Skip to content

Hunches 2014

It’s a new year and I’ve made two resolutions. The public one is to update this blog at least annually; pledge fulfilled. The private one, extracted by moral force (read “intimidation”), is to put my CDs back in their jewel boxes when I eject them from the car stereo. I haven’t had a chance to fail at this yet but by the time anyone reads this I might have something to report.

About 2014 I have hunches. By my own definition, a hunch is a prediction informed in equal measure by evidence and intuition. Here are five:

MOOCs will decline into protracted stagnation. In particular, the “massive open” aspect of these online courses will dampen the early enthusiasm that anointed Coursera and edX as pedagogically revolutionary. Faculty already leery of participating in high-profile, low-reward experimentation will be even less inclined to jump in as discouraging reports on persistence, assessment and academic integrity keep coming. But “massive open” will appeal to adult life-long learners; even as MOOCs’ higher education hosts pull back on their talent investment, these courses are shaping into an early 21st century Chautauqua.

Established online and hybrid degree programs will enjoy a public relations renaissance. Accredited universities, particularly publics, long in the distance higher education space will gain greater and positive attention in proportion to the disillusionment conventionally elite institutions’ flirtation with open education engenders.

The Georgia State ruling against its publisher plaintiffs will be upheld, signaling that Fair Use is both a right and a responsibility. In a year in which copyright affairs was indelibly about Aaron Swartz’s tragedy, 2014 will bring more light.

Scholarly open ebook efforts will neither thrive nor wither. While there are some promising commercialized academic monographic publishing efforts coming along, and more hope for ebook technical standardization, open access development in the monographic sphere are still bedeviled by underdeveloped infrastructure, dependence on soft funding and a lack of consensus over what peer review looks like in a less towered world.

Digital curation efforts at the local level will solicit and accept the challenges of organizing and preserving science and social science data. I hope this will create demand and then capacity, and not come at the expense of digital humanities.

Actually, this exercise didn’t seem to hurt so bad, so maybe I’ll come back and then back. Who knows, I may even start sourcing again, as every librarian really should.

In the meantime, I’m going to imagine that my commitment to continue this blog is a bit like getting married to … this blog, and so here is a musical gesture to the tradition of something old, new, borrowed and blue. For all you Philadelphians of a certain age, thank you Harvey in the Morning.

What’s a Library For?

What’s a library for? Are there any contributions academic libraries in particular have left to make to the shaping of critical thinking? I will not say I have a comprehensive answer. I cannot even say that I have an original answer. But I am certain that libraries are more relevant to and prominent in the knowledge eco-system than ever. Conventional wisdom holds that books—once the almost exclusive object of critical thinking—are losing luster and utility; with content becoming a commodity anyone can access (often at high cost), the local efforts of librarians should shift to the unique, to special collections and archives. I agree that treasured materials require and deserve intensive effort. Despite the relentless, wholly commendable expansion of digitization, physical books are not being rushed headlong to the dustbin of history, and librarians are partnering with—sometimes prodding—authors and publishers to achieve a comprehensive copyright, economic and technological environment working to the mutual advantage of creators, scholars and learners.

But education is fundamentally a process, and libraries can do more to further the inter-dependent exchange between teachers and students than merely provide resources. While great academic libraries can and should house intellectually enriching special collections that are secure, conserved and accessible, the library should also be a key campus place in which study and technology meet to nurture learned citizenship. Library leaders need to facilitate allocation of substantial space for group study while providing as many contemplative areas. The physical space must uphold the seriousness of the scholarly project but privilege student needs, at its heart welcoming self-directed students working together.

Successful student self-direction, however, requires not only the indispensable commitment of faculty but collaborative support from librarians. In the self-service era, in which the first search result is often chosen by even the ablest learner, sometimes to the detriment of higher learning, librarians will actually assume a more critical position than ever within the educational eco-system. As a rule I think program infrastructure—metadata/cataloging, access/acquisitions, distribution/circulation, duration/preservation—continues to provide the base for the library’s crucial contribution to liberal education. Librarians will use that knowledge foundation in embracing holistic pedagogies of search, source evaluation, the ins-and-outs of academic and online ethics, critical fluency, and substantive but facile information literacy. Learning for life has never been more fundamentally the mission of the library.

