Month: January 2020

A colony of beavers

Me [driving to kids’ daycare]: Hey Amiens, have you noticed that there are hardly any trees on Kenyon Ave?

Amiens (4): Maybe a beaver got loose in the neighborhood and cut them all down.

My son’s world is infinitely more exciting than my own.

“The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

Source:  The Once and Future King, T.H. White (h/t Brain Pickings

Monitoring… tracking… it’s all surveillance

Three posts on student surveillance at colleges and universities came through my feeds recently.

From Drew Harwell at The Washington Post, “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands” focuses primarily on the SpotterEDU app, which calls itself an “automated attendance monitoring and early alerting platform” and is utilized by athletics departments to monitor track student athletes.

Harwell’s article is full of quotes from IHE staff that are troubling at best and illustrate an ignorance about the [lack of] actual benefits that these tracking systems provide and a blind belief in the unconfirmed benefits of “big data.” As one librarian quoted in the article notes, IHE’s are completely missing the point:

“[The use of these systems] embodies a very cynical view of education — that it’s something we need to enforce on students, almost against their will,” said Erin Rose Glass, a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California San Diego. “We’re reinforcing this sense of powerlessness … when we could be asking harder questions, like: Why are we creating institutions where students don’t want to show up?”

Source: “Colleges are turning students’ phones into surveillance machines, tracking the locations of hundreds of thousands”, Washington Post

Furthermore, these systems tend to reinforce white, upper-middle class expectations of “normal” student activity, putting students from already vulnerable populations into even more vulnerable positions. Jenny Davis, responding to Harwell’s article, writes:

“These tracking technologies veer towards [mechanisms of control], portending a very near future in which extrinsic accountability displaces intrinsic motivation and data extraction looms inevitable. […] Speaking of data extraction, these tracking technologies run on data. Data is a valuable resource. Historically, valuable resources are exploited to the benefit of those in power and the detriment of those in positions of disadvantage.”

Source: “A Clear Care for Resisting Student Tracking”, Cyborgology

Finally, Erin Glass (the librarian quoted above), has provided a useful “Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom.” I especially love #2, 4 and 5:

2.  “Inform your students on your syllabus — say, by adding a sentence or two in that section about academic integrity — that many of the technologies they use to support their educational activities likely practice forms of data collection that are ethically dubious even if legally accepted.”

4.  “Ask students to make a list of at least ten digital tools they’ve used formally or informally in the most recent two months of their educational activities. […] Ask each student to (a) find and (b) copy/paste at least one ToS into a clean text-searchable file. Then spend a meeting engaging in some good ol’ close reading of these Terms as a class and discussing.”

5. “Get to know your campus IT.”

Source: “Ten weird tricks for resisting surveillance capitalism in and through the classroom . . . next term!”, HASTAC

Librarians, whether they teach classes or not, might consider starting #4 on their own to learn more about the systems they use and encourage students to use. With our core professional values to support us, there’s a good chance we will be the last holdouts on this trend toward increased surveillance of student life. Let’s get in-formation.

Building a quieter internet experience

Purple pansy from my garden.

This year, I want to change the way I experience the internet. In both architecture and rhetoric, we talk about ductus: simply put, the way in which the pathway influences our experience of the content. Imagine entering a cathedral and moving from a small, enclosed narthex to the nave and into the crossing. The experience of the space is very different than if you had entered from the porch’s side entrance.

I want to forcibly change my experience of the web by building a new path. A slower path. A quieter path. At the risk of sounding like an aging technologist who first surfed the World Wide Web from a dial-up modem (which I did), I want to recreate to the extent possible that experience. Fewer inputs. Smaller circles. Less connection.

Social media offers us a great, almost irresistible level of connection, but it never stops moving. I want to find space to disconnect, reflect, and muddle about. I want richer content with less focus on personal brands. I want cool takes. I want the ability to disconnect for days without consequence. I don’t want the pressure of real-time information.

These are some of the initial steps I’m taking to create a quieter internet for myself:

  • remove social media apps from my mobile device
  • stop posting to social media (I may allow myself 2-3 tweets per week)
  • set up an RSS reader on my desktop machine
  • subscribe to a small, manageable selection of feeds
  • when I feel the urge to surf, scroll or wander, start at metafilter, LibraryThing, or a random wikipedia page
  • spend time curating my bookmarks (possibly revisiting old ones)
  • share my thoughts and findings here

Some say the heyday of blogging is over. Google Reader is dead (may it live on forever in our memory) and many of the great blogs of the late aughts and early teens have gone silent, but it is still possible to find quality, long(er)-form content out there. This new year, I want to go back on an RSS-based diet.

As I putter around the office today in anticipation of the deluge that the next few weeks will bring, I keep thinking about this line from one of Marianne Moore’s poems:

There is a great amount of poetry in unconscious fastidiousness.

“Critics and Connoisseurs” from Selected Poems (1935)

Driving the narrative

If libraries simply report outputs as we always have, we run the risk of someone else dictating our worth.

Meredith Farkas, “Your Library’s Story

I think about this potential pitfall frequently. Even more so, I worry about how relying on traditional metrics creates eyes-glazed-over reactions from stakeholders who already struggle to remember how libraries’ play a necessary and invaluable role in higher education.

Libraries are essential to the educational mission of the university, but we have become so very efficient at integrating into that mission that we’ve become invisible. While I knee-jerkingly resist worn out tropes about librarians, I sometimes find it valuable to play on these archetypes in my outreach and communications work.

Over the centuries, we’ve gotten pretty good at developing workflows that maximize our ability to support IHEs. Libraries and the work they do are certainly not without problems, but considering all that we do for our students and faculty, especially in the areas of collection development and research support, we are a damn fine and extraordinary machine. That outputs that we’ve traditionally reported to stakeholders were, for decades, the simplest distillation of an extremely complex operation.

But these outputs were predicated on a false ideal of “growth.” Academic libraries today don’t need to show evidence of growth as much as they need to show evidence of enrichment. As Farkas says, we need to showcase “how patrons use the library and its effect on their lives.” And we need to drive that message home.