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Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

Books vs. Screens: The Disingenuous Argument

The UT Librarians Blog posted another authorless post I have attempted to comment on; while they announced some time ago that the blog would no longer put comments in a moderation queue, I seem to be stuck in one. Again. And thus:

The post in question is a link to the Globe and Mail article entitled, “Books Vs. Screens: Which should Your Kids be Reading?” The article contains such wisdom as:

In Britain, University of Oxford neuroscientist and former Royal Institution director Susan Greenfield revealed a far different vision – one that could have come straight out of an Atwoodian dystopia – when she warned that Internet-driven “mind change” was comparable with climate change as a threat to the species, “skewing the brain” to operate in an infantalized mode and creating “a world in which we are all required to become autistic.”

Less dire but no less pointed warnings have come from Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “I do think something is going to be lost with the Twitter brain,” she said in an interview.

The UT Librarians (apparently collectively) said:

Is this something we should be thinking about? Deep Reading vs. Screen Reading? In today’s Globe & Mail, Dec. 12, 2011, John Barber, examines recent studies on screen reading vs. what is being called deep reading – something to consider as educators and leaders in our fields.

On the platform, reading

And now, finally, my reply from the moderation queue:

This is blatant scare-mongering, and disingenuous to boot. Comparing reading novels to reading tweets is like saying the card catalogue, with it’s tiny bits of information, was a threat to “deep thinking”.

There are many kinds of reading, and literate people engage in many of them, sometimes within the same afternoon. People who follow Margaret Atwood also, as a general rule, read novels. “Screen reading” pontificators need to spend some time looking at the actual reading (and writing) going on on the internet. Like BookCountry, from Penguin, which is practically brand new, and fictionpress. Look at all that reading and writing going on! Reading and writing of lengthy bits of writing, no less, and on screens! If you’re brave, look at Fanfiction.net (there are 56k stories on there about the television show Glee alone) or AO3 (which, for the record, has works over 100k words long with as many views and thousands of comments from readers). Lots of people read online, and form communities around texts. It might not be the kind of reading you want to see, but it’s sustained, lengthy, uninterrupted, and on screens.

We need to stop fixating on the form content takes. What the screen is providing is a platform for people who would never get their work passed through publishing houses and editors, and while you may scoff at that (because we all know money is the ultimate test of whether or not something has value, right?), there is more text to read and engage with now than ever before, and people are engaging. Young people are engaging. Some of that text is in short format (like twitter). Some of it is so long publishers would balk at the idea of trying to publish it in physical form. It doesn’t matter if it’s on a screen. Content in content. This new form has the potential to save the monograph, not just to kill it. The form of the novel, the short story, the extended series, the monograph are all alive and well and being published online.

I think, as librarians, we should be concerned with providing access to content, and, perhaps, providing platforms for content to be published, found, and engaged with on every level (deep or browse). Marrying ourselves to paper is the death knell of this profession.

Spooky and I enjoy the Nook--Daily Image 2011--October 2

Compassion

Compassion

I’m starting to think that compassion may be a learned skill rather than an innate trait. I know we like to think of all the best qualities of human beings as something we have intrinsically but society squeezes them out of us, but I suspect compassion may be more complicated.

Or maybe not. Maybe we just live in societies that make it harder to keep at the forefront.

What is it they say? That our societies have grown too big, and that’s why urban dwellers have all these ticks to help them avoid noticing that the herd they’re running in is far, far too large to fully comprehend? Ignoring strangers on the bus, keeping our eyes averted while walking on the sidewalk? Is the absence of compassion a result of all that?

I don’t know. But it seems to me that it’s work to remember that every human being has struggles of their own that you may not be able to read on their bodies and faces (if you bothered to read their bodies or their faces, that is). And I’ve decided that compassion is something I’m going to spend more time deliberately drawing out of myself. I shall consider it constantly.

I say all this because I’m increasingly aware of the absence of compassion we tend to show students. We so often seem to assume the worst of them. I don’t really know why; we were all students ourselves once. Why is it so easy for us to forget what it was like? Or are we actually contemptuous of our younger selves, the ones trying to sneak a better grade in any way possible, rejoicing at every holiday and snow day, sleeping through morning lectures and drinking into the wee hours? Is it a form of self-flagellation to assume that all students are lazy and need to be controlled through our obscure and pointless policies?

