Thursday, February 28, 2008

Badass Librarian, At Your Service

Today I taught a mixed-bag class of repeat English class offenders. And I had the most fabulous time teaching them how to evaluate information sources, break their topics into keywords, and e-mail themselves their articles - complete with MLA-style citation - to their Gmail accounts (because we all know that our university e-mail is not to be trusted). The usual fare, but I made it extremely informal - they'd already been through the library session once, the last time they took the class.

Among others, one topic that came up when discussing the importance of scholarly articles' bibliographies included: the G-Spot and recent reports that some women don't have it. (comment from student: "Aw, hell no, I'd want to see that bitch's citation for sure! You can't go sayin' that with no data.")

These are the days when I love my frickin' job.

Now I am left to wonder it means, that I am apparently in tune with the academically challenged demographic, and that my followers (fanboiz & fangrrlz?) can come from all walks. I never considered that my strength before, since I generally identify better with the nerd demographic, but I think I may be able to do a lot of good for the largely not-so-juvenile delinquents. Perhaps I am too rowdy a librarian for my own good, but by Ranganathan, they can all do some decent research now!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Down and Dirty: Plagiarism

Let's talk about plagiarism, folks. It's a topic that seems to be all the rage lately, both in politics and in academia, and it's one that dearly needs to be addressed.

CNN has the latest on a Columbia professor who has been caught plagiarizing. That's right, plagiarizing, the bugaboo of librarians and professors everywhere who are attempting to educate students on the proper way to give credit to others for their hard work and original ideas. The law firm report states that "in two dozen cases, Constantine's published works contained language similar to passages in papers written by others, including a former teacher at the school and two of Constantine's former students." (See how I did that, made a note of the article, linked to it, and stuck quotes around the phrase I took that someone else wrote? Yes, we'll come back to that.) So, not only is she stealing from her colleagues, she's also cherry-picking from her (likely) best and brightest students, making them cynical before they even reach graduate school. Way to go.

Even worse, Constantine (I will take the liberty of refusing to call her a "professor," since I reserve that term for those I respect) wasn't fired. For over two dozen obvious offenses. That's right. Columbia University is allowing her to remain on the faculty. She is also the Columbia professor who claimed to have found a noose on her door (after the inquiry into her scholarship started, natch)

Now, this isn't the only instance of plagiarism that has occurred in the past few years to mar the reputation of academia. In the August 2006 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an excellent article titled The Plagiarism Hunter chronicled the search that led to the explosion of Ohio University's engineering department due to chronic plagiarism in master's theses and doctoral dissertations. One professor Gunasekera, the offending advisor, has the "Distinguished" removed from his academic title for his shortcomings. though he is currently suing the University for defamation, according to InsideHigherEd. Honestly, as a dissertation and thesis advisor, it's your job to catch that sort of thing, particularly when students are copying exact tables and literature reviews! Ohio University should be raked over the coals for not taking a harsher stance on lazy advisors, particularly since these are the very professionals who are credentialing new scholars.

How on earth can we expect students to respect the boundaries of intellectual property when their own professors don't? Unlike politicians, who can blame speech writers and collaborative work for lifted phrases, researchers and teachers have no excuse. They're taught how to properly cite their peers and forbears. The only excuse is deliberate ignorance (which we shouldn't tolerate from any teacher), or it is a case of flat-out stealing someone else's words, in which case, they should be removed from their position.

It is hard enough to tell students not to straight out copy material without attribution. I can't decide if it's worse to "make up" information and simply list references in the hopes that no one double checks you. I point out to my students that "making up a page number" to cite when they're in a rush and have already returned a library book, or closed the pdf file of an article, is just as much plagiarism as is taking someone else's words. The Chronicle of Higher Education goes a bit into the saga of Emory's Michael Bellesiles, a history professor accused of mis-stating the arguments of his sources to back up his arguments. Because he got caught (ah, thank you to scholarly reviewers everywhere! You unpaid masses, you dedicated drones!), he resigned from Emory and Columbia University - which is inexplicably complicit in Constantine's current plagiarism scandal - rescinded the prestigious Bancroft prize it had awarded Bellesiles.

