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Month: June 2005

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

Keeping a Blog and Keeping your Job: Not a Guide

To start, the reason I have not been updating as much lately has nothing to do with the issues I’m about to peruse; I currently have no internet connection at home, and writing lengthy blog posts while at work seems inappropriate.

But my questions have changed now that I’m seriously on the job and completely open abou the existence of my blog while at work; how do you manage the line between being honest, tackling the issues, and not ruffling the feathers of the people you work with? Not just your boss, not just the chief librarian or the head of your department, but your colleagues, the faculty you work with, and the people you argue with in meetings? A blog should not be a ranty response to these people. A blog should not be the place where you post the things you wish you could say, but might have gotten lynched for. The last thing I want is for someone to return from a meeting, check out my blog, and see that I’ve responded negatively in public to an idea she presented in private.

Maybe this is why some people think there are no academic librarians with blogs. Is that what they’re waiting for? For us to dish about the dark corners of our institutions, to pillory those among us who are standing in our way? To reply in a forum like this against the vendors who want our budget dollars, the faculty members who don’t want to replace their overhead projectors with document cameras, the librarians who can’t move past the practices established twenty or thirty years ago? The hotshot new IT folks who think they have a clue and start pushing for changes that will not solve a thing?

I still intend to keep my blog, and to keep it in the same fashion I have been. But I am very aware of the changes to my own perspective on it. I embrace those changes in many ways; being careful about other people is never something I’m going to back away from. But I need to underscore that this blog does not reflect the inner workings of the library where I am employed; it does not uncover the dark sides of meetings I attend, and it does not even cast too much light on the directions my own library will take. How do you distill what is entirely of yourself when you spend most of your day in the midst of the issues you also want to talk about, among incredibly knowledgable, thoughtful, and optimistic people? Take everyone else out, let your voice only be your own? Let your opinions on issues be only yours? Not easy. Is it even possible?

My new struggle with this blog is to remain as honest as ever, as optimistic as ever, and to speak with a voice that stands a step away from my job. Not that my job won’t affect what I think or what I say, but I want my voice to remain purely mine, and with an audience that is not only external and not only internal. This may be more of a struggle about retaining a sense of independence than one of toeing the party line.

I can understand why lots of professionals feel unable to keep a blog. No one wants to keep a journal that’s so institutionally correct that they can’t express what they think; but no one wants to make enemies because of their hobbies, either.


Radical Reference and the Future of Academic Librarianship

Radical Reference and the Future of Academic Librarianship

If you distill it down to its essentials, what is it that an academic librarian does? The whole thing, wrapped up in one simple concept? It’s certainly a mission that plays out in all kinds of different ways, but essentially, academic librarians provide tools that allow rest of the academic community can get on with the business of learning, teaching, and creating knowledge. We stand at the ready to provide faculty with the journals they need to keep up with their discipline; we collect the books that are the backbone of scholarship. We assist in the day-to-day questions that come up when students and faculty engage in academic work. We allow them to have reliable access to proprietary databases; we also make sure everyone is aware of those databases and how to use them. That’s it: academic support. We provide the infrastructure so that the learning can happen, voices can be heard, paradigms can be shifted.

The future of reference service is not behind a desk. Truly radical reference is coming out from behind that desk and bringing that crucial resource of answers into real life, into that space between having a question and the topic shifting over to something else, into the space between half-way done and handed in. Radical reference is not about waiting for the question. It’s not about simply being as good as we are and being the only ones who know it. It’s about handing out those answers where they’re needed. It’s about being there with help at the point of need, not under the “info” sign. It’s about being a part of the process rather than an appendage that might be useful if it occurred to you to put it to use.

Librarians always do their best work when they have a chance to understand the information needs of the person they’re trying to help. You can’t very well give the best answer to someone who hasn’t figured out her questions yet. Entering a classroom to explain how best to use JSTOR isn’t giving anyone the best of anything; the librarian isn’t certain she’s giving the sort of instructions that are going to be useful, and the student never gets a chance to vocalize what it is he actually wants. We end up looking boring and they end up bored. This is not the best display of our skills.

So what is? What does radical reference look like? In an ideal world, every university instructor teaches with a librarian in the room. When a student proposes an essay topic, a librarian looks over the instructor’s shoulder and says, “Actually, we can support that topic. We’ve recently acquired a great new database that covers African history very well.” Or “Yes, we can get access to those sources, but only through interlibrary loan. Do you have that kind of time for this assignment?” When students hit a wall because they can’t find something they need, or they think something doesn’t exist at all and considers changing topics because of it, that’s where librarians need to be. Radical reference is providing answers well before the question arrives at the desk, being part and parcel of the learning process and providing real assistance, not just to the people with phds or the people who have learned how to walk up to the reference desk. To everyone. Radical reference is about answering questions as they emerge, where they emerge.

