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Academically Adrift November 21, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Library Instruction, Uncategorized.
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I finally read Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. It’s created quite the discussion about colleges since its release a couple of years ago. Using the results of a survey instrument called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, the authors conclude that college students don’t develop their critical thinking and writing skills very much during the course of their collegiate careers. The reasons for this are numerous and complex, but the authors largely blamed lack of rigor in college class work and assignments. I won’t get into the details of the book, but some excellent summaries and analyses can be found at Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Several things struck me about the book. For one, the growth in critical thinking skills appears to be greatly influenced by what school you attend. More selective colleges generally seem to foster greater growth in CLA scores. There’s also significant variation in CLA scores between majors, with Business and Education faring poorly. When I saw the disparity, my first thought is that maybe the survey instrument is just not capturing the different types of learning and instruction that occurs across majors. I’m not well versed in the methodology and analysis of the CLA, though, so I could be wrong about that. I found one of the more disheartening themes of the book to be that socioeconomic  and ethnic status has a big impact on CLA scores. If your parents are white, have advanced degrees and higher socioeconomic status, then you’re more likely to do well. This corresponds with other studies and commentaries I’ve read that argue college simply perpetuates class differences rather than eliminating them. Finally, I’d like to see a study that teases out the connection between tenure status, courseload and student performance. The authors argue that professors and instructors should expect more of students, but they don’t account for the increasing use of adjunct and untenured instructors whose individual workloads are increasing, mostly because it was beyond the scope of the study and the data available. I don’t have an opinion one way or another on that, but I’d like to know more about that.

How do these research findings affect libraries? Steven Bell has a few thoughts over at Library Journal. He asks how much impact we can have on students’ critical thinking skills when we don’t see them nearly as often as their professors, which is a good question. I have some other questions: how should these findings affect library instruction, if at all? What kinds of services can we offer to help facilitate learning? Arum and Roksa note that group projects and studying together were correlated with lower CLA scores than were individual writing and studying alone. How does this inform our responses to student requests for more group study rooms and open study spaces? I don’t have any answers to these questions, and many of the issues raised are highly complex and require thought across campuses and across the country. But this thought-provoking book provides a good place to start exploring them.


Review of “What Technology Wants” March 1, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Uncategorized.
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Review of What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

In this ambitious, thought-provoking, and excellent book, Kelly, a senior editor at Wired magazine, uses the framework of what technology “wants” to explore the history and future of technology. While it initially sounds funny to ask what ostensibly impersonal, created artifacts such as computers and iPhones “want,” it makes sense in the context of the book. Kelly defines “technology” broadly, seeing it as the accumulation of millions of years of human evolution and experience to encompass science, math, manufacturing, and society. Kelly sees our computerized gadgets as an inevitable progression of cosmic evolution, tracing the course of biological evolution to make this argument. Our world of interconnected computerized technology, called the “technium,” is therefore argued to be a living organism in the broadest sense and the technium is both our offspring and an extension of our human selves. In many ways, this sounds plausible to me and is a useful framework to think about how technology is changing us.

The most interesting and useful parts of the book are the examination of how societies have adopted technology and how that adoption has changed them. I found the discussion of the Amish particularly interesting and instructive. Kelly also argues that Unabomber Ted Kazinski has created the most logical and accurate anti-technology manifesto; this argument is provocative yet surprisingly strong. Also useful is Kelly’s forecasting the direction of computerization, arguing it will be increasingly ubiquitous, highly specialized, and develop intelligence as we currently understand it.

Kelly does not get into specifics about where technology is going, which is smart because no one person can really know what technology will look like in even the short term. Since we don’t know where technology is going, Kelly argues that all technologies should be allowed and experimented with. Prohibition of things like human cloning or creation of sentient life is pointless, as past technologies have vitiated prohibitions because they’re just too useful. I think Kelly makes a strong case, but he gives short shrift to the legitimate ethical and political problems presented by a lassie faire attitude towards all technologies.

