tinberg (2001), and Beech (2004).)) Such student resistance served largely as a catalyst for debates about critical pedagogy in the writing classroom. Common themes of these discussions that are explored in this article include:

  • the central purpose(s) of writing instruction:
    To what extent should teaching focus on skills vs. on social and political issues? To what degree do these different instructional foci intersect or diverge?
  • questions of definition:
    What is “critical pedagogy,” and how does critical pedagogy discourse construct and use abstract and utopian terms like “empowerment” and “liberation”?
  • conceptions of teacher “authority”:
    What is the teacher’s role in a classroom that is intended to decenter authority and to function democratically? How might teachers reconcile the tension between their simultaneous roles as teachers and co-learners with students?
  • the role of politics, political ideology, and democracy in the classroom:
    Is critical pedagogy’s goal of “critical consciousness” potentially coercive, or does it offer a needed alternative to dominant and hegemonic ideologies that might appear “natural” but that reinforce oppressive social conditions? Can such teaching be truly democratic and dialogical? To what extent can critical pedagogy welcome varying perspectives, dialogue, and dissensus?
  • the role of critical reflection and reflective practice in teaching:
    How can critical pedagogists work to be cognizant of their own assumptions and biases? How might teachers bring confidence and expertise to their teaching, while also recognizing that they themselves may inadvertently reinforce dominant ideologies and structures that do not serve students? How can critical pedagogists resist an apparent tendency of some critical pedagogy discourse to imply a singular, “correct” approach to teaching?

Though questions about critical pedagogy like those listed above reflect critiques of critical pedagogy, many who have raised such questions have also been supportive of critical teaching approaches. Certainly some individuals involved in debates about critical pedagogy have expressed more reservation about it than others, but the themes above reflect less of a clear divide between individuals who are either “for” or “against” critical pedagogy than complex debates about the challenges of critical pedagogy and of reflective teaching more generally.

All of the scholarship discussed in this review of the critical pedagogy literature has played a significant role in composition and rhetoric’s more discipline-specific discussions of critical pedagogy, and most of the work I discuss is authored by compositionists. It is worth noting, however, that some of this literature originates from individuals’ related fields like education and gender and cultural studies. This reflects that critical pedagogy discourse, much like writing and information literacy instruction, has significant cross-disciplinary relevance.

The Purpose(s) of Writing Instruction

Chief among the debates in composition and rhetoric about critical pedagogy has been the question of writing instruction’s central purpose(s) (an issue particularly relevant, though not limited, to first-year writing programs). To what extent should the composition classroom be about teaching writing, to what degree should it be about critical thinking and awareness of social and political issues, and in what ways do the aims of teaching writing, critical thinking, and social awareness intersect or diverge? Most compositionists engaged with critical pedagogy would likely argue that writing instruction ideally helps to make visible how language and rhetoric are inevitably social, political, and ideological. From this perspective, critical thinking and writing require awareness of the larger social, political, and cultural contexts in which discourse occurs. Critical pedagogy thus would seem a valuable means of approaching composition. At the same time, classes that concentrate foremost on teaching about ideologies and social issues could potentially neglect learning about and engaging with the writing process.

The view that critical pedagogy neglects the central purpose of writing instruction has been strongly expressed by Maxine Hairston (1992). In a reaction against composition and rhetoric’s “critical turn,” Hairston argues that critical pedagogy places politics and ideology over the teaching of writing and thus does a disservice to students. From her perspective, critical pedagogy’s prevalence in the field is a step backward, a return to the false notion that writing instruction is not in and of itself a worthwhile pursuit. In Hairston’s view, the new critical model of teaching “envisions required writing courses as vehicles for social reform rather than as student-centered workshops designed to build students’ confidence and competence as writers” (Hairston 1992, 180). Hairston’s argument calls attention to the fact that the field of composition and rhetoric has often struggled for recognition within academia, as writing instruction has frequently been perceived of as a “service” done in the name of preparing students for the “real” academic work they will do in other disciplines. College writing instructors have worked to challenge the notion that writing is a mechanical skill and that composition instruction is remedial and basic. (This situation may sound very familiar to many librarians who similarly struggle to communicate to other educators that information literacy cannot be reduced to point-and-click skills.)

