Monthly Archives: July 2010

In The Sweatshop Or Reaping The Lottery Win

Are you feeling overworked these days? Do you feel the pressure to publish, present and serve on a dozen different committees? Does it seem like you are trying to do the work of two librarians, and that you just never have time to get much of anything truly constructive done? If so, welcome to the “Ivory Sweatshop”. That’s the term used in an article in this week’s Chronicle [Paywall Alert!] to describe the current academic workplace – or at least the way it feels to many faculty. What the article really attempts to do, is to frame the way today’s junior faculty feel in comparison to those who went through the tenure process a decade or more ago. The consensus of those interviewed appears to be that faculty are under much more pressure now to produce – and are being held to a much higher standard than colleagues who have already achieved tenure. I hear from academic librarians who know they aren’t keeping up with the latest news and developments as well as they should because they are challenged to find the time. This is reflected in one of the comments in the article: “This job has gotten a thousand percent harder than when I started out,” says Mr. Bergman, who began teaching in 1967. It takes a lot more time now, he says, for scholars to keep current with advances in their discipline.”

In the very same issue of the Chronicle there is a personal essay [Paywall Alert!] that presents a quite different picture of what it is like to work in academia these days. The author, a tenured faculty member at a rising research university, shares the process he went through in working out a midlife crisis resulting from that perennial question – what should I do with the rest of my life. His ultimate epiphany about his lot in life and what to do about it could be described as anything but feeling like working in a sweatshop. He writes:

That led me to the moment of clarity I had been searching for: I woke up to the fact that achieving tenure and promotion are like winning the lottery. With the odds against landing a tenure-track job in the humanities growing longer every year, I had hit the proverbial jackpot and been granted an opportunity that very few people have: the freedom to pursue my own interests on my own terms. Within the constraints of my job obligations, I could do whatever I wanted with my life.

That’s sounds like a pretty good deal. Who wouldn’t like to be in a position where they have many options and could take advantage of any of them. How many of you feel like you’ve hit the lottery in your position? Or do you feel like you are working in an academic version of a sweatshop? Which is it in academia? Depending on what you observe and who you talk to you will hear both versions. More likely you’ll hear from someone who feels like they are in the sweatshop complaining about a colleague who they believe has hit the lottery. It’s the “why I’m I working so damn hard while that co-worker seems to be barely doing anything at all?” I don’t know if the difference is simply an outcome of being on the tenure track versus having survived it. There’s no question that those on the track are feeling enormous pressure to succeed. But it would be a bad case of generalization to suggest that everyone who has made it shifts their career into neutral.

I have a good friend at a research university that has a very rigorous tenure process. Although he received tenure two years ago I’ve noticed no slowdown in his work or research agenda, and if anything he seems even busier. The difference I observe is that the pressure has shifted from external – exerted by a tenure process – to internal – the pressure one puts on oneself to achieve beyond the normal expectation. I wonder if there are also differences in perceptions based on being on the front line versus being in the administrative office. I know that reference and instruction librarians can feel overwhelmed trying to keep up with the demands placed upon them. I can also tell you that it’s no picnic for administrators these days, especially when we are all expected to be doing much more with fewer resources.

My own philosophy is that it’s always better too have to much to do than not enough, and it’s not that hard these days to come up with more than enough to keep the pressure cooker on medium to high range. Doing so doesn’t have to mean that you are working in a sweatshop though. In fact, I think that on the average day, a faculty member or an academic librarian, no matter how many deadlines there are, no matter how many committee reports are due and no matter how many classes there are to prepare for, is incredibly fortunate to have a challenging and rewarding career – and that’s why so many new professionals seek to enter this arena despite the odds of landing a job and why many who are past the age of retirement refuse to leave [Paywall Alert!]. And when you compare the work of many employed in academia to those individuals performing jobs where there is considerable physical labor or unpleasant or dangerous working conditions, you can’t help but conclude that those of us working in academia are more lottery winners than sweatshop toilers. How would you describe your situation? Sweatshop loser or lottery winner?

