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Month: May 2005

Library Anxiety

Library Anxiety

This doesn’t exactly qualify as a nightmare, but this morning I had a dream about starting this new job. Though I was starting it in the wrong place. I was back at Western, and they put me in this rather spacious office with a few other people. That was okay; lots of room. But as time went on more and more people were brought into the makeshift office, until eventually the space directly in front of me was prepared for another staff member, this one with desk attachments to hold a 1970s typewriter, a large, multi-line telephone, and a computer. There wasn’t enough room left for me to open my laptop.

Then I ran into the director of the library, who, for the record, was not the actual director of the library where I did my co-op, but was instead the director of the library in the United States where I recently interviewed. She took me by the arm and led me around to a couple of places around the building.

“Perhaps you missed the orientation,” she said, “There have been complaints. This,” she gestured at a large, empty space filled by desks with fancy levers all over them, presumably to adjust the height of each section of each desk, “is the communal space where we open letters. That’s all we do there, we open letters.” She led me into another area, also large and completely empty. “This,” she explained, “is where we sort our photocopying. That’s all that we do here.” Apparently I had been sneaking out of my ridiculously overstaffed office to use completely empty communal spaces. I made “Oh, I see” noises and then the director left me on my own, having so diplomatically reprimanded me.

And then I ran into my friend Courtney, who is in fact a librarian at Western in real life. She had the mostly beautiful, glossy, chestnut brown hair I’d ever seen. She walked me back to my overcrowded office, as if to make sure I didn’t leave its confines again. It turned out that it was her who had complained to the director about my inappropriate use of communal space. She didn’t like me taking up some her of expansive letter-opening space with my laptop, trying to get some work done outside the zoo that was my own allotted space. She, of course, had an office all to herself, but it’s always best to have separate space for activities as important as photocopy-sorting and letter-opening.

“Courtney,” I said, getting teary (as I always seem to do in dreams), “why didn’t you just tell me if you weren’t happy with what I was doing?”

She shrugged, She was vaguely annoyed with me, and tossed her beautiful, glossy hair in my direction to underscore her annoyance.

And then she saw my overcrowded office. There were probably 40-odd people in there, all typing on 1970s typewriters, or sorting through large stacks of envelopes, some dealing cards with green visors on their heads. There was lots of noise and I think some smoke rising from the whole crazy mess. The small spot that had been reserved as mine was now entirely covered over by someone’s mousepad.

Courtney was shocked. Apparently the configuration of my workspace had been a secret until that moment. (How anyone can keep 40-odd people and that much 1970s office equipment a secret is beyond me.) And then she started to laugh. She laughed and laughed and laughed.

Maybe I was allowed to use the letter-opening space after that.

Paris Hilton: “I hate reading!”

Paris Hilton: “I hate reading!”

From today’s Toronto Star:

Pamela Anderson recalling her last dinner conversation with Paris Hilton:

“Last time I met her we were in a restaurant together. She slammed down the menu and screamed, ‘I hate reading!'”

Luckily Pammy is fluent in menu.

I dunno, I find that oddly amusing. Pamela Anderson, erstwhile dumb blonde posterchild more recently outed as an intelligent, critical, media-savvy woman with a very meta take on fame and beauty, talking to Paris Hilton, the latest dumb blonde on the scene, a wealthy, partying socialite with dark roots, coloured contact lenses, a history of racist remarks, and an apparent disdain for anything that requires her brain. The passing of the torch. I never thought those Baywatch days would ever seem enlightened.

Phone Reference Goes Corporate

Phone Reference Goes Corporate

And from the “You’ve got to be kidding me” file comes askgod.com:

To capture all the information off the Net, all you need is the one thing you already have – Your Cell Phone. Put your stylus down, stop searching the streets for Wi-Fi spots and call ASK GOD. ASK GOD saves you the one thing you need and can’t ever buy – Your time.
In June of 2005, our company will allow you to ASK GOD. As our name implies, ASK GOD will supply you with every answer imaginable, twenty-four hours a day. Furthermore, our service does not rest on the Sabbath.