Responses to Hairston’s much discussed essay make apparent that many found her argument reactionary and unbalanced, though some in the field also expressed agreement with Hairston that critique of critical pedagogy had been thus far largely absent and needed (Trimbur et al. 1993). Hairston’s essay, while perhaps reactionary, sparked more critical discussions about critical pedagogy, as it drew more attention to challenging questions that critical pedagogy has presented for writing instruction and for teaching more generally.

In contrast to Hairston, compositionist Gwen Gorzelsky (1998) articulates a more middle-of-the-road approach. She advocates for balancing different learning goals and priorities–namely, students’ goals and interests (which she describes as often more skills-focused or instrumentalist) and those of the instructor (which for critical pedagogists tend to center more on social issues). Gorzelsky’s emphasis on negotiation of students’ and instructors’ goals implies that a balance can be struck between the need for developing both practical writing skills and critical awareness of the social and political dimensions of language and discourse. Moreover, students’ and critical teachers’ goals need not be mutually exclusive, as is evident in the interconnections between developing writing abilities and building understandings of language as socially and politically situated.

Questions of Definition

Both Gorzelsky’s and Hairston’s work point to a fundamental question about what critical pedagogy is and what it looks like in the writing classroom. But despite the varied conceptions of and debates about critical pedagogy, it has often been spoken of–both within and beyond writing studies–as if it is a singular, unified concept. As education professor and philosopher Ilan Gur-Ze’ev (1998) notes, “‘[c]ritical pedagogy’ has many versions today” (463). These varying understandings of critical pedagogy (as well as of critical theory) make it difficult to generalize about the possibilities and the problems that critical teaching presents. Relatedly, the varying conceptions of critical pedagogy reflect many of the questions and debates that have arisen about its possibilities and limitations.

Related to the varied conceptions of critical pedagogy is the challenge of defining terms frequently used in discourse about it. On the surface descriptions of education as democratic, liberating, and empowering can sound inspiring and may seem difficult to take issue with. Compositionist Heather Thomas-Bunn (2014), drawing from the work of Douglas Walton (2001), points out that these “persuasive definitions” of critical pedagogy (as defined by Walton) evoke feelings and attitudes that few would want to challenge. This may contribute to a reluctance to have critical conversations about critical pedagogy, as was the case for Thomas-Bunn while teaching as a graduate student. She reflects that at that time she and her peers, new to teaching writing, were particularly unlikely “to reject—or even question—something defined as ‘emancipatory,’ egalitarian, and ‘liberating.’ To do so would be to risk looking foolish, naïve, or unfeeling” (2014). This hesitation to express both sympathy for and critique of critical pedagogy is not unique to graduate students, as is suggested by other scholars like Robert Durst (1999) and Elizabeth Ellsworth (1989), who similarly discuss the challenges of questioning critical pedagogy’s idealism.

A number of scholars within and outside of composition and rhetoric have, however, called into question utopian and universalist language that characterizes some critical pedagogy discourse. Jennifer Gore, a feminist education professor, asks teachers who generally appreciate critical and feminist pedagogical approaches to examine critically the rhetoric of those pedagogies. In her 2003 article Gore gives particular attention to terms like “empowerment.” From her perspective, the term “empowerment” is often constructed in critical pedagogy discourse in ways that, despite good intentions, “might serve as instruments of domination” in a number of ways (331). For example, the term “empowerment” often presents the teacher as the agent of change, while students are described in more passive terms that imply that the teacher is the primary individual with the ability to “empower.” Gore furthermore argues that the universalist and utopian rhetoric of “empowerment” often results in neglect of the specific historical, social, cultural, and structural contexts in which particular individuals or social groups might affect social change. She quotes the work of Jana Sawicki (1988), who asserts that “no discourse is inherently liberating or oppressive…. The liberatory status of any discourse is a matter of historical inquiry, not theoretical pronouncement” (Sawicki 166; Gore 337).