Or is it just that we get so used to answering the same questions over and over, or dealing with bad behaviour every day, that we assume everyone is stupid and/or malicious? Relentless familiarity? Do we see faces we classify as “students” so often that they all start to look the same, and become some giant annoying creature who just never learns? I guess that’s where my call for compassion comes in.

But then I’m an optimistic sort, I don’t tend to imagine the worst of people. Quite the opposite, I think everyone is basically good and wants to do the right thing. (I suppose this may not actually be true, but I struggle to completely accept that.) I don’t usually deal with the same questions every day, but when I do, I generally remember that this is the first time this particular person has asked that question. When I will try to remember is that if they’re asking this question at the very last possible minute, there may be for very good reasons for that which are none of my business.

So my word of the day/week/year is compassion. And I will go on trying to hone my skills in that department.

Academic Fandom: Collaborative Doctoral Work

Academic Fandom: Collaborative Doctoral Work

I really miss school.

I work at a school, yes. But I miss being a student in one. Many people think I’m crazy, but I love being in school. I love the reading, the writing, and most of all the discussion. I’m a Harvard graduate, I know what it can be like to sit in a room full of extremely bright people and wrestle with a thorny problem. I love not knowing and struggling to understand, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing if any of them work.

But I’m a drop-out. I dropped out of a phd program at the very institution at which I am currently employed, in fact. It’s simultaneously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, the smartest decision I ever made, and the decision I am most likely to feel regret about. I don’t regret it because I want the life that would have come with finishing; I think I’m far better off as a librarian, playing with tech and managing projects and helping faculty with their courses, than I would be with a load of research and teaching to do. I adore my job, and I feel very lucky to have found this particular path. I only regret it because I’d like to do the work.

There’s nothing stopping me from going back. Not to that program, or that topic, or that department, though. I think I’ve moved into a new area now. If I were to go back, it would be in a very different way. And I wouldn’t do it in order to become an academic in the end. Not as job training. Just to improve the person that I am, and to enrich the work I’m already doing.

But you couldn’t drag me back to that style of PhD program. I was lonely, bored, confused about the purpose behind anything I was doing. I felt lost. I have discovered over time that my motivation comes from interacting with other people. This wasn’t immediately apparent all through graduate school because I was de facto surrounded by others. I didn’t realize how much my enthusiasm depended on the community. As soon as I lost that community, I seriously lost my way.

So I was thinking about it a bit, and talking to some doctoral students about the issues they’re facing, I think I’m actually on to something. I think I’ve figured out what kind of doctoral program I’d want to enter. It would go something like this.

You start a doctoral program with a group of like-minded people, interested in working together. In fact, I think the group should actually apply to a program together, be upfront about their collaboration. It’s not a huge group, maybe 4-5 people. Those 4-5 people have agreed beforehand that they want to work on an area of mutual interest. But each of them comes to the subject from a different angle, maybe even a different discipline altogether. They’re looking at maybe the same data, or the same subjects, or at historical data from the same decade, or the same region. Something ties them together, makes each other’s work interesting and appealing to each of them. It gives them a common language and common heroes.

They would all have their own advisers, potentially their own departments to turn to for support and guidance. But the group goes through their programs together, sometimes off doing their own courses and conferences, sometimes working closely together. If they’re doing data collection, the data is shared among the group. They may actually gather data together, and work from the same starting point. Sharing data isn’t plagiarism, after all; the insights you draw from it are the key part.

They discuss approaches and revelations, they have people to turn to when they are wrestling with a thorny problem. They influence each other; they also resist being influenced, or deliberately buck the trend. They read some books in common, but not all. Each brings a lot of unique insights and perspective from their own perspective, or discipline, or area. Comps would be a course (or set of courses, really) where the reading lists are created in an order that will allow all the participants to gain from each other’s thinking along the way. You read your own comps reading list, but you get insight from four others at the same time. Maybe they bring in speakers to talk to them. People to come inspire them or challenge them.

When it comes time to start writing, they have a structured plan, with key milestones and deadlines. They arrange to write their sections with commonalities at the same time, like writing a research paper for a seminar course. The writing process for the collaborative group might look like another set of courses, in fact: they take a “course” together to get each section or chapter finished, with a common deadline and requisite celebrations. They can get a mental tick mark as they complete each step, move through the process like an undergraduate moves through first, second, third, fourth year, graduation. The path of progression would be clear, manageable, collegial. The group could work together along the way to publish collected essays revolving around a theme or element of their collective work. They would meet weekly to discuss their work, their ideas, to be inspired and influenced by each other. They would work collaboratively toward independent goals that are inter-related and complementary. When they’re finished, their dissertations could be published together as a series of books, all related and referencing each other.

