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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

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 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.

Finding Home

Finding Home

And on the personal side of things, I’m picking up and moving. Yes, with the new job comes a new location, so moments after learning I had been offered this fantastic job at UTM, my entire family leapt up and starting working on finding me a place to live. When asked about a possible start date, I bravely suggested June 6 (the first day of the month being a Wednesday, and needing a few days to move and get my act in gear, after all). So the goal was to find a place I could move into on June 1.

Well, a place I could move into on June 1 that wasn’t a) in someone’s basement, b) a box in the sky, c) right smack between a ten-lane highway and an outrageously large mall (harder to avoid than you might think, if you’ve never been to Mississauga), or d) so far from work that I might as well commute from my parents’ house. So the day after I got the fated phone call, the search began.

My parents took me to Mississauga one cloudy afternoon and we discovered that Mississauga is not so much a city as it is a region. Mississauga is a collection of small towns that used to be on the outskirts of Toronto, but are now right smack in the middle of commuter traffic. At some point they opted to merge these small towns into the city of Mississauga, but the damage was done; the highways were already running through it like streakers through an English tennis match. Today Mississauga looks like the home of a magical person; everything he touches turns to asphalt. The largest mall in the province sits where the centre of the city ought to be. Most people in Mississauga actually work in Toronto, and just store themselves overnight in their houses which look much the same as the houses all around them. So this is what we have: miles and miles of poorly-organized housing developments separated by large expanses of parking lot/mall/highway.

First impression: not fantastic.

But there is an upside. One of those original small towns is somewhat more intact than the rest. That town is called Streetsville, and it’s got some charm. My interview dinner was in Streetsville, and I got a tour of it thanks to Mary Ann, the Chief Librarian. It’s got cute shops, lots of restaurants, it’s own public library branch, a Go stop (which means fast, easy access to downtown Toronto, yippee), historic buildings, low-rises, the Credit river, and other nice home-ish touches. My parents liked it. I liked it. It is a human place to live. We searched there for an apartment.

The only available apartments in Streetsville were in these cranky 50s apartment buildings facing some sort of rendering plant. Okay, is wasn’t actually a rendering plant, more like a storage facility for some company or other, but it was ugly. I didn’t want to live across from that.

“Mom,” I said, “I don’t want to be depressed by where I live.” Is that so much to ask? Apparently so.

On the way back home I started wondering how I could get out of my contract, but I think it was just the hormones. Or the weather. Or the fear of ending up in a box in the sky next to 15 lanes of highway and Ontario’s largest mall.

Two days later we headed back. With a lead on another possible place in Streetsville, and a couple of other possibilities about town, we arrived in sooner than we expected. The sun was shining. The possible apartment turned out to be right on the main strip, in a small building with only six units in it. “No balcony,” my mother sighed unhappily. (My mother is very invested in me having a balcony. Long story.)

It was a second storey apartment, right over a hair salon. The stairs looked makeshift, as if someone had forgotten about the necessity of stairs and tacked them on at the last second. The apartment itself was still occupied. And when I say occupied, I mean hidden underneath piles of dirty clothes, unwashed sheets, hockey gear, taped up posters flopping off the walls, bottles of beer, hardened globs of toothpaste in the sink, ripped up huge furniture, and, inexplicably, a wheelchair. Yes, you have guessed it: a young single man was in residence. There was a shade pulled down over the bedroom window so that the bedroom was a black pit. The rug on the floor, mostly pink with dirt embellishments, was clearly highly valued by someone’s mother in the early 80s. My heart sank.

“Are these walls going to be repainted?” my father asked.

“No,” the landlady replied, “they were just painted last year.” I looked around me. Did the walls actually need paint? Why, no, they were fine. The floors are hardwood. The windows aren’t huge but they’re fairly generous. The place has some nice features, buried in there somewhere. The walls are just off-white, the bathroom is large. Is it possible that once the place was empty, I might actually be able to envision myself living there? Could it be?

“I’ll spend the day cleaning,” the landlady said, “after he leaves.”

I took it. What could I do, it was the closest thing to exactly what I wanted, and, as some kind of divine bonus, is was the cheapest one I saw.

