The Disgruntlement File

21 October 2003
We in the workaday library world aren't really studying Information, its uses, and the emerging possibilities for new modes of engagement. Studying isn't what we're conventionally thought to do, or to be responsible for; our function is to support and assist, to guide and to answer the questions of "patrons". That's how most librarians see themselves and their proper role in the institution. They seem inclined to resist the claim to be "visionary" for the institution or the profession.

I wrestle constantly with this as I read and search. Case of the moment: I read in this month's Technology Review an article about Charles Simonyi, which mentions Unified Modeling Language and have to open a new mental file to contain the links (virtual and actual), not knowing at the moment if this will lead anywhere... and I have tools like SnipIt to help, but it all gets out of control pretty quickly. Still, here's a gatheration on UML:

Here's a tantalizing characterization: "The Unified Modeling Language is a system for creating diagrams..." (Tristram in Technology Review November 2003: Everyone's a Programmer)

UML Resource Center
Introduction to UML from Object Management Group home page
UML Dictionary
Bibliography on the Unified Modeling Language

Now here's yet another instance of a frequent problem: WHOSE job is it to follow up on this, to think about what the implications of this particular technology are for us, for liberal education, for whatever... It's just what Information Specialists ought to be doing, what I should be doing... if there was anyplace to go with it. And that's the core of the disgruntlement: there doesn't seem to be.

Another article in that same issue: Trash Your Desktop (Mitch Kapor’s new, more intuitive computer interface puts all the information we need to manage our digital lives at our fingertips, no matter what form it’s in) By Michael Fitzgerald

Code-named Chandler, after the mystery writer (because, Kapor says, what they’re creating was something of a mystery even to them when the venture launched two years ago), the software promises to put all related e-mail messages, spreadsheets, appointment records, addresses, blog entries, word-processing documents, digital photos, and what-have-you in one place at one time: no more opening program after program looking for the items related to a specific topic. It takes the core functions of Microsoft Outlook, the Palm Desktop, and other personal information management programs and integrates them with the rest of your PC and the Internet. All the information you need to complete a given task or project is grouped on-screen, organized around the one function—e-mail—Kapor sees as the central conduit of our electronic lives.
Mitch Kapor's weblog is one of the places where this unfolds... and that raises another somewhat sore point: NObody at W&L is exploring and experimenting with the pedagogical or even the personal uses of blogging... there's no support for this vitally important mode of communication, and no prospect of any either. I have my own primitive form in log files... but haven't taken on the task of setting up an environment to go beyond my own habits, because I can't do it myself, and can't provoke the necessary interest elsewhere in the organization. That's a great shame, and an even greater personal frustration.

Of course this all ties back to what I wrote about for NITLE News as Making room for disruptive and emergent technologies.

23 October
Here's another utility we ought to be exploring: Internet Scout Portal Toolkit... and I suppose once I start to work on figuring it out, I might want to implement it for Bio182...

20 November
Awaiting the start of a concert, and prompted by reading in Ben Schneiderman's Leonardo's Laptop, this flowed out of my pen:

I think it's a shame that our faculty and students are doing so little to explore the potentials of the information media at their fingertips. And I think it's a shame that we who are in leadership positions in information realms are not doing more to encourage and support exploration. Most of us perceive, quite accurately, that W&L is not interested in being in the innovative vanguard --rather, W&L revels in its traditional strengths, and contents itself with adopting proven innovations once they are stable. Very few people see this as regrettable --faculty or students or staff. And the general attitude of complacency in matters of information is widely shared by our institutional peers in the liberal arts. I see nothing likely to change this situation, and find myself as frustrated with (most of) my students as with (most of) my faculty and staff colleagues.

Writers like Ben Schneiderman, Howard Rhinegold, Larry Lessig, Jay David Bolter (and others I've linked elsewhere) are not read in or out of courses, and their models for the future of information and ideas are therefore unknown to most of W&L.

There's a pervasive incuriosity that I find unfathomable; the common justification is busyness, but I see a narrow vision of relevance and an aversion to innovation and risk in teaching and learning by teachers and learners, masked by proliferation of "information literacy/fluency" programs that are lists of student skill requirements, and institutional demands for "assessment" that create vapid "learning objectives" and empty measurements.

25 November
Excised from the Five Year Plan to reduce its 'introspective' slant:

Birthdays ending in zero are particularly cuspy and fraught, and the sixtieth is arguably especially so in the context of a five-year plan, which may be as much exit strategy as onward roadmap. I confess to a rising level of curmudgeonly frustration with what sometimes seems to be flaccid institutional will and tortugal response to opportunities, but I'm also beginning to recognize and accept that many of my notions of reform and evolution of liberal arts education won't be realized in five years, or fifty years.

In order to 'concretize' ways and means to maintain, continue, and increase, I need to decide how to direct my energies, given that I can't actually do everything I can imagine, and that several avenues I have been pursuing in the last few years are effectively foreclosed by the loss of Skip Williams.