To use ASK GOD’s Phoneternet, all you need to do is call our toll-free number and, within seconds, our live angels will be able to answer any questions you may have. Our ASK GOD angels are trained web experts, giving callers instant access to any web-based information.

I mean, I knew library services were hot, but I didn’t know they were so hot that random people on the interwebs would try and sell them back to people as if they don’t already exist.

[Via Metafilter]

Edited to add: Apparently the creators of askgod.com are also responsible for this. Down with the pacisfists and the libraries! It takes all kinds, I guess.

Feeling Sorry for Celia

Feeling Sorry for Celia

Have purchased this book for a young friend of mine about to celebrate a birthday, and I will now have to go buy her another copy because I started reading it and I can’t part with it. No, I will not part with it.

If my young friend likes it half as much as I do, I will be outrageously pleased.

A “Women’s” Problem

A “Women’s” Problem

From The New York Times:

Jody – and I mean this in a sweet and not a clinical way – has been in a state of perpetual schizophrenia since our daughter was born. She used to run a company, but she loves being a mom. So she’s settled on a string of part-time roles that (in my view, at least) call on a fraction of the skills corporate America spent two decades helping her develop.

Maybe you know a woman (or a few million) like her. It’s hardly news that the issue vexing talented people is the struggle to balance their professional lives with time for fulfilling lives outside of work. The shock is that after decades of wrestling with these tradeoffs, the obvious answer is the one everyone has been too skeptical or afraid to explore: changing the way top jobs are structured.

I’ve been reading about this issue a lot recently. Why aren’t there more women in CEO positions? How long will it take to achieve parity? There was an article about it recently in the Globe and Mail, and the answer there was never. I think it was a Wente column, and she said that men want to trounce the other guy into the ground at all costs while women just want to be happy. So men will continue to take the jobs that require 24/7 attention and women will take the more reasonable, mostly-satisfying positons that allow them to live their lives around it. That’s what she said. I felt it was essentialist and problematic, but I didn’t have a better answer.

Here’s the deal: this isn’t a “women’s” problem; it’s a human problem. Yet for 30 years women have tried to crack this largely on their own, and one thing is clear: if the fight isn’t joined by men (like me) who want a life, too, any solutions become “women’s” solutions. A broader drive to redesign work will take a union-style consciousness that makes it safe for men who secretly want balance to say so.

Sounds good. But why is it that men didn’t fight for balance to start with? What was so appealing about not having a satisfying family life in the first place? Were we really never closer to parity in parenting than we were in the 1950s? Didn’t we have dads who were closer to their kids? Is corporate culture the last to get a breath of fresh air?

Alone Time

Alone Time

The first thing I should say before launching into this story is that I’m used to living alone. I lived alone for three years in Toronto, and then for another year in Guelph, and then another eight months while I was finishing my MLIS in London. I like to live alone. I think when I live alone that I am truly me, completely actualized, doing whatever I like. It’s sort of primal, actually doing what you feel you want to instead of what’s expected. As soon as you put another pair of eyes and ears into a place, the way you live becomes different, no matter how much you love whoever it is. Living alone is just different that way.

But for the last five months I’ve been living with other people. My folks, to be specific. In the lag time between finishing school and actually landing a job, I’ve been living back in ye olde homestead, helping my mother adjust to retired life, providing free babysitting services to my sister and my brother-in-law, and trying to be vaguely unannoying. It’s been years since I’ve lived here. Nearly 12 years, actually.

When my parents went to Greece for a week, leaving me to mind the pets, my brother-in-law said, “Must be nice to have the place all to yourself, eh?”

“Not really,” I said. “I miss my mom.”

I realized as I said that that I hadn’t been alone in a very long time. For someone who likes a lot of alone time, it seemed odd to me that I hadn’t noticed the lack of it, and odd that I felt awkward being alone again.

