Tag Archives: academic freedom

Shifting Scholarly Communication Practices and the Case of Dr. Salaita

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sarah Crissinger, graduate student in library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Many LIS practitioners are probably already familiar with this story, but here’s a quick recap just in case:

In October 2013, Steven Salaita accepted a tenure-track position within the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He subsequently quit his job and made arrangements to uproot his family from their home in Virginia. On August 1, 2014, Chancellor Phyllis Wise revoked his offer—an offer which had been decided upon by faculty within the American Indian Studies program—stating that she would not be passing along his recommendation to the Board of Trustees. Wise cited Dr. Salaita’s tweets as the impetus for utilizing this loophole, stating that “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them” would not be tolerated. Later, it was revealed that Wise was in close contact with donors that had differing views from Dr. Salatia’s.

These actions have created a “catastrophe” for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for several reasons. First, Wise made a conscious decision not to engage in a discourse about Dr. Salaita’s viewpoint or even the format he chose to express it in, but instead punished him for voicing his opinion by compromising his livelihood. These actions don’t seem to be in-step with the values of the academy. UIUC also exhibited no real due process. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has held that Illinois failed to demonstrate cause without holding any hearings or even providing proper notification.

Most importantly, UIUC’s actions are an egregious violation of academic freedom. But I will assume that I don’t have to tell LIS professionals (who are embedded in academia!) the reasons why. LIS scholars, practitioners, and students have already recognized this violation of intellectual freedom and have agreed to boycott Illinois. In addition, ACRL’s Women and Gender Studies Section has facilitated a discussion about the events on UIUC’s campus. I want to instead challenge librarians to think about Dr. Salaita’s unique case in a new way.

We have reached a pivotal moment in the academy. “Scholarly” communication is being redefined before our very eyes. Next month, I will be involved (at UIUC nonetheless) with an Online Scholarly Presence Symposium, hosted by the library. We will be encouraging students to embrace social media, blogs, repositories, and other public outlets for their scholarship and ideas. I currently teach a workshop about altmetrics for graduate students and faculty at UIUC. It is centered on the idea that scholarly impact isn’t as simple as citation counts; we explore impact by looking at traditional metrics alongside alternative metrics that account for public presence.

The list goes on and on. Scholars everywhere are writing about social media’s impact on their work. Regardless of if their blog or their Twitter handle is on their dossier (I’m guessing it’s not), it still impacts their work. Roopika Rasam, a postcolonial scholar and digital humanist, recently posted an entry on her blog entitled A Love Letter to Twitter, where she stated:

Twitter has opened up the contours of the academy, widening my communities within it and linking me to the world beyond it. By using Twitter as a professional tool, I have become a person committed to working in public. I have learned more about genre, rhetoric, and audience than I ever did in college or graduate school. Ideas for articles, projects, and books germinated on Twitter. Twitter is proto-scholarship; you won’t find it in my tenure file but it’s responsible for everything in it.

Katherine Clancy, an anthropologist, recently wrote a response to a satirically proposed metric, the K-Index. Neil Hall joked that a K-Index (or, you guessed it, a Kardashian Index) would in essence gauge a scholar’s public profile against their “actual” publications by dividing their Twitter followers by their number of scientific publications. Clancy’s response? She finds that this is unfair representation that makes an either/or dichotomy; the scholars who might have a higher K-Index are the ones that are “younger, less white, and less male.” She asserts:

So yes, he’s punching down, and that makes it not funny. There is no dark corner of academic metrics to expose when the people you’re mocking are the ones least well positioned to respond. I would never have gotten that paper published – in a journal with an impact factor of 10.5, no less – because I am one of ones whose profile is built on “shaky foundations.”

All I can do… is blog about it.

Ithaka S+R’s 2012 report entitled Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians found that many historians use their blogs to “test the waters” for new scholarship. Sometimes they even present findings because, as one respondent stated, “I have a book. Maybe forty people have cracked the spine. But, the blog has tremendous readership.” However, the report also finds that changes in disciplinary culture and T&P practices are incremental at best. Only by adapting these practices to new modes of communication and embracing junior faculty that implement them will any real change come to fruition.

Many people argue that “tweets are not the same as classroom teaching (or scholarly writing),” and, to some extent, I agree. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that in today’s academic environment, the two are inadvertently conflated. A scholar’s online presence—especially when it is related to their academic niche—is undeniably linked to that scholarship, and more broadly the scholar themself. Again, leaders interested in scholarly communication are attempting to change the tenure environment so that digital work and social media presence are measured and a more of a portfolio model is implemented. So the current question is, how can Dr. Salaita’s tweets be used to jeopardize his academic career but cannot be used to reflect his academic impact or scholarly success?