Note: if you don't have access to the Chronicle, you can Google these names and get the stories from various other venues.)

Let's do away with the word "plagiarism" for a moment, and call it like it is: FRAUD. Plagiarism is the proper term for it, I suppose, but it reeks of academic two-step, avoiding the harsh reality that presenting someone else's work as your own is little better than theft, for which, in the real world, there are severe consequences. If a professor was caught stealing a colleague's car, do you think they wouldn't be fired? While a car is arguably worth more in monetary terms, scholarship is, in fact, a livelihood. People earn their living through writing their ideas and research. Stealing that and marking it as your own is no better than theft, and the academic world needs to start forcing faculty to take responsibility for their actions. Merely "taking a dim view" is not enough. These professors are the same ones we expect to demonstrate the highest integrity, these are the people educating our citizens, and these are the people who should be held to the highest standards of academic rigor.

These plagiarism scandals - and the lack of proper prosecution of the offenders - are a slap in the face to every faculty member who works hard on their own research, and I am pleased to report that this is the vast majority, though it is a thankless task and far less headline-worthy than our cheating peers.
The scandals are a slap to every student who diligently works to cite their sources properly, as their librarians and professors implore them to do.

These situations are a complete embarrassment to academia, and those of us in the education industry should not hesitate to say so. Those who refuse to be offended should be stained by the same brush that paints the plagiarists, if they have an attitude of "well, it's only illegal if you get caught." Students across the country are practically raped with tuition, the cost is getting so high, and what are they paying for? They should be ashamed of themselves for keeping Constantine on campus instead of hiring a professor with integrity. Ohio University should be ashamed of itself for not dealing with a problem that had been reported and was ignored by administration. For every other instance, and there are various smaller ones, the offending scholar should be held accountable, as should any administrator who attempts to sweep the scandal under the rug.

I am not ashamed to say that I will not send my future children to Columbia, if this is how the University deals with academic scandal. And Columbia, I promise you, they'll be brilliant, like their mother. You'll wish they were on your rolls, but they'll be at an educational institution that promotes integrity along with academic learning.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Much-Exaggerated Death of the Liberal Arts

Today, an article at attempts to address the death of liberal arts in the American higher education system.

I call shenanegans.

Proportionately, liberal arts colleges graduate more students who attend graduate school, receive higher degrees, and become part of a skilled labor force as doctors, lawyers, PhDs, and various other professions. The universities churning out "vocational" students, as referred to in the article, are doing a poorer job at this.

Small liberal arts schools have far better records of alumni giving. They are also less beholden to state funds, and so don’t suffer nearly as much in quality when the state slices the budget. For instance, Centre and Transy will be less devastated than UK by the Kentucky governor's plan to make a 12% across the board budget cut to institutions of higher ed.

Of course fewer people know what liberal arts means — the larger universities are churning out diplomas to people who can barely read. (Heard more than once from a 5th year senior: “I’ve never been to the library, and I made up my data for lab.” Exactly the person I want running FDA trials.) Professors are increasingly dumbfounded by the barely literate papers that are turned in, and the lack of attention span evident in their students, and the same strive-for-mediocrity philosophy that has prevailed in K-12 education is slowly poisoning higher education. At new faculty orientation, faculty are told that they should of course never lower their academic standards, but that they need to do everything in their power to keep a student's grades up, because, after all, that's where tuition dollars come from. When faculty do send students to Honor Court, or whatever passes for a disciplinary body, students are rarely expelled for egregious academic offenses at larger universities, while many of the smaller liberal arts colleges take such breaches of the academic trust very seriously. At my alma mater, the professors gave you various resources and study tips, but if you couldn't hack it, they eventually culled you from the system rather than water down the education.

