Saturday, February 27, 2010

How to be an awesome researcher if you're at a rich school or have Ivy-connected friends

The Little Professor has a good post up about one of my pet peeves: those who extol the virtues of electronic databases for research when the cost of those databases is too high for many, perhaps even most, universities and colleges. She writes:
But I am railing at attempts to discuss the New Golden Age of Electronic Research in ways that do not acknowledge how localized that Age is currently proving to be. Yes, we have more free stuff; we also have lots more stuff that only a few, relatively well-funded colleges can purchase.
The Little Professor links to Professor Awesome Researcher's article in the New York Times arguing that "that a university’s tenure demands should keep pace with technological advances." Thanks to good connections--a friend at an Ivy--he found a bunch of hits in EEBO and can crank out a book faster, so what's wrong with the rest of us slackers that we're not doing the same?

Now, Professor Awesome has a point: it's easier to search for things electronically than to be to lug a stack of index cards to the long tables of reference books. But Little Professor's point, with which I would entirely agree, is that these resources aren't free and available to everyone, and access to them shouldn't depend on being a faculty member at Moneybag$ University or on having an obliging and well-connected friend who doesn't mind lending an access code.

This is one of the things that the NEH Digitization Projects do right; they state up front that "We strongly encourage projects that offer free public access to online resources. All other considerations being equal, preference will be given to projects that provide free, online access to digital materials produced with grant funds." But even NEH funding doesn't guarantee access; the Brown Women Writers Project, for example, is a subscription-only database despite its NEH funding. The question of access sometimes takes a back seat to the issues of preservation and digitization.

Although talk about the "digital divide" focuses, and rightly so, on the gap between those in the general public, especially schoolchildren, who don't have access to computers and the Internet, there's also a gap in the resources available to universities with less funding. If the "digital divide" is the Grand Canyon, maybe the academic version is the digital equivalent of climbing over a wall--a subscription wall. Pretending that digital access is universal and that the wall doesn't exist doesn't help anyone, least of all those who don't have a handy ladder in the form of a nearby institution that subscribes or a conveniently well-connected friend.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where politeness dwells on the internets

No, not in the comments sections of commercial sites, which may demonstrate more (New York Times) or less ( civility and literacy, depending on the news topics.

Nor in the dying, spam-ridden embers of Usenet or Google Groups--remember Usenet?--or the outraged postings of abused purchasers at consumer sites.

Nor, alas, does it necessarily exist in the emails sent by students, which are sometimes correctly addressed to Dr. Lastname but sometimes to "Hey Mrs. Lastname" or sometimes (and most irritating of all) with no attempt at addressing me, just an abrupt launch into a request that I respond as soon as possible. These I leave until last when responding, needless to say.

But politeness does still exist--in professional email.

A few years ago, I started noticing that a number of academics didn't just launch into requests or whatever when writing emails. Instead, the emails began with the sentence "I hope you are well" or another courteous phrase unheard of back in the olden days.

And the complimentary closes of the emails became more polite, too. Although a lot of people still apparently prefer "best," I've seen comments at the Chronicle saying that this is too curt, and in the last couple of years, I've seen a lot more variety in this part of the email, too: "best regards," "warm regards," "all best," "with best wishes," "cordially," and so on.

Of course, this doesn't always guarantee that the person types a name below the close. As often as not, the person closes the email without typing his or her name, letting the signature file (which has grown from the customary 4 lines back in the day to a 6 or 7-line mini-cv listing titles and posts) do the work.

I'm charmed by this politeness. It makes me feel as though I'm in a Jane Austen novel and am receiving a letter, not an email.

Now my question: have you noticed this, too?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

You can count on me

  • If we're in a meeting that's supposed to be at an end, and I have class in a few minutes, and you start engaging people in a discussion of a department issue that has nothing to do with the meeting at hand, you can count on me to interrupt and say, brightly and loudly, "So, we're all agreed on X, then? Good. This meeting is adjourned."
  • If you're an administrator, and you've been asking for various kinds of responses from me, and I've been sending them without getting any response from you, you can count on me to stop by your office and say, "So, you got the X I sent, right?"
  • If you're a student, and you already have some absences that weren't when you were sick (because I saw you on campus), and you write to me now that you're sick and wonder what "extra work" you can do to make up all the absences, you can count on me to reply courteously and tell you that there isn't any "extra work" you can do.
  • If you're a random person from outside the university--say, a student at another university--you can count on me to consign your email to the trash bin if it's demanding ("I need to know this right away") or implies in any way that it's my job to answer your questions. It's not.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Random bullets of February

