Are We Welcome At The Party

Kathryn Wymer’s Chronicle piece took me back to a recent discussion on COLLIB-L about online social communities such as and Facebook. Bill Drew announced that he was going to create a profile for his library in these spaces. That led to some discussion about the relative merits of placing a profile (tantamount to an ad?) of one’s academic library in virtual spaces that are clearly more about social interaction and connecting with friends than academic endeavors. I suggested that it could be viewed by students as an imposition by an unwelcome outsider on their social space. If you think positioning the library in MySpace or Facebook is a good way to connect with your student population, what’s stopping you from handing out your business card at the local pub on Friday nights when your students are partying. When you put it that way invading students’ social spaces, in physical or virtual ways, seems rather awkward if not downright creepy. As Wymer found, she was not readily accepted and it may be that students do want to separate the technology tools that serve as social spaces from those used for their studies. For those who do want to experiment with outreach to students in those social communities, I wish you luck – and look forward to your candid assessment of the experience.

Invasion of the Technology Snatchers

Kathryn Wymer, who teaches English at UNC, has some interesting things to say in this week’s Chronicle about adapting new technologies to teaching and learning, an issue we’ve dicussed here many times. She heard from students that e-mail is just so yesterday and decided she should join them in IM-space – and found that students weren’t altogether happy to meet her there.

Do I, as an instructor, have the right to appropriate students’ technologies for the classroom? Most people would probably say, of course.

Consider, though, what it means to invade that technological space. Students use new technologies as a way to express themselves and their individuality. They develop identities related to those technologies, and those identities are not always the ones they would like to bring into the classroom.

She plans to continue to use her IM identity, though she knows it will take some adjustment on both sides. Libraries, of course, are adapting IM to reference work, and have found other ways to join in the social networks students use, and while that can be positive, it also has a potential downside.

For another take on IM and the classroom, see Cynthia Lewis and Bettina Fabos’s article, “Instant Messaging, Literacies, and Social Identities” in Reading Research Quarterly. They think it’s more important to understand how students use IM and what kinds of literacy practices they engage in (and to help them understand that scholarly discourse is another literacy practice that they, too, can be part of) than to rush out and adopt the technology assuming it will become a channel to reach students. That may be seen as invasive – like deciding that if students want to hang out at a local bar, that’s where you should teach your philosophy course. You certainly could teach philosophy there, perhaps with more relevance to real life than in a traditional classroom. But students might prefer to have the place to themselves.

LIS Forum in March

On March 11th New York-area librarians affiliated with Radical Reference are holding a Library Education Forum for library school students and recent grads (though faculty and not-so-recent grads are also invited) to talk over LIS education. Among the questions they expect to discuss:

  • If technology is changing the nature of our profession, how should LIS programs reflect this?
  • Should LIS curriculums be more practical or theoretical?
  • Were there glaring omissions in your education? Are there skills that you have gained after graduating that you wish had been part of your curriculum?
  • What are the profession’s core values? How should LIS programs reflect them?
  • The Librarian in Black hopes someone will host a webcast with participant chat. Any takers?


    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.