How can we accomplish this? Instructors are unlikely to want us sitting in on all of their classes, looking over the assignments and offering advice regularly. And what librarian has the time to do all this, not just for one class, but for all of the classes in her subject area(s)?

This is where technology can help us. So many of the tools we have to offer are becoming digital; there’s a sense that we are becoming increasingly cut off from each other and from the idea of a permanent, stable (paper) collection. But internet technology is not a thing unto itself. The idea of “web” technology is to connect us to information and to each other. We need to build ourselves into a system that allows us to physically enter a classroom to speak, and also to digitally enter a classroom through the learning management software, through virtual reference, through audio and video. To provide the kind of support we offer when someone they wander into our offices with a stack of questions to fire at us, we need alternative ways of entering into the discussion. We can’t keep replicating traditional reference service; we need to radicalize it.

A bit of This and That

A bit of This and That

How to spread freedom.

The U.S. Department of Justice is quietly shopping around the explosive idea of requiring Internet service providers to retain records of their customers’ online activities.

Data retention rules could permit police to obtain records of e-mail chatter, Web browsing or chat-room activity months after Internet providers ordinarily would have deleted the logs–that is, if logs were ever kept in the first place.

One of the greatest ethical challenges involved with the internet is so simple; now that it’s relatively easy, and completely possible, to record everthing that happens in the digital realm, it’s so tempting to just do it. It seems too clear to us that it’s not a great idea when it’s legislated for ISPs to do it, but libraries? We, like Google, have sworn to not be evil, But is that enough to keep us in ethically clear waters? Libraries are keen not to keep detailed records of specific patron’s library use, we avoid some of the advantages of using portal technology to do things like’s recommended reading pages, but we seem to have no issues with things like recording virtual reference transactions. We need some clarity on these privacy issues. Ethics shouldn’t come down to “I know it when I see it” gut reactions.

In other news, what sort of damage is P2P filesharing doing to the television industry?

How much of the potential audience is making the effort to actually download? Downloaders tend to be dedicated fans, not casual viewers of a show, because while downloading’s become fairly simple, it’s not as easy as turning on the television and plopping onto the couch. But networks and advertisers aren’t very interested in dedicated fans; they want casual viewers, because the casual viewers on any given evening far outnumber the dedicated fans. If that holds true, then what’s the real damage done as a result of downloading?

It’s even more complicated than that, I’d wager. If there’s anything major industry doesn’t have a grip on, it’s the amazing good downloaders can do for their financially. Case in point: vidders.

Vidders are folks who download episodes of tv shows (or movies, whatever) and splice up scenes or shots into a montage that often relates a narrative about the show or the characters, and then set it to (usually illegally downloaded) music. So they create music videos from clips of copyrighted material.

Why this is good: if you can imagine a better commercial for your tv show, I’d be impressed. Here we have fans of the show, creating often beautiful videos, showcasing their favourite character, posting these vids on mailing lists or archives, so that other fans can see them. And often those fans are not yet fans of the show. But soon are, after seeing enough vids. I didn’t start watching Smallville until I saw too many of my friend’s fanvids and opted to tune in. Personally, I think the studios should be shooting extra footage and releasing it, just for vidders. Extra audio-free video every week. Challenge people to work with it. Post the week’s best vid. People would eat it up. And then you’d get even more people making vids, and broadcasting them even wider. Hello, free publicity. Underground publicity. Cool, fan-generated publicity. I’m surprised no one’s grabbed on to this yet.

And in completely unrelated news, baking soda doesn’t do a darn thing if you put it in your fridge. Apparently that’s a big marketing hoax. How about that!

eLearning hodgepodge

eLearning hodgepodge

Some tidbits from my newsreader this morning:

Hollywood IMs. This is an article about how movie types uses the status message in ichat to inform potential employers that they’re available. Beautiful. I occasionally endure funny looks when I suggest that IM might be a route to better connectivity between staff, so I appreciate any words that describe useful IMing.

Some extremely interesting discussion here about grading blogs.

I think it should be graded in a portfolio format where students choose their “best” posts. It seems obvious that the student who writes more would have more to choose from and would, therefore, be likely to produce a better portfolio. That would seem to cover the question of frequency and content and, to a large degree, subject matter, as well.