Consider the Public Domain

Yesterday (3/5/13) the Digital Public Library of America – up until now an entity that existed mostly in theory and still depends solely on soft money and the patronage of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society – named its founding executive director, Dan Cohen. Cohen is a tenured historian at George Mason, director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center and an articulate, temperate Open Access champion. DPLA could not have made a better appointment.

As an aside: Apparently not everyone in the academic library profession is happy that a non-accredited librarian is leading this initiative, although I have read not one lamentation to that effect anywhere except from the Library Loon, a pseudonymous jeremiadist-librarian who asserts the opinion is widely held and then proceeds, with great wit but complete overkill, to throw her fellow librarians’ leadership capabilities under the proverbial bus. (If the Loon, by the way, turns out to be a friend known to me only as her alter ego, please know I admire you immensely, even when we differ.)

Returning to the main thread of the story: DPLA exists to collocate – eventually – most of the world’s written record of intellectual achievement in concert with an information infrastructure that makes that collocation possible and ultimately easily accessible. The catch of course is that it is mostly – is confined by the constraints of U.S. copyright law, in fact – to fishing in waters that have not been disturbed since 1923 or earlier. (OK, block this metaphor.)

From DPLA’s “Elements” statement:

In order to lay a solid foundation for its collections, the DPLA will begin with works in the public domain that have already been digitized and are accessible through other initiatives. Further material will be added incrementally to this basic foundation, starting with orphan works and materials that are in copyright but out-of-print. The DPLA will also explore models for digital lending of in-copyright materials.

I am not suggesting that simply because something is in the public domain I would expect it to be ubiquitously available. Information may want to be free but somebody somewhere is made to pay for it. But I do think it ironic that it will cost millions of dollars (and not really Google’s dollars, not if we want this library to be a public good) to bring these (mostly textual) materials into the light of day and still not have a shot at beginning to make freely available the past three-quarters of a century of human achievement.

Of course, the enemy of the good is the perfect, and DPLA genuinely holds promise of being great.

Bilbo Baggins for Our Next College President

To:      Presidential Search Committee

From: Scott Silverman, MA/MLS

Subj:   Bilbo Baggins for Our Next College President

I have carefully reviewed the credentials of each of our finalists for appointment to the position of College President effective July 1, and of course interacted with each candidate at our lunch, faculty forums, the dinner with the Board, the coffee with the curriculum committee, the meeting with the Faculty Senate executive group and the beer pong marathon we added as a surprise challenge. My conclusion is that two are clearly wanting. While Professor Drew Gilpin Faust possesses a first-rate mind and would not diminish this institution’s reputation in any respect, I have heard concern from others that going from president to president is prima facie what my children call “totally laterally whack.” But that is not my concern; rather, her experience at Harvard has insufficiently prepared her for the complexities of bringing harmony and consensus to our faculty, staff, students and trustees. As for Dr. Newt Gingrich – yes, his mind is first-rate, past service as Speaker of the House is not an unimpressive job, and his access to Sheldon Adelson could help us one day. But the quality of his novels are in dispute and he is – well – a pompous egomaniac, a role already filled multiple times in this institution.

I think our choice is clear: Mr. Bilbo Baggins ought to be our next president. Now I can anticipate some of your objections:

  • Mr. Baggins is yet another white male to occupy the office
  • He has no academic credentials
  • He has never used a computer
  • He admits to selective dissemblance
  • He smokes
  • Many of the references he provided are in fact not living
  • He gave up his most notable asset, the Ring, to another non-college graduate
  • He is not even human.

But is it not time for this institution, like Mr. Baggins himself, to take an adventure? And as with Mr. Baggins, to celebrate still our long traditions even while leading us forward? Indeed, anyone with even half a brain must admit none of the complaints so far voiced are with merit:

  • He is a member of an underrepresented minority in academe, to wit, the vertically differenced. Also, we cannot identify any active member of the community whose feet are furred
  • Many great university executives have lacked scholarly distinction
  • Offsetting his dearth of basic 21st century life skills is his intimacy with Gandalf the Grey and, purportedly, one Elrond Lord of Rivendell, and he is LinkedIn to several illustrious sorceresses, among them Galadriel and Arwen, whoever they are; this wizard and his elfish cohort, potential Board recruits all, have reputations for possessing a collective vision which might transcend transient information technology
  • We must admit that selective dissemblance is valuable in a president
  • He understands we have banned smoking in all facilities and has hinted he will not object to the proposal before the Senate to ban campus smoking altogether, so long as the presidential hill is exempted
  • As for dead references: we have often let the dead influence our better angels (Shakespeare, Margaret Mead, the Missing Link)
  • In transferring the Ring to his nephew he demonstrated empathy, confidence in today’s youth, humility and an instinct for jettisoning very mixed blessings while the going was good
  • Not human?! – When oh when are we ever going to walk the walk on diversity?