Chemistry already works this way, in collaborative units. I think if the humanities started doing the same, the work would be richer. And less tedious to produce.

After I thought it all through, I realized what I was considering: creating a fandom. A fandom in academia, around a topic/theme/group/region. A fandom with it’s language, traditions, communities, familiar cast of characters all re-written and re-imagined by each member. As long as it’s a fandom, it comes with a built in audience of people who are actually interested in your take on the very familiar subject. The conversations are deeper, the details and differences are more obvious. The process gains some meaning, even if that meaning is entirely about finding something to contribute to the group. Flagging enthusiasm can be bolstered up by someone else’s reinvigoration.

It’s not that it’s easier than the traditional PhD; it wouldn’t be. You’d still have to do the reading, pass your comps, do your languages if you have to, collect your data and compose your dissertation. It’s just that it wouldn’t have to be such a solitary task. I think this is the kind of PhD that could actually be fun to do. And wouldn’t the work be richer, with constant insight from others? It wouldn’t prevent you from doing solitary work. Solitary work is the foundation of most academic work, and, ironically, most fandom work too. But what is the benefit of solitary work? Don’t we learn better and think better when challenged and supported and listened to by others? Why do we cut so much of that out of the doctoral process? Doesn’t the solitary work gain meaning when it’s in aid of the collaborative? Isn’t academic inherently collaborative, with academics building on each other work, just at a relatively slow pace? From the slow process of getting an article published and the long wait for meaningful citations in future published work, it’s still highly collaborative. Just crazy slow. Would it be terribly wrong to speed it up a bit?

The Plight of Future Historians

The Plight of Future Historians

Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Homework

Homework

I object to anyone getting homework. I object to it in elementary school, in middle school, and even in high school. University doesn’t count because it’s not homework. You could, if you were dedicated, spend only as much time as you spent in high school doing university level work and you’d probably still gets As. Think about it. 8:30am to 3:30pm every day, Monday through Friday. That would do it, including class time.

You know why I object to homework? It doesn’t teach you the value of work/life balance. Kids sit in those desks all day for hours on end, and then you want them to go home and do more? What are you teaching them? That they should eschew their weekends when they grow up and work themselves into a frenzy, burning out early? Sure, there are times when work has to come home. You do it because you love it, and you want things to be easier. But as a rule? Don’t do it. I wish I’d had this revelation when I was a phd student, because it’s crushing to think, every moment of every day, that you should be working. No. You shouldn’t be doing homework at 7pm on a Thursday night, little middle-schooler. You should be out playing road hockey or jumping rope or swimming in your best friend’s pool. That’s better for you, mind and body. Math can wait.

How to Dehumanize a Person in One Easy Step

How to Dehumanize a Person in One Easy Step

Today on the train downtown, I got to thinking about my sick leave. Before I had to take it, there was a big part of me that dreaded it, since I knew I would be very sick, but there was this other part of me, a smaller, quieter part, that longed for it. I just wanted the break. I was so incredibly tired and stressed out and panicked, the idea of a long time out seemed like a good idea.

And it was, for a while. There’s something about lying on an operating table and facing a cancer diagnosis that puts things like paperwork and job stress into perspective. My job basically faded away into the wallpaper while I focused on my health. My main priorities were sleeping and keeping warm.

These days, I’m back to work full time, and I love it. I love so much of what I do, I feel so lucky and blessed at every turn. I’m learning a lot of new skills that are sharpening my brain and organizing my life. My projects are interesting and challenging and fun. But some days aren’t as good as others for me, health-wise. I have bad days. I often have very groggy mornings that make it difficult for me to get myself moving at a normal speed. And some days I have pain management problems that make it impossible for me to do anything other than curl up and try to keep breathing. So I have to take those days off. Fortunately those days aren’t too common, but at this point there is nothing I hate more than taking more time off work.

I’ve been away long enough. I’m supposed to be all better by now. (Har har.) I want to be perfectly healthy and on all the time. I want to catch up somehow, make up for lost time. I love my job and the people I work for and with, and don’t want to be a losing proposition for them. While paid time off work sounds nice, there’s a serious downside.

