The I-School Speaks!

Students at the University of Washington Information School have started up a new podcast, InfoSpeak, which they cast as a “lyceum” for the Information Age (with extra credit for pulling the definition of lyceum from Wikipedia). The first episode finds my favorite textbook author, Joe Janes, expounding on “Google, Search Technology, and What It Means to be Human.” Loads of potential here.

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.

Try Something At The Learning Buffet

Whether it might be for your own edification or possibly for use in your staff training, I recommend you take a look at the New Technologies Learning Buffet. This was created by Tom Foster (Chandler-Gilbert Community College) and Alan Levine (Maricopa Community College Learning Center). This happens to be a great example of how a wiki could be used for training and development. I came across it after reading a post in Levine’s ConDogBlog. The buffet has loads of resources included for blogs, wikis, e-portfolios, photosharing, Google Maps, and somethink else called “using free stuff.” If you’ve yet to try some of these technologies, or would like to encourage colleagues to do so, you may find this is a good way to explore these new technologies independently or with colleagues. As I go through the Buffet I can’t help but think that more of this type of resource, particularly for introducing people to library resources, could be a good thing to create. It demonstrates that a wiki is a good platform for training and connecting individuals with information that allows them to explore on their own and learn constructively.

A “Befuddling and Often Capricious Crapshoot”

This is how Rick Montgomery characterizes the conduct of peer review in his front-page article in the Kansas City Star, Fraud Proves that Science Journals Can Be Fooled (1/14/06) (temporarily freely available online).

While Montgomery’s analysis of the peer review process is limited (e.g., focusing solely on the conduct of peer review for science journals), it is a good example of how issues in information literacy instruction and scholarly communication instruction sometimes cross over into the mainstream. The key points included in his spotlight box reflect some basics of what academic librarians have been teaching for years: 1) note the size of the study (i.e., apply an understanding of research methodology); 2) consider who paid for the research (i.e., look for potential bias); and 3) beware of claims made at scientific conferences (i.e., understand the nature of the scholarly communication and publication cycle to better appreciate the status of a claim in terms of peer review). The description of the time that goes into reviewing a mss. will also be enlightening to those not actively involved in the process.

Count on this article (and others that reflect the current scandal over the publication of results of fraudulent studies) to be a useful jumping off point for many instruction sessions to come.

Professional Prize Proliferation

Ever think there are just way too many prizes and awards being handed out in the library profession. From the top of the heap (I see Library Journal just named its “Librarian of the Year“) to, well, just name it – there’s an award for just about everything in this profession (ILL, serials, book reviewing…) created by just about every association at every level – there are just so many awards and prizes being dealt out to academic and other librarians that the value of awards in an age of prize proliferation is being brought into question.

Prompting my thinking about prize proliferation is the recent discovery of the work of James English, a University of Pennsylvania English professor who speaks with some authority on the subject. His new book, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value argues that we have become a culture saturated with prizes and awards. There are over 9,000 annual awards in the film industry alone. The library profession certainly has fewer, but it does seems that every time one picks up a professional journal there are more than just a few award announcements.

While English points out a number of flaws in a world of award excess, he insists they do have some value. In a profession such as ours, that receives little recognition from the world at large, the proliferation of prizes may help us to acknowledge that we make an important contribution – one worthy of awards. Are there too many? Should we insist on the elimination of many librarian awards so that the remaining few would be quite significant and leave no doubt as to their value and meaning? I guess we might all agree with what English has to say about that matter. “There aren’t too many prizes until I’ve won more of them.”