Let’s Not (Just) Do the Numbers

Meredith Farkas has a thoughtful post at Information Wants to be Free on our love of numbers and how little they tell us without context. Less traffic at the reference desk: what does that mean? It could mean that students don’t find the help they get there useful, or that your redesigned website or new signage has solved problems that used to require human intervention. More instruction sessions? Maybe more faculty attended conferences and needed a babysitter.

Meredith’s post made me think about the statistics I recently compiled for our annual report. Many of them are things we count in order to share that information with others through national surveys. We dutifully count how much microfiche and microfilm we have added to the collection (seriously?) and how many print periodicals we have (fewer all the time, but our growing access to electronic full text is virtually impossible to measure; does a title that has a 12 month embargo count?). We haven’t used this report to share how much use our databases are getting and which journals in those databases are getting downloaded most often, or what Google Analytics tells us about which web pages attract the most attention. We use that information for decision-making, but it doesn’t become part of the record because the time series we use was started back when the earth’s crust was still cooling. (Guess what: acquisition of papyrus scrolls, clay tablets and wax cylinders is way down.)

In the end, I’m not all that interested in the numbers. The really interesting data is usually the hardest to gather. How do students decide which sources to use, and does their ability to make good choices improve over time? When they read a news item that someone has posted to Facebook, are they better prepared after our sessions to determine whether it’s accurate? Do students who figured out how to use their college library transfer those skills to unfamiliar settings after they graduate? Do students grow in their ability to reason based on evidence? Have they developed a respect for arguments that arrive at conclusions with information that isn’t cherry-picked or taken out of context? Can they make decisions quickly without neglecting to check the facts? The kind of literacy we’re hoping to foster goes far beyond being able to write a term paper. And knowing how many microfiche we own doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Now I have a question for our readers. Are there ways you regularly assess the kinds of deep learning that we hope to encourage? What measures of learning, direct and indirect, do you use at your library? Have you conducted studies that have had an impact on your programs? Are you gathering statistics that seem particularly pointless? Should we start an Awful Library Statistics blog? The floor is open for comments.

photo courtesy of Leo Reynolds.

In Google They Trust

An interesting article swam through my Twitterstream recently that’s a perfect complement to the Project Information Literacy report that Barbara mentioned last week. It’s a recent publication of research by the Web Use Project led by Eszter Hargittai, a professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University. The article, Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content, appears in the latest issue of the International Journal of Communication (which is open access, hooray!), and reports on the information-seeking behavior of college freshmen at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Specifically, the researchers examine how students search for, locate, and evaluate information on the web.

Surveys were administered to 1,060 students, then a subset of 102 students were observed and interviewed as they searched for information on the internet. In the survey students were asked to rate criteria they use for evaluating websites and how often they use those criteria when doing research for their coursework. Students rated several criteria as important to consider when searching for information for school assignments, including currency/timeliness, checking additional sources to verify the information, identifying opinion versus fact, and identifying the author of the website.

However, while students surveyed and interviewed know that they should assess the credibility of information sources they find on the web, in practice this didn’t always hold true. When researchers observed students searching for information, the students rarely assessed the credibility of websites using what faculty and librarians would consider appropriate criteria, e.g., examining author credentials, checking references, etc. Instead, they placed much trust in familiar brands: Google, Yahoo!, SparkNotes, MapQuest, and Microsoft, among others.

Students also invested their trust in search engines to provide them with the “best” results for their research needs. While some acknowledged that search engine results are not ranked by credibility or accuracy, they asserted that in their experience the top results returned by search engines were usually the most relevant for them. Adding to the confusion, some students went right to the sponsored links on the search engine results page, which are not organic results at all but paid advertising.

Some of the students interviewed were able to differentiate between the types of information usually found on websites based on domain name, remarking that websites with .edu and .gov addresses are most trustworthy. But students were less clear on the differences between .org and .com. Many regard .org websites as more trustworthy, probably because originally that domain was reserved for non-profit organizations, a restriction which no longer exists.

