Generation Disengaged

I’ll be curious to see what sort of reaction the article “A Very Long Disengagement” gets from Chronicle readers. Authored by Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, it appeared in the Chronicle Review two weeks ago (1/6/06). Although it tends to generalize, it does base most of its conclusions on reported survey data. Whether it’s comprehension or knowledge of history, the arts, literature, geography or politics, current college students are faring far more poorly than previous generations of students. The author lays the blame for this on the five hours per day typical students spend watching TV or DVDs, playing video games, web surfing, or listening to music. Bauerlein makes the case that students spend far less time on studying and assignments than in the past, and that they show less intellectual curiosity than previous generations. He states that every indicator suggests today’s students are every bit as intelligent, but their knowledge hasn’t kept pace. His reasoning for the change:

“…because of the new leisure habits of teens and young adults…the more time young adults devote to activities like sending e-mail messages, the less time they devote to books, the arts, politics, and their studies.”

And of libraries he observes:

“Walk through any university library, and at each computer station you will see a cheery or intent sophomore pounding out e-mail messages…Head up to the stacks and the aisles are as a quite as a morgue.”

Case in point about the generalizations. Certainly students are always checking e-mail or IMing, but that’s how they operate. It need not mean they are just taking up space. And the “empty stacks” imagery doesn’t describe my library. How about yours?

But from my perspective the most salient passage is his critique of higher education:

“All too eagerly, colleges augment the trend, handing out iPods and dignifying video games like Grand Theft Auto as worthy of study.”

I would argue that it is incumbent upon college and university faculty (with administrative support) to explore new instructional technologies, and determine how they might enhance teaching and learning through better student activation. But Bauerlein uses his comment to make a point worth considering. As librarians we ask why students prefer the research equivalent of the mass culture that Bauerlein points to as the culprit behind the detached and disengaged student. Why don’t these students embrace our library resources in the same way that Baurerlein wishes they would embrace liberal culture?

Bauerlein never quite provides an answer to that question, and perhaps there is no simple way of explaining it other than to point to societal preferences for the fast, easy, convenient, critical thought-free approach to information gathering. He asks if our efforts to appease students in the name of learning by pandering to their desire for pop distractions ultimately destroys the “middle ground between adolescent life and intellectual life”. Is it possible our academic libraries contribute to the declining knowledge base and intellectual curiosity of our students when in our effort to shield students from complexity we make things far too simple. Do we promote, as Bauerlein calls it, “the prolonged immaturity of our students.”? In the end it may be that Bauerlein’s worries (and my own) are not far off from those in the fifties who attacked rock music as a threat to end cultured society. It may just be a strong reaction to generational changes that will no doubt ultimately become as ingrained into society as rock music is today. But if Bauerlein is right and we are witnessing a true disengagement from intellectual life, isn’t it incumbent upon academic librarians to do more to work with faculty to challenge students and raise expectations for academic rigor.

Extra credit reading: An opinion piece that appeared in the Boston Globe on 1/12/06 by Michael Kryzanek titled “Dumbing Down A College Education” reflects on a recent study about the declining literacy of college students.

Interlibrary Loan Causes a Stir

The blogosphere was humming over the weekend with a startling news story, “Agents’ Visit Chills UMass Dartmouth Senior,” published in the Standard-Times, a daily that serves Dartmouth, New Bedford, and other Southcoast Massachusetts towns. Professors told a reporter that one of their students had been visited by Homeland Security agents after requesting a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” through interlibrary loan.

The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said. . . The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a “watch list,” and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further. . .

Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk. “I shudder to think of all the students I’ve had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that,” he said. “Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless.”

This story roused my curiosity because if true, it’s appalling. If half-true, it’s appalling. The idea that even the threat of surveillance would cause a professor to reconsider what he teaches is chilling indeed. But there were some oddities that made me want to know more. It seemed strange, for instance, that a library would ask for a student’s social security number on an interlibrary loan form; I looked at the UMass Dartmouth library’s Web site and, sure enough, it doesn’t.

Today, the University issued a statement. Though they aren’t contesting the student’s claim, and they are protecting his identity at his request, they offer some reassurance that their library, at least, didn’t participate in violating the student’s rights. The student says he made the request through another library, unnamed. The rest of the UMass Dartmouth statement goes on:

The UMass Dartmouth library has established policies for handling requests under the Patriot Act and has taken every lawful measure possible to protect the confidentiality of patron records.

