MLA Engages Tenure, Scholarly Communication Issues

For those who haven’t followed the various reports from the recently-completed annual meeting of the MLA, there were interesting discussions of re-thinking tenure requirements for faculty in the Humanities and of the role of digital scholarship as a route to tenure. An overview can be found in today’s Inside Higher Education.

As with Andersen’s Digital Scholarship in the Tenure, Promotion, and Review Process (2004), the fact that this discussion is coming from within a discipline suggests an opportunity for the academic librarian to act as an advocate and a resource for innovation in scholarly communication.

Academic Administrators: Beware If A Librarian Is On Your Search Committee

Once again, academic librarians get no respect. I came across this quote in an article in today’s online version of the Chronicle . It’s from a disgruntled job seeker who’s been the “faux finalist” for one too many searches. This refers to an institution that has already decided to hire an internal candidate, and the interview process is just a sham held to document that the search was truly open to all. The author (a pseudonym is given) seeks to provide a public service to other academic administrators by providing the warning signs that one is probably a faux finalist. Here’s the offending one:

It all starts with the search committee. Beware if it’s filled with people who have no campus authority, such as untenured faculty members, librarians, nonacademic administrators, or anyone hired only a few months ago. If it is, that’s a signal that the more senior people with real clout have better things to do with their time. If the search were truly open, then deans and top administrators would want to have some influence over the decision.

Admittedly, we don’t wield the same power as a dean or vice-president, but this strikes me as an extension of an unfortunate stereotype to suggest that academic librarians have no campus authority. I guess we do nothing all day but sit around and read books, which makes us ideal participants for sham search committees so we can ask polite questions like, “So what books have you read lately?”. I suppose like all the negative stereotypes we encounter it is best to have a sense of humor about it, and to simply do what we can each day on the job and in our relationships with our academic colleagues to dispel ridiculous notions about who we are and what we contribute to the academic enterprise.

Academia’s Conflicted Reaction To Blogging

It seems that the reaction to blogging in higher education is a bit schizoid. On one hand the admissions office embraces blogging as a way for selected students to share their campus experiences with potential students. Admittedly, those blogs may be less characteristic of the true spirit of blogging than the ones created by students outside the constraints of administrative oversight – and student blogging sometimes leads to disciplinary actions. But the negative reaction to blogging by faculty at some institutions, mainly to the blogging of their peers, is perhaps even more puzzling. Isn’t the type of dialogue we see in blogs – the questions, debates, exploring controversial issues – at the heart of the university’s ideals? A number of stories have circulated about academic bloggers questioning if failed bids for tenure might be owing to their blogging.

The conflicted reactions to blogging in higher education are discussed in a good article at Slate titled, “Attack of the Career-Killing Blogs.” It suggests several reasons while academic blogging is looked down upon, including departmental jealousy, that it’s considered a waste of time that should be spent on serious research, and that it falls outside the traditional peer-review journal system. Blogs however, seem to fulfill in many more ways the “fruition, not a betrayal, of the university’s ideals.” The article then considers that if a major objection to academic blogs is that they lack peer review, how might a system to judge and review them be put in place.

Efforts to fit round blogs in to the square hole of peer review seems quite puzzling, but perhaps the discussion will lead to some greater acceptance of blogging as a legitimate form of scholarship. I’ve yet to hear of any stories about tenure or employment issues related to academic librarian bloggers. Perhaps within the greater scheme of things in higher education our blogs are still flying under the radar. Still, current and potential academic librarian bloggers may wish to reflect on higher education’s response to blogging, and how it might impact on future employment and promotion opportunities.

Stopping Plagiarism Takes More Than Software

This article caught my attention because at my institution we’ve never adopted software to detect plagiarism. I’m sure that detection software can have a deterrent affect for some students, but as the plagiarism researcher profiled in the article points out students are savvy when it comes to doing just enough to avoid detection. I confirmed this with my college-age son. They use a well-known plagiarism detection software product at his university. When asked if it works he replied that students determined to cheat can do so any number of ways, from changing what they’ve cut and pasted from internet sites just enough to get past the detection software to outright paying other students to write their research papers for them.

The simple advice offered in this article makes good sense, but it’s much easier to preach it than it is accomplish it. Sure, if parents and teachers made it clear from early on that plagiarism is unacceptable it might have an impact on young, impressionable students. By the time they get to college it’s probably too late to change bad habits. That where the researcher’s other observation, the one faculty at my institution are working at, is worth more attention. It’s the prevention versus detection debate. Developing more creative assignments that avoid repetition, that require the use of local or locally unique resources, that call for a series of drafts, and that have higher expectations for research methods and content can all make plagiarism more difficult. But, these methods require more front-end development and greater effort from faculty. It’s certainly easier to require the same term paper assignment year in and year out, and then let a piece of software catch those who weren’t clever enough to mask their plagiarism.

Academic librarians have certainly been doing their part to combat plagiarism on their campuses. Through workshops, creative digital learning materials, and efforts to promote sensible research, we are on the frontlines of helping faculty to help our students to avoid plagiarism. But if the researcher has correctly determined that plagiarism, like many problem behaviors, must be confronted early on by parents and teachers, then we may need to realize combatting plagiarism will be an ongoing challenge.

Who Needs A College Campus

This seems to be the week for prognostication in higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education devotes quite a few pages to an exploration of what higher education could be like in 2015 – with positive and negative predictions for each topic covered. While that’s worth while reading I think another article that will get far less attention is also worth consideration. It’s titled “Who Needs a College Campus?”, authored by David Gelernter, and it appears in the current issue of Forbes magazine. I cannot provide a link because this article is available only to those who wish to register for Forbes online. I imagine that many of your libraries carry the print edition (Nov. 28) where it can be found on page 42.

Gelernter provides a vision of higher education in which an online free market rules. He predicts that scholars will create and market online courses available for individual purchase. Students could access courses from wherever they wish; there will be no need to affiliate with a single institution. Students will own the course and access the content as often as they wish. He sees the development of degree-granting institutions that will inspect a student’s credentials, administer tests, and determine if one is worthy of a B.A. or other degree. Of course, his escape clause is that there will always be top tier universities for those who can afford them. But for the rest of us he sees an electronic marketplace with affordable, convenient access to higher education. He doesn’t reflect on the fact that for many students higher education is a social and cultural rite of passage and learning experience as much as it is about earning a degree.

But if trends are pointing to an increasingly unaffordable higher education it suggests that an electronic marketplace – which technology certainly makes possible – is not completely out of the question. His model suggests you could also have a few, free-floating electronic academic libraries to serve the needs of those who pursue totally online education. While it doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of all physical libraries attached to traditional insititutions, who is to say that a significantly transformed online higher education marketplace couldn’t eliminate many of our institutions as well as our libraries. Will many of us end up working as toll-free support operators for some global online library? What do you see in your crystal ball?