There is a deli down the street, and a Laundromat two doors over, next to the bakery my mother had a hard time leaving. Also a dry cleaners and a branch of my bank. There’s a fruit and veg shop that doubles as a sushi bar a block over, next to the library and the LCBO. (LCBO is the place where Ontarians buy alcohol, for you Americans.) There is a Shopper’s Drug Mart down the street. (My love of Shopper’s cannot be measured, nay it cannot.) My father was pleased to point out the Irish pub on the corner where they have Guinness on draft. There are, all joking aside, more restaurants in Streetsville than I’ve ever seen in one place since I left Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“You’ll want to go out every night!” my mother complained. “You’ll have to try not to do that!”

I passed the credit and criminal check (I’ve never had my criminal record checked before!), and my money order was accepted. Come June 1, the place is mine, all mine.
I have now purchased two queen-sized pillows, a queen sized bed frame and queen sized mattress set, because I am queenly, apparently; a tall dresser; a bedside table (just one, it’s not a huge bedroom); a couch (in sienna red); some roman blinds for the bathroom (pink) and the kitchen (lime green). I still have a few things to get, but at least I’ve got most of the basics. On June 2, I will be treated to: a) a huge delivery from Sears, b) all of my worldly possessions delivered to me by the movers, c) cable, and d) high speed wireless internet (THANK GOD THANK GOD). And then: let the furniture arranging begin. Oh yes.

Pharmacists and Reference Librarians

Pharmacists and Reference Librarians

I’ve been thinking about pharmacists lately. They’ve been in the news lately, since Plan B (another drug in the line of “morning after” pills) was recently approved for use by women in Canada without a prescription. No prescription required, but the drug will be held behind the pharmacist’s counter, and women will need to ask for it. There’s been some controversy around the role of the pharmacist in that transaction. Why put a barrier in the way of women trying to control their own fertility? Who is this person who stands in place of a doctor, who guards the more dangerous drugs, even though we have a legal right to them?

Why exactly does one need a degree in pharmacy in order to guard drugs?

Pharmacists, it seems to me, are in very much the same position as reference librarians. Technological innovation and the commercial exploits of big business have altered their respective roles so severely that the intense, arduous education required of both fields seems to have been rendered nearly useless.

The medieval and early modern apothecary did not just to dispense the drugs prescribed by a doctor, he made them. Apothecaries harvested medicinal plants, dried and treated them, and prepared the concoctions as directed according to the instructions passed down from master to apprentice. The apothecary knew two languages; the Latin terms for medicinal plants, cited in the ancient texts of Hippocrates and Galen and in the prescriptions from physicians, but also the vernacular names, the local names for herbs and flowers that were often different from region to region. The local physician would pride himself on not knowing anything about the vernacular terms; that was lowly labour-related knowledge, not fit for the elite, university-trained physician. Erasmus tells a story about asking a table full of learned physicians to identify one of the greens in their salads; they all passed it around, and claimed it was some foreign vegetable they couldn’t name. A passing maid told them it was parsley.

So apothecaries were the interpreters, the ones who could understand what the doctor’s theoretical prescriptions meant in the real world. They matched theory with an actual physical plant or mineral. That interpretive role made them a threat to the medical establishment, who often felt that the apothecary could easily take advantage of the physician’s ignorance and feed the wrong medicine to a sick patron, making it look like the physician’s fault. They worried that those apprenticed apothecaries might start guessing about humours and their interaction and doling out medications on their own.

At one time, the pharmacist was a powerful person with a crucial role in local life.

Even in Norman Rockwell pictures, the pharmacist is mixing up cough syrups and pain medications tailored precisely to each patient. The profession clearly required a lot of training, and the community who appreciates his work certainly wouldn’t want him to be poorly-trained or under-paid.

Today Big Pharma makes the drugs. Pharmacists, highly trained all, are reduced to basic retail work. The act of actually counting out the drugs and pouring them into a plastic bottle isn’t even performed by a pharmacist these days.

There was a time (not long ago) when your local reference librarian was the only search engine you would have access to. If you needed information, you would go straight to her. She would go through the involved and complicated search procedure for you and make sure you leave with what you need. She was the interpreter, the map-maker into this world of information. With the internet, with Google, that work has been outsourced and made free for all. The reference librarian’s role, like it or not, has been vastly reduced (or, at least the stats show dwindling user questions asked per annum). Librarians have had to face the possibility that they are being phased out by an algorithm. Librarians are currently facing the challenge of accepting the new technologies that have largely made their skills obsolete and choosing a viable path into the future, one where the library will still have a crucial place in public life. Librarians need to find ways to make themselves relevant to their communities.