I would be remiss not to point out a few actual qualifications. Mr. Baggins is independently wealthy and has hinted he will work for just a dollar a year and a generous annual allowance for cakes and secure passage through the Misty Mountains. He is accustomed to having his way with difficult characters including but not limited to goblins, spiders, trolls, wolves, dwarves and one dragon. And while I concede that he might have showed greater sensitivity in his interlocution with Mr. Gollum Sméagol, his riddling bona fides suggest a certain cognitive facility and ability to think in the moment.

Finally – he is already several hundred years old, and while in complete control of his faculties will probably not outlast his welcome.

Old School Skills

I’ve lately been on a LinkedIn binge, perhaps because relatively few in my professional network push their Tweets about what was for breakfast to their profiles, which differs markedly from my personal experience with Facebook and Twitter. In LinkedIn land, October 2012 is the month of endorsement frenzy. Once a down-low feature, LinkedIn has been pushing out endorsements since late September, and I enjoy them. There is great satisfaction knowing my colleagues want others to know I know something useful and know it well.

Of course, LinkedIn has a helpful algorithm to prod one LinkedIn member to endorse another. This explains why eight people have endorsed my Library Science prowess. Nobody even uses that phrase these days – but you see, I have a degree in that field, and it says so right there on my public profile. I won’t remove my core credential, and I won’t skip these endorsements, but I am starting to cringe. Am I really that old? Most of the wonderful endorsers of my Library Science chops – several not just colleagues but genuine friends – are 15 years younger than me.

Then there is the matter of what to do about the foundational skill that has shaped how I think today about the world of higher learning. That would be “cataloging,” which has not appeared in one of my many job titles since 1995. I was a very good cataloger. As recently as 2008 I wrote, “cataloging is the search engine’s best friend.” I meant it then and I do as much now, even if for well over a decade my unconscious 24/7 translator flips “cataloging” to “metadata” in either direction. (Okay, you caught me; I don’t actually dream about this stuff or lose sleep over it.) But what does this mean today to colleagues who appreciate my work fully oblivious to what a fine cataloger I was back in my mid-20s? What about future colleagues who have yet to discover my professional charms? Will they find their way to my profile and be reassured or befuddled that I’ve been endorsed for cataloging? Maybe I’m insufficiently secure, but so far I have skipped accepting endorsements for my cataloging skills.

Am I wrong? Let me know.

On the general subject of academic career-building social media, you may wish to visit this primer posted by the esteemed collectivist blogger ProfHacker.

The Newest Oldest Class Struggle

The latest academic resentment to speak its name is that of the alienated scholar against his or her  administration. (Okay, so for now please ignore Socrates in the 4th century moving forward.) Of course, the untenured towards the tenured is a perennial; so too the adjunct versus the tenurable; the unappreciated philosopher against the granted biologist; the granted biologist up against the celebrated philosopher. And the students diss the faculty and the faculty cannot believe how bad the writing is these days and worry the literate minority are cheating.

A Martian abruptly transported to earth would surely be befuddled that such limited turf is so begrudged.

Despite gloomy days on campus, not all is lost. Recently Andrew Delbanco used the New York Times Book Review to defend the persistent richness of the liberal arts against Bruce Bawer’s charges in The Victims’ Revolution that identity studies are destroying curricular integrity. While Bawer advances the gloom argument, Delbanco dismisses his premise, pointing out that some of the excesses of theory and accompanying politics have gone to ground. He accuses Bawer of being too easily affronted by the new, proposing that hip-hop clothing is no less or more conformist than the preppy look that once blanketed Harvard and Wellesley. Whether you admire Bawer’s standing up for virtue and the canon or not, there is no denying he sounds angry, defensive and honestly late. (I have only Delbanco’s testimony regarding Victims’ content, but with a subtitle like “the rise of identity studies and the closing of the liberal mind” I cannot help but think how little this particular form of resentment has evolved since the heydays of Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza and the disillusioned youth of the moment, Nathan Harden.)

