Monthly Archives: April 2009

Lawyers, Librarians, Clergy, and Coaches

No, this is not the answer to the “Top 5 Professions You Would Like to Pursue” quiz that is likely appearing on Facebook even now; it is a partial listing of the “other professional staff” positions found on American campuses cited as part of a Chronicle article on the increasing number of “support staff” in higher education. The Insider Higher Ed version of the article is here.

Both IHE and the Chronicle point to a new report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity on “Trends in the Higher Education Workforce” that notes that the number of “support staff” positions have increased far more rapidly over the past 20 years than has the number of instructional positions. This, it is suggested, “reflects unproductive spending by academe.”

The Chronicle does a good job making clear the (very) gray areas around any conclusion that increased spending on “other professional staff” reflects “unproductive spending,” but the lumping together of librarians with other professional staff presumed not to be directly contributing to instruction is worth noting. I have seen several surveys over the years that have followed the “other professional staff” model, including those of first-year-experience programs and public engagement initiatives – librarians are administrators, managers, and, perhaps, research support staff, but they are not instructors.

And, perhaps we are not (although I have argued the opposite on many occasions), but I see echoes in this report of the 2006 debate in school library circles over the “65% solution”, i.e., the question of whether school librarians should be “counted” as instructional staff in budget allocations and reporting required by educational reform programs. Should the argument advanced by the CCAP report gain traction, and should there be any question of whether professional academic librarians contribute directly to student learning in ways that all might recognize as being “productive,” we might be wise to consider these questions advanced as part of the school library debate (Harada, 2006):

  • How does your library media center support student learning?
  • What compelling evidence do you have that students have achieved the learning targets?

How ready are you to provide the answers?

We Can Handle the Truth

We recently lost a great champion of intellectual freedom – Judith Krug, who called attention to attempts to withdraw books from libraries, challenged the government on Internet censorship, and built coalitions to preserve our freedom to read and consider ideas without penalty. She embodied what we as librarians and academics value and she defended it with fierce intelligence.

On campuses, we rarely have book challenges to cope with, but there are more intangible challenges that compel me to think that information literacy is more important than ever, and that it needs to go beyond “how this library works” and “how to be a good student” but embrace “how to understand and evaluate evidence” but even more importantly “why evidence matters.” (I hasten to add, before you hit the comment button, that I believe information literacy is not the sole responsibility of librarians; it’s something the entire academy must embrace, and when it’s defined as more than “how to use this library” I believe they generally do embrace it, even if they aren’t always sure how to do it. And while I’m editing this, I realize this whole train of thought owes much to the Infofetishist who wrote a thought-provoking post about evidence recently. You should read it.)

One problem we have is the multiple meanings of the word “argument.” The popular meaning of the word is that it’s a form of discourse that results in a winner. Evidence is something you might selectively use, along with ethos, logos, and pathos. But as you prepare for an argument, you already know what side you’re on. You just need some “facts” to prove it.

Another definition of argument – the one used in the parts of composition textbooks that students don’t usually read – is about how you develop and frame a position based on evidence as well as effective use of it. The piece that’s especially important in terms of information literacy is not that you find evidence that will work effectively for your argument, but that you find and evaluate evidence so that you can make your mind up about the issue you’re investigating.

A student recently introduced me to the concept of agnotology – a newly-minted word to capture efforts to generate “the cultural production of ignorance” or, put differently, an effort to cast doubt on widely-recognized scientific principles by any means necessary. We had just been discussing Joel Best’s description of how “mutant statistics” are used by claims-makers to shape public attitudes about social issues. And one thing that seems to be frequently missing in our discussions of how to frame an argument is not just that it must be based on evidence but that we must be willing to let the evidence persuade us before we deploy it to persuade others. In other words, it’s not a tool, it’s not an ingredient we select to spice up a claim, it’s where we go to get our understanding. For that reason, it’s not something we can reject because it doesn’t fit our beliefs. It should shape our beliefs.

The ACRL is a member of Free Exchange on Campus, a “coalition of faculty, student, and civil rights organizations working together to preserve the free exchange of ideas on college campuses.” This group has recently published Facts Still Count, a rebuttal of David Horowitz’s most recent book, which contends with cherry-picked anecdotes that higher education is full of leftist professors seducing innocents. He also has suggested that the best way to counteract this seduction is to require professors to teach “both sides” of issues – which again uses the notion that argument is a contest between two sides (only two, apparently, as simple as right and left or red and blue) and we place our bets based on which one we want to win.

In reality, knowledge isn’t a contest, it’s more of a team sport. We do what we can to arrive at the truth collectively and sure, we have our scuffles along the way and many disagreements aren’t easily resolved. But winning isn’t the point; losing is fine so long as it gets us somewhere.

Another recently-published book that I just added to my incredibly long “to be read” list is For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. An excerpt at the Yale UP site introduces the issue by recounting a response to a Common Reading book choice at a college campus. A committee of citizens denounced the choice of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed as “an all-out assault on Christians, conservatives and capitalism.” The assumption seems to be that if you read something, you are being forced to agree with it, though the purpose of such common reading programs is to stimulate discussion, not to inculcate beliefs or establish a body of facts that will be on the test.

Academic libraries have a relatively easy time of it. We don’t tell anybody what to read, we just offer lots of choices and occasionally have to defend the existence of those choices. But when reading a book in common comes under threat because reading is characterized as a form of indoctrination, or when a teacher’s freedom to teach is threatened by an effort to establish a student’s right to force the teacher to teach “the other side,” it becomes a matter that should concern us as a profession that believes in intellectual freedom.