But the pharmacist is in a worse position; pharmacy as a real community service is possibly just a bit further along the road to annihilation than librarianship is. Here we have these well-trained, intelligent, knowledgeable professionals standing behind rows of antihistamines, overseeing paperwork and restocking Viagra bottles, and anxiously awaiting any question from customers milling around the drugstore. Is this the future of the reference librarian?

Perhaps all is not lost. At least reference librarians can (and have) become experts at finding information in whatever medium is best, fastest, and most robust. At least librarians can tackle big concepts like information literacy and computer core competencies, getting meta about what it means to need and get information. Academic librarians can become experts on database management, archiving digital documents, instructional technologies and undergraduate outreach. Public librarians can focus on services like toddler and teen programs, turning their facility into real community space rather than book storage, and refocusing on becoming excellent reader’s advisors. (A good reader’s advisor is, after all, worth her weight in ipods.) Fortunately there is space here to rescue and reinvent the profession.

It would be interesting to see the same kind of movement among pharmacists.

An Announcement

An Announcement

As a very recent MLIS graduate, there is one topic I’ve avoided mentioning until now: job hunting. I’ve been hesitant to talk about that process here. I know others are doing it, but I don’t know, to me it felt like talking about it might jinx it or something. But in spite of my not having spoken about my hunting, I have indeed been on the prowl for a good, steady job.

I realized early on that there was just no point in applying for something unless I really, really wanted the job. I’ve only applied for three positions; the first was in the US, and I declined when invited for an interview. The job itself was interesting, and something I was completely qualified to do, but it wasn’t in the environment I was really looking for. The second was also in the US, and I accepted the offer of an interview, hopped on a plane and spent the day on campus not long ago. I met everyone, presented my ideas in their boardroom, and talked shop over meals. An interesting and enjoyable experience, to be sure, since everyone was extremely intelligent, engaging, challenging, and very very nice, but after many years I’ve come to understand that I am a product of this county and I can’t very well leave the place without leaving the best parts of myself behind.

The third job I applied for is at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, a satellite campus of the University of Toronto, which has the largest library system in the country, the largest student population, the highest tuition, and the best reputation. UTM itself has a small student body, but is growing rapidly. They are in the process of building a new athletics facility and new library that is set to open in the summer of 2006, as well as new residences for the summer of 2007. UTM is the only campus in Canada (to my knowledge) that offers a first year course based on information literacy principles taught by librarians. They have what is for me the most inspiring strategic plan I’ve ever seen. The position I applied for is called Instructional Technology Liaison Librarian, and the appeal of that sort of job shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone who knows me or anyone who has ever stumbled across this weblog.

I was offered the position at UTM this week and I happily accepted it.

This is the part where I thank my parents, without who I would not be here, and my favourite teacher from elementary school, and all my lovely instructors at library school, my dear friends who have put up with me through this transition from one profession to another, but I’ll save you that schlock. For now.

Faculty blogs: Good idea or Bad idea?

Faculty blogs: Good idea or Bad idea?

I’ve used this space time and time again to extol the virtues of blogging; it’s not that I’m just dazzled by the technology, I genuinely believe that the venue has real promise. Linking ideas about information literacy from a library science perspective with pedagogical theory, and with the criticisms faculty and students have of university education as it currently it is currently configured, I think blogs could go a long way toward revolutionizing the classroom. In short, I think that when you have a medium to sketch out your reactions to the things you read, a constant, personal venue, you get in the habit of composing a post every time you get an interesting idea. You don’t read things and just store them away; you read and react, you write something down. Blogs can help encourage the habit of seeing the world of discourse as a conversation rather than an avalanche of information. And being prepared to respond means your critical thinking hat is never off. That’s information literacy. Always with a question, always engaged, never on autopilot. That, I think, is the goal of a university education, regardless of field.

That said, what does it mean to be a blogging faculty member? Duke University’s Chronicle published an article that briefly notes that some faculty members are uneasy at the idea of keeping a regular blog.

[A blogging facultt member] pointed out that other professors might not be as willing to openly express their personal views on blogs because they think it could threaten their chances of receiving tenure.

“Most professors are much more worried about what other people think,” he said. “I bet there are a lot of phantom bloggers here at Duke. I don’t know of anyone who is out of the closet like myself.”