Last night I stayed over at my sister’s house while they were off at a wedding for the weekend. I’m here to abuse the wireless connection and to keep their pet feline company. As I closed my computer and turned out the light last night, the world felt eerie. Alone in a house. The absences of the people who should be here were palpable, as if there were a cutout space of air for my sister, for her husband, for their son. The last word I heard from the This American Life show I was listening to was “psychotic”. The show finished, I shut off the player, put the computer away. The sound of Ira Glass’s voice saying that one word reverberated through the room for a while. Psychotic, psychotic. And for some long minutes everything was psychotic. The walls, the dull glow from the window behind me, the shadows of things I imagined lurching around in the dark, and me. Alone in a house. Completely alone.

By this time next week I’ll be putting the finishing touches on my pile of boxes and random sticks of furniture, waiting for the movers to pick it up and take it to my new home. Which will be mine. Mine alone. It’s not so much that I have doubts that I can handle it; it’s just that I’m not used to even considering whether or not I can.

Blogs and Essays: A rant

Blogs and Essays: A rant

From the Baltimore Sun: The Long Arm of the Blog by Victoria A. Brownworth. In sum:

Blogs are not essays, but somehow blogs are going to replace essays, and that’s bad because essays are great, whereas blogs are crap posted on the interwebs by the illiterate unwashed. Samuel Pepys and Jonathan Swift would not be impressed with the blogosphere. But you should be impressed that I mentioned those two men, because I am smrt and am a Real Essayist. Respect me.

Why am I being so harsh? I generally try to be respectful of the articles I link to, but my sinuses feel like their full of concrete at the moment and I have less patience for this kind of strong-arming by the mainstream media than I usually do. And strong-arming it is: this article is maliciously disingenuous, and you can consider that my thesis statement.

Any dot-commer can blog – a serious journalist with years of experience like, say, myself, or the teenager down the block spewing political rants during breaks from Grand Theft Auto. The problem in the blogosphere is that the kid and I will be received with equal credibility.

To suggest that everyone in the blogosphere has the same level of credibility shows a startling lack of research on Brownworth’s part. Even a basic understanding of the Google ranking algorithm flies in the face of this idea. Authority is calculable and regularly calculated online. Why, just yesterday I was talking to my buddy Jason about the problem of “A-list” bloggers, the ones with all the credibility and all the attention, and how that ranking system hurts women and minorities. So, not only are we not all equal on the internet as Brownworth suggests, but we are actively in the midst of a years-old debate about the lack of diversity in the blogosphere hierarchy.

[Jonathan Swift’s] “Proposal” works as well today as it did three centuries ago, its ideas still relevant. Do you remember last week’s blog? Yesterday’s?

Brownworth obviously misunderstands the term “blog”. If you want to make a comparison between “essay” and something related to the blogosphere, the term you’re looking for is “post”. A blog is not an essay. A blog post, however, could very well be an essay. It could be an essay that took four years to write. It could be an essay that was originally published in the New Yorker. Or, it could an essay that was published on a blog and then later in a book by a reputable publisher. A post could be a snippet of dialogue, too. It could be a link and nothing else. It could be an audio file, a podcast. It could be a picture. It could be a piece of short fiction. It could be a book review. But it could also very easily be an essay.

…blogs are pretenders to the throne of true essay writing. They mimic the essay much as Eliza Doolittle mimicked the Queen’s English before Professor Higgins got his hands on her. Like Eliza, blogs are captivating in their earnest, rapid-fire approach. But they are rarely, even at their best, true essays.

No. they are not essays at all. They are sources in which one might find essays posted, but they are not in and of themselves essays.

What’s a little fudged definition between friends? Am I being deliberately obtuse? What’s the problem with confusing “blog” with “post”?

Brownworth’s problem with bloggers is that they do not have all the careful editors and quality-control personnel imposed upon them the way that essayists do. Because the essay as a literary form is a technology so advanced that it actually comes equipped with five other human brains attached, so that whenever you sit down to write an essay you are immediately surrounded by an editorial team.