An additional limitation of “empowerment” rhetoric that Gore considers is a tendency to give limited attention to the importance of teacher self-reflexivity–that is, self-reflection on how educators may inadvertently reinforce dominant power structures and dynamics that run counter to the ideals of critical pedagogy. Related to this is the tendency in much of critical pedagogy discourse to imply that the teacher will help students arrive at universal “truth.” This stands in contrast to a view of truth as contextual and varied, open for interpretation, and varying for different individuals and social groups. In Gore’s words,

[a]s part of academic discourses, the constructions of empowerment…often reveal a “will to knowledge,” characteristic of much of intellectual work, that is so strong that the need, desire or willingness to question one’s own work is lost in the desire to believe that one has found “truth,” that one is “right.” (343)

This impulse in much of academic work is evident as “a tendency to present the discourses in a fixed, final, ‘founded’ form which protects them from rethinking and change” (343). Instead, Gore believes “critical and feminist pedagogy need to pay much closer attention to the contexts in which they aim to empower” (345). Gore’s work reflects an appreciation for how context is essential to reflecting on both teaching and on language.

Teacher Authority

Gore’s discussion of the terms and rhetoric of critical pedagogy discourse reflects other questions frequently raised about the role of teacher authority. What role should the teacher as a subject expert and as an authority figure play in such a classroom? What do teacher authority, dialogue, and democracy look like in a critical classroom? How are decisions made about a class’s curriculum, assignments, logistics, and general structure? Can teachers facilitate a truly egalitarian environment when in most institutions they are still expected to give grades and to evaluate student learning according to certain standards? These questions have been notable points of debate in the broader discourse about critical pedagogy, as well as in discussions focused particularly on the teaching of writing and rhetoric.

English and composition professor Patricia Bizzell (1991) explores such issues in her essay “Power, Authority, and Critical Pedagogy.” She points to more relativist conceptions of classroom authority that acknowledge the value of teacher authority and that have been expressed by many critical pedagogists, including Freire. As Bizzell notes, Freire’s descriptions in Pedagogy of the Oppressed of a democratic classroom and teacher authority have often been interpreted without a full understanding of the historical and pedagogical context in which that text was written (that is, a class of Brazilian peasants working under a feudal system) (66). Bizzell challenges the idea that teacher authority has no place in the critical classroom and calls for more complex conceptions of teacher authority that acknowledge the teacher’s subject expertise and leadership role while also valuing student agency and voice.

Compositionists David L. Wallace and Helen Rothschild Ewald (2000) give particular attention to the tension between teacher authority and student agency in their book Mutuality in the Rhetoric and Composition Classroom. They propose an “alternative pedagogy” that shares critical pedagogy’s co-existing commitments to teach about social issues and to support student agency through a democratic and dialogic classroom. As Wallace and Ewald contend, classroom mutuality involves “teachers and students sharing the potential to adopt a range of subject positions and to establish reciprocal discourse relations as they negotiate meaning in the classroom” (3). From their perspective, “resistance to the dominant culture” should not be “the only option open to students” (5), for “privileging resistance can in itself become an expression of a teacher’s absolute authority if it, too, is not up for negotiation” (21). The authors thereby complicate Freire’s idea of “critical consciousness” as the ultimate goal of teaching. Through this approach, Wallace and Ewald seek to reconcile the tension between critical pedagogy’s insistence on egalitarian dialogue, on one hand, and, on the other, any imperative that students adopt certain ideological stances or take certain political or social actions.

Wallace and Ewald furthermore argue that classroom mutuality is inseparable from teaching writing and rhetoric, for language reflects and offers particular ways of relating to others. More specifically, they note that “classroom speech genres,” which shape much of classroom discourse and interactions, reflect the relationship between language and power that is so significant to writing studies (7). Teachers, they believe, can foster greater mutuality in the classroom through 1) employing more dialogic speech genres (which diverge from the traditional question-response structure of much of classroom discourse), 2) designing course assignments and curricula to open more room for student choice, and 3) regarding students’ “interpretive agency” (that is, students’ current and developing views, which may or may not reflect the teacher’s view of “critical consciousness”) (6).