I think this is a brilliant idea. Now, if the portfolio also included comments on other blogs, or ideas that sprung out of conversations or were inspired by other blogs in the class, then we’d really be cooking. I’m reminded that the author of this blog and I are at the same institution and I really should look him up one of these days. Weblogg-ed also appreciates these ideas, and notes the (fantastic) pedagogical distinction between “class participation” and “knowledge construction participation”. How best to grade it, and to make it easy for instructors, remains to be seen.

Some great news on faculty feeling positive about online teaching and learning.

Faculty who have undergone the “conversion experience” are also more than happy to reassure their colleagues that the journey is well worth it. As Hooper puts it, “I am still intimidated by technology, and I only use it because there is no better way to teach English than online or through blended learning.”

What changed Redfield’s attitude about online teaching was “the experience of actually doing it. I’ve found that the students who persist actually learn better, have better command of the subject material and they enjoy their experience with me.”

Blogs as communication and marketing tool. This is sort of an adminblog case study; how a blog can help internal communications within one (large) company.

Blogs, by the nature of the medium, encourage casual banter and informal language. Unlike Web sites, which are crafted and branded and carefully planned out to be “on message,” the daily journal format of a blog produces more vulnerability from its authors. In marketing terms, a blog can bring a human personality to a faceless company, which can create a connection between the corporation and the client. This can lead to deeper loyalty and richer feedback.

And it’s those things that make blogs so useful in library contexts, and in education contexts. A human face, a casual discussion, the ability to add comments, more (and better) feedback.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Instructional technology is a profoundly strange field. Strange mostly because, in spite of the shocking amount of communication technology that exists and is in use, there is no consistency in the level of technology that’s considered current and cutting edge. Every little collection of people working on a project has radically different standards. When you click on a link that promises some great new idea about integrating technology into the classroom, you have to be skeptical. What some people think is a great new idea might not seem so great to you.

My example of the moment is Five easy ways to integrate computers into the health science/physical education curriculum. Let’s just say that those five ways basically revolve around using the internet as a reference tool for assignments, which is something I thought we’d all figured out and agreed on in 1998. There’s one assignment that even recommends using Excel.

I realize that not everyone is comfortable with computers. Not everyone is going to have the time or the technical knowledge to create true learning tools. But we have to stop integrating computers just because computers are cool.

You have heard it time and time again: “This is the age of technology! We need to integrate computers into our curriculum!” But with an overwhelming pile of papers to grade and more and more expectations piling up on teachers every day, who has time to add computers to their curriculum?

Perhaps we’re not ready to do that yet. Because you can’t ask people who don’t actually understand the point, or who don’t actually understand the technology, to use these tools in a useful way. Perhaps those tools just aren’t ready yet; how burdensome was it for teachers to shift over from dipping pens in ink to using disposable bic pens in the classroom? An attitude shift was required, certainly; but there should be a minimum of new skills required to use computers in the classroom. The fact that training is still so sorely needed is a testament to the poor design of educational software.

We get a bit too excited about computers, as if they are indeed the new bic pen and suddenly everything should involve computers in some way. Looking over these recommendations for integrating computers begs the question: how are computers actually improving the curriculum? How are computers forging new experiences in education? From Five easy ways:

Using Microsoft’s Excel, have the students track their food intake for a period of three consecutive days. Using a chart-like format, students should record food eaten, the number of food servings, the food groups to which the foods belong, and the estimated calories in each given food. At the end of each day, students can total the amount of food group servings and calories they ate per day and discuss the implications of their choices.

Is there actually a reason why a pen and paper aren’t a better alternative for this? What is Excel adding to this assignment? There is no point in integrating technology if it’s not going to change venue for students, if it’s not going to fundamentally alter the way things are done or thought about or talked about. In the case of this food chart, it would actually be more logical to give students tiny notebooks or calendars to keep track of their eating habits; students in high school don’t usually eat exclusively when they’re in front of a computer. What about a cookie they pick up from the cafeteria? Or frozen yoghurt at the mall? A tiny daily calendar would be the best way to keep track of what’s going into your mouth on the go. Not an Excel spreadsheet. If you really want to get technical about it, get them all PDAs.

Truly making good use of technology in the classroom means using the right tool for the right job. And computers are not the only tools. Everything can be a tool. We know already that technology has the capacity to be damaging to the educational enterprise rather than helpful; if we’re going to integrate computers and technology, we need to be careful about it, and choose the tools best suited to the task at hand.

Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day

“There isn’t any doubt that brand matters and that Harvard is the prestige brand,” says Stanley Katz, director of Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies. “It’s the Gucci of higher education, the most selective place.” [USA Today]

My name is Rochelle, and I have a degree from Gucci University. Do you like my shoes?

Academic Blogger Gets Bit

Academic Blogger Gets Bit

When I clicked on this article at Inside Higher Ed called Withdrawal at Brooklyn, I didn’t expect it to be an article about how blogging can blight your career in academia.