In blogging, the checks and balances of standard essay writing seem not to apply. With its component of endless ruminations, incomplete (and often inconsistent) ideas and run-on sentences, is blogging really an online tributary of the art of the essay or the Internet kudzu slowly wiping it out?

Here is where Brownworth’s vocabulary problem twists around and becomes a non sequitur, where it becomes intellectually dishonest. The “art of the essay” is not being lost as she is suggesting. If anything, the literary form of the essay is at an all time high, since so many people are latching on to non-fiction writing. Suddenly it’s not only paid “essayists” who are can write essays that other people can read and respond to. Anyone can do it; that means there are more essays around. They may not all be good, but they’re definitely not all bad. If Brownworth’s interest is in encourage thoughtfulness and good essay writing by us as a society, she should be applauding the blog, since writing is something that improves with practice. The pool of practiced essayists is in fact growing.

There are no “checks and balances of standard essay writing”. There are “checks and balances” in the mainstream media, which is what Brownworth really means to talk about. This has nothing to do with Pepys and Swift and everything to do with big business and what it wants you to know.

I am the last person in the world to suggest that bloggers will or should supplant journalists. But the reality is this: the mainstream media, particularly in the US, has failed, and bemoaning this as the loss of an art form is disingenuous.

A wake up call: that little law about freedom of the press that everyone jumps up and down about? That doesn’t actually apply to journalists. It applies to the press, as in, the publisher of the newspaper itself. The journalist is merely an employee of the person who has the right to publish whatever he wants. (See Fox News if you think I’m making this up.) If a journalist covers a controversial story, the owner of the press in under no obligation at all to publish it. Journalists are required to represent their employers first and foremost, not the “objective truth”, whatever the heck that is.

Further, newspaper articles are never exactly the length they need to be according to the topic at hand, with just enough examples and quotes and research and exposition. Newspaper essays are never considered complete simply when they have reached the end of their argument. They are crafted and edited to fit into a certain number of inches on a page.

So here we have two clear influences on the “pure” art form that is the newspaper essay; the bias of the owner of the press and the space available that particular day. Do either of these things improve the quality of the essay as a literary form? Would Jonathan Swift have taken kindly to chunks of A Modest Proposal being sliced out to fit the confines of a particular publication? Why should we prefer this content to the product of blogs, since bloggers are, in fact, the owners of their own presses, responsible only to themselves with no word count limits?

And why exactly should we prefer an essay written by a journalist?

There are lots of active conversations about the relationship between the mainstream media and the world of blogs. Those are very worthwhile arguments to have. What we’ve learned is that objectivity is dead, everything is subjective. When publishing is as easy as it currently is, what sort of subjectivity do we prefer: institutional faux-objectivity or on-the-ground-running personal experience and upfront opinion? Whose point of view do you want to hear first: that of an intelligent and articulate Iraqi woman living in Baghdad during the occupation, or that of an intelligent, articulate and well-trained journalist embedded with the American forces?

This article of Victoria Brownworth’s strikes an elitist and nonsensical low blow that is enabled by that legitimate argument about blogs and the media. Hiding behind the spectre of a dying literary form is intellectually dishonest. The issue at hand is about legitimacy. The jury is still out on how we as a society are going to rule on that one.

More Hodgepodge

More Hodgepodge

Great news from Google Scholar: all libraries can now get their own results to show up in the Google search, with the right link resolving software. Fantastic! Of course, librarians in general are wary. Hey, if we had something better to offer the public, I’d be fighting for that, but we don’t.

Case in point: Lipstick on a Pig by Roy Tennant: library OPACs are one gigantic failure.

We are focused on making our own lives easier rather than the lives of our patrons. The user-focused enhancements that do make it through generally reflect incremental changes rather than deep, systemic improvements that will create the systems our users need.” I’m cheering madly from the crowd for him, until he says this: ” For that kind of leadership and courage, only the vendor can devote the required resources.”