About the smaller salaries for professors: this is not an indication of how smaller institutions value their professors. It’s often an indication of smaller budgets and spending more on resources per student, where student learning is the priority, as opposed to research universities. For most professors at smaller liberal arts institutions, and I know quite a few, it is a conscious choice of accepting less pay for the opportunity to work with truly motivated undergrads in an environment that supports learning and deep relationships between faculty and their students and a sense of true community.

Small liberal arts institutions win on the quality vs quantity scale — a university education nowadays is given by TAs and adjuncts, often without PhDs. Universities also have ridiculously large classes where it is notoriously difficult for students to develop relationships with faculty (who are overworked and generally more concerned about research than teaching). A single professor is often left with 150 essays or - god forbid - research papers to grade. there is no way students can expect useful, in-depth feedback when their professor has such an overload of student work to attend to.

Students at liberal arts colleges do not have to compete with graduate students for professors' attention. At many liberal arts colleges, students get a jump on graduate level work by collaborating with full faculty on labwork and papers, and present at conferences before many graduate students get the opportunity to do so.

Given that today’s students change *careers* (not jobs, but careers) seven or so times during their lifetime, vocational schooling leaves us with a workforce that is constantly ill-prepared to deal with new challenges and think in innovative, cross-disciplinary ways. A liberal arts education trains the mind to address problems from various angles and not from a single paradigm. A liberal arts education actually increases the employability of a student, and it often exposes them to so many fields in their studies that they have a firmer footing about what they want to do for a living once they graduate. Having a liberal arts education in no way precludes students from pursuing internships and work-related experience while in college. In fact, at most of the liberal arts schools I know in the South, this is highly encouraged. The close relationship most of these schools have with their communities - usually smaller towns and cities - makes such opportunities abundant.

As a beneficiary of a liberal arts education, I am admittedly biased. A liberal arts education is a necessary preparation for graduate study in many fields, and benefits students in a variety of ways, including forcing them outside of their comfort zones, unlike the faceless Ginormo-versity. Things to think about before declaring liberal arts colleges an endangered species, since many of us running the world - or healing its leaders - have a liberal arts background.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Universities, McDonald's, and Suck-It-Up-Atine nutrition

A university is not McDonald's.

I should clarify that.

Some of you will think that's a ridiculous statement. Of course we're not McDonald's. We are, indeed, in the business of training people to be on the other side of the counter than the one they might occupy without the university in their lives. McDonald's is an un-nutritious, quick-fix, fast-stop solution bound to lead to obesity, heart disease, and intestinal distress.

Some others are likely saying that the university is indeed like McDonald's. Our kids drive through, pick a major from our menu, and try to get in and out as quickly as possible without laying out much effort (or cash) for something that is "good enough." understandably, most want a college education because of the career paths it opens, and that's a fine enough reason.

Both camps have a point. I'd like to make mine: administrators and educators who encourage this fast-food approach in the name of "incorporating business principles into education" are doing us all a disservice. If you simply look at the bottom line, you'll increase revenue and decrease the quality of the product you put out. The fundamental difference between education and business is that, in education, we are supposed to be primarily concerned with quality. This is fast a dying sentiment from those who aren't on the front lines with students. Even the ivory tower has levels. Those of us closest to the students see how the folks at the top get so concerned about paperwork that they forget about the actual living, breathing (and, lest we forget, drinking) student body. They remember we *have* students. How else, of course, would we generate tuition dollars? The problem is that they think of students as abstractions, and not actual, fleshly, unwashed teenagers.

"Have it your way" is the motto of Burger King. It should not be the motto of any institution of higher education that wants respect. (At least, my respect.) How can you encourage students to "have it their way" when they don't have enough education, experience, or training to know what the best way is? At best, it is a blatant move to woo "consumers" as opposed to students, begging for the almighty buck from young people who have been catered to their entire lives by an education system that is designed to move them through, assembly-line style, as quickly and efficiently as possible. The entire point of an undergraduate education is to make people uncomfortable - discomfort forces you to learn, grow, and stretch. Giving it to them "their way" means providing a comforting, un-challenging education.