Why are faculty so worried about blogging? Can a blog negatively effect their chances of getting tenure? Again, this seems to come down to the same question is always comes down to; what exactly is a blog?

If for a moment we understand a blog as a diary that’s available to all, I can understand their concern. A diary generally means something personal, an account of a person’s emotional existence. There seems to be a correlation between the idea of a personal weblog and random venting and private thoughts, ideas and comments that should circulate only from friend to friend over beer. Is that what worries non-tenured faculty? That they will be caught with their pants down complaining about the department chair, or lasciviously remarking on the physical attributes of the incoming class?

I’m not the sort to suggest a different classification for the different types of content one finds on blogs (see the <a href="“>journaling vs. blogging debate in some quarters), but possibly we need to have more discussion around what it means to publish in a way that is not strictly personal nor journal-publication level professional. Karen has tried to confront this issue head on in talking about what sorts of ethics are rules should be guiding us as professionals who blog. To date, there is no easy format for the audience-aware, semi-professional weblog. It’s not so much about ethics as it is about finding the right voice to use when speaking in this medium.

I can imagine that it would hardly do to have the committee pore over your personal musings about your navel while considering you for tenure, but on the flip side, surely it would only help your application if you kept a decent, interesting, professionally challenging journal where your active curiosity and interest in keeping up-to-date is apparent. A weblog wherein you actively engage with the work in your field and consider new ideas for your own research. Where you muse publicly about different teaching methods and comment about various issues relevant at your university. I mean, it’s okay to have a personality, right? It’s okay to care about and talk about the politics of the moment, international events, conferences, and so forth? In some fields, being web-savvy enough to have a weblog, and a domain name, can only be a good thing to tenure committee. What if your blog is actually a public sandbox where you learn about new things, try out new technologies for use in the classroom and discuss their pros and cons, littered liberally with ideas about your work and your field? If the students can benefit from keeping their ideas and notes from class on a blog, surely an academic can benefit from doing the same in the “classroom” that is their regular reading of the newest work in their fields. We are not, any of us, finished products. We are constantly learning and renewing ourselves, and why shouldn’t a online presence reveal that?

So what if it’s not the tenure committee faculty are worried about? What if it’s the students?

Professors are standing in front of students on a regular basis. Do they want only that experience to be unmediated by Google searches that reveal more about them? Is there something frightening about keeping a semi-personal journal in the face of a new crop of students every term?

Perhaps that’s the guiding principle of keeping a weblog as a faculty member, or an administrator, or a librarian, is less about ethics and more about being audience-aware. Your blog can actually be fairly personal and reflective of your real life, as long as you remember who your audience is or can be. Everyone has little anecdotes about their lives that they like to relate; before professors posts one, they should ask themselves whether, in a casual setting, they would tell that same story to a student. Most professors I’ve met are pretty liberal with the bits of real life they’re prepared to mention in class; one of my least forthcoming professors would tell us stories about the funny thing that happened on the airplane on the way back from the conference this weekend, or something that happened in line at the grocery store, and suchlike. Those stories, as told in class, would always relate in some way to her work, to the issues at hand. Those sorts of anecdotes, I would think, would be perfect blog fodder. And, I think, would not cross and lines in terms of professor/student interaction, but would not be entirely impersonal either.

I wish it were clearer what kind of communication blogs are in academic circles. It’s not like publishing in a journal, though it might be a bit like replying to a letter in a published forum. It’s not like a book review, though it could be how book reviews should be; as long as they need to be, as honest as they can be, and as fast as we need them.

I would love to see more faculty blogging. I would love to see more visible thinking from academia, more rough ideas and interaction and community. More personally, I would love to see some of my former professors blogging, because I want to keep getting the benefit of their insight even though I’m no longer in their classrooms. And I would love to see more of my friends who are professors blogging. To me, there are palpable absences in the blogosphere, and I’m not sure how to overcome that.

Edited to add: I guess I shouldn’t be encouraging my favourite profs to start blogging just yet: it appears that a non-tenured instructor may have lost her job over hers. It all makes me feel sick.