  • Still as corny as Kansas in August, high as a flag on the Fourth of July, and all that, about teaching flying dinosaur studies, even though I haven't finished grading their papers. I'm enjoying the other classes, too. (If you don't know the song, it's here.)
  • Have finally looked at my research journal and have discovered that except for minor revisions and materials for a project that someone else is organizing, I haven't written anything for at least a month. Apparently it's all teaching, all the time here at Chez Undine, at least for now. I have to get writing and stop treating teaching like a new toy.
  • This infatuation with teaching doesn't include the less-fun-than-a-root-canal process of pulling together materials for the annual review. The administration has decided to ask for extra materials about impact of what we're doing, which makes the whole process just so much more pointless special. Dame Eleanor Hull and Bardiac have said it better than I can.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Print books and e-books again

The New York Times asks "Do School Libraries Need Books?" in a recent issue. Some snippets:

1. James Tracey, headmaster of Cushing Academy (which pretty much said "no, in thunder!" in answer to this question), is still a no-books enthusiast but says that students "need more help from librarians to navigate these resources, so we have also increased our library staff by 25 percent." Wait, what? I thought the point of school was to teach students to think and to find materials for themselves rather than to foster an increased dependence on librarians.

2. I'm more with Matthew G. Kirshenbaum on this one:
Even the grossest physical failings of books and libraries, the maddening frustration of the book that is lost or checked out just when you need it most can instill an important lesson: knowledge is proximate. In the digital world, that proximity is less about geographical locale than about licensing, digital rights management, and affordability; but all the more reason for students (and teachers) to know that not everything is always within reach of a mouse.
3. Steve Kolowich at Inside Higher Ed gives a well-reasoned but not especially hopeful update on the "let's kill all the libraries" movement: “The administrators who provide library budgets may be reluctant to fund new facilities to house print collections and may question large expenditures to support both print and electronic formats." My not-especially-helpful reaction is that we could support a lot more books if we got rid of administrators who thought like this.

4. Although I don't condone book abuse, I've known people (ahem) who have done the following at various times out of carelessness or necessity:
  • dropped them
  • tossed them in the back of a car where they were unaffected by the hot sun pouring down through the windows
  • used them as spider-killers
  • rested laptops on top of them
  • used them as a handy writing desk
  • scribbled phone numbers and directions in the back
  • read them in the bathtub and dropped them in the water by mistake, leaving said book's pages to blossom out like a giant flower radiating from the spine when they dry.
If you drop a book, you still have a book. If you drop a Kindle, Sony, Nook, or their kindred, you have a brick.

(I don't have anything to add about the Huntsville tragedy, but please read Historiann and University Diaries for some useful commentary.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

A PSA about disabling Google's privacy nightmare, Google Buzz

Dr. Isis alerted us yesterday to Google's horrifyingly intrusive new opt-out privacy nightmare, Google Buzz. It apparently tracks where you go, links you up to blogs, and generally shreds your Internet Invisibility Cloak.

Oh, and it's on by default. If you breeze by it on your way to your Gmail inbox, it's still gathering information and posting updates for your followers.

Even if you click "turn off buzz" using the tiny, tiny link at the bottom of the page, it keeps going.

If you want to stop it, Jessica Dolcourt over at CNET tells you what to do.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Technology in the classroom, Office style

This was at The Chronicle, so it'll probably be popping up on a lot of sites.
With tongue firmly in cheek, I offer this view about technology. Rule #1 of technology use (even before "what pedagogical purpose does it serve?") is that you have to be stronger than it is: mind over matter. If you're weak, it senses your weakness and refuses to work. A video clip won't play? A program freezes while the class sits and stares at you with amusement? You know what I'm talking about.

Friday, February 05, 2010

A little reality on the rocks, please

One side effect I've noticed from the post-sabbatical reentry into teaching is that, like Don Corleone, I take things personally even if they're just business.

I'm still excited about my courses and the students and still happy that they mostly seem to be engaged with the material. But on days when some of them aren't? When a few busy themselves with their laptops (and one, as I got to see when sitting in the audience during some presentations, got all caught up in Facebook instead of looking at the speaker) or seem disengaged? Outside, I'm the same, except that I exert even more energy. Inside, I'm a wounded tulip: "I put this really interesting text on the syllabus and have all this good stuff for discussion, and you're not interested? What did I do wrong?"

The answer, as my rational self tells me, is maybe nothing. Maybe the text or my presentation is at fault, but then again maybe they have other things going on in their lives. Maybe they didn't read it. Maybe they're sick or tired. Maybe they're just bored and don't feel like being in class.

This isn't the majority. But just as you notice the one bad evaluation in a stack of good ones, the disengaged students draw a disproportionate amount of my time and attention in the class.

So this wounded tulip needs to toughen up inside as well as outside and get back to some kind of equilibrium that doesn't have me obsessing over teaching as I did when I was a TA. I'm not going to follow Don Corleone's methods, but I'm going to have some "it's not personal; it's just business" on the rocks, with a chaser of "forget about it."

(Also, a quiet talk with Facebook Student.)