Category Archives: Just Thinking

Use this category for raising questions and thinking out loud or reflecting on writings for which there is no real specific topic.

Mixed messages, missed opportunities? Writing it better

At the Bucknell Digital Scholarship Conference a few months ago, Zeynep Tufekci gave a great keynote presentation.  Tufekci, who grew up in Turkey’s media-controlled environment,  researches how technology impacts social and political change.  She described how the accessibility of social media enhanced the scale and visibility of, for example, the Gezi Park protests.  In her talk, Tufekci also advocated for academics to “research out loud,” to make their scholarship visible and accessible for a wider, public audience.  Rather than restrict academic thought to slow, inaccessible, peer-reviewed channels, she said, academics should bring complex ideas into the public sphere for wider dissemination and consumption.  Through her “public” writing (in venues like Medium and the New York Times, for example), Tufekci said she is “doing her research thinking out in the open” and trying to “inject ideas of power, of equity, of justice” to effect change.  There’s a lot of public demand for it, she told us, if you make it accessible and approachable.  We just, she said with a chuckle, have to “write it better.”

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Steven Pinker explored the various reasons why academic writing generally “stinks.”  Is it because academics dress up their meaningless prattle in fancy language in order to hide its insignificance?  Is it unavoidable because the subject matter is just that complicated?  No, Pinker said to these and other commonly held hypotheses.  Instead, he said, academic writing is dense and sometimes unintelligible because it’s difficult for experts to step outside themselves (and outside their expert ways of knowing) to imagine their subject from a reader’s perspective.  “The curse of knowledge is a major reason that good scholars write bad prose,” he said.  “It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know—that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day.  And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail.”

Tufekci and Pinker, then, are on the same page.  The ideas of the academy can and should be accessible to a wider audience, they’re urging.  To reach readers, academics should write better.  In order to write better, academics must know their readers and think like their readers.  Sure, you might be thinking, I could have told you that.  We library folks are rather accustomed to trying to think like our “readers,” our users, aren’t we?  So what message might there be in this for us?  Is it that we should continually hone our communications whether in instruction, marketing, web design, systems, cataloging, or advocacy?  Yes.  Is it that we should stop worrying that if we make things too simple for our users we’ll create our own much-feared obsolescence?  Probably.  Is it that we should reflect on whether we’re truly thinking like our audience or trying to make them think (or work) like us?  That, too.

Just the other day, I was chatting with a friend who is a faculty member at my institution.  We were both expressing frustration about recent instances of not being heard.  Perhaps you know the feeling, too.  During class, for example, a student might ask a question that we just that minute finished answering.  Or in a meeting, we might make a suggestion that seems to fall on deaf ears.  Then just a few minutes later, we hear the very same thing from a colleague across the table and this time the group responds with enthusiasm.  If you’re like me, these can be discouraging disconnects, to say the least.  Why weren’t we heard?, we wonder.  Why couldn’t they hear us?  These are perhaps not so different from those larger scale disconnects, too.  When we might, let’s say, advocate with our administration for additional funding for a new initiative or collections or a redesign of library space and our well-researched, much needed proposal isn’t approved.  Perhaps these are all opportunities we might take to reconsider our audience and “write it better.”

So what does “writing it better” mean exactly?  While it likely varies for each of us, I expect there’s some common ground.  “Writing it better” is certainly about clarity and precision of ideas and language.  But I think it’s also about building and establishing our credibility and making emotional connections to our audience, while thinking strategically.  I think it’s about our relationships and values–to the ideas themselves and to our audience.  It’s about an openness and generosity of mind and heart that helps us to consider others’ perspectives.  What does “write it better” mean to you?

Like a Real Library?

I’m a regular reader of Matt Reed’s Confessions of a Community College Dean blog over at Inside Higher Ed, and last week he published a post that has had me thinking ever since. His post “Like a Real College” reflects on the experiences that hybrid and online learning in colleges and universities sometimes leave behind, like graduation ceremonies and in-person social interactions. Reed notes:

I’m consistently struck at the resonance that some of those traditional trappings have for non-traditional students. They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.” I’ve heard those words enough times that I can’t write them off as flukes anymore.

How does this translate to academic libraries? Lots of recent research has shown that many students appreciate what we think of as a traditional library atmosphere for doing their academic work: book stacks, good lighting, table and carrel desk seating, and quiet (see Antell and Engel, Applegate [paywall], and Jackson and Hahn, to name just a few). My research partner Mariana Regalado and I heard similar preferences from the students we spoke to in our research, several of whom also specifically mentioned their admiration for the the very formal, serious library at one CUNY college. To me this suggests that our library space planning and renovations need to balance collections and study space, and acknowledge the importance of books and other physical academic materials for environmental as well as informational reasons.

But what about online learning or competency based degrees, as Reed refers to in his column? How can the academic library contribute to the “real college” feeling that students say they want? Online learning seems to pull apart the collections and workspace roles of the library. And while not always the easiest or most user-friendly experience, online access to our college and university library collections is often (and increasingly) possible.