I am, of course, illustrating a point that applies more broadly to all scholars. Dr. Salaita’s case has opened a can of worms for academics everywhere. Where is the line between personal and professional, if there is such a thing? What is “fair game” for interpretation or critique? How can we facilitate conversation if we’re fearful of repercussions?

My intention is not to suggest a scenario of big-brother institutions that track down scholars. I think that instead we should recognize alternative forms of scholarship so that they are more fully protected. The AAUP’s report on Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications states that electronic communication does not “warrant any relaxation of the rigorous precepts of academic freedom”. It calls for surveillance to end and for faculty to be involved in IT decisions concerning privacy and academic freedom. It asserts that intramural and extramural communication or “speech outside or inside the university’s walls” is irrelevant in the world of electronic communication.

The report says that it’s a no-brainer if the social media outlet isn’t linked to the scholar’s academic work; personal tweets, for example about political views, are protected. But what about when politics are central to scholarship? As an aspiring librarian, I find myself standing up for what I believe in (and what my profession believes in) not only in my daily interactions but also in my social media presence. There are a whole host of professionals that would probably agree—political scientists, scholars of medicine, etc., etc. Not everyone will agree with everyone else’s methods, conclusions, values, or even presentation! There is no form of scholarship that is neutral. But that’s the beauty of it, right? The academy allows us to converse with each other (aren’t we saying that scholarship is a conversation these days?), even if we disagree.

In many ways, Dr. Salaita’s case is an abnormal one. But it is also a case that has the ability to set precedence, not only in the discussion of social media and academic freedom but also in the conversation about changing scholarly practices. I once had a panel of deans come into one of my classes and assert that scholarship, as a practice, is less about tenure and the vetting processes attached to it and more about changing the world, advancing knowledge, and making a direct impact on the city, state, or nation it is published in. That’s a lofty assertion but it’s one I’d challenge us as librarians and scholars to think more critically about. Scholarship can be communicated in endless formats, often depending on what is most conducive to the audience and topic. It’s time to protect and acknowledge work that looks different than “traditional” scholarship. If we don’t, we risk losing creative and innovative faculty and an engaging conversation that could change the world we live in.

To support Dr. Salaita and the Department of American Indians Studies, please join the students, faculty, and alumni of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC in signing this open letter.

Scholarly Publishing: Still Not Making Sense

A little bit more than a year ago ACRLog covered the Research Works Act, legislation that intended to stop federal funding agencies from requiring grantees to make the results of their research freely available to all. Luckily, RWA was quickly withdrawn, thanks to pressure from academics and librarians worldwide. However, the scholarly publishing universe continues to be prone to sudden outbursts of strange, even surreal, behavior.

A few days ago we got a tip from Todd Gilman, Librarian for Literature in English at Yale University, with a link to a post by Brian Leiter detailing the lawsuit that Edwin Mellen Press has brought against librarian Dale Askey and his employer, McMaster University. Briefly, the Edwin Mellen Press is suing Askey for libel because of a blog post Askey wrote more than two years ago in which he criticized the quality of books published by the press, especially in light of shrinking academic library budgets for monographs. Even stranger, Askey wrote the post before he was even hired by McMaster, while he was a librarian at Kansas State University.

Subsequently the news broke across the librarian blogosphere and higher ed news outlets. There were articles in the Chron and Inside Higher Ed yesterday, and Jessamyn West has a nice roundup of coverage of the story, too. On Friday McMaster released a statement affirming their support of Askey and academic freedom.

I was shocked and saddened but not truly surprised to read about the lawsuit, as it seems like so many academic publishers are pulling out all the stops recently to keep information locked up away from readers and to work against libraries and librarians, who should be (and have been!) their natural allies. But the bright side is that this latest development provides yet another opportunity for faculty and librarians to join together in support of access to information, as we saw last year in the flurry of activity around the Academic Spring.

Martha Reineke, professor of Religion at the University of Northern Iowa, started a petition to encourage Edwin Mellen to drop the lawsuit. This morning the petition has nearly 700 signatures: scholars, researchers, and librarians alike. In correspondence with her this morning, she shared her reasons for starting the petition:

The librarians at the University of Northern Iowa have been so wonderful to me throughout my career. When I read about Dale Askey, I realized that what is happening to him could happen to the librarians at UNI. I would defend them in a heartbeat. I hope that public pressure will get Edwin Mellen to stand down.

In these sense-challenged times for scholarly publishing, I’m grateful to Martha and all of the faculty, librarians, and others who take a stand against challenges to academic freedom and in favor of access to information. Thank you!

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.”