English professor Jennifer Trainor (2002) similarly emphasizes the importance of “the rhetorical frames our pedagogies provide for students as they structure identity,” particularly as students are asked to engage in conversations about social issues (647). This approach offers students models for developing their own ways of speaking about their personal and social experiences and identities.

Gwen Gorzelsky (2009), interpreting and agreeing with Trainor’s perspective, states that without drawing from such rhetorical frames writing teachers “risk mobilizing an explicitly angry, racist consciousness among those white students who see no way to examine their privilege from a rhetorical position that allows them a sense of integrity rather than guilt or self-hatred” (65). In other words, she points to the potential for students whose political views differ from those of the instructor to feel alienated and to respond in reactive or even hostile ways, a dynamic that is likely to exacerbate rather than to alleviate divisiveness. (These concerns seem particularly important, given the intense polarization evident in much of public and political discourse in 2016.) ((The potential for a polarized classroom environment that Gorzelsky describes seems to parallel much of what is occurring in the broader political discourse in the U.S. right now, as many whose economic hardships have been largely ignored and who have felt marginalized by the political establishment have responded affirmatively to divisive and often hateful rhetoric toward that which is perceived as “Other.”))

Gorzelsky seeks to address the potential for students to respond in reactionary ways to critical pedagogy when she proposes that writing teachers “must help students find rhetorical stances that allow them to undertake such work while constructing a viable identity for themselves” (65). Reflecting on her observations of an intermediate writing course in which the instructor “used rhetorical moves that consistently encouraged students to thoughtfully evaluate their own and others’ views,” Gorzelsky concludes that students do engage constructively in issues key to critical pedagogy “when the classroom ethos strongly supports their agency–their ownership of their developing ideas and texts” (66). In such an environment, “students manage their personal and intellectual boundaries” while the instructors’ “rhetorical moves support[] those boundaries” (66). In the context of the course she observed, such an approach encouraged reflection and engagement that contrasted the defensiveness that many instructors have seen from students when confronted with issues of social privilege. ((I would add to Gorzelsky’s points that establishing class ground rules is an important part of cultivating such learning environments: all participants will likely benefit from committing to treating one another with respect and dignity and knowing that others are expected to do the same. A useful resource on establishing ground rules and engaging in difficult classroom discussions is the University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching’s “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.”))

Politics, Political Ideology, and Democracy in the Classroom

The tension between teacher authority and student agency intersects with one of the most salient questions of concern about critical pedagogy: the degree to which it is truly democratic and dialogic and whether such teaching might mask attempts to promote a particular political agenda or ideology. Media studies professor Elizabeth Ellsworth (1989) has argued, for example, that “[s]trategies such as student empowerment and dialogue give the illusion of equality while in fact leaving the authoritarian nature of the teacher/student relationship intact” (306). Similarly, English professors Gregory Jay and Gerald Graff (1995) contend that “the proper outcome of critical pedagogy is already predetermined” (203). Analyzing Freire’s explanations of critical pedagogy in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Jay and Graff assert,

However much Freire may insist on teaching “problem-posing” rather than top-down solutions, the goal of teaching for Freire is to move the student toward “a critical perception of the world,” and this critical perception “implies a correct method of approaching reality” (103). … [T]he teacher in this scenario is positioned as the knower of truth who will bring their students into the light.
(Jay and Graff 1995, 203; Freire 1984, 103)

This notion of the teacher as the owner of truth, of course, is incompatible with Freire’s other descriptions of student agency and collective knowledge building through open dialogue. Jay and Graff point to inconsistencies in Freire’s various descriptions of critical pedagogy as dialogic, emancipatory, and as consciousness-raising.