Uh…what? Why are we relying on for-profit industry to create what we need? Why can’t LIS as a discipline pull itself together long enough to produce some open source product? Why can’t we, as a community of libraries, pitch together to create something that will work for all of us and for our patrons?

Gdrive: get rid of your user interface, your operating system and your folders; just search for things! Hm. No, i still like to put things in their rightful place. I don’t care what order my books or my cds are in, but dammit let me organize the files I create on my computer. There’s something to be said for keeping like near like, isn’t there, Mr. Dewey?

Meanwhile, yet another Canadian library school opts to remove the word “library” from it’s name:

Terri Tomchyshyn (Dalhousie class of ’81), Librarian/Manager at the Department of National Defense, says “The integration of the Master of Library and Information Studies programme into the Information Management model adds breadth and opportunities for those graduating from such a programme.” Stephen Abram, President of the Canadian Library Association adds that “around the world librarians are embracing and leading the change in their profession. Librarians are involved in all aspects of the Internet revolution, managing the transition of many enterprises and governments to address the strategic implications of new technologies. The name Dalhousie School of Information Management is wholly appropriate to reflect and represent the changes at the Dalhousie School and in our profession.”

Right, so the future is to get out of libraries altogether. Fantastic.

Bitch Ph.D reacts to the news that an adjunct professor was ousted because of her blog. I really wish this kind of topic got more attention from faculties in general. Universities are supposed to be a bastion of intellectual freedom, but apparently that’s just a lot of hot air. Yes, it’s just looking for more reasons to encourage my faculty friends to blog, I admit to some bias here.

And on that note, Teleread suggests that high-ranking managers and professionals tend not to keep blogs because it’s not a good way to hide lies and general BS . So maybe top execs (and anyone working for an ad agency in Quebec) should be required to blog.

Xanga infuriates edubloggers…again. Kids put too much personal information on their online journals, police say. This is always a tricky situation for people, kids or adults. Is there something we can do to help develop some sense of information literacy in this area?

While I can see a good educational purpose to the podcast, I am still not impressed with Duke and Drexel’s ipod giveaway. I’ll keep thinking about it, but what exactly is the pedagogical advantage of portability?

And here ends my hodgepodge. Onward and upward.

Distance Edu Tech

Distance Edu Tech

An interesting discussion of online distance education offerings by Johns Hopkins President, William R. Brody. In sum: students really like the online components of classrooms. The focus of this short article is mainly asynchronous applications, which apparently are wildly popular. I’m not entirely certain which forms of asynchronous communication Johns Hopkins are employing, but it’s nice to see an article praising them.

He notes:

Other interesting developments have followed the creation of an online [Master of Public Health] curriculum. First, pedagogy in the classroom has improved. Evidently, in order to develop an online course, you must invest more time and creativity in developing pedagogical tools to facilitate asynchronous (non-real time, noninteractive) learning. Some of these tools enhance the classroom courses taught synchronously as well. The result is that the quality of instruction rises in the classroom as well as on the Internet. The two feed each other symbiotically.

I’m so thrilled to see that in print. Distance education is that added element that forces everyone to re-think of education from a different angle, and allows for some real creative thought about the process. The elements that make an online course work could easily be added to a traditional classroom to enhance and improve communication among all participants. For me this is all about venues; because distance education provides new venues for student input and interaction, we end up with those same new venues to supplement the classroom. Some people don’t think we need new venues for students in a traditional learning environment; I’d say those people are wrong.

So, after years of watching and helping out with distance ed courses, with some background in ideas around information literacy and technology, what sorts of applications would make the best distance classroom?

It would depend on the kind of course, obviously. But I think distance education needs a blend of synchronous and asynchronous applications. Job #1 is to create the classroom environment itself. It needs to be the walls and the desks, the paper and pens, the eyes and the ears of the students. Good instructional technology for distance education needs to be community-building software.