Open Letter to Heather Menzies

Open Letter to Heather Menzies

Some snippets from today’s Toronto Star: “Dumbed down on campus, bit by bit” by Heather Menzies, professor of Canadian Studies at Carleton University, my first alma mater (registration required for the Star, I can’t get a direct link):

There’s a terrible irony here: people are feeling disconnected in the midst of all this newfound digital connection.
There’s also a danger signal here. Knowing, or “knowledge production”, as it’s sometimes called, is a social activity. It involves people comparing observations and data collected by various research instruments, interpreting these through frames of various theories and hypotheses, and reaching a conclusion that will be tested by further dialogue and research.

Reduce that fecund, engaged social component too much and knowledge production becomes technocratic. Systems and data sets become ends in themselves, with people more and more removed from a sense that their take on things counts, and from the social habits of face-to-face dialogue that ensure it does.

Students today are missing out. Instead of co-producing knowledge through challenging discussions with professors and fellow students, enhancing and practicing the democratic idea that society does best when there’s a continuous open dialogue about the issues fo the day, there’s downloading modules of ready-made knowledge.

“There’s just no depth to their reading, often, and no depth to their sense of What do I do with all this material? How do I focus?” complained one professor.

That’s precisely what the same professor helps students do when she invites them into her office.

“I remember a student the other day—I started talking about this notion of authorship, and we all have a voice, and this fascinating notion that it’s all a babble and we are all immersed in it all the time, but what you have to say is important. And the lights wehnt on for her, and she said, “I never thought about it like that. ” And I said, “That’s why you try to question.” And I think, could I have done that typing to her on email?”

My response, emailed this afternoon:

Dear Professor Menzies,

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been mulling over the articles spilling out of academia about the dangers of the internet; it makes us dumb, it prevents us from engaging in contemplative thought, it isolates us. This morning I read your article on this subject in the Toronto Star and I feel compelled to get in touch with you.

I agree with you that something is amiss in academe; I agree that communication between undergraduates and faculty is at a dangerous and unproductive low. I agree that academic enterprise cannot be conducted in isolation, and that web applications like WebCT are not helping. Social constructivism teaches us that the best knowledge is built in groups. The place where we part ways is in our understanding of computer technology’s potential in assisting and supporting communication, collaboration, and learning.

There is a set of assumptions about computer technology that are causing the kinds of problems you note. These assumptions are undercutting the strength of your argument, and blinding many to the real potential of technology in the university environment.

The first assumption is that the purpose of technology is to make things faster, cheaper, and easier, that the introduction of technology to a particular realm will mean less work for everyone involved. Some administrators hope that adding technology to the classroom will allow them to further remove academics from the dull, time-consuming processes of teaching, marking, and filling out forms, letting the software do all the work for a fraction of the cost. Fewer instructors, more students. Automation is progress, and progress is speed. This understanding is preventing us from using the technologies available to us to improve the student experience.

When I first encountered weblogs in 1999, I immediately thought they were a wonderful venue for thinking out loud; here was a personal yet public space to hash out ideas and pose questions. For the shy undergraduate without the confidence to stick up her hand in front of her classmates or to step into a professor’s office (an act that requires a lot of chutzpah), there are no venues for scholarly communication other than the requisite essay and the exam. I’m currently of the belief that we should never ask an undergraduate to read something without also asking her to write something. Weblogs can be a venue for that kind of regular contemplative thought and critical writing. This is a venue that can be easily monitored by TAs, instructors, other students in the class, subject librarians, guest lecturers, interested faculty and graduate students, or even the authors of the week’s readings. Since weblogs come equipped with tools so that any visitor can comment on any post, this means a student’s tentative thoughts can be heard, encouraged, engaged, challenged, and commended by those around her. Students’ ideas can inform the direction of the class week by week, even if they don’t have to confidence to open up their mouths and explore a new idea in the classroom. This kind of social software can be used not only to encourage thoughtful and regular writing, but also to help turn a classroom into a community, to help build relationships between students as well as students and their instructors.

The first time I ever discussed this idea with an instructor, her response was: “That’s a lot of marking. I’m not interested.” As is any useful technology would as its first goal address the burden of marking, not the student experience.

When we approach technology with the idea that its sole purpose is to make our lives easier, we miss a lot of its useful applications. Web applications will not take away work that links us to each other; but they can help us build new venues of communication to support and draw out the best parts of a university education, to give every student a voice. Not all undergraduate classes can be seminars, but we can bring some of the seminar experience to them through social software.