English professor Richard E. Miller (1998) offers a similar critique of Freirian rhetoric. Miller identifies a “tension between the Freirian insistence on a collaborative methodology…and a practice that, almost magically, produces people who know exactly what to think about injustice and how it should be redressed.” According to Miller’s analysis, those who resist Freire’s pedagogy are deemed by Freire to be “lost to ‘false consciousness’” (14). Such a rhetoric of critical pedagogy constructs what English and education professor Lil Brannon (1993) describes as a “masculine heroic narrative…the teacher as critical warrior” (460). This construction of the teacher exists in tension with the emphasis in much of critical pedagogy discourse (including Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed) on the teacher’s ongoing reflection on their simultaneous and sometimes conflicting roles as co-learner and authority figure.

Critical Reflection, Reflective Practice, and Teaching

The inconsistencies in Freire’s representations of the teacher as on one hand critically reflective and on the other seemingly enlightened raises questions about the role of reflective practice in critical pedagogy discourse. Through reflective practice, educators ideally negotiate their positions as co-learner and teacher, as they seek to remain cognizant of their own limitations as educators. As compositionist Robert Yagelski (1999) writes, critical pedagogy requires “a delicate balancing act between acknowledging and using one’s legitimate authority as a teacher on the one hand and, on the other, taking appropriate measures to undercut that same authority so that it does not inhibit the effort to foster critical consciousness in students” (41). This paradox presents a tremendous challenge for teachers, one that has no straightforward answers.

As Yagelski notes, the contradictions in Freire’s writing reflect the difficulty of balancing the positions of teacher as authority and as co-learner. Reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Yagelski observes that on one hand Freire thoughtfully explores the “student-teacher contradiction”–that is, the way that a teacher’s authority can work against a student’s development of “critical consciousness.” These textual moments, however, exist alongside others in which Freire constructs the narrative of the “teacher-as-hero” [as described by Lil Brannon (1993)]. Freire’s descriptions of critical pedagogy ([both in earlier works like Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1984) and in later ones like Pedagogy of Hope (1994)] indicate that “Freire’s own position as teacher, his own identity as liberatory educator, is much more conflicted and complex than he seems to let on” (Yagelski 1999, 42).

The reinforced narrative of “teacher-as-hero” that is present in much of the literature on critical pedagogy runs counter to the kind of honest self-reflection that is often described as essential to critical pedagogy. The image of the heroic teacher may contribute to a dualistic image of “good” and “bad” teachers that, according to K. Hyoejin Yoon (2005), characterizes much critical pedagogy literature. In “Discipline and Punish: A Model Pedagogy” Yoon argues that often this professional discourse “tend[s] to trivialize and even demonize the experiences of teachers whose efforts at decentering power did not leave them feeling self-satisfied and magnanimous but, instead, grasping for control, respect, and authority.” This rhetoric “invites the reader to identify with the speaker and conspire in disparaging the ‘bad teacher’” (728). Binary conceptions of teachers and their teaching as good/bad are clearly not helpful. Fortunately, such punitive rhetoric appears, based on my reading of the literature, less prevalent than constructive ways of discussing critical educational practices.

Yagelski’s work is one example of a more encouraging discourse about critical teaching. Drawing from the Zen concept of non-dualism, which contrasts dualist conceptions of the self, Yagelski (1999) offers an alternative to the “teacher-as-hero” narrative. While some critical pedagogy discourse may encourage teachers to identify strongly with their positions as teachers, and while such identification can to some extent be a source for meaningful teaching, Yagelski sees a need to remember that “good teaching is not about the teacher” (italics in the original text). Rather, teaching is foremost about students’ learning. Thus, “the teacher’s agenda must ultimately become secondary to the student’s needs even as the teacher’s identity remains a central part of the student’s education” (43). By embracing such a perspective, Yagelski believes that writing instructors might be better able to “avoid the dogmatism that characterizes too much of our scholarly and public discussions about teaching writing.” In so doing, “we accept the uncertainty that comes with acknowledging that we, the teachers, may not know exactly what is right for all our students all the time—or even most of them some of the time” (46).

Though Yagelski’s audience is writing teachers, his conclusions are relevant to educators across disciplines. He describes what, to me, is the kind of reflection and open-mindedness that fosters learning in all human beings, in our varied experiences as both teachers and learners. It is also a reminder of how challenging teaching can be, particularly when engaging with critical pedagogies and reflective practices that present valuable–but sometimes uncomfortable–opportunities for teachers to examine self-doubts and questions that can often arise when teaching.