And when it comes to information literacy, we should be having more conversations about how to get across the idea that “evidence matters” in terms that are more complex than “because you’ll write a better paper.”

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe

On top of everything else I have to do as a one-person library, I was recently emailed my blank “2009-2010 Professional Development Plan”.  It’s basically a job review for the last year, plus places where I need to list what I want to do this coming academic year.  I’m sure every college bureaucracy everywhere requires these, but I’m a bit put off by it.  I knew it was coming because my long-gone boss warned me to keep track of everything I did.  So at least I wasn’t racking my brain trying to remember what events I attended, and what wonderful contributions I’ve made to our institution.

Anyway, here are some of the questions for your perusal:

1.    Goals for higher educational level/certification/licensing/endorsements/courses (Pertaining to requirements and endorsement of current position)  What if you already have your terminal degree?
2.    Other relevant activities (including supervisory responsibilities, organization and facilitation responsibilities, and job complexity) I’ve actually come up with a strategy for this one… see below.
3.    Then of course they ask about workshops and conferences, what college committees you’ve served on, special projects, and so on.  At least these are easy – if you keep a calendar, anyway!

So how do you answer those annoying types of broad, over-generalized questions designed for ten dozen different job descriptions?  I could be brief under each section, and give bullet points like: “encouraged library use, taught instruction sessions, answered reference questions.”  That’s my tendency, to eschew obfuscation.  But I gather the typical response is slightly more verbose: for instance: “Though the creative use of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café in book display units, I not only encouraged reading skills but introduced new literary styles and venues.”

Of course I want to make sure I cover everything I do – in this day and age of budget cuts I’d hate for someone up the chain of command to think “Do we REALLY need someone full time at the new branch?”  My hate-to-talk-about-myself tendency lends itself to this unfortunately well, so I try to make sure I cover everything.  (Heck, do I put the fact that I’m an “official” First Year Blogger on the prestigous ACRLog??)

The last question (#2, above) is so broad I sat in stunned disbelief.  Finally I came up with a game plan. I’m currently a librarian in a paraprofessional body, so I decided to break out my list into three categories.  Librarian responsibilities.  Library Specialist responsibilities (my current classification).  Administrative responsibilities.  Hopefully, in one fell swoop, this will advertise my 1) hugely broad areas of responsibility, and 2) my wonderful creativity for thinking outside the (blanks and forms) box.  What do you think?  Am I crazy, or promotable??  (And does anyone else stress about these yearly events as much as I do?)

We Work Together But Don’t Read Each Other’s Blogs

Here at ACRLog we’ve made some efforts in the past to encourage academic librarians to explore the faculty blogosphere. On at least two occasions we posted about conversations taking place on faculty blogs and we even offered a guide to some faculty blogs for those who wanted to explore on their own. Only you, the readers, can tell me if any of those articles spurred you to start regularly reading a few faculty blogs or if you blog – did you add any faculty blogs to your blogroll?

One of my must read faculty/academic administrator blogs is Confessions of a Community College Dean. The Dean has great insight into the inner workings of the higher education institution. This post was particularly helpful to me in my work as an academic administrator. Recently, while looking over the Dean’s blogroll I noticed that he didn’t link to a single academic librarian blog or any sort of librarian blog. When I look at almost any faculty blog there are no librarian blogs referenced. Then again, when I look at most academic librarian blogs (or the blogs of academic librarians who occasionally write about academic issues) they don’t include any faculty blogs in their blogrolls. So what is going on here?

We work together. We serve on committees together. We deal with the same students and administrators. Shouldn’t we pay more attention to each others blogs? I wrote to the Dean and asked him to share his thoughts on that. I think he made some good points. I have to agree that there needs to be a WIIFM factor for faculty. I do think there can be as much in it for them as for us when we read their blogs.

While the Dean didn’t exactly take up my issue of why faculty and librarians aren’t reading each other’s blogs he did write a thoughtful post about the changing nature of the academic library and I suggest you read it.

BTW, if you like reading faculty blogs we are looking for someone who would be willing to write a monthly post for ACRLog that would summarize what’s being discussed on different faculty blogs. If you are interested in taking on this assignment and becoming a regular contributor to ACRLog – send a message indicating your interest via our “Send a Tip” link on this page.

Heather Has Two Mommies and Just Canceled her Amazon Account

A current kerfuffle on the Internets has to do with Amazon de-ranking GLBT-themed books as reported on the LA Times Jacket Copy blog.

Amazon’s policy of removing “adult” content from its rankings seems to be both new and unevenly implemented. On Saturday, self-published author Mark R. Probst noticed that his book had lost its ranking, and made inquiries. The response he got from Amazon’s customer service explained:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Probst wrote a novel for young adults with gay characters set in the old West; he was concerned that gay-friendly books were being unfairly targeted. Amazon has not responded to the L.A. Times request for clarification.

Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs, “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel, “The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1″ by Michel Foucault, “Bastard Out of Carolina” by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), “Little Birds: Erotica” by Anais Nin, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), “Maurice” by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and “Becoming a Man” by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Maybe this is just a new marketing gimmick – create viral annoyance to get your brand out there. Certainly Kindle 2 got a lot of attention when the text-to-speech feature was disabled because the Author’s Guild has put its head in a place that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company.

In any case, libraries have one thing going for them – we defend intellectual freedom. Let’s see if we can tweet that to the world. Support your free (as in beer and as in speech) library.