Shortell’s election as chair became controversial not because of his actions as a scholar, but because of his writings about religion on a Web site. In an essay on a Web site where Shortell said he did work as an artist, he described religious people as “moral retards.” Among other things, he wrote in the essay that “Christians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but they’ll just as soon kill you. For your own good, of course.”

The essay prompted a series of articles in New York City newspapers, with many editorials criticizing Brooklyn College for having Shortell serve as a department chair, and questioning whether he would be fair to students or faculty members who are religious. The New York Sun, for example, wrote prior to Shortell’s withdrawal that taxpayers “have got to have the right to draw the line at what kind of person they want teaching students and participating in the tenure process. If a professor had spoken of, say, gay persons or Jews as moral retards, it’s a safe bet that things would not be dealt with quite so delicately as they seem to be on Brooklyn College’s campus at the moment.”

What they’re not saying in this article is that this associate professor was using that controversial underground personal publishing platform, a blog (a greymatter blog, at that). While tenure may prevent this fellow from actually fearing for his job, it isn’t protecting him from criticism.

I don’t think it should, quite frankly. This story is both wonderful and terrible for academics with blogs. On one hand, the idea of free academic speech is threatened by the fact that this faculty member is feeling constrained because of his own input into the political and academic realm. People are reading what he’s written and are holding it against him. This article was sort of spun that way; does Shortell have the right to engage in political debates and write political manifestos (calling religious people “moral retards”)? Should it be held against him, should be have to step down from a position as chair of the department?

But on the other hand, look at it this way: people actually care. People (not just academics) have read what this guy has written. How many academics can say that? How many academics actually have some reach into the world at large? What this story shows it that academics blogging end up with a larger audience. And while Shortell can write and publish whatever he wants, he does not have the right to be protected from response to that writing.

In a traditional academic environment, frankly appalling things have been written by faculty from all departments for years, written in obscure journals with proprietary keys in their locks and boring covers. No one else was really reading all the offfensive things that were written in academic circles. Not that such things were going unchallenged; a month or two after the offensive article was published, a handful of academics would write sternly-worded letters to the editor that would be published in the next issue, or the one following, and there would be some buzz on academic mailing lists. Historians would hotly debate the ideas at conferences six months later. Unpopular ideas have always had at least some effect on an academic’s rise within his or her own department. They keep their jobs, but they might not become, for instance, chair of the department.

It seems to me that what’s really going on here is that many more people are being invited to the party, and we’re not restricted to a couple of pages in the letters section anymore. I have no doubt that left-leaning academics like Shortell have published articles with the same basic premise: religious people are “moral retards” (a term that would never have popped up in an academic journal, and one that, quite honestly, shouldn’t have been used on his blog either). If Shortell has been restricted to the publishing boundaries of the political science journal, no one outside of academe would have read what he thought. No one without a research library next door would have a subscription to that obscure journal and would be in a position to take the measure of the man.

I’d be surprised if one of the historians producing frankly misogynist history ended up as president of the American Historical Society. People are never entirely protected from the dust clouds they kick up when they publish controversial articles in any context. With the advent of popular self-publishing on the internet, the number of people with an interest in such things has expanded exponentially. A bigger audience is a good thing; what you opt to put before them is up to you. In what context is “retard” an apropriate epithet?

The other battle to be waged here is on the writer’s perception of what a blog actually is; if they feel that it is their personal diary, perhaps such terminology might be deemed appropriate. But a blog is emphatically not personal. It’s a public space, and while you have the power to write whatever you want, you have to face the consequences of talking smack in public. Because of the tenure system, this associate professor doesn’t have to fear for his job because of what he’s said.

I don’t think he should have to tone down his politics. But he should be using respectful language. Post an actual argument about why religion provides a moral vaccum if you will, but don’t just insult the faithful. Random potshots aren’t particularly smart or political.

Information Fluency

Information Fluency

From the first time I heard it, I was never that smitten with the concept of “Information Literacy”. I learned about it at library school and I didn’t entirely get it; I figured I had just misunderstood, or not listened well enough, or just blanked out on a key element of it. It just didn’t sink in.

Information Literacy: a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. [ALA].

I just couldn’t get a handle on it. Not that I can’t get behind it, but I couldn’t find the edges, the gripping spot for me to take this thing and run with it. I’ve heard the sessions about it, but it feels stuck in a rut. We end up talking about the difference between a book and a journal, the dangers of websites, the difference between one database product and another, and citations. I get how these things are important, but how does a term like “Information Literacy” come into play? What does it mean to say a person is Information Literate?

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