The concluding part of the book is the weakest and strangest. Kelly argues that technology will be a completely new form of life that will completely change the entire universe in the near future. In fact, the technium will bring about more change than biological evolution has seen in the past 4 billion years, which is a bold statement to say the least. We will, in essence, be God to these new organisms, which will completely upend our conception of religion. While I’ve thought about how our conceptions of religion could be changed by technology and scientific discoveries, our being God does seem farfetched to me. While Kelly has the courage of his convictions and follows his ideas to their natural conclusion, his pan-technium neo-religion is awkwardly placed and simply too “out there” to me.

Despite my criticisms, the book is quite good and I recommend that my library friends in particular pick it up.

Academic Libraries in For-Profit Schools of Higher Ed March 1, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Uncategorized.
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“Academic Libraries in For-Profit Schools of Higher Education” by Davis, Adams, & Hardesty from College & Research Libraries v.72 No.6, November 2011.

I really liked this article and learned a lot from it. I’ve been reading a bit lately about for-profit colleges since they’ve been in the news so much and I’m sure I’ve stumbled across other articles about them here and there. I generally have a pretty dim view of for-profits because of their very nature as profit-seeking institutions, meaning they’re organized and run very differently than traditional colleges. They’re also very expensive and their attendees default on their Pell grant loans in much higher proportions than traditional colleges do. I think it’s pretty shady that they try to “buy” accreditation by buying up a small, previously accredited college. I’ve read several articles about their shady student recruiting practices, too.

The authors also note that most for-profit administrators didn’t hold an advanced degree and a few didn’t even have an undergrad degree. I found this last fact incredible. There arguments about the tenure system and traditional colleges (and their libraries) have their own host of problems, but I can’t imagine running any kind of higher-ed institution without having at least some experience in academia. In sum, for-profits are obviously filling a need, but they need to be better regulated and scrutinized than they are now.

For-profit colleges’ library services are, in a word, awful. The authors report that the for-profit colleges’ libraries are small and poorly resourced and it sounds like they’re often afterthoughts in these institutions. That’s not surprising, seeing as how so many for-profits are online-only affairs and most do not even own their own buildings and don’t have campuses, per se. The article also notes that they don’t have full-time, professional librarians, which is a little surprising. Even with the limited libraries they have, it’s still a ton of work to put one together and run one, particularly in an academic setting. The authors clearly believe that this ultimately hurts the students, as the lack of a library “pro” leads to lack of standard services across institutions, hurts reference quality, and meant that “information literacy” was a foreign term.

It’s clear that for-profits will likely grow in size and reach for the foreseeable future, but there’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.

My foray into the Blogosphere January 27, 2011

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Uncategorized.
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Well, here it is-my professional blog! In the coming weeks and months, I hope to use this space to comment on library-related articles I’ve read, my current position, and where I see my career going.

This blog has its genesis in an excellent presentation on blogging given by Erin Dorney, Tara Murray, Amy Pajewski, and Peter Coyl at the Pennsylvania Library Association’s 2010 annual conference, which was held back in October 2010.  Part of the presentation can be found on Erin’s blog here. All 4 presenters talked about their experience using blogs and how they can help make you more visible in the library community. After the presentation, I was thinking that creating a blog would be a great idea and I’d get right on that!

Okay, so I didn’t get right on that, for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t know what I’d write about, as my current position (about which I’ll say more in a future post) isn’t terribly exciting and is not a professional librarian job. It seems that most librarian bloggers have pretty interesting jobs and are pros. But I now realize that I read enough library-related journal and news articles and I have enough library-related thoughts that I think I could come up with plenty.

The bigger reason for the delay in the blog’s creation is a crisis of confidence about my career choice. My goal in getting into the library world was to be able to directly help people find information, preferably in a reference librarian position.  In deciding to go to library school, however, I bought into the “graying-profession-and-folks-will-retire” narrative, which I now realize is dubious at best. I’ve realized over the past couple of years that to be successful (or even stay afloat) in librarianship, you have to fight tooth-and-nail to get any job and have to fight tooth-and-nail to keep that job. I’m not a fighter by nature, so I really began to wonder whether I’d picked the right career field. I’ve arrived at an answer of “I think so” in the past few months. I’m really good with information, I love to help people, and a library-type environment is a good fit for me. So I decided to start the blog and give this career all I’ve got.

So it begins….