I highly recommend giving this article a read, as it’s full of additional data and details that I’m sure will resonate with academic librarians. For me reading this article was like stepping into one of my English Comp instruction sessions. I always devote a portion of the class to discussing doing research on the internet, often ask students these same questions, and (usually) get the same responses. It’s great to see published data on these issues, and I hope the article is widely read throughout higher ed. My one wish is that there were a way to comment directly on the article and remind faculty that librarians can collaborate with them to strengthen their students’ website evaluation skills.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

ALA Demo Hell

I usually avoid the orchestrated demos many vendors offer at ALA – you know the ones I mean. There is a small seating area and there’s an infomercial-type presenter – or even worse an annoying robot or Elvis impersonator. My preference is to have a rep take me through a one-on-demo where I can interrupt with my questions. But I wanted to find out what the vendor was doing with a new platform rollout, and they said “We’ll be starting the theatre demo in a few minutes”. I needed to take a rest anyway, so I sat down.

The “theatre host” (I don’t know what you call these people) came over and said hello and announced my name to everyone within 50 yards since their sound system broadcasts to several aisles away. Who needs Foursquare to let everyone know where I am? Ms. Theatre Host (MTH) just took care of that. After a few other folks sat down MTH delivered the canned speil about all the great new features. Then MTH asked us if we were ready to “get in the zone”. What? I just want a damn demo.

Turns out there was no theatre demo. We all just shifted over to one sales rep who gave a canned demo on a 20” monitor. It took all of two minutes and didn’t yield much information. Why are you making seven people watch the demo on this tiny monitor when you’ve got a 72” flat panel right over there? They did give away a $25 gift card just for taking time to suffer through this. I didn’t win. Overall I felt like a loser. Is there anyone who actually enjoys these things?

A Post-ALA Tip For the Hungry

Prior to ALA you’ll find all sorts of “how to get the most out of the conference” tips being offered. Beyond the “carry a snack” tip I don’t see many suggestions for satisfying one’s hunger – which gets worked up quickly walking the exhibits or sitting through an interminably boring presentation. It’s true the library mags offer lists of “nearby” eateries, but when I’m in the middle of a busy conference day, I just want to grab something fast and cheap – and those magazine articles tend to list pricier restaurants that are farther away and chew up more time. Did you see the long lines and prices at any food booth in the DC convention center? Wait 20 minutes for a $6 cold and dried out hot dog? Forget that.

Did you know there was a great supermarket exactly three blocks and a five-minute walk from the convention center? Nowadays most decent supermarkets have lots of prepared food options. I walked over there and got a custom-made sandwich for $4.99, a huge orange for $.70, and a bottle of cold water for $.79. You could barely buy a bag of chips for that total amount in the convention center. I was back in the convention center eating my freshly made, healthy lunch in an air-conditioned room 15 minutes after I stepped out to buy it.You were probably still in line waiting to buy a stale, overpriced burrito. So the next time the library mags prepare their articles on food options for the conference, I suggest they scope out any supermarket or convenience stores within a 3-5 block radius of the convention center. That will do all of us a favor – hey – the bus folks might even include it on one of the routes.

They Still Don’t Get Us

A favorite librarian past-time is locating an instance of a journalist or author using “librarian” in some way – a metaphor or otherwise – that demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what we really do or the skills we use in our work. For example, “Once she mastered speed reading, she could read more books in a day than most librarians could read in a week of sitting at the desk while they checked out books”. That sort of stuff tends to make our blood boil because whoever wrote it clearly has no idea what we really do and is just buying into that same old stereotype.