The debates about critical pedagogy that have been considered here have relevance across disciplinary and professional lines. At the same time, such work in composition and rhetoric is particularly relevant to information literacy instruction, which shares common roots in literacy education. Because writing instruction has historically had a more central role in college curricula in the United States than has information literacy instruction, it may be unsurprising that compositionists have engaged over a longer time period in discussions about critical pedagogy. Debates about critical pedagogy over the past three decades, especially those occurring in composition and rhetoric, may help librarians to think more deeply about the possibilities and challenges of critical teaching approaches in general, as well as in the more specific context of library and information literacy instruction. Because the questions that have arisen about critical pedagogy’s possibilities and limitations have no single or easy answers and will vary considerably in different teaching and institutional contexts, we (librarians) need opportunities through which to explore these complexities more fully with one another. Being aware of the critiques of critical pedagogy can help us as individual teachers and as a professional community to continually reflect critically and constructively on how we engage with students and with other teachers.

Given the context-dependent nature of teaching, as well as the reality that teaching is uniquely personal for any individual educator, I have not attempted to offer particular answers to the questions raised in the debates that have been explored here. However, I would like to suggest some general considerations that we, as librarians, might bring to reflection on our teaching. Perhaps one of the most valuable principles that critical pedagogy offers to information literacy instruction is an emphasis on context. As Christine Pawley (2003) writes in “Information Literacy: A Contradictory Coupling,” “Information never stands alone—it is always produced and used in ways that represent social relationships. And these representations and relationships are not merely a matter of chance or individual choice but reflect the underlying patterns that structure society” (433). However, as Pawley also observes, “the conceiving of information as a thing—the ‘reification’ of information—has permitted us to treat it as a commodity” (425). In recognizing and exploring information and information practices as inextricable from social, political, historical, and structural contexts, we can engage along with students and fellow educators in information literacy instruction that extends far beyond mechanical skills.

Such an approach can actually work in tandem with teaching about tasks that may initially appear purely procedural. For example, while many teachers and students perceive of database searching as merely perfunctory, a critical and context-centered approach to database searching can emphasize how information systems reflect and often privilege certain conversations and voices. Relatedly, students and teachers might explore how various information and retrieval systems are reflections of intersecting and diverging discourse communities and the discursive practices, language, and systems through which they exchange and develop knowledge.

At the same time that the contextual nature of information and information practices can be explored both within and beyond stand-alone library sessions, a continued challenge is how we engage more fully in teaching information literacy from a critical perspective, given the unusual position we often occupy as educators (that is, as class visitors who are usually not the instructor of record). Because stand-alone library sessions limit the depth with which librarians can engage with students in more complex and conceptual aspects of information literacy (though such instruction also does not preclude this), the rich potentials of critical pedagogy reflect a need for examining librarians’ instructional and institutional roles both within and beyond the one-shot model.

Librarians’ expanding instructional roles and approaches have already illustrated great potential for continuing to extend and to deepen critical approaches to information literacy within and beyond the library classroom, as our pedagogical work extends beyond individual library sessions and as we communicate the significance of information literacy to higher education. Michelle Holschuh Simmons (2005) and Nora Almeida (2015) have made compelling arguments that our odd insider/outsider role has a power that often goes unrecognized. Our unique cross-disciplinary perspectives and the fact that we do not usually assign grades may enable us to engage more fully with students as co-learners engaged in a process of inquiry. Yvonne Nalani Meulemans and Allison Carr (2013) have moreover argued for the need to value and to assert our expertise and our roles as equal partners with disciplinary faculty as we build more meaningful and collaborative relationships with them.