The Library subscribes to the American Library Association Library Bill of Rights and was a signatory to the MCCLPHEI (Massachusetts Conference of Chief Librarians of Public Higher Educational Institutions) resolution on the USA Patriots Act submitted to the Massachusetts Civil Liberty Union in 2003.

UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack said, “It is important that our students and our faculty be unfettered in their pursuit of knowledge about other cultures and political systems if their education and research is to be meaningful. We must do everything possible to protect the principles of academic inquiry.”

I hope the rest of this story gets a thorough airing in time. Many bloggers commenting so far don’t seem aware of the fact that libraries don’t participate in surveillance willingly and short of a court order or National Security Letter would never report on a student’s reading habits.

What Is Our Role In Improving Student Literacy

Should academic librarians be alarmed that the 2003 (latest year for which data is available) National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the nation’s most important test of how well adult Americans can read, indicated that only 31 percent of the nation’s college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. That was a nine percent drop from the prior year.

In a New York Times article about the declining literacy of college graduates, Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believes “the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.” He went on to say “We’re seeing substantial declines in reading for pleasure, and it’s showing up in our literacy levels.”

We can certainly look at these findings and conclude that we’re not responsible for encouraging reading or enabling students to think deeply about what they read. That’s what the faculty are for. But students who are less literate are also less likely to develop good research skills, and that is our bailiwick. Perhaps the most obvious solution is to encourage students to do more reading and less surfing, or to support that initiative on our campuses. A good example of one such program is found at Widener University’s Wolfgram Memorial Library where they sponsor a brownbag book club. I’m sure there are similar library-supported reading programs at other institutions and these are good ideas, though I somehow doubt they’ll reach students in the numbers needed to reverse the decline in literacy.

I hope that the latest literacy data will reach the highest levels of academic administration within our institutions, and will be found at least troubling if not a cause for panic. We know that collaboration with our faculty and other academic support professionals is essential for the success of information literacy. Perhaps we can take what we know about that and apply it to the development of programs that connect reading, research, and writing – all skills that contribute to deeper thinking – in an effort to increase literacy.

Finally, I would ask if at some level the capitulation to the “good enough” proposition, coming from some circles within our profession, contributes to the overall declince in literacy. If we no longer demand rigor or excellence in research because we fear alienating simplicity-centric students, how can we expect students to do more than just “good enough” when it comes to reading and analytical skills. That’s part of the whole problem with the “good enough”mentality. No one really knows what that means, and left to their own devices students who decide what “good enough” is for themselves may fail to realize they could be sacrificing essential literacy skills. Perhaps the latest NAAL data should serve as a serious wake up call to get this profession thinking about the implications of a “good enough research is fine by us” mentality.

Free Books As Alternatives To Textbooks

Most academic libraries are driven by a student-centered approach to operations; doing what best serves the needs of students, within reason, should be at the core of decision making in academic libraries. One area in which this is most difficult is helping students cope with the high cost of textbooks. Readers of ACRLog are familiar with the litany of reasons why academic libraries avoid collecting textbooks. If nothing else, we might bankrupt ourselves if we had to purchase even a single copy of every textbook required each semester at our institutions.

While there have been some investigations into the high cost of textbooks there are currently no immediate solutions on the horizon. In this essay a rather radical alternative to pricey textbooks is suggested, the free book. “All Systems Go: The Newly Emerging Infrastructure to Support Free Books” by Ben Crowell presents an interesting look at how faculty might, using the WikiBook model, create alternate books for their students. Crowell acknowledges that there are barriers, the least of which is the textbook publishers themselves, but he presents a look at the different options and current ventures in producing free books.

I think we’d all agree that free books will never replace commercial textbooks, just as open access journals won’t replace subscription journals. But in the same way that open access journals have served to slow the increase in the price of those subscription journals with which they compete, it may be possible that a viable option for free books could encourage textbook publishers to price their books more reasonably. If you’ve heard stories on your own campus about students who are simply priced out of the ability to buy their textbooks or groups of students who buy one book and share it, then you know the current crisis in textbook pricing is not conducive to good learning.