First and most obvious: the distance classroom needs weblogs with an aggregated “class” page, much like the “friends” page on livejournal. When I was a graduate student (the first time), we were often required to hand in “reflection papers” every week, where we consider the week’s readings and come up with some questions. One of my profs asked us to choose a quote from the week’s readings and talk about how that quote is representative, challenging, or interesting in light of the topic. Students at a distance need every venue possible to interact with their assignments, the instructor, and each other; weekly posts should be required.

One of the best parts of weblogs in instruction is the comment function; it would be great to get students regularly commenting on each other’s posts. It might be worth it to arrange loose groupings of students for the purpose of commenting. That would mean each student might have four or five other students on their list to comment on weekly, meaning everyone would get a handful of comments for everything they post.

I’m sort of conflicted about whether it’s best to use a wiki to discuss specific readings or a blog. Say you attached the week’s readings to a wiki, and allowed students to add their comments directly to the page as marginalia or as endnote reactions. The difference here is in whether you’re trying to produce a document surrounded by people, or individuals surrounded by documents. I think there’s something (rather important) to be said about giving students a space of their own to record their thoughts, where the connection to the document is more temporal than spatial. The subtle and important difference between these two applications is something the instructor would need to consider in light of her curriculum; there may be a time and a place for one over the other, or a time and a place to use both concurrently.

Possibly this is a problem we can solve when we get around to building our edublog system. [Yes, Jason. This is a note to you.] Can we create a system that arranges posts with a document anchor as well as in the traditional blog format? Best of both worlds?

What I think could also be an interesting addition to a distance classroom is a podcast. Yes Catspaw, there really is a podcast. We’ve been batting this idea back and forth, my friends and I, and we agree that podcasting is sort of lame. I mean, podcasting without a clear purpose is sort of lame, it won’t be lame when we do it. (And yes, will we be doing it. Look for our first collaborative podcast sometime this summer.) But bear with me here: what if, in lieu of a lecture, instructors recorded a short (maybe 20 minutes) talk about the topic at hand. I don’t know how many instructors would be comfortable with this, but what if they just wrote up a few notes for themselves, and recorded themselves elaborating on the topic as a mini-lecture recorded directly to mp3, and then posted it weekly for download? Possibly rather than a lecture, the instructor and a TA could record a dialogue about the readings and the topic. That way students could do their reading, listen to a mini-lecture or dialogue, and then respond to it all on their own blogs. Heck, students could post podcast responses if they wanted. Why not?

So far everything I have detailed is asynchronous, to a point; I believe in the value of asynchronicity in a distance classroom only as far as it allows students to arrange their own week. I feel strongly that distance students should not be treated any differently than students in a traditional classroom in that something is expected of them weekly. Traditional students just do their reading (maybe) and show up to class; the distance student can’t be allowed to fake it or leave it all to the end. This is not a good way to learn. Students can do the reading when it suits them, listen to the lecture when they have the time, and add their comments in the middle of the night, but they need to be committed enough to the course to allow for weekly participation. For asynchronous communication to create a dynamic community while allowing everyone to work on their own schedule, it needs temporal bookends.

Synchronicity: where does it fit in? With all of these asynchronous elements, our distance classroom has a lot of content, a lot of interaction, and hopefully some sense of connection to the instructor and to the students. What’s missing is the real-time factor. While we’ve given students a chance to absorb information and a venue to respond to it, we need a venue for instructors to respond as well. Instructors can of course respond individually to students, but what about that over-all response to what students are finding and thinking about this week? . This is where a synchronous chat environment (like MOO) comes in. Gathering students together once a week allows the instructor to talk to everyone at once, ask for more details or clarification from students with interesting ideas in the presence of the entire class, and to respond to common questions. A synchronous group chat could act as a kind of weekly debrief, office hours, and casual discussion. A MOO space as a classroom could be used by students at any time for collaboration, group work projects, or party planning. The official chat might not need more than 30-45 minutes a week.

As of right now, there’s my ideal set of distance education tools. A really great edublog system, a wiki system, podcasts, and a MOO-based virtual classroom. Synchronous and asynchronous, distance students require and deserve an environment as challenging and demanding as the regular classroom ought to be.