Is it possible to replicate, or even approach, the traditional academic library experience for studying and academic work with online-only students? One question I have sounds almost too simple to be asked, but also seems fundamental to the online student experience. Where, exactly, are our students when they do their online and hybrid coursework? At home? At the public library? At a coffeeshop (or McDonald’s)?

The college where I work is still very focused on our students in face-to-face classes, and we don’t have any fully-online degrees (though the university that my college is part of does). Anecdotally, we do see students working on their coursework for online or hybrid classes in our library computer labs, though I’m sure they also work on it elsewhere. But I’d be interested to hear about other academic libraries that have grappled with this: are there things we can do to bring the traditional, library-as-place to online-only students? Is the “real library” experience possible?

On Working and Not-working

What’d you do this past weekend? Though I’m in NYC I was unfortunately unable to attend the Digital Labor conference at the New School, which looked like a terrific and interesting event. Instead I planned to follow along on Twitter, but that ended up not happening because I had a bunch of things to catch up on: a peer review, a revise & resubmit, some conference organizing tasks, drafting this post. You know, work. The irony that I didn’t have time to check in on a digital labor conference on Twitter in part because of the digital labor I was doing is not lost on me.

How many of us work on weekends even after we’ve worked the whole week? How many of us are carrying lots of vacation days because we haven’t felt that we could take them? This might be due in part to the having-a-job-that-you-love problem: many of us do truly love our jobs and our work, and feel fortunate to have them. And since academic librarianship often requires or encourages us to do research and scholarship, it can be all too easy to let that work spill over into evenings and weekends. I’m most definitely prone to this, and I do find myself working during non-worktimes.

Also, as I learned recently when our HR department sent out their biannual reminder of leave time accrued, I have a balance of vacation days that are beginning to pile up (though not enough to lose them, thankfully). This semester I’ve been perhaps more guilty of non-worktime work and not taking leave than in the past, in part because coming up to speed on my new management responsibilities at work haven’t left me with much room to spare during the week, especially for research and writing. Different folks have different tolerances for and interests in working during off hours, and that’s okay. There may be other reasons for extra work besides the feeling that there’s work to catch up on: maybe you’re working on another degree, or writing a book.

We all deserve to use the leave time we’ve earned, and there are demonstrable benefits for workers (and workplaces) in taking time off. But in my new position I’ve been thinking about extra work in an additional way, and realizing that there are impacts on the library, too. How can we have a complete, realistic picture of the work of the library when there’s unused leave time? Some folks may feel overworked, some just right, and hopefully no one feels like they have too little work to do. It’s difficult to balance workloads or to plan to add new services and projects if we carry over our leave time rather than use it.

I’m thinking of this as a pre-New Year’s resolution: I’m going to try and be better about using my time off, and invite you to join me.

All the News, In Print

My household recently started getting the print edition of our local newspaper again. I know what you’re thinking: Really? Print? In 2014? When everyone in the house is fortunate enough to have a device on which they could read the electronic version (if they were so inclined)?

I’m old enough that I’ve spent most of my life getting the news from a print newspaper until relatively recently. When I moved into an apartment with friends halfway through college, ordering up daily newspaper delivery made it seem like we were truly adults despite a diet consisting mostly of boxed mac and cheese. My partner and I kept getting the paper delivered when we moved to graduate school and jobs, even as the paper got somewhat smaller and slimmer. And then it suddenly seemed like too much — all that paper to haul downstairs to the recycling every week, especially on the weekends, with sections we didn’t even read. The newspaper website had the same content and didn’t cost anything, so we canceled our subscription. Eventually the paywalls went up so we bought a digital subscription.

And there we stayed until recently. About two weeks ago, to be exact. What changed my mind? My kid is finishing up middle school this year, and I wanted to see if he would pick up and read the newspaper if it was left physically around the house. He could read it digitally, as do my partner and I, but he doesn’t. We tell him about big news stories, and he sometimes has to find a newspaper article or editorial for school, but that’s about it for his encounters with the paper. And since we don’t tend to watch the news on TV, he doesn’t have any regular exposure to news other than what he seeks out (while he reads a lot online, he tends to gravitate more to video game news than current events news).

It’s been really interesting to go back to the print newspaper. Some things I’ve noticed:

  • I now read or skim a larger number of articles than I used to when I read the paper solely online, and in (some) sections that I often would more or less skip. But that also takes longer, and the result is that I typically can’t get through the entire paper at breakfast and have to leave some sections for the evening.
  • It’s much, much easier to browse through the newspaper in its physical form. This is good for my kid, because his science teacher has requested that he and his classmates each find a science article in the paper every week. The images are better too — there are more of them, and you don’t have to click to embiggen like on the website (which often means I don’t take the time for that click).
  • In general I hate advertising, but I appreciate the ads much more in the paper paper than online. It seems like there are ads that don’t make it to the website — mainly political ads — which is interesting. And the juxtaposition of news and ad content can be fascinating: my favorite was a recent story about New York City’s “poor doors” — an awful proposal for separate entrances in apartment buildings with both market-rate and affordable housing — right across from a full-page spread advertising a new luxury building. I know these kinds of contrasts occur on the website too, but I find it easier to tune out the ads online so I guess I don’t notice them as much.
  • Some of the non-news content that the paper (still!) runs was a complete surprise. Weather I can see the value in, though it seems like the weather’s so changeable now that even printing the forecast the night before could be of limited use. But TV listings! For all of the channels! Movie times! At all of the theaters! Who knew they’re still in the paper? I’ve been racking my brain for a use case for those listings — it seems unlikely to me that there are folks out there who’d only have access to or would rather get that information from the print newspaper.