At least in part because of my long-run identity as a professor, I'm in the habit of setting my own agendas, and I'm not particularly amenable to direction by others. Nonetheless, I feel the need for some advice and encouragement. This brings me to several questions, some of which are difficult to know whom to ask for answers. The broadest question is: what use does W&L want to make of me?

In short, I wrestle with which to continue, which to abandon, and which to adopt as new challenges.

In the absence of Deus ex Machina to decide these issues, I offer some proposals under the specified rubrics: [the specified headings]

9 December
Changing the library's role in teaching and learning is uphill all the way. Hardly anybody seems to want to entertain fundamental changes in functions or recognize that the tried-and-true territorial definitions of responsibility are dysfunctional in the face of digital proliferation and ubiquity.

An Information Commons model that thinks FIRST about space and SECOND about Information (what it is and does, who needs/uses what, how it's at the very core of teaching and learning) fated to obsolescence.

The necessary conversations aren't happening, or aren't wide enough, or aren't central enough to what we and others in the Academy do.

18 February 2004
In the wake of the non-event of our meeting of Library and University Computing folks at noon today, I have before me the question I wrote down as I walked to the event:

if nobody wants it,
why am I doing it?
This came into my head as I reflected that nobody at W&L seems to be making any substantial use of the Web as a place to create or distribute the stuff of their lives, as I have been doing ever since I began to make pages. My students do, because I tell them to... but I don't think any of them continue once they've finished whatever the course is. So either nobody gets it... or perhaps there's just nothing there that anybody wants to get. That doesn't diminish my own joy in the medium, but I'm really wondering why I see it so differently. Many [hundreds of] thousands of bloggers do seemingly get it, in their own various ways, and what I do is more like what they do than it's like anything else I can see, though I find the frame of the blog too confining to consider shifting over.

So the grander designs of building digital collections and so on... are those of as little salience as the (vastly easier) making of pages? My question is:

why bother?

10 March

at small liberal arts colleges
is all but dead
except for independently/externally funded efforts
and rogue actions.
Administrations have insulated themselves
behind a smokescreen of
'strategic planning'
which privileges risk avoidance
in the name of 'management'.
Add more deans,
institute performance reviews,
emphasize assessment of instructional objectives.
Distrust visionaries.
Reduce creativity and experimentation with unpredictable outcomes.
Recline upon past laurels.


13 March
Master Kung has it right:

The Master said, "To learn something and then put it into practise at the right time: is this not a joy?
To have friends coming from afar: is this not a delight?
Not to be upset when one's merits are ignored: is this not the mark of a gentleman?"
(Leys translation --but see the end of this page for other renderings of the passage)

4 July
It seems to me, increasingly, that liberal arts colleges in general and W&L in particular are paying almost no attention to important developments in teaching and learning. The most recent bellwethers are two EDUCAUSE articles: The Digital Convergence: Extending the Portfolio Model Gary Greenberg EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 4 (July/August 2004): 28–37
andTeaching and Learning in a Hybrid World: An Interview with Carol Twigg Susan Walsh Veronikas and Michael F. Shaughnessy EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 39, no. 4 (July/August 2004): 50–62.
My complaint is the now-all-too-familiar: WHO should be attending to these developments? And how might W&L do something about them? I certainly have no difficulty in tending to them myself, or in experimenting... and I suppose it's I who should be doing more to spread the word, but my feeling is that nobody wants to hear me going on and on about these things.

5 July
In fact I don't completely agree with the Twigg interview --I just don't much care about the 'evaluation' side of things that's no doubt part of the Big picture of electronic developments in educational superstructures. I'm much more inclined to think about personally directed and continuing education than what universities have to do to get right with their accreditation authorities. She does have some pointed things to say about PowerPoint and Active Learning, and these DO accord with my prejudices:

The lecture is alive and well on most college and university campuses. The goal of the Program in Course Redesign is to encourage that shift away from stand-up lecturing and toward a focus on active student learning. But our redesign program is in the minority vis-à-vis what goes on at most campuses. What makes anybody who’s interested in student learning shudder is thinking about these highly equipped PowerPoint classrooms that enable faculty to continue to stand up and talk to students, albeit in a more interesting format. That is not an appropriate use of technology. Moving students into an active role is more important, and I think we have a lot of work to do in that area... All of our redesign work focuses on students being actively engaged in the work. My favorite quote is from one of our math professors: “Students don’t learn math by listening to other people talk about doing math; they learn math by doing math.” It’s a simple concept. Anytime an instructor uses PowerPoint, he or she is basically standing up and talking about doing math. The idea that students need to be confronted with math problems and to work on those problems, alone or together with other students, has nothing to do with PowerPoint. And that’s also true in a fine arts course. Students engaged in a fine arts course are going to be viewing works of art, reading about works of art, conversing with other students and faculty members about their ideas, and writing papers about them. That has nothing to do with PowerPoint or presentations. If you think about using the Web, with all its rich materials, and going out and seeking different kinds of resources that can be brought to bear on the problems you’re helping students work on, that’s a very different use of technology. Students are being active learners—actively seeking solutions to problems—and that’s quite different from sitting back and watching someone put on a show. There are a lot of faculty who think that you have to teach by presenting or performing, but that’s not the way students learn.