You might think that Delbanco would be feeling some love from his liberal arts cohort. No – all three letters the Times so far has published are anti-Delbanco polemics. For two, Delbanco is not in trouble for rejecting the Bawerian jeremiad but rather for conceding so much to it. Theory is grand, after all, and the consumption of any animal product reinforces the patriarchy.

It’s Sandi E. Cooper’s contra Delbanco that has me sad. A CUNY historian and former faculty senate chair, in 140 words she precisely identifies the philistines tearing down the gates. It is not students but bad students; never bad teachers but always bad bosses, so-called experts – whom Cooper excoriates simply by placing their credentials in quotes – concerned about cost-containment. It is, in a word, not the professorate’s doing at all that has put first-class education out of reach for all but the ultra wealthy, but administrators.

Professor Cooper’s dismay is partially dead-on. A few entrepreneurial Rectors of the University of Virginia decided that a president who hadn’t yet storyboarded her path to salvation by MOOC was unfit to lead; history immediately provided its verdict. (Hint: the old president is the new president.) And many a president (and football coach) is paid some serious swag. But what made UVA’s full professors maddest before the Rectors started micro managing? Measly average salaries of $140,000, as reported in the New York Times Magazine. Today brings news that the University Librarian of SUNY-Potsdam has cancelled her institution’s bundle for American Chemical Society journals. That package costs New York’s families 10% of Potsdam’s knowledge collection; many a private liberal arts college with first-rate science curricula has been paying that percentage and more to Elsevier since the start of this century.

Where was the outrage of scholars when they let their professional associations appropriate their research and drive libraries into desperation? Why did the most productive researchers who chose not to publish in their societies’ journals turn instead to Elsevier, Kluwer, Sage and Wiley? When did they decide that free tuition for the kids was not enough; that studying the Renaissance was worth a German sports car (or two)? Did they not know their employers only have two choices every time they increase salaries? One is to raise the endowment by employing yet more sophisticated advancement officers to entice major (read “entrepreneurial”) donors. The other is to whack up the tuition bills. In either scenario – and in most places, it is both scenarios – staff wages have to stay stagnant, along with the allocation of dollars to give back in need-based aid.

Certainly increasing faculty salaries (and climbing walls) are not the culprits in the higher education impending panic. I doubt online education and dumping all languages but Chinese is going to prevent it. In fact, I don’t believe the out of control costs of STEM literature is the real culprit either. Everything and everyone has culpability.

Maybe that Martian’s first impression was wrong. There seems to be a great deal of turf that needs attending; no class struggle is necessary.

What I Saw at Coursera

A little more than a month ago, confident I could relearn statistics with only an iPad, nominally stable home broadband and self-discipline, I went on a Coursera registration binge. Andrew Conway’s Statistics One class begins in 24-hours, and I will not be partaking. It’s not a case of being done with Coursera – I start a class on modern poetry in a week and am still active in two more – but rather of refining expectations.

To elaborate: like Peggy Noonan in the Reagan White House, I haven’t given up on the Revolution, but I do think some of the people participating in it are really getting in the way. Coursera reminds me yet again that most of the time when information technology maddens me it’s not so much failures in information technology at the byte level but rather shortsighted engineering, lack of vision, misallocation of resources, under-allocation of resources, good intentions leading to hell – and a bucketful of user error.

Some things seen at Coursera:

Learning Happens:  I know more about two subjects leaving than I did coming in. Just attending video lectures, doing the (almost nonexistent) readings and watching assigned videos supplemented by discursive searching is indeed more enlightening than thinking someday you’re going to bone up on something while Googling away on the couch.

Rules Want Consequences: I stopped writing the essays when my anonymous reviewers – fellow students of all ages spread across the globe – praised my prose and incisiveness but chided me for “not really following the directions.” I did not find the prospect of not earning a certificate of completion compelling enough to correct my miscreancy.