I am not claiming that we should not take what the students want into account when we develop services and educational models. If students can help us design educational tools that are more fun, they're more likely to engage, enjoy the learning enterprise and succeed. However, this new push to give away the farm and do away with everything students don't like is too much. Some parts of college are going to suck. Heading to your early morning class reeking of hangover, flubbing an exam because you broke up with your boy/girlfriend and spent the night earning a neon tan instead of memorizing the microeconomics charts, and dealing with gen ed requirements you're convinced you'll never need are essential life lessons.

In the real world, you don't get to go to your boss and claim that you don't want to do something because, well, you'd rather not. "It's boring," "I don't find this engaging," and "but I did the same thing yesterday" are excuses that don't hold water in the Wide World of Work - the sort of WWW we don't address much in education. College life is where you learn to take big old gulps of Suck-It-up-Atine and keep it down. Students do not get to customize their education "order" to remove the educational parts. Sometimes they'll have to deal with the fact that 1.0 technology, and even 0.0 human-delivered lectures (*gasp!*), and having to read an actual, occasionally dull, textbook are the best ways to convey information. This is not to say that their experience won't be interactive and rewarding, just that attempting to make it *all* fun, games, and Facebooky-goodness does our students - and their future employers - a great disservice. Reading technical manuals at a job isn't fun, but it occasionally has to be done.

What we've done by acquiescing to the demand for all-fun all-the-time in education is artificially generated an ADD workforce. If it's not fun and interesting, they don't want to do it, and it comes across in their body language, their attitudes, and occasionally, their Facebook and MySpace profiles, and blogs (which they never remember that employers read). By giving in to the demand that education be a playground, we've stopped developing the most useful skills in our students: persistence and perseverance. If something gets difficult, they quit. No wonder the statistic is that people change careers something like eight times over a lifetime. That's not *jobs*, now - you're expected to change jobs as you move up the ladder and develop your skillset. We're talking complete career changes.

In an atmosphere where students never "fail," where mediocrity is encouraged so that no one feels like they are "less," where the K-12 system does their best to make sure that no one's self-esteem gets trampled and education has become secondary to fostering a feel-good sense of entitlement, catering to student whims without pedagogical soundness behind our decisions is more than ridiculous. It's harmful. If we continue this trend at the university level, we devalue American education as a whole - disturbing, since college is getting more expensive as we challenge students less.

Which is why I'm suspicious of ye olde academic administrators who claim that students are our customers, and we shall serve them what they wish. These are young people who are, usually for the first time, allowed to have ice cream for dinner, stay out as long as they wish, and many are having their first experiences with alcohol and various other foreign substances, including rigorous academic standards. They are no more qualified to tell you what they should learn than a four year old is qualified to tell you what a nutritious dinner is. Want to work on a customer-centered education? Start polling businesses, who are less and less impressed with the far-removed-from-reality education students receive.

I've been in school a long time. College was 1997-2001. Grad School #1 was 2001-2003. Grad School #2 was from 2003-2006. Grad School #3 and #4 were 2007-current. I've also worked in higher education since 2004. I've seen the wide variety of teaching styles and administrative takes on education and its delivery, and the attitude towards student input. The most successful always provided an avenue for student input...but they didn't hand over the steering wheel, nor did they argue in defense of the almighty dollar.

I post this not as a response to my own institution (where we actually evaluate the impact of services and such on education before and during implementation, and are willing to trash anything that's all bells-and-whistles and no substance), but in response to the disturbing trend of those who would hand the reins of education to eighteen year olds. If you don't trust your teachers and your system to produce quality thinkers, if you worry more about the bottom line than about the worth of the degree you churn out, if you jump on the bandwagon of fad-tastic trends just to catch the eye of prospective students, please do not come to my university. In fact, please get the heck out of education and go into private consulting. You'll make more money, and you won't damage the future as much.

My Twitter-pal Rudilibrarian posted a much more elegant argument on this topic that is specifically library-related, available here. I wholeheartedly agree.