The second assumption revolves around the metaphors we use when talking about the internet. You are alone when you sit at your computer. You are not communicating, making connections, being challenged. Email is supposed to connect us but it does not. It merely hangs like an albatross around our necks and forces us to disengage from the contemplative thought that breathes life to our work. We use email to send brief, unthoughtful, fast missives to nameless usernames through the ether. There is nothing conversational about machine-mediated communication; it is simply dry text responses to (faceless) dry text. The depth of this understanding is so clear in your article, and in the experiences of the people quoted in it; I’m deeply saddened to see this idea win out in academic circles.

Outside of the academic world, the internet is often a primarily collaborative tool. The open source movement, for instance, consists of thousands of programmers working collaboratively on large software projects, working together to make the best possible product that they can give away for free. None of these people are working in isolation; they are bouncing ideas and full-blown scripts off each other, learning from each other, debugging each other’s code and voicing opinions that result in a better product. If the academy is the original creators of the gift economy, programmers in the open source movement are its natural children. Technology does not by nature stifle collaborative work. In fact, computer technology’s true gift to society is the way it can amp up collaboration.

In my adult life I have never taken on a project and executed it alone. While I may be sitting at home or sitting quietly at my desk at work, I am never without a host of experts. Rather than slow, ponderous email, I use instant messaging software to keep in immediate communication with experts in my field. That means that while I’m sitting at my desk doing work, writing line after line of code, in the corner of my desktop is a small box full of names. Those names represent my friends, my experts, and their willingness to field my questions. This is not an impersonal experience; the official term is “presence awareness”, and it means that even when I’m not talking to anyone online, I know they’re there and that knowledge reassures me. If I hit a wall in my lines of code I can turn to them, open up a little window, and begin a conversation.

The metaphor is important; it’s not an electronic message fired off into the impersonal ether, it’s a conversation that hangs in the air in text.

I have used instant messaging software to work through all kinds of ideas; teaching practices, historical concepts, theoretical issues. And I can hash them out with people across any distance. I have worked closely thought by thought with teams made up of people in Toronto, Virginia, Norway, and Japan. I have written collaborative fiction line by line with a co-author in Australia. Online, we can gather together in the same room and just talk things out. Again, note the metaphor; no impersonal machines, only people, rooms, conversations, documents, and connections.

I know a group of undergraduate students at the University of Toronto who feel that they are possibly cheating while in class. What they do is this: they come into class, open up their laptops, connect to the internet via the wireless network, and launch a simple text program. They invite each other into a document that appears on each screen. As the lecture begins, they take notes. All of them write simultaneously in the same document, colour-coded by person. They correct each other’s mistakes, add notes or perspectives someone else missed. They feel free to stop typing and engage completely with the instructor at points, listening carefully, knowing that the bare bones are being captured while they work to understand a knotty idea. Then they share that understanding in the collaborative notes. Is this cheating? Or are they using the collaborative potential of internet technology to connect, communicate, and share ideas?

The Wikipedia is a large reference source sitting on your shelf that is constantly being rewritten, critiqued, updated, reviewed, and reconsidered by thousands of people at once. Those thousands are creating one product. It works for the Wikipedia; can you imagine the implications in a classroom? What if we inserted a text inside a wiki, allowed for endless collaborative annotations by the class? A historical document, a poem, the introduction to Said’s Orientalism? We love the idea of slapping a chunk of text onto a transparency and dissecting it with an overhead marker; what if we had that document on the screens of each student and allowed them add their thoughts and questions synchronously in the classroom, or asynchronously prior to the class? Students could see each other’s ideas and questions and be pushed in new directions because of it. The ideas that come students as they read the text home can be brought directly into the class. And wouldn’t that annotated document be a wonderful end result? Isn’t that one more way to help making student thinking visible?

So I find myself agreeing with your original premise; communication at the university level is suffering. I even agree that that suffering is partly due to bad implementation of technology, but I don’t agree that technology itself is the problem. I think we can blame it on a bad metaphor and on badly constructed user interfaces that don’t support more useful metaphors, that don’t communicate a sense of engagement and collaboration that’s possible.

For those of us actively engaged in creating and implementing social software for academic use, your criticisms are timely and useful, but disheartening. I have only detailed the tip of the iceberg here; there are thousands of engaged, and connected online communities who are using social software in ways that links them not just in conversation but in real relationships. Having experienced just some of the possibilities that online communication has to offer, I’m sad to see none of it reflected in your article.


Rochelle Mazar