Last year I started a new alt-ac job practicing slow knowledge and facilitating fast information as a research consultant for students and faculty at a small liberal arts college. I decided to better integrate all the pieces of my work and life into one blog site at careysargent.info
Check out this Google Doc where adjuncts across the US are compiling data on what they make, whether they have contracts, and whether they have benefits and retirement. Super creative use of digital media to gather important data cheaply and quickly. Kudos and thanks to Copy-Paste for building our knowledge of the labor conditions adjuncts face.
I recently took a new job as a consultant for social sciences in the department of Scholarship Technology at Occidental College. Part of the job involves helping faculty and students to incorporate new information technologies to advance their teaching, learning, and research and other part is to help students find the information they need by using library resources. As someone with idiosyncratic (PhD) training in research, I’m giving myself a crash course in librarianship and in the process I’ve become fascinated by the concrete problems and possibilities of curating information and helping students to cultivate research skills.
I’ve been following some innovative librarian blogs [The Ubiquitous Librarian, The Unquiet Librarian, SearchReSearch, and The Undergraduate Science Librarian] these last couple of weeks. They raise provocative questions about how access to digital information shapes reference work. I came across this post today that addresses a common concern college freshman have posed in their responses to their required library instruction sessions: why are databases so hard to use? and why can’t they be more like Google?
Google searching is easy because it poses a “one button” solution to a complex problem — where is the information I need? While Google (and Google Scholar) offers a really extensive range of results, its search features are limited by the logic of the algorithm it uses to find information. And it can’t tell you what information is relevant to a given problem. Its search algorithm doesn’t always account for nuances of time, place, culture, or pre-digital methods of organizing and displaying information.
In the post Knowing What’s Possible Still Matters, Daniel M. Russel argues that effective searching requires knowing something about the universe of possible information you seek. He uses the example of SF Geneology, which archives local San Fransisco data on occupations, addresses and phone numbers, and social clubs from the late 1800s/ early 1900s. He argues that without knowing something about how occupations were named/spelled, how the city was organized, and the idiosyncrasies of early phone book publishing, its not possible to make the most of this archive. Paraphrasing Russel, the conclusions he draws from this example are:
1. A need to know what directories and archives exist
2. The kind of language you’d expect to find within a directory or archive (and what contemporary spelling correction might do to those words)
3. Terms can be used in unexpected ways
4. Concepts from the past may not correspond to their use in the present
Library databases, (apart from the complex infrastructure of journals, databases, and aggregators), are difficult to navigate because students are using them in the midst of articulating their research question — they often don’t know the entire universe of possible information they seek, much less how that information is organized within databases. Both students (and faculty) are used to going to a verifiable source (or portal) to get the kinds of evidence that is valued in their field. As we move from a situation of information scarcity to information overload, our jobs are increasingly geared toward helping people figure out which databases, archives, and directories can be usefully sourced to answer their questions in ways that their audiences will find valid. Creativity, critical, and contextual thinking are inherent in reference work and are skills that I am honing together with the students that seek my help.
I’ve found it useful to ask students these two questions about their research before typing into any search bar:
What relationships interest you within your topic? (i.e. Topic: Food Deserts. Question: Do you want to know the effects of food deserts on a) local economies b) obesity c) diabetes? Or would you rather find out whether a) supermarket business practices b) lack of health education c) redlining cause food deserts?)
Who are your audiences? (i.e. Senior Thesis, Food Deserts. Question: Are you interested in speaking to a) scholars in sociology b) public health advocates c) local business d) people experiencing lack of food options?)
Then we get down to the details of where to find literature and data that can define these concepts and their relationships with the types of sources that their audiences will find valid and compelling. This is no small task given the wealth of information out there, but in order to dig deeper students first need to think clearly about their research question and audience(s), and for that, there is no one button solution.