All of this means that I’m suddenly finding myself very nostalgic for the age of paper newspapers in our academic libraries. I know they’re impractical for a whole range of reasons (so I’m not really serious about their return), but I do think they’re better for students in a number of ways. Yes, our students can browse and search the websites for their local newspapers, and they’ll often get the full text and at least some of the photos that accompany the article. But they lose the context provided by the layout of the physical page and the section and location in which the articles appear. And if they use a library database to search multiple newspapers simultaneously they’ll get lots of content but even less context: no images, and no visual cues as to what audience the newspaper seeks. I can’t imagine that print newspapers will ever come back to academic libraries, but I wonder what we can do to bring the positive aspects of the print experience to our students’ use of online newspapers?

Thinking Tenure Thoughts

Last week Meredith Farkas wrote a thoughtful post on her blog, Information Wants to Be Free, about tenure status for academic librarians. Spirited discussion ensued in Meredith’s blog comments and on libraryland Twitter (much of which Meredith Storified) which has continued to today. The conversation has included many varied perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages of tenure for academic librarians, including preparation for research and scholarship in graduate library programs, the perceptions of status and equality between academic librarians and faculty in other departments, salary parity, academic freedom, and the usefulness and rigor of the library literature.

I support tenure for academic librarians as I do for faculty in other departments primarily because I believe that tenure ensures academic freedom, which is as important in the library as it is in other disciplines. I also have concerns about the tenure system more generally, concerns that many academics in libraries and other departments also voice. One of my big concerns is that the pressure to publish can result in quantity over quality.

This conundrum was raised during the Twitter discussion of Meredith’s post and had me nodding vigorously as I read. I am absolutely in agreement that the tenure system as it currently stands has encouraged the publication of large amounts of scholarship that ranges from the excellent and thought-provoking, to the interesting if somewhat obvious, to the just not very good, to the occasionally completely wrong. Of course, this is a problem not just in academic librarianship but in other disciplines as well. The avalanche of scholarship resulting from the pressures to publish to gain tenure affects libraries and the broader academic enterprise in a variety of ways.

It takes time to write and publish, and time spent on that is less time to spend on doing research or reading the research that others have published, research that might be useful in our jobs as well as our own research. You might remember the article in the Guardian late last year in which Nobel Prize-winning physicist Peter Higgs suggested that he’d be unlikely to get tenure in today’s academic climate because he hasn’t published enough. I try to stay current on what’s being published in a handful of library journals, but like many of us my interests are interdisciplinary and there is no way I can read even a fraction of what’s relevant to my scholarly interests. And the more that’s published, the more difficult it can become to find the good stuff — something we see when we teach students to evaluate sources, but something that can stymie more experienced researchers as well.

There’s also a direct connection between the ever-increasing publication for tenure needs and academic library budgets. Those articles need to go somewhere, and journal publishers have been more than willing to create new journals to fill up with reports of academic research and sell back to libraries. Publishing in open access journals can help, as others including Barbara Fister have suggested.

But I think academic librarians with tenure can make an impact on the quality versus quantity problem, both in the library literature and in scholarly communication more widely. I’m coming up for tenure in the fall, and while I’ve published my research open access, it’s also true that I’ve submitted most of my work for publication in peer reviewed journals, primarily because that’s what “counts” most. I don’t know that I’ve written anything in the past 6 years that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but as Meredith and others noted in the Twitter conversation, without worries about what counts I probably wouldn’t have felt as much pressure to write as much as I have for peer reviewed journals, and might have spread my efforts more evenly between blogging or other forms of publication as well. I’ve also felt torn spending time on other work that I know isn’t as highly regarded as traditional scholarly publishing — work like conference organizing and article reviewing and blogging, for example.

I’m looking forward to coming up for tenure in part because I’d like to help work toward expanding the definition of scholarly productivity to include alternatives to peer-reviewed publication in journals, and to focus on quality over quantity. Some of this is work that librarians are already doing — work in promoting open access, for example, among faculty in other departments who may not realize that there are peer-reviewed, highly-regarded OA journals. As academic librarians we have a view of the scholarly publishing landscape that other faculty may not share, and I hope we can use this position to advocate for tenure requirements that take into account more of the possibilities for contributing to the creation and propagation of knowledge than peer review and impact factor alone.