I made that one up (Ok, it’s not that great but you get the point), but here’s a real one I came across that’s a bit more sophisticated. In an NYT article about the opportunity cost of the wasted time people spend searching for things on the web (that is, there’s much free information, but is it really free if you spend 15 minutes trying to find it – what was the opportunity cost of your time), the author, Damon Darlin wrote:

Google makes it easier to get search results by suggesting possible search terms as a query is typed. (Engineers there, who must measure just about everything, had noticed that query lengths were becoming longer as we turned into a nation of research librarians.) Typing some queries gives you the results right on the top of the search page. Type in “poison center,” for instance, and you get the toll-free phone number for poison emergencies.

But he couldn’t have used “research librarians” more incorrectly in this context while trying to make his point. It’s just the opposite in fact. If we were turning into a nation of research librarians all the searching would in reality become incredibly compact and efficient – resulting in vast amounts of saved time. We’re not the ones typing statements such as “I need to find the phone number for a poison emergency center because I just swallowed some Drano” – that’s what everyone else is doing. Research librarians – knowing how Google is structured – would just type “poison center drano” or even more likely “antidote drano” (even in dire emergencies we can’t help but think smart). So while we all appreciate the power of search suggestions – it wasn’t needed because we turned into a nation of research librarians. It was needed because we are mostly a nation of search dummies.

Sheesh, will they ever get it?

Reading Between the Assignment’s Lines

Project Information Literacy has a new study out that complements their earlier work. In the new study, PIL researchers collected and examined research assignment prompts to see how they guide students toward good sources, and discovered that … they don’t. That is, the assignments tend to be fairly specific about the surface features of what the finished product should look like, but offer little guidance on how to find and make choices among sources or what this kind of assignment is intended to achieve.

Another piece of the project involved interviewing faculty to tease out some of the thinking behind them, to see how faculty supplement assignment prompts with in-class instruction, and what issues they see students struggle with. While it was clear in the interviews that faculty are frustrated by students’ lack of preparation, and that they spend lots of time explaining how to carry out the task, the assignments themselves don’t address the problem.

PIL’s previous study of student experiences found that virtually all students use the Internet in their research, but very nearly all of them also use library databases. Not so many used books in their research. In contrast, of the assignment prompts analyzed in the study, 60% required or encouraged use of materials on the shelves in the library, 43% suggested that students use library databases (though few specified which ones would be most useful), and 26% suggested students might find good sources through the Web. Fifteen percent discouraged or forbade the use of Internet sources, and 10% specifically forbade the use of Wikipedia. The authors seem correct to describe the approach to research laid out in these assignments as “tradition bound” – not just in terms of where students were likely to find the appropriate sources, but in that 83% of the assignments asked students to write traditional research papers. (When collecting these prompts, the researchers asked for assignments that asked students to find and use sources; they didn’t ask for research paper assignments, but that seems to be the primary way faculty engage students in using sources.)

One final intriguing connection between the report on student practices and on assignments: few students turned to librarians for help with their research, though they did look to their teachers for guidance. And though the majority of assignments recommended students use print resources in the library, very few of them suggested consulting with a librarian.

Here’s the abstract:

A report of findings from a content analysis of 191 course-related research assignment handouts distributed to undergraduates on 28 college campuses across the U.S., as part of Project Information Literacy. A majority of handouts in the sample emphasized standards about the mechanics of compiling college research papers, more so than guiding students to finding and using sources for research. Most frequently, handouts advised students to use their campus library shelves and/or online library sources when conducting research for assignments, though most handouts lacked specific details about which of he library’s hundreds of databases to search. Few handouts advised students about using Internet sources, even though many of today’s students almost always integrate the Web into their research activities. Very few handouts recommended consulting a librarian about research assignments. Details about evaluating information, plagiarism, and instructor availability appeared in only a minority of the handouts analyzed. The findings suggest that handouts for academic research assignments provide students with more how-to procedures and conventions for preparing a final product for submission, than guidance about conducting research and finding and using information in the digital age.

There’s also a short video summarizing the results available as well as an interview with Andrea Lunsford, the goddess of writing instruction and a principal investigator behind the massive Stanford Study of Writing.

Note: edited to correct a few numbers that I’d reported incorrectly. (D’oh!)

photo courtesy of monica, nic