At the same time, our profession continues to struggle with the widespread view of library instruction as mechanical and of librarians as guest lecturers. Here again we may find it useful to look at compositionists’ similar efforts to challenge misconceptions of writing as remedial and of the writing teacher’s work as perfunctory [see, for example, Mike Rose’s “The Language of Exclusion” (1985)]. Much of our own professional literature also encourages us to reconsider our traditional teaching roles in relation to the institutional structures and cultures in which we work. [See, for example, Christiansen, Stombler, and Thaxton (2004); Julien and Pecoskie (2009); and Meulemans and Carr (2013).] We can give such scholarship increased attention, as we consider the interconnections between our professional positions, the relationships we have with students and with fellow educators, and the structural and institutional conditions of our workplaces. While reflection on structural conditions can be frustrating, such dialogue can also help us to examine what assumptions we may be bringing to our pedagogical work and to explore new possibilities that are available to us but that might not otherwise come into view. ((The fact that our professional community is still predominantly white, female, and middle class suggests that this process of identifying and challenging hidden assumptions may be especially valuable, as our profession works to be more inclusive.))

Conversations about critical pedagogy within the context of literacy education are also reminders of the power of language to both reflect and to shape the ways we experience and perceive the world and the ways we relate to others. This includes how librarians, other teachers, and students talk about and approach information literacy. The relevance of language to our instructional approaches can be extended to how we discuss critical teaching approaches. Given that there is no singular definition for “critical pedagogy,” just as there is no singular way to engage (or not to engage) with it, perhaps it is more accurate to talk about “critical pedagogies.” The plural form of this work might help us in exploring how our pedagogical philosophies and approaches are situated within our particular teaching contexts. In other words, we might dialogue further about our varying conceptions of critical pedagogies, how these conceptions help to inform our teaching practices, and the tensions and challenges we experience in relation to critical pedagogical praxes. In speaking of critical pedagogies, we might further grow critical and inclusive conversations about critical pedagogies. We can hereby affirm how our individual teaching praxes are enriched by both our varied and unique individual experiences and perspectives, as well as by our collective community and the conversations and efforts that emerge from it.


Reflection on the issues raised by critical pedagogy debates is especially important at this historical moment, given how social and ideological divisions in the United States have become increasingly apparent in public and political discourse, particularly since the beginning of the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign and election. Now more than ever we need open, respectful dialogue, conversations through which people listen and in which everyone’s human dignity and worth is respected and affirmed. As I was writing this article, one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in U.S. history was coming to a close. Tensions and injustices that have been present in the United States for centuries now seem much harder to ignore. The hurts and divisions in the United States that have become painfully apparent this presidential election cycle are also increasingly palpable in many classrooms and on many campuses, including mine.

It is often easy for me to feel paralyzed by the current political climate, and I know I am not alone in that experience. At the same time I see a growing number of efforts being made within and beyond higher education to foster more open dialogue, listening, and reflection. Such processes are vital to cultivating deep learning, cultural sensitivity, and civic engagement. Debates about critical pedagogy can help us explore how critical teaching can encourage true dialogue. Relatedly, considering these debates may help us prevent the potential for students to experience critical teaching as indoctrination, intimidation, or silencing, all of which might become unintended catalysts for reactionary and oppressive ideologies.

While I have not suggested easy answers to the many questions that critical pedagogy discourse raises about teaching, I do wish to affirm the value of critical pedagogy’s emphasis on reflection and dialogue, which is especially crucial to encouraging the deep listening and thinking that is especially needed in our country now. The questions raised through critical pedagogy debates have no simple answers; instead they invite us to approach our teaching as a process of open inquiry. Hopefully we will continue such exploration as long as we are librarians, teachers, and world citizens. I believe we can do a great deal of meaningful and needed work, as individuals and as community members, and within and beyond our local institutions. For me engaging in that work means pushing past my sense of paralysis. It means remaining hopeful.

My warm thanks to the reviewers of this article, Patrick Williams (Librarian for Literature, Rhetoric, and Digital Humanities Research and Scholarship at Syracuse University) and Sofia Leung and Bethany Messersmith of the ITLWTLP Editorial Board. Their thoughtful feedback has helped to make this piece more inclusive, coherent, and relevant to both the immediate and future historical moments. Thank you also to the entire ITLWTLP Board for the interest and energy they gave to considering and publishing this article.


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