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Month: August 2005

The Dewey Decibel System

The Dewey Decibel System

I just finished listening to one of my favourite NPR programs, This American Life. I got hook on it when I was living in the states, and thankfully for me they’ve been available over the internet for years, so I still get my Sunday fill by tuning in digitally.

On tap today: Image Makers. This episode got me twice: first, it has a segment on how the Michigan public library was trying to change its image among teenagers…by bringing in rock bands.

Hey, if librarians could do this, making a library not very much a library, making it loud, then anyone can do anything.

Genius. Every single thing about that story is inspiring; doing something totally different, tapping into the interests of the patrons, and the idea of changing the general perception of what the library is, what words to use to describe it, by pairing two apparently contrasting ideas; the library (quiet) and rock bands (very loud). Two constrasting things in the same place at the same time. If anything can be a crucible for change, that’s probably it.

Then the second part of this episode tells the story of a mother trying to recreate the image of her extremely ill husband for her 10 year old son, and that part made me cry. Not that that’s a terribly difficult thing to do, but still. So, a success from start to finish.

So my recommendation if you have an hour of time you can fill with some interesting sound: Image Makers, from This American Life. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. If you’re a librarian, you’ll be inspired.

The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads

The Final Frontier: Investigating Undergrads

Some time ago, I read an article called Undercover Freshman. It told the story of a faculty member from the anthropology department taking a year off and applying to live in the student dorms for a year.

Nathan had been worrying that students were starting to seem “like people from a different culture,” and it upset her that she didn’t understand this culture with which she interacted every day. The experience in the course she audited only added to her frustration. She saw that once students removed the title “professor” from her persona, they were more than willing to open up. She just couldn’t get them to do that the same way in the classroom.

So we she went undercover. She let students believe that she was recently divorced and living in the dorm while taking undergrduate courses. She experienced the undergraduate student life by sneaking in, listening through the walls, and watching. She’s using an assumed name to publish the results, because her subjects still don’t know about the ruse.

That study made me bristle for all kinds of reasons. First, I’m not all that keen on those sorts of colonialist observational methods. I realize anthropology has been through the ringer about this already, and I’m hardly qualified to add to the pile, but I’m squeamish about observing and writing other people’s reality as truth (at least as non-fiction).

And when it comes down to it, I don’t like the divisions that are being erected here; undergrads are not actually in a separate culture than faculty are. The institution (and society) itself may foster walls between the two groups, but undergrads are adults living in the same town as the faculty members, probably going to the same restaurants and the same bookstores. They are not aliens. There are other ways to meet and communicate with undergraduates than lying to them about your job and eavesdropping on their conversations. Even the article about this woman’s research indicates that students were perfectly willing to talk to her when she was auditing a class, even when they knew she was also faculty. The bridge she’s trying to build is between an instructor and an instructee, not between the high reaches of the faculty and the seething scum of the undergraduate residences. An iota of respect, please! Surely there is a better way to cope with power differentials than this.

What also put my back up was the presumption that undergraduate life is this hidden frontier, that such a study was required in the first place. There are lots of staff and faculty members at any university for whom interacting with undergraduates in a non-class room setting is their mandate. There are staff living in the residences. There are student staff living next door to first year students, helping them with the adjustment to university life and getting to know them as people. When I read this article about Dr. “Nathan” and her research project, I felt as though she had opted to shut down everyone else, she was going to go experience it for herself rather than examine some “secondary” source material first. In the end, from the sounds of the article, the research was more about professional development on the part of this one nameless faculty member rather than ground-breaking research. She didn’t uncover anything those of us who have been working with undergraduates didn’t already know.

Now there’s a similar but entirely different project underway at the University of Rochester. But this time, they’re being upfront about it. The research is being conducted by an anthropologist in conjunction with the library, in order to help tailor services to the specific needs of undergrads.

To get the data, the researchers did such things as interview students about all the various steps they took from the time they got an assignment to the time it was turned in and give students disposable cameras with which to shoot everything from where they do their research to the contents of their backpacks.

The library’s research team — among them, librarians, a graphics designer and a software engineer — then brainstorm over the findings.

I’m interested in the results of both of these studies, but I’m quite certain the former will not hold a candle to the latter. What a great way to re-invent library services! How much more respectful!

A Generation Lost in Space

A Generation Lost in Space

Hot from my feedreader, this: the internet makes students stupid.

Although campus computing is often touted as aiding education, many professors say the Internet has actually hampered students’ academic performance. When asked whether the Internet has changed the quality of student work, 42 percent of professors in a recent survey said they had seen a decline, while only 22 percent said they had seen improvement.

Normally when I read about research I’m open to the idea that its conclusions might be true. I start from a positive place with an article, shall we say. But not this time. This may be a study of some kind, but it’s not measuring student output since the internet appeared. It’s measuring faculty’s perceptions of the quality of student work since they started listening to ipods and posting to livejournal. Don’t people always pine for the old days?

“The thing that I hear from faculty colleagues is that there’s plagiarism and cheating going on over the Internet and that there’s a worsening in the quality of students’ writing,” he said. “I hear complaints more often than I hear any kind of positive comments about how the Internet has affected students’ work.”

What’s missing from this study are things like measurables: have grades gone down since the internet appeared? Have fewer students been graduating? Are there fewer graduate students? Has there been a marked decrease in the level of published works by faculty members who spent time on the internet prior to finishing their phds? None of these sorts of markers were examined. All we have here is some nostalgia by some fairly aged faculty members (given that the internet has been in active and wide use for the last 10 years). But the key reason why I’m not all that convinced by this article is it’s secondary findings: while students are stupider because of the internet, faculty report that they are actually better because of it. They are in better contact with their students and their teaching has improved, faculty say.

Most of the professors surveyed, 83 percent, said they spent less time in the library now than they did before they had Internet access. But professors said that online journals, e-mail lists, and other Internet tools had become critical for keeping up with news and research in their disciplines.

Whether this is a change that makes their connection to their own disciplines better, or that makes their own research easier if not better than it was prior to the internet, doesn’t appear to have factored into this survey. The hint in it is that it might, though. Here we have faculty connecting with each other, keyword searching journals, keeping up with the professional literature from their desks or from home. Faculty claim to be in better contact with their (increasingly stupid) students, and also with their colleagues around the world. It would seem to follow that their research might have also improved. They are coming into the library less, but they are using library resources possibly even more than they used to.

I’m just not ready to trust contradictory hearsay research like this yet. This sounds more like nostalgia than hard evidence.