The Guardian just ran an article on a study designed to understand the barriers that academics face in contributing their knowledge to Wikipedia. According to the article, academics are more inclined to use the crowd-sourced encyclopedia as a starting point of inquiry, but, like their students, they remain consumers rather than producers of the knowledge it contains.
The Guardian posits that “the biggest barrier may be the academic ego.” They cite that academics “worry about genuine, well-researched contributions being changed or overwritten by others.” While this rings true, the other evidence of ego they provide — the lack of a reward system for contributions — misunderstands the changing labor conditions within academia.
There is perception that academics have stable jobs that allow them the time and resources to contribute to public knowledge. The pipe smoking white haired intellectual who sits in a leather chair and chats about his esoteric ideas is dead. The labor structure of higher education has changed and most universities no longer invest resources in providing knowledge as public service. Like other contemporary corporations, universities invest in marketing, fund-raising, and cutting labor costs. In the US context especially, the pressure is on to increase enrollments, decrease tenure lines, and outsource the costs of research to faculty themselves. The condition of contingent faculty and growth of graduate programs is the most extreme outcome of this shift. But tenure track and tenured faculty also face institutional pressure to teach larger courses, take on additional administrative tasks, and seek out their own funding.
Wikipedia exists in an environment in which information wants to be free. Academics once had a premium on the discovery and distribution of scarce information and they stand to loose out completely if they fail to participate. But that failure to participate is more than a matter of ego or backward thinking. Wikipedia is radically transforming the value of academic work at a time when academics are paid by the piece and institutions of higher education are downsizing their investment in knowledge production.
I’ll be curious to hear the results of the survey to see what others think. You can take it here: http://survey.nitens.org/index.php
When I was young, I used to make home recordings of pop songs by layering track after track on a karaoke machine. By the time I got the drums, bass, rhythm guitar, lead and piano, and vocals there was eerie bleed through on the cheap Memorex tapes I was using. It would take me an entire day to get one song down.
I recorded Radiohead’s Weird Fishes yesterday in a similar way, layering track after track, but instead of using my karaoke machine, I used my iphone’s voice memo app and my internal laptop mic with garage band. I recorded the drum track on the voice memo app on my iphone and playing it back through an amp while recording the guitar with the internal mic on my laptop in garage band. Then I did a second track of vocals in garage band with the “live rock” preset. I got some fun quirky crackly worbly artifacts — for instance, I didn’t have any trem on the guitar, but there it was, even before compressing the file.
Part of the game I constructed for myself this time was to do it in one take without edits and let accidents add to the wacky artifacts. Instead of taking an entire day, it took about 30 minutes. Ain’t digital technology grand?
Carey’s home recording of Radiohead’s Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
[Thanks to Wendy Hsu for hosting the file!]
Dean Meredith Wu on the significance of place and learning in the digital age:
“Perhaps because I live with my family on the Lawn, this sense of place is always with me. But even if I lived elsewhere, I think the importance of place—our place—cannot be overemphasized. It is often said that with the digital revolution, higher education gets dislocated and enters cyberspace, the “ether” of our time (like so many for-profit online universities which are publicly traded). But the College is not primarily a dispenser of knowledge—and how can it be, when information and knowledge is becoming perfectly free, a public good? The College is a community where learning is based on a different web, an intricate web of relationships that go beyond digital media. Few of our graduates would trade the experience of four years of being here for a hastier ingestion of what they learned. Make no mistake: we head toward a future where all knowledge can be gathered on the head of a pin—or at least in a thumb drive. But there are still so few who can turn data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. In this sense the College is a profoundly local place, where students learn to understand the meaning of relationships—in constant interaction with their friends and their professors—which will become the foundation of their quest to forge and nurture their intelligence, to eventually find lives well lived. This love of place, and the habit of anchoring life in a multitude of good relationships, should be portable, travelling with our students wherever they go, to all corners of the world and throughout their lives.”
Read the rest of her notes here
Key Ideas: Creativity, Divergent Thinking, Post-Industrial Education, Collaboration, Individual Learning