This blog refers to me as Guardienne of the Tomes, but in addition to books, I like to think of myself as the Protectress of Common Sense, of decency, and of quality education. And while I believe that education comes in many flavors, many of them pleasant, I also believe that you have to eat the occasional brussels sprout of an assignment, because it's good for you, and wash it down with Suck-It-Up-Atine, because you need to get accustomed to the flavor before you can consider yourself qualified in today's workforce.I went into librarianship and higher education to eradicate ignorance, not put it on a pedestal and glamorize it.


Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A Note to Teaching Faculty

I work for a living, just like you do. Not exactly like you do, since I don't have the venerable onus of grading 300 terribly written exams on ancient history, but I promise I'm busy. I'm busy making sure you have the resources you need, and checking for the software programs your students need when you tell them to come to the library and use Photoshop (better check with us before assigning that, plz). I am planning lessons to teach your classes how to do actual research, since you feel they already know what they need to and don't much care how they get the right information so long as it's valid. I am reviewing books, reading reviews and making purchases for your curriculum, attending department committee meetings, attend university committee meetings, and serve on the faculty senate. I am informing you about database trials, trying to wrangle an invitation to your department meetings to keep you updated, attending job candidate talks all over campus (because eventually, the new faculty come to talk to me too), and attending lectures sponsored by various departments as my show of support for the research you and your colleagues engage in. I am creating tutorials and podcasts so your students never have to put on pants to do their research or learn the library resources, learning Web 2.0 technologies so I can help you enhance your teaching, and acting as a liaison for my assigned departments, offering to customize library resources for classes. I'm also working on my own research, despite the fact that I don't get the summer off to do so, like you do. I believe in the worth of your job. Please extend me the same courtesy.

Because of the above, if you ever mention to me that librarians just sit around and "shelve books" or "read all day," I reserve the right to "lose" some of your purchasing funds, act slowly upon your emails and requests, act petty in the lunch line, veto anything you want if it comes up to a vote in the faculty Senate, mock you in front of your students, and generally make life difficult. (I have never actually done any of these things, but I dream about them sometimes.)

When you come to me, and ask me if I can get a journal for you, I will tell you "Let me look into it." I will also tell you that I will get it rolling as soon as I can, that it is a process but I am dedicated to getting my faculty what they need. You know this is true, because you have commented more than once on my rapid e-mail response time, and praised my for my fast moving-and-shaking to get you a book you thought was out of print. Trust me. I promise, I'm moving the wheels. It gives me zero satisfaction to know you are waiting on a resource you need. Unless, of course, you have pulled one of the ass-hat moves mentioned above.

In addition to asking you to trust me (see above), I have to ask you to please not go over my head to my Dean the day after you make your request to me. It makes me a cranky Guardienne when you circumvent mechanisms we have for a reason. I am not the person who signs the subscription contracts, and picking up one electronic journal is not as simply as just buying it - oftentimes, it means I need to look (or have my acquisitions guru look) at what we'll have to drop to add your journal, or how we can finesse the budget to make it happen. When you ask my Dean in an unrelated committee meeting and she tells you of course we'll do it, it still doesn't mean you're going to have your full-text tomorrow. It will still take time. only now, I know you're a sneaky so-and-so who snipes me when I'm not looking. if you can find a librarian that has an e-journal turnaround time of a day, please feel free to go become a faculty member at their university. These things do not happen automagically. I am not made of magic, for magic is expensive, and my salary is less than yours. I checked.

Be kind to your librarians. You have no idea how far a kindly worded email or simple thank you at the end of an instruction class goes, or how much it means to us. Most of us are kindhearted. Some of us are even interesting to talk to. Librarians are people, too - please offer at least the same grudging respect you give to the crusty old guy in the basement of your department who isn't allowed to teach students above the 100 level anymore because he thinks he talks to aliens, and who hasn't done anything since 1976. As an ally, you'll like me. I promise. I can do good things, and make reading your students' papers a lot less painful, if you'll let me.