I’ve come to realize how dehumanizing it is to have no working relationship with the world you inhabit. Does that make sense? When I’m not part of the human community as a functioning, productive member, I feel lesser. I feel embarrassed and cut off. I feel like a leech. I feel like my opinion is irrelevant, like I’m erased. I’m not participating, I’m not pulling my weight; that’s guilt talking. But I’m also not able to exert control/power/influence, either. That sounds more sinister. I’m not able to shape my world in the way I want it shaped, the way I think it aught to be shaped. I can’t argue my points and make my case. I can’t direct the flow of things. My presence recedes, the world doesn’t have my stamp on it like it feels like it does when I’m working. Work defines me in ways I wouldn’t have guessed. It’s linked into my self-esteem in a way that I find intriguing.

We are social animals. We build working communities and participate in them. The nature of our value comes from the ways in which we participate in our community and help improve it, or make it run, or provide some kind of service. I feel it most strongly when I have to miss work for unfun reasons, as if I’m being dragged out of my community; I’m being removed. My voice doesn’t matter as much, if at all. I’m dehumanized.

So then I started thinking about the numbers of people who are constantly marginalized in our culture, the people who don’t provide a service, who don’t improve the world or make it run. The people who are expected to be the recipients of our goodwill and charity. Those same people who get noses turned up at them because they are “lazily living off the public dime”. What a terrible place to be in this culture, where your input determines not only your community worth but your sense of self-worth. Am I overstating the point? I am certainly one of those people who want their actions to at least subtly alter someone else’s day/life in a positive way every day. When I feel I don’t have that ability or option, I feel shut out, on the outside, no longer part of the human community. It gets me down.

Everyone brings value to the human community in their own way. Perhaps this is the heart of why I felt I needed to build Cancerland in Second Life, so that at least my fallow period could be transformed into something useful. September is Thyroid Cancer awareness month. In my optimistic moments I can imagine that this blog and my Cancerland build are monuments to my attempt to raise awareness about thyroid cancer, to help others to cope with what they’re facing, to help those who love someone with thyroid cancer to understand what they’re going through, and how sick they are even when they don’t look as sick as you expect someone with cancer to look. I can spin it all that way. Maybe I need to spin it that way.

But it shouldn’t be that difficult to feel that you have value; on the flip side, everyone should have the opportunity to demonstrate their value in some way. Perhaps your disability doesn’t allow you to hold down a job; do you feel, as I did, dehumanized by that reality, unable to contribute to the all-mighty economy like everyone else? The bleakness of it jars me. My own guilt and formulation of “value” in that sense absolutely reeks of privilege. It makes me want to seek out and support alternative ways for people to contribute, regardless of their sickness or disability or personal struggles. There are so many wonderful things that can make our community a better one; they don’t all involve going to work every day. It reminds me of the power of play, the power of art, the power of voice. These things can have more impact on people’s lives than many workaday jobs. I want to have a personal revolution on the qualities that define that nebulous concept of an individual’s “worth”.

Inspiration

Inspiration

All humans are the limbs of the same body, created
from one essence.
If the calamity of time afflicts one limb
the others cannot stay at rest.
You, who remain indifferent to the suffering of others
do no deserve to be called human.

–Saadi Shirazi (as translated by my dear Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, heard on TVO’s Big Ideas podcast)

Robert Pickton

Robert Pickton

Guilty on six counts of second degree murder, with two more murder charges on the way. I don’t really understand why he gets second degree rather than first (I mean, after you did it once, doesn’t it become a kind of plan the next twenty-five times?)

What would be a nice result from this trial?

1. Make sex work legal in Canada.
2. Make sure sex workers can be easily located for their safety, and go find them when they go missing.
3. Provide them with a safe place to practice their trade.
4. Give them a living wage.
5. Ensure that they have access to clean, comfortable living accommodations.
6. Develop a regular medical exam regimen to help them stay healthy.
7. Give them a pension plan, dental and eye care, and drug coverage.
8. Provide them with a free college education.
9. Provide support to sex workers with drug problems.

Keeping sex work illegal is dangerous for sex workers, and I don’t know how much clearer that can be. Most of those 26 women would still be alive today of sex workers had be considered regular people like everyone else, people whose disappearance needed to be taken seriously and investigated.

This is isn’t just the work of a mass-murdering swine herder. This is institutional violence against women.