There’s No Reasoning with the Unfaithful: Who would cheat in a class that carries no academic credit? Coursera probably doesn’t know, given that lead instructors and paid teaching assistants aren’t seeing most work, but the peer assessors are seeing plenty. My wife uncovered verbatim plagiarism early in her class; so many complaints hit the discussion forums that her professor’s appeal for honesty became a national story. Coursera is now upgrading from an honor system to an honor code.  Although depressing, the allegations of mass cheating running through Harvard this week unsettle me more, as my hunch is the kids in Cambridge seem destined to soon be running the world in greater proportion than today’s average MOOC grazer.

On the Internet, You Can’t Be a Dog: The teachers of my two classes are informed and articulate. There is every reason to think that in person, whether sitting down with a few students or lecturing before dozens, they offer much that is compelling. But put the best webcams and digital microphones at their disposal and suddenly a confident professor resorts to reading from script, abusing PowerPoint, repeating verbal errors in the redundant slides, laughing at their own jokes and apologizing for possibly not being awesome.

I would like to return to my Coursera adventures yet again and layout what is working for me. And maybe next year I’ll take Statistics One – after I learn to do homework when only self-respect is on the line.

Coursera’s Copyright Conundrum

The co-founders of Coursera, the most buzzed about Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform, really do want to democratize the academy. In his “about me” entry, Andrew Ng states “I want to give everyone access to the best professors in the best universities in the world, for free.” Fellow Stanford computer scientist Daphne Koller, a bit inclined to the mini-manifesto, writes “now [I] am committed to making great education available not just to those students lucky enough to attend Stanford, but to everyone around the world. Education should be a right, not a privilege, and I believe Coursera is a way to make that happen.” But here’s the thing — what Coursera offers for free to consumers it has to pay for in its virtual back room. It can only go so far on in-kind talent contributions and venture capital. (The venture capital is not being donated.)

Eventually Coursera needs curricular resources. For the most part, until the monetization of electronic journals just before the turn of this century, “curricular resources” was not even code for owned books and subscribed periodicals; everyone involved in learning simply said “books and periodicals.” Librarians were generally third in the text chain, after authors and publishers. That hierarchy remains intact. Among the many tasks librarians performed in the chain, of course, was to make available texts free to consumers but hardly free to libraries. But there is a tension in offering free education and requiring the purchase of course materials by individuals.

Here is where libraries might enter, but in supporting MOOCs libraries can only make limited contributions given the limits of fair use. Most works initially copyrighted in 1923 and later are simply not available for libraries to distribute in the cause of open education. Good luck to a Coursera-participating university library that in 2012 will or could license an unlimited-readers electronic edition of an Oxford University Press title still under copyright. Good luck too getting students with no institutional credentials authenticated on that university’s network domain.

What this means for Coursera is that a class on fantasy can avail itself of seemingly endless public domain versions of the Brothers Grimm, and an introduction to public health policy has access to some taxpayer and NGO-funded papers. But how do history courses proceed on a pure for-free basis? With difficulty. In American historiography alone Jill Lepore’s books might be off the syllabus in a class on early America, and so too Bernard Bailyn’s. In literature, teaching Thomas Pynchon would be fairly impossible; J.D. Salinger more or less felonious.

Incidentally, Rebecca Rosen in an contribution, The Missing Twentieth Century, points to jurist Patrick Heald’s empirical analysis of the current state of the public domain.

Introducing Scott Silverman is Trying to Think

Speak up, I’m trying to think. Welcome to my blog, intended as a venue to think about goings on in academia and particularly in liberal education. My perspective is rooted in a library and information services career working to push out and reel in ideas that relate to the meaning of knowledge collections, open scholarship and the empowerment of learners and teachers.

And I like to think when disparate sounds reach my ear. Listen to Charles Mingus’ Pithecanthropus Erectus. If all you hear is dissonance and no harmony and no sense of majestic evolution, well, that’s valid – and very different from how I hear it.

So I plan to return every few days, to offer ruminations on such matters as digital humanities, open access and free culture, DIY IT, the prospect of an apocalyptic academic crash and intellectual freedom. Oh, and books, of which I still read many. My personal adventures with Coursera are sure to pop up as a topic.

And I’ll point to writing and talking that induces thinking. Offering a faculty perspective from the University of Virginia, Siva Vaidhyanathan argued last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education that there are multiple arenas in which information technology has been transforming liberal education more meaningfully than MOOCs.  (Listen to this episode of Digital Campus to catch up on the MOOC phenomenon.)

I welcome your thoughts – and better luck trying than this (LOUD) public intellectual.

%d bloggers like this: