Participation and Academic Exclusion

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snake-boars

Let’s talk about the innovation culture. Let’s talk about how to make something simple and beautiful into something ugly. The problem with many innovations is that they conflate innovation for specialization. There’s a great new skateboard that can easily ride down stairs, but you can do that and many other things with any deck.  The tools of academic publishing have run into the same problem: we have specialized journals for everything, but few places that allow for broader participation, with Aaron Swartz’s death, a lot of discussions about this came up:

To put it bluntly, the current state of academic publishing is the result of a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the highest bidders. Swartz simply decided it was time to take action. -Peter Ludlow, Aaron Swartz Was Right.

But Ludlow misses another important point: for good or bad, these costs have a hidden benefit for academics themselves:

With the majority of academic literature hidden behind a paywall, there is no way for the public to determine whether claims of irrelevance are valid. Instead, they rely on slanted media coverage – “Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs,” crowed the Washington Times – and politicians’ charges of elitism, which paywalls help validate. The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it. -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

Libraries and publishers have been in this system of exclusion for a long time, there’s no one side to blame. But Kendizor takes it one step further: even our language is to blame:

Furthermore, writing in a style decipherable to the public opens one up to public scrutiny. “Bad writing,” argues political scientist Stephen Walt, is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.” -Sarah Kendzior, Academic Funding and The Public Interest: The Death of Political Science.

We are living in a time where the ability to access knowledge is at an all-time high. But the structure of publishing, of tenure and promotion and our language itself have given rise to new levels of defensiveness for academics. It’s time to get to the Harlem Shake of academia, something so obvious that anyone can do it. Many academics are trying things out, from open access journals to blogs to non-academic but thoughtful sites like thestate.ae. It’s time to really put everything out there because now more than ever, we’re hiding when we shouldn’t. Open access journals are the Stair Rover to HTMLgiant‘s firecracker and it’s clear that by creating something so functional, we’ve created something ugly.

Bored in the Library, Luxury of the Mind

Stop Trying to Fill Every Hour of Your Day: Ever wonder why you get most of your ideas in the shower? It’s because the shower is among the last sacred spaces where we aren’t distracted by colleagues or technology. Our ideas need time to ferment and connect with other ideas, and being bored allows our minds to accomplish this naturally. -Sean Blanda, Five “Good Habits” You Need to Unlearn

This is not about quiet, but the idea of quiet. Libraries have always been leaders in third space, as Montgomery and Miller argue that in times of fiscal constraint, the academic library fills that niche, and further, the library is a place of individual productivity during finals. Most importantly, the library:

(O)ffers a comfortable welcoming environment for informal gathering where people come and go at their leisure and “nobody plays host” (Oldenburg 1999). The relaxed atmosphere of the third place provides users with the chance to be around others where they are not restricted by time, nor are they compelled to be there. -Montgomery and Miller, The “Third Place”: The Libary as Collaborativeand Community Space in a Time of Fiscal Contraint

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The place we are trying to get away from is a noisy one. Stuart Sim puts forth the idea that the noise we are trying to get away from is integral to the business culture of the United States, where it functions as a way to get our increasingly divided attention (Manifesto for Silence). Pushing this one step further, John Stewart connects the noise of the consumer society to an even deeper place: our identities:

It seems the attitudes toward noise are being shaped and changed by consumer society…..It also means that many people do not know life without noise; if it were not there, a void would open up in their lives. They would notice the silence. They have become oblivious to the noise. Why Noise Matters, p.9-10

The “fear of silence” is so unsettling because without the noise, our attentions have no easy external focus, no desire drive spurned on, no object or idea with which to attach. The stuff brings the noise and brings our identity additives with it. This is the place where libraries get their power, both in terms of physical space, but also the space that an instruction librarian  can bring into the classroom. Shutting down the noise and unsettling that drive allows students to really connect ideas with other ideas. Blanda may think that is because they are bored, but perhaps that is exactly the point. He equates not having to deal with the hassles of life to boredom and specifically, a lack of noise. Being able to avoid the invasion of noise (corporate or otherwise) has always been the purview of the well-to-do, and is a key factor in defining a luxury product:

Luxury vehicles make a statement — but too often, you can’t hear it over the roar of their engines. So the makers of top-line craft are dummying up the decibels, with a technological silence that’s 24-karat golden. Indeed, keeping quiet has become a science of its own. -Alexander George, The Silence of Luxury

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Libraries provide that sacred third space of silence, both from sound and from other mental distraction, much the same as what Blanda finds in the shower, and what your average 1%-er finds in the comfort of the newest Learjet. What libraries excel at is keeping down the cost. Best of all, unlike the cluttered and loud identities that can be forged through the consumption of consumer goods, the library provides a quiet place, sometimes literally, but often figuratively.

Quote That: WHY I READ THEORY

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In other words, the theory and methods I discovered and then committed myself to offered ideas not to be applied to the work but rather inherent in it—or at least inherent to my understanding of it. In a sense, then, these ideas served to reaffirm, expand, and deepen my own hunches, legitimizing but also pressuring my burgeoning thinking, even as they offered a vast context to enter. -Johanna Burton, Outtakes from Another Conversation: Thoughts on Curating and Education.

Ima Read, Ima Research

This song came from a twitter feed. Being a librarian, the words “IMA READ” act like a sign post for “please investigate.” It turned out to be a music video for a song which had blown up over Paris Fashion Week, specifically Rick Owen’s show. I won’t recount the shock this video first registers. The thing is pure unadulterated menace and cool.

With the slightest bit of internet digging, it comes to light that the song is not specifically a misogynist chant, but the work of a ballroom scene traveler and artist Ojay Morgan, who created the alter-ego of Zebra Katz for his musical projects. At least to Morgan, to read someone is  a high form of insult. Basically, making the other person a passive object to be taken in and dismissed in the face of one’s own place. Interestingly enough, the thing also came from a college experience:

 The song has always been my self-mantra—it’s just something I would always say to myself as a joke, because I took this class called  “How To Read A Play,” and I couldn’t stand the teacher, so I was always like “Ima read that bitch.” -Zebra Katz, Zebra Katz is Booking It

Namely, the song primarily seems to be in the voice of a teacher. Someone who from their own knowledge can quickly sum up and judge:

That really helped make it a song that you can pay reference to, even if you don’t know anything about ball culture—hopefully you went to school, then college, then at that point, hopefully you would write a dissertation so you can excuse your shit! -Zebra Katz, Zebra Katz is Booking It

The requirement of “reading” someone, and specifically “taking them to college” implies both violence and education, and the powers that it grants. Nothing so dire came of Morgan’s classroom experience, but the song highlights those fraught relationships anyone can feel in a classroom: when the students are bored and feel unchallenged, or feel that the teacher looks down on them, and the instructors saddled with curricula they dislike but have to deliver, or shoehorn previous work into, or feel that their students are in fact, facebooking, text-message spewing ignoramuses. Whatever the reasons, as a librarian, your heart goes out to both sides as they work out a difficult student-teacher relationship as the tensions escalate faster than we can breathe the words “critical literacy.”

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I was glad to read that Morgan saw the value in education despite the violence it can unwittingly do, so he can write a dissertation and excuse his own shit. In any case, Morgan dropped the R-word and the C-word in another interview, and it goes a long way in making the song make sense, and even, to him, a funny self-mantra from his college days:

“When the song hit Paris, it completely skyrocketed,” Mr. Morgan said. “All these people in the fashion industry that I looked up to had to listen to that song, and I knew a lot of people weren’t going to get the context right away. You have to do the research to get what I’m saying.” -Eric Wilson, You Have to Know the Context

Libraries and librarians can always help create a context for education, and even if it’s not a pretty one, often knowing it goes a long way to help all of those participating in higher education. And the only way to get the context is to do the research, both for the class and about the class, to understand the content and the form of the classroom and the school. This is why we are the archive that can help critique a canon.  You can’t take someone to college until you give yourself some knowledge. Ima Read, Ima Read, Ima Read.

The Canon and The Archive

A general l rule, fundamental principle, aphorism, or axiom governing the systematic or scientific treatment of a subject…
“canon, n.1″. OED Online. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/27148?rskey=OpD2lb&result=3&isAdvanced=false

…a canon exists and is cherished for representing the solid core of work that centers activity in the field.
Anita Silvers, The Canon in Aesthetics. From “Canon,” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Oxford Art Online. http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/opr/t234/e0100

It’s always trouble when you lead with definitions. In this case, I’ll make the argument with these definitions that much of what students experience in a classroom is canonical in nature. Not a canon in the contested, literary sense, but in any classroom, there are underlying structures of thought in the layout of a curriculum. That’s fine, otherwise the teaching of any class or session would be difficult at best. But one day, as I was killing time in the stacks, I saw a brightly colored stack of journals, and browsed my way to this quote:

Archival items are rarely or never communicated or interpreted….While the canon makes the past present and relevant, the archive preserves the past as past.

When the canon tends to stagnate or become instrumental, mythic or chauvinistic, the archive provides a critical corrective and invites the rediscovery of alternative sources.

Kristin B. Aavitsland, From Nationalism to Cosmopolitan Classicism: Harry Fett’s Concept of Cultural Capital p.29

Working backwards, I realized this encapsulated the potential the library has to upend canons, and more importantly, the way it opens up the possibility to challenge the great pyramid of bloom’s taxonomy. If we are going to take informed learning or critical literacy seriously, then the dated, hierarchical divide between acts of understanding and creation of knowledge shouldn’t be as  drastic. Nor should one be prized above the other if the skills we want to teach are going to relevant in the much-hyped (over?) “2.0/3.0″ information ecosystem. Libraries are the places where students can create knowledge that can compliment or challenge what they learn in the classroom, so if the archives are going to have that kind of relationship to the canon, then creating needs to come into play much earlier in Bloom’s taxonomy than at the top.

the new passivity

Well Kevin and I are best friends. We have a real disagreement. He is interested in what technology wants and I’m like, “what do I want?” In a nutshell. It is convenient for Facebook to have no privacy. Because it will allow Facebook to roam more freely. Is that good for democracy? Is that good for intimacy? -Sherry Turkle, The Internet’s Not Grown Up

These are questions worth mulling over, and remind me of some research by danah boyd, showing how teens define privacy in networked publics. As it turns out, teens have a nuanced understand of privacy because they live in social situations that have unequal transparency. Calculated understandings of privacy enable them to perform  in social spaces, fitting messages to the technological medium and selecting which media to use depending on how private things need to be. Following that, statements like the one below make a lot of sense. It is the issue above, but writ large:

The demand to participate can become coercive, exhausting the very collective faculties it officially celebrates. While interactivity can be imagined as the “like” or “retweet,” it also encompasses the “agree to terms” button. The supposedly democratic call to dialogue and participation can turn sour when people have good reasons and desires to retreat. -Jonathan Sterne, What if Interactivity is the New Passivity?

Often, non-participation isn’t desirable, so strategic publicity is a useful option, which is the response boyd sees in teens. Sterne’s tougher point is that “interactivity” has become as coercive as the “passivity” of media of old (TV, Radio). Again, it’s a question of uneven transparency, so the call to engage which can’t be ignored has to be shunted to the side. If the internet wants to grow up, it needs to be put in its place, such that the medium is no longer the message, which is handier for us than it is for the makers of communication technologies:

Slow Media are discursive and dialogic. They long for a counterpart with whom they may come in contact. The choice of the target media is secondary. In Slow Media, listening is as important as speaking. Hence ‘Slow’ means to be mindful and approachable and to be able to regard and to question one’s own position from a different angle. -Benedikt Köhler, Sabria David, Jörg Blumtritt, The Slow Media Manifesto

This is the opposite of the McLuhanistic arms race that is the primary driver of information technology today. Increasingly, the medium has become the message, and as a result, the target media has gained primacy, making content conform to the medium. If we are serious about information literacy, it is not acceptable to only teach critical thinking about content, but also the content packaging. Interactivity is the new passivity, and if we are going to help people make sense of it, then it’s time to slow things down when it suits us.

Libraries, Reading, and the New Aesthetic

As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing.

-Aaron Cope et. al. The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices, SXSWInteractive 2012

This is the original call to arms of the New Aesthetic, a seeing through the eyes of “the machine” and “the network.” Specifically it is interested in the glitchiness  of digital production of things and knowledge, although the thingness is still central as theory is still catching up with practice. Bruce Sterling says it is “ ‘an eruption of the digital into the physical.’ That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is.” And some of the more techno-inclined like to make claims about it’s otherworldly properties:

My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?

-James Bridle, #sxaesthetic

James Bridle is selling this thing pretty hard, because as a tool, the New Aesthetic gives a whole other dimension which intrudes upon our own in quirky and unexpected ways. It’s nice, but in reality, it’s a fiction. Metaphors always break. Rimbaud knew that. “The network” is not a space, but it does take place in space, although it propagates the illusion that it doesn’t. It is not obliquely embedded in time: it is strictly tied to standardized notions of time which makes most of information technology functional. Sterling, again, is on point with his critique, which by unmasking the New Aesthetic, makes it more useful, as opposed to the semi-theological “apophatic silence at the heart of everything,” which dodges the very human story of any avant-garde movement and the very worldly and “in our dimension” conditions of “the network,” as if there was just one network to rule them all.

The New Aesthetic isn’t a chromed android glistening with scifi robot-vision aura. The New Aesthetic is a rather old, and hearteningly traditional, story about a regional, generational cluster of creative people who are perceiving important stuff that other, older, and dumber people don’t get quite yet. It’s a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society. That’s what is going on.

So the New Aesthetic is really a design-fiction, it’s a postulated creative position. By metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends, we can see what they ‘see,’ and think what they ‘think’… We do get a payoff for that effort. We achieve creative results that we would not have gotten without that robot disguise.

-Bruce Sterling, An Essay on the New Aesthetic

To that extent, the people most interested in the New Aesthetic are less disruptive than those in avant-garde movements before them. The robot guise has provided some interesting results, but it is doubly worth asking: to what end?

For another part, the New Aesthetic fails the ultimate test of novelty: that of disruption and surprise. Misguided as they may seem a century hence, avant-garde movements like Futurism and Dada were not celebrating industrialism nor lamenting war so much as they were replacing familiar principles with unfamiliar ones on the grounds that the familiar had failed. The New Aesthetic is not surprising, but expected. After all, the artists now wield the same data access APIs, mapping middleware, and computer vision systems as the corporations. In some cases, the artists are the corporations.

Ian Bogost, The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder

Bogost goes part of the way in his critique, and it has an authentic scent of a hacker’s call to arms, but even at this level, the underlying  drivers of the New Aesthetic aren’t fully laid out. Jon Goodbun illuminates the real drivers behind, the New Aesthetics, which are less of a philosophical bent than they are a techno-centric attempt to make sense of technologically driven forces that are reshaping our world.

But when Bogost wonders why focus on computers, asking ‘why couldn’t a group of pastry chefs found their own New Aesthetic, grounded in the slippage between wet and dry ingredients?’ it becomes clear to me what is missing in most of the NA discussion (and indeed much Latourian thought) so far: politics, economics… There is of course a reason why we are talking about computers and not pastry, and it is not because pastry chefs are too lazy to get their stuff together on tumblr. The point is that digital production technologies have become fundamental to the processes of global capitalism, in terms of production, in terms of finance, in terms of media, in terms of surveillance, and indeed, are also increasingly central in anti-capitalist movements and post-capitalist alternatives.

-Jon Goodbun, The Politics of the New Aesthetic: Electric Anthropology and Ecological Vision

Although I feel Goodbun overstates the “centrality” of technology in anti-capitalist movements (although certainly more central in post-capitalist ones), his main point shows why New Aesthetics folks are engaging with technology’s weirdness-es:  because it provides a new way to engage with the forces of global capitalism. Whether or not on is for or against it, the fictional filter the New Aesthetics provides captures the imagination of the machine and the network, as if you were inside of it, you would be able to get a better picture. I’m surprised that Mark Nunes’ incredible book, Error: Glitch, Noise and Jam in New Media Cultures hasn’t come up at all, since it examines the role of glitches and jamming as “counter-strategies” to the hegemonic systems like global capitalism which derive great power from technology. The repeating complaint, between Goodbun and Bogost, is that the aesthetic is informed by dominant modes of power (much as Futurism and Dada were).

So what does any of this have to do with libraries? Powerfully summed up in the practices outlined by Franco Moretti in his book  Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, scholars have begun to use the perspective of the network has proven to be useful in looking at the products of human culture in the now-popularized field of digital humanities. Many of them aren’t as distant from the “tradition” of close-reading as Moretti, but they all lean towards a “corpus-view” level of reading. Alex Reid, makes the interesting argument that close-reading is an industrial-era skill:

What we ought to learn from NA is that while this particular aesthetic may be “new” right now, what is not new is the way that objects have always participated in our aesthetics. Industrialized attention, the kind where you watch widgets coming down the conveyor belt, is a trained aesthetic sensibility.

At this same time, I think the “close reading” model that dominates English and is exemplified here in the example of Conrad is one that is ultimately linked with computerized grading and industrial modes of attention. That is not to suggest that in the future we will not need to pay close attention to things. However it is an error to conflate paying attention with the specific industrial modes of attention that dominated the last century.

-Alex Reid, robot graders, new aesthetic, and the end of the close reading industry

Perhaps there’s a hint of ambient findability that sets up the tension between the New Aesthetics of reading and close-reading. I’m not sure I’m sold on the idea that close-reading is an industrial mode of attention, as much as it is a product of book culture, where readers need to simultaneously read in a linear fashion, and mark and annotate non-linearly to connect ideas which resurface throughout a text, and then link them with ideas from other texts. Libraries no longer need apolitical, abstract aesthetics to try and guide us. While new aesthetics are a useful tool for looking at humanity from a “machine perspective,” it is important to not overlook the worldview embedded in it, and engage with it critically and adding the word “New” is nothing but a mask for something which may be new, but also contains more of the same old.

Quote That: Positivity Edition

Libraries as band aids may be obsolete, but that is not why we need libraries. We need libraries so we can fix our education system, so we can fix our economy, so we can fix our democracies yes. But we need libraries even more to discover new knowledge not found in any textbook. We need libraries to create whole new opportunities for innovation. We need libraries to give our communities a voice and power in the working of government. Libraries will never be obsolete so long as our communities dream, and strive, and work to ensure a world of insurmountable opportunities. – David Lankes, Beyond the Bullet Points: Libraries are Obsolete

I don’t always agree with Lankes, but when I do, I do it wholeheartedly. I’d like to point out, this post has as much to do with faith as it does anything else. Let’s all fight the good fight.

Technology, Meritocracy, and the Problem of Measurement


This is not about how much I dislike any of the three above-mentioned things. I use technology and measurement to make decisions about merit all the time. Instead, I want to offer a broad critique of them, and suggest a way for libraries to differentiate themselves as institutions in the face of pervasive cultural myths. There is an unspoken connection between what is transparent and what is measurable, that the combination of the two creates a gold standard of creating value, so I wanted to take a quick pairing of quotes to untie them:

Belief in the inherent progressivism of the Internet and digital activism obscures the way transparency actually exaggerates those asymmetries of power that Sifry so earnestly believes will be reversed…. But web technologies have rendered the defenseless citizen far more transparent than any well-fortified government agency or corporation. Institutions use their existing power to better exploit the affordances of new technologies; they don’t level the playing field, let alone turn the tables. -Sarah Leonard, The Fog of More

Sarah Leonard’s quote is somewhat out of context, but it is worth honoring the fact that any large-scale, internet based action requires a significant investment of time and resources. What continues to matter is that those with more resources, information technology or otherwise, do more with them to their own benefit: “transparency” through technology doesn’t level the playing field, it’s just a shift of where resources are or are not. But what about measurability?

By measuring as much of our behavior as possible and converting it into algorithmically analyzable data, we are supposed to learn the truth about what we really value, but this process simply creates an ideological justification for our believing that we want is only what can be measured. -Rob Horning, Meritocracy and Measurement Myths

Technology, in any form, from the abacus to using computers for data mining, enables measurement. That’s fine. These tools are neither good nor evil, but the ability to measure is dependent on having those resources. Now consider our students: while they supposedly have some way to provide feedback, the reality is that they are the subject of technological measurement. Given the amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching and spending on technology schools do, it begs the question: what is all this for, when students are going deeper and deeper into debt, not getting jobs, tuition keeps going up, and are no more or less happy than anyone else?  Despite the fact that students are more measurable than ever, we continue to hear the same gripes about how less than impressive they are.

We are increasingly leaning on technology to enable measurement to determine value. But in addition to that, and maybe even above that, libraries need to promote and value the human in every student, in every interaction, in every classroom, in every meeting, in every technology, in every book, in every database, and in ourselves. Technology, meritocracy, and measurement are all part and parcel of working in the 21st century, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

But what will differentiate between one school and another, one library and another, is how they value and promote something which is immeasurable, the human being:

In particular, orienting education toward finding and reaping the talented at the expense of attention to the less talented betrays the possibilities of a humanist education, in which “every child is a precious individual, not just a potential functionary of society.” Conceiving of education spending as a mode of investment than can be evaluated in terms of economic returns vulgarizes not only the education system but the social definitions of intelligence and “merit.” -Rob Horning, Meritocracy and Measurement Myths